The Shenandoah Valley is a beautiful region of Western Virginia nestled between Shenandoah National Park and the Washington and Jefferson National Forests. The valley quite literally lies between these two mountain ranges. In late July, my husband and I took off for a weekend away, just the two of us, and explored this region of Virginia, which surprisingly, neither of us had ever visited. It was beautiful in the summer and I can only image that it’s breathtaking during the fall.
This post is part two of the trip report linked here. If you haven’t read part one yet, be sure to check it out before continuing with this part two. Part one of my report left off at the end of our first day, following an exciting bear sighting!
Just an aside: I have two main reasons for sharing these trip reports: 1. To serve as a sort of diary for me and 2. To show you how to stick to your healthy diet when you’re away from home. We find balance between cooking some meals, carefully eating out and enjoying some treats. This balance seems to work really well for my family. I hope that you will likewise find a balance that keeps you healthy and isn’t so restrictive as to be a burden.
On with the exciting times in Shenandoah Valley…
When we travel, I always try to stay someplace with a kitchen so that I can cook breakfast. And I try to pack lunches as well, which is especially valuable when we’re planning to be hiking because food is not always easily accessible out in the woods. My husband has Type I Diabetes so it is particularly important for us to always have food available.
Breakfast is an easy meal to cook and keep totally paleo if you want. I usually bake lots of paleo goodies such as cinnamon streusel coffee cake or banana bread when we travel, but I simply did not have time before this trip. So I headed to Whole Foods and stocked up on gluten free baked goods. I found almond scones (I love scones and am working on my own recipe now), a cinnamon sugar coffee cake and carrot cake cupcakes. Cupcakes are equally good for dessert and as a breakfast pastry. Yes, yes, they are!
Fully fueled, and with lunches packed, we headed off on our next adventure.
One thing we were surprised to discover about this area was that the view was really more beautiful from the valley than from Skyline Drive, which essentially runs along the ridge of the mountains. From the valley, you see the Shenandoah National Park mountains on one side and the Jefferson and Washington National Forests on the other side. It’s just a really neat effect I hadn’t experienced before.
From studying these maps, we had picked out more hikes for our second day and were ready to get some exercise and explore. Our first destination was a bust because the parking lot was totally full, so we just moved along to the next hike: The Rose River Loop Trail (about 4 miles) in the Big Meadows area. This hike is listed on the map linked here.
Rose River Loop was a beautiful hike full of cascades and waterfalls all along the way. According to the description from the National Park Service (I say this so you know it’s allowed) there were quite a few swimming holes and fishing spots along this trail. We definitely saw that this area came alive on the weekend. Friday it was pretty deserted, but parking lots were packed and trails were noticeably busier on Saturday and Sunday.
Here are a few pictures from the Rose River Loop trail:
At the end of this trail, there was about a one mile walk along a fire road, which is basically just a gravel road, but this is where we had our second bear sighting. He was up on the hill and was roaming around in search of food (I assume that’s what he was doing – he didn’t discuss his plans with me). He completely ignored us, which was fine by me. I was a little hesitant to stop and watch him because we were certainly more vulnerable here than we were when we saw the bear from our car. I let my husband take a quick video, but I kept right on walking – quickly. Everything was fine and the bear did not come after us, but I was not taking any chances. There was another group standing there watching him and someone in that group had on a lot of perfume so I figured if anyone was going to become lunch for that bear, it would be her, not me, which gave me some peace of mind. I’m really not a terrible person.
