Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
A veritable natural paradise awaits just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from D.C., where the splendors of Shenandoah National Park embrace laurel-graced trails, rushing waterfalls, and leaf-framed vistas. Nearby, the mystical Shenandoah Valley, with the sinuous Shenandoah River winding through, is a plush, emerald landscape edged by rumpled peaks and sprinkled with historic towns, Civil War sites, apple orchards, wineries, and hiking trails. A Native American legend describes the creation of the Shenandoah Valley as a place where “the morning stars placed the brightest jewels from their crowns in the river.” It couldn’t be more aptly said.
If you’re into hiking, kayaking, wine-tasting, admiring architecture, strolling small towns, and soaking up history, this getaway is for you.
Note: You may want to pack a lunch and next-day breakfast at home.
This getaway requires a car. Front Royal is about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., an hour and a half drive. Front Royal is the gateway town for Shenandoah National Park. You will travel south through the park, via 105-mile Skyline Drive, getting off at Rockfish Gap for Staunton. From there, you’ll weave your way up the Shenandoah Valley, on and off I-81, the main artery through the valley. You’ll loop back to Front Royal. For more information, contact Shenandoah National Park and Shenandoah Valley.
Long and skinny, Shenandoah National Park essentially drapes over the Blue Ridge, with the 105-mile Skyline Drive teetering atop its ridgeline. Turnouts provide chances to stop and take in classic views of the rolling green Piedmont to one side, the Shenandoah Valley to the other, with rumpled mountains marching off into the distance beyond. Along the way, trails spider across the mountainscape, mostly dropping down (meaning uphill on the way back). There are long, and there are short…your choice. Perennial favorites include the 1.6-mile Stony Man Trail, near milepost 39, yielding magnificent views atop a rocky outcrop; and the 4.6-mile round-trip White Oak Canyon Trail, at milepost 42.6, with its parade of five waterfalls rushing down the tree-shaded canyon.
Rapidan Camp is President Herbert Hoover’s original Camp David, a gathering of rustic, park-like buildings in the middle of the woods, including the president’s cabin (aka the Brown House, to distinguish it from the White House), interpreted to the life and times of Hoover’s Depression-era presidency. The 7.6-mile moderate hike, accessed near milepost 53, also takes in Big Rock Falls and plenty of spring wildflowers.
Have breakfast at the lodge, or enjoy breakfast-on-the-go if you’ve packed something from home. Then head out for one last hike, short and sweet Dark Hollow Falls, near Big Meadows near milepost 50. It’s a 1.4-mile out and back, down to a pretty waterfall. It can get crowded, but if you’re early enough, you should be fine.
From here, it’s a two-hour drive to Staunton. If you want to break up the drive with another short hike, the half-mile Blackrock Summit Trail, accessed near milepost 85, leads to a talus slope—a big field of boulders—at the summit, where a 360-degree view takes in a striking mountain-and-valley tableau.
As you come out of the national park, you will be entering the fabled Shenandoah Valley, cradled between the Alleghenies on one side, the Blue Ridge on the other. One of its major towns, Staunton (stan-ton), has won tons of accolades for its small-town charm, which it fully deserves. Exquisite turn-of-the-20th-century architecture fills five historic neighborhoods, with Cranberry’s Grocery and Eatery on S. New Street dating back to 1830. Some 200 buildings are the handiwork of famed architect T. J. Collins and sons, designed in an eclectic mix of styles: Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Richardsonian, Romanesque, Stick, Tudor, and the list goes on. Why? This small town, seemingly forgotten in the Shenandoah Valley, once was a major economic and transportation hub—and the wealthy needed fashionable places to live, of course. You can take a self-guided walking tour (start with the historic Beverley District in the center of downtown; pick up maps at the Historic Staunton Foundation), or join a free tour on Saturdays at 10 a.m. One hint: Be sure to keep looking up. The details on the rooftops and upper windows are stunning.
Have lunch at Chicano Boy Taco, tucked away in a small strip mall. The tacos and burritos are overstuffed with different innovative options. For example: chorizo and potato, squash topped with poblano and onion rajas, and sweet potato and black bean.
This afternoon, you have several choices. You could spend more time in Staunton. Woodrow Wilson was born here, and his presidential library and museum delve into his life and times. An interactive World War I exhibit gives a sense of what soldier life was like in the trenches World War I—one of Wilson’s legacies. There’s also the Frontier Culture Museum, providing an interesting look at rural life and culture. You could also admire some of the valley’s most beautiful scenery by horse saddle. Star B Stables, near Staunton, offers leisurely rides for beginners and experts alike. Or follow the Beerwerks Trail, linking several craft breweries, including Skipping Rock, Seven Arrows, and Queen City.
Whatever you do, wrap up with dinner at Blu Point. You might not expect seafood so far from the coast, but this lauded restaurant blends Chesapeake with New England, offering super fresh takes on fried clam baskets, soft shell crabs, lobster rolls, and so much more.
Top off the evening with a lively play at the American Shakespeare Center (watch online until post-COVID reopening), exactly as Shakespeare would have directed it (including audience participation). The building itself is the world’s only replica of London’s Blackfriars Playhouse.
Kick off the day with a bagel and coffee at BY&BY. Then take a slow meander up the valley, stopping at sweet little towns, historic sites, wineries, and hiking trails along the way. Serendipity is the best map, but here are a few places to consider.
Leaving Staunton, follow Route 42 and U.S. 250 to Harrisonburg. This hilly drive, with sweeping views of the Alleghenies, takes you through the picturesque towns of Bridgewater and Dayton. Stop at Bluestone Vineyard to taste at just one of the valley’s many wineries; the valley views from here are breathtaking. In Dayton, the Dayton Market has local food and craft shops, many purveying Mennonite goods. This is a good place to stock up on picnic supplies.
Now is the perfect chance to get onto the water, with Shenandoah River Adventures near Harrisonburg. You’ll get equipped with a kayak and paddle and in no time be floating on the Shenandoah River. You can rent canoes and tubes as well.
As you make your way farther up the valley, hop onto U.S. 11 at New Market. This is another scenic detour, passing through more historic towns: Mount Jackson, Edinburg, Woodstock. In Quicksburg, parade floats go to die at the American Celebration on Parade museum, which showcases floats from the Rose Bowl, presidential inaugurations, and other national celebrations. Only here will you see a giant American flag made of 5,000 square yards of crushed silk; a mock-up of the Capitol building; and a 20-foot-high banjo-playing pelican. In Mount Jackson watch potato chips being fried up at the Route 11 Potato Chips factory. Near Woodstock, a tower affords fabulous views, including seven bends of the Shenandoah River.
From Woodstock, it’s about an hour and a half back to Washington, D.C. Take your time to explore at your will, keeping your eye out for farm stands to bring home some Shenandoah Valley goodness.
WHERE TO STAY
The Shenandoah offers a range of accommodations, from camping to luxury hotels. In Shenandoah National Park, the best bet is to camp. If that’s not your thing, there are two park lodges, Skyland at milepost 41, and Big Meadows at milepost 51. Both offer both guestrooms and cabins, as well as dining rooms for meals. In Staunton, the Stonewall Jackson Hotel is an old-time favorite, dating from 1924 and beautifully renovated. And farther up the valley, Massanutten Resort is a four-season destination, with something for everyone: a bike park, spa, indoor/outdoor waterpark, escape room, two golf courses, skiing, ice skating, and petting zoo.