Cruising Along Skyline Drive
By Bob Tagert
“It is a wonder way over which the tourist will ride comfortably in his car while he is stirred by a view as exhilarating as the aviator may see from the plane.” U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd (Virginia) 1939
In 1924 the search for a national park site in the east brought the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Their job was to find a site accessible to the 49 million Americans living in eastern cities including Washington, D.C.
The committee recommended the site that is today visited by millions of Americans each year…Shenandoah National Park. As part of that recommendation the committee, recognizing the proliferation of the automobile, suggested that he “greatest single feature” of the proposed park should be a ‘skyline’ drive along the mountain top, following a continuous ridge and looking down westerly on the Shenandoah Valley…and also commanding a view of the Piedmont Plain stretching easterly to the Washington Monument.”
Construction of such a roadway was a pioneering work of landscape architecture and engineering, as well as a famous work-relief project. Work was begun before the park was even established using emergency employment relief funds, and continued by the boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who spent thousands of hours building beautiful rock walls and landscaping sweeping overlooks to make Skyline Drive the experience it has been for over 75 years.
It was on September 15, 1934, that the first section of the Drive, 34 miles long, was opened for travel. This made available an extensive region of the Blue Ridge in which was located the vast central portion of the proposed Shenandoah National Park extending from Thornton Gap, where U.S. Highway 211 crosses the ridge, to Swift Run Gap, there the historic Spotswood trail, U.S. No. 33, winds over the mountains. Within a year more than one-half million visitors were attracted to this portion of the park.
Recognizing that additional facilities soon would be necessary and responding to the public’s desire for enjoyment of more of the famed Blue Ridge, the Service bent every effort to finish the second link of the Drive from Front Royal to Thornton Gap by the fall of 1939. That northern portion was opened officially October 1st and for the next three weeks the travel was enormous on the 32-mile stretch.
It was on the aforementioned stretch that we decided to take our annual pre-leaf peeping Road Trip this year. We are very familiar with the drive and its surroundings since we deliver the Old Town Crier to this area each month and sometimes take a side trip on portions of it. The day we picked to focus on just the drive was a beautiful 72 degrees with blue skies.
We entered the Drive at Front Royal where there were a number of vehicles in both lines being admitted to the park. There is a fee (depends on the vehicle for price) to enter the park. I am lucky as I purchased a senior citizen pass many years ago for a mere $25 that allows any vehicle I am in and all occupants in free. This applies to ALL National Parks.
It was 72 degrees as we began our ascent on the mountains. After taking in the first few views at the overlooks we were soon farther up the mountain and in 68 degree temps. This is something to remember if you come in the cooler months…expect a temperature drop from 4 to 8 degrees. The shortest elevation is at the entrance at 561 feet at the entrance and the highest is Hawksbill at 4,050 feet. The area is resplendent with verdant forest and species such as white-tailed deer, black bear and red fox, not to mention the many smaller animals that scurry through and across the road. Because of the wildlife it is always wise to maintain the posted 35 MPH speed limit…after all, didn’t you come to see the scenery?
Shortly after entering the Park, you will come to a visitor’s center. This is a good stop to catch the view and learn more about the Drive and the overlooks. It is a good orientation point to begin your trip.
If you get a nice clear day on your visit, the views will be spectacular. You can see the Shenandoah River snaking its way through the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont region of Virginia to the east. Crisp fall days bring brilliant leaf colors, usually peaking between mid to late October. During this time when the “leaf peepers” arrive, plan to go during the week and skip the weekends. With the coming of winter you will find more clear days and leaf-bare trees and this is the time for distant views and tumbling waterfalls.
As we exited the park at Thornton Gap we could either head west to Luray or east to Sperryville to find a beverage and bite to eat. The town of Luray has much to offer including everything from brewery and distillery experiences to white table cloth dining spots with the requisite fast food joints included. We chose to go east to Sperryville – one of my favorite little towns with big dreams. We made it to Copper Fox Distillery an hour before closing (6pm) and found two comfortable chairs on the back porch, ordered a Single Malt Whiskey and a Peach smoked Rye…delicious. Doesn’t hurt that we also had a nice view of the Thorton easing its way over the rocks beyond the porch and got to see our favorite distillery cats – Midnight and Steve. After a second drink and a nice cigar, we headed a few blocks to The Black Twig Restaurant. The Black Twig is relatively new to the area and they are doing a great job. Very good food and a reasonable price. They even have their own nine-hole golf course that visitors can play. Forgot your clubs? They have some for you.
If you are looking for accommodations for overnight, check out the Mimslyn Inn in Luray, Shadow Mountain Escape (couples only) at the foot of the mountain. On the other end, check out the Rappahannock Getaways ad in this issue for the Cottage in Sperryville, the Loft in Little Washington or a whole house at Revel Farm in Sperryville.
Take a Road Trip this fall…the Mountains are calling.