No time for a vacation?
Less than three hours from Baltimore, one can unwind on a low key, two day trip on the Skyline Drive along the Blue Ridge in Virginia. Make your destination Skyland or Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. Pack light and casual, forget formality and remember your jeans.
In two days you can dine on gourmet food, enjoy country music, go horseback riding, explore Appalachian ruins, hike, spot a bear and her cub in the woods, count the deer grazing along the highway and watch a sunset. And if the tranquility, which the park offers, becomes too restful, you can always travel outside the park to historical battlefields, local vineyards or craft shops, located in nearby towns. Simple and rewarding.
If you drive from Baltimore, go west on I-70 to Frederick. Take U.S. 15 South (also known as U.S. 340). Stay on U.S. 340 when the highway splits and continue to Harper’s Ferry. Cross the Potomac River and ride through the foothill country of Virginia and West Virginia. The entrance to the park is located right past Front Royal.
One of the rangers will provide you with a map, which includes many descriptions of the overlooks, as well as their location by mile marker.
Skyland, originally built as a resort in the 1890’s, is a major tourist facility within the park and is located at mile marker 41.7. Another major destination is Big Meadows, located at mile marker 51.9.
This laid back mini-vacation is very reasonable. Rates at Skyland, open through November 25th start at $34 for a rustic cabin, which still has the amenities of a well stocked motel such as a coffee maker and in some instances a working fireplace. Suites begin at $116. The rates are higher in October as the trees vibrant green leaves turn bright orange and yellow.
At Big Meadows Lodge, open through October 28th, prices range from $73 to $137.
For more adventure, reserve a tent cabin for $20 at Lewis Mountain. There are also campgrounds where campers and RV’ers can settle in.
Check in time for most accommodations is 3 p.m. There are no phones in guest rooms, so if you really must be up at a specific time, pack a travel alarm. If not, ask for a wake up “knock.” One of the staff will amble along to your room and cheerfully wake you.
A special Blue Ridge Complete Package is available in September and November for $259.00 and includes two nights lodging, with two breakfasts and two dinners for two. For an additional charge you can add two tickets to Luray Caverns, a nearby attraction of awe inspiring stalagmites and stalactites. For room reservations call 1-800-999-4714.
While driving along the Skyline Drive, stop continuously at panoramic overlooks. On one day the mist and low lying clouds can completely obliterate villages below. Have a picnic lunch surrounded by whatever is currently in bloom, whether it is pink azalea or mountain laurel. On a clear day you might stare across the valley at Massanutten or Hawksbill Mountain.
A typical day in Shenandoah National Park can be as busy or as quiet as you desire. Wake up early and take a 2 hour horseback ride with a professional guide. For reservations and prices call (540) 999-2210.
You need not be an experienced rider. This writer has only been on a horse three or four times and had no problems. My husband and I met at the stables located at Skyland and along with four others were introduced to our horses. We were shown how to hold reins (no matter how tense one becomes, never wrap the reins around your hands. If you do and your horse is spooked you might be tossed unceremoniously). Just hold the leather straps and pull gently if you want your horse to go in a different direction or if you think snack time is not appropriate.
Trot gently and notice the variety of trees as well as the myriad of wild flowers in bloom. Depending on the time of year, you can spot everything from witch hazel and wild raspberries to an occasional young chestnut sapling. Most of the chestnut trees were destroyed in a major blight in the early 1920’s. However, shoots continue to sprout up. Notice the remnants of an old apple orchard, tended by farmers who settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains before the park was established.
Our horseback riding destination was Whiteoak Canyon Falls where we dismounted and had an opportunity to take pictures of the breathtaking beauty of the falls. Torrents of water cascade downhill. Stand on the rocky ledge and admire nature. Smaller waterfalls are found below this one, however, the rocky trail makes it extremely hard to traverse for novices.
Many other falls are found throughout the park in gorges, hollows and canyons just waiting to be explored. A guidebook describing nine waterfalls located in the park is available for a reasonable price at the visitors’ center as are many other publications, describing everything from the park’s history to birdwatching.
We remounted our horses for the ride back and I spotted a directional sign pointed toward Syria. How disappointed I was to learn there was a Syria, Virginia.
Deer wandered in the woods beside the trail. We also spotted two bears who were not the least bit interested in us.
After the ride, your legs will hurt and you will be really hungry…hungry as a horse, perhaps. We stopped for a big lunch at the restaurant also located in Skyland and had salad and soup and finished with blackberry pie a la mode.
After lunch, we drove to the visitor center located in Big Meadows and enjoyed a photographic exhibit and a nature film. Another visitor center is located at Dickey Ridge. Ranger programs are offered throughout the day at various park locations.
Some of the programs include a talk on birds of prey, who enjoy eating mice and snakes. If you would like something more strenuous, but still relaxing, consider a 1.3 mile hike along the Limberlost Trail through an old growth forest of hemlocks.
A magical time occurs at twilight. The Shenandoah sunset is probably not different from a glorious sunset elsewhere except you can concentrate on its beauty because you are not stuck in your car on the expressway.
Eat dinner at the Mountain Room, open until 8:30 p.m. After dinner, relax on the patio and gaze at the stars. On previous trips I have watched meteor showers from here. If you are not ready to return to your room, you can always start a conversation with fellow visitors in the Taproom which is open until 11 p.m. Often there will be performances by local musicians.
After a good night’s sleep you can repeat any of the activities from the previous day. There are new trails to hike, other canyons to explore, more plants to photograph. What a wonderful way to unwind.
For additional information the following numbers are useful:
About the Author
Michele Rosenberg is a freelance writer living in Dickeyville, Maryland. She and her husband Ted enjoy Shenandoah National Park for a quick unplanned weekend vacation.