Shenandoah park points the way to the wilderness

At Shenandoah National Park, visitors have options. Year-round they can take in the panoramic views of the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive that runs the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasts more than 70 lookout points. And even in early spring, visitors can forgo their heated cars for an adventure on foot on any of the 510 miles of trails that offer views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley.

More than 100,000 visitors a year tackle the Old Rag trail, making it the park's most popular hike. From the trailhead to the peak, hikers climb more than 2,000 feet and are rewarded at an elevation of 3,268 feet with views of the park. As hikers wind their way up the east side of the mountain, then back down the west, the origin of the ragged 7.2-mile trail's name becomes clear.

"The trail has slabs of open granite faces that you have to climb and use to pull yourself up with," said Karen Beck-Herzog, the park's spokeswoman.

The trail's name is also obvious in the car-sized boulders that appear throughout the trail, some of which hikers have to climb or crawl around. The trail narrows and turns single-file at some points, which can result in a short respite from the climb during crowded times. Beck-Herzog suggests using the trail on weekdays or arriving early on the weekends, as the 200-car parking lot fills quickly.

For hikers looking for a less strenuous climb that still offers spectacular views, White Oak Canyon Trail is a lighter 7-mile route featuring six of the trail's upper and lower waterfalls. Those feeling less lofty can start from Skyline Drive and make the 4.5-mile hike that follows alongside a creek to see the upper falls.

The White Oak Canyon trail is for all ages. Currently, the slightly snowy trail is stamped with footprints of white-tailed deer, dogs and older and younger hikers. The family-friendly trail has bridges to cross, small rocks to climb and fallen trees to duck under. Beck-Herzog suggests hikers wear appropriate shoes and be aware of the climb.

"While we maintain our trails, they are still rocky and require shoes with ankle support," she said. She also offers a caveat for hikers beginning at Skyline Drive: "The trail descends on the way to the falls and ascends on the way back home."

However, hikers are likely to make many stops along the way to see the falls, take pictures or enjoy a picnic.

If hiking isn't your thing, the park offers ranger-led walks, a bird visitor center, and fly-fishing and horseback riding. Visitors can expect to see spring wildflowers and 100 kinds of trees, including hemlocks, white oaks, poplar trees and striped maples. And in addition to the deer on the trails, the gray fox, red-tailed hawk, bobcats and black bears are all known to roam the park.

A little over two hours from Baltimore, visitors will find themselves feeling secluded in the woods, with myriad activities from which to choose. If visitors can't decide which trail to hike or opt to stay in the car because of weather, they can always make the trip a weekend-long event.

"Visitors can see the sunset and the sunrise in the park," said Beck-Herzog. The park has three sets of lodging, including Big Meadows Lodge, Lewis Mountain Cabins and four campgrounds.

Where to visit

Sharp Rock Vineyards (Off Highway 231 at 5 Sharp Rock Road, Sperryville, Va.: 540-987-9700, www.sharprock Just two miles from Old Rag, wine aficionados can take in views of the peak they just conquered while sipping wine at the Sharp Rock farm. The farm was established in 1790, and the first vineyards were planted in 1992, with wines made in small lots from hand-selected grapes. Visitors can stroll through the vineyard's 25 acres and taste award-winning wines. Visitors in the area for the day can take lunch and settle into a picnic table or hammock on the property along the Hughes River. And folks staying the night can bunk at the Sharp Rock Farm Bed and Breakfast, with two historic cottages from which to choose. The tasting room is open Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (901 Amherst St., Winchester, Va., 540-662-1473, History buffs can check out the 50,000-square-foot museum opening April 3, which tells the history and culture of the Shenandoah Valley through art. The museum's Glen Burnie historic house, built in 1974, is filled with 18th- and 19th-century furniture and decor, including pottery, quilts and clocks. Six acres of gardens surround the Glen Burnie historic house and include fountains, sculptures and the historic family cemetery. Visitors can tour four main galleries and view exhibits at the Changing Exhibitions Gallery, which will commence with Shenandoah watercolors and the valley's tiny treasures in the R. Lee Taylor Miniatures Gallery. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Where to eat

Sunnyside Farms Famous Rest Stop (12018 Lees Highway intersection at 522 and 211 in Sperryville, Va., 540-987-3600, The Organic Burger Barn that resides in a schoolhouse from the 1900s grills meat from the farm; dessert is available at the ice cream parlor.

Flint Hill Public House (Route 522 (Zachary Taylor Highway) Flint Hill, Va., 540-675-1700, www.flinthillpublic Try the local trout or the popular "hangtown fry" that consists of an open-faced omelet with fried oysters in this historic renovated 1903 school building.

Thornton River Grill (3701 Sperryville Pike, 540-987-8790, Stop by for Sunday brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

Graves Mountain Lodge (Route 670, Syria, Va., 540-923-4231 or www.graves Famous for its country home cooking served family-style.

Getting there

Take Interstate 95 South to the Washington Beltway (Interstate 495), follow I-495 to Interstate 66 and go west for 24 miles to U.S. 29, and head south to Warrenton and pick up U.S. 211 to Sperryville, and follow the signs to Shenandoah National Park.

More information

Entrance to the park is $10 per vehicle. Check out the Web site or call 540-999-3500.