So having briefly visited back home (Washington State, if you are just popping in) over the summer, and having had a teensy taste of my beloved Cascade Mountains, I’ve been looking for any excuse to vacate the flatlands.
Besides wanting to hit some trails, I also wanted to find a full, vivid display of East Coast fall color, so I let my fingers do a westward crawl across a regional map, where they quickly landed on the Shenandoah National Park.
The Park, and The Blue Ridge Mountains that characterize it, are the front range of the Appalachians. The Blue Ridge extend from Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland through Virginia and North Carolina to Kentucky. Beyond the Ridge lies the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, a wide, green swath of farmland that stretches from where the Potomac River joins the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry to more than 200 miles south at the James River in Virginia.
Obviously there is an amazing amount of history (both Native, early American and Appalachian) that occurred in this very important valley (it was called the Bread Basket of the Confederacy). And of course the entire area has a rich musical history and culture that should be appreciated and explored. There’s nothing like a good bluegrass band (and a bottle of bourbon), but we’ll save all that for another day. Ya’ll know how hard it is for me to write a sentence, much less to focus on an entire topic.
I originally intended to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway is 469 miles long and joins the Great Smoky Mountains to the Shenandoah, so obviously I had to choose a small section to explore. I couldn’t find any rooms I liked near the Roanoke, Virginia entrance to the drive, so I decided instead to try something closer to home. Eventually, I found a room on Skyline Drive, the northernmost section of Shenandoah National Park.
Finding a place closer to home turned out to be a good thing, even if I had no idea how to get there or what it would be like. Skyline is 2 1/2 hours from Annapolis, so the kids (and I) weren’t going crazy in the car and correspondingly this meant that #2 only asked 10 or so times how much longer we had or how high we were (this is her thing, to ask how high we are, whether we are driving on a beach or on the crest of the Himalayas).
We left Annapolis at 10:30 in the morning after a leisurely start to the day. That part isn’t true. A1 went to the gym and watched TV while I feverishly cleaned because I can’t stand to come home to a dirty house, prepared lunches and snacks as if we were going around the world and not simply a couple of hours away and packed bags for all three of them as if they didn’t have their own hands, or as if they weren’t at the gym or watching TV.
The rest of this story is true.
We arrived in time for a late lunch and plenty of daylight before bedtime.
There are many routes to Skyline Drive from Maryland, and many back-roads with bucolic farmland and beautiful scenery. In the end, whether you go through Harper’s Ferry or Front Royal and then south or through Virginia, all roads head west and then south. We took the Beltway to Route 66W, through Culpepper and Sperryville to the Thornton Gap entrance.
This route, according to MapQuest, should have taken us about 2 ½ hours but was actually closer to 3 hours + due to traffic and construction.
The entrance to Skyline is notoriously crowded in peak leaf season, but the line moved quickly, the rangers were super helpful and we were on our way within 10-15 minutes.
What To Do:
Skyline Drive is stupendously beautiful and well worth the effort to get there. I highly advise doing a little research about the area and downloading a map that indicates the entrances to the park, fees and places to stop along the way.
Once on Skyline Drive, you will want to stop at each lookout. You can learn about each of them here. Several pepper the road, but few have a sign explaining what you are actually looking at or why that view is significant. Take some time to learn about the Drive (it was built by Roosevelt’s Conservation Corps over mountains so difficult to navigate that westward bound wagon trains could barely get through) by visiting the Ranger Station at any of the entrances or at Big Meadows or at the National Park Service website. Most importantly, plan a hike and a picnic where you can stop to absorb the unusual beauty of the place. There are many, many short hikes—and of course very long hikes (The Appalachian Trail), any one of which will help you understand why Shenandoah National Park was founded and why it remains such a national treasure even today. There are many websites and books with details of the trails. Try these: Shenandoah National Park Trust, Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (they have a great circuit hike book for about $12), or the Shenandoah National Park website.
