Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Valley Northward

The Shenandoah Valley is a picturesque destination praised in poetry, song, and film. Bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, the cultural definition of the Shenandoah Valley is nearly twice the size of the area containing the river of the same name. The region is home to many historical landmarks, pristine mountain pastures, and beautiful scenic panoramas. Two of the best known destinations exhibiting the area’s natural wonders are Shenandoah National Park and Luray Caverns. Both can be experienced in a single afternoon.

Shenandoah National Park is long and narrow, running north-south along a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park’s best known feature is Skyline Drive which runs 105 miles along the crest of the mountain ridge. You can enter the park in four locations, two at the park’s northern and southern tips and two in the middle which essentially divide the park into thirds. The Rockfish Gap entrance is less than an hour from campus and accessible where I-64 crosses Afton mountain. There is a $15 fee per vehicle to enter the park.

As you travel along Skyline Drive pay attention to the mileposts on the west side of the road which can help you locate areas of interest. The mileposts are numbered highest on the southern end of the park, beginning at 105 and declining as you head north.

Traveling along at the 35 mph speed limit it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the park on a clear day, but can be slightly more on crowded days. Rather than attempt to drive the entire length of the park, The Roaming Roan suggests a more relaxing drive along one of the three sections.

The middle section is often the least crowded for those travelling south to north. Not only does this section have great hiking trails, but it also contains the largest developed area, Big Meadows at milepost 51. There you can find a visitor’s center, gift shop, restaurant, service station, and campground.

Maximize your experience by stopping to enjoy the amazing views at any of the 75 overlooks. The Shenandoah Valley lies to the west and the farming areas of the piedmont to the east. If you want a more complete experience, embark on a short hike. Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails with 101 miles as part of the Appalachian Trail. TRR recommends Stony Man Mountain, a 30 minute moderate climb of less than a mile along the Appalachian Trail that ends with a beautiful view at 4,011 feet. The trail can be accessed from the Skyland area at milepost 42.

If you plan your time properly, you can combine your trip to Shenandoah National Park with a stop at the largest and most popular caverns in eastern America. Luray Caverns are located half way between Skyline Drive and I-81. Exit the park via US 211 near milepost 32 and head west for ten minutes following the prominent signs.

Luray Caverns are an amazing sight that is well worth the cost of admission ($19 for adults). You enter the caverns through a tight staircase before things open up into huge stone cathedrals. Follow the paved pathways through beautifully lit rooms, including one where the ceiling is over ten stories high! Various minerals create magnificent colors in the limestone geologic formations including towering columns, gravity-defying stalactites, and paper thin stone curtains. Other rooms hold mirror-like water pools reflecting the beauty above.

The hour-long walking tour travels 1.25 miles through the caverns while tour guides enhance the experience with historical anecdotes and scientific explanations of the caverns. The culminating point of the tour is the playing of the world's only Stalacpipe Organ that plays incredible music by tapping on the natural formations.

Returning home from Luray Caverns takes less than two hours, but is best broken up with a stop in Harrisonburg for dinner. As you enjoy your meal, recall your beautiful day atop Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park and below the ground in Luray Caverns.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cruising Rockbridge’s Westside

Although winter in southwest Virginia is the off-season for sight-seeing activities, for locals it offers a great chance to get out and explore. While many students view our local attractions with disdain, those who embrace this 3-year retreat from suburban chaos will be amazed by the historical settings and gorgeous landscapes in the Lexington area.

In preparation for an excursion into our backyard, I came across “Country Roads: Rockbridge County, Virginia; Self-guided Driving Tours” by Katherine Tennery and Shirley Scott. This 131-page book contains 18 self-guided tours through majestic mountain passes and rolling country valleys. It is surprisingly thorough with detailed maps and historical anecdotes, but thankfully, lacks the simplistic musings and crude publishing techniques of most small-town guides. Should TRR readers wish to obtain a copy, it is available at Leyburn Library, the Lexington branch public library, or various bookstores in the town.

TRR combined two of the outlined tours to create a circular trip through northwestern Rockbridge County from Lexington to Goshen via 60 West and returning along the Maury River. This tour passes by various historical churches, manor houses, and old-fashioned country stores and includes scenic views of House Mountain, thick forests and picturesque pastures. The highlight is driving alongside the Maury River as it cuts through Goshen Pass.

