ADVERTISEMENT

Exploring Shenandoah Country

By James T. Yenckel
January 12, 2022
afternoon, farmland, shenandoah, valley, autumn, national, park, western, virginia
Svecchiotti / Dreamstime.com
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.

Getting started

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.

Country music fans will want to see the home, grave site, and other landmarks celebrating the life of singer Patsy Cline, who was born and raised in Winchester. Pick up free brochures about local area attractions at the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor Center (800/662-1360; 1360 S. Pleasant Valley Rd.).

Details

From Dulles, take Virginia Route 28 south five miles to U.S. 50 west to Winchester. Stay at the 113-room Red Roof Inn (540/667-5000), $60; or the 62-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $55 weekdays, $65 weekends. Dine with the local folks at the friendly, funky Amherst Diner (540/665-4450), where the pork chop plate with dressing and vegetables is priced at an easy $7.25. More romantic is the Cork Street Tavern (540/667-3777). Try the broiled trout at $9.95. Information 800/662-1360, visitwinchesterva.com.

Day two: Winchester to Lexington, 160 miles

Today's drive mostly follows U.S. 11 past prosperous farms and quiet nineteenth-century towns, each with a special attraction.

Still a breadbasket, the Shenandoah Valley markets lots of locally grown produce. But perhaps its most famous edibles are the gourmet potato chips made at Route 11 Potato Chips, a small factory in Middletown, just south of Winchester. The chips are fried the old-fashioned way-hand-stirred in small batches in bubbling kettles. Visitors can watch through the kitchen window (no charge). Samples on Friday and Saturday; best to come before 11 a.m.

On October 19, 1864, Middletown was the setting for the last great Civil War battle in the valley, when the North finally claimed victory. The story is told at the Cedar Creek Battlefield Visitor Center ($5), which overlooks a landscape little changed since then. In the distance stately Belle Grove ($7), an eighteenth-century plantation home, is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You don't have to tour the house to enjoy its magnificent Blue Ridge views. Walk among the gardens and orchards at no cost. Both sites are part of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park.

Down the road in Strasburg, browse the Great Strasburg Antiques Emporium, where 100 dealers display objects (some expensive, most not) from America's past. My wife frequently snaps up fancy porcelain serving dishes at a bargain. Treat the kids to a swim at Half-Moon Beach Park ($5 adult, $3 ages four to nine, add $2 on weekends), a 16-acre rock-quarry lake in the woods with a five-acre white-sand beach. It's the Strasburg swimming pool.

On to Edinburg, home of Shenandoah Vineyards. In recent years, Virginia's more than 70 wineries have begun winning raves for quality vintages. Judge for yourself at the vineyard's rustic tasting room, a red barn in the midst of 40 acres of grapevines. I stopped recently to sample a fruity Chardonnay and the offbeat Shenandoah Ruby. No charge for tasting, and the view is grand.

Now it's the youngsters' turn for fun again. Take them to American Celebration on Parade ($8), a massive museum of famous parade floats located south of Mount Jackson. The museum displays 27 huge floats, all but three of which appeared in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California.

I'm a Northerner, and my sympathies do not lie with the Confederate cause. This said, I can admit that I came away touched by the story told at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park ($8) in New Market. On May 15, 1864, a band of 247 teenage cadets, hastily assembled at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, charged an attacking Union line and helped win a Southern victory. The Visitor Center movie, Field of Lost Shoes, which focuses on the death of one young Confederate hero, is especially poignant.

Enough sightseeing for the day? Relax and enjoy the scenery as you cover the remaining 75 miles to Lexington. En route, take a look at Staunton's beautifully restored nineteenth-century town center. And connect here to Virginia Route 252 to Lexington, one of the valley's loveliest roads. A twisting, two-lane pathway, it tops a series of rolling hills, yielding a view of farm-country America as beautiful as you could hope to find. Every turn presents a landscape worthy of a painting: a grand old farmhouse on the far hilltop; a tall, brick silo looking worn but solid; bales of hay rolled up in the fields; a pasture of Black Angus cattle knee-deep in lush, green grass; lots of sheep, of course; Moffatts Creek tumbling by the roadside; and thick stands of trees, where the branches reach across the road to form a shimmering tunnel in the sunlight.

