When G. Freeman Pollock founded Skyland in 1894, he had been in and out of bankruptcy so many times he couldn’t possibly have envisioned the immense popularity it would have subsequently gained. Luckily for us his son George, an ardent naturalist, saw the raw beauty of the land as a draw for tourists. But in 19th century Virginia the remote destination had no trails and no roads, and it was such an arduous journey that guests would stay for several weeks or more. Today, however, to enjoy and explore the resort within the Shenandoah National Forest, we can just hop in our car and arrive in little more than two hours, ready to bask in (and document with our personal devices) the glorious foliage of autumn at a whopping 3,560 feet above sea level.
Driving along Route 211 past Warrenton and Sperryville we stop at roadside stands decorated with pumpkins, cornstalks and pots of colorful mums, and stock up on apple butter, cider, sorghum and honey. As the road turns up the mountain and onto Skyline Drive, ever more lavish displays of fall color come into view – red from maples, dogwoods, black gums and sumac, yellow from yellow birch, tulip poplar and hickory, orange from beech and sassafras. Stop at one of the many overlooks for gloriously scenic photo ops.
Arriving at Skyland Resort we picked up a few refreshments from the Grab n’ Go located beside the restaurant. Be sure to try the homemade brownies and blackberry lemonade. Since we were earlier than our check in time, we decided to make the most of our visit. Four short marked trails are easily accessible from the resort’s parking area – Miller’s Head, a 1.6 mile round trip, Limberlost Trail, a 1.3 mile circuit (ADA accessible), Stony Man, 1.6 mile loop trail and Little Stony Man, a 0.9 mile hike. We chose Stony Man Trail, a gentle that hike winds through dappled glades carpeted with ferns, drifts past 800 million-year old rock outcroppings draped in mossy lichen, and climbs to a height of 4,010’ where a spectacular view of the Piedmont and Old Rag Mountain are revealed. (More dramatic photo ops here.)
At this altitude you’ll see and smell red spruce and balsam fir, rare for southern climes. Breathe deeply and tune into the sounds of the forest, a practice the Japanese call “forest bathing,” or “Shinrinyoku,” a sort of natural aromatherapy said to increase relaxation and boost the immune system.
Back at the lodge we had relaxing dinner in the Pollock Dining Room, which boasts a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah valley. The resort is proud of their new chef and has been hosting wine dinners with nearby vineyards. In November three unique pairing dinners are planned – one to feature dishes paired wines from Ducard Winery, another with Old Hill Cider and the final dinner of the season is slated to be a whiskey pairing.
Night programs here are just as popular as daytime tours offered by the Park Rangers. We chose the stargazing evening given by astronomers from the Charlottesville Astrological Society. “Night Skies in the Big Meadows” begins with a talk on the constellations we would see before convening at an open field that afforded expansive views of the galaxy. Astronomer Richard Drumm, known as “The Astronomy Bumm,” awaited our arrival with telescopes at the ready. Unfortunately it was too overcast to see, no less identify, even the Big Dipper, so we asked a lot of what we thought were “smart” questions and learned about controlling light pollution.
The following morning bright blue skies accompanied hearty breakfasts, and after finding some locally made crafts in the gift shop we headed to the stables for a guided horseback trail ride (ponies are available for kids). I was very impressed by the overall care with which the stables, tack and horses are kept and that our young guide, Jeremy, was knowledgeable about horses, local plants and the history of the area and kept up a lively conversation throughout the two ½ hour ride.
Before heading for home we spent a few hours at the Annual Apple Butter Celebration (the resort provided a shuttle to take us to and from) where we watched the old fashioned method of making apple butter in a large copper vessel, tasted four varieties of the local hard cider from Old Hill Cider at Showalters Orchard, and gobbled up apple-smoked pork sandwiches and candied apples – all to the lively sounds of bluegrass bands.
For more info visit their website.
All photo credits to Jordan Wright.