Monday, September 21, 2015

Celebrating 17 Years of Marriage - A Fantastic Long-Weekend in the Shenandoah Valley

 August 27 - 31, 2015
Front Royal, VA/Shenandoah National Park

View of the Shenandoah Valley from Hawksbill Summit in Shenandoah National Park
While our summer travel schedule might conceivably be described as excessive by some, all of our most recent excursions had involved work or family visits.  And as much as we've enjoyed those visits, we decided that our wedding anniversary, which fell on a Saturday this year, would be a perfect reason to spend a long weekend alone together in the laid back peacefulness and serenity of the Shenandoah Valley.  The weekend proved to be everything we had hoped for, providing us with a wonderful opportunity to appreciate and reflect upon the 17 years we've enjoyed as a married couple, while making new memories to cherish in the future.

Scott's Nespresso company picnic was scheduled for Thursday, August 27th, just two days before our anniversary, at a park in the middle of New Jersey.  Planning to attend the picnic, we took advantage of the short "work day" along with already being out of the city at the end of it by renting a car in the morning in Newark (the usual).  We then drove to the picnic ourselves rather than taking the company sponsored shuttle bus from the city, which allowed us to depart from central New Jersey by 2 pm, when the picnic was winding down, and get on the road headed for northwestern Virginia on the early side.  

We had a pleasantly uneventful drive through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia and arrived at our one-bedroom rented cabin in the woods before 8 pm.  Dubbed the "Cozy Cabin" (by the owners, not by us) and located down a long, private, gravel driveway, our VRBO accommodation for the weekend was a bit rustic and very secluded, boasting an excellent location just outside Shenandoah National Park.   

Upon taking the requisite photos of the late-day sun setting over the Shenandoah River, which was our amazing view from the cabin's cliffside deck, we promptly hit the sheets, excited for the fun, yet relaxing adventures that awaited us, come morning. 

Dusk on the Shenandoah
On our first morning in the valley, we got a slow and lazy start, enjoying our Nespressos (yes, Scott toted his machine along on the trip) out on the peaceful deck.  The scenic river view and cool morning air, combined with the sound of the rapids rushing in the distance, was so soothing we couldn't help but linger.

Our "Cozy Cabin"
Morning coffee view over the Shenandoah
After our leisurely coffee, we packed a lunch with the supplies we'd picked up in town the night before.  Armed with food, sunscreen and bug spray, we set off for Shenandoah National Park, just a short drive from the Cozy Cabin.  Upon our arrival there, we drove a section of the scenic Skyline Drive that runs the length of the park.

Skyline Drive vista
Skyline Drive overlook view of the Shenandoah Valley
On our drive, we saw a multitude of fat bumblebees and pretty butterflies busily pollinating the park's many wildflowers, and we stopped at a couple of overlooks to enjoy them at a slower pace.

Busy bees at Shenandoah National Park
During our tour of Skyline Drive, we also had the wonderful surprise of seeing our first black bear of the trip!  While driving along the winding and heavily forested road through the park, I spied a bear approaching the road from the woods.  After we sped by, Scott turned the car around as quickly as possible to circle back so he could see it too.  We were treated with the opportunity to watch it cross the road and lumber off into the forest on the other side.

Sadly, our bear "lumbered off" a little too quickly to get a decent photo
After driving for a bit, we reached the trailhead for the Hawksbill Mountain hike that we'd selected after talking with a friendly, young park ranger (wearing trendy yellow nail polish, at that!) at the visitor center and set off on the moderately strenuous hike.  A largely wooded walk, the hike began by following a portion of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Scott admires an over-sized rock formation on the Appalachian Trail section of our Hawksbill Mountain hike
It was our second time hiking a portion of the AT in less than 12 months, the previous time being on our trip to Maine last October, where we hiked the wilds of Baxter State Park.  The fact that I am even mentioning this makes us real hiking nerds, I suppose!

Typical Shenandoah National Park trail marker
Upon reaching the summit, we were rewarded for our efforts with lovely views of the surrounding Shenandoah Valley.

Enjoying the hard-earned panoramic view from Hawksbill Summit
After an exhilarating but tiring day in the park, we returned to the cabin, where we relaxed with drinks on the deck as we watched the sun sink into the horizon.  This simple end to the day was made all the more pleasurable by the lack of cell phone service or wi-fi at the cabin, allowing us to simply enjoy each other's company and the quiet beauty of our surroundings.

A relaxing end to the day
For our evening meal, we made use of the charcoal grill, enjoying an easy but tasty meal of juicy hamburgers, buttery corn on the cob and baked beans on our river-view deck.  If that doesn't say summer vacation, I don't know what does!

