Before I go into any details of the Skyline Drive or associated scenic byways in the extended area we should have a chat about mountains. Now what people expect and consider as mountains can be different from location to location, depending on what you've seen or gotten used to. For example: On our way home, instead of taking us back across southern Pennsylvania, I took us lower, on scenic byway I-68, it went across Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia. We got to go near Boonesboro (my dad is a big Daniel Boone fan), and through the Cumberland Gap in that area. It was beautiful and a wise choice (I think it was much more scenic than I-76 across Pennsylvania, less traffic, and a generally smoother, nicer ride.). However, I kept seeing signs for this mountain or that mountain. Such-n-such a mountain 1647 feet. Now, I'm from out west and have spent much time out in the Rocky Mountains, Unitas, and other areas, for something to say "mountain" to me I expected to see a zero at the end of that number (i.e. 16,470) or some such. Consequently many westerners think of eastern mountains like the Alleghenies or the Appalachian, or Smokies, as "hills" rather than mountains. It is a matter of perspective to a large degree. But if they neglect the eastern mountains because of their biases, they will be missing out on one of the great treats in life and that’s what I want to tell you about today.
Mountains in the west and east are VERY different in nature and character, and it is far more than just a matter of height. The Rockies and other big western chains, are very tall and for the most part sparsely vegetated (again a matter of perspective from those of us that have seen more than a few sets of mountains), extremely tall, tough looking pieces of sculpted rock. The colors and types of rock as well as the vegetation depend upon not only your altitude, but your latitude. They are beautiful in their starkness, and fantastic in their geology. If you ever get the chance, scratch that, make sure you take the chance to go out and spend some time out in the "big" mountains, you will never regret it. And that is not even going into fun stuff out west that is more desert related with huge, towering, expansive mesas and large tracts of desert, the colors and variety of desert rock, dust, plants, and animals are unique and beautiful, sometimes like visiting another planet. However, the eastern United States mountains, wow, sooooo different and unique, with such a feel of ancient and primeval times.
You can feel almost insignificant and lost when you're out west in a deep canyon, walls towering walls around you, but not so in an area like the Appalachians or surrounding mountains. When I get ride in the bottom of the canyons in here I feel safely secured like a babe in it mother's arms. I feel a sense of security and a level of serene comfort that I don't quite come across out west. As you get to the tops of the Appalachians, like you get a chance to on the top of the skyline. It is like flying and then you get a peek out of the side or pull into one of the look-out stops on the Skyline and you can see down right into the Shenandoah Valley. What a lush, beautiful sight that is. You can almost imagine how early pioneers and country men and women felt as they crossed the mountains and went into the valley below. People like Daniel Boone. Being on my motorcycle and climbing, then dropping, then crossing and seeing all of the greenery, feeling the swell of the land, and loving the area... part of you says, wouldn't you like to stay, and then the other part of you says, if it is this awesome and beautiful here, what is the next valley like. I can see why many would continue to build and then expand west again as the wonder of new lands and places stirred their blood and moved their feet. Maybe that’s why some of us ride. Generations of wander- and wonder-lust that just won't subside. A chance to experience the magnificent and have it be your own, even if only for an hour.
Now I have to warn you as you look at the pictures, you are seeing the mountains and the valley there as they are just barely beginning to come out of hibernation from winter. You will see that the grass is green and the buds are ready to burst. What you will normally see when the Appalachians are arrayed in their full finery is green...lots of trees, grass, fern-looking bushy plants and a depth to that greenery that is astounding. You look, and you just know that if you walked off the road, in to the well greened woods that you could easily disappear. I don't mean hide, I mean disappear. I think you could walk 10 yards into the woods and if you got turned around, you wouldn't be able to find your way out. The eastern mountains are soooo like that, so green, so lush, so packed, that you can almost image the world the way the dinosaurs may have seen it. Between the mountains, the valleys, and the forests, I think whole tribes and groups of people could have lived without being found. It is so alive.