Details

From Winchester, take U.S. 11 south to Staunton, connecting to Virginia Route 252/39 into Lexington. Stay in Lexington at the 50-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $65 weekdays, $72 weekends; or the 148-room Red Oak Inn (800/521-9131), $65 weekdays, $75 weekends. Dine at Aunt Sarah's Restaurant (540/464-5227); the cod plate is $7. Information 877/453-9822, lexingtonvirginia.com.

Day three: Blue Ridge Vistas Lexington to Skyland Resort, 140 miles

Spend the morning touring Lexington on foot. Pick up a map at the Visitor Center (106 E. Washington St.).

Visit Robert E. Lee's tomb at Washington and Lee University, where Lee served as president after the Civil War, and the Stonewall Jackson House ($5), which Jackson bought when he was a professor at Virginia Military Institute. Pay your respects, too, to their famous horses. Lee's horse Traveller is buried on the grounds of Washington and Lee; Jackson's mount, Little Sorrel, stands as if alive at the VMI Museum. In a glass case nearby is the raincoat Jackson was wearing when he was accidentally shot. Look for the fatal bullet hole below the left shoulder.

From Lexington, begin the return trip north on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We will cover only 20 miles of the famed 469-mile ridgetop parkway, but it's enough to give you a taste of this spectacular drive. Keep an eye open for deer, which are plentiful. Glide down from the mountains on Virginia Route 56 to Vesuvius to visit the McCormick Farm (no charge) in yet another gorgeous pastoral setting. Here in 1831 Cyrus McCormick demonstrated the first successful mechanical grain reaper in the fields near his farm. Tour his blacksmith shop and gristmill, and a museum.

Head back into the mountains at Waynesboro, southern gateway to Shenandoah National Park. The park's 105-mile Skyline Drive was built to show off the scenery. Flowing like a stream among the rocky peaks, it offers grand valley views. Far below, green pastures and golden fields form a patchwork quilt, and the Shenandoah River makes silvery loops.

Skyline tempts motorists to stop at nearly 80 overlooks. That's one way to see the park. The best way, though, is to go for a walk in the woods. About 28 miles into the park, Ivy Creek Overlook provides an opportunity to hike a short, rock-strewn stretch of the Appalachian Trail. You might bump into a bear here, but don't count on it.

Tonight's stay is in the park. At dusk, watch the lights twinkle on in the valley.

Details

From Lexington, take U.S. 60 east to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Travel 20 miles north and exit on Virginia Route 56 west. At Steeles Tavern take U.S. 11/340 north to Waynesboro and the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. Follow Skyline Drive to Skyland Resort. Stay at 174-room Skyland (800/999-4714), beginning at $55 weekdays, $70 weekends. Also in the park is 97-room Big Meadows Lodge (800/999-4714), beginning at $70 weekdays, $85 weekends. Dine with a grand view at Skyland Resort or Big Meadows. At Skyland, the fried-chicken plate with apple fritters is $9.55. Information 540/999-3500, nps.gov/shen.

Day Four: On the River Skyland Resort to Dulles Airport, 100 miles

From Skyland, drop back down into the valley for one last look. In Luray, consider a one-hour tour of Luray Caverns ($16), which claims to be the region's largest cave. A guide leads the way through cathedral-size chambers of fantastical stone formations. Easier on the budget is the adjacent Garden Maze ($5), a one-acre footpath puzzle formed by eight-foot-tall evergreens.

Save time for a Shenandoah River trip. At Bentonville, 14 miles north, Downriver Canoe Company (800/338-1963, downriver.com) will put you on the Shenandoah in a canoe, rubber raft, kayak, or inner tube. A three-mile, three-hour tube float with shuttle service costs $14 per person. Or plan a picnic at Shenandoah River State Park ($3 per car), which boasts five miles of river frontage. And then head for the airport and home.

Details

From Skyland Resort, head north ten miles, exiting west to Luray on U.S. 211. From Luray, take U.S. 340 north through Bentonville to Front Royal. Return to Dulles quickly on I-66 east to Virginia Route 28 north.

