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THE BREATHTAKING BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS

A car trip along Skyline Drive opens your eyes to the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. And it's worth the trouble to get out for one of the short scenic hikes.

I have never lived more than three hours' drive from the Appalachian Mountains, but I was always busy touring someone else's back yard. Then, finally, I traveled nearly 200 miles down the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains _ along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

My notion the Appalachians were more like hills than the mountains I knew, the Alps, the Rockies, was partly right. These mountains are not craggy or imposing; the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park, Hawksbill Mountain, reaches 4,051 feet.

But that's beside the point. This range offers more majesty than you can take in at one viewpoint.

And these mountains boast something those others cannot _ a look at the countryside that was so instrumental in the Civil War.

To the west of the mountains lies Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which stretches roughly from Front Royal south to Roanoke _ about 175 miles as the crow flies. From east to west, it's only a few miles wide at any point.

The valley follows the two forks of the Shenandoah River until they join at Front Royal, emptying out into the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

To the east of the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway is the lovely Rockfish Valley, a bit less developed than the Shenandoah Valley.

The best way to see the range is to travel down Skyline Drive, a 105-mile scenic drive built by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1942 through Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Visitors can buy a seven-day pass for $10 per car to build a trip around Skyline Drive. The Blue Ridge Parkway, which is free to drive, takes up where Skyline Drive ends, passing through part of the George Washington National Forest in Virginia and continuing into North Carolina.

The north end of the drive, Front Royal, is about an hour and a half west of Washington, D.C., or an hour from Dulles International Airport.

Travel south out of Front Royal on Route 340 and, after a mile, turn left into the entrance of Skyline Drive. Just 2.8 miles after you enter, an overlook affords views of row upon row of undulating green ridges _ at one I counted 11 ridges.

In the distance are the long sandstone ridges of Massanutten Mountain, which runs about two-thirds of the length of the Blue Ridge and served as a communications post for the Rebels during the Civil War.

The evergreen-studded mountains look like sleeping animals, covered with a pilly, fuzzy blanket of green. No wonder the locals dubbed these hills Hog Wallow; they have the splayed, flattened quality of a happy pig in mud.

Some 90 miles south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, mountain views alternate with thickly wooded stretches of road, where rhododendron bushes the size of small trees grow for as far as the eye can see.

The drive offers more than 100 turn-offs and overlooks. Shenandoah National Park alone has more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 94 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

That is a side of the park that too few visitors see, according to park spokeswoman Lyn Rothgeb. "To get a real park experience, I would (suggest) that people take the time to explore not only the drive, but stop at one of the many trailheads and hike," she said.

Try to catch sight of the wildflowers blooming all year, Rothgeb urges, or to spy some of the 200-plus species of birds that have been spotted in the park.

The longest hikes from Skyline Drive are about 6 miles round-trip, and they often lead to summits and waterfalls. If you don't have that much time or energy, try a shorter hike, such as the 2-mile, round-trip trek to the South River Falls, third-highest in the park.

Most of the trail hugs a tumbling mountain stream, occasionally crossing swirling pools. It can get a bit steep, but it is one of the easiest hikes on the drive. The payoff is a view of the falls, a narrow torrent crashing 83 feet, carving a channel through the rock face.

Less than a mile but more challenging is the hike to Bearfence Summit at milepost 56.4. If I had underestimated these mountains before, this bit of footwork taught me respect. Much of this trail is a single-file, sometimes butt-scooting climb over precarious rock formations.

But when you get past the obstacle course to the summit, the reward is a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge. It is one of those moments when the countryside seems so pristine that you wonder if you are seeing the same view that people saw hundreds of years ago.

You probably are not. The land had been through generations of clearing, farming and warfare before the 1920s, when the Commonwealth of Virginia started buying up privately owned plots. The property was then turned over to the federal government for development as a park.

Warfare and wineries

About 136 years ago, Union troops burned about 100 miles of the valley, much as they torched Atlanta, before the North's successful campaign here.

"This whole valley was nothing but black smoke," said Judy Reynolds, who runs educational programs at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park and Hall of Valor Civil War Museum.

She explained that Shenandoah was considered an important patch of territory to both sides for three reasons:

Farms here helped supply food to the Confederates; it is close to Washington, D.C.; and Southern troops, if allowed to cross east over the Blue Ridge, could help shore up their flagging counterparts elsewhere.

