What To Do When Driving Through Shenandoah Valley
A high percentage of our readers spends at least part of their summers in northern locales, often where they came from and have summer homes or family and friends—sometimes all of these. Many of those make the trip both ways by car. Of that group, a disproportionate number use Interstate 95, which can be an ordeal, whether traveling from distant Maine or points closer.
For many travelers there is an alternative driving route, which is not only much less hectic, but also pleasingly scenic and so filled with rich history that it can become a memorable addendum to one’s vacation. We refer, of course, to Interstate 81 and its course through the famous Shenandoah Valley. I-81 connects with Interstate 77 in southern Virginia, which in turn meets Interstate 26 in South Carolina to join I-95 west of Charleston. For travelers from the East Coast, the trip is more roundabout, but the compensation, besides the beauty of the drive, is avoiding possible massive traffic jams on I-95 near cities along the busy route.
Technically, the Shenandoah Valley runs for about 200 miles, mostly through Virginia, taking its name from the storied river that winds through the state. In reality, however, the road less traveled has scenic feeder routes from more northeasterly states and eastern Canada. It can be accessed by fast roads from as far west as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
I-81 begins in northern New York at the Saint Lawrence Seaway and extends well into Tennessee. It has tourist destinations all along the way but here we concentrate on the valley from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to Blacksburg, Virginia, near the North Carolina line. There is barely a town along that route where one might not be tempted to stop for a few days. We cite some of the most interesting places, from north to south, as the returning snowbird drives. None are more than a short drive from the interstate.
For those coming from northeast cities, this West Virginia town is a convenient entryway to a Shenandoah Valley tour. Geographically, it is the beginning of the valley. You can get in a Civil War mood by stopping at Gettysburg or Antietam, both along the way. Harpers Ferry was more important two centuries ago than it is today, unless you count tourism. It was along a main route to the west, back when rivers were the way to travel. It lies in a picturesque valley where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers join. Back in the 1700s, it was a western outpost. President George Washington chose it for an arsenal, a place for soldiers to protect outward-bound settlers venturing into unknown dangers.
Later a canal, then the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, connected it to Washington, Baltimore and points north. By the Civil War, the railroad had expanded westward and was the main supply route between the Union eastern and western armies. The arsenal was the target of John Brown’s Raid in 1859, a drama which inflamed emotions prior to the Civil War. Before the 1862 battle of Antietam, an inept Union general let his force of 12,000 men be trapped when Confederates under Stonewall Jackson dominated the high ground surrounding the town. The Union surrender was the largest for American troops until Bataan in World War II.
Thus, despite a population of only a few hundred people today, Harpers Ferry has an oversized footprint in the American travel economy, with 500,000 tourists a year. The arsenal is long gone, along with the arms industry it supported, but many historic buildings survive, and since the whole town is a national historic site it hasn’t changed a lot in a century and a half.
Although most sightseers arrive by car, the old town is also accessible by two daily commuter trains from Washington. More than a few visitors also arrive on foot. Harpers Ferry is one of the few towns directly crossed by the Appalachian Trail in its long trek from Georgia to Maine.
Another town reeking of history is just minutes off I-81, which through Virgina parallels the historic U.S. Route 11. The latter was known as the Valley Turnpike during the Civil War. It was a modern paved road for that era and served as the fast route for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s two invasions of the North. Three battles were fought in or close to the city, and Southern and Yankee troops passed through so often the town changed hands 72 times in four years.
The historic turnpike becomes Loudoun Street in the city, and a four-block section in the heart of town has been turned into Old Town Mall, a pedestrian walkway lined with historic buildings, shops and restaurants. The town is cozy but with enough activity that AARP lists it as one of the best places in the country for retirees.
Of the dozens of Civil War battles fought in the valley, one of the most important was Cedar Creek, a dozen miles south of Winchester. The battlefield surrounds the tiny town of Middletown. The October 1864 encounter was the South’s last effort to control the fertile Shenandoah area. It is famous for Sheridan’s Ride, when Union commander Phil Sheridan rode in haste from Winchester to join his army and turn what had been a brilliant morning victory for the Confederates into a decisive Union triumph by sundown.
