After becoming disillusioned with the weather in Roanoke and not wanting to sit in a motel for two days waiting for the skies to clear and knowing I didn’t finish what I started I needed to get myself in gear and plan a ride that I knew I would complete. Planning to bicycle 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway on my first self-supported bicycle tour was a healthy goal, yet I still had a desire to do more bicycle touring in the mountains. So I set my sights on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
In hindsight I should have started my bicycling touring on the Skyline Drive, you know like learning to walk before you run. I did this bicycle trip in August, 2016 and planned to complete this trip in two days. The Skyline Drive is 105.5 miles long and runs from Front Royal, VA to Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, VA, and seamlessly continues on as the Blue Ridge Parkway. The longest climbs are on the northern and southern entrances, but once you reach the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains the elevation varies, so don’t think you won’t have some climbing to do, but the climbs are not as long as those on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I started at the northern entrance at Front Royal where elevation is 1,390 feet. From there you climb 10 miles to Dickey Ridge before connecting with the Blue Ridge mountains at Compton Gap. The climb continues to Hogback Overlook at an elevation of 3,385 feet. So in the first 22 miles you climb nearly 1,995 feet.
The day I began this ride the weather was spectacular. Clear blue skies and visibility from the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains was endless. From most overlooks looking west you can see the Massanutten mountain ridge that divides the Shenandoah Valley for nearly 50 miles. Beyond Massanutten you see mountain ridges for as far as the eye can see.
I enjoyed this ride more than my experience on the Blue Ridge Parkway because I understood the effort it took to climb these mountains, I finished what I started, and I took time to enjoy the scenery and views from many of the overlooks. The climbs were hard at times but I made sure to enjoy the experience instead of focusing on reaching the next hilltop. I took more pictures, breathed in the fresh mountain air, and was not pulling my trailer. My wife accompanied me by driving our van to serve as a support vehicle so I only carried a small backpack with snacks and water.
There was one exciting moment during the first day of this trip that really had my adrenaline pumping. As I was traveling down a hill at 25 mph and two miles from the Elkwallow Wayside, a black bear that I estimated to weigh between 150 and 175 pounds suddenly jumped out of the weeds from the left bank onto the road about 40 yards in front of me. Startled but not panicky, I lightly applied my brakes which squeaked, and that must have been enough to alert the bear to my presence because before it reached the center line of the road it suddenly turned back and climbed up the left bank and disappeared into the vegetation. All of this happened in a 2 or 3 second span and am I glad that bear turned around because at the speed I was traveling and the direction it was heading it might have gotten really exciting for both of us. Although this was a brief encounter it is something I will not soon forget.
By the time I reached the Elkwallow Wayside (Waysides consist of a small store, snack bar and picnic area that is a private concession operation) for lunch my adrenaline rush had subsided. Rest areas, waysides, and campgrounds are more prevalent along the Skyline Drive than the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is an average of 25 miles between these conveniences which is another reason the Skyline Drive is a good first excursion into bicycle touring.
After leaving the Elkwallow Wayside the Skyline Drive descends to the Thornton Gap entrance which then begins an approximate 12 mile and 2,200 foot climb to the highest point on the Skyline Drive (elevation 3,680 feet) just south of the Skyland Resort. This section of the Skyline Drive includes riding through the Mary’s Rock Tunnel which is 670 feet long and the only tunnel in the Shenandoah National Park.
The day concluded when I reached Big Meadows Lodge. I had ridden 51 miles and spent 5 hours in the saddle. My wife and I had reservations to stay here because she likes sleeping in a bed rather than the more rustic style of camping I did when traveling by myself. Big Meadows is roughly the halfway point of the Skyline Drive and was a good place to spend the night. We had a very nice dinner in the rustic lodge that featured huge stone fireplaces and the west facing windows gives diners a great view of the mountains to the west.
Day 2 began with a hearty breakfast of pancakes and oatmeal in the lodge restaurant. I had 54 miles to ride before reaching Rockfish Gap and the weather was cooperating beautifully. Leaving Big Meadows the Skyline Drive is a combination of rolling hills and short climbs for the first 8 miles until you pass Lewis Mountain where you begin a 2 mile climb before a 5 mile descent to the Swift Run Gap Entrance. A steep 1 to 2 mile climb south from Swift Run Gap begins a series of descents and a long gradual climb to Loft Mountain Wayside. This was a good place to stop for lunch since I had traveled 28 miles. The remaining 26 miles included some steep, short climbs. From Milepost 89 there is a 4 mile descent before one last climb to reach Milepost 98. From there the Skyline Drive is downhill to the Rockfish Gap entrance.
This was a personal challenge and I felt I vindicated myself by completing the 105.5 mile Skyline Drive in 10.5 hours of riding time. At times it was grueling and other times the ride was absolutely pleasant and exhilarating. Even though the bicycle trips on the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway were done a few months apart I rode from Front Royal, VA to Roanoke, VA, a distance of 240 (including the 14 miles of riding I did to reach a restaurant and wrong turns) in 5 days of riding. While I did not meet my initial goal I am thankful I was able to do what I did at 63 years of age. This to me proves that regardless of what you want to do in retirement you have to KEEP MOVING.