Keep reading
Inspiration

Arizona the Way It Was

The heat is like a slap in the face. When my husband and I left the East Coast it was 40 degrees and raining; here in Tucson the temperature is above 90, even though it's late October. Not that Jason and I are complaining. The rental car has A/C and we haven't seen the sun in weeks. The southeast corner of Arizona is a land of extremes: mountains that top 9,000 feet and are covered in Douglas firs; dry, dusty basins that sprout cacti and seemingly little else. The flavor is a wild mix of the Old West and Old Mexico--from the architecture (wooden ranch houses and adobe casitas) to the food (mesquite-grilled steak and carne asada). Toss in quirky attractions and a 75 mph speed limit and you have a road-tripper's nirvana. Day one: Tucson Even though it's Arizona's second-largest city (after Phoenix), Tucson doesn't feel all that big. With a few exceptions, the things you'll want to see are concentrated in and around downtown. We land mid-morning and head straight to Mission San Xavier del Bac. Completed in 1797 and still the center of a functioning Roman Catholic parish, the enormous adobe church can be seen for miles around. Its blinding exterior leaves no mystery as to why it's called the White Dove of the Desert. Upon entering, I'm struck by the serenity: Worshipers and tourists stand in quiet awe, marveling at the colorful murals and statues that adorn each wall, all recently restored to their original beauty. Back in the car, we head to Pico de Gallo, a little taquería in South Tucson. It isn't much to look at, but the soft corn tortillas are amazing. The namesake dish isn't what you'd expect--instead of watery salsa, you get spears of mango, pineapple, coconut, and jicama served in a Dixie cup and topped with red chili powder and salt. It sounds odd but tastes heavenly. Nearby in the Barrio Histórico is El Tiradito, a small wishing shrine dating from the 1870s. The ground around it is littered with colorful candles--evidence of the hundreds of prayers offered here in recent weeks. This remnant of the late 19th century stands in stark contrast to the modern convention center a block away. Downtown Tucson is a warren of one-way streets; you'll want a good map. We circle the Hotel Congress a few times before figuring out there's parking in back. Built in 1919, the hotel served as a high-class rest stop for ranchers and mining tycoons, maintaining its genteel reputation until John Dillinger and his gang rolled into town. They were holed up here in 1934 when a fire broke out. Firefighters recognized Dillinger, and he was captured nearby. The rooms haven't changed much since. They're small, a bit ragged, and the door hits the toilet as you enter the bathroom. But they have character, with vintage beds and rotary phones. Ask for a room far from the popular nightclub or you'll feel the booming music until 1 a.m. No matter where your room is, you'll hear the cargo trains. I found the noise soothing; you might not. From the hotel it's a short walk to the 4th Avenue shopping district. There are enough thrift stores and import shops to keep you busy for hours. Don't dally too long. Up in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas is the late Ettore "Ted" De Grazia's Gallery in the Sun. Best known for his paintings of children and landscapes, De Grazia created a unique space to show his work: The adobe gallery is decorated with colorful murals, brightly painted tin flowers, and a cholla cactus walkway. We head over to the El Presidio Historic District for dinner at the oldest family-run Mexican restaurant in the country, El Charro Café. We come for the famouscarne secaplate and aren't disappointed. The beef is perfectly spiced with lime, garlic, and green chilies, and dried outdoors for several days. Shredded and served with fresh