Trees, Caves, and the Capital

Head out from family-friendly Washington, DC, into Virginia's nearby and utterly opulent Shenandoah Valley for underground marvels and above-ground hiking and horseback riding. Then loop through the wilds of West Virginia before returning to the nation's capital on this seven-day Mid-Atlantic jaunt.
  |  Gorp.com
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Virginia's Shenandoah Park
Gem of the Mid-Atlantic: Virginia's Shenandoah Park  (courtesy, National Park Service)

The Shenandoah region is one of the most beautiful in the east, dominated by the Shenandoah Valley, which stretches for 200 miles between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain ranges, offering craggy peaks, rolling farmlands, and underground caverns glistening with fantastical stalactite and stalagmite formations. Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, which reaches into West Virginia, offer miles of hiking trails, sweeping views, gurgling waterfalls, summit climbs, and fresh-water swimming holes. In the area's towns, find country culture as down-home as apple blossom festivals and blue grass concerts and as unique as Staunton's living history farmsteads.

Day 1: Washington, DC, to Shenandoah National Park (100 Miles)
Drive about 73 miles west from Washington, DC, to Front Royal, VA, the northern gateway to Shenandoah National Park. But before driving through the park gates, stop to check out the natural wonders at Skyline Caverns (800.296.4545; www.skylinecaverns.com). These caverns are one of the few in the world to have clusters of shimmering white calcium carbonate crystals called anthodites. These rare rock formations, nicknamed "the orchids of the mineral kingdom," are slow-growing, gaining only one inch every 7,000 years compared with to the 120 to 125 years required for similar growth in stalagmites and stalactites. The cavern features plenty of those too, as well as Rainbow Falls, an underground waterfall plunging 37 feet.

For lunch (or breakfast or dinner) try the Royal Dairy Ice Cream Bar & Restaurant (540.635.5202), which opened as an old-fashioned ice cream place in 1947 and now also serves hot dogs, burgers, and sandwiches.

Then push on to Shenandoah National Park (540.999.3500; www.nps.gov/shen), whose 199,000 acres of forests, mountains, and streams have preserved the region's legendary beauty. Spring unveils carpets of vibrant green ferns alongside rivers swollen from snowmelt. During the summer, the higher elevations provide welcome respite from the region's humid temperatures, and fall inspires a profusion of arboreal colors—even during mild winters, Shenandoah is a treasure, with unobstructed ridgeline views and campsites devoid of the camcorder hordes. The park is bisected by the famous scenic two-lane route, Skyline Drive, which stretches for 105 miles, from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap, with scenic overlooks and trailheads galore. The $15 entry fee allows access for up to seven days (or pick up a $50 national parks pass, which will get you free entry to all U.S. national parks that have an entry fee for one year).

Stop at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (www.nps.gov/shen/pphtml/facilities.html), at mile 4.6 on Skyline Drive, to pick up maps, view the park film, and find out about the park's Junior Ranger program for ages seven to 12. Kids can rent a backpack for $5. The pack is filled with tools, measuring devices, etc, and a notebook in which the kid records his or her observations; the backpack must be returned, but the notebook is the child's to keep. Backpacks can be rented at Dickey Ridge or Big Meadows Visitor Centers.

Situated at mile 22.1 on Skyline Drive, Mathews Arm Campground (540.999.3500) has 179 sites without electric or hook-ups—this will be your base camp for the next few days as you explore the park and the surrounding area. If you haven't purchased provisions in Front Royal, Elkwallow Wayside (mile 24.1) sells snacks.

If you have the energy—or a desperate need to stretch the legs, hike the moderately difficult 6.5-mile roundtrip to Overall Run Falls, a 93-foot waterfall, the park's tallest. The trail begins at the amphitheater parking area (mile marker 22.3)

Published: 1 Mar 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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Best Hotels in Front Royal

$71
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#2
Quality Inn Skyline Drive
$64
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#3
Super 8 Front Royal
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#4
Scottish Inns Front Royal

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