A drive through the Shenandoah National Park in the US is a visual treat, says Sudipta Bhattacharjee
It’s an area that combines the most exquisite natural beauty and dollops of American history. The lush, farm-dotted Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, girdled by the Blue Ridge and Massanutten mountain ranges, offers one of the most picturesque vistas in the US.
My friend Margaret and I started out from Harrisonburg and headed to the 105-mile-long highway that’s better known as Skyline Drive atop Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The road cuts along the crest through the Shenandoah National Park. It was May and spring was definitely in the air, with tulips, daffodils, lilac and laurel blooming in profusion.
The drive has prominent mileposts with 75 overlooks, or viewpoints, and the chances of sighting wildlife like black bear, deer and several avian species are high.
As we climbed higher, there were signposts marking hiking trails with quaint names like South River Falls, Hawksbill Loop or Bear Den Mountain. Wooden benches and tables dotted the picnic areas and there were log cabins where campers could halt.
US president Franklin D. Roosevelt was the person responsible for creating the Shenandoah National Park and in 1936 he dedicated the park to the nation at a spot called Big Meadows, roughly the midpoint of Skyline Drive. The nearby Big Meadows resort was built three years later using local stone and wood.
One prominent feature at Big Meadows is a life-size sculpture of a ranger who was part of the 10,000-strong civilian conservation corps between 1933 and 1942, building the road and creating the fabric of the national park.
After an hour’s drive we left our car and headed down a hiking trail marked by white silverwood blossoms. Campers in the region require permits, but hikers are free to walk down any path provided their pets are on a leash. Rows of bicycles were neatly parked at the entrance to the hiking routes. But there’s a lot of bracken and other impediments as well!
In a week of weather swings, we were just counting our blessings about the clear skies when grey clouds began to gather and the mercury dipped perceptibly. In a few minutes we came across a herd of deer in a clearing — but that, sadly, our only brush with wildlife on this idyllic ride.
We headed to the well-known Skyland Resort for lunch. The resort is situated at 3,680ft, the highest point in the region. It was teeming with tourists, but we luckily got a table by the large glass-fronted window that looks out on the valley. Skyland’s stables offer guided horseback rides, and tourists can also try their hand at activities like rock climbing and rappelling here.
It was with some reluctance that we left the cosy resort. But we stopped at more spectacular viewpoints like Timber Hollow Overlook (elevation 3,360ft) and Old Rag View Overlook (3,585ft) to savour the mountain ranges and the unending valley stretching to the horizon.
At its southern end, Skyline Drive joins the Blue Ridge Parkway (it’s all of 469 miles to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). It also overlaps with the Appalachian Trail from Washington D.C. (80 miles east down Interstate 66 West). We descended to Swift Run Gap and into the bustle of city traffic.
But a visit to the Shenandoah Valley would be incomplete without a tryst with the river that lends it its name. To the west of Skyline Drive is Route 42, meandering with the river through the valley. Along the way is the old but arresting Plains Mill, a historic grist mill built in 1847 on the north fork of the Shenandoah River, a tributary of the mighty Potomac.
It was only in the fitness of things that when I was leaving the valley and heading back to Washington D.C. I got an opportunity to cross the Shenandoah again. Not for nothing has this river inspired singers down the years. Every time we were about to cross the meandering waters, my friend Ray’s baritone would ring out with the great American ballad: O Shenandoah, I long to hear you...farewell my dear, I’m bound to leave you. It was my cue to commune with the river and bid it adieu.
- How to get there: Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways fly from Calcutta to Washington D.C. via Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, respectively. The Front Royal entry point to Skyline Drive is about 80 miles from Washington D.C. From Harrisonburg, Virginia, it’s 21 miles to the Swift Run Gap entry point.
- Where to stay: Big Meadows Resort and Skyland Resort.
- What to do: Hiking, cycling, rock climbing, rapelling, horse-riding.