The speed on Skyline Drive is 35 miles an hour. Needless to say, you need a good, solid day to drive the entire length of 100 plus miles, if that is your plan. Some might think that this is ridiculous or obnoxious but far from just allowing you to experience something uniquely beautiful, it is a safety measure; there are many blind turns and fun sweeping curves to enjoy. But you are enjoying them with many other vehicles, including bicycles. I was often glad I was at the head of our pack of us and many cars behind us, because I could see and ride next to our bicycling brothers and sisters safely, where I think some of the cars would have posed a risk to them, because the cars always want to go faster and they think it is safer in a car for them to pay less attention to the road and others riders sometimes. And wildlife, of course there’s wildlife, lots of deer, birds, and supposedly bears (even though I’ve never seen any there). The deer are so used to people that they just stand calmly in the middle of the road and wait for you to either go around them or stop and pet them.
Now, you have to be diligent and lucky to enjoy the full gifts that the Skyline has to offer. We have been out to the Skyline more than a dozen times over the years, and including this year, I can only remember two that were perfect: perfect weather, perfect sky, perfect riding, and perfect viewing conditions. Many times we have been swamped by rain. Heavy down-pouring, crazy soggy rain, that is dismal, depressing and tough to drive very long with. Sometimes there has been heavy fog. A fog so thick and heavy that you couldn’t see any of the valleys, and when combined with killer rain, really kills a ride. However, early morning fog can be ok and burn off on a good day with awesome effects. You can feel like you are on a path winding through the clouds, while you get intermittent glimpses of the valleys and the world below. Fantastic!
If you get lucky and have that perfect opportunity, harness your patience for slow, turn up your joy of beauty, and keep on going, go ‘till you drop. Feeling really lucky? Full of time and butt-ability? Don’t just stop with the Skyline Drive. You can continue your journey as you head south by partaking of the Great Smokey Mountains, and then you can go even further down into North Carolina and enjoy one of a kind pieces of road like Deal’s Gap with its infamous 318 curves in 11 miles. (We’ll talk about the Smokies and Deal’s Gap in another blog, suffice it to say here, that I definitely consider is a MUST RIDE!)
If you are a wine aficionado, you may also be interested to know that there are at least half a dozen wineries in the Shenandoah Valley area, and you may want to do a little research for some additional trip fun.
The Appalachians and some of their sister ranges are unique and special, reach out and explore them. In a million years or so, the Rockies may be much smaller, just like the Appalachians. It is thought that the Appalachians are really, really ancient, like the great grand-pappy of the Rockies, worn down and old. I can guarantee you that even when the Rockies wear down, they will never have the greenery, or depth that you can see in the Appalachians.
Now that your riding bug has been awakened, and you are primed to go, let me also tell you that you should make your trip sooner than later. Soon the Appalachians, or large portions of them may no longer exist, at least not if coal mining companies and President Obama have their way. President Obama has apparently opened up and cleared the way to not only using, but destroying these magnificent marvels. There is a mining practice called mountain top mining, it is akin to strip mining. I have seen strip mining out west in Nevada, they literally use a power hose and blow away chunks of mountain to obtain minerals and metals. What is left are huge, ugly scars in the mountainside and pools of caustic and toxic sludge, with mountains piles of garbage tailings. Now in the Appalachians, with the mountain-top mining, it is just as ugly, and I would say worse considering the plant-life and greenery in the east. They use explosives to blow chunks off of the top and sides of the mountains, sift through the detritus and debris for what they want and dump the overburden wherever they can, which is often the nearest valley or riverine area. They not only destroy the mountains, but all of the plant life, animal life, rivers, valleys, and ecosystems in the area, with repercussions for hundreds of miles around the mining, and for hundreds and thousands of years into the future. Not to mention as causing permanent destruction of the mountains that have been there for millennia.
Get out there and ride while you can. Love the environment you’re in, and fight for it as often as you are able. And definitely take the time and opportunity to visit the Skyline Drive; I can’t imagine that anyone would be disappointed.
If you would like more information on the Obama (and others) Appalachian mountain removal
and relocation program, check out some of these links: