America is touched by the blessing of multiple landscapes. From sparkling, white beaches and mossy marshes rich in aquatic life, to timeless deserts shifting with burning sand and great fields bursting with agricultural riches, this country has a plethora of ecosystems and habitats. To the west, immense, surreal forests blanket the coasts of the Pacific, and to their backs, towering peaks of rock and ice frame the endless fields of sky. In the great cities of the west as well as in its wide-open wilderness, growth is constant, with the towering buildings of Los Angeles and San Francisco beginning to overtake that of the centuries-old redwood forests in the north of the state. Everywhere in America, those magical landscapes are changing, shifting, morphing into something even grander and mystifying.
However, there is still one place in America where time seems to stand still, where ancient hills gaze down on golden valleys like stewards of the land. Here, the mountains seem to have human characteristics, specifically those of an old grandfather who has defeated the blows of Father Time. These mountains have been beaten beyond recognition, year by year, as the encroaching threats of wind, ice, and water take a toll. But after millions, billions of years, these hills remain standing, proud and tall, possessing wisdom, grace, and bearing the fruits of life.
What is truly surprising is that this place is not in the West, but in the East! For this land prides itself not on shifting times, but on timelessness. It does not count the number of Ansell Adams-style photographs taken here, but on the number of memories shared. It does not pride itself on “human improvements;” tearing down the trees and mountains for towers of glass, but on respecting the sanctuaries of nature. These are the Appalachian Mountains, mountains born in the beginning of time, and mountains that will be here until the end.
This summer, my father, mother, and I had the good fortune to visit just a portion of this olden and unique area of the nation. We returned to our home with fine memories, and a newfound respect for the proud stone wardens of the East, which will last far longer than the breadth of human time.
On June 26th, 2010, my family got up bright and early for the first day of our adventure in the Appalachian Mountains. We ate breakfast, and then loaded up the car to prepare for our trip. At around 9:00, we were finally ready to embark, leaving bland, suburban New Jersey for the lush, lively mountains of the South. Our first destination was the State of Virginia, specifically its large town of Front Royal, the gateway to the fertile Shenandoah Valley. It was also where we would be staying the night. After looking over maps and addresses for the final time, we took off on the highway, engaging in light conversation but quietly eager for the fabled hilltops ahead.
As we sped down Interstate 78 towards the distant, cloud shrouded peaks, I thought of the surroundings near my home, New Jersey, and that of our destination. The suburban forests of New Jersey failed to interest me any longer. With fields of concrete, trees of steel, and rows and rows of identical mansions standing like tanks upon the highest ground, there are few quite spots in the state left to enjoy. Man had paved over the forests, the streams, and the hills, replaced them with objects of his own desire. I had read about the magnificence and beauty of nature’s hold in the Southern mountains before, of the crispness of the mountain air and the graceful music of her streams. Would the South be that refuge I so desired, away from the bustle of city life? Or would it be but a false hope? Could it be that nature was lost there too?
Soon, our car sped through the western half of New Jersey, crossed a concrete bridge over the meandering Delaware River, and entered the state of Pennsylvania. As soon as we passed over the border, the scenery experienced a dramatic change. Fields and forests suddenly appeared, as if brought back from the dead. Past the urban areas of the Lehigh Valley, the landscape spread out even more, and became one living, breathing entity. Miles and miles of tilled corn danced in the gentle summer breeze, complemented by only the occasional farmhouse, silo, or olive tractor rolling through the rustic landscape. Above these fields of plenty, a long mountain stretched across the horizon like an azure dragon, snaking between those golden fields. This was Blue Mountain, the Pennsylvania ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. As we admired this lovely scenery, I thought to myself, “This must seem like paradise!” Little did I know that what I saw here would be just pitiful compared to the rustic beauty of the Southern Highlands.
Along the highway for the next few hours, we passed through peaceful, pastoral landscapes, interrupted only briefly by numerous small towns along the way. Harrisburg, the State Capitol, and the broad, leisurely Susquehanna River, Carlisle, Chambersburg, Greencastle, all tiny urban centers surrounded by rich, arable farmland. This was truly what Woody Guthrie meant when he sang “As I was walking a ribbon of highway, I saw above me an endless skyway, I saw below me a golden valley, this land was made for you and me.”
After more than 3 hours of driving, we finally crossed the borderline into the state of Maryland! We would only pass about 10 miles into Maryland, but those 10 miles would be historically important ones. At the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, we passed what was called the Mason-Dixon Line. This line marked not only the border of the two states, but also a huge cultural divide-the place where north met south. In olden days, slaves were allowed in the south, while disapproved of in the North. Today, it is not the case, but simply a mile-marker showing that we truly entered the South.
