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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