Blue Mountains, Views & Cool(ish) Weather – Shenandoah Valley, VA
The landscape sure has changed. Gone are the saw palmettos and Spanish moss, replaced by ferns and hardwood trees, their leaves shimmering green in the spring sunshine. Gone is that intense symphony of southern forest sounds, replaced by birds tweeting harmoniously and the soft crunch of pine needles under foot. It’s cool too, in fact almost chilly! For the first time in 8 months I’m wearing a fleece and I’m reveling in the novelty of it and that fine, sharp, crisp air.
This weather reminds me of our many summers on the PNW coast and for a moment it makes me nostalgic, but I’m also seriously digging all these new surroundings. Deep blue lakes with banks of lush grass and the heavy scent of jasmine in the air. Forest trails with actual, serious hills (!!) that serve as a harsh reminder as to how badly out of shape I am. I’d blame it on the altitude if I could, but at ~2,500 feet we’re not exactly gasping for oxygen here. In reality it’s simply the last 5 months of flat-land living down in FL that have turned my thighs to mush and it’s going to take a while to get my mountain legs back.
And the views….OMG views!
The thing that caught my heart out West, those 25 years or so when I first landed in America was the wild, open expansive views. I’d never seen anything so big and so MUCH of it too. The unending vastness expanded my brain, filling it with a sense of peace and connectivity that I’d only rarely encountered up to that point. Needless to say I was immediately hooked. I started hiking with a passion back then, mostly solo (although I did occasionally go with friends), followed by years of backpacking all in search of more of those views, more of that vast, all-encompassing peace.
As much as I love the FL beaches and southern vibe I’d sorely missed that fix. Months of flatness will do that to you, and my brain seems to shrink in the process too (no blond jokes now…). So when we crested that first hill in VA and saw those those mountains my mind stretched instantaneously, reaching out to suck in that incredible view. It was like watering an arid desert, and all those feel-good endorphins that had been waiting for this very moment burst open in response.
We’re back in the mountains folks, and I am just loving this change!!
The Lure Of Shenandoah Valley
When we planned our visit to Virginia (back in Jan) our primary goal was to drive and explore the area of Shenandoah Valley. This was a new-to-us State so we’d never been, but the thought of those mountains and that wide, green valley seemed so very alluring and the more we read up about it, the more we wanted to go.
Nick-named the “big valley”, Shenandoah Valley stretches stretches 200 miles across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains along the Western border of Virginia. It’s a lush and fertile valley that served as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” back in the day. These days it still supports a thriving farming community as well as an extensive (and rapidly expanding) wine & beer culture, several major Universities, lots of historic towns & museums and some interesting caverns. Plus the mountains that rise from its base boast hundreds of miles of scenic drives and thousands of hiking trails, not to mention an enormous (and dog-friendly, believe it or not!!) National Park.
With so much to see and do we wanted SOLID time in this area, so we picked 3 different spots to stay spanning just around 3 weeks. As it turned out much of our time was rained out, but the location of the stops was perfect and the good days we got here were VERY good days. Aaaand it was cool, most of the time anyway. We managed almost 2 weeks of near-perfect mountain cool (during which I wrote the intro for this post), before the heat finally caught up to us again. If this is any indication of what the rest of the year is going to be like, it’s going to be a HOT summer and it looks like the weather experts agree.
But I digress as usual. Let me show you what we’ve been up to here.
Vegging At Claytor Lake State Park
We started our stay in Virginia by stopping at Claytor Lake State Park**. It was our first refreshing taste of cool weather and our very first Virginia State Park, and if I may be permitted to boast a tad -> we totally scored! Despite the official 35-foot limit, “the beast” fit more than comfortably into D Loop and we managed to snag perhaps one of the nicest (and most private) sites in the entire campground.
This was just a short staging stop so we didn’t really explore around, but we enjoyed several days of near-perfect weather hanging at the gorgeous park and walking the extensive (and rather fabulous) trail system. You might call it pre-training for the bigger/steeper trails we were about to do next, but it was the perfect re-introduction to the mountains…and our butt muscles (I’d forgotten what those felt like). All the paws were enjoying their new back yard too, energized by the cool weather and the freedom that comes with so much green, outdoor space.
**P.S. I’ve got a full written review of this campground is coming soon on the blog, but if you want a pre-view we’ve already published our video HERE. We are publishing campground videos quite regularly now and they usually manage to get completed before I write about them, so if that’s your thing be sure to subscribe to our Channel for early views.
Exploring The Blue Ridge Parkway At Buena Vista
After our lounge-stop at Claytor Lake we were ready to hit the sights when we got to Buena Vista. Our target was a first-come-first-serve city campground (Glen Maury – full review coming) recommended by a blog reader. It was not much more than a big grassy field near town, but it was spacious and the location was perfect. Just 10 mins drive and we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway, zooming along the ridge of the mountains from one overlook to the other.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a rather famous road that stretches 469 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in NC to the Shenandoah National Park in VA. We’ve been on it once before, but that was in the fall of 2010 in NC. We saw the leaves change that year, which was a rather stunning event.
