an anniversary trip to west virginia: the skyline drive of shenandoah national park

Friday, November 4:  We’re on our way this morning to Fayetteville, West Virginia to get away for a three-day weekend before the U.S. election on Tuesday.  It’s a trip to celebrate my birthday (Oct. 25), belatedly, and our 28th anniversary (Nov. 13), early. We decide on our way down south, we’ll drive a portion of Skyline Drive from Front Royal to Thornton Gap.

The view from Skyline Drive
The view from Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive is the scenic roadway that winds 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia just west of Washington, D.C.  There are only four entrances to the park; we take the northernmost one, getting off at the next one south.  We have a long way to go to get to our destination in West Virginia, but we want to see some of the fall colors.  Thus we take the slower route for about 28 miles.

Skyline Drive views
Skyline Drive views

We’re so glad we do because it’s a gorgeous day and we’re rewarded with some marvelous vistas.

the valley from Skyline Drive
the valley from Skyline Drive
dappled valley
dappled valley

Forty percent of the park (almost 80,000 acres) is designated as a wilderness area; it represents one of the largest wilderness areas in the eastern United States and has about 500 miles of hiking trails, according to Shenandoah National Park – Skyline Drive: What to See.

autumn colors
autumn colors

It’s surprising to see so much color on the trees in early November; usually the trees are further past their prime at this time of year.

broad sweeping colors
broad sweeping colors
the valley
the valley
me along Skyline Drive
me along Skyline Drive
orange galore!
orange galore!
a tree amidst flames
a tree amidst flames
stark tree
stark tree
profile
profile
etchings
etchings
hillsides in flames
hillsides in flames
white bark trees
white bark trees
overlooking the valley
overlooking the valley

We enjoy our drive immensely, stopping at the numerous pull-outs for sweeping views.

a dramatic scene
a dramatic scene
rich orange hills
rich orange hills
a beacon of orange
a beacon of orange
valley views
valley views
views along Skyline Drive
views along Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive
a stand of trees
a stand of trees

Finally, we exit the beautiful park and head south on Interstate 81, in route to cross the state line into West Virginia.

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a november hike to mary’s rock

Sunday, November 10:  The hike from Jewell Hollow Overlook on the Skyline Drive to Mary’s Rock is about 3.5 miles each way, for a round trip of about 7 miles.  At this altitude, the leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, but it’s a stunning landscape just the same.  I adore the gnarly trunks & branches covered in lichen, the lime-green bits of moss on the ground, the orange and yellow trees in the valley below, and the cold wind whipping across the ridge.

starting out at Jewell Hollow Overlook
starting out at Jewell Hollow Overlook
naked trees at Jewell Hollow Overlook
naked trees at Jewell Hollow Overlook
a little color left on the trees in the valley
a little color left on the trees in the valley
mountains, mountains... as far as the eye can see
mountains, mountains… as far as the eye can see
naked trees
naked trees

As we hike the trail, meandering from the east side of the ridge, where it is relatively warm, to the west side, where the wind is howling and bitterly cold, we take off layers, put them back on, and take them off again.  The trail is rocky and leaf-strewn underfoot, causing ankle-turning and slipping and sliding.  It’s hard to be surefooted on this trail.

moss & acorn
moss & acorn
moss & acorn
moss & acorn
moss
moss

We meet groups of Korean hikers decked out in the latest hiking gear, the Wanderbirds from D.C, and two young hikers who have been on the Appalachian trail since mid-June, Two-Liter and Fabio; they won’t be finished their hike of the entire trail until mid-January.  Brrrr.  Two-Liter complains that it’s the rocks underfoot on the trail that are killing them.  They went through all the northern states, beginning in Maine, and they tell us people they encountered along the way promised them that in the Shenandoah, the rocks wouldn’t cause them a problem.  She rolls her eyes: “Wrong!”

Appalachian Trail walkers Fabio & Two-Liter
Appalachian Trail walkers Fabio & Two-Liter

At the Mary’s Rock summit, we encounter quite a crowd of people, and their dogs, enjoying the view in the biting wind.

at the summit: Mary's Rock
at the summit: Mary’s Rock
view from Mary's Rock
view from Mary’s Rock
the valley from Mary's Rock
the valley from Mary’s Rock
view from Mary's Rock
view from Mary’s Rock

Click on any of the photos below for a full-sized slide show.