The battlefield is in a rural area. Although part of the sprawling battlefield has been taken over by a mining operation, it is worth seeing simply because much of it has remained pristine. Unless you notice a historical marker pullover on U.S. 11, you could pass the battlefield and its namesake creek without knowing it. It is a park in progress, with additional open land being acquired. You are there in much the same way the combatants were 150 years ago.
If anything rivals the Civil War in popular Shenandoah Valley culture, it is the famous schools that reside there. Hardly a town lacks a college of some size, but for both Civil War and academic history, nothing tops Lexington, Virginia. Heading south from Winchester, I-81 goes through Harrisonburg, the charming home to James Madison University, with 19,000 undergrads.
Lexington, a bit farther down the road, is, like Harpers Ferry, small in size but large in history. It is home to Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (VMI), located adjacent to one other just a short ride off the interstate. Washington and Lee is ranked high among liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report. It was VMI that sent Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson to glory in 1861. He was a teacher at the school, which also contributed its teenage cadets to several battles where they performed bravely. After his death at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, Jackson was buried in Lexington.
VMI looks like a military school, surrounded by fortress walls. Yet, within walking distance is Washington and Lee, a strikingly different sort of campus. It was little known as Washington College until after the Civil War when Confederate hero Robert E. Lee became its president, conferring upon it instant prestige, which it retains to this day. Lee is buried there, and the school, with marketing savvy, added his name to Washington’s.
The campus is classic, hilly with stately columned old buildings. Strolling among them is a delight—and pretty good exercise as well.
This stop in Virginia is a serious change of pace—a railroad town if ever there was one. For a century it was headquarters of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, now part of the giant Norfolk Southern system. Before the railroad, the place was known as Big Lick. It wasn’t very big, but when the iron horse came through it grew to be the largest city in the valley with more than 100,000 residents.
The Norfolk and Western Railway was one of the few railroads that built its own engines back in the steam era. Its shops employed thousands, and its steam locomotives, which were produced into the 1950s after diesels dominated the industry, were among the finest designs. The town is still a railroad center—a hub where Norfolk Southern’s trains move out in all directions as far north as Buffalo, New York, and west to Kansas City, Missouri.
Not surprisingly, the heart of the city is bisected by a major rail yard, and the Virginia Transportation Museum is housed just off the main line. It features an automobile collection, along with a number of vintage locomotives and railway cars. A favorite of rail buffs is the J611 class streamlined steam engine, one of the most attractive and efficient designs of a bygone era. It was capable of pulling a passenger train at more than 100 mph.
The city’s center is a busy place with modern high-rises, but it preserves a very human scale, revolving around a revitalized historic market. You have a feeling Roanoke’s people are having fun, and a visitor feels welcome to join in.
Roanoke is the heart of what has historically been called the upper valley, or Roanoke Valley, where the surrounding hills are highest. Just beyond the valley off I-81 is another interesting stop: Blacksburg, Virginia just 30 miles from the I-77 junction. This is the location of another high-profile university, the 30,000-student Virginia Tech. As far as Virginia schools go, Virginia Tech is a newcomer, evolving from a school founded in the 1870s, and most of its buildings lie on rolling land west of the pleasant downtown. In fact, Blacksburg has been called one of the nation’s top college towns.
The university and high-tech industry associated with it, dominate the economy. Blacksburg’s center reflects the vibrant activity associated with a youthful college atmosphere. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and pedestrian malls that host a number of events each year.
Before swinging south toward home on I-77, it should be noted that the Shenandoah Valley has numerous attractions between its towns, including caverns made by nature, and a scenic road, the Skyline Drive. The Drive, or Blue Ridge Parkway as it is known farther south, is never far east of I-81. It runs along mountain ridges for more than 100 miles of the vast Shenandoah National Park, with all the outdoor adventures a mountain park offers. It is a slow two-lane road with speed laws strictly enforced, but who wants to race through such memorable mountain greenery?
There is plenty of time to put the pedal to the metal once you reach I-77 and the faster, but far less scenic and relaxing, final leg to Florida.