tortillas, it's unlike anything I've ever tasted. Except maybe beef jerky, but thecarne secais much better. Day one Lodging Hotel Congress311 E. Congress St., 520/622-8848, hotelcongress.com/, double $39-$72 Food Taquería Pico de Gallo2618 S. 6th Ave., 520/623-8775, taco $1.25 El Charro Café311 N. Court Ave., 520/622-1922, carne seca $11.95 Mission San Xavier del Bac1950 W. San Xavier Blvd., 520/294-2624, donations welcome Gallery in the Sun6300 N. Swan Rd., 800/545-2185, free Day two As you drive southeast on I-10, the ubiquitous saguaros and mesquite give way to willowy cottonwoods--you're crossing the San Pedro River. After so many miles of highway, the Ghost Town Trail comes as a shock. This unpaved road from Pearce to Tombstone is quite rutted in places and so isolated that you'll be tempted to turn back. Stick with it and you'll pass through remnants of once-booming copper-mining villages. The best reason to take this route: John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts. John and Sandy Weber are self-described rattlesnake hunters whose wallets and jewelry are on display in an old trailer. The shop is self-serve--if you find something you like (and I defy you not to), drop some money in the mailbox outside. Compared with the real ghost towns of Courtland and Gleeson, Tombstone is a circus. Packed with tourists and people dressed in period costume, the Town Too Tough to Die is worth only a quick visit. Stop by Boothill Graveyard to see the famous grave markers, then stroll Allen Street and have lunch at the Longhorn Restaurant. The Mule Mountain Pass into Bisbee is vertiginous--it's a mile above sea level and the highway twists and turns--but the view is spectacular. The town is nestled in a canyon, with clapboard houses stacked on top of one another; it looks as though one good rain will wash all the buildings away. Now a magnet for artists and retirees, Bisbee was once the heart of copper mining in the area, producing nearly 3 million ounces of gold and 8 billion pounds of copper. At the turn of the century, it was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. See proof at the Mining & Historical Museum. Explore the mine as the miners did--with a hard hat and lantern--on the one-hour underground tour of the Queen Mine. Claustrophobes will prefer to peer into the giant crater that is the Lavender Open Pit instead.Pick up an illustrated map at the visitor center on Subway Street and look for signs of the town's rough-and-tumble history. They're everywhere, from the big houses on Quality Hill (where the bankers and lawyers lived) to the saloons in Brewery Gulch (once home to gamblers and prostitutes). The center of town is now full of art galleries and boutiques, but the facades still scream Old West.We decide to try the new Harlequin Restaurant at the bottom of Brewery Gulch. Chef and co-owner Scott Edelen has turned what was once the town pharmacy into a first-class restaurant. The menu is small--two entrées--but it changes nightly and incorporates fresh local ingredients. Jason swears the steak is the best he's eaten (it's blackened and served with a red-curry coconut-cream sauce).As we make our way downhill, the car turns into a time machine, hurtling us from the early 1900s to the 1950s. Welcome to the Shady Dell. Alongside its regular RV hookups, the Shady Dell rents out eight meticulously restored aluminum trailers as rooms. We chose the granddaddy, a 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion. I can't take it all in fast enough: the lustrous blond-wood interior with leopard-print carpeting; the Frigidaire in the kitchen, along with vintage martini glasses; the phonograph and 78 rpm records ranging from doo-wop to polka. After I squeal, "Oh my God, look at this!" for the hundredth time, we settle onto the couch to watch the grainy black-and-white