We left William’s house by 10:00 in the morning with a 3 hour drive to the Shenandoah Mountains. In the spring we had traveled the eastern part of Virginia along the coast, at which time we spent a lot of time in the many Civil War battlefields in and around Richmond. We had also visited the battlefields in Maryland at Monocacy and Harpers Ferry and Pennsylvania at Gettysburg. So now it was time to finish out the eastern theater of the Civil War in western Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. In addition, I have driven by Shenandoah National Park many times in the past, but have never had the time to stop and visit, so now was our chance. The trip south of Winchester was uneventful, even though it is longer than we like to do in a day. It felt strange to be leaving William’s as it felt that we had a two week vacation staying there and we were heading back to “work”, although to be honest our lifestyle is now a year round “vacation”. We got our first view of the Shenandoah Valley Campground as we drove by it on the Interstate. It is located just off the Interstate within a quarter mile of the Mt. Jackson exit. It is certainly “conveniently” located to the Interstate and would be perfect for an overnight trip for those traveling to Florida for the winter, however, it was way to close to the Interstate for my liking. I could literally throw a rock from our campsite and hit the cars and trucks traveling 70 mph down the Interstate, especially since there were no trees blocking our view. The campground itself is relatively new and very well laid out. There are a number of pull through sites, even though we were mistakenly put onto a back-in site. I am getting more comfortable with backing the RV and had no problem putting it into the site. The staff were very friendly, even though they were unable to get our cable hookup working. While this meant Kal could not get the sport channels with her soccer, we were able to get all the major stations with the antennae. We were one of the few campers in the campground through the week, which was not too surprising, although I was surprised that it did not fill up on Friday night for the weekend. This question was answered on Saturday, when a long line of motorhomes (around 20) pulled into the campgrounds. They were a travel group moving north along the Appalachian Trail and we got to know one of the couples that pulled in next to us, since we had their assigned space (like I said we were supposed to have one of the pull through sites). They all went to the Shenandoah Caverns in the afternoon, which was within walking distance of the campgrounds and had a catered BBQ dinner that night and church service Sunday morning.
We pulled into the campgrounds on Monday in a light drizzle and the weather on Tuesday promised to be no better, so we decided to wait for better weather before visiting Shenandoah National Park. Therefore, we traveled north towards Winchester to the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. This is the site of the Civil War battlefield between Union General Sheridan and Confederate General Early in October of 1864. In this final year of the Civil War, General Grant was pressing General Lee around Richmond leading to the siege of Richmond and Petersburg over the coming winter, as we learned a lot about last spring. In an attempt to relieve the constant pressure, General Lee ordered General Early to sweep through the Shenandoah Valley and bring pressure on Washington D.C. through Maryland. General Early advanced through the Valley with little opposition as he bypassed Harper’s Ferry and moved through Maryland towards D.C. This led to the Battle of Monocacy River where the Early defeated a Union army quickly brought out from D.C. and consisted mostly of 100 Day Men that had never seen battle. Although they won this battle, it delayed the Confederates long enough for Grant to send reinforcements to protect Washington. General Early was turned back at Fort Stevens, within sight of the capital dome and he retreated back to Virginia being pursued by the Union army. The Union army was put under the command of General Sheridan with the orders to eliminate the threat by Early in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan won a number of victories up the Shenandoah Valley over the summer and by September General Early was not considered to be a major threat. In early October, Sheridan’s army encamped along Cedar Creek, south of Middletown with his headquarters around the Belle Grove plantation. He left the army under the command of General Wright and went to Washington for a war meeting. General Early had only two choices, to either retreat from Strousburg with the hopes of finding much needed supplies and reinforcements or to attack and capture the supplies they needed. From on top of Signal Knob, the Confederates were able to see all of the Union forces which included a left flank that was not anchored by any natural features leaving it exposed. Early decided on the bold approach and devised a surprise attack for October 19. During the night of October 18, he divided his army into three columns and sent then to positions along the left flank and beyond where they could turn. At 5 am in a heavy fog, the Confederates attacked the Union forces along Cedar Creek and caught them completely by surprise. They quickly rolled up the left flank of the Union who fled back to their headquarters around Belle Grove. The Union XIX Corps on the right flank had sufficient time to swing regiments into position to slow the Confederate attack and provide enough time for most of the supply wagons to flee Belle Grove, which was overrun by 7:00. The Union army was forced back to a ridge north of Middletown where they began to regroup. At this point the Confederates paused to rest their troops, especially since over a third of the soldiers were now pillaging the Union camps for much needed food and clothing. By this time, General Sheridan had returned from his meeting in Washington after spending the night in Winchester. Rather then retreating and leaving the field to the Confederates, he rallied his army by riding up and down the line to advance in a counterattack at 4 pm. While part of his decision was due to his nature and reputation on the battlefield, General Sheridan was also concerned about the impact a major Union defeat would have on the Presidential re-election of Abraham Lincoln. After giving fierce resistance all along the line, the Confederate left flank began to crumble. This allowed General Custer to advance with his cavalry into the Confederate rear. Fearing their retreat back across Cedar Creek would be cut off and after a long night of marching and day of fighting, the Confederates broke and General Early lost control. The Union army quickly pursued the Confederates back across Cedar Creek and captured most of them around Strousburg a couple of days later. Thus ended the last major threat from the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, eliminating the food grown in this region which accounted for over 20% of the supplies General Lee needed in Richmond.
