The Lay of the Land in Shenandoah Valley: 11 Must-Visit Areas (and One Must-Do Activity in Each)
October 19, 2017
It will take your breath away. Bounded to the north by the Potomac River and to the south by the James River and nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley hit the jackpot for stunning views and pastoral landscapes. There’s a lot to see and do, from its wilderness areas to charming downtowns. When you visit, you can see why people have called this area home for centuries.
You also can see why this area is fast becoming a hotspot for outdoor enthusiasts. All those mountains and rivers add to plenty of biking, hiking, and kayaking opportunities across the region. An added bonus for those who visit is the growing sipping scene with a trail of its own: the Shenandoah Spirits Trail, which charts the wineries, craft breweries, cideries, and distilleries that are popping up across the Shenandoah Valley. Outdoor fun and a chance to sample local brews and vines? Sign us up.
It’s a big area to explore, but here are 11 can’t miss areas and activities to get you started on your Shenandoah Valley adventure.
1. Augusta County
Visit St. Mary’s Wilderness and escape into one of Virginia’s largest wilderness areas. An area “untrammeled by man,” its 17 miles of trails can be combined for easy treks or for overnight adventures. No matter which one you choose, make sure to plan a stop by St. Mary’s Falls, the wilderness area’s most popular spot. With a 25-foot drop for the falls, you’ll have waterworks aplenty to admire—and plenty of swimming holes for cooling down on a lazy summer day.
2. Clarke County
Looking for a stroll along open meadows? Or do you want some challenging climbs with your hike? You can get both fixes along the Appalachian Trail in Clarke County. Head to Sky Meadows State Park in the southern part of the county to explore rolling Piedmont hills and vast views. Head to the area by Raven Rocks in the northern part of the county and get a taste of the rollicking 13-mile stretch known as the “roller coaster” along the Appalachian Trail.
3. Lexington and Rockbridge County
It’s been called one of the world’s natural treasures, and you may be hard-pressed to disagree when you first lay eyes on the 215-foot tall Natural Bridge. It’s been amazing visitors for centuries: Thomas Jefferson owned it and the surrounding land, and built a log cabin that housed guests including John Marshall, James Monroe, and Martin Van Buren. It also was a major tourist attraction for vacationing Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, visitors can explore the six miles of trails that lead through the park.
4. Front Royal
Skyline Drive stretches for 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, and it all starts in Front Royal. Conceived back in the 1920s when a day trip by a car was still a novel idea, the twists and turns of Skyline Drive offer stunning views along nearly every mile. You’ll find something for everyone–whether you stop for a hike, stay for the night/week or just take a selfie at one of the many breathtaking overlooks.
Deemed as one of America’s Top 20 Mountain Bike Towns by National Geographic, Harrisonburg has earned its status as the Cycling Capital of the Shenandoah Valley. Options range from country trails to city streets to mountain bike routes—offering options to cyclists of all stripes. Looking to refresh after your ride? A trail of a different type awaits your exploration: Shenandoah’s Beerwerks Trail, with four breweries alone calling Harrisonburg home.
The Great Stalacpipe Organ, Saracen’s Tent, and Dream Lake are just a few of the sights you’ll see along the 1.5-mile trek through Luray Caverns, which has been astounding people since it was first discovered in 1878. A highlight is hearing the otherworldly sounds that come from the Great Stalacpipe Organ when it is gently tapped, but each step throughout the cavern yields another marvel.
Get some of the best views in the county and head to the High Knob Fire Lookout Tower—but be warned, you’ll earn those views. A three-mile, out-and-back hike will have you climbing to the tower, which was built by World War I veterans and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. From a height of more than 4,000 feet, you’ll be able to see for miles. Take in the view—from here, it’s all downhill back to your car.
8. Shenandoah County
Mountain bikers won’t be hard pressed to find a route to their liking in Shenandoah County. Experienced and looking for an epic outing? Check out the Virginia Mountain Biking Trail, which connects Virginia’s Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountain Ranges. Other routes for all ability levels can be found along Massanutten Mountain.
Located near the Blue Ridge Parkway, Staunton makes for an excellent spot to enjoy a good hike and good food. Head to Humpback Rocks for a tough but worthwhile hike that yields magnificent views of the valley to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the north. Head back to Staunton and explore the town’s historic Main Street with its funky art scene and independent shops. Want more to cap off your day? Don’t forget to check out one of the town’s local breweries.
Nestled at the top of the Shenandoah Valley, the town of Winchester is known for its mountain views and quaint downtown. Put a twist on the usual tourist adventure by testing your compass and GPS skills with either a Historical Tour of Winchester or the Winchester-Frederick County Civil War Geo-Trail—and see all that’s to discover.
Where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets the Skyline Drive, the Appalachian Trail emerges from the woods at a convenient access point called Rockfish Gap. As a designated Appalachian Trail Community, Waynesboro embraces hikers coming off the Trail as well as hikers seeking to set foot on it. Don’t forget to cap your adventure with a craft beer at one of three nearby breweries on the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail.
Originally written by RootsRated for Staunton.
Featured image provided by Kevin Kelley
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