Following our four mile hike, we drove on, stopping at a couple “leg stretcher” walks, which were mostly a joke, but our goal here was exploring and exploring we did. Then it was time for lunch so we sought out one of the campgrounds which also had picnic grounds in the same area. I guess this would be a good place to talk a little bit about the facilities along Skyline Drive:
- There were several campgrounds with bathhouses and camp stores
- Picnic grounds with lots of room to run, large trees, picnic tables and bathrooms
- Waysides, which are apparently little gift shops and snack bars, like this one:
- Two main Visitors centers with Park Rangers, museums/displays, gift shops and bathrooms (this is where you can make in-person camping reservations)
- A couple smaller bathroom stops periodically along the road
- Two lodges where you can actually stay just like travelers back in the 30s when the park was new
I would say that knowing how to potty in the woods (ladies, I’m talking to you too) is a good skill to develop if you’re going to be a camper or hiker. However, if that’s just not your thing, there are enough bathroom opportunities along Skyline Drive that you will probably be ok to get to the next stop. Just remember that there are only three places to get on/off of Skyline Drive so it’s not like being on the interstate where you can pretty much find a fast food joint or gas station every five minutes. Enough of the potty talk because it’s lunch time!
I had packed our lunch before we left the cabin in the morning so we were all set for a beautiful picnic.
We usually don’t eat gluten free bread products, but with all the hiking, I thought we could use a few more carbs. The rolls shown here were from Aldi and I’m sure if they had been heated, they would have been fine, but cold, right out of the cooler, they were dry and brittle and not very enjoyable. Mine crumbled to bits and I ended up throwing most of it out.
After lunch, we moved on to the the VERY WORST HIKE KNOWN TO MAN. It’s possible that I’m being a little tiny bit dramatic as I’m sure there are worse hikes somewhere. But really, it was not fun. It was the Hawksbill Mountain Summit Hike to the highest peak in the park. There were two options for getting to the summit (you can see the details on the National Park Service Map): a roughly four mile round trip hike that was less steep (so they said) or a two mile round trip hike that was described as very steep. We chose the latter simply to save time. They were not kidding with that description. It was straight up the whole, entire mile to the top. Then straight back down. For me and my difficult feet, climbing is easier than descending. I have to be very, very careful with my footing because if my ankle twists even a tiny bit, it can knock me off my feet for a long time. I did not enjoy the hike at all and I love hiking. The views from the top were lovely and I’m glad we did it, but it really wasn’t fun. I’m also glad we brought our foam roller because we needed to roll out our muscles A LOT thanks to this hike. It also made us very, very thankful for the hot tub.
We ended day two of Skyline Drive adventures with a little exploring of the Visitor’s Center at Big Meadows and more driving and stopping off at overlooks. Most overlooks had a view just like this one:
For those of you who also enjoy hiking, the trail markers in Shenandoah National Park are different from any I’ve ever seen and you might overlook them if you’re not paying close attention. Trail information is stamped on the metal band secured at the top of the stone post. I had to get very close to read them, but all the necessary information was there.
Because the entire Skyline Drive is 105 miles and we had traveled over 70 miles of it already and because we’re nuts, we decided to drive to the northern end before quitting for the night and finding dinner.
We were glad we did this because we just wanted to check something off our list, but the view from the northern 30 miles wasn’t much different than the lower 70 miles. But we did it, so check!
I packed lots of cute “going out” clothes and I really wanted to wear at least one of those outfits, so we headed back to the cabin to shower and change for dinner. After that straight up the mountain hike, we needed showers. The temperatures hovered in the mid-70s to low-80s, but it was pretty humid the whole weekend.
As much as I enjoyed the cabin in Stanley, Virginia, we weren’t really close to restaurants that offered gluten free or whole foods options. We had visited the one acceptable place that was near-ish to our cabin Friday night so we headed off to Harrisonburg for something different. On the map, this big city seemed not so far away, but in reality was an hour away. That meant at 8:00 at night we were driving an hour to dinner and would then of course, have to drive an hour back. This made for another really, really late night. But, oh well. We’re on vacation.
One of my vey favorite parts of this trip was driving through the valley. The small highways primarily wound through farmland and quaint towns and all the while, we were surrounded by mountains on all sides. It was breath-taking and if I lived in Washington, DC, I would be very tempted to buy vacation property in this area. That is, if I had more money. And time for regular vacations. But those are just little details.
