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Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway
Length: 225 miles Location/Direction: Skyline Drive begins at Front Royal (just south of I-65). One hundred and five miles later, it connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway (at Rockfish Gap), which continues south through the Blue Ridge Mountains, past Roanoke and on through North Carolina.
Two rules of thumb apply when traveling these popular scenic drives: 1) allow plenty of time. There are many side excursions offering a wide variety of activities; and 2) bring plenty of film for your camera. An endless array of photographic opportunities await around every bend. Film is cheap-memories, priceless.
If you've never traveled Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, you're in for a real thrill. The area's lofty elevations afford panoramic views and brilliant displays of fall foliage. We recommend you plan your tour to begin mid-October when you can expect nearly three weeks of peak fall color. One of the area's truly fantastic features lies in the fact that the landscape above ground is equaled in beauty only by the subterranean scenery. Throughout our tour there are opportunities for cave exploration. Don't think that if you've seen one cave, you've seen them all. From musical stalactites to sparkling crystal cave flowers, each cavern boasts its own unique formations.
We'll start our tour at the town of Front Royal, located at the northern tip of the Shenandoah National Park. Catch the Festival of Leaves, held in early or mid-October at the Belle Boyd Cottage on Chester Street. The landmark art show features arts and crafts, a parade, exhibits, live entertainment, Civil War re-enactment, carriage rides and a quilt show. Or spend a relaxing afternoon on the Shenandoah River. Front Royal Canoe Company offers canoe, tube and boat rentals down this beautiful waterway. Skyline Caverns are home to the rare and beautiful anthodite flowers-crystal white formations which grow about one inch every thousand years. The caverns also feature a 37-foot waterfall and a miniature train that transports you for part of the tour. Continue south along Skyline Drive, through the heart of the Shenandoah National Park. Within the forest's 195,000 acres roam 5,000 deer, 600 black bear, 300-500 wild turkeys, opossum, red-tailed hawks, ruffled grouse, striped skunks and woodchucks. The visitor center distributes free maps of popular hiking trails (of which there are 500). All of the trails are well marked and many lead visitors through 100 species of trees (hence the fall color variations), and to jagged mountain peaks and beautiful waterfalls.
Our first interesting side-trip takes us west on US 211 into the town of Luray. Located about 10 minutes from Skyline Drive are the largest caverns on the east coast. Luray Caverns cover 64 acres and boast underground rooms with ceilings up to 140 feet high. Highlights of the one-hour tour include the Great Stalacpipe Organ, comprised of stalactites which play music when struck with magnetic plungers. Above ground attractions within Luray include the Luray Reptile Center and Dinosaur Park which features exotic reptiles, petting zoo, animals, birds, nature shop and dinosaur park. Shenandoah River Outfitters offers canoeing and tubing excursions. On Route 4 in Luray, there's a Shenandoah National Park Visitor Center which provides information on camping, fishing, hiking and special programs within the park.
Civil War buffs may want to continue west on US 211, into the town of New Market. A museum stands where the Battle of New Market began in the spring of 1864. It houses 1,500 artifacts and features a 30-minute film on the Battle of New Market. The New Market Battlefield Historical Park features the Hall of Valor Museum and a restored 19th century farm explaining the war years in the Shenandoah Valley. Caverns worth exploring within the New Market area include Endless Caverns and Shenandoah Caverns.
From New Market, you can either return to the Skyline Drive via US 211 heading east, or take a round-about way via I-81. Don't worry about missing any scenery-both I-81 and I-64 are designated scenic drives. If you opt for I-81, you'll travel south from New Market to Staunton. Historic walking tours of the city (there are five National Historic Districts) afford ample opportunity to stretch your legs. Free self-guided tour brochures are available at the city's office of tourism, 13 W. Beverly Street. The Museum of American Frontier Culture is a collection of 18th century working farms brought from England, Germany and Northern Ireland. Stroll through the Victorian garden at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace. The restored Greek Revival mansion houses the Woodrow Wilson museum. After taking in the Staunton sites, we'll hop on U.S. 250 and travel east into Waynesboro.
If you choose to retrace your steps and head east along US 211, back through Luray, you'll continue south along Skyline Drive past the Pinnacles (which allows access to the Appalachian Trail) and on to Skyland. At the Skyland Lodge, you can rent trail horses, which allow you to explore sections of the park inaccessible to vehicles. Advance reservations are recommended for these hour-long excursions. A not-to-be-missed thrill is the park's most popular trail, White Oak Canyon Trail, located across from Skyland. The moderate 4.6-mile round trip hike leads to the second highest waterfall in the park, and by hiking just a few more miles into the canyon, you'll discover five more waterfalls.
Shortly after Skyland, the drive passes Hawksbill, the park's highest peak at 4,051 feet. Many overlooks later, we cruise into Big Meadows. Be sure to stop at the Byrd Visitor Center. It houses exhibits on the area's human and natural history and offers films and ranger programs, conducted hikes and a self-guiding nature trail.
Bearfence Mountains summit provides a fantastic 360-degree view. Round trip from the parking lot is less than one mile, but wear sturdy shoes because part of the hike is rocky and slippery when wet.
If you haven't seen one of the park's waterfalls, stop at the Jones Run parking area. A round trip hike of 3.6 miles leads to Jones Run Falls with its mosses and flowering plants growing on the water-sprayed cliff. Serious hikers will delight in exploring Riprap Hollow. Its features include outstanding views, streams, cascades, and a large swimming hole. Allow a full day to enjoy this 9.8-mile circuit hike, which can be rather strenuous. Farther south of the Riprap Trail is the Calf Mountain Overlook, providing a beautiful panoramic view.
