Hurray! The Shenandoah National Park concessions have just reopened. This time of year, the weather in the Piedmont Region of Virginia is cool, and the forests have gone from fragile buds to lush and green. I think one of the prettiest drives in the MidAtlantic is off 66 West to Route 15/Route 211 into Shenandoah National Park. On your way to the mountains, you’ll see cattle grazing and pass by vineyards, farmland and meadows of wild flowers. The rolling hills make the drive feel like a gentle roller coaster ride.
Food & Drink
On your way to Shenandoah National Park, you might stop in one or two of the wineries sprinkled along the road. I like Narmada, a winery with an Indian influence. I also love touring Copper Fox Distillery to sample some home-brewed whiskey or gin (please make sure you have a designated driver for the curvy roads ahead).
One last stop on your way to Shenandoah National Park: step into the Sperryville Corner Store. It might look like a rustic outpost, but the market sells gourmet groceries, including freshly baked pastries, homegrown produce and locally produced cheese and salami. Check out the refrigerator section in the back of the store—there’s a wide selection of craft beers from the local breweries. (There are also Natural Market Place if you’d rather stop in Warrenton)
Entering Shenandoah National Park
Entry fee into Shenandoah National Park is $20 per car, which stays good for seven consecutive days, or $40 for an annual pass. If that’s too pricey for you, try visiting on an Entry fee free day. Before leaving home, it’s helpful to download a map on the Shenandoah National Park website, because GPS is pretty unreliable in this region and may send you to the wrong entrance. Have fun, and don’t forget to bring your binoculars and a camera to capture wildlife and panoramic views.
If you’re interested in having a casual meal, obtaining a detailed trail map, finding a bathroom and/or speaking with a Park Ranger, stop at Skyland Resort, near White Oak Canyon. The resort serves meals all day and offers guests an incredible view of the town of Luray and the valley below. If you want to spend the weekend, Skyland’s guest rooms have are reasonably priced and very comfortable.
Mary’s Rock: From Route 211 East, you’ll enter Skyline Drive Park at the Thornton Gap Entrance. Pay your entry fee. Pick up a map at the gate, and then drive toward Meadow Spring Parking Area just after Mile Marker 33. Look for the Meadow Spring Trailhead on the other side of the road. Begin this 2.9 mile hike on the steep Meadow Spring Trail for half a mile, then turn right on the Appalachian Trail (AT). The rocky AT is bordered by mountain laurel and rhododendron which may in be in bloom right now, and offers close examination of the springlike changes taking place in the mountains. The payoff, Mary’s Rock Summit, is one of the few sites in the park with a 360-degree panoramic view. Look for rock climbers scaling massive boulders and wildlife. Hikers regularly report seeing birds of prey and bear in this area. To return, retrace your steps (2-3 hours).
Compton Mountain Trail: Another option is to enter from Route 66, taking Route 340 South to the North Entrance near Front Royal. Enter the park, then drive four miles to Dickey Ridge Visitors Center to retrieve a map. Continue driving south on Skyline Drive past Mile Marker 10, then park at the Compton Gap lot. Enter the 2.4-mile Compton Mountain Trail, looking for blue signposts pointing to the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT is mostly level here, passing giant outcrops of basalt and green tunnel forests covered in ferns. Ascend the western ridge for the best views from the Compton Mountain summit. Retrace your steps.
Sky Meadows Loop: For a short drive to a longer hike, start in Sky Meadows State Park (11012 Edmonds Lane, Delaplane, VA 540-592-3556). Pick up a trail map to follow the 5.5-mile Sky Meadows Loop. The trail starts in the heart of the Piedmont Valley at the historic Mt. Bleak House. The trail changes names several times—South Ridge, North Ridge, Appalachian Trail, Ambassador House Trail and Piedmont Overlook—and is mostly flat terrain with frequently changing scenery. Enjoy the bucolic landscapes, wide-open meadows, plains of tall grass and a ridge top with expansive views. It’s an idyllic hike for all ages and ability levels.
Big Schloss Trail: Jenna French, who represents Shenandoah County, suggested her favorite hike, and she says you seldom find any crowds there. Check out Big Schloss. Find more information at http://shenandoahcountyva.us/tourism/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2014/01/big_schloss_trail_ROG_sm.pdf