Exploring Shenandoah Country
Treat yourself to a scenic drive through historic, sight-packed Shenandoah Valley and Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Fabled in song and story-remember Shenandoah! the movie (with James Stewart) and Broadway musical?-Virginia's Shenandoah Country welcomes visitors with a full agenda of compelling things to see and do: Civil War history, wine tastings, nineteenth-century villages, cave tours, antiques shopping, a museum filled with colorful Rose Parade floats, tubing on the Shenandoah River, a visit to a gourmet potato chip factory. Happily, many of these activities are free, and the rest won't bust your budget. Similarly, chain motels quoting rates of $55 to $65 for two are plentiful, and you can dine nightly on roast ham, fried chicken, tasty pork barbecue, and other Virginia treats for about $10 per person. Consider this four-day, 450-mile drive a down-home getaway.
By Shenandoah Country, I mean both Shenandoah Valley and Shenandoah National Park. The 110-mile-long valley is tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. Traced by the meandering Shenandoah River, it is a popular regional playground. The national park embraces a 100-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge, where forested peaks climb above 4,000 feet. On this circle tour, you will drive south through the valley and return north on Skyline Drive, the park's scenic ridgetop road.
A fertile region of farms and orchards set among green, rolling hills, the Shenandoah Valley has played an important role in American history. In the early eighteenth century it was the raw frontier, where a young Colonel George Washington commanded Virginia troops during the French and Indian War. In the Civil War, it became the breadbasket of the Confederacy, feeding General Robert E. Lee's troops until almost the end. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Lee's valued lieutenant, earned his first laurels defending the valley. Both are buried in Lexington, a pretty Shenandoah Valley college town that today is something of a Southern Civil War shrine.
In a hurry, you can drive the length of the valley from Winchester in the north to Lexington in the south in a little over two hours on busy I-81. But on this trip, we'll stick mostly to U.S. 11, the Old Valley Pike, a lightly traveled, mostly two-lane road that covers the same route at a more leisurely pace. As a city dweller, I often pull over to watch newborn farm animals-calves, colts, kids, and lambs-scampering in the fields.
Fly into one of the Washington, D.C., area's three airports. Generally, the best fares are available into Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) in suburban Maryland, a hub for Southwest Airlines, America's largest discount airline. America West, another discounter, also operates out of BWI. But the most convenient airport is Washington Dulles International (IAD) in suburban Virginia, served by a trio of discount carriers: AirTran, America West, and JetBlue. Discounters ATA and America West fly into Washington's third airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA), just minutes from the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
This drive begins at Dulles, located less than an hour from Shenandoah Valley. Dulles is 60 miles from BWI and 35 miles from Reagan National. Rental cars average $175 a week at various Dulles counters.
Day one: On the road
From Washington Dulles International Airport to Winchester, Virginia, 60 miles. The drive gets off to a scenic start, crossing through Virginia's affluent horse country. Stately stone mansions stand surrounded by acres of broad green pastures, where aristocratic-looking steeds graze contentedly. Jacqueline Kennedy lived and rode here. To view the rich, stop in Middleburg, the hub of the horsey set. Browse its elegant antiques shops just to see the museum-quality items for sale.
A few miles west, the road (U.S. 50) skirts the little village of Paris and climbs a modest Blue Ridge pass called Ashby Gap. From the summit, you descend into the Shenandoah Valley. In minutes, you will cross the Shenandoah River, which flows rather lazily in summer en route to its confluence with the Potomac River. This drive crisscrosses the Shenandoah many times.
Winchester claims to be the first city established west of the Blue Ridge. At least eight structures in the Old Town district date back to the late 1700s. Among them is George Washington's Office, a log-and-stone cabin preserved as a museum (adults, $5). It focuses on the year 1755 to 1756, when Washington was assigned to protect the western frontier from attack.
Nearby, the white home with a cannon on the lawn is Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters (540/667-3242; $5), a museum detailing Jackson's stay from 1861 to 1862, when his troops fought off Union attempts to seize the valley. Winchester is said to have changed hands more than 70 times during the Civil War.