Gretchen McKay

Chasing fall’s colors in Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley

Fall apples at the Virginia Farm Market/Gretchen McKay

LURAY, Va. — Some years ago, fresh out of college and poor as church mice, my husband and I set out on our great honeymoon adventure. Our three-day drive from Pittsburgh to jobs in Miami would take us through Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley. To humor my father, we agreed to stop at Luray Caverns.

Good call, Dad!

Discovered in 1878 and named a National Natural Landmark in the early 1970s, the 64-acre series of subterranean rooms and passageways proved pretty amazing, despite a hokey tour that takes visitors more than a mile and 160 feet below the surface.

“If you use your imagination,” our elderly guide kept parroting, we’d see the likes of fried eggs, ice cream cones, giant redwoods and a big shaggy dog on the fantastical, slow-growing calcite formations. (Created millions of years ago by mineral-rich water dripping upon limestone, the icicle-like stalactites and pillar-like stalagmites grow about an inch every 100 years.)

There’s something magical about being deep underground, where the temperature is always 54 degrees, and still feeling dwarfed by nature; some of the cavern’s dimly lit rooms soar 10 stories. And how cool is the cavern’s sparkling Dream Lake, which reflects myriad stalactites hanging above on the ceiling? We knew someday, we’d be back.

Our redux came earlier this month, after dropping our daughter off for her sophomore year at James Madison University. It proved just as fun as the first time.

Fall is the perfect time to visit Luray and Shenandoah National Park’s nearby Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Come October, it’s a leaf-peepers paradise. The entire valley turns brilliant shades of crimson, yellow and orange, and local farms sell apples along with pumpkins and other fall foods from roadside stands. (For a weekly fall foliage report, visit dof.virginia.gov/fall.)

We started our trip in scenic Harrisonburg, home to the university. Known as part of  the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” it’s a must-do for history buffs interested in Civil War battlefields and historic sites such as the Hardesty-Higgins House, used briefly as headquarters for Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks. It’s equally popular with bicyclists, thanks to multiple road and mountain-biking trails, and also a boon for foodies, who have dozens of restaurants to choose from in the state’s first designated culinary district. Add three craft breweries, a cider house and a pair of wineries to the victual delights.

After moving Liv into her dorm, we saluted the fall semester with a terrific lunch of pulled pork and cheese grits at Clementine Cafe on South Main Street, also an art gallery and live music venue. Then it was on to Kline’s Dairy Bar — a local institution since 1943 — for orange creams. Bidding Olivia a teary goodbye, we drove a half-hour south to Staunton.

Bruce Elder’s antique/classic car museum is located in a 1911 Ford dealership building/Gretchen McKay

It’s tough to imagine a small town more charming than Staunton (don’t make the mistake we did — it’s pronounced “Stan-ton” y’all!), home to Mary Baldwin College and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Extremely walkable, it’s postcard pretty. And talk about things to do: Its six-block main street bustles with antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops and quaint boutiques ripe for the picking.

It’s also a boon for theater lovers: The American Shakespeare Center houses the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theater, the 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse. It’s next door to the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel where, after checking in, we made a beeline to Chef Ian Boden’s much-lauded 26-seat restaurant, The Shack. We didn’t have time (or reservations) for the $45 prix fixe menu, but the pimento cheese and pork cracklins we noshed al fresco while watching a guy across the street cut grass were a memorable pre-theater treat.  Nourished, we then clapped and hooted our way through a very lively production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And neither one of us thought we liked Shakespeare! (The cast is that good.)

While the playhouse is lively, the town after hours is anything but: Save for  Zynadoa (serving upscale Southern food) and Byers Street Bistro, where we ate burgers at the bar and listened to a band from Richmond, Staunton pretty much rolls up the sidewalks after dark. Then again, you want to be up early Saturday morning for the farmers market at the corner of Byers and Johnson streets in the Wharf District, lush with locally grown produce, organic honey and baked goods.

We’d hoped to take a peek inside Trinity Episcopal Church, which contains 12 Tiffany windows spanning Louis Comfort Tiffany’s 40-year career, but the doors were locked. So instead, my husband talked me into visiting Bruce Elder’s antique/classic car museum, located in a 1911 Ford dealership building. For $5, we got to see two floors of more than 50 cars, both for sale and display, including Richard Petty’s 1987 Pontiac Grand Prix Winston Cup Race car, a 1911 Chalmers Model 30 with wooden spoke wheels and the ’35 Packard convertible Arthur Miller drove Marilyn Monroe in.

