The Shenandoah Valley stretches for some 200 miles between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain ranges in the northwestern part of Virginia. The mountains and valleys make this region one of the most beautiful in the east. "Shenandoah" is believed to mean either "daughter of the stars" or "river of high mountains." Whatever the real meaning, the area's beauty is legendary, and best preserved in Shenandoah National Park, whose 195,000 acres has forests, mountains, rivers, and streams.
The Shenandoah National Park offers families miles of hiking trails, many which lead to waterfalls and sweeping views. With young children it's easy to sample the park's beauty by driving along scenic routes, taking quick stops for easy strolls to sweeping overlooks. The renown Skyline Drive snakes for 105-miles along the mountain crests of Shenandoah National Park, offering pastoral views of ridges and hollows. In the valley towns enjoy an array of country culture as down-home and dancing as apple blossom festivals, blue grass concerts, and square dances, and as unique as Staunton's living history farmsteads.
The town of Front Royal is the gateway to the Shenandoah National Park and to Skyline Drive. Stock up on brochures at the renovated train depot, Main Street Station, 414 E. Main Street, Front Royal, (540) 635-3185/(800) 338-2576, which houses the Visitor Center and Chamber of Commerce offices.
Near the Front Royal Entrance Station, the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, (Mile 4.6), is open daily in season from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 but closed from mid-November to March. A film orients you to the park's offerings, and some exhibits depict the park's flora and fauna. Be sure to pick up a copy of the Shenandoah Overlook, the park newspaper.
For more information on Shenandoah National Park, contact the Park Superintendent, Route 4, Box 348, Luray, VA 22835; (540) 999-3500 or on the web www.nps.gov/shen/
BEST SCENIC DRIVES and GREAT VIEWS
If you only have one day to spend in the park, officials recommend driving Skyline Drive, which runs for 105-miles along the mountain crests the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, where it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway, another of the U.S.A's famed drives, which leads from Virginia's Shenandoah National Park 470-miles to North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains.
Don't drive it all, however, tempting as an hour or two of slow, snaking, scenic roads goes a long way with kids, particularly young ones. But do drive some of this renown route, being sure to get out of your car to stroll a nature trail or two. Check the park brochures to see which of the short trails are nearby.
Skyline Drive can be accessed from all four park entrances. Once on this road use the mile markers on the west side of the drive to find your locale, as well as the nearest facilities, services, and areas of interest. The countdown for the mile markers starts at the Front Royal Entrance Station in the north--mile 4.6-- and ends at the Rockfish Gap Entrance Station in the south-- mile 105.
Other entrances to Skyline Drive are at Thornton Gap (mile 31.5, accessible via U.S. 211), and at Swift Running Gap (mile 65.7, accessible via U.S. 33). Remember, that Skyline Drive comes with many curves, a 35-mile speed limit as well as crowds and many cars in leaf-peeping season. As a result, plan ahead and allow more time than usual when calculating driving distances.
The park delights with more than fifty scenic overlooks, many located along Skyline Drive.
**Shenandoah Valley Overlook (mile 2.8), Children especially like Signal Knob, used by Confederate troops in the Civil War to convey semaphore signals. You see rises on Massanutten Mountain across the Shenandoah River.
**Range View Overlook (mile 17.1), boasts the best view in the northern region. At 2,800 feet this spot gifts you with the ridgetops of the Blue Ridge, Massanutten, and Allegheny mountains.
**Stony Man Overlook (mile 38.6), offers panoramas of cliffs and the surrounding valley.
**Thoroughfare Mountain Overlook (mile 40.5), at approximately 3600-feet this overlook is one of the highest, offering views of Old Rag Mountain.
BEST FAMILY HIKES
This is a great park to introduce your children to the joys of hiking. There are a variety of trails from easy to moderate to challenging. To encourage families to get out and hike the park rents explorer backpacks which include a field guide, binoculars, hand lenses and other items that turn your walk into an environmental treasure hunt.
All five of the self-guided nature trails (pick up brochures at the visitor centers) are easy enough for families with young kids.
