It was a bit risky given the current circumstances and panic over Covid-19, but we were determined to make a quick dash into Virginia and end this 2.5-year road trip as planned, albeit a few weeks early… visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park before turning westward and heading back to Washington to build our house on property north of Spokane.
We started in Lexington, Virginia, with the main goal of visiting Natural Bridge State Park, which is most definitely worth a visit… even when the visitor center is closed, as it was because of the so-called pandemic. The bridge itself, located in a gorge, is a Virginia and National Historic Landmark, and was once the roof of a cave or tunnel under which Cedar Creek (a tributary of the James River) runs. (In the ancient past, some theorize an ancient underground river ran through; later collapsing and becoming Cedar Creek.) Today, the natural bridge is a 215-foot-high, 90-foot wide arch consisting of horizontal limestone strata. Because it is located in a gorge, be forewarned that a large number of steps are required to reach this gorgeous arch (as well as get up back to the parking area).
There is also a lot of interesting history with the bridge, starting with the Native Americans. The Monocan tribe considered the bridge a sacred site. Later, George Washington, when he was a young surveyor, cataloged the site in the 1750s. Two decades later, Thomas Jefferson acquired the bridge and surrounding land. Natural Bridge became a major tourist attraction and is even mentioned in Herman Melville’s infamous novel, Moby Dick.
In 2013, the bridge and acres of surrounding land (including a hotel) were slated for sale in a public auction. The Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund (VCLF) purchased it all, but then found it could not make the loan payments on the property… and happily, the state stepped in to assist in the management… opening the state park in 2016. (The VCLF still owns the land, though once the loan is paid, the land will transfer to the state.) The park now encompasses 1,540 acres.
We hiked the entire Cedar Creek Trail — following the new protocol of keeping safe physical distancing, not that there were many people in the park. The roundtrip from the parking lot was 2.4 miles. After crossing under the natural bridge, hikers will be rewarded with a re-creation of a Monacan house and gardens, an old saltpeter cave that was used for the production of gun powder, and the 30-foot-tall Lace Falls (where the trail ends).
We then drove a short distance on Highway 11 to the Blue Ridge Trailhead. (You can also access the trail via connector trail from the hotel, across from the park’s visitor center). Officially, the trail is a 3.3-mile loop, but we clocked the hike at 4 miles… 4 miles of absolute splendor… budding forests and rolling meadows showcasing the area’s karst terrain, as well as vistas of surrounding mountains and the James River valley. We hiked the loop counterclockwise, which we recommend. About halfway around the loop, you’ll find the Red Knob Overlook (with vistas such as the lower left photo in the collage). The overlook even has a few benches to sit and contemplate nature’s beauty.
The next day we drove out along U.S. 60 to drive some of the Blue Ridge Parkway, an All-American Road that travels some 469 miles, connecting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park (continuing through the park as Skyline Drive). The road runs mainly along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a major mountain chain that is part of the Appalachian Mountains.
The National Park Service manages the parkway and much of the land along the roadway is owned by either the Park Service of the U.S. Forest Service. The roadway was started in the 1930s as the Appalachian Scenic Highway, but became the Blue Ridge Parkway by an act of Congress in 1936. Several New Deal organizations helped in the construction and replantings along its path — including men from four Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps.
The day we drove the Blue Ridge Parkway was raining and chilly, but we still had a blast exploring it — especially because we saw almost no other vehicles on the road, except a Park Ranger. We stopped at Otter Lake and hiked some of the Otter Creek Trail, including the dam “waterfall.” We then drove down to the James River Visitor Center (which was, of course, closed) so that we could hike down to the Battery Creek Lock from the Kanawha Canal. The never-completed canal (a project first proposed by George Washington) was meant to facilitate shipments of passengers and freight by water between the western counties of Virginia and the coast. (At its most complete, the canal had 90 locks between Richmond to Buchanan.) Ironically, the canal’s towpath became the roadbed for the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad.
We finished the day with a stop at the James River Foot Bridge in Snowden, located along U.S. 501, which has a trailhead and parking area for the Appalachian Trail (AT), one of a handful of National Scenic Trails. The bridge opened in 2000, changing the route of the AT from along a vehicular bridge. The James River Foot Bridge (named for Bill Foot, an AT enthusiast who spearheaded the conversion of the bridge into its present use) was built on the piers of a demolished CSX Railroad bridge that had been replaced with a longer trestle just east of the original bridge. The bridge is only 0.12 miles long, but warning signs that saying that access to the AT was closed until further notice because of the Covid-19 virus had us wary of going too far out along the bridge for better views of the river (especially with Ran wearing his bright orange rain jacket).
This short trek on the AT was our fourth or fifth hike along the AT during our travels… which is not hard to believe since the AT is a 2,200-mile trail that travels through 14 states up the east coast — from Georgia to Maine. We have been on the AT in Virginia, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Maine for sure.