A tasting at Redbeard Brewing in Staunton, Va./Gretchen McKay

As payback, I insisted we do a craft beer tasting ($10 for four) at Redbeard Brewing, a small batch brewery on Lewis Street. I recommend the Black Rye IPA, along with the burgers, on your way out of town at the nondescript Marino’s Lunch on North Augusta Street. A fave with locals, it’s been a beer joint and legendary bluegrass hot spot for more than 100 years.

Staunton is just a few miles from the Rockfish Gap entrance to Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive, where the $20 per car entry buys you seven days on the 105-mile drive. If you plan on hiking, ask the park ranger at the gate for trail maps; they’re marked with elevation, distance and effort (easy to challenging). We did two hikes during our stay: the 2.2-mile loop to the Turk Mountain Overlook (harder than it looked) and the 1.6-mile Stony Man Trail partway along the Appalachian Trail to Stony Man Summit, Shenandoah’s second highest peak at 4,010 feet (easier than we imagined).

If you just plan on going point to point by car, know that the 35 mph speed limit makes for slow driving. Sometimes infuriatingly so, as drivers pull on and off for the drive’s 75(!) overlooks. We thought the views of the rolling piedmont to the east were more spectacular than those of the Luray Valley to the west, but they’re all Instagram-worthy (even if you can’t immediately post them due to poor cell service).

If you’re overnighting on the drive, there’s only three choices, and they’re all pretty rustic, if also charming: Lewis Mountain Cabins, Big Meadow Lodge (where you’ll find the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center) and Skyland Lodge, where we enjoyed views from the highest point on Skyline Drive from the comfort of our room. A word of caution for you impatient types: while the resort regional fare was very good, the restaurant can be extremely crowded on weekend evenings. Expect a wait.  (It took almost an hour just to get a beer in the taproom.)

Another long queue is in store if you don’t get to Luray Caverns early; by 11 a.m., the line already was snaking out the door, even for those smart advance-ticket buyers. The hourlong tour, though, is lots of fun if you don’t mind the dawdlers at the rear or getting poked by picture takers on the narrow passageway. Be sure to rub the  “eggs” on the way out — the only parts of the cavern that you are allowed to touch — for good luck.

Admission to the caverns includes The Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, but we opted instead for the adjoining Luray Valley Museum (also free) to learn about local history and see artifacts from the 1750s to the 1920s; the museum also includes a seven-acre re-creation of a small 19th-century farming community. Still got some energy? Kids will love the Garden Maze ($9 adult, $7 ages 6-12), and who can say no to a tasting of local wines in the 1860 Burner Barn (weekends only through fall)?

After a quick exploration of Luray’s historic main street, we made one last stop before heading back north: the Virginia Farm Market in Winchester (look for the big red barn). In addition to jug-your-own cider and a dozen or more varieties of locally grown apples to choose from (Winchester is known as the Apple Capital of Virginia), its pumpkin patch during the season boasts 15,000 pumpkins.  Splurge on the apple cider doughnuts. You’ll eat at least two on your way to the parking lot.

If you go: Shenandoah Valley/Skyline Drive
• Getting there: Bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Alleghenies to the west, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley stretches some 200 miles from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to Roanoke, Va. Skyline Drive is the only public road within Shenandoah National Park. The park is open year-round pending weather, although most visitor facilities and services close down completely from late November to March. To check status, call the park’s recorded information line at 1-540-999-3500 or visit nps.gov/shen.

The are four entrances to Skyline Drive: At Front Royal near Route 66 and 340; Thornton Gap at Route 211; Swift Run Gap at Route 33; and Rockfish Gap at Route 64 and Route 250 near Staunton (where we started). Cost is $20 per vehicle for seven consecutive days; it takes about three hours to travel the drive’s 105 miles on a clear day (the speed limit is 35 mph). From Pittsburgh, the 300-mile drive takes about five hours via Harrisonburg and Staunton, Va.

• Lodging: Living large, or on a budget? The area features a variety of chain hotels/motels and small inns in all price ranges. For B&B types, the historic Joshua Wilton House Inn ($145 and up) and Stonewall Jackson Inn ($139 and up) in Harrisonburg are good bets; the Queen Anne-style Berkeley House Inn B&B in Staunton ($149 and up) dates to 1893. We overnighted at the very lovely Stonewall Jackson Hotel in historic downtown Staunton. Built in 1924 and lovingly restored in 2005, it’s recognized by the National Trust Historic Hotels of America for its historic and architectural significance.

