A weekend in the Shenandoah Valley

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A weekend in the Shenandoah Valley
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Jordan Wright)

After G. Freeman Pollock founded Skyland Resort in 1894 he went in and out of bankruptcy so frequently it is hard to imagine it ever becoming the popular tourist destination it is today.

Luckily for us, his son, George, an ardent naturalist, saw the attraction of the raw beauty of the land. But in 19th century Virginia the remote destination had no trails and no roads. It was such an arduous journey that guests stayed for several weeks or more, just to make it worth their while.

Today, however, enjoying and exploring the resort within the Shenandoah National Forest just requires hopping into a car. In just a few hours you can enjoy the glorious autumn foliage from a vantage point 3,560 feet above sea level.

While driving past Warrenton and Sperryville along U.S. Route 211 we dropped in at roadside stands decorated with pumpkins, cornstalks and pots of colorful mums. The stops gave us a chance to stock up on apple butter, cider, sorghum and honey.

Later, as the road turned up the mountain and onto Skyline Drive, ever more lavish displays of fall color came into view — red from maples, dogwoods, black gums and sumac; gold from yellow birch, tulip poplar and hickory; orange from beech and sassafras. Make sure to stop at one of the many overlooks for gloriously scenic photo opportunities.

Arriving at Skyland Resort, we picked up a few refreshments from the Grab n’ Go located beside the restaurant. Be sure to try the homemade brownies and blackberry lemonade.

Since we arrived earlier than our check in time, we decided to make the most of our visit. Four short marked trails are easily accessible from the resort’s parking area: Miller’s Head, a 1.6-mile roundtrip; Limberlost Trail, a 1.3-mile circuit (which is ADA accessible); Stony Man, 1.6-mile loop trail; and Little Stony Man, a 0.9-mile hike. We chose the Stony Man Trail, a gentle route that winds through dappled glades carpeted with ferns, drifts past 800-million-year-old rock outcroppings draped in mossy lichen and climbs to a height of 4,010 feet where a spectacular view of the Piedmont and Old Rag Mountain are revealed. (Again, make sure to bring your camera or camera-equipped mobile device.)

At this altitude, you’ll see and smell red spruce and balsam fir, rare for southern climes. Breathe deeply and reflect on the gentle melody of the forest, a practice the Japanese call “forest bathing” or “Shinrinyoku.” Take in the scents as well, as it is a sort of natural aromatherapy said to increase relaxation and boost the immune system.

Back at the lodge, we had a relaxing dinner in the Pollock Dining Room, which boasts a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah Valley. The resort is proud of its new chef and hosts wine dinners with nearby vineyards.

In November, three unique pairing dinners are planned. One features dishes paired with wine from Ducard Winery, another with Oak Hill Hard Cider and the final dinner of the season is slated to be a whiskey pairing.

Night programs here are just as popular as the daytime tours offered by the Park Rangers. We chose stargazing, which was led by astronomers from the Charlottesville Astrological Society. “Night Skies in the Big Meadows” begins with a talk on the constellations we anxiously expected see. Next, we convened in an open field that afforded expansive views of the night sky.

Astronomer Richard Drumm, known as “The Astronomy Bum,” awaited our arrival with telescopes at the ready. Unfortunately for us, it was too overcast to see — no less identify — even the Big Dipper. Instead of stargazing, we asked a lot of questions and learned about how to control light pollution.

Bright blue skies accompanied hearty breakfasts the following morning, and — after perusing locally made crafts in the gift shop — we headed to the stables for a guided horseback trail ride (ponies are available for kids). I was very impressed by the overall care with which the stables, tack and horses are kept. Our young guide, Jeremy, was knowledgeable about horses, local plants and the history of the area and was very informative during the two-and-a-half hour ride.

We spent a few hours at the Annual Apple Butter Celebration (the resort provided a shuttle to take us there and back) before heading home. There, we watched the old fashioned method of making apple butter in a large copper vessel, tasted four varieties of the Old Hill Hard Cider from Showalter’s local orchard, and gobbled up apple-smoked pork sandwiches and candied apples.

Fittingly, it was all accompanied by the lively sounds of bluegrass bands.

For more information visit www.goshenandoah.com.

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