Around Prince William: Far from the madding crowd


I love Prince William County, but to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hardy, sometimes I need to get far from the madding crowd.

Our stores, restaurants, shopping centers and small businesses are busy again. More cars are on the road.  Parks are full.  Everyone is trying to navigate this “new normal,” wondering how long it will last, and waiting for the “old normal” to return – if it ever does.

When I crave a little solitude, I head for Shenandoah National Park and explore the Blue Ridge backcountry.  I have become aware of the advantages of being a retired senior citizen. I understand the park is busy on weekends; however, weekdays belong to us “old people.”

If you decide you need a break from civilization, head for the park.  I suggest the Thornton Gap entrance because it is the more scenic route.  The Frost Diner in Warrenton is my first stop on the way.  You’ll find themself among regulars in this throwback to the old-style diners of our youth.  I recommend the steak and eggs breakfast special.  Be warned, they only take cash. 

After you enjoy a couple of cups of coffee served in an old-time diner mug, take Route 211 to the Thornton Gap entrance.  If you turn right onto Skyline Drive, your first stop should be the Elkwallow Wayside Store.  You will probably find a number of Appalachian Trail through-hikers eager to share their stories.  They stop here to replenish their provisions and get a hot meal.  Check out the books, maps and large souvenir section. 

If you decide to hike nearby trails, pick up PATC Map 9 – Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park North District.  You can also pick up lunch to eat streamside.

There are several great hikes in the park.  My favorite is Jeremys Run.  The trailhead is in the Elkwallow Picnic Area right by the Wayside Store.  Those who are up for a rigorous day hike might opt for the six-mile circuit.  I usually hike a mile down the winding trail, stop for lunch and a cup of coffee at the first fishing hole, then hike back up the same trail.

If you are a camper, I suggest you go north on Skyline Drive a bit and stop at Mathews Arm Campground.  There are usually spots available during the week.  This also puts you in the middle of two more great hikes:  Piney Branch a mile north to your right and the Thornton River Trail a mile south to your left. 

All of these hikes offer fly-fishing opportunities for those so inclined.  Small native brook trout are in most of the pools.  These hikes are my trifecta for great days on the water while wandering around the Blue Ridge backcountry.

I suggest a stop in Sperryville for lunch or dinner on the way home.  It has a lot of interesting restaurants.  After your meal, you might stop at the Copper Fox Distillery.  While they have many choices, their American single malt is pretty good.

These are just a few of the many offerings of Shenandoah National Park, which is one of many national parks spread across the country.  If you decide to add national parks to your bucket list, look into an annual or lifetime pass.  Seniors get a discount.  Veterans, their families and Gold Star Family members can get a free annual pass.  

I always feel refreshed after a little time on a mountain stream.  It makes returning to the madding crowd a bit easier. Try it. The park might just become part of your “new normal” routine. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail.  

Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week.  You can learn more about Al at and LinkedIn.


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