Cheap Travel: Caves, dinosaurs, and battlefields in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains

If I haven't admitted it before, I will do so now: I am a total junkie for cheesy tourist attractions. I am one of those guys who will travel an hour out of his way to see the world's largest ball of string, the world's biggest frying pan, and every other silly sight that I can possibly find.

One summer, my littlest sister and I spent several days tracking down all the ridiculous attractions in the Hudson Valley and Western Massachusetts, reveling in every bizarre statue, obscure flea market, and abandoned marble quarry that we came across. It was a wonderful trip, but when I got home, I was left with an empty feeling: after exploring so many strange sites in New England, I wasn't really ready to hang up my spurs. On the other hand, though, I couldn't really afford to take another trip.

The answer soon presented itself: I became a local tourist. I bought a copy of Julian Smith's excellent Moon Handbook for Virginia and began exploring all the wonderful sites that lay just down the highway from my home. When I finally left the area, several years later, there were still hundreds that I hadn't yet visited. If you live in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, or the DC area and are looking for an exciting and inexpensive place to spend your vacation, then you might want to head down the Blue Ridge Parkway (or Route 81, if you're in a hurry) and check out some of the amazing things that are just a short drive away.
New Market: Located near Route 81, just south of Route 66, New Market is small and unassuming, but filled with fun things to do. First off, there's the amazing Luray Caverns, the most famous caverns in a state that is, literally, pockmarked with caves. Luray's tour is an hour long, but the time passes quickly, with amazing limestone formations and the famous Stalacpipe organ, which is actually listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest natural musical instrument in existence. The Luray complex also features a zoo, a car museum, a "singing tower," a topiary maze, and other attractions.

In addition to Luray, New Market is also host to the New Market Battlefield and Hall of Valor. In one of the more desperate moves of the Civil War, the Confederacy pitted students from Virginia Military Institute against the Union army. Suffering surprisingly few losses, the VMI students captured a cannon and helped defeat the Union soldiers. Today, the battlefield and museum are administered with the help of cadets from VMI, and it's one of the more interesting Civil War battlefields.

Natural Bridge: If you make your way down 81 past Lexington, you'll probably see signs for Natural Bridge. Be sure to stop. After taking a walk to see the beautiful, naturally-carved stone archway that gives the area its name, you'll also find an amazing array of bizarre attractions. First off, there's the wonderfully cheesy wax museum, which begins with Adam and Eve, ends with DaVinci's Last Supper, and finds room in the middle to cover hillbillies and local history. There's also a toy museum, a safari park, a zoo, and yet another set of caverns.

If these attractions aren't enough to sufficiently amp up your cheese factor, you should probably check out Foamhenge, a full-size Styrofoam replica of the famous stone circle. There's also Professor Cline's Haunted Museum and Dark Maze, an outstanding haunted house, and Dinosaur Kingdom, a twisted vision of what would have happened if the Confederacy had found dinosaurs and used them against the damn yankees. All three attractions take cheesy fun to almost surreal levels.

Roanoke: Southwest Virginia's largest city, Roanoke was once the headquarters of the Norfolk and Western railway, and retains much of its rail heritage. It is home to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, basically a very, very cool railyard that is filled with trains that you can crawl all over. If you're in the mood for something a little less strenuous, the O. Winston Link museum features the photographer's amazing images of the last years of steam rail. Alternately, you can go to the Science Museum of Western Virginia, a wonderfully interactive children's science museum.

Frankly, this only scratches the surface of the attractions in the Shenandoah. It's filled with battlefields and museums, including Woodrow Wilson's birthplace in Staunton. Alternately, if you're in the mood for a more relaxing vacation, you might check out the beautiful Mountain Lake resort, where much of Dirty Dancing was filmed; it's located just south of Roanoke. Then again, you might just want to hang out at one of the numerous wineries that dot Virginia's Appalachian range. Regardless, you'll probably find something that's fun, cheap, and relaxing.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Writing this, he's starting to miss the pure, unadulterated cheese of his home state.

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