Starting at the athletic fields near the old ruins, head west out of town along the Midland Trail (US 60). Just over a mile and half from town, turn right onto West Whistle Creek (SR 699) immediately following the bridge over the creek itself. Look for the two historic markers to view the remains of Old Monmouth Presbyterian Church and the creepy cemetery that looks like the decorations behind Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. The church was built in 1788 and was used until 1852 when the congregation moved to New Monmouth two and a half miles west.

As you continue west, you can see the remains of Todd’s Mill (across from Kelly’s Corner country store) as well as the twin-towered Presbyterian Church (mile and a half past Todd’s Mill) build in 1899. After heading into Kerr’s Creek (don’t follow 60 to the interstate). Turn right onto Sycamore Valley Road (6 miles from town limits) and walk over to see the ruins of Miller’s Mill, built about 1816. The enormous water wheel is easily visible if you choose to simply drive by on Midland Trail.

As you make your way up the mountainside further west, stop and turn to see the scenic panorama that includes the backside of House Mountain. Wind your way under the interstate and turn right onto Bratton’s Run (SR 780) heading towards very Little California and on to the mountain town of Goshen along the Maury River Road (VA 39). The town was once a farm, but after the C&O Railroad built a station on its land, the town grew up around it.

When VA 39 veers left onto Main St. continue straight on Maury River Road over the railroad tracks towards Goshen Bridge, a registered landmark and one of the oldest bridges still in use in the United States. The impressive one-lane, truss bridge was build it 1890 and restored in 2001.

Head back through town along Maury River Road, but don’t make the turn on to Bratton’s Run. Instead, stay on VA 39 continuing alongside the enormous stacks of cut lumber in the sawmill yard. The valley pastures will narrow and come alongside the Maury River as it rushes between Hogback Mountain on the right and Jump Mountain to the left.

Halfway through the pass, there is a great picnic area where you can stop to take pictures and wander along the river. Nearby, there is a bronze tablet honoring the river’s namesake, Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), who was noted for charting trade winds and ocean currents. He was instrumental in laying the Atlantic cable and is credited with developing the U.S. weather bureau. During his last post as Professor of Meteorology at VMI, he was so enamored by the pass that he requested his body be carried through it on its way to his final resting place.

As you leave the pass, you will enter Rockbridge Baths, a small village once a renowned vacation spot for its natural sulfur springs. About a half mile after the road crosses the river, the swinging footbridge crossing the river on the right is a must-stop. Walking across the rickety cable bridge is not for the faint of heart, but offers a scenic view of the water below. Back in your car, make your way back to the north end of Lexington passing various farms and the Virginia Horse Center, where more than 100 equine events are held each year.

This combined tour of northwestern Rockbridge County should take between two and three hours depending on the stops you choose. The historical sites and beautiful vistas make this a great picnic excursion, but short enough to have you back studying before dinner.
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Country Roads: Rockbridge County, Virginia, Self-guided Driving Tours”, 2nd Edition (1995); by Katherine Tennery and Shirley Scott

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Staunton’s Historical Beauty

This month, TRR took a journey back in time while visiting Staunton, one of the best preserved Civil War era towns in Virginia. Located less than an hour north of campus, Staunton is an artistic haven, an architectural pleasure and an historical beauty that can easily be accomplished in a day’s activities.

Start your day at the Frontier Culture Museum, located just off of I-81 exit 222. This living history museum features five working farms that represent the daily lives and agricultural heritage of the people who immigrated to America.

After a stop at the desk of the visitor’s center inside the main building, be sure to see the movie that details how the buildings were dismantled in their native lands, shipped across the ocean or overland, and reconstructed here. In about two hours you can visit farms from Germany (1710), Northern Ireland (1730), England (1690), and two distant counties in Virginia (1773 & 1850).

After learning about the culture of early American farmers, head west to Staunton’s historical downtown. Don’t be fooled by the two miles of strip malls and other modern-day eyesores, just follow the signs to the historical downtown. After you cross under the railroad bridge, you’ll realize you have stepped back in time.

