Video: The Great American Road Trip

By Travel columnist
updated 7/10/2006 2:48:20 PM ET 2006-07-10T18:48:20

The cherry blossoms are gone, and Congress has fled the muggy corridors of power, but the nation’s capital has much to offer visitors in summer. Combined with a pleasant drive through the Virginia countryside, a four-day road trip along the Potomac makes for a capital idea.

It’s an itinerary that combines history, nature, architecture, museums and shopping in an easy drive. It starts in Washington, D.C., follows the Potomac River west to Harpers Ferry, then drops down into the Shenandoah Valley to Charlottesville before returning to Washington.

Day One — Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital has two new museums to add to its usual collection of impressive monuments and imposing government buildings. But first visit an old landmark, the Thomas Jefferson Building, which houses the Library of Congress. The building, located just behind the Capitol, is a favorite stop on school trips, but in summer it is less crowded, giving visitors more room to appreciate the architecture and the lavish decorations, which were created by more than 50 American artists. Reopened in 1997 after an extensive restoration, the library harks back to a time when public buildings were constructed to impress and inspire, not just to serve their useful purposes. Check out the dome: It’s plated in 23-carat gold.

On the National Mall, the new National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in September 2004, is housed in a dramatic building across from the National Gallery of Art. Its rough limestone façade is curved and cantilevered like a Southwest cliff dwelling; on the south side, crystal prisms throw rainbows of light across the lobby floor at midday. The collection, which has nearly one million artifacts in rotation, is organized according to Indian cultures rather than history, and there is a good emphasis on contemporary American Indian arts and culture. The museum will sponsor a three-day national powwow at the MCI Center (601 F St., N.W.) August 12-14.

On your way west out of town, check out the National Air and Space Museum’s new annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles Airport. The center, which opened in December 2003, gets rave reviews from aviation and space nuts and kids of all ages. It houses the space shuttle Enterprise and the SR-71 spy plane, as well as a wonderful collection of commercial airplanes and military jets. This new annex is on the way to Leesburg and Harpers Ferry, so travelers can visit it at the end of Day One or at the start of Day Two.

Day Two — Leesburg and Harpers Ferry
Enjoy the drive along Route 7 through rolling countryside to Leesburg, and then on to Harpers Ferry.

Leesburg is a historic town little nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In appearance, it is little changed from Civil War days, yet it has more than 30,000 square feet of antique shops and home decor stores, as well as scores of upscale factory outlets. The town also has a collection of excellent restaurants. Have lunch here, then spend the late afternoon at Harpers Ferry. The town sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, part of the larger Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The view from here takes in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. Thomas Jefferson called it one of the most beautiful views in the world.

Harpers Ferry has been at the center of many historical dramas. It was central to the push west into Ohio, the development of train transportation, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War. Harpers Ferry also has excellent hiking, biking, kayaking and outdoor activities. In fact, the Appalachian Trail goes right through town.

At the end of the day, drive back to Leesburg or head down to Winchester for the evening; both towns have more dining and lodging options than can be found in Harpers Ferry.

Day Three — The Shenandoah Valley
Slideshow: 10 great American road trips Spend the day driving down the Shenandoah Valley, beautiful in any season. You’re headed for Charlottesville, but stop along the way to visit Luray Caverns, one of the most extensive cave systems on the East Coast. Then wind your way up onto Skyline Drive and wander south through Shenandoah National Park. Every twist and turn of the road reveals overlooks that provide wonderful scenery.

Near the southern end of Skyline Drive is the picturesque city of Charlottesville. Spend the afternoon visiting the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson, and enjoy exploring the town’s restaurants and shops, especially its renowned bookstores.

Day Four — Monticello and back to Washington
After breakfast, head to Monticello, the stately home of Thomas Jefferson. Modeled after a villa designed by the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, the building and grounds are filled with history. Fortunately, the tour is excellent. Learn about Jefferson’s penchant for gadgets, such as a revolving bookstand that allowed him to read four books at a time, dumbwaiters that brought food from the basement kitchens, a clock he built himself, and a copy machine that would duplicate his pen strokes. Or tour the gardens, where Jefferson planted 170 varieties of fruit and 330 varieties of vegetables, including figs and artichokes.

Finally, head back to Washington on Route 29, another bucolic Virginia highway, stopping in Culpeper for lunch. Restaurants here are excellent — one is even run by a former White House chef. Continue on to Manassas, also called Bull Run, a Civil War battleground that was the site of two major campaigns. The fields at Manassas roll away in vast and empty silence. More than 4,000 men died here; more than 24,000 were wounded. It is a place that inspires deep thought, and the traveler heads back to Washington with a new appreciation for that hard-won capital.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site.


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