Fall is the perfect time for Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a leaf-peepers’ paradise. The entire valley turns brilliant shades of crimson, yellow and orange, and local farms sell apples along with pumpkins and other fall foods from roadside stands.
We started our trip down the Shenandoah Valley in scenic Harrisonburg, Va. Part of the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” it’s a must-do for history buffs interested in Civil War battlefields and historic sites such as the Hardesty-Higgins House, used briefly as headquarters for U.S. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. It’s equally popular with bicyclists, thanks to multiple road and mountain-biking trails, and also a boon for foodies, who have dozens of restaurants to choose from in the state’s first designated culinary district. Add three craft breweries, a cider house and a pair of wineries to the victual delights.
We had a terrific lunch of pulled pork and cheese grits at Clementine Cafe on South Main Street, also an art gallery and live music venue (www.clementinecafe.com). Then it was on to Kline’s Dairy Bar (www.klinesdairybar.com) – an institution since 1943 – for orange creams before driving a half-hour south to Staunton.
It’s tough to imagine a small town more charming than Staunton (that’s “Stan-ton”). Extremely walkable, it’s postcard pretty. And talk about things to do: Its six-block main street bustles with antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops and quaint boutiques ripe for the picking.
It’s also a boon for theater lovers: The American Shakespeare Center houses the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater, the 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse. It’s next door to the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel, where, after checking in, we made a beeline to Chef Ian Boden’s much-lauded 26-seat restaurant, The Shack. We didn’t have time (or reservations) for the $45 prix-fixe menu, but the pimiento cheese and pork cracklins we noshed al fresco before clapping and hooting through a very lively production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Details: www.americanshakespearecenter.com.
You want to be up early Saturday morning for Staunton’s farmers market in the Wharf District. It’s lush with locally grown produce, organic honey and baked goods.
My husband talked me into visiting the Bruce A. Elder’s Antique and Classic Automobiles museum, located in a 1911 Ford dealership building. For $5, we got to see two floors of more than 50 cars, both for sale and display, including Richard Petty’s 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix Winston Cup Race car, a 1911 Chalmers Model 30 with wooden spoke wheels and the ’35 Packard convertible Arthur Miller drove Marilyn Monroe in. (Search for it at www.facebook.com.)
As payback, I insisted we do a craft beer tasting ($10 for four) at Redbeard Brewing (www.redbeardbrews.com), a small batch brewery on Lewis Street. I recommend the Black Rye IPA.
Overlooks and caverns
Staunton is just a few miles from the Rockfish Gap entrance to Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive, where the $20 per car entry buys you seven days on the 105-mile drive. If you plan on hiking, ask the park ranger at the gate for trail maps; they’re marked with elevation, distance and effort (easy to challenging). We did two hikes during our stay: the 2.2-mile loop to the Turk Mountain Overlook (harder than it looked) and the 1.6-mile Stony Man Trail partway along the Appalachian Trail to Stony Man Summit, the Shenandoah Valley’s second-highest peak at 4,010 feet (easier than we imagined).
Know that the 35 mph speed limit makes for slow driving. Sometimes infuriatingly so, as drivers pull on and off for the drive’s 75 overlooks. We thought the views of the rolling piedmont to the east were more spectacular than those of the Luray Valley to the west, but they’re all Instagram-worthy (even if you can’t immediately post them due to poor cell service).
If you’re overnighting, there’s only three choices (www.goshenandoah.com/lodging), and they’re all pretty rustic, if also charming: Lewis Mountain Cabins, Big Meadow Lodge (where you’ll find the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center) and Skyland Lodge, where we enjoyed views from the highest point on Skyline Drive from the comfort of our room. While the resort regional fare was very good, the restaurant can be extremely crowded on weekend evenings. Expect a wait. (It took almost an hour just to get a beer in the taproom.)
Luray Caverns (www.luraycaverns.com) – discovered in 1878 and named a National Natural Landmark in the early 1970s – is a pretty amazing 64-acre series of subterranean rooms that takes visitors more than a mile and 160 feet below the surface. Created millions of years ago by mineral-rich water dripping upon limestone, the icicle-like stalactites and pillar-like stalagmites grow about an inch every 100 years.
Despite a pretty hokey tour, there’s something magical about being deep underground, where the temperature is always 54 degrees, and still feeling dwarfed by nature; some of the cavern’s dimly lit rooms soar 10 stories.
Get to Luray Caverns early; by 11 a.m., the line already was snaking out the door, even for advance-ticket buyers. Be sure to rub the “eggs” on the way out – the only parts of the cavern that you are allowed to touch – for good luck.
After a quick exploration of Luray’s historic main street, we made one last stop before heading home: the Virginia Farm Market in Winchester (look for the big red barn). In addition to jug-your-own cider and a dozen or more varieties of locally grown apples to choose from (Winchester is known as the “Apple Capital of Virginia”), its pumpkin patch during the season boasts 15,000 pumpkins. Splurge on the apple cider doughnuts. You’ll eat at least two on your way to the parking lot.
Bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Alleghenies to the west, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley stretches some 200 miles from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Roanoke, Va. Skyline Drive is the only public road within Shenandoah National Park (www.nps.gov/shen). The park is open year-round pending weather, although most visitor facilities and services close down completely from late November to March.
The area also is renowned for its outdoor activities. Shenandoah National Park has more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. There’s also biking, fishing, horseback riding and 105-mile Skyline Drive. Details: visitskylinedrive.org or visitshenandoah.org.
For Virginia’s weekly fall foliage report: www.dof.virginia.gov/fall.