**Fox Hollow nature trail (Mile 4.6), is a 1.2 mile circuit hike with a 310 feet elevation gain. Allow about 1 1/4 hours. This trail leads past ruins of old farm fences and a cemetery, one of the many remnants of the homesite of the mountaineers who lived here decades ago.
** The Story of the Forest Nature Trail (Mile 51), a 1.8 mile route with a 90 feet elevation gain, gives visitors a sense of the natural and cultural history of the forest and swamp. Along the way (allow about 1.5 hours), you may see deer, chipmunks and birds.
**Two family friendly hiking trails that also feature outstanding views are: Little Stony Man Cliffs and Story of the Forest. Little Stony Man Cliffs (Mile 39.1), a 0.9 mile, one-hour round-trip has a 300 feet elevation gain; and Blackrock Summit (Mile 84.8), a .4 miles round-trip, which takes about 20 minutes has a 75 feet elevation gain.
**Other recommended walking trails that take under an hour to two to cover are the Stony Man Nature Trail, Dark Hollow Falls, Deadening Nature Trail on the southern district of the park, and Fox Hollow Trail. The Big Meadows are across from the Visitor's Center has a nearby lodge which is a popular place to start and has many trails leading off into its wooded surroundings. For a map and more information on these trails, please contact the Shenandoah National Park.
** For the more advanced, try a segment of the Appalachian Trail, 95 miles of which cut through the park. Along the path you can rest awhile at one of the five backcountry shelters for day use. These come with a table, fireplace, pit toilet and water, and have enclosed cabins for overnighters.
Lodging in Shenandoah National Park -Park lodges don't charge for cribs or for children under 16 who share a room with parents. Reserve ahead for the following park lodgings by calling ARAMARK Inc. (800) 999-4714 or (540) 743-5108.
Skyland Lodge, (Mile 41.7), offers 186 modernized lodge rooms (the lodge was built in 1894) and rustic cabins; open from the end of March to early December. Facilities include a restaurant; craft shop; naturalist programs; horseback activities; playground; TVs in most rooms; and nightly entertainment.
Big Meadows Lodge, (Mile 51.3), the largest in the park offers great views of wildflowers and often of deer, particularly in the evening and early morning. Accommodations range from 21 rooms in the main lodge to 81 rustic cabins and multi-unit lodges with modern suites. Open from early May to the end of October, the facility has a playground; naturalist programs; horse-drawn wagon rides; and TVs in some rooms.
Lewis Mountain, (Mile 57.3) features cabins with private baths and heat; linens are provided. Cooking facilities include a fireplace, grills, and picnic table in the connecting outdoor area. A coin laundry is nearby. Open mid-May to October.
The Potomac Appalachian Club, 118 Park St. SE, Vienna, VA 22180; 703-242-0315, operates six trail cabins for hikers as well as publishes trail maps.
Campgrounds are available on a first-come basis, except for Big Meadows, which requires reservations from Memorial Day weekend until the end of October through the National Park Reservation Service (800) 365-CAMP. Big Meadows (Mile 51.3) has 40 tent sites and 167 trailer sites, flush toilets, and showers. Lewis Mountain, (Mile 57.6), has 16 tent sites and 16 trailer sites, flush toilets; showers; coin laundry and a general store. Loft Mountain, (Mile 79.5), has 54 tent sites and 167 trailer sites, flush toilets, and showers.
Lodging in Nearby Towns
Front Royal has the Woodward House on Manor Grade Bed and Breakfast at the intersection of routes 55 and 340; (540) 635-7010; (800) 635-7011, 1/4 mile north of Skyline Drive. This 3 room 5 suite property has limited accommodations--one suite -- for families. Well-behaved children of any age are welcome. The family suite is on the first floor and features a pull-out couch. All rooms have private bath and cable television.
Front Royal also has a host of motels, including the Super 8 Motel, junction of routes 55 and 340; (800) 800-8000.
--Candyce H. Stapen, author of Great Family Vacations South, second edition (Globe Pequot Press)