High in the misty mountains of Virginia is a highway to heaven, a gracefully winding road that reigns over a picturesque patchwork of lush valleys, rounded peaks, and gently rolling pastures. Best of all, this wonderful wilderness lies within a two-hour drive of Washington, D.C., and is a one-day trip from New York.
1. Shenandoah Valley Overlook
Winding 105 miles along the crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Skyline Drive is truly a feast for the eyes: more than 75 overlooks and 500 miles of nearby trails treat visitors to some of the most splendid and serene scenery found anywhere. Shenandoah Valley Overlook, one of the first points of interest along the two-lane highway as you travel south from Front Royal, provides a sweeping view of the valley, the Shenandoah River, and 40-mile-long Massanutten Mountain, which rises between the river’s two forks.
History buffs will be intrigued to learn that Signal Knob, a peak at the right-hand side of the mountain, was used at various times during the protracted Civil War as a communications base by both the blue-coat Union and gray-uniformed Confederate troops.
2. Range View Overlook
Perched 2,800 feet above sea level, this overlook has perhaps the best vistas in the northern part of the drive. To the south, running as far as the eye can see, are the Blue Ridge Mountains, named for the haze that constantly hovers over their slopes.
3. Hogback Overlook
To get a full view from this overlook (the longest one in the park), you will have to stop near the middle or once at each end. Either way, the scenery is sensational. On a clear day, as many as six or more bends of the serpentine Shenandoah River can be seen.
4. Marys Rock Tunnel
At mile 32.2 you reach Marys Rock Tunnel, a 600-foot-long corridor carved through a granite ridge. No one knows for sure how Marys Rock got its name, but legend has it that when Francis Thornton, a local landowner, brought his new young bride to this summit to show her the vastness of his property, he christened it Marys Rock. At Meadow Spring parking area, a two-mile trail of moderate difficulty leads to the summit, which is one of the few places in the park that affords a 360-degree panorama.
5. Pinnacles Overlook
The drive overlooks Virginia’s rolling piedmont country as it snakes along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains on its way to Pinnacles Overlook. The view of Old Rag Mountain, to the south, is a bold reminder that nature favors constant change. When it was formed a billion years ago, this mass of granite was bare. Later it was covered with lava and ocean sediment, which have since worn away to reveal, once again, the stone’s original surface.
In a similar way, the Shenandoah region has made a comeback of its own. Not so long ago the land was largely deforested by farmers, loggers, and hunters. In the 1920s a movement began to set aside land for a national park with a ridgetop road. Shenandoah National Park was authorized by Congress in 1926. In 1931 President Herbert Hoover, hoping to spur economic growth in the depressed area, approved the construction of the Skyline Drive; it was completed in 1939, four years after the park was established. Today an astonishing 95 percent of the area is completely reforested.
6. Stony Man Overlook
As you enter the overlook here from the north, 4,011-foot-tall Stony Man Mountain will loom straight ahead. Look closely at its rugged profile — and use a little imagination — and you can make out the old fellow’s eye, nose, mustache, and beard. For an even better view of the summit, take a short hike up the Little Stony Man Trail, which leads past cliffs composed of greenstone, a gray-green rock formed during ancient volcanic eruptions. At night the lights of Luray and other nearby towns twinkle below in the distance.
In 1894 George Freeman Pollock, a pioneer conservationist who was later instrumental in establishing Shenandoah National Park, also founded a rustic resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains that he loved so deeply. He called it Skyland — a reminder of its lofty location near the highest point on the Skyline Drive. Today this popular lodge provides peerless views of the valley below and the mountains beyond. In addition to varied accommodations, Skyland offers horseback riding, pony rides for children, and the Stony Man Nature Trail, a 1.6-mile round-trip that ascends the slopes of Stony Man Mountain. Leading visitors on a self-guided hike, the scenic trail passes a wide assortment of the 100 or so types of trees found in Shenandoah National Park.
Step back in time by visiting Massanutten Lodge, the recently renovated former residence of Addie Pollock, wife of George Freeman Pollock.
8. Whiteoak Canyon
Near the south entrance to Skyland resort is a 4.6-mile round-trip trail that leads to the first fall in Whiteoak Canyon, a shady mountain glen that has been called “the scenic gem” of Shenandoah National Park. A meandering stream, towering oaks and hemlocks, giant boulders, and a steep gorge with six waterfalls (the tallest of which drops 86 feet) make this a place of wild, idyllic beauty.
A nearby trail leads through part of Limberlost, a grove of stately hemlocks that are centuries old. The trees, according to one tale, owe their lives to Skyland founder George Pollock, who paid loggers $10 apiece to leave them standing. With its damp coolness, eerie stillness, and shimmering shafts of sunlight that filter through the delicate foliage, Limberlost evokes the mood of a great Gothic cathedral. The Limberlost Trail leads past an old apple orchard to the Crescent Rock Trail, which climbs 325 feet to Crescent Rock Overlook.
