A couple of weeks ago on a sparkling Saturday morning, I grabbed my friend Frederica and her sweet lab, Apollo, and headed for the hills–the foothills of the Shenandoah, to be precise–for my favorite DC day trip. It has all the necessary ingredients for a great day, starting with a restorative hike in the woods, moving on to some quality time tasting wine (restorative in it’s own way!), and ending with some good old down-home cookin’. And it’s close to home: only an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown DC.
Our day started at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Virginia (Rte 66, exit 23). I’ve been hiking here for years, and try to get back once a season to witness the natural rhythm of this place…from the stand of gnarled old redbuds that still bloom spectacularly every spring and the natural spring that spills right across the north ridge trail midsummer, to panoramic views of the valley’s brilliant fall foliage and the sparse gray solitude of winter. And you just never know what you’ll come across.
On this day, we just happened to find folks from the Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association plowing a large pumpkin patch with their teams of mules and Belgian and Percheron horses. It felt like stepping back in time to watch these farmers working the land with their strong and well-coordinated teams.
We hiked the two-hour south ridge/north ridge trail loop up the hill through pasture land (watching out for cow paddies!), along the forested ridgeline and back down for spectacular views of the valley. We could have gone longer if we’d picked up the Appalachian Trail, which runs just west of the park and is accessible via park trails.
Then it was on to a nearby winery, good for body (way to go, Mediterranean Diet!) and soul (oh, those pastoral views). We picked Barrel Oak Winery for its jovial and dog-friendly atmosphere. Apollo loved it, and we were quite taken with the viogner and cheese plate ourselves!
I can also vouch for several other wineries nearby. Delaplane Cellars is closest to Sky Meadows park, its beautiful and serene tasting room overlooking the valley. Linden Vineyards is a little further afield, but worth the drive for its award-winning wines. Tastings are free here, but be prepared to picnic on the lawn (blankets are provided), as only members have access to the porch on busy weekends.
Having worked up a hearty appetite, we headed over to the Apple House just off Rte 66 in Linden (exit 13) for barbeque and burgers. The Apple House is one of those great finds I go back to over and over again. It’s part gift shop, selling Virginia products from wine to hot sauce. And part luncheonette, serving locally-sourced pork, beef and bison in a simple, charming setting that hasn’t changed in years. I get the barbeque platter every time. It’s an overflowing plate of satisfying goodness. The bbq, beans and coleslaw all run on the sweet side, which I happen to love. But I hear their angus or bison burgers hit the spot, too. And of course, we couldn’t leave without a fresh-made apple doughnut for the road!
Even though this is a familiar day trip for me, I’m always discovering something new. Those draft horse teams, for instance. And next time I’m out this way, I’d like to take the farm tour at Paris Barns, only two miles up the road from Sky Meadows, or drive back through horse country via Rte 50 to stop for some great pub fare at Hunter’s Head Tavern in Upperville.
After a great day in the country like this, I’m always struck with happy exhaustion and a strong sense of gratitude…for good friends, good times, and for the fact that these kind of experiences are so readily available to us in the DC area. We only have to get out there and enjoy them.