Established in 2004, the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park is one of the newest in the NPS system and although there is over 3700 acres within the park’s authorized boundary, over 50% is privately owned. The NPS acts as a coordinating unit with the other land owners, most of which are private foundations and the Civil War Trust to preserve the battlefield site. Much of the National Historical Park is still a work-in-progress, which is immediately apparent since the Visitor Center is one end of a strip mall on the north end of Middletown. Expecting more than this, we initially drove past the Visitor Center and had to get directions. They don’t have room for a movie in the Visitor Center, so instead they have a topographic display of the battlefield with moving lights and a short presentation, which was actually very good! They do have a driving tour of the battlefield with 10 stops from the crossings of Cedar Creek and following the advancing Confederates throughout the morning and the counterattack by the Union in the late afternoon. There is a CD for the driving tour, which is well worth it, especially since they loan out the CDs so they are free. The driving tour is along public roads, but there are no signs to point out the route, so you have to follow the directions given in the handout to find each stop. Most of these stops are on private land with no parking except pulling off to the side of the road and in many cases your are asked to stay in your vehicle. There are a couple of places you are allowed to get out and explore, for instance the Union trenches extending west from the Valley Pike, now US 11. This trail is about a mile in length and travels alongside the remains of the trenches, which by 1864 both sides had gotten very good at, as evidenced by the huge systems of trenches around Petersburg and Richmond. These trenches are not as impressive, however, they are well preserved and clearly evident. You can also tour Belle Grove which is owned and operated by a private foundation, however, we decided we did not have time for. We did walk around the grounds, which is still a working farm and ranch. By the end of the driving tour we had a good understanding of the battle that took place on October 19, 1864 when General Sheridan was able to rally his troops and turn a stunning Confederate victory into a devastating loss, thus shortening the Civil War by denying General Lee much needed supplies during the winter of 1864-1865.
We made the right decision since the weather on Wednesday was much nicer with the fog burning off by the time we got to Front Royal and the Skyline Drive. We stopped at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center where I bought the CD for Skyline Drive and a small book about the easy day hikes in the park. The CD provided tidbits of information at most of the overlooks and trailheads, from history to nature to what you can see from the overlooks or hiking trails. We also caught a presentation by a Park Ranger about the healthy black bear population in the park and what to do if we encounter one on the trails.
We began our trip south on the Skyline Drive stopping at each of the overlooks to take in the view. Since it was fall we could see to the west to the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia over 30 miles away. We stopped at the trailhead for Lands Run Falls just beyond mile marker 9 on the drive. This was listed as an easy 1.2 round trip hike down a fire break to Lands Run Falls, which is not the most spectacular falls in the park, but was promised to be an easy hike to it. Unfortunately, the elevation change was over 300 feet and all downhill to the falls, with some pretty steep stretches. Even with the light rain the past few days, there was not much water in the small stream, so the falls were not very spectacular, but pretty and worth spending some time exploring it. Then we had to hike back up to the truck, which was just about all we wanted to deal with. This certainly ruled out any of the “moderate” hikes listed in the book.