Scott fires up the grill!  Not having had any outdoor space for the past 3 years, we were pretty excited to make use of the Cozy Cabin's grill!
The next day - our anniversary - dawned hazy and cool, as we were learning was typical at this time of year.  However, there was no rain in the forecast and the cool haze quickly turned to sunshine and warmth - a perfect day to be out on the river!

Distant paddlers on the river, tempting us to action (Morning Coffee View)
The Shenandoah River is known to be an excellent canoeing river and we were eager to get out on the water and see for ourselves.  Scott had enjoyed canoeing on several occasions in his youth in Michigan and based on our recent kayak excursions he thought I might enjoy it as well.  

After donning our swimsuits and packing a lunch, we drove a short bit up the road to the Downriver Canoe Company, one of three area boating and tubing outfitters.  It was a Saturday and the line that had already formed when we arrived was a bit daunting, curving back around on itself in the small rental office.  However, the line moved quickly and the friendly and highly competent employees assured us that the crowds were mostly tubers. We had no problem renting a canoe, sans reservation, and after getting outfitted with paddles and life vests (and virtually no wait at all!), off we went in the shuttle van with the one other couple who was also canoeing.  Without ceremony, we launched ourselves (after I embarrassingly had to ask which direction to face while sitting in the boat) into the river from the sandy bank and we were off!

The glassy Shenandoah
The river was quite low so, in spots, we had to be on the lookout to avoid getting caught on any large rocks.  But on the flip side, the rapids were almost non-existent, causing us no problems at all in crossing, even for this novice paddler.  

Paddle power!
The weather was absolutely perfect - sunny and warm, with a few clouds mixed in to give us an occasional break from the searingly hot August sun - and it was a fun and relaxing way to celebrate our anniversary.

A lazy day on the Shenandoah
After an active(ish) day on the river, we were content to spend Saturday night grilling, eating out on the deck and simply enjoying the peaceful solitude together.

On our final day in the valley before driving home on Monday, we returned to the national park for an additional hike.  This time, we chose the Dark Hollow Falls trail, a steep but short hike to - you guessed it - a lovely waterfall.  Before setting off, Scott waited patiently while I paused in the trailhead parking lot to take more photos of all the beautiful butterflies flitting about in the field of wildflowers there.  

Dark Hollow Falls traihead
Although the waters weren't exactly rushing since the area had seen little rain in recent weeks, we enjoyed seeing the pretty little falls.  

Dark Hollow Falls
However the main attraction of this hike turned out to be the two black bears we spotted (thanks to the small crowd gathering on the trail) way up high in the treetops and across a shallow ravine from the trail on our return from the waterfall.  What we believe was a mother and her cub seemed a bit heavy for the high branches and we watched, mesmerized, as they fed precariously on the swaying branches, far from the ground.

As we watched, one of the bears methodically made its way down the tree, looking like a giant teddy bear, clinging to the tree trunk, its sharp claws hidden in big furry paws as it lowered itself towards the ground. 

One of the two black bears we were delighted to see, trailside
It was fascinating to witness and we waited until the bear was very close to the ground before finally beating a hasty retreat back up the trail to our waiting car, breathless with adrenaline and taxed lungs.

My final shot before we decided it might be wise to head back to the safety of the parking lot
After grilling at the cabin the previous two nights, we decided to go out for dinner and drinks at a place that was recommended to us by the friendly pourer at the Rappahannock Cellars tasting room, which we visited a couple days prior.

The vines at Rappahannock Cellars in the late afternoon light.  The grounds were pretty but the wine, while passable, was uninspiring.
The salad and giant plate of bbq ribs we shared at the bar was perfectly serviceable and more than enough food for two but not quite memorable enough for me to note and remember the name of the restaurant (or take any photos), though Scott just reminded me it was called Griffin Tavern.

On Monday morning, it was time to pack our belongings and clean up the cabin before hitting the road.  At 11 am, we said farewell to the Cozy Cabin, and climbed in the car heading for home after dropping off our used linens, trash and recycling at the caretaker's house just up the road.  

As is our habit, we left on the early side so we could stop along the way, if anything of interest crossed our path.  This time, we took a different route, opting to follow I-95 north through Virginia, Maryland and Delaware before arriving in New Jersey, where we would drop off our rental car before returning to Manhattan.  Traffic wasn't excessive and after skirting Washington DC and Baltimore we entered Delaware.