You’ll also find comfy rooms within the park at historic Big Meadows Lodge, Skyland Resort (the highest point on the drive) or Lewis Mountain Cabins. $109 and up; reserve at goshenandoah.com/lodging or 1-877-847-1919.

If you’d rather rough it and don’t fear wildlife (this is black bear country), the park is happy to oblige with four campsites along Skyline Drive. Prices start at $15 for a tent site with common restrooms; reservations may be made up to six months in advance online at recreation.gov/shen, or by calling 1-877-444-6777.

• Eat, drink and be merry:You won’t want for a good meal, or beer, in the Shenandoah Valley. In 2014, Harrisonburg became the first city in Virginia to adopt the designation of “Downtown Culinary District.” Some of the best choices include Clementine Cafe (which doubles as an art gallery), Bella Luna Wood-fired Pizza, Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint and A Bowl of Good Cafe (closed Sundays). For local craft beers, the tap room at Three Brothers Brewing features 10 rotating drafts (open Thursday-Monday). You’ll find equally good eats in Staunton, including the tiny 26-seat The Shack, voted one of Southern Living magazine’s Best New Restaurants in 2014. Chef Ian Boden serves a prix-fix menu on weekends and burgers made from local meat on weekdays. If they’re on the menu, the pork cracklins with sorghum hot sauce are nothing short of amazing. Zynodoa (Southern cuisine) and Mill Street Grill (ribs, seafood and pasta in a century-old flour mill) also are highly recommended, and we had a terrific breakfast at Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery. And we loved the beer tasting at the funky, small-batch Redbeard Brewing ($10 for 5 tastes; Thursday-Sunday).

• Activities: Staunton is an antiquer’s paradise, and it also boasts art galleries, boutiques, an antique car museum and a lively farmers market on Saturday. If you like theater, Blackfriars Playhouse at The American Shakespeare Center hosts an internationally acclaimed theater company that performs Shakespeare’s works under their original staging conditions.

The area also is renowned for its outdoor activities. Shenandoah National Park has more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. There’s also biking, fishing, horseback riding and 105-mile Skyline Drive.

• More info:visitshenandoah.org or visitskylinedrive.org.

Autumn shows its colors at Ricketts Glen State Park

The main attraction in Ricketts Glen State Park in northeastern Pennsylvania is hiking the Falls Trail, a 7.2-mile loop that follows along most the park’s 22 beautiful waterfalls. The park’s crown jewel is the “wedding cake” Ganoga Falls, which descends 94 feet in a series of small steps. Photo: Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau

BENTON, Pa. — Fresh air and blue skies are easy tonics for the stressed-out city life.  Still,  I was in a pretty foul mood when I rolled into Ricketts Glen State Park in this scenic, woodsy corner of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Equally distracted by my growling stomach and the country tunes wailing on my car radio, I’d missed the rustic carved-wood entrance sign opposite Red Rock Scoops ice cream shop on Route 118. Google Maps had vaporized along with my cell phone service and, seriously, who still keeps paper maps in the glove box?

Even after a kindly park ranger provided step-by-step directions to the Lake Rose Trailhead Parking lot, the best place from which to start a hike to the park’s famed Ganoga Falls, I’d managed to get turned around in the wrong direction. (I later learned there’s a really cool interactive map on the DCNR website that could have come to my rescue.) A couple of times. But finally, I found it. The road leading to Waterfall Heaven.

Three and a half miles north on PA Route 118 after it intersects with Route 487 (look for the Red Rock Corner Store), up a VERY steep mountain, Main Park Road snakes off to the right. Five minutes later, I was backing into a space at the crowded Lake Rose lot. Or so I thought: I’d actually pulled into Beach Lot #2, where boaters, swimmers and anglers go when planning a day on the park’s 245-acre Lake Jean. This actually turned out OK for two reasons: The concession stand had $3.25 cheeseburgers, and a friendly couple from upstate New York I met in the parking lot had great words of advice, along with directions to where I wanted to go.

Don’t forget a water bottle, they cautioned, as there’s no refreshment on the trail. And go for the 3.2-mile upper loop of the Falls Trail instead of the 7.2-mile full loop, which took the pair almost 3 hours to complete. You’ll still see most of the good stuff, including the majestic 94-foot Ganoga Falls, in a picturesque glen among  towering pines, hemlocks and oaks, but with half the effort — a physical exertion, they assured me with damp brows and quivering legs, that’s quite substantial when you hike the entire, rocky distance.

