1 of 5
Whiteoak Canyon Falls.
The canyon's six waterfalls are rated to be among the 13 highest in Shenandoah National Park.
2 of 5
Thomas Jefferson Center
The new two-mile trail allows visitors to park near the center and walk or bike up the mountain to Monticello.
3 of 5
Old Rag Mountain
Not far from U.S. 29, hikers take in the view from the boulder-strewn summit.
4 of 5
Whiteoak Canyon Falls.
The canyon's six waterfalls are rated to be among the 13 highest in Shenandoah National Park.
5 of 5
Waddell Memorial Presbyterian Church
Near Rapidan, this 1872-74 chapel was named in honor of Rev. James Waddell.
Piedmont means “foot of the mountains.” The mountains are always close at hand as you take this fascinating tour through history.
Famous as the home of presidents, Virginia’s Piedmont offers much more. In this gently rolling country, great estates surround bustling county seats with downtowns that have not succumbed to the big-box stores. Historic churches and country chapels dot the landscape; step inside them and you will find architectural jewels in almost every town. And you are never far from the mountains here – this tour includes some of the best hikes in the Blue Ridge.
U.S. 29, the Piedmont’s major highway, has become heavily commercialized north of Charlottesville, and the best attractions lie on other roads, so wind around and take your time enjoying this beautiful region.
This tour starts in Warrenton, Fauquier’s county seat. Fauquier is wrestling with rapid growth, but downtown Warrenton retains its 19th-century charm. Warrenton spent much of the Civil War in Union hands (after changing hands 67 times!), and the town still reveres Col. John Singleton Mosby, the Gray Ghost of the Confederacy; Mosby earned his nickname tormenting the Union with daring cavalry raids. His home on Main Street is being converted into a museum. The Old Jail Museum already contains a good collection of military and historical materials. Take the time to explore Main Street’s shops and galleries, and to admire the beautiful homes on Culpeper Street.
From Warrenton head west on U.S. 211, a scenic four-lane, for Washington and Sperryville, two villages at the foot of the Blue Ridge. Washington – surveyed by the 17-year-old future president and the first town named for him – is Rappahannock’s county seat, but most of the business in this quiet spot takes place in the art galleries and antique shops. Renowned for the Inn at Little Washington, which boasts one of the finest restaurants in America (priced accordingly), the village also offers plenty for people of more ordinary means. The theater presents an amazing variety of performances. The schedule for one recent six-week period included a balalaika concert, love songs from the great operas, the music of Haydn, and a one-actor play on the life and times of Dizzy Dean. You may also catch a movie.
Sperryville is a good place to shop for antiques and delightful junk. (“I love junk,” one proud Sperryville shop owner told me.) Skyline Drive lies seven miles ahead on U.S. 211, and some of the antique shops are on 211 just past your turn, but head east on U.S. 522 to continue your tour.
You have a decision to make here – history or hiking. The tour briefly splits into two alternate routes. Let’s cover hiking first.
Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon
Just east of Sperryville turn south on Va. 231, a beautiful two-lane. This road takes you past trailheads for two great hikes in Shenandoah National Park. The views are fantastic from Old Rag’s boulder-strewn summit. See the November/December 2002 Blue Ridge Country. Turn right on Va. 602 at the Hughes River for the most popular, and most demanding (some rock scrambling), route to the top. On peak fall weekends you need a Park Service reservation to hike this seven-mile loop.
For a somewhat easier route up Old Rag, and for the equally spectacular Whiteoak Canyon, stay on Va. 231 until you reach Va. 670 at Banco. Turn right and proceed to the village of Syria. (Graves Mountain Lodge offers simple lodging and dining and mountain views here.) Turn right at the Syria Mercantile country store and follow winding Va. 600 (make two lefts at forks) to the trailhead for Whiteoak Canyon.
Intrepid hikers can ascend Whiteoak Run for 2.7 miles, passing a half-dozen major waterfalls, or use Cedar Run to form a memorable all-day loop. Only a few of the waterfalls are easy to reach – others you must admire from the trail. (Exercise caution around waterfalls, especially with children.) You reach Whiteoak’s first waterfall and its plunge pool after a moderate hike, so the distance is up to you.