Setchell-Carlson TV. It's hooked up to a hidden VCR, with a dozen films to choose from. We stay up late watching Rawhide and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Day two Lodging Shady Dell 1 Douglas Rd., 520/432-3567, theshadydell.com, $35-$75 Food Longhorn Restaurant 501 E. Allen St., 520/457-3405, burger $6 Harlequin Restaurant 1 Howell Ave., 520/432-1832, entrée $16.95 Attractions Queen Mine Tours off Hwy. 80, 866/432-2071, $13 Bisbee Mining Museum Copper Queen Plaza, 520/432-7071, $4 John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts Gleeson Rd., 520/642-9207 Day three We're off after a late breakfast at Dot's Diner--a 1957, 10-stool wonder, itself worth a trip to the Shady Dell. By late morning we're in Patagonia, another boom-and-bust mining town that has found new life as a mecca for tourists and weekenders from Tucson. The Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve has over two miles of trail paralleling Sonoita Creek. It's a nice, flat walk under a canopy of trees--a bird-watcher's paradise. More than 300 species have been identified here. Lunch is at Velvet Elvis: incredible homemade soups, large gourmet pizzas with names like "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly," and limonada rosa, lemonade flavored with hibiscus and lime. Past Nogales is the village of Tubac, Arizona's oldest European settlement, dating from 1752. The Spanish built a presidio here that's now a state historic park, but most people come for the art galleries and pottery shops.We're lucky enough to have our own guide--Bill Spater, a family friend who has lived in the area for years. After a driving tour of Nogales's Crawford Street Historic District--on a hill above town, with old mansions and an extraordinary view of the spotlit wall separating the U.S. from Mexico--we "walk across the line." (The border is so porous here that people cross back and forth daily: Arizonans and tourists head over to Sonora for dinner; Mexicans visit Arizona to shop at Wal-Mart.) It's another world: narrow streets lined with shops and bars, people everywhere. We head down a small side street to Regis, Bill's favorite watering hole. It's packed with locals watching TV. A waiter quickly finds us a place to sit down, adding chairs to a table already occupied by two men. One of them asks me in Spanish who I'm rooting for. They're watching Game Six of the World Series--and Jason and I, lifelong Yankees fans, are surrounded by rowdy Marlins fans. We have dinner at La Roca, or "The Rock"--a beautiful restaurant literally built into the side of a cliff above town. A mariachi band serenades us with "Guantanamera" as we dig into an enormous platter of grilled shrimp, spiced beef, and roasted chilies. Day four: Tubac to Tucson Tumacácori is about three miles south of Tubac. A national historical park surrounds the ruins of a Jesuit frontier church built in 1757. It's only a short drive back to Tucson, and as we try to figure out exactly how far we are from the airport, we realize that I-19 is signed in metric. Another Arizona quirk to end a memorable trip through the Old West. Days three and four Lodging Country Inn 13 Burruel St., 520/398-3178, tubaccountryinn.com, double $85-$155 Secret Garden Inn 13 Placita de Anza, 520/398-9371, tubacaz.com/secretgarden, double $95-$105 Food Dot's Diner Shady Dell, 520/432-5885, breakfast $4.20 Velvet Elvis 292 Naugle Ave., 520/394-2102, pizza $17.99 Regis Calle Juárez 34, 011-52/631-31-25181, margarita $1 La Roca Restaurant & Bar Calle Elias 91, 011-52/631-31-20891, entrée $8 Attractions Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve nature.org/ for directions, admission $5 Tubac Presidio State Historic Park off Tubac Rd., 520/398-2252, admission $3 Tumacácori National Historical Park exit 29 off I-19, 520/398-2341, admission $3

