Chapter 4 from
Scenic Driving Virginia
by Bruce Sloane


Piedmont-Blue Ridge Vistas


Warrenton to Charlottesville

General description: Beginning at Warrenton, this 55-mile drive takes you past the rolling hills of the Piedmont horse country to imposing views of the Blue Ridge mountains and Shenandoah National Park. The drive then winds through the foothills of the Blue Ridge with constant views of the ridgeline through several picturesque small towns. The drive ends at the outskirts of Charlottesville.

Special attractions: Rolling hills of Piedmont area, extended scenic vistas of the Blue Ridge mountains, including Old Rag and the F.T. Valley. Side trips to historic Washington, VA, landslides from 1995 floods, Montpelier, and the Barboursville Ruins.

Location: North central Virginia. Warrenton is about 50 miles west of Washington, DC, via I-66 and US 29.

Driving route numbers: U. S. Highways 211, 522, and 29; Virginia Highways 231 and 20. The landslide side trip uses US 29 and VA 230 and 622.

Travel Season: All year long, although roads may be temporarily closed during occasional heavy winter snows. Winter also brings the clearest days for exceptional views of the mountains and without intervening vegetation. Spring is the best time for flowering trees and shrubs. Hot hazy summer days can obscure views of the mountains. Fall leaf colors can be outstanding, but this attracts large numbers of visitors.

Camping: Available in several campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park. These often are filled on summer weekends. Check with the park for dates and availability.

Services: All services available in Warrenton and Charlottesville. Numerous service stations and restaurants can be found in the small towns along the route.

Nearby attractions: Monticello, Charlottesville, Montpelier, Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive (Drive 5) and Blue Ridge Parkway North (Drive 11).


The Drive

 

On this 55-mile drive you cross rolling piedmont country with distant views of the Blue Ridge mountains. The country side alternates between hardwood forest and open fields of cattle and hay. Gradually you approach the mountains, and then drive along the base of the Blue Ridge for 30 miles along a state scenic road with many spectacular views. Optional side trips allow you to visit a town surveyed by George Washington, a mountain scarred by landslides, a mansion and plantation that belonged to James Madison, and the remains of a mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson.

The drive begins in Warrenton, county seat of Fauquier County. The town began as a trading post in the 1700s, and until late in that century it was considered to be the western frontier of English civilization in the Virginia colony. Several old buildings are open to the public, including the Old Court House and Old Jail Museum which once sported a three-person gallows. During the Civil War, Warrenton was headquarters for the Gray Ghosts, a vigilante group led by Confederate Colonel John Mosby. Mosby, whose group was also known as Mosby’s Raiders, is buried in a nearby cemetery along with 600 other Confederate soldiers.

The drive heads west on four-lane US 211 through open gentle hills of the Fauquier County horse country. Virginia likes to name its highways after favorite sons, and calls US 211 the Lee Highway. On clear non-hazy days the Blue Ridge mountains appear as a distant ridge on the horizon. You pass numerous large mansions and well kept fields, with grazing horses and cattle. You may even see several practice rings with jumps and bars.

The road descends to cross the Rappahannock River, a designated state Scenic River. About 10 miles from Warrenton on the left just past the small town of Amissville, are the grape vines of the Gray Ghost Vineyard, the first of several wineries along this drive. Although it is a relatively small winery, the Gray Ghost wines have won numerous prizes. Viniculture has been a Virginia industry since colonial days. Most wineries, including the Gray Ghost, welcome visitors and provide tasting rooms and guided tours. Highway signs direct you to numerous wineries off the main route.

Several long hills provide panoramic views of the mountains which present an unbroken undulating line of peaks stretching left and right as far as you can see. The mountains get their name "Blue Ridge" from their typical hazy blue appearance most of the year.

Continue straight on US 211 where it joins US 522 south. To the right, US 522 goes to Front Royal, the northern entrance of Shenandoah National Park and the starting point for Skyline Drive, Drive 5.

The road, now US 211/522 makes a series of lazy S turns that bring you closer to and parallel with the mountains. In a few minutes you pass US Business 211 on the right which leads to the town of Washington, county seat of Rappahannock County. There are more than 25 towns named "Washington" in the United States (plus Washington state and the federal city, of course) but Washington, Virginia claims to be the first Washington of all. It is sometime known as "Little Washington" to distinguish it from the somewhat larger federal seat of government 70 miles to the east.

The town was laid out and surveyed by George Washington in 1747 when the future president was 17 years old. This was Washington’s first paid remuneration for which he received two pounds three shillings. The town is also the unlikely home of the only five star restaurant in the United States, the Inn at Little Washington, renowned for chef Patrick O’Connell’s signature dishes. (The Inn is expensive, and reservations are strongly recommended.) There are several small craft shops and an art gallery. The Inn is located on the right at the only stop sign in town. You can follow Business 211 through the town and back to the main highway without retracing your route.

Back on US 211/522, turn right. The mountains and Shenandoah National Park are on your right, with rounded peaks 2,000 to 3,000 feet above you. In places, the wooded foothills of mixed hardwood extend down almost to the highway; in other places broad valleys, known locally as hollows, provide open vistas to the distant peaks.

At Sperryville, just after the four-lane highway ends, turn left and follow US 522 where it branches off from US 211. US 211 continues straight ahead two miles to a crafts and glass-blowing center, before it climbs up the mountain to intersect with Drive 5, Skyline Drive, at Panorama. Cross the river and turn left again in the middle of Sperryville on US 522.

Sperryville is in the heart of apple country, and is known for its Apple Festival held each October at the peak of the fall leaf season. The quaint look of the town is enhanced by many buildings preserved to look much as they did in the 1920s. It is also a craft and art center with numerous shops.

Follow US 522 about a mile to the intersection with VA 231. Turn right on VA 231, a Virginia Scenic Byway. For several miles this winding road follows the F. T. Valley, snuggled between the Blue Ridge mountains on the right and the hills of the piedmont on the left. The valley gets its name from Frank Thornton, an early land owner, who notched his initials on trees to mark the way; travelers learned to follow the F. T. trail.

The mountains are beautiful year round, with each season having special merits. In summer, green verdant slopes stretch from the foothills to the highest summits. As the shortening days of autumn approach, the countryside is bathed in a thousand shades of orange, yellow, brown, and red as the leaves turn. Winter days are often the clearest. The lower hills look gray and black, contrasting with the higher peaks that are often coated with snow. Occasional snow storms at lower elevations turn the landscape into a stark contrast of black and white. In spring, the hillsides turn yellow and then green as spring creeps up the mountainsides day by day.

About three miles from Sperryville is a good view of Old Rag mountain, a popular destination for hikers in Shenandoah National Park. "Old Rag" is short for Old Raggedy, so named because of several prominent step-like ledges that give the mountain its distinctive serrated appearance. The mountain is composed of billion-year old granite—some of the oldest rocks in the Blue Ridge—that was later intruded by lava flows of basalt. Because the basalt, changed by heat and pressure into greenstone, is more resistant to weathering than the granite, the basalt weathers into steep cliffs or ledges to form the stair-like appearance.

Several side roads off VA 231 lead to hiking trails in the Park. However, stay on VA 231 for the main drive. Eight miles from Sperryville, VA 601 turns right to lead to the Old Rag trailhead. This trail has become so popular that the National Park Service now limits the number of hikers on busy summer weekends. At Etlan, 10 miles from Sperryville, a right turn on VA 643 takes you to the White Oak Canyon trail, known for its steep canyons and numerous waterfalls.

At Banco, look right at the intersection with VA 670 to see scars of a landslide on the mountain in the distance. Banco may look peaceful as you drive through it today, but on the night of June 27, 1975, the town and road were under several feet of water after more than 23 inches of rain poured down, flooding Banco and most of the other small towns along this route.