Suddenly, we weaved past a large hill and into a bridge crossing a blue ribbon of water. This was the Potomac River, flowing from the mountains of West Virginia towards Virginia and the city of Washington. We were truly entering the land of the mountains now. Past the Potomac River, we officially entered West Virginia. My parents had friends and colleagues with ties to the area, so we were very excited about finally venturing into the Mountaineer State. Unfortunately, our route took us through just 25 miles of the state, but those 25 miles showed us much about the personality of the entire region. With mountains ever-growing in height, and forests and farmland covering the sides of the road, West Virginia was a very picture-perfect state, glowing in its natural beauty.
Finally, after 4.5 hours on the road, we arrived in the state of Virginia, our first destination! We went to Virginia before many years ago, but only to the chaotic urban districts of Washington D.C. and Arlington. Ever since then, I had longed to travel to the “real” Virginia, a land of prolific farms and ancient green hills. This dream was even more loudly voiced by my father, who had fallen in love with the song “Oh Shenandoah,” which was written about the state, and had looked forward to this trip to the mountains. Well, on that day, we both got our wish. As soon as we passed the welcome sign to Virginia, another state sign informed us of our entrance into the Shenandoah Valley, one of the most famous farming areas in the East. This valley was famous not only for its rich soils, temperate climate, and fresh crops, but also its significance in the largest conflict on American soil, the Civil War. For 5 years, colossal armies of men from both the North and South clashed around the Valley for control of its vital food resources, industry, and railroads. Today, the valley intrigues thousands of visitors each year for just those reasons: its culture, history, and the timelessness of its agricultural harvests.
As we continued to head south on Route 81, the scenery continued to evolve. Farms and trees continued to line the road, but golden stalks of wheat and shady apple trees popped up too along the horizons. What amazed me most; however, were the many kinds of wildflowers that popped up along the road! Emerald, ruby, gold, but most of all, violet flowers flourished in the June sun in the median and the roadsides as we entered the Shenandoah Valley, and continued to amaze us with their vibrant colors as we proceeded down the state.
After 5 hours, we finally exited the highway to local roads, and proceeded on Highway 340 (Stonewall Jackson Highway) to the town of Front Royal. Continuing down the highway, we passed a picturesque arched bridge across the Shenandoah River, which the Valley itself is named for, then entered the historic town of Front Royal. Front Royal was named after its location in the “royal lands” of the French king, and became a vital trading center at the head of the Shenandoah Valley. In a historical marker, we read that during the Colonial days, Front Royal was given the epithet “Helltown,” for the lawlessness of its streets and the number of crude, fun loving men who arrived there looking for work. However, the town’s economic prominence at the banks of the Shenandoah River allowed it to prosper, and later to become the gateway to places like Shenandoah National Park (see Day 2) and Skyline Caverns, our first major destination for the trip. First things first, though. My family and I had finally arrived, but we were famished, so we ate a great meal at Pizza Hut on the road to the Caverns. It was very well-priced, and the pizza and salads were fantastic! We took many photos of this great start to our adventure.
At around 2:30 PM, we continued along Route 340 to Skyline Caverns, one of Front Royal’s most famous attractions. The Skyline Caverns are just one of hundreds of caves in the Shenandoah Valley, including Luray, Grand, and Shenandoah Caverns. However, I had heard that Skyline was closest to our hotel, and also had a “special unique feature,” so we were inclined to check it out.
Skyline Caverns was located on a hill, and right near the parking lot, there was a white plaque describing a historical event that occurred there. It turned out that in 1862, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the great Southern general in the Civil War and victor of 7 different battles in the Shenandoah Valley, met a female spy, Belle Boyd, to plan out a surprise attack on the Northern Army! Being the history buff that I am, I was intrigued by this because Jackson, one of the greatest tacticians in American history, is still remembered today for his intelligence, fearlessness, and creativity. It turns out that the entire trip was blossoming with history tidbits and culture, perhaps because the Southerners are so proud of their ancestors and the key roles they played in the founding of America.
Soon after entering Skyline Caverns’ lodge, we prepared for a guided tour into the dark, foreboding caves beneath the earth ($14 adult, $6 kids for about $34 total.) The lodge was very warm and inviting, with numerous “gemstones” and souvenirs available as we waited for our tour. We ended up purchasing a carved bear holding the words “I miss you.” Who could he have been talking to? We don’t know. Anyway, after waiting a while, our tour finally began. We were ready to go spelunking (cave exploring, just in case you don’t know.)