Inspiration

Hidden California: The Anza-Borrego Desert

When you hear the words "Palm Canyon Drive," you probably think of the main drag in Palm Springs, with its Rolls Royces, expensive department stores and leather-skinned ladies with Gucci bags and too much jewelry. But did you know there's another Palm Canyon Drive in another California desert community that is known more for its casual, friendly locals, rustic, inexpensive motels, and charming hole-in-the-wall eateries? Yep, if you're looking for the ultimate in quiet, relaxing, low-frills/low-cost desert getaways, don't head for the Palms, consider the "other" Springs: Borrego Springs, a tiny but scenic and well-equipped, visitor-friendly desert town happily isolated within the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- America's largest desert state park. Borrego Springs -- known to most of the locals simply as Borrego -- is what Palm Springs probably was, say, 50 years ago. But it's doubtful if Palm Springs was ever this charming, this peaceful. Borrego is surrounded by rocky peaks inhabited by rare bighorn sheep and blessed with a bountiful array of nature's wonders. A two-hour drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles, Borrego provides an old-school desert ambiance that reinvigorates the spirit and refreshes the mind. There are no traffic signals in sun-drenched Borrego, no Starbucks, no long lines, and, as a result, no stress. All you need to remember are these three magic words: relax, explore, save. Pillow talk Borrego offers several economical lodging options, perhaps the best being Palm Canyon Resort on Palm Canyon Dr., 800-242-0044. With rooms as low as $70 a night, the Palm Canyon, which looks like an Old West town from the outside, offers a pool, BBQ area and fully stocked fitness area for all guests, and each room is equipped with a refrigerator, fresh brewed coffee and hair dryers. Another inexpensive but comfortable option is the Stanlunds Resort Inn and Suites on Borrego Springs Rd., 760-767-5501. The Standlunds, whose October-May rates are as low as $75 a night, offers a pool, private patios, a BBQ facility, continental breakfasts on weekends, and coffee in all rooms. And it, too, is right in the heart of town. But the real story in Borrego is the surrounding Anza-Borrego desert and its open-camping policy, which means you're free from the restrictions of designated campground areas found at more densely populated parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia. Visitors to this state park can explore a virtually limitless range of camping experiences unmatched anywhere in the country. There are also plenty of RV spaces. Campers can call 767-5311 for more information. The blossoming desert An early spring trip to Borrego is what we advise. In the spring, there are all kinds of things to do and see. The desert and mountain wildflower season, which runs from February through April, is a sight to behold. Bring your camera. A favorite annual spring event is the Grapefruit Festival, the third week of April. Capping off the wildflower season, the festival includes special events live music, dances, a tennis tournament, picnic, classic car show, youth games, interpretive programs at the state park, and more. And both you and the kids will love going "critter watching." Who says there's no life in the desert? Borrego is loaded with wildlife in the spring. Just driving through town, you'll see coyotes -- don't worry, they're more scared of you than you are of them -- as well as road runners, jack rabbits, and much more. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers a virtually limitless range of jaw-dropping scenery. Highlights include Font's Point, Borrego Palm Canyon, 17 Palm Oasis, Southern Emigrant Trail and Split Mountain. The park also offers a wide variety of programs, films, tours, etc., covering areas such as paleontology, geology, animal/plant life, astronomy, history and more. The park's main visitor center is just outside of town, west of Palm Canyon Drive, 760-767-4205. Helpful websites include statepark.org/ and borregosprings.com/. Simple pleasures There are several inexpensive public golf courses, and Borrego is also a perfect place to play tennis. At Borrego Springs Tennis Club there are four lighted courts available to the public, and at Borrego Springs High School and Elementary School, a total of three courts are available when school is out. All hotels and motels in Borrego have pools, and the high school pool is open to the public in the summer. Another fun idea when visiting Borrego is to bring your telescope. Because the area is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges (which help block out interfering light), Borrego is one of the best places in America for stargazing, with crystal clear desert skies. There aren't a whole bunch of dining choices, but the ones that are there are charming and fun. They include Borrego Pizza, Etc., 767-4310, Crosswinds at the Airport, 767-4646, George's & Family Little Italy, 767-3491, Kendall's Cafe, 767-3491, La Casa del Zorro, 1-800-824-1884, Pablito's of the Desert, 767-5753, and the Coffee & Book Store, 767-5080. The County Airport at Borrego Springs has a lighted 5,000-foot runway and offers fueling and space for overnight or longer stays. But the best way to get to Borrego is by car. Just drive from wherever you are, or take a cheap flight to San Diego or McClellan-Palomar Airport (in north San Diego County, just east of Carlsbad), rent a car and take the scenic, relaxing two-hour drive away from the city and out to Borrego.

