Griffin Winter Getaway 2017: Valley and Ridge VA
One of the perks of living on the east coast is the abundance of diverse getaways within a few hours’ drive from home. Last year, Rachael, Duncan, and I started what I hope becomes an annual tradition when we took a long weekend vacation away from the bustle of Washington, DC in Outer Banks, NC. In five quick hours, we drove from the Capital’s infuriating traffic to the beachside bungalows, historic lighthouses, and ocean sunrises of OBX.
This year, Rach, Dr. SpaceTelescope PhD, and I ventured inland to the Valley and Ridge Region of Virginia for some fresh air, hiking, and of course, local craft beer. In only about two hours, we found ourselves in the epicenter of picturesque Appalachian Trail hikes, Blue Ridge Mountain views, and frothy, locally-sourced brews. Equipped with little more than a few trail maps, a free Virginia beer magazine, and several distracted Google searches, we set off with a loose itinerary at best. However, the aimlessness that ensued over the next three days of wandering was one of the most enjoyable characteristics of this trip.
What follows is a quick recap of the Griffin Winter Getaway 2017. If you’re native to the Mid-Atlantic Region and have a spare couple of days, I hope this summary provides you with some useful ideas.
Shenandoah National Park
Leaving from NE DC, we charted a course first for Shenandoah National Park via scenic Skyline drive. Like an artery spanning the length of the park’s Blue Ridge Mountain backbone, Skyline Drive snakes 105 miles from Front Royal, VA in the north to the historic Blue Ridge Parkway in the South. Packed in our hatchback with windows down welcoming the mountain air, Rachael, Duncan, and I entered the park at Swift Run Gap just north of Hightop Mountain.
Following a brief drive up to just over 2600 feet, we pulled off the road to set out on a leisurely hike in the shadow of Hightop Mountain, which rises 900 feet above the parking area along Skyline Drive. In the waning afternoon sunlight, we opted for an abbreviated out and back trip along the Appalachian Trail, which follows an analogous near the drive and bisects Shenandoah. With autumn’s discarded leaves crinkling under foot, we gradually descended into one of the park’s many wooded valleys.
Over the brief three to four miles, we left the occasional hum of cars, trucks, and motorcycles along the highway behind. The trail was ours until Duncan instinctively stopped, ears cocked, on the return trip to the car. A trio of white-tailed deer had wandered into our vicinity. Our novice little hunter’s nose and eyes were trained in the exact opposite direction of the deer, and they achieved a quick escape.
The drive out the southern end of the park featured countless switchback turns, engine-revving climbs of several hundred feet, and gradual coasting descents, ultimately spilling out of the park at Rockfish Gap. Scenic overlooks waited around what seemed like every turn, peering eastward into the Blue Ridge Mountains, or west and north toward the distant Massanutten Range and the valley below. As the sun sank in the veil of overcast haze shrouding the horizon, distant peaks radiated indigo and purple.
Having traversed the lower third of the park via Skyline, we steered the car west toward Staunton, VA, our basecamp for the weekend.
George Washington National Forest
For Sunday, I had picked out a hike that promised more stunning mountain views along the Appalachian Trail in George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. About 45 minutes southwest of Staunton, we dipped into the park near a tiny village named Vesuvius, and wound our way deep into the forest, passing beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway en route.
Near Montebello, known for its fish hatchery, we pulled off the road and started up a gravel fire road bound for the AT. About two miles uphill, we joined the trail and continued our ascent toward Spy Rock, a sudden outcropping touting the views we sought and the pinnacle of our trek. Along the way, we came across a gregarious women who commented on my Notre Dame sweatshirt. Coincidentally, she was also from South Bend, IN, and had even graduated from the same high school Rachael and I attended 41 years earlier. It’s amazing the connections you’ll discover on the trail.
