Getting There, and Skyline Drive
About a week ago, I checked the weather forecast for Front Royal, Virginia. Since passing the basic rider course and acquiring a motorcycle last month I had been anticipating an opportunity to take it on a single trip this year. My first inclination was Vermont to enjoy the fall foliage and cruise some winding back roads, but the predicted weather in Virginia made the decision for me.
Front Royal is a mid-sized town which acts as the northern gateway to Skyline Drive, a twisted road running atop the Blue Ridge Mountains within Shenandoah National Park. It terminates 105 miles later in Rockfish Gap near Crozet, Virginia and there begins the even longer Blue Ridge Parkway. $25 buys you and your motorcycle a ticket to ride all day long for a week. We planned four full days total to travel to Skyline Drive, explore its twists and turns, and return home to New Jersey. We planned on camping two of the three nights, and booked a hotel for the final evening strongly anticipating the need of a good, hot shower. I’ll share more about the camping experience in a future post.
The fall foliage along Skyline Drive was approaching the season peak as we meandered along. Allotting 8 hours to cover 260 miles of highway seemed appropriate given this was our first long trip on the motorcycles. A quick dinner stop in Front Royal and off we went to the starting point of the Drive. Well, almost, as my GPS was initially convinced that we could travel down a one-way service road the wrong way in order to gain access. Once we had that sorted, we passed the gate, punched our tickets, and were on the move 45 minutes down the road to Matthew’s Arms Campground (no relation). The first night would be spent out under the stars!
We did see quite a few stars that first night. It was crystal clear and with no rain in the forecast we kept the rain fly in its pouch and wrapped up in our sleeping bags to drift to sleep. When camping I always fall asleep early, since the departure of the sun and no unnatural light mean my body is ready for bed quicker than usual. Getting up the next morning is often right before sunrise, at first light, and it is a relaxing feeling to have the morning sun wash over your tent while you lay in a sleeping bag and listen to the forest around you wake up.
Quick work was made of packing up camp and a protein bar made a sufficient breakfast. Loading up the gear on the bikes we headed off another 50 miles south on the Drive to reach Loft Mountain campground. Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National forest offer two options for camping: book in advance, or first-come first-serve. Only twenty percent of the campsites are available for booking ahead and they often sell out far in advance. We lucked out booking Thursday night accommodations ahead of time, but Friday was going to be first-come, first-serve, so we planned to arrive at Loft Mountain early in the morning to secure a space, unpack our things, and then head back out on the Drive for an unencumbered day of leaning back and forth on those sweeping roads.
The first thing and the most important thing to do on Skyline Drive is to stop at overlooks, which are simply areas directly off the main road which offer parking for a few cars and have an unimpeded view of the mountains and valleys below. Take some photos. Compare your favorite overlooked against your partners favorite and have spirited discussions about why your overlook is the end-all, be-all! It’s just good spirited fun. We grabbed a few sunrise shots on Friday morning and continued down to the end of Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap for lunch and a hike.
Exploring the Blue Ridge Tunnel
Well, more of a stroll down to a deep, dark abyss. The Blue Ridge Tunnel is a railway tunnel constructed in the 1850’s. It is long; 4,237 feet or nearly a mile and a straight shot through the mountain above. It is dark; you have to bring your own flashlight, else all you’ll have to guide you is the literal ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. It is cool; temperature-wise, that is, and on the warm October day we went it was 85 F outside and perhaps 60 F inside the tunnel. Strava Link.
The tunnel allowed the first railroad to connect coastal Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley, reducing a journey which had taken days prior down to mere hours. I struggle to think of the last advancement in modern technology which has saved me days of time. At the time of its construction, the Blue Ridge Tunnel was on of the longest in the world.
Perhaps not a surprising fact, but the tunnel’s construction killed a bunch of people. Mostly poor Irishmen and black slaves. A stirring reminder of the costs which once seemed acceptable for something that we look at today as just a simple tunnel. No one can change the past, but hopefully we all can learn from it.
Hiking Blackrock Gap
Saturday morning started off with a gorgeous sunrise and clear blue skies. We took the opportunity to ride a few miles down the Drive from our campsite at Loft Mountain to Blackrock Gap where we could hike less than a mile to achieve spectacular views. Why not, it’s vacation! Additionally, there were rocks to climb and I cannot say no to that. Strava Link.
After a short walk we came upon a mess of dark rocks overlooking two valleys, one in each direction. The pictures do the real job of telling this story. You can catch to fall colors bleeding into the mountains off in the distance.
(Please Don’t) Let The Rain Fall Down
All trips have highs and lows. Learning to ride a motorcycle comes with lessons you prefer to learn only once. Unfortunately, those two things intersected on Saturday afternoon when a miscalculation on my part, coupled with a terrible weather forecast put us smack in the middle of some downpours while riding along at 65 mph on the highway into Staunton, VA. We only faced a 20% chance of showers. It was less than 0.2 inches of rain expected. It was supposed to come a little later, and there was covered parking in Staunton. Alas, we got soaked.
The summer motorcycle jackets held up well with their interior waterproof liners. My armpits got wet, but nothing else. Weird! The pants and boots were a different story. When the rain began to fall my jeans were wet, as expected. What I did not expect was that rain would collect on my pants legs and, once saturated, make its way down into my boots. I was riding with a fish-tank strapped around each foot by the time we arrived in town.
I suppose the good news is that we did make it to the covered parking and no one was around, giving us time to change clothes right there in the lot. With dry socks on (such luxury!) we locked down our gear to the bikes and headed off to a nice-sounding craft beer bar in town called ‘the green room’. It was not green. But the beer menu was excellent, and the snacks quite tasty! Anything to take the sting out of being soaking wet, riding down the highway with a fogging helmet visor and wondering “am I really going to make it?”
Overnight Saturday had two issues. The first was that an ill-advised quesadilla rendered me quite ill all night long and I got about five minutes of sleep the day before we were supposed to spend another 6-8 hours on the highway heading home. Fun! The second was that the rain had brought along its friend the cold front, and the temps dropped from the 80’s into the 60’s. The ride home was going to be a bit brisk.
After spending extra time in the morning on Sunday getting ready to shove off, we saddled up and rolled out.
There aren’t any great pictures of the ride home. It was frigid and leaving my gloves off to take photos meant chilling my fingers more than was absolutely necessary. The wind buffet on the highway was immense, leaving me constantly fighting the bike back into the lane. This persisted all along Rt 81 northbound, and we only got a slight respite when turning east near Harrisburg, PA. My arms and lower back still have not forgiven me.
The journey did have two highlights, though!
One was that in order to stay close to roadside amenities for the first part of the ride we stayed on Route 11 northbound for the first two hours. This meant rolling through small towns and seeing some ‘sights’, one of which was a renaissance fair with some fellows on horseback jousting. That was interesting to watch as we traveled by.
The second highlight was Monty, a trucker for Napa Auto Parts we met. He was hauling northbound to Maine that day. We became acquainted when he approached us in the parking lot with a friendly ‘you guys SUCK’. Our crime? Being out riding on a nice day when he was stuck working! Monty owned a Harley and enjoyed cruising on the weekends, and we spent some time chatting with him over a fast lunch about his younger years riding and doing dumb stuff. Good to make friends.
With that, another road trip in the books. I’ve driven non-stop to Key West from New Jersey, run four different Miata’s over the back roads of North and South Carolina, and now I’ve taken a motorcycle up and down Skyline Drive. And I think I’m just getting started.