Perched high above the Shenandoah Valley, in America’s dreamy Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive offers impressive views at every bend, with plenty of outdoorsy activities along the way.
If there’s one thing Son2 is scared of it’s bears. So you can imagine that a little teasing went on this summer, when we visited Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, for the much-needed relaxing part of our US trip.
And, quite honestly, I could have moved into the mountain cabin we rented and embarked on a new career as a park ranger, wandering around the forests and hollows of the vast, almost whimsical park. According to local lore, Shenandoah was named for a Native American word meaning ‘Daughter of the Stars.’ Whether or not this is true, there’s no doubt it’s one of the prettiest places in the US.
Shenandoah National Park’s scenic roadway, Skyline Drive, follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, and it was this main artery that we intended to drive. Slowly. The speed limit is 35 mph, and people stick to it. Shaking off our UAE driving habits, we rolled down the windows, felt the breeze and experienced every curve and turn of the spectacular drive.
Along the route, there are 75 overlooks offering stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling hills of the Piedmont to the east. Each stop is a visual feast, and beckons you to park. Mountaintops have always appealed to me, and to see as far as the eye allows (not to mention witness rock climbers bravely hanging off the cliff-edges) is an awe-inspiring and humbling experience all at once.
The park staff deliberately leave the roadsides unmowed so wildflowers put on a show all year long. June’s display of azaleas is said to be spectacular, and cardinal flowers, black-eyed Susans and goldenrod keep the colour blooming right into autumn.
We visited in summer, when the ridge wears its mantle of deep greens. Birds were nesting, and we kept our eyes open for the resident wildlife, including deer, black bear, wild turkey and a host of other woodland animals that call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels (hence the low speed limit).
We were also told to look out for white-tailed deer fawns and bear cubs, which can be spotted in summer as they investigate their leafy environment. Although much to Son2’s relief, the bears stayed away.
Road to the top
Easily accessible from Washington DC, Skyline Drive was built by President Franklin Roosevelt’s three million-strong ‘Tree Army’ of unemployed young men during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and is today traversed by RVs, camping trailers, horse trailers and daytrippers, as well as holidaymakers such as ourselves looking for easy hiking trails to do with our boys (there are more than 500 miles of trails to choose from in total, catering to all standards).
If we’re lucky enough to visit again, I’d choose autumn, to see the brilliant fall leaves as Virginia’s mountains turn a kaleidoscope of colours and migratory birds fly southwards down the ridge. Or maybe I’d pick winter, to view the frozen sculptures created by tumbling waterfalls.
Other than a couple of short hikes, we unfortunately didn’t have time to partake in any fishing, horseback riding or canoeing, but we did spend a day at the town of Luray, famous for its world-class caverns. Containing amazing natural formations, such as the ‘Throne Room’, ‘Giant’s Hall’, and ‘Fried Eggs’, the caverns are breathtaking. After all those fabulous bird’s-eye views, I highly recommend going underground – not least because you hear the sound of a ‘Stalacpipe Organ’, hyped as the biggest musical instrument in the world. Beat that Dubai!