Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park
(Sep. 1 – 3, 2007)

 

Labor Day seems to bring good luck to my travel plans: In 2005 I flew out to California to climb Mt. Whitney in perfect weather. In 2006 I flew up to Montana to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks with my son Philip – that was a bit of a last minute trip planned with the 5 day weather forecast at hand, so it was no accident that it was perfectly sunny and dry weather again. This year, we had made plans to fly up to Virginia and rent a motor­cycle to ride on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoh National Park. Unlike last year this trip had been planned months in advance. Airplane ticket, bike rental, lodge reservation – all had to be put in place long before the trip began. When Jill and I checked the 5-10 day weather forecast on the weekend prior, it looked very promising again: After days of rain there would be a cloudless sky with nice temperatures between 60 – 80F, a nice reprieve for people in Florida this time of the year.

 

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The alarm goes off at 4:15am! We need to be at the Fort Lauderdale airport at 5:45am for a 7:00am departure to Washington, D.C. From there we rent a small car to get to the location of the closest office of the Eagle Rider company. There we rent a Harley Davidson Electra Glide Classic: This will provide a comfortable ride – unlike the Harley ride to Key West in March this year, more like the day trip to the Italian Alps in July this year. We also need the bike to accommodate some luggage through its large bags and top case.

Our nonstop flight to Washington, DC takes exactly 2 hrs. Everything goes according to plan, in particular the fact that we don’t need to wait for the rental car, as Jill has a Hertz Gold membership and we just bypass the rather long line at the counter and go directly to the parking garage to pick up our little car.

After a 45 min drive to the Eagle Rider shop we park our one rental vehicle and load the 3 bags from the car onto the motorcylce.

Since everything has been paid online in advance we just sign a few papers, pick out some helmets and jackets, and soon we are on the I66 highway going West.

At about 11:45am we reach Front Royal, the Northern entrance portal to the Skyline Drive. We get off the highway, roll slowly through the little town, buy some water and soon thereafter enter the Shenandoah National Park. After a few miles of winding road going uphill into the cool air of the mountain ridge we reach the Visitor Center, where we stop and take in our first views from the ridge.

This also gives us the opportunity to explore the park history and study its maps in the Visitor Center.

What a contrast to South Florida this time of the year!

Soon we’re on the road again riding further South into the park, stopping frequently at the numerous overlooks.

 

We continue to drive for another 20 miles or so before reaching our first destination, a parking lot that marks the beginning of a nice hiking trail called “Little Devil Stairs”. This 3-4 hr trail descends from the ridge down to the valley, following a little creek down a somewhat rocky and steep ravine.

Parking the bike and locking everthing away is a bit more effort as with the car, since we need to change clothing and lock away everything in the cases, incl. helmets. Finally we’re beginning the hike – strange how you wake up in the morning in South Florida and then a few hours later you’re of Northern Virigina walking in the woods (as author Bill Bryson would say).

Lush green forest, mostly dry creek beds, lots of butterflies greet us on the way down.

There are several steps and big boulders we need to walk down, but there is a well maintained path so it’s not too difficult.

This will serve as our last hiking worth mentioning prior to our attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjiaro later in October this year. For a moment I imagine being in the forest climate zone on the huge mountain already…

After hiking to the bottom of the trail at the edge of the Shenandoah NP and then back up to the trailhead we reverse the process and get dressed for the Harley ride again. The next couple of miles are some of the finest you can imagine: Spectacular colors in the late afternoon sunshine, very clear visibility, comfortable temperature, hardly any traffic, instrumental music from the built-in Harman-Kardon stereo system on the Harley, and of course a curvy road of dreams. Look for yourself at the next overlook:

On both sides of the ridge we stop to enjoy the view.

The sun is getting low and we’re trying to reach the Skyland lodge before sunset. We check in at the office and decide to get inline for a dinner table. During the ½ hr wait I already move our bike to our room, where I lock up the Harley for the night.

From our room it’s about a 5 min walk up the hill to the dining room. There we have a spectacular view over the forest and down towards the Shenandoah valley.

We’re lucky in that a table right along the window frees up and so we’re treated to a spectacular sunset, with all shades of blue, yellow and purple filling the sky. I press the camera against the window and take a picture without flash, hoping that the long exposure won’t create a blurry picture:

When was the last time you had dinner with a view like this? Not to mention pretty good food for hungry hikers like us!

One more highlight worth mentioning is the extremely clear view of the night sky up here at an altitude of 3600ft. When I step outside on our balcony, I’m just amazed at how many stars we can see and how clear the structure of the milkyway is visible tonight. The rain of the last days must have helped to create exceptionally good visibility in very clear and now dry air. I haven’t seen this many stars since the days after hurricane Wilma in October 2005 or the trip to Yukon and Alaska back in 1999.

 

Sunday, September 2, 2007

We get up early for a good breakfast in the dining room again. The Skyland area near mile-marker 40 on a plateau up on the ridge has been established in the late 1800s, and by 1910 there was a number of cabins and some growing tourism industry established already.

Our plan for today is to drive the Skyline Drive all the way to its Southern end (total length = 105 miles), then ride back to an area for a ½ day hike and finally return to the Skyland lodge (see arrow).

But first, immediately after starting the ride, we need to wait for single horsepower travelers…

The lodge offers horseback excursions in the area near the lodge, following the Appalachian trail. We continue South on the Skyline Drive, stopping at various overlooks like this one.