I have dreams of hiking the Camino in northern Spain, but as my legs, knees, toes and back are aching from today’s 7 mile hike, I think I will have to get in a lot better shape in order to do 20+ miles a day, carrying a backpack, on the Camino.  Maybe I’ll put that dream on the back burner for a while.  Either that or get busy hiking longer distances to build stamina and strength.

October hikes in Virginia are always lovely, as fall color always peaks during that month, but November hikes are another treat altogether.

Chilled to the bone and sore and tired after our hike, we stop at Black Bear Bistro & Cellar in Warrenton for pizzas, wraps, beers and a warm and welcoming environment.

the bar at Black Bear Bistro in Warrenton
the bar at Black Bear Bistro in Warrenton
Black Bear Bistro
Black Bear Bistro
Black Bear Bistro
Black Bear Bistro
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weekly photo challenge: horizon

Sunday, October 27: The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge is Horizon: The space or line where the sky meets the earth. So many places where the sky meets the earth around the world, and millions of interactions between two elements. It can be water, a city skyline, a forest, a wasteland, a desert, a sunset outside your bedroom window. Is there a particular horizon which speaks to you?

Here are the horizons I saw today from the Skyline Drive on the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park.  Some horizons are to the west of the ridge, and some are to the east, as the road wanders back and forth from one side of the mountain range to the other.

Blue Ridge Mountains
Blue Ridge Mountains
Along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
Along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park horizon
Shenandoah National Park horizon
horizon viewed from Skyline Drive
horizon viewed from Skyline Drive
horizon of fall colors
horizon of fall colors
Horizon from the Blue Ridge Mountains
Horizon from the Blue Ridge Mountains
Horizon from the Blue Ridge Mountains
Horizon from the Blue Ridge Mountains

a tidbit of skyline drive (from south to north)

Sunday, October 27:  This morning we have an early breakfast buffet at the Hampton Inn in Staunton, where we spent the night; we’re on the road by 8 a.m.  Our goal is to drive around the little town of Staunton and then head north, getting on the Skyline Drive from Route 211 at the Thornton Gap Entrance Station.  Mike reasons that if we get an early start and we head from south to north, we won’t hit the crowds that come in droves at this time of year from northern Virginia.

First we drive around Staunton which is a very cute town indeed, but I don’t take many pictures because we want beat the hordes of visitors to the mountains. After all, it does seem to be close to the peak for leaf color, if not slightly past peak. The weather is fabulous: though it’s cloudy this morning, sunshine and a cool and breezy 63 degrees are promised.  That means everyone in the state of Virginia will be heading to Shenandoah National Park.

I love the old houses and hilly neighborhoods in the town, many of which are all decked out for Halloween.  Staunton is a significantly larger town than Lexington (where we had dinner last night) with its nearly 25,000 people, compared to Lexington’s nearly 7,000.  Staunton is known for being the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, and the home of Mary Baldwin College, historically a women’s college. The city is also home to the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind (Wikipedia: Staunton, Virginia).

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Parish in Staunton
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Parish in Staunton

We drive through a number of small towns on our way to the entrance to the park, and then we pay the $15/car entrance fee.  Luckily, from this entrance and at this time of morning, there is barely a line, so we get right on the Skyline Drive and head north.

According to the National Park Service, the Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park and is the only public road through the park. You can enter Shenandoah at four places: Front Royal near Rt. 66 and 340, Thornton Gap at Rt. 211 (where we enter), Swift Run Gap at Rt. 33, and Rockfish Gap at Rt. 64 and Rt. 250 (also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway). It takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the park on a clear day.

Entering Skyline Drive
Entering Skyline Drive

There are 75 overlooks that offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east. The park purposely leaves the roadsides unmowed so wildflowers put on a show all year long. In early spring you can see trillium peeking through the grass. June’s display of azaleas is spectacular, and cardinal-flower, black-eyed Susans and goldenrod keep the color coming right into fall.

Click on any of the images below for a full-sized slide show.

We come across a magical yellow and green forest, where people have pulled off along the side of the road and are wandering under the tall canopy of trees as if in a dream.  The forest is mesmerizing because of the very sparse undergrowth, the canopy of gold reaching to the heavens, and the sunlight streaming through the trees.

I’m so happy to be in the mountains for my birthday weekend.  After two years of being in Oman, where fall is basically nonexistent, this breathtaking foliage and amazing views are the best birthday gift of all. 🙂

Finally, as we leave the park at the northern Front Royal entrance, we see a long line of cars waiting to get into the park: the northern Virginia contingent.  Thank goodness we were already staying in the south and heading north so we were able to avoid these long lines!  A perfect ending to a perfect birthday. 🙂

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