Story and photos by Dorothea S. Michelman
Travelers to the greater Washington area looking for a peaceful getaway from this bustling city, will discover that the Shenandoah Valley, just a couple of hours distant, is a perfect choice.
Whether the trip you’re thinking of is for a day, a weekend, or longer, the Shenandoah Valley is close enough for last-minute spontaneity and far enough to be savored as a real vacation. With natural attractions ranging from the Shenandoah National Park and world-famous Luray Caverns to a more recent vintage in Strasburg, “Antiques Capital of Virginia”.
On a recent visit to the Shenandoah Valley, a favorite destination ever since we moved to Northern Virginia, I was pleased to learn that Strasburg has not one but four equally intriguing museums. The Museum of American Presidents holds such treasures as James Madison’s desk and signatures of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. A delicious addition to the museum’s offerings is the “First Ladies’ Tea,” where guests are invited to enjoy tea and desserts created from favorite recipes of the two first ladies featured on that months’ program. A lively program with its introduction to their lives and times follows. Equally popular are the presidential birthday parties held each month, accompanied by coffee, cake, and a discussion of the life of one of our presidents and notable events of his administration. Children will enjoy exploring the one-room schoolhouse, discovery boxes, and seeing how they look in colonial dress.
Just a few doors away is the Jeane Dixon Museum and Library filled with clothing, documents and photographs and other memorabilia of the famous psychic, whose clients included Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dixon foretold the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and that of Dr. Martin Luther King. Both museums owe their existence to the generosity of businessman and collector Leo Bernstein.
At Hupp’s Hill in Strasburg lies the Stonewall Jackson Museum, whose focus is the memorable defense of the Valley by “Stonewall” (Thomas Jonathan) Jackson in 1862. Here, a large variety of reproductions of Civil War weapons, uniforms, saddles, and toys are displayed. Of special interest to children are the hands-on exhibits, a glorious opportunity to try on uniforms, climb into an army tent, and “ride” wooden horses arrayed in cavalry saddles and bridles.
Nearby are Virginia’s oldest documented caverns, the Crystal Caverns, discovered by German settlers in the 1750s and once used for food storage. Many artifacts, including arrowheads, have been found indicating that the caverns may well have been used by Indians. Opened to the public in 1922, of special interest are the lantern tours led by guides in period costume.
We next headed a short distance to the east and Front Royal, the northern gateway to 105-mile long Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. But first we enjoyed the leisurely delight of a float trip along the Shenandoah River with its rich bird life above and turtles, lazily sunning themselves on the rivers rocks.
In Front Royal, numerous signs remind travelers that nearby Luray Caverns are the most visited on the East Coast, and these signs are well worth heeding. Every step of our journey through the caverns brought us face to face with ever more remarkable formations, including “Titania’s Veil” and “Giant’s Hall,” as well as the beautiful reflections along the surface of serene “Dream Lake.” A special treat was a surprise performance by the “stalacpipe” organ. Discovered in 1878, Luray Caverns have been a U.S. Registered National Landmark since 1974. The grounds include a garden maze and the Historic Car and Carriage Caravan Museum. Nearby is the renowned “Singing Tower,” whose carillon offers free 45-minute concerts at different hours from April to November.
Winding Skyline Drive, with its 75 breathtaking overlooks, hiking trails, waterfalls, picnic and camping areas, dates back to the 1930s as does Shenandoah National Park, established in 1935 to offer a peaceful refuge for nearby urban residents. A variety of accommodations are available, whether you plan to stay at Big Meadow s Lodge or Skyland Resort – or if you prefer to bring your own lodging along in the form of a tent. From April through November, an entertainment menu ranging from concerts to clogging adds a relaxing dimension to the visitor’s stay.
Heading south to the town of Shenandoah Caverns, we marveled at the stunning natural formations which gave this town its name. I found the “bacon” formations particularly impressive (especially with breakfast a distant memory), but it was equally difficult to leave the “Tower of Pisa,” “Bishop” and “Grotto of the Gods” behind, even with the suspense of wondering what might appear next.
Limestone is considerably more patient than I, with a single inch forming over a 125-year period. A final surprise awaited us as we bade farewell to this limestone wonderland and strolled through several large rooms embellished with old-fashioned animated Christmas decorations, harking back to the days when department store displays drew admiring holiday crowds.