These are some of the finest miles I’ve ever done on a motorcycle. The road offers spectacular views in many places, lots of turns and ups&downs, and to my surprise and delight, there is hardly any traffic! Just about the only slight complaint I have is that for a length of about 15 miles there is loose gravel on the road, which makes me drive extremely carefully and takes out the fun of the ride.

After several hours of riding we’re finally back to the parking lot with the selected trail-head, having stocked up on fresh water and some cereal bars from one of the few stores up here on the ridge.

We park our bike in the corner of the crowded parking lot and get ready for our hike.

This path will be a loop trail, first descending along a creek with two waterfalls down to a valley, then ascending along a different valley and finally returning to the start by following the Appalachian Trail roughly parallel to the road near the top of the ridge.

The trail reminds me of the rain-forest in New Zealand back in 1986 (sorry, no pictures from that trip – that was before digital cameras!). The forest features some very tall trees (oaks, poplars), some of which likely several hundred years old. Looking up to the canopy creates interesting patterns of light and shade:

Not much later we reach the 3rd waterfall along this trail on the way up the second leg. Well, not much water this time of the year:

After about 2.5 hrs we reach the top of the ridge again and connect with the famous Appalachian Trail (AT) as shown on these sign-posts.

Along the 3 mile return walk, there are only a few ups & downs, but plenty of nice views.

 

We get back to the trail head in under 4 hrs (time listed was 7 hrs). We now have another 40 mile drive ahead of us to get back to the Skyland lodge. Not that we mind the beautfiul views along the way…

We also pass along the Big Meadows area with another Visitor Center. We stop for a few pictures, but don’t take the time to explore the Visitor Center since we want to be back before sunset.

The rest of the day is pretty much a repeat of the previous evening, with dinner in the nice dining room and some walking around after dinner with the beautiful night sky. I could get used to this J

 

Monday, September 3, 2007

Labor Day. We wake up to a still mostly blue sky, but with some haze and high clouds. Well, for today we plan a short hike in the morning to the local hilltop, called Stony Man Trail. Its peak can actually be seen right from our cabin door:

We first get another good breakfast – yup, the blueberry pancakes again – and then leave on foot for a short morning hike. The Stone Man Trail follows the Appalachian Trail to its highest point in the Shenadoah NP (3837 ft); here, a quick 5 min detour brings us to the top of Stony Man, at 4011ft only 40 ft lower than the highest point in the NP. From there you have a beautiful view back down to the Skyland lodge plateau.

Jill predicts I would take another panorama shot, but my feel is that with the limited visibility compared to Saturday it wouldn’t come out all that great. Nevertheless, the view to the North reveals the Skyline Drive:

We return back down to the lodge; on the way we see two deer standing very close to the trail, hardly visible due to their camoflague fur color, only noticed due to the noise when they move. We have time to freshen up a bit and then pack our stuff and load it onto the bike prior to checking out around 11:00am. The drive passes through one tunnel near the Thornton Gap.

Complementing our initial plan, we decide on short notice to visit the Luray Caverns just a few miles outside the park in nearby Luray. This cave system is the 4th largest cavern in the United States. It’s Stalagtite and Stalagmite formations are extraordinarily beautiful. We park the bike in great midday heat and look forward to a constant, cool 54F (12C) temperature inside.

There is a well-marked trail (wheel-chair accessible) with many lights and guides narrating the various formations and history of the caverns. Here is an area they call the fish market:

The guide quips: “What happens when there is an Earth-Quake while we’re in the cave? Well, then you got a good deal! Where else can you get buried for just $19.-?” Or he continues, they got a great insurance, when the cave collapses, then they’ve got you covered J

Flat water creates interesting reflections against the ceiling.

Another fairly unique feature is an organ with pipes built out of the natural stalagtite formations. The piano looks like that of a church organ, except the pipes are quite different. For different scores they wired different stalagtites with the right size / frequencies. A recording is played and we all listen to the eerie sound coming from various corners of the cave. As they say: Real “rock” music from the “stones” (hope they’re not “rolling”).


After the caverns visit we ride back up to the ridge and follow it to its Northern end, pretty much backtracking Saturday’s ride down South. We stop one more time at the Visitor Center, where I need a short “power-nap” in the cooler air and the shade of the big oak trees.

From here we ride down to Front Royal and then hop on I66 to drive the 50 or so miles back to Washington. Around 3:00pm we’re back near the Dulles airport, refuel the bike and return it at the Eagle Riders shop. Here we switch back to our other rental vehicle.

As we have about 3 more hours of time before we need to return the car at the Washington Reagan airport, we decide to visit the nearby Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The museum is essentially a set of very large hangars full of airplanes.

It is situated at the end of one runway of the Washington Dulles airport. You can go up to the tower for a nice panoramic view from about 200ft.

It features a great collection of flying machines, including a SR-71A Blackbird, a Concorde, the Global Flyer in which Steve Fossett set his solo nonstop around the world record, and many more. One side hangar is dedicated to space travel and features among rockets and satellites the Enterprise Space Shuttle.

In the fore-ground, the Lockheed SR-71A, which on its last flight broke the coast-to-coast speed record from Los Angeles to Washington in 1hr 4 min (avg speed 3418 km/h).

Always worth a trip, but soon it is 5:30pm, the museum closes and we need to get back to catch our return flight from the Reagan airport at 8:00pm.

After returning our car and checking in we stroll the airport and have dinner. The Washington Monument and the Capitol are visible in the last evening light across the Potomac River. We look at the pictures on our digital camera and think back to the last 3 days. What a nice trip it was! Makes me wonder what’s in store for Labor Day 2008?

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