Skyline Drive traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park. The north end of the drive begins in Front Royal, VA, a surprising town that appears to be maintaining itself quite well despite the economy. The architecture in Front Royal is familiar, each building crafted of the same stones, bricks and shingles of eastern towns ranging from Plattsburgh, NY to New Castle, PA to Greenville, SC. It is the architecture of hardware stores and insurance agencies, small public libraries and aging churches. We agreed Front Royal would go on the list of potential places to live “someday.”
At the entrance to Skyline Drive, Howard, the friendly, nervous, red-headed (and bearded) ranger, sold us our $80 Interagency Annual Pass, allowing access to the many places we hope to visit across the country in the next twelve months. Armed with our pass and some park literature, we hit the road. Skyline Drive is 105 miles of winding, rising and falling road filled with wildlife, old growth forest and very few other people. (Most park facilities don’t officially open for the season until later this spring.) After getting distracted by a handful of deer, two overlooks and countless circling hawks, it had taken us nearly 20 minutes to go the first five miles. It was looking like the drive would take longer than the three hours we had estimated. (The maximum speed limit on the drive is 35 MPH.) We were all smiles and in no hurry. Today, the deer posed for pictures, but despite our vigilance, the bears were elusive. Maybe we’ll be luckier in the Smokies…preferably from the car.
At the halfway point of the drive, we parked and hit the trail for a short hike to the outlook on Stony Man Trail, recommended by the ranger as a brief but rewarding trip into the woods. At 4,010 feet, it is the second highest point in the park, and part of the summit route overlaps the Appalachian Trail. The trail was well-maintained, and we cruised to the top in 20 minutes. Once there, we surveyed the valley and took in a recommendation from a local couple to visit the “Camp David of President Herbert Hoover,” also in the park. We determined that this newly found part of America was worth a second visit and a much more thorough exploration of Shenandoah National Park. Perhaps later this spring…
The second half of the drive went more quickly than the first. At the end of the road, we opted to take the highway to Tennessee instead of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although the Parkway is on our “must do someday” list, it wasn’t on our “must do this trip” list. We capped off our 415-mile day with a dip in the hotel pool and a tall draft beer. My first time in Tennessee has been more relaxing than expected. I’ll be enjoying the hotel bed tonight, since tomorrow night will bring the Great Smoky Mountains and our first campsite of the trip! –M
Here’s a look at what we saw from the summit of Stony Man:
Greetings from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains! We arrived at our hotel in Virginia tonight and made short order of the dinner we had packed from home: quinoa mac & cheese and veggie burgers…with celebratory champagne, of course. We covered 585 miles today, cruising through 9 states and spending the better part of 10 hours in the car. We split the driving into two-hour shifts and passed the time listening to music, chatting, and playing a made-up game of Vanity Plate Mad Libs. (Side note: People are strange.) We enjoyed warm breezes, sunny skies, and low traffic throughout the drive.
The scenery for most of the day was standard-issue Northeastern U.S. and nothing either of us hadn’t seen before, from the Mass Turnpike and George Washington Bridge to the farmlands of Pennsylvania. That was until we were about 15 miles from the hotel, when these mountains surprised us, lurking in the fog around a highway bend. A shadowy ridgeline stretching as far as we could see rose quietly above the flat, rolling plains around it. We couldn’t make out many details since we arrived after sunset, but we have a full day of exploring the mountains planned for tomorrow. -J&M