Inspiration

Take a Heartland Road Trip!

His great-great-grandfather founded the town in the late 1880s. At its pre-WWII peak, the population of Nenzel, Nebraska, reached 125. Today, it’s got all of 13 people. But that hasn’t stopped Neal Nollette, a Roman Catholic priest, from launching an outfitting company, 2 the Ends of the Earth, which runs river trips down a cliff-lined stretch of the Niobrara that’s often short of—well, water. SEE OUR HEARTLAND ROAD TRIP! To bypass that inconvenient truth, Nollette invented the sport of “nyobrafting,” which he defines as navigating a waterway by any method necessary, though in practice it means repeatedly climbing out of your kayak and dragging it across the river’s many sandbars. As Father Neal says, “If you have a little bit of imagination and creativity, you can turn almost anything into a business.” Welcome to the Sandhills, home to whooping cranes and prairie chickens, cowboys and cattle, plus some of the more ingenious tourism attractions either side of the Mississippi. Like much of the nation, these remote, sparsely settled grasslands—rolling some 19,000 square miles across north central Nebraska and reaching as high as 400 feet—have been hit by economic tough times. But the can-do spirit that built this country runs deep in these parts. Ever been to a 300-mile-long yard sale (known as the annual Junk Jaunt)? Or an art show that makes a stop at the Sinclair gas station in Dunning, where hand-crafted pottery shares the shelves with the Hamburger Helper and pickles? In a word: delicious. DAY 1 Omaha to Burwell 193 miles “Where the West begins and the East peters out,” reads the restaurant sign my son and I spy in Burwell, home to Nebraska’s Big Rodeo. After a four-hour drive from Omaha, we’re ready for some cowpoke action. At the Northside Bar and Cafe, around the corner from the Dry Creek Western Wear store and saddle shop, a man in a white cowboy hat plays gin rummy with his buddies at a corner table (223 Grand Ave., Burwell, 308/346-5474). We’ve dropped by to see the hundreds of photos, posters, and other memorabilia decorating the walls of the pub’s rodeo museum. Perhaps other picture galleries double as a saloon, but surely this is the only one serving bull calf testicles. “Last Friday, we sold a whole case,” says Tammy Miller, waitress, bartender, and occasional curator. “Breaded and deep fried.” Thankfully, my son is hankering for something sweet. We’re directed to the Sandstone Grill in the old tin-ceilinged Burwell Hotel, where two foodies—sisters who moved here from Seattle and Kansas City—serve a long list of salads (Caesar, Asian, “sweet blue,” etc.) along with Nebraskan classics like sour cream raisin pie, which we order à la mode (416 Grand Ave., Burwell, 308/346-4582, sandstonegrill.com). Sunlight is starting to wane as we reach Calamus Outfitters, near Nebraska’s third-largest swimming hole, Calamus Reservoir. We toss our bags into our rustic lodge room on the grounds of the Switzer Ranch, then hightail it outside for a sunset Jeep tour of 12,000 acres of grazing cattle (83720 Valleyview Ave., Burwell, 308/346-4697, calamusoutfitters.com). Lying on the central flyway of some 500,000 cranes and 10 million other migratory water fowl, these are the Sandhills at their prettiest, dipping and rising like a roller coaster, blanketed with bluestems and tall bunchgrasses. In spring, you can watch the sharp-tailed grouse strut their stuff during their elaborate predawn mating dance. In summertime, there’s tubing and horseback riding. In the morning when I ask what we can do to help around the ranch, we’re told to saddle up and spend the next several hours rounding up stray cattle. DAY 2 Burwell to Mullen 112 miles The late Charles “On the Road” Kuralt counted Highway 2, running alongside the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and a seemingly endless row of black-eyed susans and golden sunflowers, among America’s 10 most beautiful routes. We pick it up in Dunning and follow it west through what was once the Pawnee and Sioux tribes’ bison-hunting range. In Mullen, we have a date with Glidden Canoe Rental to go “tanking”—a popular Nebraskan sport that consists of floating down a river in a livestock watering tank. Some tanks come with picnic tables and lawn chairs. Ours is nine feet in diameter, made of galvanized tin, and outfitted with benches. Even with paddles, we’re at the Middle Loup River’s mercy. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead as the current crashes us into the bank, tangling us up in fallen branches. Eventually I learn it’s less jarring if I sit upright, not touching the sides of the tank. My son does just the opposite, naturally. Apparently what I call whiplash, he calls fun (Off Highway 2, Mullen, 308/546-2206, gliddencanoe rental.com). Afterward, we grab a bite at the Rustic Tavern, in Mullen’s scruffy downtown. The kitchen is closed for remodeling, but the cook whips up a daily special in the smoker out back. This evening it’s BBQ brisket and the place is hopping with takers, many in boots and spurs (104 E. 1st St. Mullen, 308/546-2993). We order seconds before settling in for the night near Thedford at the Middle Loup River Ranch Guest House. There aren’t always animals, and most of the ranch is about 50 miles away, but what’s in a name? Besides, the two-bedroom place is comfy, all ours, and in the morning our host stops by with gooey cinnamon rolls (Highway 2, between Halsey and Thedford, 402/450-2268, middleloupriverranch.com). DAY 3 Mullen to Nenzel 121 miles North up Highway 83, the Sandhills take on a vast, rugged beauty, dotted with pristine lakes and spring-fed marshes and sweeping wide in every direction. In Valentine, we turn west for Nenzel and our 12-mile nyobrafting trip (402/389-2242, 2theendsoftheearth.com). It ends up taking all day, including the part where our shuttle van runs out of gas and we somehow land at Father Neal’s brother’s place to see his four-acre vineyard and the new pine-paneled wine-tasting room occupying the ground floor of his house. They don’t have a liquor license yet, nor do they have a name for their label. Still, Father Neal and his brother are optimistic that this venture (unlike the family’s erstwhile weekend cowboy cookouts) will soon be raking in the crowds. Watch out, Napa. Tiny Nenzel is on your tail!

