Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Maps from Microsoft Streets and Trips,
and Google Maps
US29, US211, US11, Edinburg Gap Rd., Ft. Valley Rd., VA55, VA626.
This enjoyable jaunt takes in some beautiful Virginia countryside with a couple of history lessons thrown in.
This run starts in the parking lot of the Manassas National Battlefield Park visitors center. This large park is the site of two major engagements during the Civil War. In July 1861, public pressure was strong for a march to Richmond, the Confederate capital, to quickly end the war. Union Commander Irvin McDowell pleaded for more time to train his very green troops and officers, but the political pressure overcame his objections and he was forced into battle.
It was expected, by the public at least, to be an easy victory. People from Washington came out with baskets to picnic on the battlefield and watch the fight. But it turned into a bloody rout. McDowell's orders were poorly executed by his untrained officers and after a heroic stand by an unknown VMI Colonel named Thomas Jackson, hereafter known as "Stonewall," the Union troops were routed. Throwing aside their weapons the fled for Washington, along with the terrified civilians.
A little over a year later, in August 1862, Robert E. Lee was on the offensive. He sent Jackson's Corps on a wide flanking march to capture the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction. After two inconclusive engagements, Jackson dug in on a ridge. Convinced he had Stonewall trapped, Union Commander John Pope committed most of his troops on a direct assault against Jackson. Unknown to Pope, however, another corps of Southern troops under James Longstreet broke through at Thoroughfare Gap, marched to the battlefield and hit Pope's forces in a massive flanking attack. Pope's army was crushed, the remnants sent into retreat. This time, the Union troops didn't flee all the way to Washington, but collected themselves at Centreville. It was a disastrous defeat just the same.
Leaving the visitor's center, turn right on Sudley Road and go up to the US29 intersection, by the Stone House. Turn left and head west. After about 18 miles, you'll have to navigate some heavy traffic through Warrenton. Look for the turnoff to US 211 and take it.
Down this road apiece (12 miles), you'll enter the village of Amissville. No nothing is Amiss; the town was named after the Amiss family, one of the early settlers in 1763. There were two cavalry engagements in the area during the Civil War. In August 1862, J.E.B. Stuart very nearly captured the Union commanding General John Pope, when his cavalry surrounded Pope's army. Stuart came away with Pope's overcoat and some important military papers. In November, following Antietam, Stuart engaged Federal troops about 3/4 of a mile south of Amissville. It was a minor engagement, but the legendary Virginia Cavalier barely escaped death when he happened to turn his head and a Union bullet that would have plowed into his head, merely clipped off half of his very impressive mustache. In another engagement during the Confederate retreat from Gettysburg in late July 1863, A Union cavalry force under one George Armstrong Custer attacked the Corps of A. P. Hill. It was, like many Custer outings, a brave but futile attempt. Vastly outnumbered, Custer was forced to retreat over Battle Mountain. Battle Mountain is not named for this particular fight, but rather a corruption of the name Bataille after the family who owned two of the elevations in the area.
Eleven miles further along brings you to Washington, VA. This village lays claim to the honor of being the first of the 28 towns in the United States to name itself after the Father of Our Country, who surveyed the area in 1749. Originally a trading post for the Manahoac Tribe, Washington has passed the centuries affected little by exterior events, such as the Industrial Revolution, and thus has changed little over time. The Inn at Little Washington, a Five-Star Inn and eatery, is highly favored by the Capitol Hill Elite.
After you pass Sperryville, you get into a short stretch of righteous twisties as the road takes you up and over Skyline Drive at the Thornton Gap access. A bit further on, you get into Luray, home of Luray Caverns, an underground cave complex discovered in 1878.
Crossing through New Market Gap, you'll hit another short set of twisties as you enter the George Washington National Forest. When you reach the town of New Market, turn right onto US11 and head north into the Shenandoah Valley.
The Shenandoah is both a valley and a cultural region. It is famous for it's fertile soil, which has always yielded prodigious amounts of agricultural products. Because of this, it was desperately defended by the Confederacy, chiefly by troops under Stonewall Jackson. It was here in this valley where Jackson made his reputation for audacity and brilliance. There are numerous battle sites throughout this valley, and if you are interested at all in Civil War History, they are well worth a pause and look.
For the purposes of this route, however, we will go as far north as the town of Edinburg. As glide through the town, look sharp for Edinburg Gap Road, and turn right. Take this winding path until you reach Fort Valley Road, and turn left.
During the Revolutionary War, when things were looking particularly dark, General Washington ordered General Daniel Morgan to build a road into this valley. Fort Valley is flanked by two arms of the Massanutten Mountains and contains good water and fertile land. The valley is accessible only by two very narrow passes at either end and is protected by the steep ridges which flank the valley itself. It is very defendable, and Washington looked to this valley as a place to make a last stand against the British Army. Fortunately, his victory at Yorktown made this redoubt unnecessary.
For the next 17 miles, you'll glide alongside picturesque farms and through dense forests, following the path of Passage Creek. Fort Valley could be considered a closed ecosystem, and the local residents are fiercely dedicated to keeping it that way.
At the north end of the Valley, the road T's into VA55. Turn right and follow this road into Front Royal.
This town with the interesting moniker has been a community as early as the 1670's. The name is a bit of a mystery, evolving from the original French "le front royal," meaning the edge of the British frontier. The Brits eventually came to call it the Royal Frontier. Another version has a frustrated drill sergeant of the local militia, exasperated by his charges' inability to follow his commands, at one point roared out, "Front the Royal Oak." referring to a massive tree in the town square. Knowing which direction that was, the recruits finally turned the right way. Still another legend refers to a password used by the local militia during the American Revolution. The sentry, upon detecting the approach of people, would shout out "Front!" The countersign, "Royal" would then be given. Eventually, the encampment itself would become known as Camp Front Royal. Front Royal serves as the northern gateway to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, and is correspondingly busy during the tourist season.
VA 55 parallels and occasionally shares asphalt with I-66 as you head eastward. If the pace along 55 is too sedate, you can always slide over onto the high-speed I-Road.
Marshall, VA was named after the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, who was born in nearby Delaplane. There's not much here, except the oldest Ford dealership in the United States, continuously occupying the same building since 1915.
The Plains, VA has an unremarkable history, but has some captivating small eateries and a tea room. Worth a pause, if you have the time.
Here, you will turn left onto VA626 and head north. Now you begin to see what makes this part of Virginia so well known and popular among the rich. The land rolls in low hills, but is liberally covered in rich grasslands, perfect for the horse industry that prospers here. You'll see some of the most attractive farms, bordered by stacked stone fences along the road. Actor Robert Duvall owns a farm in this area, among other well-known people. The road winds gently, allowing the rider ample chances to drink in the peaceful beauty of the countryside.
VA626 ends at Middleburg, as does this journey. But the fun is not done, yet.
Middleburg has been around since 1787. The name was settled upon by its location halfway between the port of Alexandria and the frontier outpost of Winchester. From the early 20th century, Middleburg has been home to foxhunting and steeplechasing. Horse farms abound here, as do some of the most wealthy of all Virginians. The historic district is lined with quaint shops and is bookended by two long-standing taverns, The Red Horse, and the Hunter's Head. You'll also find The French Hound on a side street.
All the taverns have outdoor seating, and this will be a fine way to close out the day, as you relax, eat, and remember the ride.