June 19, 2014
Planning a holiday to Washington D.C? The city’s museums and monuments are among the best in the world, but there’s more to explore beyond politics, power and the Potomac. For our latest mini road trip, we’re hiring a car with our Flying Club partner Hertz and travelling from the US capital down through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia – a region rich in civil war history, natural beauty and pioneer spirit. They don’t call it “˜America’s Favourite Drive’ for nothing”¦
The first challenge is to get out of D.C and its snarled-up traffic. If you’re starting your road trip directly from Dulles International Airport, it’s a straightforward 60 minute drive along I-66 to Front Royal, the entry point for the Skyline Drive and access to the mountains. From downtown Washington, the route is the same but will add another 40-60 minutes driving time. I-66 has notorious gridlock issues during rush hour so try and time your departure for a very early start, or wait until later in the morning. Don’t worry though, as once you hit the mountains the driving is glorious.
An alternative route departing central D.C is to take the northern section of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and join I-66 further on. This scenic highway runs along the south bank of the Potomac River, where several designated overlooks – most notably Potomac Overlook Regional Park – provide fantastic views across the river back towards Georgetown in D.C.
About 70 miles west of D.C, the Virginian town of Front Royal is the northern gateway into Shenandoah National Park and attracts many visitors in its own right. Civil war buffs come to learn more about the 1862 Confederate victory at the Battle of Front Royal; adrenalin junkies flock here for the huge range of sporting and adventure activities in the Shenandoah Valley, and cave enthusiasts come for the subterranean rock formations at Skyline Caverns. But for now we’re heading south, onto the beautiful Skyline Drive.
The skinny, 105-mile Shenandoah National Park runs down the spine of the northern section of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which in themselves are part of the larger Appalachian range stretching from Maine to Georgia. Spanning the entire length of the park is the Skyline Drive, a National Scenic Byway which winds mostly along the ridge of the mountaintops, dotted with numerous trailheads and scenic overlooks along the way.
Make your first stop the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center – about 4.5 miles into the park – to pick up maps and info about ranger programmes. If you have limited time, you could drive the entire length of the park in around three hours if you made no further stops – and you would certainly get an eyeful of far-reaching views and a sense of remoteness. But to fully appreciate the park’s 60 odd mountains and some of its 500+ miles of hiking trails you really need to allow at least a full day.
Some of the park’s best shorter hikes include the 2.4 mile Compton Peak loop (milepost 10.4); the 1.4 mile walk to Dark Hollow Falls (milepost 50.7); the 3.6 mile Lewis Springs Fall Loop (milepost 51.2) and the 3.5 mile Stony Man trail (milepost 41.7) which leads to a spectacular westwards view towards the southern fork of the Shenandoah River; a perfect spot to watch the sun go down. You may even spot a few of Shenandoah’s less shy mammals – cottontail rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs and deer – along the way. And if you’re really lucky, one of Virginia’s estimated 5,000-6,000 American black bears might make an appearance.
If you have time, several worthwhile detours are possible from Shenandoah National Park, like the cathedral-esque Luray Caverns, eastern USA’s most visited cave system, ten miles beyond the park’s western entrance at Thornton Gap. But for now we’re heading further south along the Blue Ridge Mountains to the historic town of Staunton.
The birthplace of 28th president Woodrow Wilson, Staunton (pronounced Stan-ton) is a really handsome little town just 12 miles west of Shenandoah’s southern exit. Home to the Blackfriars Playhouse – an impressive replica of Shakespeare’s original indoor theatre – the town is well known as a centre for history and the arts, with other venues like the R.R Smith Center for History and Art and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library adding to its reputation.
Less high-brow, but equally absorbing, is the town’s well-preserved downtown and Wharf District, a compact and walkable few blocks of mainly Victorian architecture, full of restaurants, bars and the sort of genuinely interestingly stores that would pique the interest of even the staunchest shopping-shunners. We especially loved the modern-day general store Made; by the people for the people (15 East Beverly Street) and its live Americana band, and the rummage-worthy mixture of antiques and flea-market finds at Worthington Hardware (26 West Beverly Street).