Park near the Visitor’s Center on New Street or in the adjacent garage. Everything you will want to see is within walking distance or available via the free trolley service that stops throughout downtown. If it is a nice day, take a walking tour of the city’s architecture after obtaining a copy of the “Self-Guided Tour of Staunton’s Historic Districts” which contains descriptions of 84 historical homes, buildings, and churches.

If its time for lunch, TRR recommends The Beverly Restaurant, just around the corner from the Visitor’s Center. It may seem like the d├ęcor has not changed since they opened in 1960, but the home-style menu and Southern hospitality at a terrific price cannot be matched.

While walking down Beverly Street, you will see one of the best preserved Civil War-era main streets in the South. Staunton was the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley, “the Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” because of its railroad link to eastern Virginia. Staunton was designated as a training center for troops and became a vital supply depot to the Confederate army. Amazingly, the city’s architecture was left largely intact by Union soldiers occupying the city in the summer of 1864.

Two blocks south you will find the historic train station where you can catch an Amtrak train to Washington, New York or Chicago three times a week. Be sure to climb the stairs and cross the iron pedestrian bridge over the tracks to take in the best view of the town. The station also houses two great restaurants - seafood and steaks at The Depot Grille or fine dining at The Pullman Restaurant. Other options can be found amongst the art galleries located in The Wharf buildings across the street.

Just west of the station, in a wonderfully preserved historic building, you will find Sunspots Studios, a perfect example of the many art studios and galleries in Staunton. At Sunspots, not only can you browse the one-of-a-kind pieces of art glass and copper, you can see them being created. In the back of the studio, you can watch the daily glass blowing demonstrations by artists who interact with the onlookers. We all agreed this stop was the highlight of our visit to Staunton.

Before returning to your vehicle, consider visiting one of the many other great attractions. On the same block as the Visitor’s Center you can find the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Blackfriars Playhouse. The hotel is a recently restored historical wonder offering luxurious accommodations at reasonable prices. The Playhouse is home to the renowned American Shakespeare Center (see review by John Powers?? from last month’s issue), a perfect end to the evening.

Two blocks north and east of the Visitor’s Center is the birthplace and Presidential Library of native son Woodrow Wilson, the first southern-born U.S. President elected after the Civil War. Finally, if you choose to embark on the Trolley, be sure to get off and enjoy Gypsy Hill Park, with its 214 acres of recreational areas, creeks, picnic areas and playgrounds.

The next time you find yourself seeking a day of entertainment, jump in you car and head to Staunton. I guarantee an enjoyable day of history, architecture, and the arts in a charming southern town.
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The Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia;; 1290 Richmond Ave; (540) 332-7850; Open daily; $10 adults.

Staunton Visitor's Center;; 35 South New Street; (540) 332-3971; 9:30-5:30 Nov-Mar, 9-6:30 Apr-Oct; Info on all Staunton attractions.

Self Guided Walking Tour;; Obtain pamphlet/map from Visitor’s Center

The Beverley Restaurant;; 12 E. Beverley St; (540) 886-4317; Open Mon-Fri breakfast, lunch & early dinner and Sat breakfast & lunch

Sunspots Studios;; 202 South Lewis Street; (540) 885-0678; Free to the public; Open daily, Glass Blowing Demonstrations most days.

Friday, October 26, 2007

DC’s B-list attractions

Welcome to the first installment of a new travel column entitled The Roaming Roan, which will spotlight interesting overnight and day trips near Lexington. The column’s title plays upon the name of one of General Robert E. Lee’s “otherCivil War horses. Unfortunately, Traveller was already taken by a transportation system that does not actually travel.

In the spirit of the horse who never became Lee’s first choice mount, this inaugural TRR focuses on second tier attractions for a follow-up visit to Washington, DC.

You have seen the monuments and museums on The Mall. You probably visited the Capitol, the National Archives, and Arlington Cemetery. Touring these sights is surely a patriotic duty, but what about your return visit? In my five years of living in and near DC, I often treated my visiting family and friends to these three lesser-known must-see sights.

Most people intend to visit the Library of Congress, only to scratch it off when they run out of time. Ashamedly, I had visited our nation’s capital a dozen times before I finally walked inside the most magnificent room in the entire city, the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

Don’t be dismayed by the basement appearance as you come through the ground level entrance. Security concerns have closed the formal entrance to the first floor. Ask when the next guided tour begins and peruse the interesting exhibits while waiting.

