When I moved back to Maryland after journalism tours in South Carolina and Florida, the Shenandoah Valley quickly became a favorite daytrip getaway for my wife and me. We’d pack a cooler, find a ridge and have a picnic overlooking the valley.

When our son, Callum, was born in 2018, Shenandoah National Park was one of his first excursions.

But we’d only done day trips since then, so the chance to spend a weekend in the valley meant stopping and exploring some of the small towns and attractions we usually just drove past, sitting around a campfire at night listening to music and sampling beers from some of the dozen-plus breweries in and around the valley.

Where we stayed

We rented a two-bedroom home on a ridge above New Market, Virginia, a little more than two and half hours from Baltimore. It cost us $450 for two nights, with taxes and fees. We love to travel as a family: That means the three of us and our bulldog, Truman. So we made sure the house was pet-friendly and looked safe enough for a daredevil 5-year-old. Unfortunately, the remnants of a recent tropical storm meant we weren’t going to spend much time around the firepit or in the hot tub.

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A cute little spot where we could sit outside and watch the sunset if it hadn't been raining the entire time. (John O'Connor)

The house was all the way at the end of an unpaved mountain road made more challenging by the rain, and getting to the top of the hill was an adventure every time in our front-wheel drive SUV. I had to violate the posted 15 MPH limit to make sure we had enough speed to clear the two steepest sections.

But once we got there, the house was a tidy gem. We had a little deck where we could watch the sun go down. The furniture was midcentury modern-inspired. Our host left us a bottle of wine and snacks. We spent the first night watching college football and learning how to play Catan.

Day 1: Notes from the underground

What we did

Our family trips require careful plotting because Truman is a huge jerk who won’t behave himself. That’s why we targeted the very dog-friendly Hawksbill Brewing in Luray as our first stop. Unfortunately, as we walked in two dogs started barking at Truman, who considered the situation for a moment before deciding he was going to finish it.

So with Truman staring at us through the brewery’s window from the front seat of our car, we quickly sampled Hawksbill’s lineup, which included a cream ale, a Belgian-style ale and a milk stout.

The taproom of Hawksbill Brewing in Luray, Virginia, features stickers from other breweries across Virginia, Maryland and the country. (John O'Connor)

We checked into the house and set back out for our in-case-of-rain plan — Luray Caverns, because caves are famously known for being warm and dry. I hadn’t visited the caverns in 30 years, but my wife is a geology geek and it’s rubbed off on my son, so this spot was a no-brainer. Tickets are $32 for adults, but we used our customer card for Giant grocery stores to get a second adult ticket at half price. Kids under 6 are free, while those aged 6 to 12 are $16.

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The caverns are truly a natural wonder, with the path winding an underground figure eight. Along the way are markers noting “landmarks” such as Pluto’s Ghost, a four-story calcite column that serves as the focal point of the caverns; the fish market, where the rock formation looks like fish lined up for sale; and the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which tapped out “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns.
The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns. (John O'Connor)

There are also unofficial landmarks. Callum will explore every cranny, and when we shined a flashlight into one dark ground-level pocket, we found someone had tucked what looked like a plastic skull into the void to stare back at us.

My son’s favorite feature was the Wishing Well, a blue-green pool near the end of the path. The pool is drained every so often and the money (which the caverns says gives the pool its color) is collected for charity, totaling more than $1 million over the years.

We handed Callum a pocketful of coins and he reached over the railing, making a wish with every toss.

Callum O'Connor tosses coins into the water during a visit to Luray Caverns. (John O'Connor)

The exit, of course, is through the gift shop. After carefully considering his options, Callum picked out a metal Luray Caverns keychain and a pink pig that oinks when squeezed.

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“One of my wishes came true,” Callum declared. “I always wanted a pig.”

So did mine. The pig and keychain only cost me $8.

Where we ate

My wife has a talent for finding great food off the beaten path, and Swover Creek Farms & Brewery, near Edinburg, was another winner. The dining room was in what looked like a repurposed stable with Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead and The Band playing through the speakers as the rain poured down outside. At the table next to us, a dog lay on the floor patiently waiting for food to fall off ours.

The restaurant has a long list of house-made sausages — I had a hot Italian — wood-fired pizzas, pretzels and other snacks. The beers were more than competent versions of traditional styles: the pilsner and Mexican-style lime lager went great with our sausage and pizza. Sausages were $9 a piece and you could order them by the pound to take home. Pizzas were all $15 or less and could feed two people.

“Another wish came true,” Callum said shortly after our food arrived. “I wanted pepperoni pizza for dinner.”

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Day 2: Dirty boots

What we did

The rain still hadn’t let up by Sunday morning, but we weren’t going to let that stop our hiking day in Shenandoah National Park. Park admission is $30 per vehicle and good for a week, but we usually buy the U.S. Park Service’s $80 pass that’s good at all national parks for a year.