9. Crescent Rock Overlook
An easier way to reach Crescent Rock Overlook is to take Skyline Drive to mile 44.4. As the drive continues south, Hawksbill Mountain, the highest point in the park, looms to the west. At mile 46.7 (the Upper Hawksbill parking area), a one-mile trail leads to the 4,051-foot-tall summit. The reward that awaits visitors there is threefold: a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which fade into rolling farmland to the west and green hills to the east; a glimpse of a high-elevation forest dominated by balsam firs and rare red spruces; and the best vantage point in the park for spotting broad-winged hawks and other birds of prey during their annual fall migration.
10. Dark Hollow Falls
Continuing south on Skyline Drive, the road winds through a hardwood forest before reaching the Dark Hollow Falls parking area at mile 50.7. There a short but steep trail leads to the head of the falls — a series of gurgling cascades that drop 70 feet through a wooded ravine. Among the falls’ admirers was Thomas Jefferson, who was so fond of this region that when he built his home, Monticello (located a bit to the east of the park near Charlottesville), he was careful not to let any of its outbuildings block his view of the mountains.
11. Big Meadows
Wide-open spaces are rare in this densely forested region, so this 150-acre clearing offers a surprising change of scenery. Situated high on the ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Big Meadows has been level for several centuries. Indians and, later, settlers are believed to have burned the area regularly to make it a better hunting ground and pastureland. The National Park Service has adopted a similar strategy — a combination of mowing and controlled burning — to preserve the historic site and provide wildlife habitat.
While tall trees are conspicuously absent from the landscape, several hundred types of wildflowers thrive in the area’s swampy wetlands and surrounding fields — in fact, Big Meadows has the greatest concentration of wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park. Guided tours of this botanical bounty are usually offered on the second weekend in May, when the park hosts its annual Wildflower Weekend.
Although the big meadow has no designated trails, visitors are free to explore. As you wander about, you may spot white-tailed deer (about 6,000 live in the park), groundhogs, gray foxes, and numerous other critters. On spring evenings male woodcocks perform flamboyant feats of aerobatics during their courtship flights.
12. South River Overlook
On the way to South River Falls, the big blue sky suddenly seems much smaller as it plays hide-and-seek through a canopy of oaks and hickories. Each season, this area — like the rest of the park — stages a brand-new extravaganza. In springtime the air is sweetened by the scent of azaleas and other flowers and by the melodies of woodland birds, including warblers, wrens, thrushes, and seven kinds of woodpeckers.
By summer, nature’s canvas is no longer speckled with soft pastels but covered by a great green blanket. Come autumn, the canvas is ablaze with dazzling hues of orange, yellow, and red. When winter finally arrives, Shenandoah becomes a virtual still life, its rhythms as slow as the icy waterfalls that whisper from afar.
13. Swift Run Overlook
From this overlook you can gaze back over Swift Run Gap, one of many spots where Skyline Drive intersects the Appalachian Trail. Stretching some 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, the trail is the longest continuous footpath in North America. It roughly parallels the drive, following the mountain crest for 94 miles through the park. Numerous spurs branch off the main path, some leading up to high peaks, others winding down into deep ravines.
14. Big Run Overlook
The secret to Skyline Drive’s appeal is its contrasting perspectives — short-range views of forests juxtaposed with long-range vistas of the distant mountains and valleys. At this overlook, for example, nearby trees frame panoramas of far-off peaks, creating scenes that are postcard perfect. For the more adventurous, a steep trail descends into Big Run Valley, where a fish-filled stream leads to a small waterfall and several pools large enough for a dip.
This summit, and the talus slopes below it, may seem black from a distance, but they are actually dark brown — the color of the coarse lichen that covers them. Since no trail leads to the top of Blackrock, visitors must clamber up a slope littered with fallen rocks. The view atop the summit is well worth the effort: a sweeping survey of forested mountains and the valley beyond.
16. Crimora Lake Overlook
Near mile 92.6 is Crimora Lake, one of the few lakes visible from the drive. Crimora is more notable for what stands beside it than for the lake itself: to its left is an abandoned manganese mine — once the largest source of this rare mineral in America. The overlook also provides a scenic vista that includes several different mountains.
17. Sawmill Run Overlook
From the middle of this overlook, visitors can see several mountains stretching toward the horizon — a farewell glimpse of Shenandoah’s unforgettable beauty. The Skyline Drive comes to an end at Rockfish Gap, but still the magnificent scenery goes on. Picking up where the drive leaves off, the Blue Ridge Parkway continues southwest for another 469 miles all the way through the George Washington National Forest to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a drive well worth taking on your own.
Length: 105 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round, but best from mid-April through October.
Lodging: Available at Skyland and Big Meadows lodges and Lewis Mountain cabins.
Nearby attractions: Skyline Caverns, in Front Royal. Luray Caverns, in Luray. Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson’s home, Charlottesville.
Words to the wise: Since the drive is two lanes wide and the speed limit is 35 m.p.h., traffic may be slow in peak seasons. On trails, wear hiking shoes and avoid unprotected ledges. The drive may be closed after snow or ice storms.
Visitor centers: Dickey Ridge, Big Meadows.
Further information: Shenandoah National Park, 3655 U.S. Hwy. 211 East, Luray, VA 222835; tel. 540-999-3500, www.nps.gov/shen.
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