Take a Hike, On or Off the Appalachian Trail

Posted October 5, 2009 at 4:19pm

A hike in the calm Blue Ridge Mountains inside Shenandoah National Park serves to take a little of the urban tension out of city dwellers. What makes it even more relaxing is that the mountains are an easy day trip from D.C.

Many tourists who come from the north enter the park at Front Royal, but it’s almost as direct to cut down through bucolic Virginia on Interstate 66 and enter the park through the Thornton Gap entrance, off U.S. Route 211. From that location, drivers can head either north or south along Skyline Drive, stopping on a whim to take in views looking east toward the Piedmont region or west toward the Shenandoah Valley. Both directions present magnificent vistas, and 75 different parking spots with scenic overlooks are scattered along the 105-mile-long drive.

The National Park Service offers a full list of downloadable hiking maps ranging from easy strolls of just a couple of miles to strenuous jaunts that can run up and down mountains and last as long as 10 hours or require overnight camping. If you’re the sort of casual hiker who mainly wants a nice walk in the woods, it’s fun to pick a parking spot at the head of a trail and follow the trail until you get tired or bored, then head back to the car. More goal-oriented (and vista-seeking) hikers could pick a destination — Devils Stairs midway between Thornton Gap and Front Royal is one favorite — and strike out for the view. Part of this hike takes one along the Appalachian Trail, so hikers can legitimately use this as an excuse for being out of touch with the rest of the world, at least for a few hours.

Another popular hike is the Old Rag trail, which is famous for the views it offers. The route’s popularity means the trail sometimes gets a bit crowded, but smart hikers aim to be at the trailhead early in the morning to beat the rush. A good section of the higher part of the trail requires what seasoned hikers call a “scramble,— meaning there’s more rock than dirt. Those scrambles, though, allow for spectacular views of the mountain range from various points along the trail.

Fall brings a line of cars moving slowly through Skyline Drive to take in the magnificent view of brilliant leaves. This year, the park service predicts the peak of autumn colors will hit around the second or third week of October. The park’s “Wilderness Weekend— is Oct. 17-18, and visitors can learn about the park’s history, the maintenance of the trails and other details. Keep in mind also that later on, winter snow and ice can sometimes close the entrances to the park.

The Shenandoah area is more than just hiking and leaf-peeping, however. Outside the park, the state’s small towns offer fine dining, vineyards, antiques and a chance to enjoy small-town life. The town of Front Royal, for instance, is hosting its 39th annual “Festival of Leaves— Saturday, with a parade, a Civil War encampment, apple-butter-making, and all sorts of music.

There are dozens of farm stands lining U.S. Route 211, and hungry travelers can grab a quick bite at Burgers & Things on that road, with soft ice cream, bison burgers and simple fare. The prices are inexpensive.

For a more substantial meal after a day of hiking, try Griffin Tavern and Restaurant in Flint Hill. The food is substantial, though not particularly fancy. In season, a salad made with heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, accompanied by grilled salmon, is a perfect choice.

Those willing to splurge (and who have the foresight to make reservations) should go directly to the Inn at Little Washington in the quaint town of Washington, named because as a boy of 17, our first president surveyed the land that created the village. The town is tiny — five blocks long, two blocks wide — and its chief draw is the Inn. There are other reasons to visit, however, especially the shop of cabinetmaker Peter Kramer, who will fashion a table, cabinet, cupboard or other wood furniture to order, as well as the R.H. Ballard shop, specializing in French tablecloths, candles, pillows, soaps and original art.

As for the town’s famed restaurant, it’s well worth a visit in any season. True, the fixed-price menu is shockingly expensive — dinner for one person on a Saturday night is $168 a person, without drinks, tax or tip — but many folks feel that the Inn’s ever-changing menu is worth the cost. Mustard-crusted rack of lamb, beef carpaccio, lobster with avocado and grapefruit — this is dining at its best.