Visiting the Shenandoah Valley on a budget

By Carol Sottili
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 2010; F03

Who: Grace Kunkel, 21, of Burtonsville, and Adi Lang, 20, of Baltimore

Where: Shenandoah Valley

Why: Romantic getaway

When: Long weekend in the fall, after Lang's birthday in early September

Budget: $400

"We are both University of Maryland students at College Park. Adi is an electrical engineering major, and I am a biology major. We both work as well, so in our free time we like to relax and spend time outdoors. We both really love trying new food. We'd like to stay at a B&B or a hostel."

Many people, when planning a trip to the Shenandoah Valley, instantly think of Shenandoah National Park. Yet the region covers a lot more territory. The valley stretches a couple hundred miles, from Roanoke in southwest Virginia to Winchester in the north, and encompasses relatively large cities, small hamlets, mountains, rivers, national forests and state parks as well as the national park. For their first decision, Grace Kunkel of Burtonsville and Adi Lang of Baltimore must choose accommodations that will put them within striking distance of both a town with good restaurants and parkland with hiking and other outdoor activities.

Shoot for lodging near Staunton (800-342-7982,, a self-described "historic and hip" destination and a bigger city by Shenandoah Valley standards. The city's claim regarding its history is well founded: As one of the few towns in the valley that escaped the Civil War intact, it showcases blocks of nicely preserved 18th- and early-19th-century houses and other buildings. It's also the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson and home to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum (540-885-0897,; $5 students).

For the hip side of the city, head to the Red Brick District, a hub of art galleries, theaters, live music, shopping and restaurants. Not-to-be-missed venues include the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse (877-682-4236,, which offers $11 tickets for students 60 minutes before showtime; Sunspots Studios (540-885-0678,, with daily glass-blowing demonstrations; and Co-Art Gallery (540-886-0737,, a cooperative gallery with more than 40 member-artists.

Restaurants in downtown Staunton range from bar food to Southern chic. Some, such as Staunton Grocery and Zynodoa, are top-notch but out of the couple's price range. Others, including Mill Street Grill (, Mockingbird Artisan Fare & Roots Music (, and Emilio's Italian Restaurant (, will stretch the budget, but $50 for two should cover a nice night out.

At the less-pricey end, best bets are Shenandoah Pizza (, featuring 20 gourmet pizzas and 200 types of beer, and Downtown at the Clocktower (, where a $5 cover gets you a night of music and $8 buys you a Philly cheesesteak.

All this history and hipness means that nearby lodging isn't cheap. With a $400 budget, finding a bed-and-breakfast for three nights at a price that will leave a few bucks for gas and at least one decent restaurant meal is a challenge. Even in smaller towns, you'll be hard-pressed to find a respectable B&B or cabin for less than $100 a night. October is fall foliage season, which means even higher prices. So plan to go in mid-September.

If a B&B is a requirement, expect to spend more than $400 on the weekend. The Buckhorn Inn (877-337-8660,, about 20 minutes west of Staunton in the George Washington National Forest, is one of the less-expensive options. The rate, which includes a full country breakfast, is $110 a night on weekends and $90 on weekdays, plus 9 percent tax. Find more B&B choices at and

A cabin in Shenandoah National Park (800-999-4714, goes for $118 a night with taxes and will also break the bank. Plus, it's more than 50 miles from Staunton.

A well-located chain hotel is probably the best bet. Howard Johnson (540-886-5330,, within easy walking distance of the shops and restaurants in downtown Staunton, costs $69 a night with taxes and includes free breakfast. Or opt for a more rural location: A three-night stay in a cabin in Douthat State Park (800-933-7275, runs $282 with taxes. The park has 40 miles of trails and is about 40 miles southwest of Staunton.

Finally, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (703-242-0315, rents primitive cabins without electricity, indoor toilets or running water in Shenandoah National Park for $40 a night. For members only (annual membership is $35), the club offers modern cabins for $70 a night.

As for outdoor activities, hiking, biking, kayaking, horseback riding, etc., are the Shenandoah Valley's bread and butter. The millions of acres of public land in the area are crisscrossed by more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails.

In Staunton, Betsy Bell Wilderness Park has sweeping views of the valley, and Ramsey's Draft Wilderness in nearby George Washington and Jefferson National Forests features 30 miles of trails in virgin forest. Shenandoah National Park's 500 miles of trails include 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The park's south entrance is about 16 miles east of Staunton.

About 30 miles southwest of Staunton, the 937-acre Goshen Pass Natural Area Preserve wows visitors with beautiful vistas, wildlife viewing and hiking. On the James River, about an hour south of Staunton near Glasgow, kayak and canoe rentals are available for about $30 per person. Outfitters include Twin River Outfitters (540-261-7334, and Wilderness Canoe Co. (540-291-2295,

The valley, of course, has no shortage of attractions that don't require muscle, including Civil War battle sites and museums. For more details, contact the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association (800-847-4878,

Total cost: The cheapest option, with lodging at a chain hotel including free breakfast, costs about $207 for three nights' lodging, $50 for gas and $50 for a night out, leaving $93 to allocate toward other meals (packing a cooler from home is advisable), admission tickets and/or boating.

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