If a four mile hike isn’t your preferred weekend activity, how about a relaxing drive to see the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley? I visited Shenandoah National Park in August, so obviously I didn’t get to see the autumn colors, but I was told the fall seasonal splendor is especially wonderful. However, whatever season you choose to visit this national park, you’ll be treated to amazing vistas, wildlife, and of course the opportunity for historical exploration and learning.
Shenandoah National Park is 200,000 acres of protected wilderness land along the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of the park’s special features is Skyline Drive: 105 miles of easy-to-drive mountain road that literally runs along the ridges. If you want to travel the entire 105 miles, you’ll enter the national park at Front Royal (southeast of Winchester, Virginia) or Rockfish Gap (east of Staunton, Virginia). There is an entrance fee. There are many hiking trails, some campsites, a visitor center, and lots more to explore in Shenandoah National Park, but today’s blog post focuses on the famous drive and how it’s an insightful journey for historians and history buffs.
Give yourself plenty of time to make the long drive. Bring water and snacks, and make sure there’s a full tank of gas in your vehicle. I like to listen to instrumental music when I’m driving through beautiful places…so bring that too, if you like. Be sure to check the park conditions before you arrive (use their website or call the Skyline Drive status phone line: 540-999-3500, options 1,1.)
I started at the south entrance (Rockfish Gap) and went north. It took about five hours to complete the drive, stopping at lots of overlooks. The speed limit is 35 miles per hour for the entire 105 miles! (I did not have the opportunity to explore the visitor center.) I’d recommend planning a full day; take plenty of time at the overlooks, enjoy the visitor center, take a short hike, or have a leisurely picnic luncheon.
The Shenandoah Valley. History buffs either know exactly where it is and are in love with the location, or they say “Huh? Oh, that place Sheridan burned.” The Valley has rich culture and history from many eras of America’s past, and, of course, the Civil War isn’t an exception.
Legendary commanders like “Stonewall” Jackson and Phil Sheridan fought to defend or take this important strategic area. After-all, whichever side – Union or Confederate – could control The Valley had access to their opponent’s capital. (Illustrated by Jubal Early’s raid on Washington in 1864.)
I’d read a lot about the military history of the Shenandoah Valley – particularly “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Campaign. I could explain it on a map in educational settings, and I thought I understood the military maneuvering pretty well. I didn’t realize how ignorant I was until I stood at Swift Run Gap Overlook (along Skyline Drive) and looked out into the green valley.
Then I finally started to really understand how Massanutten Mountain rises in The Valley, providing a perfect screen for military marches. As I continued the drive, more topography appeared; locations that I could recognize on a flat map loomed on the horizons. It was like seeing a great panorama unfold. These were the battlegrounds and literal “stomping grounds” of Jackson, Sheridan, Breckinridge, Sigel, and Banks.
It’s one thing it sit in a comfortable armchair, recliner, lawn lounge, beach chair, etc. and consume history about battles and campaigns. You’ll think you understand it – and you probably do…in theory. But go to the location. Then it becomes real. You marvel at the rock size in Devil’s Den. You see how wide the Mississippi River is. You stand in awe of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and realize why and how it was the dream and nightmare for Civil War armies, generals, and soldiers.
So…grab your favorite Shenandoah Campaign history text, a couple historical maps, and a set of field glasses. Pack a lunch and head for the mountains. Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park will be a relaxing, inspirational, and incredibly insightful journey into the world of Civil War tactics, strategy, and geography.