Most battlegrounds in the valley remain in private hands, either inaccessible or distinguished only by a marker.

An important historical site is Appomattox Court House, about 33 miles east of the Route 130 exit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

The weather turned nasty on us one day, so instead of our planned hike we headed to some of the area's wineries. Virginia has 59, and at least half are in the area that includes the Shenandoah Valley and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

If you can, get to Barboursville Vineyards, in the town of the same name. About 20 miles west of Skyline Drive off Route 33, Barboursville produces a fine Riesling, sparkling wine and dessert wine called Malvaxia.

The tasting-area setting is splendid _ an open, brick and wood space with a two-sided fireplace warming the area in the colder months. There is also a restaurant, and the whole complex overlooks the sloping vineyards.

Near Barboursville is Horton Cellars winery. It, too, has a beautiful space. Try the Viognier, something of a specialty in these parts.

Closer to the drive are numerous smaller wineries worth visiting. As we pulled into Wintergreen Winery, five miles east of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Nellysford, the wind picked up, blowing the rain horizontally into our faces.

In an adjacent field, a pony rolled on its back, its legs wiggling in the air. A few rays of sun shot through, giving the air a pearly glow even as charcoal-gray storm clouds hovered.

Inside, Tamara Stone, who owns the winery with her husband, Jeff, had put on a crockpot of their spiced apple wine. Brilliant move.

On the way home, I began to recognize another way these mountains could compete with those taller ranges, or at least my leg muscles did.

And once you come down from the mountains, you might be tempted to roll in the velvety green that blankets these valleys, just like that pony did. You can't say that about the Rockies.

If you go

Staying there: Lodging rates in Shenandoah National Park range from $53 for a modest cabin to $170 for a suite. To inquire, contact ARAMAK Virginia Skyline Co., P.O. Box 727NP, Luray, VA 22835; call (800) 999-4714 or (540) 743-5108. The Web site is http:// www.visitshenandoah.com .

Most campsites in the park are available on a first-come, first-served basis beginning in early April and ending in October, for $14 to $17 per day. For information or to make reservations at the one campground that accepts them, call (800) 365-2267, or write to National Park Service Reservations, P.O. Box 1600, Cumberland, MD 21502. The Web site is http://reservations.nps.gov .

Two lodges along Skyline Drive offer rooms, suites and cabins. Skyland opens in late March and Big Meadows in mid-May. Both close in October. Lewis Mountain Cabins are open from late May until October.

Both lodges and the Panorama restaurant have decent choices for simple meals: chili, sandwiches, soups, ham, chicken and some fish. Four "waysides" along Skyline Drive include snack bars and lunch counters.

Farther south, at milepost 85 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Peaks of Otter Lodge has 60 rooms and a restaurant. The rooms are nondescript, but they all have balconies and a lakeside view.

Still, if you want to make dinner a destination, and you don't mind driving about 30 minutes west of the parkway, then exit at Route 33 and head to Harrisonburg for the Joshua Wilton House, (540) 434-4464.

This converted mansion hosts a formal restaurant that serves a fixed-price menu Tuesday through Saturday. There's also a cafe where you can order a la carte but still get ambitious, dazzling food, a cozy lounge that even sells decent sparkling wine by the glass, and a bed and breakfast.

For more information

The National Park Service publishes a free booklet on Shenandoah National Park and a fold-out map of Skyline Drive. To have information mailed to you, call (540) 999-3500.

For information on the Blue Ridge Parkway, call (828) 298-0398 or write to Blue Ridge Parkway, 199 Hemphil Knob Road, Asheville, NC 28803; http://www.nps.gov/blri .

Contact Peaks of Otter Lodge at P.O. Box 489, Bedford, VA 24523; call (800) 542-5927 or (540) 586-1081; http://www.peaksofotter.com .

For an excellent brochure on Virginia wineries _ complete with detailed maps, phone numbers and an events calendar _ contact the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, P.O. Box 1163, Richmond, VA 23218, (800) 828-4637.

For information on Civil War sites, go to http://www.civilwar-va.com, produced by the Richmond publishing house Page One Inc. Its mailing address is P.O. Box 4232, Richmond VA 23220; call (888) 248-4592.

For directions to the New Market Battlefield Historical Park and Hall of Valor Civil War Museum, call (540) 740-3101, or visit http://www.vmi.edu/museum /nm/index.html.

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