After hiking it, I would recommend ditching the flip-flops and sneakers for sturdier shoes or hiking boots and resist the urge to take short cuts or venture out on ledges. Some of the terrain is pretty treacherous.

Adventurous hikers have been sweating their way throughold-growth timber to Ganoga Falls for decades, even before the park and its many recreational facilities open for business in 1944. Discovered in the 1860s by fishermen exploringKitchen Creek in neighboring Luzerne County, they date to the last ice age, when increased flow in the Huntington Laketributary from glaciers enlarged its drainage basin and cut deep gorges.

It wasn’t until Col. Robert Bruce Ricketts named and built a system of trails connecting the series of 22 waterfalls in the early 1890s, however, that they became one of Pennsylvania’s treasures — and the ideal setting in which to enjoy the fall colors.

Ricketts Glen State Park’s Falls Trail is a 3.2 mile loop that showcases most of the park’s 22 named falls/Gretchen McKay

Ricketts Glen State Park — which covers more than 13,000 acres over Columbia, Luzerne and Sullivan counties — is gorgeous any time of year. But it’s particularly fetching in autumn, when its many black tupelo (gum), dogwood and oaktrees — some more than 100 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter — turn glorious shades of brick-red, maroon and  brilliant scarlet. This year has provided a very favorable growing season so trees across Penn’s Woods are healthy and vigorous, assuring a very colorful autumn; colors in and around Columbia County are expected to peak between Oct. 8-14. (For a weekly fall foliage report, visit www.leafpeepers.com/pa.htm or call the visitPA hotline at 1-800-847-4872.)

The park also has a nice sense of history.

A Civil War veteran who distinguished himself at the Battle of Gettysburg, Col. Ricketts grew up in nearby Orangeville, a tiny hamlet nearby that today is famous for its twin covered bridges. Built in 1884, the picturesque East and West Paden bridges are one of the only two remaining twin covered bridges in the country.

After the war (where he led the defense against a Confederate attack on Cemetery Hill on July 2,1863), Col. Ricketts starting buying timber land in Columbia, Luzerne and Sullivan counties, eventually acquiring more than 88,000 acres. Much of it surrounded Ganoga Lake, Lake Jean and what would eventually become known as the Ganoga Glen area.

A member of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, Col. Ricketts named many of the falls after the Indian tribes that at one time lived in the area: Delaware, Seneca, Tuscarora, Huron. Others wear the names of family members or friends. Ganoga Falls, which cascades 94 feet onto the rocks below, is the highest and most spectacular. It means “water on the mountain” in the Seneca language.

Hiking the falls trail at Ricketts Glen State Park in Benton, Pa., involves climbing up (and down) hundreds of stone steps/Gretchen McKay

After his death, Col. Ricketts’ heirs sold much of the land to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. But not all: It wasn’t until 1942 that they finally sold 1,261 acres, the Falls and the Glens area to the state for use as a state park. The Glens became a registered National Natural Landmark in 1969, and in 1993 was slated a State Park Natural Area.

Most of the glen’s 22 waterfalls, scattered along 26 miles of trail marked by zig-zaggy switchbacks and dramatic drop-offs, are visible from the Falls Trail. In all, there are 11 individual well-marked trails that range from less than a mile to more than seven, with varying difficulty for hikers.

The trails can be deceptive. A quarter of a mile into the Falls Trail, with the very soft, fairly level terrain cushioning my Mizunos, I was marveling at how great the path would be for a trail run. Then I started down the hill toward the first of the seven falls I’d eventually encounter on my hike, Mohawk Falls, and all bets were off. I was praying I wouldn’t slip on the velvety greenmoss or twist an ankle on the narrow stone steps that at times seem awfully close to the edge of trail.

But the hike is worth it. Photos taken with iPhones don’t do justice to the sheer awesomeness of Ganoga Falls and its thunderous cascade of water. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier sight in a state park, Niagara Falls excluded.

As sketchy as it was going down, it was tougher still climbing back up. Most of the hikers I passed on my descent — many with walking sticks — didn’t look all that happy. Their expressions read “I’m gonna finish this” instead of “Having a great time!”

I’m kidding, of course. Hiking the trail is a great time and you don’t have to be in particularly great shape to do it. Along with kids (some on their parents’ backs), seniors were well represented. From the Lake Rose Trailhead lot, it took me about 30 minutes to hike down and maybe 10 minutes longer to climb back up. And no trips to the ER.

