If we can’t travel far, we can at least explore our region’s beautiful surroundings.
As a kid, taking a Sunday drive meant sitting in the back seat, listening to your parents talk as they drove by houses they dreamed of owning, or touring through neighborhoods they wanted to explore. Sometimes, it meant going to see the neighbor’s Christmas lights too, or just driving through the countryside.
In the era of a pandemic, when so many are claiming a return to the “simple things,” there’s an argument to be made for the Sunday drive, or an any-day-of-the-week drive for that matter. Skip the increasing traffic on the highway and take the back roads. Load up the kids or go out on a solo adventure.
However you do it, here are three scenic day drives to take around Northern Virginia for when you just need to get out of the house.
Estimated 25 miles; 30 minutes or more
It’s a trip you might have taken dozens of times, but it’s just short enough to give you a change of scenery and remind you of the beauty that surrounds us in Northern Virginia.
The historic motorway opened on Jan. 16, 1932, along the length of the Potomac River, showcasing views of the nation’s capital and even making its way through Old Town Alexandria and straight to the first president’s estate at Mount Vernon. The road is perfect for taking the time to put the windows down and look beyond the edges of Northern Virginia, catching DC landmarks from afar, including Georgetown’s skyline and the Washington Monument.
Here are a few stops along this short route to make the drive extra special:
Gravelly Point is the perfect picnic location, with spacious greenery allowing for a large blanket for lounging or even a family pickup game of soccer. Plus, not only can you see the DC landmarks from where you relax, you can also catch the frequent planes arriving to and departing from Reagan National Airport at all hours of the day.
Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve is a great place to find serenity and calmness, surrounded by the beauty of nature and potential wildlife-viewing opportunities. Take the Dyke Marsh Trail out to the peninsula for sweeping views of both the Virginia and Maryland shorelines.
Riverside Park is located just before you arrive at Mount Vernon and is tucked alongside the Potomac River. It offers beautiful waterscape views at any time of day, but the sunsets bring vibrant pink, yellow, orange and blue hues to the landscape while reflecting in the river for a picturesque summer memory.
Make this day trip your own by packing a lunch for the family, loading up the bikes or scooters to take along the paved trail, or just pinpoint where you would like to make a relaxing pit stop to enjoy the views. The drive is just short enough to pack up and head back home whenever you’re ready.
Estimated 60 miles; 1.5-hour driving route
It’s no secret that Virginia is rich with history, but it can all seem a bit overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of the Northern Virginia region. To get a glimpse of history just outside of the thruway to Washington, DC, head to the nation’s first-ever turnpike: Snickersville Turnpike, SR-734.
It’s a two-lane road that winds through the countryside of Northern Virginia, often calm in comparison to the rest of the region, and offers landscape views of farms and fields alike.
You can start in Leesburg and head north or south, depending on which way you want to take your journey, but make sure you complete the “loop” by driving through Waterford, Lovettsville, Purcellville, Bluemont and Aldie (and back to your starting point).
Along the way, you’ll pass early-era stone and log construction, Victorian-style farmhouses and post-Depression cottages, according to Fun in Faixfax VA, and get a glimpse at both architectural and national history. Plus, a chance to take a hike and pick up some of the region’s coveted wine and beer.
History and Hiking
Just outside of Aldie along the route stands Furr Farm, a site of one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War, where the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry lost over 100 men and created a commemorative monument honoring the lives lost. The soldiers’ names are carved into the monument, and viewers can stand to see the same fields toward the Bull Run Mountains that the men saw in 1863. The monument is the only one dedicated to Union forces that exists in Loudoun County.
For architectural history along the route, cross over the double-arched Hibbs Bridge for a look at the impressive structure of the early-1800s, preserved by the community over the past two centuries. It’s a different kind of history, but history nonetheless!
