The sun had set long before we began our ascent into the Blue Ridge Mountains, winding along twisty blacktop that was sweetly smooth, beckoning the car to speed past the dense forest in which crouched countless wild animals, ready to pounce streetward – or so we imagined. Who knew what resided in the brush? Hungry black bears? Clusters of spry deer? We edged on into the darkness that was Skyline Drive, inching our way up toward the ridge of the mountainous chain, where Skyland Resort is modestly perched.
The resort, one of the two lodges located in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, is a comfortable establishment that offers cabin-like rooms, nestled among the trees and near plenty of hiking trails. Our group of six fit perfectly in a two-bedroom suite, connected by a relaxed living room that offered a stoic stone fireplace that proved more than suitable as a backdrop for the lengthy discussions that often accompany old friends and last well into the night.
Cluttered with stainless steel marshmallow spikes (for s’more preparation, of course,) bags of never-more-appropriate trail mix, bug repellant, sun screen and a vast array of digital cameras, our room was the ideal place for afternoon naps and late night lingering. Positioned in Stony Man Row – we were mere footsteps away from the resort’s classy restaurant and adjoining, laid-back Mountain Room, which served more casual dining fare in the evenings. The Taproom was also nearby – the nightly hot spot where live entertainers croon kitschy folk songs while guests sip slowly on mugs of moonshine.
Completely content with our lodging, my group of gals and I settled in for a full night’s rest before our first day of hiking began. When we awoke, we browsed through paperbacks that we’d picked up at the gift shop: “Hikes to Peaks & Vistas,” “Short Hikes,” and “Easy Hikes on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.” Little did we know that these $2.00 treasures would be our saving grace upon the trails – they’re definitely worth the meager price and full of useful information and tips.
We devoted our first day to Whiteoak Canyon – described as a “strenuous” hike to one of six falls within the canyon. The trail began easily enough, laid fairly flat and meandering through lush Appalachian forest. It twisted on, over wooden bridges and along a babbling creek that grew faster and wider until at 2.3 miles it dove over rocky cliffs and spilled down the landscape in a spectacular waterfall. The hike downward which concluded at the arrival of the fall was a slight challenge for my young, healthy physique; most tricky was the descent down often slippery rocks and a few areas where grabbing at deep rooted fern helped guide you and mammoth rock walls aided in balance. The hike back up the mountain, however, accounted for the “strenuous” difficulty level. What had seemed steep on the way down seemed ridiculously angled on the return hike. My best piece of advice is to wear sturdy hiking shoes – ones that will support your entire foot and ankle, with adequate gripping on the soles. Flimsy running shoes need not apply.
(Another point to note is Shenandoahn’s “Leave No Trace” program (www.lnt.org) which promotes the responsible outdoor recreation. This means packing toilet paper and plastic bags for trash in your backpack, as well as leaving what you find in the park – in the park. Park rangers make regular rounds of the grounds to watch for violations and hefty fines can be the result of careless hikers.)
Exhausted but enchanted by our decadent views, we prided ourselves in having finished the trail within five hours. At our next stop, we decided, we’d let someone else do the hard work. So we headed toward the Skyland Horse Stables, where 21 horses, including my brown beauty, Molly, waited to trek the trails.
The horses strode in line up and down the mountain trail for an hour. Our ride, one out of two available (the latter going further down the trail towards the falls,) cost $25 per person. Bo, our guide, prodded us and our equestrian companions down the path slowly, teaching us to lean back and hold the reigns tightly on declines, and lean forward while clutching the saddle on inclines. We clopped past a doe with two excitable fawns, a statuesque bunny that eyed us diligently and a rather off-beat chicken that flapped its wings and wobbled behind us for a while before giving up and leaving the horses to be.
Our second day led us to Stony Man Mountain Trail – a 1.6 mile round-trip hike that leads to Stony Man Overlook, where you can climb upon the legendary “man’s” forehead for sweeping views of the Shenandoah valley. This is the park’s second highest peak at 4,010 feet, where part of an ancient lava flow has metamorphosed into sleek greenstone. A moderately difficult hike, we passed serious trekkers and families alike, all in tow to glimpse the marvelous scenery. You’ll find this hike at mile 41.7 on Skyline Drive (note that all trails are marked by mile points along the road.)
Late in our afternoon, the skies opened up and washed away our plans for further hiking. What felt like a let down, however, led us on a twenty-minute drive down into Luray (pronounced Loo-ray,) a village at the base of the mountain that is home to eastern America’s largest and most popular caverns – aptly titled the Luray Caverns.
A hopping tourist stop, the caverns were discovered in 1878 by a tinsmith and local photographer. Follow the seventy steps down into the cavern and you’ll find yourself immersed in another world – full of dripping stalactites and rising stalagmites, both fusing together in places to create a breath-taking journey into Earth’s chambers. At certain points, the caverns reveal cathedral ceilings that reach ten stories in height and make way for the glossy white, coppery red and rust colored décor that reaches as far back as seven million years.
In the caverns, our memories of rain quickly dispelled. We took an hour-long tour with Charlie, who wove us in and out of each spectacle, explaining the mystery behind the formations. Our tour was a mile long in length, so by the time we were deposited above ground once again, the clouds had cleared and we headed into downtown Luray to treat ourselves to ice cream cones (a treat that had been triggered by the white, icy-looking mounds of calcium within the caverns) among the town’s antique shops and old-fashioned dime stores.
Although our trip was short – spanning the length of a long weekend – we left Shenandoah full of the sort of vigor that only an adventurous vacation can leave you with. While others opt for the easy recline of a lounge chaise on the beach, we trekked our own path – one that left us feeling proud, healthy and slightly mystified by nature’s bounty. And as if to bid us farewell on our journey down the mountain, a black bear cub emerged from the forest, nibbling at roadside berries. We slowed our car, cameras posed, and captured the moment as swiftly as we could, careful to bring home the memory – but not leave a trace.