VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS
They say that Virginia is for lovers and it’s true. Lovers of national parks, hiking, scenic overlooks, nature watching, cavern exploring and night sky star gazing! Virginia is the place for all of those things. I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to do a four day getaway to the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
Shenandoah National Park is one that I have often gone to as a day tripper when visiting friends in Front Royal, Virginia which is at the northern most end of the national park that runs north to south in the rolling hills of Virginia. Its 105 mile Skyline Drive along the ridge is a great place to take a Sunday drive, stopping at the many scenic overlooks along the way. I had always wanted to spend more than a few hours there and get a little further south along Skyline Drive to capture some of the beautiful vistas there.
Many of the Girl Campers have camped at Big Meadow Campground at mile marker 51 on the drive and I was anxious to check it out for a future trip. It has more than 200 nicely shaded sites without hookups that run $17-$21 a night. Some can be reserved but many are first come, first serve. If you get there on a Thursday night for a long weekend your chances of securing a non-reserved site are quite good. This time around I was making a compromise and camping at the base of the mountain with my husband. I’m the camper in the family who can camp anywhere and love it. He’s the convert to camping who will go if he has all the amenities of home. With that in mind I booked the Luray KOA in Luray, Virginia which gives you access to the park at the Thornton Gap entrance. If you are heading to the top make sure you have plenty of gas in your car before you arrive. There is only one gas station on Skyline Drive near Big Meadows Campground.
Our goal was to hike to Mary’s Rock, the eighth highest summit in the park. The trail head is at the Thornton Gap entrance and the National Parks App gives great information about the height you will be ascending, the difficulty of the trail and how long it should take to do it. The hiking trail actually becomes part of the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail which runs the length of the park. Our son hiked the AT in 2009 and Mary’s Rock was one of the highlights for him so we knew we wanted to see it ourselves. We chose the shorter, easier way of the two options for getting there and set out with plenty of water and enthusiasm. The views were breathtaking and the hike was not challenging if you paced yourself. We stopped so often though that we realized we would have to turn around in order to make it back to the campground where we were entertaining friends later that night. I am keeping this hike in my playbook for another day. I do want to get to the top and enjoy the view.
Before we headed back to the campground we drove further south to see Big Meadows Campground which did not disappoint. It looks like a wonderful spot to plan a Girl Camping outing. The Camp Host was kind enough to answer my questions and give a quick tour. He was full of recommendations and park knowledge and is a great asset to all the campers there. He lives there in season with his wife in a small travel trailer and graciously helps tourists navigate the park. He told us that he had seen eight bears on his morning meander along the drive. If you get up early and stop along the drive at overlooks you may see them in the treetops. He said that most people are looking on the ground so they miss them. The day we were talking to him he told us of watching a mama bear bring one cub down a tree in her mouth. The cub left behind wailed and cried for her but she would not come up and get him. She sat at the base of the tree looking up and occasionally shaking the tree until he understood that he would have to make his own way down. The little lesson in tree climbing for cubs took about fifteen minutes and was witnessed by a few early risers. Great Camp Host tip if you want to see nature in action. Get up early!
Before leaving the park we had a great lunch at the Big Meadows Lodge. If you are not one to camp, you can rent a cabin or room in this historic lodge which dates back to 1939. It has rustic cabins, traditional hotel rooms and luxurious suites available from May until November. It’s right in the middle of the park so you can plan your days north or south of the Lodge and come home to dinner at the Tap Room with beautiful views from the dining hall. It was the start of a beautiful romance between me and Shenandoah National Park and I can’t wait to get to know this park better.
It’s hard to be in Luray and skip out on the Luray Caverns. I have been in a lot of caves in my day including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the largest cave in the US so I could have easily passed on the caverns here for another day in the park, but my husband really wanted to see them and in the end I was so glad that we went. They were really spectacular and if you think all stalactites and stalagmites are the same, you will be as mistaken as I was. The caverns were the most colorful I have ever seen and the tour guide gave the history of the discovery of the caves in 1878 and the tourism that sprung up around them. It’s a little over a one mile walk on gently sloping paths. The only stairs you climb are going in and getting out of the caverns. The temperature in the caverns is 54 degrees but the humidity is so high that it feels like 65 degrees. I forgot my jacket and thought I would be cold the whole time but was very comfortable in a lightweight shirt. The $26 admission ticket included a great tour of the Luray Valley Museum, a 17 acre reproduction of a 19th century farming community which included the Hamburg Regular School, the area’s first school for African American children. You can easily spend the day here if you also take in the Antique Car and Caravan Museum, Toy Museum, Garden Maze and Rope Adventure Park. This stop in Luray has something for everyone in the family.
The Luray KOA was a sweet spot to fall back into at the end of the day. This beautiful campground, nestled at the base of the mountain on a lonely country road, was an ideal spot for star gazing and quiet campfire chat. Its sites are nestled around a big open green space allowing you night time views of the sky. We booked the deluxe site with a large concrete pad that came with a big sturdy dining table and six chairs as well as a nice stone fire pit and two comfy Adirondack chairs. Light pollution is at a minimum here and we sat at night watching the shooting stars. I got a star gazing app lesson from fellow campers and downloaded the no cost Skyview App that tells you what constellations you are looking at when you hold your phone up to the sky. You have to love technology!
We had a great time in Shenandoah Valley although we only scratched the surface. I am already planning my next trip there when I will leave earlier for the Mary’s Rock hike, look up for bears and cubs instead of down and make my way a little further down the Skyline Drive!