While the trail was well-traveled on this sunny Sunday, Spy Rock was large enough to offer several ascent options. After attempting a few misguided routes to the peak, Duncan – who is an inspiringly adept and fearless rock scrambler – and I found the path to the top that worked for us. What awaited us at the summit was a 360 degree view of a grouping of peaks named The Priest, The Little Priest, The Friar, The Little Friar, and The Cardinal, known as the Religious Range.
I snapped a few photos from the high vantage point (just below 4,000 feet), and then Duncan and I began our scramble back to where Rachael awaited us. Arrogance got the best of us, as we opted for a more challenging route down the rock face. As we pushed through thick brush, Duncan and I found ourselves virtually hanging off the west face of the mountain with no trail in sight. From our precarious position, the views may have been more impressive.
Memories of the classic young adult survival novel Hatchet occupied my mind as the next few descent attempts terminated in dead ends. How could Duncan and I have gotten lost on what seemed like simple enough terrain.
Nearly 45 minutes after starting up the face, we spotted Rachael… about a hundred yards above our position. Somehow, due entirely to my poor navigational skills, we had circumnavigated the mountain, descending well below our beginning point along the way. A sweaty climb uphill to my relieved wife kicked off the return trip. Despite a concerning detour off trail, Spy Rock delivered the big views I had hoped. I’m eager to return for a sunrise or sunset hike.
Virginia Craft Beer
As is tradition with our adventures, our hikes culminated with ceremonial visits to a couple local craft breweries. Rural Virginia breweries demonstrate a stark contrast to the industrial warehouse settings found in DC and other urban environments. The three brewers we visited each offered their own charm, personality, and of course, delicious beers.
Great Valley Farm Brewery – Natural Bridge, VA
Located just outside of Roanoke, the Great Valley Farm Brewery tasting room has been open since October 2016. While still in its infancy, the brewery offers their own renditions of eight classic beer styles. Highlights included their Belgian Stout with a rich caramel finish and a robust double IPA. The star of the bunch, however, was the Belgian dark strong ale, 64 ounces of which happened to stow away with us in a growler when we left.
Additional highlights included the stunning views of Great Valley’s 27-acre farm and the distant Blue Ridge, as well as the intensely friendly locals. The dozen or so Virginians we met were truly excited to meet a couple hailing from the city that chose to spend their weekend in their neck of the woods, and there was no shortage of hiking recommendations for our next visit.
Wild Wolf Brewing Co. – Nellysford, VA
Our next stop boasted a little more industry experience and its own unique spin on the brewpub concept. Situated in a renovated, 100-year-old schoolhouse, Wild Wolf Brewing Company offered an extensive menu of farm to table options, including much celebrated barbeque options, in addition to their beer list.
Live music rang from the depths of the restaurant as Rachael, Duncan, and I sampled the breweries wares under the stars on the dog-friendly patio. The Glassy Eye-PA was especially juicy, with a strong citrus and peach smack throughout.
Bald Top Brewery – Madison, VA
We went back to the farm for our final beverage stop of the trip as we pulled up to Bald Top Brewery during their President’s Day Celebration. Bluegrass tunes resounded from the barn tasting house as we parked the car. Shine, a white German Shephard farm dog and the apple of Duncan’s eye on this Monday, greeted us in the gravel parking lot and escorted us to the outdoor seating overlooking a rolling cow pasture.
What ensued was nothing short of blissful as Rachael and I sipped some of the freshest, crispest beers I’ve had in recent memory in the sun while Duncan munched on stray sticks at our feet. Bald Top serves up eight brews featuring locally sourced ingredients and hops from the family’s own hop farm, and all eight were outstanding. The Lazy Daze IPA, Dueling Diplomats DIPA, and the Secretly Smoked Ale – essentially bacon beer – were exceptional, and I could have finished about a gallon of the Fields of Gold wheat beer that afternoon. Before we had even cashed out, I was spreading the word about Bald Top via text and planning a return trip.
Hope you enjoyed! If you’re looking for a partner for a visit to any of the above locations, I know I’ll be planning a return trip soon.