Inspiration

6 Great Destinations That Survived Sandy

It's almost impossible to shake the dramatic images of waves crashing over Casino Pier's iconic roller coaster after it was pushed into the Atlantic during Hurricane Sandy. Our hearts broke with the news of entire communities throughout the east coast being ravaged by ferocious floods and in the unfortunate case of Breezy Point, NY, unstoppable fires. Despite such suffering and turmoil, people came together to help each other, communities worked together, and one year later, things are looking a whole lot better. While so much work still needs to be done in many of New York and New Jersey's residential areas, several popular destinations have bounced back. From the Hamptons to the Jersey Shore, here are six popular places that survived the storm and why you should pay them a visit. CONEY ISLAND Despite the storm, Coney Island's signature amusement park, Luna Park, was able to open its summer 2013 season right on schedule, thanks in part to hundreds of volunteers from all five boroughs who came together to help rebuild the area's playgrounds, streets, churches, and iconic boardwalk. Luna Park recently unveiled Water Mania, a new ride similar to Disney's Tea Cup attraction that lets visitors spray water cannons at other riders as they spin around. Luna Park will open two new rides this summer, and plans to bring back the Thunderbolt, a 125-foot tall, 2,000-foot long roller coaster that will reach speeds of up to 65 miles per hour, in 2014. Pay a visit to Coney Island's timeless attractions, brave the almighty Cyclone, and take a ride on the historic B&B Carousel in the newly christened Steeplechase Plaza. If all else fails, you can always stop for a bite at Nathan's Famous, home of the original Coney Island Hot Dog. ATLANTIC CITY Contrary to popular belief, Atlantic City was not hit hard by Hurricane Sandy last fall and was actually back on its feet within a week of the storm-in fact the area still continues to bounce back post-Sandy with new openings and events along its iconic stretch of New Jersey coastline. The Tropicana Casino and Resort opened six new restaurants and AC's iconic Steel Pier debuted eight new rides this summer. Ultra-chic hotel Revel also opened its new HQ Beach Club over Memorial Day weekend, a nightclub modeled after the posh décor of Mykonos that features pools, bungalows, bars, DJs, and a new dance floor. For free family-friendly entertainment, don't miss AC Dreamin', a new 3-D light show featuring catchy music and creative, thought-provoking images against the façade of Boardwalk Hall every half hour between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m nightly. LOWER MANHATTAN While images of the New York City subway system overflowing with floodwaters might still come to mind, it's important to remember that things are for the most part back to normal in Lower Manhattan. Shop for farm fresh produce at one of the Greenmarkets Downtown-try the Bowling Green Greenmarket at Broadway and Battery Place every Tuesday and Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. thru Dec. 26th, or the Staten Island Ferry Terminal Greenmarket, every Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. thru Dec. 31st. Treat the family to a picnic in Battery Park with views of the Statue of Liberty or take advantage of the City's new Citi Bike Stations and take a bike tour Lower Manhattan at your own pace. MONTAUK AND THE HAMPTONS While Long Island didn't receive as much television coverage during Sandy compared to other places, Montauk, the Hamptons, and most of Long Island's beaches endured large amounts of flooding and beach erosion as a result of the storm. Trees fell, water rose, and power outages were rampant. Luckily, one year later, the beaches are in much better shape. According to an article byCurbed Hamptons, $700 million was recently approved by Congress to go towards rebuilding Long Island's South Shore, namely Montauk, Hampton Bays, East Quogue, and West Hampton Dunes Village-East Hampton Town is bringing in roughly 10,000 yards of sand to support Ditch Plains since the project reportedly won't begin until late next year. THE JERSEY SHORE If New Jersey's Stronger than the Storm campaign is any indication, the Jersey Shore has bounced back from the effects of Hurricane Sandy with courage, style, and grace. This summer, the beaches were open from Long Beach Island all the way down to Cape May and area hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and shops are eagerly awaiting your visit. Check out the Stronger Than The Storm Fall Guide for a list of haunted houses, hayrides, corn mazes, pick-your-own pumpkin and apple farms, and the best places to see fall colors. 26 B&Bs and Inns along the Jersey Shore are also participating in Back Inn Business, a campaign offering 10 percent off rates for Sunday-Thursday stays this October in honor of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. STATEN ISLAND Here's a novel idea: take a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan and actually stick around to explore the fifth borough before heading back to the City. There's a lot going on in Staten Island. History buffs shouldn't miss the chance to explore Fort Wadsworth, one of the oldest military sites in the country, Historic Richmond Town, an 11-acre living history museum on New York City's oldest farm, and Sandy Ground, a community settled in the 1800s by freed slaves from New York, Delaware, and Maryland that later became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Visit the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum, and the Snug Harbor Cultural Center for a taste of culture on one of New York City's most culturally diverse boroughs.