Front Royal, VA
An unintended guest
The black fuzzy mark moved slowly out of the white plastic bag on my kitchen counter. Its little black legs worked in unison as it peered out across the kitchen and craned its thick neck upward to get its bearings.
I noticed it in my peripheral vision at first. When I looked a little harder, I realized it was a caterpillar that must have hitched a ride on some collared greens that had I picked myself at a farm in Virginia that day. Rather than killing the poor thing, I grabbed the collared green it was sitting on brought it outside, finding a bush to lay it on. I wonder what was going on that little caterpillar’s little brain during the hour-long drive in the trunk of a car.
When I left DC that morning, I had no idea that I would be literally bringing a caterpillar from farm to table. That was not my intention. What I intended was to do was visit Front Royal, Virginia, get some lunch, and do a quick hike in Sky Meadows Park along the way.
I-66: The Bad and the Good, but not the Ugly
I-66 was recently named one of the worst roads in America, for good reason. Between Arlington and Fairfax Virginia, the road almost always has traffic–even at odd times of the day and night. Only if they just keep going, drivers are soon richly rewarded with beautiful countryside views.
About 45 minutes outside of DC, the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains come into view. The fall is an especially good time to visit this area and explore the side roads branching off into the farmland and woodland. I did just that with my visit to Sky Meadows State Park, an almost 2,000 acre track of land donated to the state by a private landowner in 1975.
Sky Meadows State Park (Delaplane, VA)
Sky Meadows is a beautiful place with a lot of great hiking trails with outstanding views of the eastern Blue Ridge Mountains. The park is also a great place to take your dog.
If you only have an hour or so, start at the visitors center area where the parking lot is, and walk up the hill in front of you. You’ll see a sign post with directions to each of the ten or so trails you can take. Because I wanted a good view, but not knowing where to go, I chose the Piedmont Overlook Trail. Overlooks usually have good views.
The Piedmont Overlook trail brings you up a long hill that’s not very steep, giving you the opportunity to get a little workout in while taking in the views and fall colors without killing yourself in the process. Ollie got his little body up the hill, panting a bit as he neared the top of the trail. On the way back down to the parking lot, I took the Gap Run Trail, which runs parallel to the trail I took up the hill.
Hollins Farm Pick-Your-Own
After leaving Sky Meadows, I went to Hollins Farm, a “Pick your own” farm on a hillside in Delapane about 5 minutes from I-66. I’ve been to farms where you can pick your own apples and pumpkins and standard stuff like that but never to one where you can pick your own greens and dig up potatoes yourself. Being a suburban kid and a city guy now, picking my own lettuce is just not among my common life experiences these days. There was something oddly satisfying about rooting around in the dirt with my shovel and finding lumps of dirt concealing big fat potatoes. The greens were just as fun. I picked some bok choy, collard greens and red-leaf lettuce. On one of these leaves was that poor little caterpillar who hitched a ride with me first to Front Royal and then the 75 miles to Washington DC.
If you take the same way I describe, definitely continue along Route 688 as you make your way back down to I-66. This route on a fall weekend was gorgeous. Fall colors, farms with grazing cows, and a winding road with no other cars. It could have been a car commercial.
Front Royal, Virginia
I love Front Royal for its small town feel, Civil War history, and its location on the Appalachian trail. I suggest starting your tour of the city at the Front Royal Town Square, site of the town’s Visitor Center. A very helpful representative suggested I do a walking tour of the two streets that bisect the old downtown: Main Street and Chester Street. Both are lined with a lot of really old homes, one of which is the Belle Boyd House, named for the female Confederate. There are a lot of antique shops on Main Street, so if antiquing is your thing, Front Royal is great for that.
Here are some of the places I visited:
Spleunkers (116 South St Front Royal, VA 22630): If you’re not in the mood for spending a lot of money, you can’t go wrong with a burger place called Spleunkers, not far from the old downtown. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. Kind of like a McDonalds. It even has a drive thru. But the charboiled burger I ate was the best burger I’ve had a long time. Amazing fries too. The restaurant is also known for its frozen custard, The Yelp reviews were spot on.
Daily Grind (Main Street 215 E. Main Street, Front Royal, VA 22630): If you want to experience my idea of a great coffee shop, this is the place. It’s on the main street of a walkable town. It’s in a hundred-year old building with high ceilings. The coffee is great. It’s not crowded. There are androgynous hipster baristas. There is cushion seating and a place for live music. I love this place and would spend hours here if I lived in Front Royal.
Royal Oak Bookstore (207 South Royal Avenue, Front Royal, Virginia 22630): A seriously good used bookstore with rooms and rooms of gently used books with reasonable prices. The woman running the store even let me bring my dog inside.