Image: Shenandoah National Park
Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park is 105 miles of climbs, curves, dips and, above all, gorgeous vistas.
updated 9/16/2009 2:16:41 PM ET 2009-09-16T18:16:41

Skyline Drive specializes in solitude mixed with pulse-racing exhilaration. You can get that three ways as autumn colors come alive across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

You can bike it, all 105 miles of Skyline Drive's ups, downs, twists and vistas.

You can hike its backcountry trails through a land of ridges, waterfalls, hardwood forest and pesky bears.

Or you can drive it, just as the distant generation that created the road intended for the generations to come.

Skyline Drive took shape in the Depression, the handiwork of a government that really did have projects shovel-ready.

Shovels carved a road along the serpentine spine of the Blue Ridge, creating desperately needed jobs and opening panoramas to the masses that were once the preserve of mountain people and moonshiners scattered in the hills until the feds drove them to valleys below.

Today, Americans struggling with economic calamity of their own enjoy a reclaimed wilderness handed down from their ancestors' "stimulus package."

By wheels or foot, Skyline Drive and the national park it dissects — Shenandoah — offer a breathtaking respite from the clamor of Washington some 70 miles away. It's also a road less traveled for long-distance motorists willing to trade the utilitarian speed of parallel north-south Interstate 81 for the 35-mph peace of the mountains.

Skyline is an exquisite bicycling route, if the legs hold up.

An end-to-end, two-day expedition is perhaps best done north to south, from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap. Big Meadows is the natural halfway place to stay for the night, in lodge rooms overlooking Shenandoah Valley, in cabins or the campground. Another choice is Skyland resort less than 10 miles north.

The road is two lanes with two-way traffic and no shoulder, ordinarily a recipe for trouble. But with only four entrances along its entire length, no commercial traffic and 75 spectacular pull-off overlooks diverting drivers and cyclists, the route is usually uncrowded and bike-friendly.

Image: Cyclists in Shenandoah National Park
A ride from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap will take you up more than 10,000 feet and down more than 9,000.
If hills are your friend.

Stats tell the tale, from a group trip in the spring measured by GPS: 10,749 feet of climbing and 9,290 feet of descending. It was a character-building, calorie-burning labor of limbs, a continual cycle of gritted teeth and grins that added up to an epic weekend ride.

The climbs may be the eat-your-veggies portion but they do offer rewards to the spirit. You smell the wild, see the flowers and become swallowed by solitude. Avoid pain by having the patience to inch along in a low gear.

The downhills? Dessert with a cherry on top.

The sweetest descent comes on the morning of the second day, just past Big Meadows. Along a 22-mile stretch, the elevation drops nearly 1,300 feet, with a few punchy climbs along the way.

This section is why north to south is recommended. Long climbs are demanded either way but over these particular miles, you want to be going down.

Within this stretch is a pure downhill dropping 1,000 feet over five miles.

Just hang on, tickle your brakes on sweeping turns, grin and fly.

Tips: Starting at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center more than four miles into the park avoids one of the steepest and least scenic climbs. If riding the route without vehicle support, pack enough water, snacks and first aid to last hours at a time. Food and drink are available near mileposts 24, 42, 51 and 80 until services shut for the season at various dates in November.

Shenandoah National Park is home to 101 miles of the venerable Appalachian Trail and hundreds more miles of walkable wilderness, much of it accessible from Skyline Drive.

Big Meadows (milepost 51) draws families not only to its high alpine sweep of open space and rare plants but to nearby hiking trails that kids find magical and doable. Dark Hollow Falls, for one, is a 1.4-mile round trip, with steep sections, starring a 70-foot frothy waterfall (the shortest hike to a waterfall in the park). The Story of the Forest trail is an easy 1.8-mile circuit.

Dedicated Shenandoah backpacker Stephanie Cheehy favors multi-day expeditions and backcountry camping, often on hikes intersecting with the Appalachian Trail.

Image: Black bear
Rob Woodward  /  AP
Black bears are a common sight on the Appalachian Trail. Use caution and remember that black bears prefer to keep their distance from humans.

"The classic backpack of Shenandoah will always be trekking the AT through the park," she says. "However, its hollows are so enchanting that I would suggest getting off the most famous beaten path to enjoy a series of two-, three-day overnights."

The Overall Run (reached from Route 630) leads to the park's tallest waterfall, visible from a ledge as it crashes far below. The Whiteoak Oak Canyon-Cedar Run route is a challenging Shenandoah classic replete with cascading water. It's reached from Skyline mileposts 43 or 45.5, or from Route 600 outside the park.

Experts and determined novices come together on the old favorite, the trek to Old Rag peak, a bracing hike and rock scramble that requires some hand-over-hand climbing and navigation of tricky crevasses. Count on six hours on this route, which is reached on Route 600. Cheehy and her husband did it as an overnight trip in winter.

"It was an amazing hike and I absolutely suggest it to any one willing to test their upper-body strength," she said. "Excellent views. Fascinating geology.

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"We had to pass our packs along to each other to make it through some of the cracks and up some of the boulders. I left that trail more curious about rock climbing than I'd ever been."

Tips: This is black bear country. Attacks are rare; encounters, more frequent. Read up on ways to behave and camp in their vicinity. And check for deer ticks on you, no matter how short the walk. Free permit required for backcountry camping.

Completed in 1939, Skyline Drive has been a favorite jaunt by car since the start. At the drive's southern point, the route becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway and rides the ridges for 469 more miles to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Skyline's 75 overlooks are a string of jewels; stop on a whim and you can't go wrong. The park service points people especially to:

  • Signal Knob, milepost 5.7, a Civil War Confederate semaphore site.
  • Range View, milepost 17.1, simply for the magnificence of the vista.
  • South River, milepost 67.2, to watch the sunrise.

A haze often hangs over the hills. The Blue Ridge is so-named for a hue created by trees releasing water droplets and gaseous molecules. Power-plant emissions add to the atmospheric brew on some days. The government says visibility has been cut by half over 50 years.

If the human imprint etches the sky, it recedes in the forest.

John Gearan  /  AP
A cruise along Skyline Drive allows for stunning views, such as this sunset over the Shenandoah Valley.

There, the occasional crumbled chimney, rotted cabin logs and family cemetery testify to settlements of another time, before people were moved and the Civilian Conservation Corps got to work with shovels.

They paved a ribbon of paradise, put up some parking lots. Then let deer, bobcats, wild turkey and those pesky bears have the run of the place.

Tips: Shenandoah also has 180 miles of horse trails and licensed fishing, but no hunting. Pets are allowed in campgrounds and a few units at Skyland, but not rooms at Big Meadows. Leashed dogs are permitted on most trails, not some of the most popular ones, such as Dark Hollow and Old Rag.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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