Just a few doors away from Shenandoah Caverns and included in the admission price is “American Celebration on Parade.” Here inaugural floats used from Harry Truman’s presidency through the present can be admired, as well as floats which once graced the Rose Bowl, Mardi Gras, and Philadelphia Thanksgiving parades. A 100-foot-long train float welcomes visitors to climb on and join the parade (especially popular with smaller visitors).
The Shenandoah Valley witnessed numerous Civil War battles, including the one fought at New Market, site of the historic charge of 257 Virginia Military Institute cadets on May 15, 1864. There, Jacob and Sarah Bushong’s farm became a battlefield, with the farm house serving as a hospital. Today, the Bushong house is a museum, surrounded by wheelwright and blacksmith shops and a loom house, with the summer kitchen depicting what you might have found in a typical Shenandoah Valley kitchen during the 19th century.
Nearby is Meems Bridge, built in 1897, whose claim to fame is that it is Virginia’s longest remaining covered bridge and the last to still allow vehicular traffic.
Heading north to historic Winchester, 75 miles from Washington, you’ll find the small office where 16-year-old George Washington worked as a surveyor during the establishment of forts in a 300-mile wide region for defense against Indian attacks. Not only were five major battles fought in the region, one of them in Winchester itself, but the town is estimated to have changed hands 75 to 80 times during the Civil War.
A special Winchester treat is a visit to the lovely Glen Burnie house and gardens, originally the home of James Wood, who founded the town in 1744 and his descendants, and now a museum filled with art treasures and antiques. Art abounds outdoors as well, with sculptures adding a flourish to the various gardens, which include a Chinese, rose, and water garden.
Since 1976, the Valley has been home to Shenandoah Vineyards, now joined by other wineries. With tours and tastings and the annual Harvest Festival, great food to sample, music to hum along with, arts and crafts, and grape-stomping, whatever the season, there’s many reasons to visit the Shenandoah Valley. Why not plan yours now?
Directions: Take Route 66 to US Route 81 at Strasburg. Most attractions are located at or near US Route 81. At Front Royal, watch for signs indicating Luray Caverns, Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park.
WHERE TO STAY: Among your many choices are Hotel Strasburg, Skyland Lodge, Big Meadows Lodge and camping at Shenandoah National Park.
A large selection of motels and bed and breakfasts is also available.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round for Shenandoah Valley communities, Luray Caverns and other attractions. Best times for Shenandoah National Park are spring through fall.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT: Shenandoah County Tourism, 600 North Main Street, Suite 101, Woodstock, VA 22664, Tel.toll-free: 1-888-367-3966 or: 1-540-459-6228; www.shenandoah.va.us
Front Royal Visitor’s Center, 414 Main Street, Front Royal, VA 22630; toll-free: 1-800-338-2576
Shenandoah River Trips: P.O.Box 145, Bentonville, VA 22610; Tel.:toll-free:1-800-RAPIDS-l1 or 540-635-5050.
Jeane Dixon Museum and Library, 132 North Massanutten Street, Strasburg, VA 22657. Visitors by appointment only. Tel.540-465-5884
Museum of American Presidents, 130 North Massanutten Street, Strasburg, VA 22657, Tel.540-465-5999.
Stonewall Jackson Museum, at Hupp’s Hill, Strasburg, VA 22657, Tel.540-465-5884.
Crystal Caverns, 33229 Old Valley Pike, Strasburg, VA 22657, Tel. 540-465-5884
Luray Caverns, P.O. Box 148, Luray, VA 22835, Tel.540-743-4531 and 4536
Shenandoah Caverns, 261 Caverns Road, Shenandoah Caverns, VA 22847-9997, Tel. 540-477-3115.
American Celebration on Parade, Shenandoah Caverns, VA 22847-9997, Tel. 540-477-4300.
New Market Battlefield Historical Park, P.O.Box 1864, New Market, VA 22844, Tel. 540-740-3101.
Sheandoah Vineyards, 3659 South Ox Road, Edinburg, VA 22829, Tel. 540-984-8699
Glen Burnie Historic Home and Gardens, 5430 Amherst Street, Winchester, VA 22601, Tel. toll-free: 1-888-556-5799 or 540-662-1473.
Cooperative Living, June 2002, page 18.