Prepare to be awestruck when you climb to the Main Hall. The marble staircases, soaring painted arches, and mosaic ceiling pay tribute to mankind’s greatest thinkers and writers. The room forms a pseudo-temple in praise of knowledge.

Of course, internationally, the Library is known for its collection, not its architecture. Be sure to see the Gutenburg Bible, one of three copies in existence of the first book printed with movable metal type. The Visitors’ Gallery on the Third Floor provides an aerial view of the beautiful Reading Room and its collection. Keep in mind that this is a small portion of what is housed in the other buildings of the Library.

Two blocks west, on the other side of the Capitol building, is the U.S. Botanic Garden. In decades past, the Garden was often left off of tourist maps and could be found empty except for those seeking an air-conditioned retreat from the crowds. After a recent renovation and now that the line for Capitol tours passes nearby, this forgotten gem has recently become extremely popular.

In the gigantic greenhouse of the Conservatory, you will find a room for almost every climate on earth housing nearly 10,000 plant species. The jungle in the main conservatory is so tall that 24-feet high catwalks offer views of the branches of the trees while lower paths meander through plants and streams.

The Garden’s impressive array of flowers is capped by the world-renowned collection of orchids. The sweet scent of a blooming room can make one forget they are actually in the middle of our sprawling capital city.

The third of our bridesmaid attractions, the C&O Canal, is the most overlooked. If you have ever visited Georgetown to shop, eat, or drink in Georgetown, you have driven over the Canal quite frequently. You probably have never noticed the people dressed in 19th Century clothing guiding the mule-drawn canal boats into the locks less than a block from Barney's and Kate Spade.

The 184-mile long Canal begins in Georgetown and runs parallel and between M and K Streets. At the Georgetown Visitor Center run by the National Park Service, you can go back in time by embarking on an hour-long ride on a replica canal boat. The park ranger in period costume details the lifestyle of canalers as you pass along the old towpath and through a historic lift lock.

Inserted in the middle of your next shopping trip, the canal boats will offer an informative respite from the hectic life literally around the corner. This is one experience that leaves visitors amazed by the diversity of a day in Georgetown.

Next time you visit Washington, be sure to include these or another intriguing attraction that does not traditionally top out every tourist’s list. I guarantee that you will experience more than simply avoiding the crowds.
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The Library of Congress;; 101 Independence Ave, SE; (202) 707-8000; 10 AM - 5:30 PM Mon - Sat; Free to the public; Hour-long tours offered multiple times daily. (Photo credit: Max Lyons,

U.S. Botanic Garden;; 245 First St., SW; (202) 225-8333; 10 AM - 5 PM everyday; Free to the public. (Photo Credit: G. Alexander,

C&O Canal National Historical Park;; 1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Georgetown; (202) 653-5190; Canal boat rides ($7) Wed - Sun; Call visitor center for times. (Photo credit: Scott T. Smith,

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Welcome to The Roaming Roan!

Welcome to The Roaming Roan blog. TRR is a new monthly column I write for The Law News which spotlights interesting overnight and day trips near Lexington. This blog provides a venue to include multiple pictures and weblinks with the column. I hope you enjoy it.

When I considered what to name a travel column for the school where Robert E. Lee served as President, naturally I thought of naming it after Lee's horse Traveller who happens to be buried in Lee Chapel on campus. However, that seemed too obvious, not to mention that the name was already taken by the campus transportation system that does not actually travel anywhere outside of Lexington.

Instead, the column’s title plays upon the name of one of General Robert E. Lee’s “other” Civil War horses. The Roan, also known as the Brown-Roan, was purchased by Lee in West Virginia during the first summer of the war (1861). When Lee went to the coast of Carolina and Georgia that winter, he took only 'The Roan' with him to the South. Lee would purchase Traveller in February 1962 and when he returned to Richmond in the Spring, he brought back with him 'The Roan' and 'Traveller.'

During the battles around Richmond, that summer, 'The Roan' who had been gradually going blind, became unserviceable, and was retired to a Virginian farmer. It was later that point that Lee began to ride 'Traveller' regularly.

When I read this, I pictured the retired war horse The Roan roaming the hills of Virginia. That is when I decided to name the column of my roaming the sights of southwestern Virginia after the The Roan.