Several years ago, our family moved to a military duty station in West Virginia’s Ridge-and Valley Appalachian Mountains. We enjoyed exploring the Mountain State, and we also quickly fell in love with Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It’s an amazing family destination, with so much to see and do that we needed several trips to the valley just to hit all the highlights.
For Maryland families, the Shenandoah Valley is an excellent getaway destination. Winchester, at the northern end of Virginia’s section of the valley, is just over two hours from Annapolis by car. Natural Bridge State Park, at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, is a four-hour drive from Annapolis.
Whether your family likes to experience the great outdoors, stroll along historic small-town streets, or delve into local history, you’ll find plenty of options in the Shenandoah Valley.
Many visitors head to the Shenandoah Valley specifically for its outdoor activities. The world famous Appalachian Trail passes through Shenandoah National Park on a course that is quite close to Skyline Drive, so hikers wanting to log some A. T. miles should consider a visit to the park. Mountain bikers can choose from over 300 trails in the valley. Adventure-seeking mountain bikers will want to seek out the George Washington National Forest’s challenging trails, but there are plenty of easy trails to choose from elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley. Massanutten Resort turns its ski area into a mountain biking park every summer and also offers over 30 miles of mountain biking trails on its Western Slopes.
If water sports are more appealing, the Shenandoah River should be your first stop in the valley. Outfitters in Front Royal, Luray, Rileyville, Bentonville, and Shenandoah rent kayaks and canoes; some also offer rafting trips.
Whether you meander down Virginia State Route 11 or venture off I-81, diverting to a historic Shenandoah Valley downtown will invite you to slow down and see how each community has transformed itself to appeal to everyone who stops by. Staunton (pronounced “Stanton”) is home to the valley’s best-known historic downtown, but Woodstock, Old Town Winchester, Downtown Lexington, and many other communities in the Shenandoah Valley offer opportunities to explore unique shopping districts, have lunch at locally-owned restaurants, and learn about each town’s history.
Civil War Sights
With 11 battlefields and several museums to visit, Civil War buffs will appreciate the opportunity to experience the Shenandoah Valley’s Civil War history. The Virginia Museum of the Civil War, located near New Market Battlefield, commemorates the 1864 Battle of New Market and honors the Virginia Military Institute cadets who fought in the battle. Winchester’s Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, located in a historic courthouse, details how the building was used as soldiers’ barracks, a hospital, and a prison. You can see prisoners’ graffiti on the walls. The valley’s battlefields, spread throughout the entire Shenandoah Valley region, include Cedar Creek, Second and Third Winchester, and Port Republic (“The Coaling”).
The most famous cavern system in the Shenandoah Valley is undoubtedly Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the eastern United States. Front Royal’s Skyline Caverns is the Shenandoah Valley cavern system closest to Maryland. Families with young children should consider Shenandoah Caverns, which features an elevator to make the descent into the caverns more comfortable. Most of the caverns in the valley are quite well known, but Melrose Caverns in Lacey Springs, which recently reopened after a 53-year closure, is less famous. It’s worth a visit, however, not only because it’s less crowded, but also because Confederate soldiers hid in the caverns during the Civil War and left graffiti behind.
Shenandoah National Park’s iconic Skyline Drive, famous for its fall colors, is the only public road that runs through the entire park. Regardless of when you drive along Skyline Drive, you’ll be rewarded with great views and, possibly, glimpses of wildlife. Stop at one of the parking areas along the way and go hiking or take in the view from a scenic overlook.
The American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in the heart of Staunton is the only existing re creation of London’s Blackfriars Theatre, where William Shakespeare and the rest of James Burbage’s King’s Men performed indoors during the colder months. Take a step back in time and experience Shakepeare’s plays the way his own audiences did—in a lit theatre where rich folks got seat cushions and their social inferiors loitered near the stage.
Natural Bridge State Park encompasses land once owned by Thomas Jefferson, who purchased the acreage around the arched limestone rock formation in 1774. Today, the 215 foot high Natural Bridge is the centerpiece of the state park, but you’ll also find a Monocan Indian living history village, caverns, hiking trails, a children’s discovery area, and 30-foot-high Lace Falls. Bring fishing poles for the kids—children age 15 and younger are permitted to fish in Cedar Creek.
Staunton’s Frontier Culture Museum immerses visitors in the life and times of those who lived on the first American frontier—the Shenandoah Valley. Costumed interpreters demonstrate daily tasks and animal husbandry in an Eastern Woodland Native American hamlet, a West African (Igbo) village, 1600s and 1700s homes from England, Ireland, Germany, and 1740s, 1820s, and 1850s Shenandoah Valley farms. Children will enjoy interacting with the interpreters and searching for the two cats that live at the museum.
By Nancy Parode