The alternate Old Rag trailhead lies a short distance up the road past the Whiteoak parking lot.
From Syria backtrack to Va. 231 and head southeast. Approaching Madison you will pass a left turn (Va. 638) for Hebron, the oldest Lutheran church in continuous use in America. In Madison the Pig N Steak serves good barbecue on Va. 634. Follow Va. 230 east and U.S. 15 south to Orange, where the tour’s two routes converge.
Culpeper and Rapidan
If you favor historic architecture over hiking, take U.S. 522 from Sperryville to Culpeper. Davis Street has a church-like courthouse at one end and a visitors center in a restored railroad depot at the other. In between, fine old buildings house interesting shops and cafes. The big Italianate mansion at the corner of Davis and Main was the boyhood home of Confederate general A.P. Hill. As you leave town on Main Street, stop at Culpeper’s history museum. The Civil War displays are to be expected, but the fossilized dinosaur tracks from a nearby quarry are a surprise.
From Main Street take U.S. 522 south to Va. 615 south. This back road through farm country passes some great old buildings on its way to Orange. First is the red-roofed Mitchells Presbyterian Church, visible on the left on Va. 651 (Hardy Lane). In the late 1800s, Joseph Dominick Phillip Oddenino, the “hobo painter,” decorated the sanctuary’s flat walls and ceiling with trompe l’oeil frescoes that trick the eye into seeing three-dimensional columns and beams. The appearance of this ancient art form in a country chapel is totally unexpected and charming.
You will miss Rapidan if you blink, and that would be a shame, because it has a rare collection of historic buildings for such a tiny hamlet. The former freight depot houses an organic food and gift shop, Rapidan’s only nod toward gentrification, and the little passenger depot (private) next door is a gem. Step inside the Queen Anne-style one-room school, located next to the miller’s house from 1774. The country store, open but for sale, is a potential beauty with high, ornate tin ceilings.
Rapidan’s pretty chapels include Virginia’s finest Carpenters’ Gothic building, named in honor of the blind preacher, James Waddell. Va. 615 becomes Main Street in Orange, where the tour’s two branches converge.
Orange to Charlottesville
Describing Orange, the Depression-era “Virginia Guide” said that “on Saturday evenings, when the country ‘comes to town,’ there is barely room to breathe on Main Street.” Today, the Piedmont’s smaller courthouse towns bustle pleasantly six days a week, but they get pretty quiet evenings and Sundays. They invite you to slow down and enjoy simple pleasures. Ring the bell at Ed Jaffe’s art gallery across from the Italianate courthouse, and visit the art center and the antique shop across from the restored depot. Orange offers several historic B&Bs. The Willow Grove Inn survived Civil War battles (a cannonball was recently removed from the eaves), and Mayhurst has been described as “a delicious Victorian fantasy.”
From Orange to Charlottesville, Va. 20 is one of the prettiest two-lanes in the Piedmont. James and Dolley Madison’s home, Montpelier, has led two lives. William and Annie DuPont bought the house in 1901 and expanded it to 51 rooms. Today, The National Trust for Historic Preservation is conducting a monumental four-year restoration; they have already knocked down walls to reveal the mansion’s Madison-era core. Visitors can observe the work on unique “hardhat” tours. Montpelier covers 2,700 acres. You can stretch your legs in the gardens and old-growth woods. Montpelier hosts steeplechase races the first Saturday in November, a great family outing.
The crossroads of Barboursville offers two wineries and an art gallery, Sun’s Traces. The Horton Cellars are on U.S. 33 east of Va. 20. At the Barboursville Vineyards (and restaurant) the burned shell of James Barbour’s mansion, designed by Thomas Jefferson, provides a picturesque backdrop for “Shakespeare at the Ruins” on summer weekends.
Charlottesville has so much to offer that I can only hit a few highlights. Jefferson’s “essay in architecture,” Monticello, is one of the world’s most famous and fascinating private homes. The kids will enjoy Jefferson’s ingenious gadgets. With 500,000 visitors per year, lines can be very long; consider hitting Monticello early in the morning. Just down the road, President James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland offers an uncrowded alternative with opera outdoors in summer.