For dinner, we chose the Capital Ale House, which received pretty universally positive reviews for their gluten free menu on the FindMeGlutenFree app. We were not quite as impressed as some of the reviewers were, but remember that I’m coming from the perspective of looking for paleo and settling for gluten free so I’m certainly more picky than some gluten free diners.
We both chose burgers and fries. Capital Ale House seems to specialize in Belgian style fries, which apparently means fries served with mayonnaise. This is a secret love of mine so I was so excited to see this is a real food! Of course, they offered four different flavors of mayonnaise and they were quite unique and very delicious.
The disappointment here was that my gluten free burger came with breaded onion rings on top. As much as I would have loved to eat those, I know that I cannot eat gluten. It is not negotiable. So at 9:30 at night, I had to send my burger back to be remade. It took a long time and my new burger was fresh so I trust that they made me a new burger. The waitress had said when I pointed this error out to her, “Oh, I’ll take that to the kitchen so they can take those off.” I said, “Oh no no! I need a whole new sandwich.” I was nice, but emphatic about it.
It was very dark in the restaurant so I apologize for the poor quality picture. My burger was supposed to have pork belly, bbq sauce, smoked cheddar, lettuce and tomato. I think it was missing the bbq sauce and pork belly, but I wasn’t about to send it back again. I just added some of that yummy mayonnaise and it was fine.
So overall, I vote Capital Ale House a 3 out of 5. Service was fine and there is potential to have good gluten free options, but the kitchen was just not on top of their game the night I visited. If I’m ever in the area again, I would give them another chance.
After dinner, we drove the hour back to the cabin, went for a quick soak in the hot tub and quickly drifted off to sleep (in bed, not the hot tub).
Sunday morning was pack up day. But first, we enjoyed more eggs, bacon and gluten free pastries. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. Thankfully, my husband does not drink coffee so it was all for little, old me. Sunday’s breakfast looked just the same as Saturday’s so I don’t have another picture for you.
In Luray, Virginia you can find the famous Luray Caverns. I know that Chris really wanted to tour them. Having been in caverns before, he knows it’s really cool and wanted to share that experience with me. But I am extremely claustrophobic and I was fairly certain (like 99% certain) that I would not be able to go in. I told him he could go if he wanted to without me, which of course, he would not do because he’s too nice. We did go to the caverns and look at some of the historic lanterns and pictures of the people who discovered this place, but ultimately, I could not go in. You had to go through this very closed-in tunnel area to enter the caverns and that is just a no-go for me. I wish they just had this big opening where you could walk right in. Then I would do it. I need to know I can very easily get back out and the setup they had there made me feel that I would never escape. So we moved on.
For those of you who don’t know me and my family personally, I am married to a great big kid. On our first day in the area, we were on our way to dinner and noticed Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park and my driver just about took us off the road. Since that sighting, he kept talking about going back and playing putt-putt there. So after the disappointment of Luray Caverns, I appeased him with a game of mini golf with Yogi Bear. What we didn’t realize is that this was not a public golf course, but was intended for the people staying at the campground, but the gracious attendant allowed us to play anyway. It was hot out there, but really fun. And it was a tough course!
After our golf game, which I won by the way (I had to say that because I’ve never beaten my husband in putt-putt), we moseyed on down the road toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. But we had another adventure in store for us.
Yes, you are correct, that is the one and only General Lee from Hazard County. Well, I suppose it’s not the one and only, because they crashed these cars on just about every episode of the Dukes of Hazard, but we were still super excited to see this! Along this highway in the middle of small town, Virginia, lies Cooter’s Garage, bastion of all things Dukes of Hazard. They had a General Lee, Cooter’s car and tow truck and even Boss Hogg’s car with the big long horns on the front. Yes, we are totally children of the 70s and 80s and loved this little walk down memory lane.
