Getting Back to Nature in Shenandoah Valley
It seems counterintuitive: Even though the scenic beauty makes you think, I could retire today, get a little place on this hill and watch the clouds track across the fields forever, there’s something about the Shenandoah Valley that urges you to keep moving. As long as American history has been recorded, the valley has been a natural highway for people on the move. Large armies once passed this way: Bands of Iroquois and Catawba waged war on each other here until the 18th century; and both Union and Confederate forces used the Shenandoah as an avenue of invasion during the Civil War. These days, long-haul truckers fill the rest stops along I-81, driving out of their way to avoid clogged Eastern interstates, while hikers revel in the protected 101-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that runs through Shenandoah National Park.
Whether you come to soak up the history or the natural beauty (or the wine), one thing is certain: You, too, will inevitably be drawn to see what’s just over the horizon.
It’s farther up the valley, but the sight alone is worth the trip: a 90-foot-long natural archway of limestone, curving more than 200 feet above the creekbed below. It’s been a tourist attraction since it was purportedly surveyed by a young George Washington in 1750. Natural Bridge has changed little since his day—assuming you view it from below, along the Cedar Creek trail. The bridge is actually the remains of a collapsed cavern. Of the dozens of cave systems that still lace the Shenandoah, perhaps none is more impressive than Luray Caverns. Among its amazing rock formations is the world’s only “stalacpipe organ.”
If you have time on your return trip, there’s no better way to experience the Shenandoah’s beauty than from above, along Skyline Drive. Built by New Deal programs to help the country escape the Great Depression, the 105-mile road bisects Shenandoah National Park along the ridgeline from I-64 at Rockfish Gap to its northern terminus at U.S. Highway 340 in Front Royal.
There are 70 scenic overlooks, so the Skyline Drive isn’t for those in a hurry—but why would you want to be? Budget time for hiking: The strenuous trail up Old Rag Mountain from mile marker 43 climbs to an exposed rock summit with the best views in the Shenandoah. For an easier hike, try mile marker 51 for the 1.4-mile round-trip walk to Dark Hollow Falls, or a stroll around the high alpine fields of Big Meadows.
Or bring your rod and try fly-fishing at spots like Herbert Hoover’s restored fishing camp on the Rapidan River, reached by the Mill Prong trail from Big Meadows. This predecessor to Camp David is where President Hoover and his family, as well as invited dignitaries, came to escape the commotion of Washington amid quiet wilderness and crystal-clear mountain streams. Today it’s all national park, so, technically, you own it. Put on your boots, grab your fishing rod and enjoy a little natural treasure.
Natural Bridge: 15 Appledore Lane, Natural Bridge; 800.533.1410; naturalbridgeva.com
Luray Caverns: 970 U.S. Hwy. 211 W. in Luray; 540.743.6551; luraycaverns.com
Skyline Drive: nps.gov/shen; 540.999.3500