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Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline drive and Colonial Williamsburg
For many years we have been offering a self drive tour of Virginia, with relatively short driving distances, the highlight being Shenandoah (shen-an-door) National Park and the famous Colonial Williamsburg. Trip takes 3 nights & 4 days, adding a day would make it a little more relaxing.
Starting in Washington DC or at Dulles, head west and about 30 mins from the airport is Middleburg, a charming town and the perfect spot for a break. Just before you exit the town there is a sign on the left for ‘Plains’, Highway 55 is an interesting winding road through some nice countryside and darts around and under the freeway to Front Royal, it takes about 45 mins. Front Royal is the main staging post at the top of the Skyline Drive, it’s historic centre (sign posted) is a nice spot for lunch and some browsing of their antique shops.
The Skyline Drive is a scenic highway that meanders for 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park and along the forested crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains – A land that the Indians poetically called ‘Daughter of the stars’. There are overlooks and parking places to pull over every two miles, with visitor centres; lots of picnic spots and over 500 miles of walking trails to see the waterfalls and enjoy the views . In May and midweek the roads will be quiet, they have a 35mph speed limit. The highest point of the drive is 3680ft, but with some peaks over 4000ft the scenery can be spectacular. We would suggest a stop at Dickey Ridge Visitors centre to orientate yourself, then a drive down about a quarter of it’s length, to come off at Thornton Gap. Then head downhill for 10 miles into the Shenandoah Valley on to the town of Luray. From Front Royal it will take about an hour and is a simple route. At Luray are some of the most famous caves in the USA, we strongly suggest you consider this side trip, as it will add another memorable angle to your visit. I was very pleasantly surprised, it is not strenuous and is well worth the short detour.
Back up to the Skyline Drive and heading south for an hour will bring you to Skyland Resort. Most of the lodges here are rustic bungalows scattered along the wooded hillside, with picture widows looking down and across the Shenandoah Valley. These are not luxury units but a good quality with their own balcony to put your feet up and drink in the fine vistas. Sunset can be especially fine as the resort faces due west. In contrast to almost every other National Park lodge I’ve visited, the restaurant here is top quality with vast two storey high windows overlooking the valley. Spectacular dinning both at breakfast and in the evening, we suggest you book a table.
You can stay a second night here if you are an avid walker, if not we suggest you head off south the next morning, making a few stops along the way. I was fortunate to spend about half an hour watching a bear that was foraging just below one of the overlook parking spots, so it’s worth pulling over every now and again. There is a fuel station half way at Big Meadows. The rest of the drive will take 2+ hours to the Waynsboro, where there is a natural gap of the ridge line. You can continue all the way down the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Smokey Mountains over 300 miles, but I will guarantee you will had had enough of twists and turns by Waynsboro.
At this point you have two options, to either stay nearby in a country inn at Nellysford, or continue east towards Colonial Williamsburg. The former requires an extra night and is located about 30 mins south, on the eastern slopes of the ridge line. The following day it would give you the opportunity for a side trip to Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful Monticello Estate and perhaps a stops in Charlotte and Richmond. Whether you stop here or not, Highway 6 is worth travelling along, I goes east towards to the coast and runs parallel but below the freeway (US64). This is one of the most delightful roads in the state, passing Walton Mountain (plus Museum) and on to Richmond.
Richmond has a historic centre and may be worthy of staying the night here. It is however possible to start at Skyland in the morning; drive the remainder of the Skyline and Highway 6; to then continue on from Richmond to Williamsburg in one day. It would be tiring and probably take about ten hours including stops, but it would be the only long day’s drive of the trip. If staying at Richmond, then we recommend you head to Jamestown for the following afternoon. This was America’s first permanent English settlement in 1607. There are now two sites, Historic Jamestowne with its archaeological digs and Jamestown Settlement with recreations of the original ships; fort and Powhatan Indian Village.
Arguably the highlight of the whole trip is Colonial Williamsburg, about 1¼ hours from Richmond; 20 mins from Jamestown, or 3½ hours down from Washington DC. We will bully you into staying two nights to ensure you are in place and have a full day here, which is the bare minimum needed. This is an amazing town where you are transported back to the Virginia Colony as it was from the 16th century until the American Revolution. This is one of the most interesting and entertaining places in the country, one of America’s most popular attractions, with over a million visitors a year, I cannot recommend it enough.
From 1699 to 1780 Williamsburg was the Capital of Britain’s main colony. Since the 1930’s the town has become a living museum with the original buildings preserved or reconstructed, there are over 40 to explore at your own pace. The historic centre is a mile long and half a mile wide. Apart from those people that still live in the town, you will find interpreters in period clothing, some are general guides; others acting out historic events; as a tour guide stationed in a building, or involved in the recreation of the craft and industry of that time. It is their interpretation and guidance that makes it such an interesting and intriguing place to visit. It is essential to take one of the regular free half hour orientation walks. Highlights are the Great Hopes Plantation by the entrance; The Magazine; R Charlston’s Coffee Shop; Wetherburn’s Tavern; The Goal; joiner; cabinet maker; printers; public hospital; gunsmith and foundry. A shuttle circulates the historic area to relieve those tired feet and at one end is the Market Sq with over 40 shops; restaurants and cafes. A timetable is produced daily giving information on the numerous events. Bring comfy shoes!
If you have time, then half a day or more at Jamestown is also worth a visit, if not then priority should be given to the equivalent of a full day in Williamsburg.
It is possible to visit just the Skyline drive, or just Williamsburg over two days, with a one night stop. A morning drive out would give you the afternoon free at either point. Then spend the following morning there before returning after lunch to Washington DC, the drive takes 3••• hrs, still leaving time to fly out that night.