Once we pulled ourselves away from our childhood, we started for home. We decided that since we had the opportunity, we should head south on the Blue Ridge Parkway because we’d never travelled this very northern end of it. We visit the Boone/Blowing Rock area of North Carolina often and travel that section of the Parkway, but this northern stretch was totally new to us.
Considering that Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway are adjacent to one another and are both part of the National Park Service, we expected them to be very similar, but they are not. It’s hard to explain, but they both had a distinct feel. I think Chris and I agree that we prefer the Blue Ridge Parkway, though we really enjoyed exploring along Skyline Drive.
We picked up a Parkway guide book that lists all the hikes along the way and we selected a few to explore. There were quite a few listed as “leg stretchers” of just .1-.3 miles. We discovered that some of these were little more than a path mowed through the weeds. But they did serve as leg stretchers and sources of entertainment. I was utterly exhausted after one of these treks.
Here are a few of the “hikes” we chose on our last day of adventure:
The Yankee Horse trail (Mile Post 34.4) demonstrated an old logging railroad that ran through this area. The park service had reconstructed a short section of the rail line. This was a pretty little walk with a small waterfall. The total length was just over a quarter of a mile.
The picture below is from the Indian Rocks hike (Mile Post 47.5). It was another short walk of about a half a mile. After a short climb, you come upon this collection of boulders all covered with lichen and moss. There was a trail around these rocks that I was prepared to ignore, thinking we had seen what there was to see, but my more adventuresome half suggested we just check it out.
What you totally cannot see from the vantage point of the picture above, are these absolutely massive boulders. Look at my little hubby there with that one “rock” that looks like it could topple over on us at any point! Just wait….
You could actually walk under that crazy big rock. Yes, he did it. I took the picture from a nice, safe distance. I am a chicken and I admit it.
Our last hike of the trip was the Fallingwater Cascades Trail (Mile Post 83.1). This trail was a loop of about two miles, which contained some beautiful waterfalls. There was a lot of up and down on this hike, but it was beautiful and we had the trail to ourselves.
At this point, it was mid afternoon and we knew we needed to be heading home and that driving on the parkway would be slow, with limited places to exit. We did make a couple more really short stops. One was the Lake James Visitor’s Center. There was a display here all about the shipping industry that existed on this river at the turn of the century. I guess we hear so much about the shipping industry in big ports like the Charleston, SC area, that this part of NC history is glossed over. We barely skimmed all the information available, but it was interesting nonetheless. I wish we had had more time.
From here, our trip is very anticlimactic. We boogied on down the Blue Ridge Parkway to the exit around Roanoke, Virginia. We traveled back roads for a couple hours until we picked up I-40 East and made our way home. On this part of the trek, I was excited to pass by Baldwin Farms, which is the largest grass-fed cattle farm in our area and the one who supplies most of the grass-fed beef to our local Whole Foods. It was fun and a little disturbing to see all the cattle grazing and know those would be the ones on our dinner plates sooner or later. I hope that wasn’t too morbid.
We wanted to stop for a fun dinner at a place we discovered on another road trip: Angela’s Ale House in Kernersville, NC. Stopping here requires a short detour off the highway, but it’s totally worth it. They have amazing burgers made with grass-fed beef, really yummy gluten free buns and great side dish options. They even have “tipsy” milkshakes that sound amazing. We haven’t tried those, but it’s on our “to do” list. But alas, they are not open on Sundays. This left us with little choice besides fast food, so we hit up our usual, Wendy’s, for some bunless burgers and salad. Nothing fancy, but gave us the nourishment we needed and got us back on the road quickly so we could get to our babies.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip report. Selfishly, I’ve enjoyed reliving the memories as I’ve written it up for you.
If you’ve never been to Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, and you’re looking for a fun and relaxing weekend getaway, I recommend this area highly. It would be hard not to relax here. And I hope I’ve shown you that it’s possible to be away from home, without access to a Whole Foods, and still eat well without a lot of effort!