My husband and I had high hopes when we packed up the family wagon and our two children and headed for the hills, to the ear-popping elevation of 3,700 feet and the quiet outpost of Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park. The park's Web site promised "a world of beauty that can renew and bring peace to the spirit." As the busy parents of two active boys, Alex, 7, and Eli, 3, we were eagerly looking forward to all the renewing peace and quiet we could stand. The short drive -- only 11/2 hours from our Northern Virginia doorstep -- and the allure of a cool mountain refuge were worth the risk of having the backs of our seats kicked and listening to the incantation that has haunted family road trips since time immemorial: Are we there yet?
From the Shenandoah National Park entrance at Thorton Gap (at U.S. Route 211), Skyland Lodge is an easy 10-mile drive along the curving and scenic Skyline Drive. The lodge is at the highest elevation in the park and is nestled back from the road, amid groves of trees, greenery and stone outcroppings. Listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register, Skyland was first envisioned as a summer retreat in 1888, and later, in the 1930s, opened its doors as a resort. Today, the lodge offers 177 rooms, ranging from motel rooms to larger suites and cabins, all with a rustic flair.
Our cabin-style motel room was a short drive from the main office, gift shop and restaurant. It should be noted that when the National Park Service describes something as "rustic," it is best to take the park service at its word. Our room had no telephone, air conditioning or refrigerator. What it did have were large double windows that took up almost the entire back wall, flooding the wood-paneled A-frame room with bright sunlight and a vista of sky and clouds. From the balcony, just outside those windows, the panoramic views of the mountains and valley below were spectacular. Without a phone or other electronic intrusions, the small cabin room had a cozy feel. It was a full 24 hours before our 3-year-old even noticed the room had no television set, informing us quite sincerely that the hotel room was "broken."
WHERE TO STAY: Shenandoah National Park, 3655 U.S. Hwy. 211 E., Luray, Va. 540-999-3500; www.visitshenandoah.com. Skyland Lodge, Milepost 41.7 on Skyline Drive. For lodge reservations, contact Aramark (an authorized park concessionaire), 800-999-4714 or 540-743-5108.
WHERE TO EAT: When the fresh mountain air perks up your appetite, there are several park dining options available: waysides -- featuring counter service and carryout snack-bar food -- convenience stores and two formal dining facilities at Skyland and Big Meadows Lodge (Milepost 51 on Skyline Drive). The lodge restaurants feature comparable menus, with regional specialties and outstanding mountain views. Each lodge is also home to a Mountain Taproom, which serves up "legal" moonshine -- a corn-based liquor -- pub-style menus and live music nightly.
Dinner at Skyland Lodge is served from 5 to 8:30 and is strictly first-come, first-served. The bright and airy dining room is window-filled, making it easy for those who arrive early to get a table with a view. The wait staff appeared well accustomed to the habits of families with young children, quickly supplying us with crayons and activity place mats and ensuring that our preschooler's beverage was served in a sippy cup. Both our children were enthralled and excited during dinner by keeping a running tally of wildlife -- four deer, two chipmunks and one very large and hungry-looking squirrel -- spied through the windows.
Adult dinner entrees at Skyland featured hearty fare with generous portions. Menu selections included fresh mountain trout, smoked pork chops, grilled steak and barbecue ribs (ranging from $12 to $20). Our 7-year-old, no stranger to a children's menu -- he has ordered the same dish, chicken nuggets and french fries, in restaurants from New York to Paris -- found his basket of fried fare "delectable." And the hands-down family favorite arrived at dessert, a signature mile-high slice of fresh blackberry ice cream packed into a graham cracker crust and topped with frozen meringue and blackberry sauce. Best served with four spoons.
WHAT TO DO: After scanning the comprehensive list of daily and weekly activities at the lodge -- also posted at visitors centers, on park bulletin boards and online (www.nps.gov/shen) -- we opted for a Junior Ranger program. The free, one-hour program was geared for children ages 7 and older -- though our 3-year-old and several other younger kids tagged along.
In addition to programs, the park's visitors centers also offer Explorer Backpack rentals ($5 per day), filled with all the Junior Ranger essentials: binoculars, magnifying glass, five Peterson Field Guides, hiking maps, colored pencils, a clipboard and paper. Also included is a Junior Ranger Explorer Notebook; complete the activities and turn them in to park rangers to earn badges and stickers.
After the ranger-led hike, we were inspired to try one on our own. From the slim book "Hikes to Waterfalls," purchased at the visitors center, we selected Dark Hollow Falls (Milepost 50.7), one of the easiest waterfalls to find, with a round trip of only 1.4 miles from the falls parking lot. Looking up from the bottom, the view of the 70-foot-tall falls was stunning. The boys danced around the base of the falls, cascading pools of water shimmering at their feet. My husband took plenty of pictures, documenting our first major family hike, and our sons gave each other slap-happy high-fives, pleased with their accomplishment. Unfortunately, we celebrated too soon. As expected, a steep downhill climb is not that easy on the return, especially when carrying a wriggling and complaining -- "I'm too tired!" -- 3-year-old slung over your shoulder in a fireman's carry. Who needs the Stairmaster when you've got a 440-foot vertical climb -- roughly 44 stories -- an exhausted toddler and a sunny afternoon. For our next trip, we're eyeing the Limberlost trail (Milepost 43): no waterfall, just a leisurely 1.3-mile loop that winds through orchards and hemlocks along a boardwalk, bridges and a crushed-greenstone walkway, notable as the only wheelchair-accessible trail in the park, as well as child-stroller-friendly.
Sunset is an event in the park, and we caught an amazing view of a fiery finale at Crescent Rock Overlook (Milepost 44.4). From Crescent Rock, we made our way to the nightly campfire at Skyland's outdoor amphitheater, a free, ranger-led program provided by the park service. With the evening air noticeably cooler, we bundled the kids up in sweatpants and jackets before making our way with flashlights to the campfire.
Families gathered around the fire or sat along the tiered wooden benches under the stars, listening as the ranger described park wildlife and the various hikes and nature trails. After the hour-long program, we all roasted marshmallows and made s'mores. Later, carrying my sleepy younger son back to the room, his hair warm and smelling like campfire, he was still quietly crooning, "Who-cooks-for-yooooo, who-cooks-for-yooooo?" the newly learned call of the barred owl, as his head rested heavily against my shoulder.
-- Wendi Kaufman