And if you’re wanting to see even more of the past than just from your car windows, plan a stop at the Old Mill of Waterford on Catoctin Creek and take the estimated 1.5-mile hike to Phillips Farm, a preserved area of over 150 miles of farmland. Check out historic markers of the Civil War and other trails that remain from the original settlement of the Quakers in the 1700s.
If you need to stretch your legs and get your steps in for the day (without all of the history lessons), take the 2-mile hike up to Bears Den Overlook just outside of Bluemont, to see a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah Valley. Pack your own lunch and you can picnic at the top to enjoy your meal outside of the car, then carefully head back down to wind through the rest of the trip, full and satisfied.
Along the route there are several small town general stores, great for finding Virginia-made products, collectable trinkets and even small snacks. Plan to make a stop at Great Country Farms, where you can grab fresh produce and locally made sweets, ranging from bottles of honey and jars of jam, to fresh-baked pies and more. Depending on the season, fields to pick produce yourself may be open, making for a strawberry-picking or a pumpkin patch experience you can enjoy.
In and around Bluemont, you’ll find a portion of the region’s wine country, and if you need a souvenir from your day trip, this is the area to stop. You can drive by to pick up some libations to-go from Bluemont Vineyards—stopping to take a good look at the winery’s spacious view—as well as nearby Dirt Farm Brewing and Bear Chase Brewing. There are other breweries, wineries and restaurants along the route, so be sure to do a little research beforehand and see where you might want to grab a few of your favorite things.
Of course, there’s so much more to see once you make your own trip down the Snickersville Turnpike, but be sure to enjoy the memories along the way, and get your breath of fresh air just when you need it most.
105.5 miles (in its entirety); minimum three-hour time commitment from NoVA
It should come as no surprise that the historic Skyline Drive, with its breathtaking views and winding scenery through the Shenandoah Valley, is a day drive worth taking just outside of Northern Virginia.
Sure, you could save this trip for the fall when the foliage brings out a bounty of yellow, orange and red hues across the mountains, but the summer visits can be filled with joy in other ways: luscious greenery, waterfalls, wildlife viewing and more.
Take a drive starting at mile zero, taking US 340 south of Front Royal in Warren County, and on to the two-lane road that winds through Shenandoah National park, and you’ll find trail heads, overlooks and so much more beyond your car’s view. To maintain safety and make the most of a road trip, pack snacks for the ride and a picnic for when you arrive at a socially distant, mountain-viewing location.
If you must stretch your legs, here are our recommendations on making the most of your drive.
The Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails to explore, and over 200,000 acres of explorable land. Hikes range from easy to difficult, with many just off the route with parking areas to accommodate hikers.
Here, find a list of some of the frequented hikes along Skyline Drive and their accompanying mile markers. And if you’re looking for bragging rights, many of the trails that lead to impressive views and through moderate elevation changes are along the Appalachian Trail, making you one of the thousands of hikers who has traveled along the path—including this Northern Virginia resident who quit her job to hike the trail for 10 weeks.
There are too many to name, but a few trails for waterfalls include Overall Run Falls, Rose River Trail and Dark Hollows Fall Trail. There are pet-friendly trails too, and even just overlooks for those wanting to get the view without all of the vertical inclines.
You don’t have to catch a glimpse of an American black bear (from afar!) to enjoy the wildlife of Shenandoah National Park. Depending on when you plan your drive, you’ll be able to view wildflowers even just from the seat of your car, or near your steps on a winding trail.
According to the National Park Service, “Wildflowers comprise 862 species, or greater than half of the 1,406 vascular plant species found in Shenandoah National Park,” meaning you’re likely to catch at least a handful of the colorful, unique wildflowers that continue to grow each year in and around the park.
If you do happen to get lucky and see some of the animal wildlife in Shenandoah, from the road or a hike, be sure to maintain a safe distance and observe, don’t disturb. Keep your eyes open for white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, red foxes and a wide array of birds.
Don’t forget to take some snapshots too! Shenandoah is a great place to practice nature photography and get some family photos to look back on later.
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