One the best drives in America is the Skyline Drive, a 109 mile scenic road that runs the entire length of the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I recently spent the day driving through the twists and curves of this great road, enjoying a picnic on a stone wall, and catching glimpses of wildlife.
In addition to those who drive the road, there are visitors on bikes, motorcycles and even horses who take hours to travel small sections of the drive, stopping frequently at the overlooks which give startlingly beautiful views of the great Shenandoah Valley below.
On clear days the vista seems to stretch for hundreds of miles into West Virginia and beyond. This valley was once the jumping off point for thousands of pioneers who left the big cities to move “out West” where land was plenty and free to those brave enough to claim it. Dubbed the “Wilderness Road,” many names from history passed through or lived in this area–Daniel Boone, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Andrew Jackson. It was also the site of 14 key Civil War battles, with an estimated 4000 soldiers from both sides of the conflict dying in this valley.
Today this area is a hub of activity. There are campgrounds and lodges available for those who want to stay, and areas for fishing, rafting, kayaking. The easiest entry to the Drive is outside of Front Royal, VA where an excellent Visitor’s Center can provide area maps and suggestions on great activities for all energy levels.
One of my favorite parts of the driving trip is the beginning section of the drive, as there is a gradual climb up to the road which rides along the top of the peaks.
Valley views are hidden behind walls of the forest, but there is a sense of anticipation building as you turn each curve.
As the car slowly climbed upward I played a CD of Andrea Bocelli singing Moon River, and smiled at the thought of being a drifter, out to see the world–and wondering what I would see around the each corner.
Begun as a WPA project during the Great Depression, the road was difficult and dangerous to build. Workers cut into the knolls and peaks of the region, creating a road wide enough for two cars, and accommodating 75 overlooks. The goal was to build a stable road in a treacherous environment that did not alter the landscape.
I learned from the excellent educational signs at each overlook that the road was actually designed to provide a lyrical experience for a visitor. Planning the drive was not as simple as building a roadway across the backbone of the mountains. Landscape architects studied the proposed road design and plotted out how it would look from the scenic lookouts and summits.
Their goal was not to create the most expedient or even the most economical road–instead the goal was to provide a visual and emotional tone for the beauty of the scenery.
As I swept from side to side with the curves of the road, my car seemed to sway with the music reaching a crescendo just as the view opened to the vista below. It was almost a dance between my car and road, with the wistful words of the song providing a backdrop.
The road was considered an engineering marvel when it was finished in 1939. In the words of then Virginia Senator Harry F Byrd, “it is a wonderway 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.”
Despite the vastness of the views, some of the best experiences on Skyline Drive are small. My favorite experience from this last trip was when I rounded one bend of the road to find a White-tailed deer with her faun, munching on the greenery without a concern in the world.
If you have more time to spend in the area, be sure to visit Luray Caverns, just ten minutes away. The caverns are huge, with cathedral ceilings over ten stories high. The highlight of a tour is the “world’s largest musical instrument,” an organ which creates music from stalactite formations. Also in the area: Rope Adventure Park and Toy Town Junction, a massive collection of over 30 toy trains.