After eating lunch at the truck we continued the drive to the next stop, which was the trailhead for Fort Windham Rocks just beyond the 10 mile marker. This was also listed as an easy hike, but the elevation change was negligible. It was an easy 0.8 mile round trip to the interesting rock formation named Fort Windham. These were granite columns sticking up out of the ground with a side trail that took you to their top. Much nicer walk.
After the hike we continued taking in all the overlooks to both the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont hills to the east. There is a total of 75 overlooks on Skyline Drive, which meant they were every few miles. Therefore, by stopping and spending some time at each one, it was after 4:00 in the afternoon when we came to the first entrance station at Thornton Gap. From here it was a short trip back to the campgrounds for the night.
On Thursday, we headed back to Thornton Gap to continue our trip south on the Skyline Drive. At this point, the first overlook was just after you pass through the only tunnel on the drive, which was quite an engineering feat for the time. Today the inside of the tunnel has a concrete covering to stop water from leaking through the rocks which caused icy problems in the winter. The most interesting overlook along this stretch was Stony Man Overlook, from where you can get a good look at Stony Man. This is a rock formation on the front of Stony Man Mountain that looks like a face looking out to the west. The Skyline Drive then continues to climb up near the summit of Stony Man, which is the highest point of the drive. From there we took a self-guided nature trail to the top where you can walk out onto the same rock formation we were just looking at. From here you get one of the best views to the west, north, and south. We also caught up with a Park Ranger talk at the summit and enjoyed her presentation about the history of Stony Man, which has been a visitor attraction since the 19th century. We also spent some time at the summit watching the ravens soar on the winds and enjoying the cool fall weather.
After the hike, we again ate lunch at the truck before continuing the drive. We went a short distance to Limberlost, which is another short hike through the woods. This is a 1.3 mile loop trail that is nearly level on crushed greenstone gravel and boardwalks over the swampy areas. This made for a very pleasant walk where you did not have to watch where you stepped and could just relax in the woods. Once again these two hikes and the numerous overlooks to the east and west took most of the day and it was after 3 before we made it to the next entrance station at Swift Run Gap.
On Friday it was time to finish the Skyline Drive even though the sunny weather was over and we were facing foggy, wet conditions in the valley, which would only be worst on the Skyline Drive. Sure enough, we traveled in and out of the fog all day as we wound around the southern section of the drive. We were not much interested in hiking in this weather, especially since the higher elevation overlooks were soupy to no visibility.
However, after eating lunch in the truck we decided to try our luck with at least one trail, Blackrock Summit Trail just shy of the 85 mile marker. This was only a 1 mile loop trail that went up along the Appalachian Trail and back along a fire road. The elevation change was less than 200 feet, so it was an easy walk and we even met an AT hiker trying to make time on the trail for the day. At the summit you come upon a talus slope of broken quartzite rock that is slowly making it down the mountain. You can see many other rocky slopes on the surrounding hills and it was neat to get up close to one. Of course, the view from here is also supposed to be spectacular, however, visibility was only about 10 feet, so we could not see much besides the rocks. Due to the weather, we finished the Skyline Drive ahead of schedule, which was good since it was about 1.5 hour drive back to the campgrounds.
On Saturday we stayed at the campgrounds and I worked on catching up this blog and Kal did the laundry. We both got done in plenty of time to drive into Harrisonburg to an Applebees for dinner. While we did eat dinner, our real reason was to watch the Auburn vs Mississippi State football game and the Texas A&M vs Arkansas game, which were being played at the same time. So while we tried to watch football games on two different TVs over the bar, we sampled a number of sampler appetizers for dinner and a couple of beers (at least or me). Eating dinner this way not only lengthens the experience (since we had 3.5 hours to kill for the games), but is actually cheaper than buying two full dinners that we would have trouble finishing anyway. Consequently, this is, in my opinion, a great way to watch the football games on Saturday without spending a lot of money. I look forward to opportunities like this in the future, even though Auburn lost their game and will have to play the role of the spoiler this year. However, Texas A&M remains undefeated so it was not all a disappointment.
Sunday we spent in the campground, as the weather continued to be foggy and wet with periods of rain. There are a few attractions that we might see in the future, including President Woodrow Wilson’s Presidential Library and the New Market Battlefield, but they will have to wait.