You see the Blue Ridge Mountains (Cherokee name Sa-koh-na-gas, meaning blue) are OLD mountains, in fact they’re some of the oldest in the entire world. They were created by the uplifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates ~1.1 billion to 250 million years ago, so they’ve become soft and rounded by literally millions of years of erosion. In addition they are thickly forested with an incredible biodiversity (over 100 native species) of trees. This is what makes the changing of the leaves so spectacular here (so many different trees = so many different colors) and it’s also what contributes to the mountains unique blue color too. The trees create volatile hydrocarbons, in particular isoprene which interacts with moisture particles in the air (and air pollution, at times) to create a distinctive blue haze.
But their age and blue haze also hide many of those incredible views.
The forest is so thick here that open areas are rare, so the overlooks are few and somewhat far between. And the haze and fog is often so intense that you can’t see anything at all! It can be a frustrating experience for a photographer who is used to those easy, open Western views. You’ve got to time your outings just right, throw in a bit of luck and hope the sky stays clear enough to get a glimpse of those expansive ranges.
But when you do, it is oh-so-worth-it!
We hit Buena Vista on a Tuesday and the weather forecast showed it was likely going to be the only clear day for the entire week we were there. So as soon as we arrived we jumped in the car to drive a few hours on the Parkway and (hopefully) nab some views. Polly came along and we ended up with a very satisfying drive followed by a few refreshing brews at Seven Arrows Brewing Company (outdoor dog-friendly area) once we hit the end of the road. It rained for days afterwards, so doing that drive on our first day was well worth the extra effort. A perfect outing!
Discovering Natural Bridge State Park
An unexpected attraction that popped up on our radar when we got to Buena Vista was Natural Bridge State Park. We didn’t really know anything about it, but a brochure at the campground check-in office peaked my interest and online pics showed a nice little hike along a river-front. A little additional digging revealed it was dog-friendly too (score!), so on one of the more overcast days we loaded Polly in the car and headed the 20 mins over to explore it.
And I have to admit it was more spectacular than I imagined!
Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, the 215-foot tall Natural Bridge is a limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek. There’s 6 miles of (mostly shaded) hiking trails, a re-created Monacan Indian Village and a lovely 30-foot waterfall. We had a wonderful, cool hike and enjoyed some very nice scenery. Awesome little outing!
VISIT NOTES: The park is open 8AM-dusk and admission is $8/person. Dogs are free and welcome on all the trails.
Driving & Hiking Shenandoah Valley National Park
You could say we left the best for last and that would be absolutely true.
At the Northern End of Shenandoah Valley lies perhaps one of the most scenic places in all Virginia, the amazing 200,000 acre Shenandoah Valley National Park. This enormous park encompass some of the highest and most spectacular peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains as well as the 105-mile long Skyline Drive, a beautiful road that takes you right along the ridgeline through the park.
Perhaps the BEST kicker of all?? There are over 500 miles of trails inside the park and, apart from 20 miles or so (only around 11 small trails), they are all dog-friendly!!! Very few National Parks allow dogs on their trails, so finding one that allows dogs on most of them is a MAJOR deal. Scenic drives, views, hiking and pretty much aaaall of it accessible with your dog? Now, that’s the Wheeling It trifecta!
For this part of our adventure we parked “the beast” at another superb VA State Park (Shenandoah River State Park – full review coming) and once again targeted our Skyline Drive for one of the clearest days of the week. In addition we got on the ridge super early (for us anyway) so we could catch some good light. We only managed to drive the Northern Section of the park, but we did enjoy the many lookouts (many more lookouts here than any other place we’ve seen along the entire valley) and we also stopped for a relaxed, mostly forested hike by Compton Gap. The trail here follows part of the epic ~2,200 mile Appalatian Trail and we met several through-hikers on our walk. They’re a super friendly group and meeting them always revives my age-old dream of one day hiking one of these epic trails (it’s always been a dream of mine), but for now just hiking sections of it is good enough for me.
Once again we finished our outing with a beer/food stop at a small restaurant called Blue Wing Frog (outdoor tables are dog-friendly), where we aaalso met-up with a blog reader. Super fresh, local food, fabulous beer selection and good company (thanks for driving down to see us, Davis!). All-in-all it was a thoroughly enjoyable drive, a very pleasant hike and most definitely the highlight of our Valley trip!
VISIT NOTES/ Park costs $25 to enter (or free with National Parks Pass). Leashed dogs are welcome on most of the 500 miles of trails inside the park except for a select few (see HERE). Make sure to pick a CLEAR day so you can enjoy the overlook views.
That wraps up our Valley trip. Of course we missed a ton of sights, but I’m really happy we got a taste of the area. It’s definitely a spot we would return to, and I bet it’s just spectacular in fall too. We’re off to DC next where I’m going to visit a friend and fly back to SD (more on that coming). Onwards and northwards we go…
Useful External Links:
- Visit Shenandoah Valley -> Click for info HERE and HERE for good websites
- Visit Shenandoah Valley National Park -> Click HERE for official park website
- Natural Bridge State Park -> Click HERE for official park website
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway -> Click HERE and HERE for detailed info
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