Although we had not heard great things about the US's second smallest state, our entry into Delaware was nevertheless very exciting for us as it was one of a small handful of states that neither of us had ever visited.  Delaware - check!  Now, only the Dakotas and Alaska (and Minnesota for me, somehow) remained on our list!  

We proceeded to drive south on I-9 down the east side of the state that follows the Delaware River, thinking we might see some nice scenery.  But sadly for Delaware, until you get to the far southernmost portion of the state where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean, its view is of the smoke stacks and power plants of New Jersey.

Delaware's Augustine Beach looking across the Delaware River to New Jersey.  "Delaware: Where the View is New Jersey." Poor Delaware.
We drove almost halfway down the coast, from Wilmington to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which was mentioned as a point of interest in our Lonely Planet road trips book.  We stopped off, hoping to see something of interest in this so-far-lackluster state.

The entrance to the desolate and dusty Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
Although it was very buggy (this is putting it mildly, as evidenced by Scott's delight in attempting, yet somehow failing, to snap photos of me wildly swatting at the bugs swarming around my head), it was a lovely estuary that was initially protected because it is located on the flyway and is used as a stopover for hundreds if not thousands of migrating birds each year.  

Early migrators at Bombay Hook
It was quite beautiful in a sparse, desolate sort of way, reminiscent of, but not as pretty as, Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico, which we liked to visit due to its incredible popularity with the picturesque migrating Sandhill Cranes.  I imagine we were at Bombay Hook at the wrong time of year, it still being very hot and humid at the end of August, but we did see a few birds enjoying the shallow waters and tall grasses of the refuge.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
On the day we visited, the temperature was hovering around 90 degrees, but I imagine it is quite lovely in cooler weather and when fewer buzzing insects and more migrating birds are in residence.

In our efforts to see something of value in Delaware (and still not quite sure whether we succeeded), we spent a little longer dallying than we should have.  After leaving the wildlife refuge we drove like the wind back north thorough Delaware and into New Jersey to drop off our car and take the airport bus back to Manhattan in time for Scott to return to work on Tuesday.

Crossing the rather striking bridge over the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal on our way back to New Jersey.  
It was a wonderful and romantic weekend of unplugging, relaxing in casual clothes and flipflops and enjoying our natural surroundings together and we made memories we will surely keep with us for many years to come, just as an anniversary celebration should be.  

And although it is a more subtle sort of beauty than that which you tend to see in the national parks of the western US, we thoroughly enjoyed the relative solitude and quiet loveliness of Shenandoah National Park and the surrounding Shenandoah Valley.  While not located within the park itself, the proximity of the Shenandoah River to the park adds an enjoyable and unique layer to the park experience and we would welcome an opportunity to return to the area one day, making even more memories together.

More photos:

Our Cozy Cabin in the woods, as seen from the gravel driveway
Our Cozy Cabin companion, located above the door to the deck
Not fancy, but the cabin's bathroom had what we needed
Typical view from Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive was quiet at the end of August
Shenandoah wildflowers
Skyline Drive views
Bumblebees and butterflies were in abundance in the park
Hawksbill Mountain hike
"I'm hiking the Appalachian Trail!"
This rocky section of our Hawksbill Mountain hike was reminiscent of the La Luz Trail, an old favorite of ours in New Mexico
Hawksbill Mountain Summit
Taking a load off at Hawksbill Mountain Summit
One of the numerous interesting insects we spotted during our visit
View of the Shenandoah Valley from Hawksbill Mountain Summit
Hawksbill Mountain Summit
Moody clouds over the valley
Hawksbill Mountain wildflowers

Just another sunset over the Shenandoah...
Making happy memories at the Cozy Cabin
This Walking Stick hung out on our window screen for the better part of two days!
Paddling the Shenandoah
Canoe views

The Shenandoah River rapids we just crossed, looking less daunting in the rear view!
Lunch on the river
Pastoral river view
This pretty little guy (or gal) was already dead when we discovered its shell in our driveway :-(
Scott and his new friend at the cabin
Anniversary views
Grillmaster Scott, making bbq chicken, an old grilling favorite of ours, for our anniversary dinner
Shenandoah Deck Life
Shenandoah sunset
Dark Hollow Falls trailhead parking lot
Dark Hollow Falls trailhead parking lot
Shooting the butterflies at Dark Hollow Falls trailhead parking lot
Dark Hollow Falls
Dark Hollow Falls, Caroline's turn
Bear in the treetops!  That black blob in the top third center of the photo is a bear
And down it comes!
Posing for the camera
Getting our soft-serve fix in Front Royal

Relaxing at the cabin
So long, but not goodbye, Shenandoah!