I’ll always remember my first time there. It was 1985, and I had just bought my first street bike. After becoming semi-acquainted with my CB750SS, I was invited to go on a ride to “The Drive.” I had never been on Rt. 211 before either, and after cresting a hill past Amissville, a striking display of mountains appeared grabbing my attention. They were harbingers of fantastic things to come.
(Above) It’s always a great place to ride with friends. (Below) Looking southeast at one of the overlooks just south of Mary’s Rock Tunnel.
Entering the Shenandoah National Park through the first few twisties heading up to Thornton Gap, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was as if the most amazing road I could have ever conceived was unfolding before me. To this young noob of two-wheeled asphalt canoeing, I was in geography shock. Aside from dirt bikes, my brief mechanized tenure on two wheels had consisted mostly of street time on highways and relatively straight back roads. To this day, I am still amazed how this stretch of road can make me feel so alive, and thankful that I have a motorcycle. This euphoric stretch hasn’t come without a price, however. It has claimed more than its share of riders over the years. There are now signs posted at the base and on top warning, “High Motorcycle Crash Area Next 3 Miles”, and the speed limit has since been reduced from 55 to 35 mph.
I met a few months ago with Karen Beck-Herzog, the Public Affairs Officer of Shenandoah National Park, to get her take on the relationship between the park and motorcyclists. Surprisingly, there were no major areas of concern, just typical ones that motorcyclists pose. She said the park welcomes motorcyclists. They want us to come out and enjoy ourselves, and return home safely to visit again. She said the most common safety factor for bikes was motorcyclists not paying enough attention. With the park’s many turns, overlooks, parking lots and traffic, factored with its abundant scenery and wildlife, it’s easy to lose focus. She also noted the three-mile stretch on the east side of Thornton Gap mentioned earlier, which is within park boundaries. I had to cringe a little bit when she sited noise as being one of the minor complaints, as one of the reasons I named my bike Nauti, was because of her loud pipes. Oops.
After our meeting, I was given a tour of Skyland, one of the lodging and dining facilities in the park. Many of the structures there, including Massanutten Lodge, are on the National Register of Historic Places. Also within the park’s boundaries, and on the register, is Rapidan Retreat, the home away from home of former President Herbert Hoover. There are tours to many of these facilities available with their ranger programs for any riders out there in need of a history fix.
(Above) Hemlock Springs Overlook after a late March snowstorm in 2013. (Below) Each season has a flavor all its own. The winter provides great, usually unlimited views as well as abundant ice formations on north facing rocks.
As we made our way back from Skyland, we talked about the park and admired the snow covered mountains. Karen reflected on the immediate transformation she has experienced entering The Drive. She described how all of her stress seemed to quickly disappear within a few miles. It is an experience, I’m sure, that has been shared by many, myself included. It may just be the best 10 bucks I’ve ever spent. I asked her, “If you were with a group on a ride, and wanted to show your fellow motorcyclists one place in the park, what would it be?”
Her reply was all too fitting, saying: “That would be like having to choose my favorite child.” And I think that’s part of what makes this place so special.
In addition to the great riding and views, the park has waysides in each of the three sections that serve food and sell provisions: Loft Mountain, Big Meadows and Elkwallow. There is mid-air refueling at Big Meadows, the only gas stop on The Drive. There is also lodging at Lewis Mountain, Big Meadows and Skyland with tap rooms and casual dining at the last two. When we stayed at Skyland, there was even a live band that evening. For the tent toters and adventure tourers, there are campgrounds at Loft Mountain, Big Meadows and Matthew’s Arm.
I’ve been up and down each of the three sections of this wonderful road many times. I really enjoy the 39-mile stretch of the southern section the most for riding. Throughout the park, there are stretches of twisties that seem to perform a yin and yang, call and response, Zen-like ballet of hypnotic proportion, but the southern portion seems to be a bit more technical to me. While each section has its own special flavor of views and curves, the ones heading north on the northern section between Thornton Gap and Front Royal can be truly unique. Throughout the park there are sections of forest, but this one is perfectly placed to produce a lull, followed by a crescendo-like culmination of stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley and its southern fork snaking its way to the eventual confluence with her northern sister at Front Royal. This 1812 Overture effect can be simply fantastic on a clear day.
One of the quickest hikes to one of the greatest views in the park is Stoney Man near Skyland. This was taken in late September of 2012.
For those who have survived long enough to enjoy the finer things in life, and don’t mind a 35 mph speed limit, not only will the pictures of you and your bike, loved ones and friends, engulfed with mountains and valleys, be worthy of framing, the jolt to your spirit will be evident in the stories that are told of this magnificent National Park. I am reminded of Marillion’s lyric, “Take me to that fantastic place, leave the rest of my life away.”
As I put the finishing touches on this piece on one of Skyland’s decks, listening to the birds and a distant train in the valley below, I feel fortunate to be alive in this era, and thankful to those who made this place what it is. Rolling effortlessly through miles and miles of elevated wilderness, stopping at will, and taking in all the sights and sounds in the mountain air is one of the most vivid forms of freedom I’ve ever experienced. This is one of those places where the rest of ourselves can easily be checked at the door, and left behind for a while. I have to believe that more than a few of the original road engineers were motorcyclists. And they must have had grins on their faces when they thought of what it would be like to ride one on this magical road they were about to create. Geniuses.
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