There’s one last trip to put a period at the end of summer.
It’s never an easy decision, but one that we make every year at this time. We usually consider summer’s end on Labor Day weekend, although autumn doesn’t start until Sept. 22.
Before school bells ring, many plan that one last trip of the season; others hesitate and wait until their younger people are back in school. Pennsylvania is loaded with places to go and things to see and do. With gas prices dropping, it might be a good time to slip across a few state lines to find one of my wife’s and my favorite National Parks: Shenandoah National Park.
We like it because we can make it a day trip. But, in reality that’s a lot of traveling, especially if you have young children, and truthfully you can’t see very much in a day. Our trips most often consist of two nights lodging and three days of traveling along the Skyline Drive, the 105-mile Scenic Byway in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
The speed limit here is 35 mph and we rarely drive that fast, so you can see that a 6- to 10-hour drive isn’t out of the question. There are 75 overlooks that will give you a spectacular view of both the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia Piedmont. Often there is a foggy mist hanging over the valleys below, and there is something mystical about standing there looking down on the world.
The highway is two lanes and filled with curves; I drive in anticipation of what’s around the next corner. What I hope to see is a black bear, a white-tailed deer, a flock of turkey, a bird or even a butterfly.
You can strap your bicycles on the back of your car, throw in a tent and some freeze dried food, add a pair of hiking boots and pack some water or soda in a cooler. At the higher elevations, a jacket or sweatshirt is often needed when the sun goes down.
Your preferences can be accommodated with a little bit of pre-planning. Arrangements can be made to horseback ride, rock climb, hike, bike or fish. If you’re into hiking, trails lead in and out of nearly every campground or picnic area, and if you like, you can do a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
There are mile posts marked along Skyline Drive, so that you have an idea of how many miles it is to your destination. Our favorite is a smaller campground with a little space between camp sites. Mathews Arm Campground has 179 campsites and they charge only $14 per night.
Matthews Arm is near the trail to Overall Run Falls, the tallest waterfall in the park. But when we were there, the falls had been a mere trickle. This is the first campground you will come to, and can be found near mile post 22. Elkwallow Wayside is just two miles away and carries camping supplies, and also has a small restaurant and gift shop.
Big Meadows Campground has 217 campsites and charges $19 per night. Three waterfalls are within walking distance. Big Meadows has a lot of wildlife, but it seems that campers are crowded into one small section of the area. If you like conversing with your neighbors, this one might be for you. Big Meadows can be found near mile post 51.
If you prefer a smaller area and a feeling of being alone, you should try Lewis Mountain Campground, with only 31 campsites and a charge of $14 per night. This is the smallest campground in the park and can be found near mile post 57.
Loft Mountain Campground offers 219 campsites and has two waterfalls nearby. Found at mile post 79, they charge $14 per night. This might be a good choice if you plan to see the Blue Ridge Parkway while down there. Rates and availability at all campgrounds can change and most likely you will need a reservation. To be sure call, 877-444-6777.
Although some people now “tread water” until fall, when the changing of the leaves begins to peak, getting there during the “lull” is an excellent idea. If you’re a photographer on “a mission” with a little research and help from the park rangers, you should be able to find what you want.
Maps are available at the entrances, where the fee will set you back $15 per car. But if you consider the amount of hours you can spend there in a single day, the tariff is small in comparison. Timing is the key. At this time, most of the whitetail fawns will begin losing their spots, as their winter coats come in. Black bears and their cubs can still be found wherever food is available, and those turkey poults are growing fast. The young of the year are now looking more like teenagers.
If you have an interest in history, Skyline Drive has plenty of it at your fingertips. Built at the height of the Great Depression, Skyline Drive is a testament to the expanding national interest in conservation, outdoor public recreation and regional planning that began in the 1920s and reached a peak in the 1930s.
There are four entrances to the park. The northern site is at Front Royal, where we chose to stay at the Hampton Inn because it was close to Skyline Drive, and we could return at any time we wanted.
The two central entrances can be accessed through Luray via Route 211, at milepost 31, and further south at milepost 66, where Route 33 crosses over the mountain from Harrisonburg. There are several hotels and a few B&Bs in Luray, along with the famous “Luray Caverns.”
At the southernmost point, milepost 105, is the quaint town of Waynesboro. There are a variety of lodging options located there. It marks the end of Skyline Drive and the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which traverses the spine of the Appalachians 464 mile to where it meets the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For additional information, call 1-855-799-6860.
If you want to be closer to the action, and enjoy a little more comfort, you might prefer Skyline Resort, phone 1-866-599-6674; Big Meadows Lodge, call 1-866-599-6674; or Lewis Mountain Cabins 1-866-599-6674. You don’t have to worry about taking home a gift or memento, there are plenty of nice gift shops along the way. Make sure to stop at Byrd Visitor Center—it provides exhibits of the area’s natural and human history, a short film about the construction of the park, and a place to check on the availability of ranger programs and guided hikes.
If you can’t find something to interest you here, you’re not an outdoor person. Some folks just like to take a leisurely hike or ride along and take in the gorgeous view; others like to test their skills and take it to the limit. Regardless, Shenandoah has almost all you can expect from a National Park perched along the precipice of the Appalachian Mountains.
The latest figures available—2009-2010—shows that the park hosted 1.15 million visitors in a single year. That’s a lot of people, and they come for a reason—it might be worth the trip to find out why.