Monday, February 21, 2011

Couple days in the Virginia mountains

We took advantage of a three-day weekend and the extraordinarily nice weather to get away from the DC suburbs and spend a couple days in the mountains of Virginia.  When it is mid-February and the sun is out, the temperatures in the 60s, and there is no snow on the ground, one must get outside.

Our choice for a place to stay was the Widow Kips Country Inn, just off I-81 in Mount Jackson.  By "just off," we're not joking.  The 1830 Victorian house sits about a 100 yards from the interstate, which is a shame, because the hosts are great and the house and its adjacent cottages are meticulously cared for, comfortable, and inviting.  Plus, they allow pets in the cottages, which is always important to us.  We like the place and this was our third stay there.  For a closer look at the B&B, go to this link:

The first evening, we went 8 miles north up Rt. 11 (the old Valley Pike) to Edinburg for dinner at Sal's Italian Bistro ( at the recommendation of our inn hosts.  The place has been around since 1987 and is a local favorite.  Indeed, while we were waiting for a seat, some locals joked that they had tried everything on the menu and sat at every table in the place.  Pretty standard Italian fare and you can expect to eat like a king (or queen) for less than $50.   T had the carbonara, while H had grouper with spinach on linguine. H here: This is a wonderful family restaurant in the up and coming town of Edinburg. When we first started coming here, I believe it was one of the few non-chain places in Edinburg. Now there are several other restaurants, including one that offers braised lamb shanks on the menu, not standard Shenandoah Valley restaurant fare. A great value and good atmosphere.

Outside of getting away from the DC area for a few days, the highlight of the weekend was our Saturday hike.  We decided to tackle Signal Knob, the northern most peak of Massanutten Mountain, which comprises several sharp ridges dividing the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley and forming a separate valley (Fort Valley) to the east.   At 2,106 feet, it may not sound like much, but Signal Knob provides a commanding view of the surrounding area.  The view is so good that the knob was used by Confederate--and to some extent Union--forces during the Civil War to monitor troop movements in the Shenandoah Valley and as a communications site.  Troops atop the knob would use flags to signal messages to other signaling stations or local military headquarters.

Back to the hike.  The trail head is easy to get to.  From Rt. 55 between Strasburg and Front Royal, take State Road 678 (Ft. Valley Rd) south towards the historic Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area.  678 enters the narrow northern neck of Fort Valley and follows the winding Passage Creek.  Look for the ample parking area for Signal Knob and Bear Wallow on the right.

Passage Creek.  Popular waters for fishermen.
Looking south towards the mouth of Fort Valley.
The 10.4-mile trek combines the Signal Knob trail with the Little Passage Creek and Bear Wallow trails for a return loop to the parking lot.   At only 1600 feet of elevation gain, it is not an overly taxing climb, but it is strenuous enough to generate a good sweat and burn a few calories.  It is 4.4 miles and 1,200 feet of elevation gain to the Knob, then back down a bit, then back up 400 feet on the 6-mile backside of the loop before making a long descent to the parking lot.  Besides it being a very windy day (with gusts of up to 40mph at the top), the only negative part of the hike was the footing.  The Massanutten Mountain range is very rocky, so if you plan to hike any of its many trails, wear high-top boots and prepare for long periods of rock-strewn and potential ankle-twisting walking.

A unique aspect of hiking in the winter is that you can actually see the lay of the land!  East coast mountains are covered in hardwood trees, and while beautiful in the spring, summer, and fall, they also limit one's view.  Notice too, the lack of February.
One of the many rock-strewn portions of the trail.  In T's younger years, he ran and mountain biked this trail.  Yea, it's a wonder he did not crack his skull.  Those days are probably over.
The northern entrance to Ft. Valley.
Fort Valley (looking southeast).
Another view of Ft. Valley as it opens up towards the south.  An interesting side note is that General George Washington during the Revolutionary War thought about using Fort Valley as a "last stand" area because it was thought to be a natural fortress.   The 23-mile long valley is only three miles wide at its widest point and accessible only through a few narrow gaps.
Signal Knob from the trail.
The knob continues to be used for communications today.
Signal Knob dominates the country to the west, north, and east.  The curving ribbon of water in the photo is the North Fork of the Shenandoah River.  Beyond the river is I-81, the Shenandoah Valley, and fields that were once the site of a major Civil War action, the Battle of Cedar Creek.  Confederate troops crossed the river in the early morning hours of 19 October 1864 and surprised a Union army camped in the fields beyond.  After an initial Confederate success, Union forces rallied and drove the Confederates from the field in the last major battle for the Shenandoah Valley.

Looking towards the north.  The town of Winchester is on the far horizon.
The town of Strasburg and the Shenandoah Valley.

Maybe one day we will place a similar marker on a favorite trail.

Smoke plumes from a fire over on the Blue Ridge range to the east.  The fire, driven by gusts of up to 40mph on Saturday, closed down Skyline Drive for a period.
Probably not so evident in this photo, but the walk down off the ridge took us through an area with evidence of old charcoal hearths and iron-ore mines which furnished  materials for the nearby Elizabeth Furnace when it operated in the 1800s.
A good bit of the Passage Creek part of the trail is an easy walk along a forest road.

 After a stop off at the Antique Emporium in Strasburg on the way back, we decide to try another local recommendation for dinner; Joe's Steakhouse in Woodstock.  We figured 10+ miles of hiking had earned us a couple of big meals.   T tried the New York Strip, while H did the steak and crab cake combo.  H here: This restaurant was a surprise. It is much fancier than most of the restaurants out in the valley. Woodstock to some extent caters to visitors from the DC-area, and this restaurant is a part of that trend. The food and wine list were excellent and the overall experience was very relaxing after a long day on the trail. And there weren't just us city types there. Many of the tables were filled by locals, which makes me think that this somewhat out of place restaurant might just survive these lean economic times.

Joe's Steak House.
Sunday was a day of relaxation.  Before heading back to DC, we did a quiet drive along some other parts of Massunutten Mountain between New Market and Luray, including the Moreland Gap area.

An easy trail near Kennedy Peak, at the southern end of Massanutten Mountain.

From the Kennedy Peak area, looking into Page Valley.  The river is the South Fork of the Shenandoah.  Luray is off to the right (south).
Overall this was a great trip and it brought home to us, yet again, that the only way these two small town-bred folk can hope to stay sane in the urban area we find ourselves living in is to make frequent visits to places where the pace is slower and trees outnumber automobiles.

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