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Shenandoah National Park and Beyond: Roanoke, VA to Washington, DC

Spending a couple of days resting in Roanoke turned out to be a good decision, it poured it down with rain nearly the entire time. Our days off went fast though as we had a couple of great hosts to spend our time with; hanging out and eating home made waffles with Angela and Bradley; and checking out a local brewery/bar trivia night (though we mostly just sampled the beer) and doing some arts and crafts with Carol and Bernie. We keep harping on about it but the hospitality we’ve received in the US has been truly incredible, it’s blown us away how willing people are to help out a couple of dirtbag cyclists. 

Our next highlight of the ride was to be the Shenandoah National Park. Ever since Wayne and Linda in Florida told us about how beautiful it is we had been looking forward to it. Sadly the forecast was less than ideal, so we decided to take our time, and another couple of days off, in getting to the park in the hope that the weather would blow through and we would be well rested and excited for several days of riding in the hills again.

It was a steady few days of riding and relaxing as we made our way up the Shenandoah valley towards the park entrance. We stayed with more great hosts that gave us shelter from the rain and made our leisurely cruise up the valley very enjoyable. Big thanks to Dirk and Chrissy for all the great food and the adventure racing stories, we are definitely inspired; and to Jessi and Colin for the most memorable Thai meal ever, tasty cocktails and great chat. You guys all rock.

The plan worked perfectly (nearly) and we rode up and into Shenandoah under sunny skies. It was a big(ish) climb to get back up into the mountains but it was nice to be back up high and looking out over the beautiful scenery again. 

Also… we saw a bear! It was awesome. We actually saw a small one on the way into Roanoke but Ben got so excited and rather too loudly exclaimed, ‘Look, a bear!’ which of course made said bear run back into the woods. Sad face. Our first Shenandoah bear sighting was actually a pretty huge one (by east coast black bear standards) and it was just in the woods off the side of the road, meaning we rode within a couple of bike lengths of it! Needless to say we didn’t stop to get a photo that time.

We had been told that we would see bears in Shenandoah and we weren’t disappointed. For the four days that we were in the park we had a daily bear encounter, mostly when they were crossing the road near to where we were riding, but once there was one in the campsite! It was a proper campground though so there was a park ranger with a paintball gun to scare it off back to the forest.

Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive that runs through it follow the same ridge as the Blue Ridge Parkway and the forest and scenery that we were riding through looked almost the same, but it felt quite different. Firstly, you have to pay to enter so there was a fair amount less traffic on the roads and secondly around 40% of the park is designated as wilderness, so animal life is much more noticeable. Along with the bears we saw plenty of woodland creatures that were very used to humans quietly passing through, meaning they were often more than happy to pose for photos. 

We took it slow and spent three nights in Shenandoah, enjoying camping in the forest again. Our last night in the park happened to be a Friday and while the previous nights had been peaceful you could really notice the difference the weekend made. The campground we stayed in filled right up that night (luckily we arrived early and grabbed a pitch) including a rather large group of noisy children, it was our cue to be leaving the park. 

After another fun bear sighting on our way out of the park we stopped for 2nd breakfast in Front Royal, a typical small American town. We then had a steady 100km (60mi) ride before crossing into our 6th state, West Virginia, where we found ourselves in the small town of Harpers Ferry and in the company of our host Gary. The town itself proved to be really interesting with a huge significance in American history. It’s maintained as a National Historical Park so a lot of the lower town is buildings preserved/restored to how they were in the past and open as museums. We found it fun to explore and increase our (frankly embarrassing lack of) knowledge of US history. 

We learned that Harpers Ferry is located in a break in the Appalachian mountains, where the Potomac river cuts its way through so it was strategically important for both early transport and freight links in the form of the railway and the canal but also during the American Civil War. The town was predominantly built around a US armoury and arsenal and in 1859 famous abolitionist John Brown led a slave revolt and attempted to take control of the armoury, he failed but that event proved to be one of the major precursors to the Civil War itself, which then began in 1861. Due to its location right on the border between the southern Confederate states and the northern Unionist states the town changed hands 8 times throughout the war and was the scene of the largest surrender of Federal forces during the war (google ‘Battle of Harpers Ferry’ if you’re interested). After the war Harpers Ferry became an important location for the anti-slavery movement and was home to one of the early black colleges, Storer College. Originally opened to train black teachers it eventually offered full 4 year courses to all races and genders. For such a small place there was a whole bunch of interesting things that happened there and if you get the chance exploring the museum/town gets a definite recommendation from us.

Gary turned out to be a truly inspiring character too. Since retiring he’s done three cross-country bike trips and hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (~3540km, ~2200mi), so he had a lot of great stories to share over a beer at one of his local breweries. You’ve probably noticed a theme here, there are breweries and craft beer places in nearly every town in the Appalachian  region, it’s a pretty big deal. The abundance of good beer is a real treat for us, but we also definitely miss the £0.75 ($1) Colombian lagers too!

Exploring Harpers Ferry felt like a warm up for the touristing we would soon be doing in The Capital and if anything it made us even more excited to get to Washington. Luckily it was just a days ride from Harpers Ferry into DC following the Chesapeake and Ohio canal path (C&O). Riding the canal path felt really like being back in Yorkshire. The C&O has been disused for almost 100 years and so there are now huge trees growing in what was once the canal itself, but the canal path has been preserved as a greenway. There are plenty of old locks and aqueducts and the path is sandwiched between the Potomac river and the railway so it’s a pretty interesting ride. Great Falls is a small detour on foot from the path, but it’s a pretty stunning set of waterfalls. Set in a gorge that used to be a floodplain the river drops 60ft and creates some really impressive white water in the process. Apparently they hold kayaking events on some stretches of these falls! 😳

And then we were there, The Captial, The District, Washington, or just ‘DC’ (but only if you’re a tourist). There is an overwhelming amount to see/do so we planned on staying a few days to get the most out of it. It’s going to be a whole blog post in itself so we’ll save that for next time. 

Until then,

Ben & Steph

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3 comments

  1. I so look forward to riding the C&O (along with the GAP). 2021! Btw, you’re lucky with the temporary bridge. It would have only been put in place as much as a week before you passed over it!

    1. Yeah so the picture with the two trail volunteers was that they were telling us that there is now a temporary bridge there whilst they’re working on the stone one. It’s going to be a while until it’s repaired properly because it’s in an area with high floods but they were busy working when we were there. Wonder if it’ll be done by 2021?!

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