Our guide, a friendly young woman called Noa, was a newcomer to the Caverns, but was still very informative, funny, and interesting. She told us that the Caverns were discovered in 1937 by a man named Walter S. Amos, who was a retired geologist living in the Valley. Where the parking lot of the Caverns is today, he discovered a sinkhole, as well as brown caramel crickets, which he knew were possible signs of there being a cavern underneath the earth! Well, after he began to dig, he broke through a few rocks and discovered amazing formations! As Noa led us down further into the labyrinth of passages underneath the Valley, we were awed by room after room of rock formations, including shining stalactites (formed by water dripping from a cavern ceiling and evaporating, leaving a sharp link of minerals dangling from the ceiling) and solid stalagmites (formed by the same manner, except by minerals collecting from the cavern floor. Everywhere, these flawless, captivating formations stared at us from the depths of the cave, leaving us speechless. Even though the rooms were very dark, we were still able to take great pictures of these natural wonders. The Shenandoah Valley is truly lucky to have these wonders forged by the delicate hands of nature!
After passing through several more wide rooms containing rows and rows of stalactites and stalagmites, we rounded several more murky passageways (thanks to our expert guide,) then burst into a lighted room with one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire cavern! Above our heads, a huge rock suddenly spread out into ridges, folding like a pancake, into hundreds of wrinkled lines! This was the famed “American Eagle” formation! From a distance, this great rock did look like a soaring eagle, with a knobbed head, rising from the limestone walls of the cavern into the air. Here, Noa told us that the Skyline Caverns are over 75 million years old! As I stared at the beautiful American eagle, soaring majestically into freedom, I was enraptured with a feeling of the power of nature and the endurance of her power
Wandering through the spectacular cavern rooms with my mouth wide open, I was completely immersed in this gorgeous new wonderland below the earth. Just a few more turns and we were staring directly at Dream Lake, my favorite area of Skyline Caverns. To the right, hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites jutted down from the ceiling, reflecting in the placid, mirror like waters below. Noa told us that the State of Virginia had put a few goldfish here 50 years ago as an experiment, to see how they would react to the darkness of the cavern. If there were no lights under the cavern, she said, those fish would have turned blind, using their other senses to navigate through the dark waters. I was amazed at the ingenuity of Mother Nature, and the beauty of evolution!
Exiting the Skyline Caverns, we continued down the highway for about 5 miles into the fragrant Virginia countryside. The commercial buildings and noise of Front Royal again was replaced with the soothing sounds of the wind and the birds in the trees. Historic farm buildings and pastures again became commonplace. In fact, we even spotted a few cows and horses on the sides of the road! In no time, we had arrived at the Shenandoah River State Park (Andy Guest Park,) with scenic views of the Valley and the flowing river. The park was very new (established in 2005) and had numerous recreation opportunities for our whole family! The access road to the park, appropriately called “Daughter of the Stars Road,” ascended the emerald bluffs on the sides of the Shenandoah River. Soon, we had approached the brand-new visitor’s center at the top of the hill. It was brand-new and even environmentally friendly, with solar panels! We asked the kind ranger at the desk some questions, and then leaped back into the car to enter the park!
After another mile or so, the road branched out to a parking lot and campground. We parked and strolled down a short trail to the river! It was a warm day, and the picnic areas by the bank were all filled up with people, barbequing and enjoying themselves under the welcome shade of the trees. When we reached the river, we discovered several visitors couldn’t resist the lure of the water and were swimming in the refreshing current!
Before us, the Shenandoah River spread out long and wide, its crystal-clear waters shining in the midday sun. Unlike many rivers in the coastal plain, I was amazed to discover the Shenandoah had a strong current, which led to the waterway seeming more alive and healthy! The waters of the river were completely different from any I had ever seen or experienced before. The Shenandoah was not an aggressive, roaring river like many in the West, like the Colorado or Virgin, and neither was it a languid, lethargic, mosquito-attracting one like many in my home state of New Jersey. Instead, the Shenandoah was a quiet, yet alive, ribbon of water, flowing briskly but with no sense of urgency, enriching the land like a benevolent mother. Front my vantage point on the riverbank, the mountains of western Virginia, forming Shenandoah National Park, towered over the waters of the Shenandoah and the valley that owes its existence to the river. I could definitely tell why an unknown musician long ago was inspired to write an entire song about the river, “Oh Shenandoah!”
Shenandoah River State Park was truly a scenic and relaxing excursion, an escape from the incessant heat of the cities and towns. At around 6:00, my family called it a day and returned to Front Royal for a good night’s sleep at the Quality Inn Skyline Drive, right on the road to Shenandoah National Park! We were ready for another fabulous day tomorrow!