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ESCAPE KEYS

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

GETTING THERE: Rapidan Camp is about three hours from the Washington area. To access Shenandoah National Park via the Front Royal Entrance Station, take Interstate 66 west until you reach Front Royal, then follow signs to Skyline Drive and the park. Once you're in the park, it's at least an hour along the winding Skyline Drive to the Harry C. Byrd Visitor Center. Admission to the park is $15, good for seven days.

THE TOUR: Free summertime tours of Rapidan Camp begin in front of the visitor center at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Fridays through Mondays, 1:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. on Wednesdays. You can reserve one of the 12 spots for the tour at the center or by calling 540-999-3283.

HIKING TO THE CAMP: You can also reach Rapidan Camp via the Mill Prong Trail, accessed at the Milam Gap parking lot off Skyline Drive a few miles south of the visitor center. The National Park Service says the four-mile hike (round trip) is "moderately difficult, with three stream crossings." Ask at the visitor center for a free Rapidan Camp trail map.

PROVISIONS: If you need bottled water, trail mix or insect repellent (Rapidan Camp tends to be buggy), a park-run camp store is a short walk from the visitor center.

WHERE TO STAY: The Big Meadows lodge is a few minutes by car from the visitor center. There are 25 rooms at the main lodge and 72 rooms at nearby cabins and lodges. Prices start at $77 per room per night. If you want to get into the Rapidan Camp spirit, ask for a room with no TV. I got a reservation the night before my tour, but book ahead during the busy summer months.

WHERE TO EAT: The lodge has a serviceable restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu is a bit pricey: Entrees include smoked rainbow trout (of course!) and cost as much as $25.

INFORMATION: Shenandoah National Park:540-999-3500. http://www.nps.gov/shen.

Big Meadows Lodge reservations:866-875-8456 or 540-999-2221. http://www.nationalparkreservations.com/shenandoah_bigmeadows.htm.

-- T.W.

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