If you’re looking to explore fun landmarks by hiking and biking, we recommend Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, a lesser-visited park that is surrounded by a couple of delightful natural sites. The 200,000-acre wooded paradise is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian Mountain range between Pennsylvania and Georgia. Families can appreciate much of the park’s scenery along the 101-mile-long Skyline Drive that winds through it. Also set amid wildflowers, waterfalls and wildlife, the designated National Scenic Byway was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939. It gives RVers (keep in mind that Mary’s Rock Tunnel, just south of the Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211, is only at 12’8″ tall), drivers, cyclists and hikers a way to enjoy the park’s natural beauty.
Great Hiking and Biking with Kids
If you pull over and opt for a stroll, you will find the park is a great place for your children to explore wilderness’ playground. Over 500 miles of trails vary in length, from short hikes to trips that require 12 hours or more. Most trails are accessible in spring, summer and fall, but you should always check with a Park Ranger for current information.
Pop in one of the park’s many visitors centers to purchase a terrific, award-winning “Junior Ranger Explorer Notebook” for your kids (age 7 and older). If you don’t have any young naturalist tools, the visitor centers rent backpacks containing field guides, binoculars, and other handy supplies. These will help involve children in exploring and learning about trails, streams, plants and woodland creatures. After completing some activities, and attending two ranger programs (call ahead for schedules and more information), your proud kids will earn a Junior Ranger sticker, badge, or patch.
Natural Landmarks like Luray Caverns
Another natural wonder and a U.S. Registered Natural Landmark located on U.S. 211 – Luray Caverns – is only 10 minutes from the central entrance to Shenandoah National Park at Skyline Drive. The sculpted pathways and sophisticated lighting system that make the vast chambers of the cave accessible are recognized as one of the finest cavern illuminations in the world. This is the region’s most popular cave, and the first one you should visit.
You and your family will be escorted through this subterranean wonderland in an easy-paced one-hour walk. Open daily, year round, the cave tours include stops to see the Great Stalacpipe Organ (the world’s largest natural musical instrument), crystal clear lakes and pools, monumental columns and beautiful cascades of glittering stone.
Be sure to eat breakfast beforehand; you will be fascinated by unique formations such as those resembling “Fried Eggs,” sunny side up! Cavern goers can also enjoy the Instaworthy 6-foot-deep wishing well — a great photo op! After your tour, stop in to see the automobile displays at the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, have a picnic, try the ropes course and more (some additional fees apply.)
Manmade Landmarks at Shenandoah Caverns
Nearby, 1 mile from Exit 269 off of I-81 and 5 miles north of New Market, families may visit the Shenandoah Caverns attraction, an underground cave complex that boasts its own elevator, making it handicap accessible and great with multigenerational groups. In a tour lasting approximately one hour, families can see 17 rooms (some 100-feet-high), sparkling crystalline formations, unusual drapery formations like “Breakfast Bacon,” and Rainbow Lake. According to the company, the caverns were the site of the first underground movies, shot in the 1920s, and the first underground telephone.
This is a huge commercial venture, with one barn/warehouse at the site devoted to ‘American Celebration On Parade’ displaying historic floats, another warehouse showing off old farm equipment and memorabilia in an entertainment space for live performances, and a third structure above the restaurant housing a reproduction ‘Main Street of Yesteryear,’ whose shop windows and stores highlight the products and styles of… what else? Yesteryear. Note that like many local attractions, it’s closed between Thanksgiving and Easter.
Choosing Shenandoah Family-Friendly Lodging & Camping
Located 90 miles from Washington, DC, Shenandoah is home to Skyland Resort, Big Meadows Lodge (1 of National Geographic Traveler’s “Top 10 National Park Lodges”) and Lewis Cabins, all managed by DNC.
Hotel guests can hike or do nature walks with a Shenandoah Mountain guide, and go out at night to read the stars as the local Native Americans did. Advance reservations are recommended for the scheduled May through August guided hikes. Suggested gear for the outing includes comfortable walking shoes, a jacket, and small flashlight. Hikes are cancelled in bad weather.
The rustic, timber Lewis Mountain Cabins on Skyline Drive are among the most popular lodging. Families can set up house with their own cooking supplies, dishware and coolers and use the cabins’ bedding, bathroom and electricity for an authentic mountain home vacation. The pet-welcoming Skyland Resort has various options, ranging from rooms to suites with fireplaces. Families will enjoy the historically rustic Big Meadows Lodge, with its 1930’s fieldstone porch overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. Book ahead, as often these hotels are sold out; in fact, they accept reservations over a year in advance.
If you want to stay near the caverns, the Luray Caverns Motels East and West at each entrance to the caves, offer simple double rooms and a small, on-site swimming pool, for a modest rate.
One local mom recommends families try the Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Camp Resort, describing it as a “typical campground where you’ll find varying degrees of bathroom cleanliness when it comes time to bathe the kids.” Families will enjoy the camp’s great bike paths, nice trailer sites and location convenient to hiking within the park. Note that in addition to renting a camp site, you’ll have to pay an additional fee for some activities, like the waterslide, laser tag or mini-golf course, but those facilities are what makes this a fun place to stay.
If you fall in love with the famously scenic Shenandoah National Park, the National Park Service manages five more rustic campgrounds with tent sites, RV hookups and all the conveniences you’ll need; spots can be booked through the park’s website.
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