Date: August 9-11, 2020
Difficulty: 5 (out of 10)
So there we were, hiking around the Virginia mountains with our four children – and the fifth one at 33 weeks gestation. I was supposed to be relaxing at the Grove Park Spa, lounging around in a fluffy robe or giggling in the hot tub with my mom & sisters! (how did this happen…??)
When we pushed the girls’ getaway until next year, hoping to avoid pesky mask restrictions, it freed up our August calendar a bit, and of course, our next thought was “can we fit in a national park trip?!” One of the closer parks to Charlotte is Shenandoah, about 5 hours north of here in western VA. We quickly booked two nights at a homeaway rental in Massanutten, just outside the park area, and made plans to explore our third national park.
Not every day goes according to schedule, but this one worked out pretty well. We drove through Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia because it looked like a fantastic place for lunch and a quick hike! I forgot to note the $28 admission. Kind of ironic, right: we’d rather pack a lunch and pay to explore a gorgeous limestone arch than just use the money to stop at Chick-fil-A and pick up a few sandwiches. More work in the short term but hopefully it will pay off in the long run. =)
After stopping at the lavender farm, we got into our cute rental (nothing fancy, just a clean & comfortable 3-bedroom close to Shenandoah) and unpacked. Dinner at Bella Luna was so good! Definitely recommend this place in the Harrisonburg area. We ordered a bunch of gluten free pizzas and walked across the street to share a cup of lemon gelato afterward. I don’t like to give my kids a lot of sugar, especially on trips, so we always split desserts and everybody gets a taste.
The best part of our first day was after dinner. From Harrisonburg, we drove into the park, for our first glimpse of the beautiful scenery on Skyline Drive. It was about 7.30pm when we got to the Point, and sunset time wasn’t until a few minutes after 8pm. We’ve never actually sat and watched the sunset with our children! It was really an incredible experience to be on the edge of a mountain and see the sun gradually slip down behind the horizon. The girls made sketches of our view. Even though there were a few other people at The Point, it was very quiet. It seemed like everyone was whispering.
After the sunset, we drove over to Big Meadows field and had the unexpected chance to meet a few deer. There were several bucks grazing in the field who didn’t mind people getting pretty close to them! We spread our picnic blanket in the dark field and waited a few minutes until the stars came out. This particular section of the park is perfect for stargazing because there are no lights for miles and miles. Stargazing is a popular thing to do at Shenandoah, and they regularly have ranger-led nighttime events, but everything is pretty much on hold right now because of COVID so we had to make our own fun. I’ve never really done this kind of thing before! It was amazing to see the sky transform. When we first got there, it just looked dark. Twenty minutes later it was filled with bright stars! We even got to see two planets, Jupiter and Saturn! (Greg’s Skyview app was very helpful.) Note for future stargazing plans, bring extra blankets. It got chilly very quickly. A few of the berries had jackets but we had to pull a pool towel out of the car for the others. Still a great time!
The next morning, we tackled a “rock scramble” at Bearfence Mountain. It was only a half mile of climbing over boulders but a real challenge! I was kind of amazed at myself for making it up there at seven months pregnant. Being extremely careful of course! At one point we almost gave up, but didn’t. The view was absolutely worth it. We ate blueberry muffins and FaceTimed my dad from the peak.
We got our passport stamp at the Harry Byrd visitor center and squeezed in a 1m hike on the Limberlost TRACK trail before lunch. This was an easy flat trail and Eva ran the entire way. I don’t know how she does it. I doubt I could run a mile right now. She has her father’s energy.
After lunch we drove into Luray to pick up coffee at Gathering Grounds (plus a piece of gluten-free coconut cream pie) and visit the famous caverns. I remember going here as a kid! The admission is pricey, but the caves are spectacular.
Our third day, we had breakfast bowls of yogurt & granola at our little cottage and watched deer through the window. Instead of rushing out, we reevaluated our plan for the day and decided to skip visiting Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home). Instead of driving through Charlottesville, we hiked the Blackrock Summit trail and came home through Lynchburg. It was a more relaxing day but we did miss the chance to eat at Iron Paffles (a noteworthy potato waffle cafe). The Blackrock trail was easily my favorite. I honestly didn’t feel like walking another mile when we started but the hike was easy and it led to a beautiful summit.
Me: “how did I get up here?? And more importantly, how am I going to get down…”
In my personal opinion, Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive is much more enjoyable than (gasp) the Blue Ridge Parkway. Skyline is full of gentle curves, not hairpin turns. I loved it! Shenandoah is my current favorite national park.