There are a lot of waterfalls along the road and trails, and stunning vistas toward the piedmont and Chesapeake beyond on the East side or across the Shenandoah Valley to the Appalachians in the distance on the other. There is also quite a lot of wildlife, namely deer but also bears. The tourists are all excited about finding a bear, which isn’t unlikely and which is exciting but doesn’t mean you should think they are all cuddly and friendly and all Paddington-ish.
Where to Stay:
There are three lodging options on the Drive: Skylands Resort, Big Meadows Lodge and Lewis’ Cabins. We got the last room at Skyline, so I grabbed it. Skyline Resort is about 10 miles from the Thornton Gap entrance. That stretch of road feels much longer mostly because you are climbing up to almost 3000’ elevation, but also because you may, as we were, be stuck behind a ginormous RV bigger even I think than a semi-truck, probably holding just one old man and nothing else but taking up the entire road, and also because the road twists and turns and switches up the side of the mountain, making for fabulous vistas but cautious driving.
So don’t drive with a drink or a phone or anything like that in your hand.
Also there are tunnels, like this one. Pretty….but hazardous.
Skylands Resort was built by George Pollack–a very interesting guy…you can learn all about him at the Massanutten Lodge—in 1895. In its heyday, the resort encompassed a mountainside getaway for Washington’s well-to-do. Around 1931, the resort was taken over by Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive was built right alongside of it. Unlike in other parks, where existing structures are sometimes destroyed to make way for natural beauty, Skylands was maintained and even improved and expanded. More than 100 years later, many original buildings remain on the property and it is a fantastic spot to rendezvous for a day trip or to stay for a weekend.
What You Need to Know:
So when we left Annapolis, it was about 70 degrees and really beautiful and we were all in shorts. When we got out of the car at Skylands, it was 36 degrees and I don’t even know what the wind-chill factor was. The wind was blowing ferociously and the sky had quickly turned from a cheerful shade of blue to wintery grey.
The Lodge was ridiculously crowded with other leaf-gawkers (the staff said Saturday’s and Sunday’s in October are busy (duh) but that it was unusually busy when we were there, so book ahead if you can, and pack some patience). I immediately put our name on the list for lunch, which we finally sat down to an hour later. While we waited, I sat back by the unlit (!!!) fire to observe just who came to Skylands and was very interested to see that the majority of visitors were international tourists, including many from India. In fact, one entire table (really the only table) in the lounge area was taken up by multiple families who were obviously smarter and better prepared than mine because they were stuffing chapattis with what looked to be some really awesome homemade Indian food which they had packed in Ziploc containers and brought right into the lounge like it was allowed. Nobody said anything, even as the smell of wood-smoke gave way to the scent of curry, so I guess it’s all right to bring a picnic into the lodge.
A small coffee stand is located right when you enter the lodge, on the left side, opposite the bar. It’s not expensive and the service is great. But when we were there, everyone was freezing and the line for coffee was well over 30 minutes long and not one of those people waiting had the manners to order a simple coffee. black. to go. They all needed their mochaccinos and frappucinnos and whatever other foamiccinos, even though I was clearly DYING right there in front of them. Immediately after I got A1 his latte, the machine broke, probably from overheating and I was sooooo grateful it happened after and not before.
We were about one hour early for check in so we decided to explore a little while we waited. Mind you it was frigid and about to rain and all hopes of hiking or rock climbing or any such pursuits were rapidly dwindling. But there was no way my ass could sit a minute longer and anyway I didn’t come all that way to twiddle my thumbs in the room.
The lodge has some very pretty lookouts over the Shenandoah Valley below, a stable for 10 or so horses and a playground. The wind blew right through that lookout straight to my bones, the stables were ankle deep in mud (and an absolutely outrageous amount of manure–I wasn’t sure of the puddles were mud or horse pee, so we skipped that adventure. Besides, the kids had to be taller and older which made leaving a little easier) and I wasn’t about to show my kids the playground where I would have to stand in shorts while they didn’t even notice a blizzard was rolling in, so we instead went to the Lodge store. That was the most expensive part of our trip.