Even if you miss the fall colors, this park is a gem.  Besides hiking, the park offers swimming (May to September) camping, boating, fishing, birding, hunting and riding trails (BYO horse). In winter, there’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing on Lake Jean, snowmobiling andice climbing up the falls.

The East and West Paden covered bridges in Forks, Columbia County, are one of only two remaining twin covered bridges in the country. They were built in 1850 using the Burr Arch design/Gretchen McKay

And when the park closes for the evening, or you’re simply tired of hoofing it? There’s plenty of other ways to spend a few happy hours in the area. Antiquing, wine tasting, eating good food — it’s all part of the package. Columbia County also is known for its many covered bridges.

Getting there: Ricketts Glen State Park is in Benton,Columbia County, in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania. From Pittsburgh, the 250-mile drive takes about 4 hours via State College and Bloomsburg. Park hours are sunrise to sunset, year-round. Free parking and hiking maps are available throughout.

Lodging: Hiking and camping go hand in hand, so the park is happy to oblige with 120 tent and trailer campsites, with access to hot showers and flush toilets; there also are 10 cabins for rent available year-round. Prices start at $19 for a tent site that can accommodate up to a 30-foot trailer; cabins cost $118 for a 2-night minimum (7-day minimum during the peak summer season) and feature electric heat, water, flush toilets, showers and small kitchens (www.pa.reserveworld.com; 1-888-727-2757).

If your idea of a good night’s sleep instead includes mattresses, linens and indoor plumbing, there are almost two dozen motels and hotels to choose from within a half-hour drive of the park, including the Econo Lodge and Holiday Inn Express at Bloomsburg. From $80/night. Ricketts Glen Hotel (rickettsglenhotel.net), one mile west of the park on Route 118, has rooms starting at $49.95 (single with shared bath) and $61.05 (double with shared bath).

For bed-and-breakfast types, there are a dozen within easy driving distance of the park, including the stellar Inn at Turkey Hill in Bloomsburg (innatturkeyhill.com; 1-570-387-1500). The most luxurious rooms include two-person whirlpool baths, and all come with a gourmetbreakfast ($128 and up.) There’s also fine dining on site and the Turkey Hill Brewing Co. pub next door. If you enjoy rural settings, the uber-romantic Pump House B&B outside of Bloomsburg will delight with its lovely creek-side rooms outfitted with antiques, tin ceilings and exquisite spot-on renovation merited a feature on “This Old House.” $125 and up.

Eat, drink and be merry: There aren’t scores of restaurants to choose from in and around Ricketts Glen State Park, but it’s still possible to get a good meal. The Ricketts Glen Hoteloffers upscale American and Italian specialties at reasonable prices. The Old Filling Stationin Benton (140 Main St., 1-570-925-6556) also comes highly recommended by locals, as does the Texas-style barbecue at Smoke House Barb-B-Que (225 Center St., 1-570-925-6962).Strevig’s Family Restaurant (4438 Red Rock Road, 1-570-925-0330) has traditional American fare. I had surprisingly good spring rolls and spicy Pa-Nang Mango with Prawns atBloomn’ Thai, a private dining club in Bloomsburg (442 East St.; a lifetime membership costs $1). Ready Go Burrito (102 E. Main St.) has wraps and burgers in addition to awesome (and cheap) tacos and quesadillas.

Activities: In addition to 26 miles of hiking trails that vary in difficulty from very easy (Evergreen Trail) to difficult (Falls Trail), the park offers fishing and boating on 245-acre Lake Jean. Other ways to spend the day include antiquing, shopping for seasonal goodies at local farm stands and tastings at several wineries, including Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider Winery in Benton. Columbia County also is famous for its 25 covered bridges. The 33rd annual Covered Bridge Festival runs Oct. 2-5 and includes more than 350 craft vendors, food, live entertainment, rides and a quilt raffle. Free admission. During the festival, a guided bus tour of various bridges costs $15. The annual Bloomsburg Fair (bloomsburgfair.com; 570-784-4949), one of the largest ag fairs east of the Mississippi, draws hundreds of thousands of people each year for headline entertainment, food, rides, crafts, horse racing and agricultural exhibits. This year’s 159th fair runs Sept. 20-27; $8 admission.

Park information: www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks or 1-570-477-5675

Columbia County information: www.itourcolumbiamontour.com or 1-570-784-8279.