No matter which route you chose, you're bound to cruise past Waynesboro (located on I-250, just west of Skyline Drive), with its factory outlet stores and art shops. Early to mid-October, Waynesboro hosts the Virginia Fall Foliage Festival Art Show. This annual event boasts over 200 exhibitors, a gem and mineral show, two crafts shows, a theatrical performance, chili-cookoff, car show and 10K run. The South Fork Shenandoah River travels along I-340 from the north, into and through Waynesboro. Anglers report good muskie fishing in some of the fork's larger pools. Smallmouth and largemouth bass, rock bass, redbreast sunfish, bluegill and channel catfish can also be found along the South Fork.
The second half of our tour begins where Skyline Drive meets I-64 and then becomes the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, which cuts across southwestern Virginia and into North Carolina. Our first stopping point is the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center, which depicts the home and farm life of the mountain people. A self-guided trail takes you through a reconstructed mountain farmstead, and a 3/4-mile hiking trail leads to The Rocks. Just south of the visitor center is the Greenstone self-guiding trail-another opportunity to hike the famous Appalachian Trail. It roughly parallels the parkway from I-64 down to the Bluff Mountain Tunnel, just north of Otter Creek. Continuing south, we pass the Ravens Roost lookout point, which offers vistas of Torry Mountain and the Shenandoah to the west.
Recreational facilities can be found at Sherando Lakes, located south of Ravens Roost. You can reach the Sherando Recreation Area by taking Va. 814, 4.5 miles into the George Washington National Forest. Enjoy camping, swimming, boating, canoeing and hiking. Fishermen cast their lines with hopes of hooking walleye, bluegill, redear sunfish or channel cat. Directly east of the parkway lies the town of Wintergreen. October events include the Virginia Heritage Weekend, Fall Foliage in the Blue Ridge, and Halloween Weekend.
Another good side trip opportunity awaits us at Buena Vista, located on I-60 just west of the parkway. Glen Maury Park is a recreational area which hosts a variety of special events including mountain music and dance festivals, and arts and crafts shows. Lexington is just a stone's throw away from Buena Vista. You can get there on foot via the Chessie Nature Trail which runs seven miles from Buena Vista to Lexington, along the railroad bed beside the Maury River. If you'd prefer to drive, just continue on I-60 heading west.
Lexington prides itself on a wide variety of amusements. There are homes, colleges and museums to explore, recreational areas to play in and Civil War history to discover. Stroll through the Virginia Horse Center. There's almost always a horse show or demonstration being held. Or, head for the Lake A. Willis Robertson Recreation Area with its 31-acre fishing lake, mountain hiking trails, swimming pool, and tennis courts. Drive over to Goshen Pass-a beautiful three-mile mountain gorge which offers swimming, fishing, canoeing and picnicking. Woods Creek Park offers a walking trail through outstanding natural beauty. Visit the final resting place of Stonewall Jackson, his family and hundreds of Confederate veterans at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. The Stonewall Jackson house features guided tours of the General's pre-Civil War home. After all this walking, a narrated carriage ride is a welcome way to explore the 19th-century town's historic downtown and residential districts. Or, rent a canoe and spend a lazy autumn day on the James and Maury Rivers. Favorite catches along the James River include largemouth bass, walleye, catfish and perch. Once you're ready to return to the parkway, just take I-60 east and continue south on the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you're up for another side trip, take Va. 130 (south of Otter Creek) west into Glasgow and then south on I-81 to Natural Bridge. Natural Bridge Caverns is the deepest commercial cave on the east coast. Tours of the three-level cave include many steps, but the rewards are worth the effort. Those who are really into spelunking can don helmets and lights for a four-hour tour into undeveloped parts of the cavern. Other attractions within Natural Bridge include the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and Factory Tour, Natural Bridge Village with its spectacular nightly sound and light show, and the Natural Bridge Zoological Park.
Backtrack along Va. 130 to return to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once past the Bluff Mountain Tunnel, we reach the lowest elevation on the parkway, and on to the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center. Before stopping off at the center, take the 1.6-mile loop trail that leads to Fallingwater Cascades. The Peaks of Otter have long fascinated naturalists and camera bugs can't get enough of the spectacular views and sunrises. Take the shuttle bus along an old carriage trail to Sharp Top. Self-guided trails, ranger talks, a natural history museum and fishing can all be found at the center.
Our "drop off" point for this tour is the town of Roanoke. The town is filled with a wide variety of art, science and history museums. Railroad fans won't want to miss the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which houses one of the largest collections of railroad artifacts in the southeast. Those with "itchy fingers" will delight in the hands-on exhibits of nature and physics at the Science Museum of Western Virginia. Center in the Square (located on Market Square) features a variety of art, history and science museums, professional theaters and a planetarium. Stop by the Historic Farmers Market-an open air market surrounded by museums, theater, restaurants, galleries and shops. Ferrum College's Blue Ridge Institute preserves pure forms of Blue Ridge folk life. Its Folk Life Festival, held each October, features mountain music and workshops. Throughout the year, the institute offers samplings of mountain crafts, foods and drama.
Although Roanoke marks the end of our tour, in no way does it signify the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The scenic drive continues through Virginia and down through most of North Carolina. Be assured there are many more caves to explore, craft centers to discover and trails to blaze.