Our room ($200/night) was located on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley. The buildings are all sort of post-modern in a Frank Lloyd Wright kind of way and not in a lodge-y big log beams, buffalo heads and black wrought-iron way. Plan ahead for two surprises: no insulation and extremely drafty windows and doors. Thank God the heat was on when we got there.
The woman who had just cleaned our room was so hospitable and friendly and had even raked a pile of leaves for the kids to play in.
The room was very simple with a king bed. The sheets were clean (yes, of course I checked, I can’t stand hotel bedding). I was hoping for a big cozy down comforter or at least a heavy Pendleton blanket. We didn’t get that, but we had each other and that blessed heater, so we did stay warm. We ordered a rollaway for #1. There was an upcharge, but she was (and so we were too) very comfortable.
#2 decided he desperately needed some mittens he had seen in the store so he and I wandered up the road toward a trail I hoped would lead back to the main lodge. We never found it, but we did find Massanutten Lodge, built by Pollack’s wife, Addie Hunter, a well-traveled—well-to-do DC socialite who played a pivotal role in the founding of Shenandoah National Park. When she died, she bequeathed everything in her home to her church. The lodge today is an exact replica of Hunter’s home before her death, based on photos and drawings.
One room of the Lodge is taken up with a variety of artifacts and historical objects from the height of Skylands’ pre WWII popularity, including the compelling stories of Addie Hunter’s female friends who also came for summer-long visits.
On the way to the lodge (we never did find the trail), A1 conveniently drove by with hot chocolate, so I took the kids to the playground and for a dive or two in the fall leaves. The children of course had no thought whatsoever about the weather, and I was cozy in two sweaters, A1’s fleece and my favorite sweats which I had thankfully grabbed in anticipation of sitting around a campfire late into the night. That campfire never happened but those sweats saved me.
We all went to bed around 9, that wintery wind blowing right through every crack in that building, howling and screaming all night long.
Also of note:
The food is simply horrible and also expensive. The company that manages Skylands notes that a large percentage of their foods are local Shenandoah products but I can’t imagine that to be the case when pretty much every dish we encountered was close to inedible, right down to the Kraft macaroni and cheese. I was very disappointed to order a burger which I thought would be a charbroiled, lodge-sized, juicy and totally worth it to my burgeoning ass burger, but instead got a weak Sysco patty sandwiched between two slabs of cardboard topped with a tiny slice of anemic, watery tomato and not a squirt of ketchup to choke it down with. Even the fries were bad. A1 ordered chicken wings that were so sad I could barely look at them, certainly not eat them. Breakfast was slightly better, mostly because the kitchen offers a buffet, replete with eggs and sausage and biscuits, but the bacon was sadly barely cooked, the biscuits were Wondra wonders with little heft or flavor and the eggs were obviously industrial. The buffet’s saving grace was hot oatmeal with walnuts and fresh strawberries (strawberries…in October!…in the mountains!!! #notlocal). Next time I will bring my Breville oven/toaster and a cooler and we’ll be all set.
The next day we went to Big Meadows Lodge, which is more rustic and situated opposite a huge, beautiful meadow. There are several trailheads near Big Meadows, as well as a park service information center, coffee shop and a great small NPS store.
When we come back to Skyline Drive, this is where we plan to stay, hopefully with warm days, cool nights and a very cozy down blanket.
Down in the Valley is Luray Caverns, a really cool cave that the kids love to explore. Since I am majorly claustrophobic, Luray is not my favorite place to go, but even I have to admit that it is awesome and inspiring.
Coming or going through the Thornton Gap entrance, visit the tiny historic town of Sperryville, notable for an active food scene and Saturday markets. If you drive through on a Sunday, slow down for people coming in or out of church, all dressed in their Sunday best, seemingly not a Papist among them as the road is lined with white, stately churches mostly of the Baptist variety. If you leave the freeway to go through historic Sperryville, keep going: the road will parallel the freeway, but will be so much prettier. From Sperrysville you can also venture out to Virginia Wine Country, where dozens of vineyards and wineries are open for tastings. You will be very close to Inn at Little Washington, if you can resist a visit there, even just to look, you are much, much better than I.Feel free to share...