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Reader Rides: Somewhere in Virginia

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Somewhere in Virginia, between the stratosphere and sea level, is a very special place for motorcyclists. While Skyline Drive may not lure riders like pilgrimages to Sturgis, Deals Gap, or fill-in-the-beach Bike Week, the experience of riding this magical road is one the rider won’t soon forget. Twisting through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive is a playground of priceless pavement. Its seemingly endless collection of perfectly radiused corners and 75-plus overlooks provide spectacular, breathtaking post card views that beckon riders from all over the world.

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.

Its always a great place to ride with friends.
Looking southeast at one of the overlooks just south of Marys Rock Tunnel.
(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.

Hemlock Springs Overlook after a late March snowstorm in 2013.
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.
(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.
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.

Got a memorable ride that has to be shared? MotoUSA has open submissions for Reader Rides features. Email submissions to MotoUSA at info@motorcycle-usa.com with Reader Ride Submission in the email subject line. MotoUSA is looking for well-written stories about that favorite stretch of road, out-of-the way lookout, or that one unforgettable ride that changed everything. We can't promise we'll be able to respond to all submissions, but will do our best... If your submission passes muster, you just might earn a MotoUSA byline.
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FjrVA   April 30, 2014 05:32 PM
A few years back I finally worked my way up to an FJR1300. The very first place I headed was Skyline Drive. You literally feel like you are flying through the mountains. It is an amazing place. It wasn't long before I loaded up the old backpacking gear and continued on to Blue Ridge Parkway for an extended ride. http://i.imgur.com/v2rhT0K.jpg
OutOfTheBox   April 30, 2014 04:46 PM
Shenadoah Drive itself has too many turns/mile to really be enjoyable for long as a driving experience. Even if you go there to race in the off-season it just gets repetitive, even nauseating, and God help you if there are any dawdlers that you can run up onto coming around a blind-corner at twice their speed, or pulling out into the main road. And there is simply too much traffic in the fall when the leaves change colors. I think the best way to enjoy it is a) any month except October b) after noon but not too late, because it gets dark really fast on the side of the mountain c) keep in mind that when you ride into SD, you have to ride back out somehow, and there are only so-many exits and when you get out you're still looking at an hour or two to ride home, unless you live real close d) go to an overlook where there isn't too much traffic, stop for a while, take a rest and enjoy the view. The real "gem" associated with SD is the absence of traffic combined with the variety of roads that cross it and the small towns, wineries, country stores and the like in the surrounding area. It's just good "backroads Virginia" driving. Or riding, as the case may be. But the "mountains", the "mountain roads", the overlook-views themselves, are about what you'd find in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York state. Talking about SD is like comparing a safari theme-park to the Serengeti. It's just that you can rely on being able to actually see something from the SD overlooks compared to other scenic byways on the Appalachians that aren't so well-maintained, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, where most of the overlooks are blocked by tree-growth. But also SD has a far-higher concentration of police and dawdlers than most backwoods/mountain roads. And with ruggedness comes risk. For one thing, there aren't a lot of gas stations out in the boonies, and those that are there tend to have limited hours & fuel options and often they won't take credit-cards. You don't want anything to do with pushing your bike up and down some narrow backroad when you don't even have an idea where the next gas-station is or if it'll be open when you get there. Second even if speed-limits are effectively mere suggestions, it is still wise to take them seriously on backwoods roads as they always have a turn or two that is barely negotiable at the rated speed-limit, there's always some gravel or mud or some other crap on the road, large vehicles tend to pull out from the darndest places at the darndest times, and a get-off can mean you're at the bottom of a gully for hours maybe even days before someone notices. Out in the middle of nowhere is no place that you want to go down and get stranded especially not to the point where you need medical attention. And that is far more likely to happen after it gets dark not to mention if it rains. And it will be cold rain, maybe even ice. Backwoods riding is absolutely not for the faint of heart or the emotionally or intellectually-challenged.