Continue on VA 231, crossing the Robinson River on a new bridge, rebuilt since the flood. After passing through the town of Madison, county seat of Madison County, the drive joins four-lane US 29. Service stations and restaurants are available along this stretch.

You now have to decide whether to continue on the main drive, or make a 20-mile side trip over rough roads to see a mountain scarred by landslides.

To continue on the main drive, VA 231 turns left in three miles, leaving US 29. Turn left here for the main drive and skip the next several paragraphs.

Kirtley Mountain side trip:

For a side trip to see a mountain scarred by slides and other flood damage, stay on US 29 for another mile, past where VA 231 turned left, about four miles from Madison. Turn right on VA 230. (Do not confuse VA 230 with 231.) This side trip takes you over some rough country roads and adds about 20 miles total to the drive. It is not suitable for trailers.

Follow VA 230 three miles to Wolftown and turn right on VA 662. You are driving up the small valley of the Rapidan River. This entire valley was covered by water during the June, 1975 floods, and the road and bridges have been rebuilt since then.

To the left is an impressive view of the numerous landslides on Kirtley Mountain that occurred the night of the flood. Because the slides removed all vegetation and scoured the soil down to bare bedrock, the scars of the slides stand out even in summer. The rocks, boulders, debris, trees, and vegetation torn loose in the slide areas were deposited downstream, sometimes several miles from their origin.

You can turn around now or follow VA 662 a few more miles to the post office at Graves Mills. Just before Graves Mills, you pass a debris train of material dumped by the slide as it reached flatter ground and slowed down. Because much soil was also deposited along with the rocks, vegetation is beginning to return. But in winter, the area is bare and covered with boulders.

After turning around, retrace your steps to return to the main drive: Turn left on VA 230 at Wolftown, turn left again at US 29, drive one mile on US 29, and turn right on VA 231 to rejoin the main drive.

Back on the main drive:

VA 231 veers away from the mountains into wooded and rolling piedmont country. There are numerous herds of beef and dairy cattle. About 10 miles from US 29, turn right onto VA 20.

For a side trip to see James Madison’s Montpelier, turn left onto VA 20 toward Orange and follow the signs. Montpelier, a 2,700-acre plantation and mansion, was the retirement home of James and Dolley Madison after he completed his second Presidential term in 1817 until his death in 1836. The mansion was renovated extensively by later occupants, and is partially restored to Madison’s occupancy. There are extensive gardens and plantings. In nearby Orange is the James Madison Museum which displays furniture and other artifacts of the fourth President’s life.

VA 20 continues to the right through woods and open country. The Blue Ridge is visible occasionally in the distance to the right. A low tree-covered ridge parallels the road for several miles. Continue on VA 20 and cross US 33, about 15 miles from US 29.

Just past the intersection with US 33, turn left off VA 20 and follow the signs for a side trip to the Barboursville Ruins. This is the remains of a mansion Thomas Jefferson designed for James Barbour, governor of Virginia from 1812 to 1814. The building burned in 1884, leaving only the massive brick foundation and walls for today’s visitors. The site serves as the backdrop for summer weekend productions of "Shakespeare at the Ruins." The ruins are on the grounds of the Barboursville Winery which is open for tastings and tours.

Return to VA 20 and turn left. The drive continues through rolling country with several sharp turns past fields of grazing sheep, cattle, and horses. The drive ends at the intersection with US 250 south of Charlottesville, about 14 miles from Barboursville. Turn right on US 250 to go downtown.

Charlottesville has many attractions, including the beautiful grounds of the University of Virginia, and the Ash Lawn-Highland, James Monroe’s Virginia home. Nearby is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent mansion and gardens. The starting point for the Blue Ridge Parkway North (Drive 6) is about 20 miles west of Charlottesville on US 64.