A road trip through the heart of one of Virginia's iconic national parks.
I grew up a few miles from Skyline Drive and have traversed its twisting turns in everything from a child seat on my dad's bicycle to my first, ready-for-college car. Now I'm marking a new milestone: introducing my 6-year-old daughter, Heidi, to its many wonders.
More than a million visitors a year drive on the winding, 105-mile route along the ridgeline of Shenandoah National Park, enjoying dramatic views from frequent scenic overlooks. But the real treasures are off road -- in the tumbling streams, gushing waterfalls, overgrown ruins of old Appalachian home sites, challenging rock scrambles, and diverse wildlife. With that in mind, we set our goal: to ditch the car as often as possible and get out there.
Entering the park from Front Royal (the northern entrance), we make our first stop at Hogback Overlook, near milepost 20, where we spread a blanket on the grass and munch on sandwiches and salad while taking in the view of blue mountains undulating westward. Heidi is enthralled with the scene -- and even more so with our post-lunch drive through Marys Rock Tunnel, at milepost 32, an engineering wonder when it was built in 1932.
"Mommy, honk the horn!" she asks. And I do, the sound reverberating off the rock walls. A little while later, we pause to snap pictures of a yearling black bear turning over rocks alongside the road. "Aw, he's so cute," cries Heidi, before he scampers up the mountain and into the woods.
Our first hike is one I've picked for its awe-inspiring views and relatively gentle incline -- the 1.6-mile circuit Stony Man Trail, after milepost 41. Rising gently through fern-blanketed forest, this is an ideal hike for children, though after we've gone about a quarter mile, Heidi frets over the effort, and soon I am holding her hand and tugging her along. But when we reach the stone-faced summit, she runs with glee to climb on the rocks, exclaiming, "This is the most beautiful view I have ever seen!" Colorful mountains extend in all directions as we gaze down on Skyline Drive far below us.
Heidi begs not to leave the vista, but I finally lure her away with the promise of a cozy room at nearby Skyland Resort. Started as a mountain retreat by naturalist George Freeman Pollock Jr. in 1888, well before Shenandoah National Park was created, the resort now includes a glass-walled restaurant with sweeping (if sometimes hazy) views of the Shenandoah Valley, as well as traditional lodges and cabins (rooms start at $148 per night; goshenandoah.com/skyland-resort). From the balcony of our lodge room, we watch a couple of white-tailed deer grazing, unconcerned, only feet away. As sunset draws near, we walk to the dining room at the main lodge. On the menu are such down-home favorites as turkey-and-stuffing dinners and the classic kids' meal of homemade macaroni-and-cheese.
The next morning, we take a one-hour horseback ride from Skyland Stables (rides start at $50 per person; goshenandoah.com/horse-back-riding). It's not Heidi's first time riding, but it is her first time guiding a horse herself (an old and gentle mare) instead of being led on a pony, and she relishes her independence.
Afterward, picnic lunches in our packs, we hit the Drive for an afternoon hike to Rose River Falls. We park by the Fishers Gap Overlook (milepost 49) and take a gradually descending trail through the woods. Even though the Rose River Loop is a 4-mile circuit, it's a good pick for children because the inclines aren't terribly steep, and the trail runs streamside most of the way, allowing for stone skipping and plenty of photo ops. We hop over rocks to a picnic spot on a boulder in the center of the stream. The 67-foot waterfall drops into a deep pool that's perfect for a chilly swim in summer, though we skip that on this just-barely-warm day.
Our hike leaves us pleasantly tired and ready to explore Big Meadows, one of the most popular stops on Skyline Drive, just a few miles south, at milepost 51. Here, the National Park Service has re-created a wide mountain meadow by burning off the brush every few years. Boasting a changing array of wildflowers and berries, the area is also a haven for wildlife at dawn and dusk, mostly white-tailed deer by the dozens. Heidi and I encounter another of Big Meadows' common creatures -- a skunk -- while strolling deer paths through the undergrowth, and it's all I can do to get my wiggly little one to stand still and stay quiet until the critter has passed by.
After our full day of activity, we're ready for a hearty dinner at Big Meadows Lodge, where we take in the view from the wood-paneled dining room. The lodge is known for its sumptuous blackberry confections, and Heidi's jaw drops when our waiter brings the dessert we're sharing, a "slice" of its signature Blackberry Ice Cream Pie. Actually, it's a heaping mound of blackberry ice cream in a graham cracker crust, smothered in whipped cream and dribbled with blackberry syrup.
"Mommy, can I eat it all?" she asks, as our waiter plunks down two forks. "No way!" I reply, digging in with a big grin. Believe it or not, even with the help of a sugar-deprived 6-year-old, I can't finish this gargantuan dessert.
That night we happily hit the hay in a rustic two-room cabin a short walk from the lodge (rooms start at $152 per night; goshenandoah.com/big-meadows-lodge).
We sleep in the next morning and have a filling breakfast at the lodge: Virginia ham Monte Cristo on egg-battered bread for me and cheesy grits for Heidi. Then we head to the Byrd Visitor Center to sign up for the van to Rapidan Camp. Before the establishment of Shenandoah National Park in 1935, President Herbert Hoover found respite from Washington's heat at this shady retreat, located between two prongs feeding the Rapidan River, one of Virginia's premier trout fishing streams. At the camp, a park ranger gives us an hour-long interpretive tour, describing how the President and First Lady spent their leisure hours here.
Our drive on this last day is a relaxing one, along miles of road edged with black-eyed Susans and blue mountain overlooks. We stop for a stroll to Blackrock Summit (just past milepost 85) -- a 1-mile round-trip through a tunnel of mountain laurel to a startling open space covered in giant, split boulders. We say good-bye to Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap, its southern terminus, where it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We didn't have time on this trip for two other hikes I love to share with kids: Bearfence Mountain (milepost 56), which offers a rock scramble and 360-degree views, and South River Falls (milepost 63), where a rocky pool at the base of the falls invites wading. But that's OK. Something tells me we'll be back again.
If You Go: In-season vehicle entrance to Shenandoah National Park costs $15 for a 7-day pass; nps.gov/shen.
Deborah Huso and her daughter, Heidi, live in Blue Grass, Virginia.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.