A canopy of trees surrounds the Limberlost Trail in Shenandoah National Park. (Katie O'Connor)

I’ve always been conflicted about the park, one of the most beautiful stretches of the United States, whose most famous feature, Skyline Drive, largely serves automobiles — at odds with the principles of conservation. But Skyline Drive also makes Shenandoah a very accessible park, which is reflected in the selection of trails.

We started with the Limberlost Trail, a roughly 1.4-mile fully accessible loop of crushed stone and wooden bridges that winds past pine trees, ferns, mountain laurel and bright red clusters of jack-in-the-pulpit fruit. We tossed pebbles into the creek, scrambled through a rock field and enjoyed the leisurely stroll as rain tapped on the canopy above us and several other families with young children.

Callum O’Connor climbs in a rock garden on the Limberlost Trail. (Katie O'Conno)

“Seeing bugs is the best part of nature,” Callum said, inspecting rotten stumps and checking the underside of leaves for insects.

The trail intersects some of the park’s backcountry pathways as well as those used by visitors on horseback, and would be a great place to spend in the shade of a hot summer day.

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Our second trail, Dark Hollow Falls, was also 1.4 miles out and back. But unlike the flat Limberlost Trail, much of the Dark Hollow Falls trail is pretty steep — and muddy — with an elevation change of 440 feet from the trailhead to the falls. A creek winds beside the trail, so we had to stop every few hundred yards to allow Callum to toss a few more pebbles in the water.

The bottom of Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park. (John O'Connor)

At the bottom of the hill is a roughly 70-foot cascading waterfall. We scrambled up and around the rocks and tiptoed across the creek to explore a couple of boulders on the other side before heading back up the hill to the trailhead. Dark Hollow Falls is one of the most popular trails in the park, and plenty of people were out hiking even in the tapering rain.

Where we ate

After burning a couple hundred calories walking, we headed south along Skyline Drive toward Elkton and Elkton Brewing Co. We stopped at The Oaks overlook to see the sun finally shine through the fog and mist.

Elkton Brewing is a beautifully renovated 1890 building with lots of brick and wood and a large outdoor patio next to the railroad tracks that cut through town.

The exterior of Elkton Brewing in Elkton, Virginia.

The beers were the best we had all weekend and named after a wild coterie of (infamous) locals. One example: Odell’s Tiger, a blood orange blonde ale named after a local man whose arrest for running a methamphetamine ring also turned up a collection of exotic animals. They brew a large range of beers from IPAs and fruited sours to traditional, but less trendy, styles like eisbock and rauchbier.

Elkton Brewing doesn’t distribute, but we grabbed a couple of crowlers to take with us.

For dinner we ate at Gogi-Wa, a casual Korean restaurant with rave reviews online. My wife and I both opted for bibimbap-style bowls — the spicy bulgogi created the right amount of tingle — and Callum went with the fried chicken. Entrees were about $15. Gogi-Wa is located in a restaurant-focused shopping village between Elkton and Harrisonburg, but know that seating is limited and mostly outdoors.

For dessert we stopped at Pack’s Frozen Custard, a county fair-style trailer that lit up the dark highway back to our rental near New Market. Pack’s has an old-school vibe and seemingly endless combinations of ice cream, toppings and presentations.

A beacon of sugary light in the darkness: Pack's Frozen Custard stand in New Market, Virginia. (Katie O'Connor)

Day 3: New Market and mums

What we did

For our last day, we checked out the Civil War battlefield at New Market. Fought in May 1864, the battle is best known for the inclusion of cadets from nearby Virginia Military Institute, 10 of whom died during the battle or from wounds sustained that day. The Confederate victory helped protect supply lines late in the conflict.

New Market is well-preserved (or reconstructed) considering Interstate 81 was built through the battlefield. The walking tour cost $8 for adults and was a little more than a mile round-trip. Kids 5 and under are free. Adjacent to the battlefield is the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, which we didn’t visit and is an additional $4.

In the center of the battlefield is the Bushong family farm, and markers detail the buildings and where Confederate lines marched through the farm as they attacked Union troops on a nearby rise. Callum explored the blacksmith shed and summer kitchen, and we walked through the “Field of Lost Shoes,” an open meadow turned to mud by a storm before the battle. Troops reported losing their boots as they marched.

A portion of fence and the Bushong farm at New Market Battlefield in New Market, Virginia. (Katie O'Connor)

Truman was running out of gas, so we skipped the tunnel under I-81 that leads to the portion of the battlefield on the other side of the interstate.

My wife requested one last stop before we got on the road for Maryland: a nursery stocked with mums that she noted when we were driving through Luray. While we were arguing with Callum over color — Katie wanted traditional burnt orange, he wanted the lavender-pink — the owner and his wife asked if they could give Callum a pumpkin. We paid $24 for the mums, but the small pumpkin was priceless.

“Another wish came true,” Callum said as we pulled out to head home. “I always wanted a pumpkin.”

john.oconnor@thebaltimorebanner.com

John edits political coverage for The Baltimore Banner. Previously he's covered Washington, D.C. for WNYC public radio and politics and education in Maryland, South Carolina and Florida. 

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