A few months ago my son Grant and I took a road trip to North Carolina by way of Virginia. As we traveled south on I-81, we decided to take a side trip through Shenandoah National Park, along the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. These mountains form a distinct highland rising to elevations above 4,000 feet. The crest of the range divides the Shenandoah River drainage basin, part of the Potomac River drainage, on the west side from the James and Rappahannock river drainage basins on the east side. One of the park’s main distinctions is it is home to the largest population of black bears in the country. Much to our disappointment, we did not see any on our drive.
The park is best known for Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs the length of the park along the ridge of the mountains and is the first National Park Service road east of the Mississippi River listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also designated as a National Scenic Byway. The Skyline drive parallels I-81, so it wasn’t that far of a side trip. If was definitely a bit slower but worth it. The drive added an additional two hours.
Our journey into the park started in Front Royal, Virginia. The entrance to the park and Skyline Drive heading south begin there. The entrance fee is $30 per car, good for seven days. This gives you an opportunity to take the northbound drive if you are making a return trip home within that timeframe. The drive was spectacular, with breathtaking views from both sides of the road. There are plenty of overlooks, too, as well as a few with dining and shopping offerings.
As we completed our southward drive, it transitioned into the Blue Ridge Parkway in Waynesboro, Virginia. We decided to continue on the parkway to Roanoke. We would then exit the parkway and continue to North Carolina. About an hour from Roanoke, we passed near the town of Natural Bridge. The main attraction is the Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-tall “natural bridge” that is a National Historic Landmark. It is a natural arch within a limestone gorge formed by Cedar Creek. The land, including the bridge, was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and according to legend, George Washington once surveyed the bridge. Once we paid the entrance fee of $6 per person, it was a 10-minute hike to see the Natural Bridge. It’s an impressive natural structure that makes one respect the power and beauty of nature. On one side of the arch was seating akin to an amphitheater. During certain evenings in the summer, a laser light show is projected on the limestone rocks. One interesting fact we learned about the area was it was along the old Philadelphia Wagon Trail. It was the main route pioneer settlers took from Philadelphia to settle the South. Today’s I-81 closely follows the route of the old Philadelphia Wagon Trail. I sat there envisioning the difficulties the settlers faced on their journey to a new life and what a nice respite it must have been to view this natural wonder.
Like all good things, it had to come to an end. We jumped back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and made our way to Roanoke. From there, we continued to our final destination in North Carolina. We seriously considered taking the same route home, but due to time constraints we took the faster but less exciting I-81. There will always be a “next time” to do the northbound scenic route. For those of you who have never made the drive, you need to make a first time. Once you do, you will always long for the next time.
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