Jefferson’s University of Virginia campus is the greatest achievement in American architecture, according to the American Institute of Architects. There is no better place to stroll. Park in the deck (Elliewood Avenue off of University Avenue) at the “Corner,” a student shopping and dining area. Be sure to explore the gardens, with their serpentine brick walls, and the Rotunda’s elegant dome room.
Downtown’s former Main Street is now a seven-block pedestrian mall. You can park your car in a garage on Market or Water streets and forget it for hours. A free trolley connects downtown with the university.
The mall’s restaurants offer outdoor dining, and its shops display art, antiques and home furnishings ranging from elegant to kitschy. Nine book stores, including seven used-and-rare, make this a bibliophile’s paradise. Artists with studios in the McGuffey Art Center will be glad to chat with you as they work. From late spring through early fall, Fridays after Five features an outdoor concert, ranging from soft rock to swing bands. The mall is mobbed Friday nights.
Lodgings downtown include B&Bs and the Omni Hotel: Its seven-story atrium lobby opens onto the mall. Hotels and good restaurants also line West Main Street near the university.
Charlottesville to Lynchburg
South of Charlottesville, U.S. 29 is an attractive four-lane, but consider a back road alternative for part of the route. Head west on scenic U.S. 250 past Crozet (or take I-64) and turn left onto Va. 151. This two-lane through the beautiful Rockfish Valley passes a host of recreational opportunities.
The Wintergreen resort’s Stoney Creek Golf Club is open to the public at Nellysford. A mile down the road, the Blue Ridge Pig serves up barbecue and smoked meat dishes that have been celebrated in the Washington Post and Bon Appetit.
Va. 664 leads to Wintergreen’s mountaintop resort. With its cool summer temperatures and diverse activities, it is more than just a ski resort.
Turn west on Va. 56 to reach the Appalachian Trail and very strenuous hikes to the 4,000-foot summits of the Priest or Three Ridges. See the May/June 2004 Blue Ridge Country. A less-taxing hike awaits at Crabtree Falls, one of the East’s tallest cascades. Steps and railings in steep sections allow most people to enjoy this gorgeous hike.
Back on 151, a new trail at Piney River follows the route of the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway. The two-mile trail makes a good leg-stretcher.
Va. 151 connects with U.S. 29 in Amherst County. Sweet Briar, a women’s college located on a former plantation, has an art gallery and a museum (open by appointment) displaying Antebellum clothing, furnishings and farm tools. The college has located a slave cemetery on the grounds. The graves, with mere field rocks as memorial stones, bear poignant witness to the African-Americans who built the plantation that gave birth to the college, along with Monticello, Montpelier and many other attractions on this tour.
Turn right onto business 29 as you approach Lynchburg.
The Hill City rises precipitously from 19th-century industrial buildings on the James River to heights graced with soaring church steeples. A commercial center ever since John Lynch established a ferry across the James in 1757, Lynchburg quickly became the world’s leading dark tobacco market. Hogsheads of tobacco were poled downriver to Richmond in flat-bottomed boats. Costumed crews re-enact this journey in the James River Batteau Festival, shoving off from Lynchburg every June.
Lynchburg is an encouraging work in progress for fans of architectural restoration. Abandoned warehouses with enormous character are being renewed as offices or high-rise apartments, and people are restoring Victorian homes in the five historic districts. Two handsome B&Bs, the Norvell-Otey House, with its fascinating collection of antiques, and the Federal Crest Inn, stand catercorner on Federal Hill. Monument Terrace, Lynchburg’s “Acropolis,” soars 100 feet in one mountainous city block.
Two miles west of downtown in Rivermont, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College’s Maier Museum of Art is a little jewel, with works by Thomas Hart Benton, Winslow Homer and Georgia O’Keefe among other noted artists. The nearby Blackwater Creek trail system is the best in any Virginia city according to hiking guru Leonard Adkins. If hiking and biking makes you hungry, the Cavalier (no sign) at 2920 Rivermont Ave. is an atmospheric college bar and grill. Lynchburg ends our Piedmont tour, but you can reach the Blue Ridge Parkway at Peaks of Otter, passing Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest and Bedford’s new D-Day Memorial along the way. Or visit beautiful Smith Mountain Lake and the nearby Booker T. Washington National Monument.