The next day, we drove up Broadway, Virginia, for the chance to visit the last national park on this adventure: Shenandoah National Park… the 47th we have visited during the last 2.5 years. We stayed at a nice little KOA that was reaching out to stranded RVers who needed one night to stay on their travels to or from home. In just the few nights we stayed there, we saw numerous RVers from Pennsylvania and New York pull in for the night and leave early the next morning. Crazy days indeed.
We had some amazing weather during our visit, which was nice after all the rain in March — and even nicer to help lift our spirits as we had at least one panicky day wondering if we would be able to get home — and whether we would even be able to build our home this summer.
We drove north from Broadway to New Market and east through Luray, arriving at Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive at the Thorton Gap Entrance Station. Everything in the park is closed — except for Skyline Drive and some of the less popular trails.
Shenandoah National Park is long and narrow and Skyline Drive is the two-lane ridgeline road that runs for more than 100 miles through the park — and features a whopping 75 overlooks down into the Shenandoah Valley (to the west) and the Piedmont region (to the east). The northern terminus of Skyline Drive is with U.S. 340 near Fort Royal and the southern terminus is with U.S. 250 in Rockfish Gap (where the road continues south as the Blue Ridge Parkway).
The park, which was established in 1935, consists of just under 200,000 acres, with almost 40 percent of the total area — 79,579 acres — designated as wilderness. The park includes five major campgrounds and three lodges. Fun fact: Some of the rocks exposed in the park date back more than one billion years in age!
We drove north from the Thorton Gap Station for a bit before turning around at one of the overlooks and heading south and eventually exiting at U.S. 33 at Swift Run Gap… heading west down in Harrisburg (and a bit of natural food shopping) before returning to our KOA. We did about two-thirds of Skyline Drive and completely lost track of how many overlooks we stopped at along the way… just know, we stopped at MANY!
Several of the overlooks also have trail options, from short loops to longer trails… and even once again, the Appalachian Trail, which runs for 128 miles through the park.
We lost track of all the trails we hiked, but definitely want to mention Pass Mountain Loop and Little Stony Man Cliffs (where we once again hiked a section of the AT). Most of the trails include hiking some amount of elevation — so be prepared.
As you can see from the pictures, it was sunny, but chilly (and windy) during our visit — and parts of the park still had some snow on the ground!
Shenandoah also has numerous waterfalls, but because these are some of the most popular hikes in the park, the Park Service closed all these trails because of the hysteria over the Covid-19. Nature heals folks! Don’t believe it? Read Ran’s article: Want to Lead a Happier, Healthier Life? Get Out in Nature.
We ended our time in the Blue Ridge Mountains with two fun explorations, starting with a wonderful, short hike in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests: the Massanutten Story Book Trail, a .75-mile (RT) paved (accessible) trail that provides lots of excellent information via interpretative signs about the history and geology of Massanutten Mountain… before ending with a wonderful overlook of the Shenandoah Valley and the mountain peaks of Shenandoah National Park. And no surprise here, as we have witnessed this phenomenon countless times on this trip: millions of years ago, neither the mountains nor valleys existed; instead, the area was part of a shallow and warm inland sea swarming with life. The rocks of the mountain began as sand on the sea floor 400 million years ago. One of the highlights of this trip has definitely been these amazing geology lessons.
We then drove over to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War and New Market Battlefield. The museum was obviously closed in these virus days, but we were able to wander around the beautiful, 300-acre grassy fields, enjoying the old farmhouse, various cannons, and a beautiful overlook above the North Fork Shenandoah River. (Fun fact: the 55-mile Shenandoah River is a tributary of the Potomac River, with two forks approximately 100 miles long each.)
Our last task before leaving Virginia was to restock our freezer with more pastured, grassfed meat from a local rancher. We found Kelly Hilliard of Good Plains Farm from EatWild.com. As we have mentioned previously, whenever possible on this trip, we have purchased meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables from local farmers and ranchers — on the farm or at a farmers market.
Kelly is one of the next generation of young ranchers who want to raise cattle the right way. She raises a heritage breed called Devon; because she is still just getting started, each year she purchases young steers from another great ranch located in Remington, Virginia, called Lakota Ranch.
Here’s a snippet of the farm’s beliefs: “Our focus is on respecting the land and nature through holistic, pasture-based principles to ensure the health of our animals and soil. Our goal is to improve the overall land through biodiversity of plant and animal life, and mimicking the wild herds that once moved across the Great Plains in tight packs. To do this, we use rotational grazing methods to create nutrient-dense meat that is high quality and delicious.”
We loved supporting Kelly in her quest… and left with several cuts, including London Broil, Sirloin, Fillets, and ground beef. We also could not resist buying a bottle of her super-healthy elderberry syrup.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, we listened to a podcast featuring Dr. Mark Hyman, in which he discusses some of these principles of eating real food in his newest book: Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet—One Bite at a Time.
And so with our mission complete, now we just have the journey back to Washington State and our Hansen Hilltop Haven (H3). We are a little concerned, as even some private campgrounds have closed due to the health concerns, but we are hopeful and determined we will get back to our H3 by the end of the month.