The vast range of dining options in Staunton belies its small size. Two of the most highly-rated restaurants in town are the popular steak and seafood joint Depot Grille and the more upmarket Zynodoa, specialising in contemporary Southern cuisine. For a more casual bite, we’d also recommend the Clocktower Restaurant & Bar, the gourmet healthy breakfasts and juices at Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery and the classic American comfort food of Byer’s Street Bistro.
For all the above reasons, Staunton is the obvious choice for an overnight (or longer) break in your journey along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Downtown accommodation choices include the good value but not particularly inspiring Howard Johnson Express Inn and the rather more appealing Frederick House; an inn with 25 rooms across seven different beautifully-restored townhouses.
For an intimate and traditionally Virginian B&B experience, we loved the ten room Inn at Old Virginia; a pristine, white clapboard house a couple of miles outside of town set in its own rolling lawns and shaded by enormous elm trees. On the first floor of the main house are two very spacious and comfortable guest rooms with adjustable beds, sink-in armchairs, and tall sash windows overlooking the grounds. Downstairs is a wonderfully cosy library with ceiling beams and open fire, and a large conservatory which opens out onto a circular patio with tables and chairs. A further eight bedrooms are available in the renovated, light-filled barn behind the main house, which also has its own communal living room. Bear in mind that the rural location means downtown Staunton is not walkable from here, but what you lose in convenience you easily gain in peace and tranquility.
Continuing our journey south, we leave Staunton behind and head to the northern end of America’s Favourite Drive. In some ways a continuation of the Skyline Drive (they are effectively the same road), the Blue Ridge Parkway is in fact an independent entity, having been built and managed as a separate project to link the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina, some 469 miles to the south. As in Shenandoah, the route is punctuated with scenic overlooks and numerous opportunities to get out of the car and wander off into nature. This portion of the Parkway travels mostly through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, one of the largest chunks of public land in the eastern USA.
After 86 winding miles you’ll reach the Peaks of Otter, where a visitor centre, lodge, restaurant, educational centre, amphitheatre and manmade lake lie in the valley beneath the three mountains for which the recreation area is named. Arguably the most scenic stopping point along the Virginia section of the Parkway, the site provides a chilled-out opportunity to relax by the water, accompanied by squirrels and perhaps a few Appalachian musicians from the surrounding region. Six trails lead off into the wilderness including one rather strenuous hike to the top of the tallest peak, Sharp Top. Fortunately, for those less fit a seasonal bus also travels part way up the mountain, from where the views are sublime.
The final leg of our journey – from Peaks of Otter to Roanoke – is a particularly beautiful stretch of road, curving sinuously along the ridgeline with painterly views of ever-paler hills fading into the distance on both sides of the road. After another 50 miles or so our road trip reaches the city of Roanoke, marked by the famous neon Roanoke Star – the largest such illuminated star in the world – which sits atop Mill Mountain just south of the city centre, visible from 60 miles away.
Roanoke itself is one of the larger urban areas in western Virginia and a logical final destination for our mini road trip. The self-proclaimed “Capital of the Blue Ridge” has something of a pioneer town vibe about it – the clanking train lines criss-crossing downtown hint at the major impact the railroad industry had on the city’s growth – but a restored Market Square, thriving contemporary art scene and a proliferation of new craft beer breweries keep the city feeling fresh. Overnight accommodation options are plentiful; for a Virgin Atlantic Flying Club hotel partner, try the imposing Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke. As a DoubleTree Hilton property, you can earn miles with every stay.
Where to next? Our road trip ends in Roanoke, but if you want to circle back to D.C via a different route we suggest taking Highway 81 via the attractive red-brick college town of Lexington with a detour to soak in the thermal waters of Hot Springs. Alternatively, you could carry on driving south along the Blue Ridge Parkway – where roadside distractions include wineries, folk art and the excellent Blue Ridge Music Center at Galax – until you reach the very end of the road in North Carolina’s Cherokee Valley, on the border of Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
For more information on holidaying in Washington D.C and Virginia, visit Capital Region USA.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Washington D.C from London Heathrow, so book your flight today.
Header photo of Peaks of Otter © jfl1066