For now, a key part of travel planning centers around following COVID guidelines, especially staying away from crowds, and staying fairly close to home. Luckily, the Shenandoah Valley offers numerous ways to do that. The following attractions, requiring just a short drive for many Virginians, either allow you to stay safe in your vehicle or easily maintain social distancing outside. Obviously, at this time of year, you should check weather reports and road conditions that might force closures.
Ride The Sky Atop The Blue Ridge Mountains
Weather permitting, driving Skyline Drive during winter can be an extraordinary visual experience. With the leaves down, views change dramatically, waterfalls are more evident (and may be frozen), and wildlife sightings easier. While all the facilities in Shenandoah National Park are closed for the winter, Skyline Drive and the trails are open. (Gasoline at Big Meadows Wayside is available year-round; however, the gas pumps can be unreliable, so it is a good idea to enter the Park with a full tank.) Snow has already closed the Drive for some days in mid-December, but you can check on alerts and current road conditions here or call 540-999-3500 (option 1, option 1).
Visit A State Park
Virginia State Parks are another good winter option. Shenandoah River State Park in Bentonville, for example, has 24 miles of hiking trails. While they canceled their annual First Day guided hike due to limits on gathering size, you can still hike on your own. They suggest Bluebell or Overlook trail for casual walks, and Bear Bottom Loop or Allen’s Mountain if you want to push yourself. The park covers more than 1,600 acres, including five miles of Shenandoah River shoreline.
Pause A Moment at Shenandoah’s Civil War Sites
Much of the Shenandoah Valley’s history revolves around the Civil War. The action took place in or near many of the Valley’s towns. New Market, for instance, saw Stonewall Jackson’s troops march through no less than four times, and the Battle of New Market took place here on May 15, 1864. In this conflict, 257 young VMI cadets were pressed into service by Confederate General John Breckinridge. After an 85-mile march north, the troops dug in but took cannon and rifle fire from Union soldiers atop Bushong Hill. Ultimately, the cadets and Breckenridge’s forces held, pushing back the Union army and securing the site – but not before many cadets lost their boots in the rain-soaked, plowed dirt of the battleground. That part of the battlefield became known as the “Field of Lost Shoes.”
Drive Through An Authentic Covered Bridge
If you do visit New Market, just head north on Route 11 about six miles to see one of the area’s most popular photo-ops—the Meems Bottom Bridge. Built in 1892- 93, this 204-foot span over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River carried traffic for more than 80 years before being burned by vandals on Halloween 1976. It was rebuilt and reopened to traffic in 1979.
Stroll Amidst The Serenity of An Arboretum
The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum is a woodland preserve on the James Madison University campus is free and open to the public, dawn to dusk, 365 days/year.” Carrier is a public, urban garden and forest that preserves native species, provides research opportunities, and promotes knowledge of the botanical and natural world. Even at this time of year, you can explore 125 acres and 3.5 miles of trails.
Equally enriching is the State Arboretum of Virginia (formerly known as the Orland E. White Arboretum), which takes up 172 acres of the Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce. Started in the 1930s, it is now home to over 5,000 trees and shrubs from around the world.
Go Ahead, Feed The Animals
Contrary to the common “Don’t Feed the Animals” signs we often see, feeding the animals is part of the fun at Virginia Safari Park. The park is home to more than 1,000 wild animals from many parts of the world. You don’t even have to leave your care–drive the three-mile gravel Safari Drive-Thru and feed the animals through your windows. Tickets must be purchased online. Note: This popular attraction is closed for winter but will re-open to visitors in March 2021.
Many more COVID-safe Things to Do may be found here.
Banner photo courtesy Troy D. Marshall