Highlights: Travel the western edge of the Piedmont in Orange and Madison counties on the historic Blue Ridge Turnpike, one of the most scenic drives of the Appalachian Mountains.
Distance: About 60 miles, with return via Culpeper.
From Orange, travel south on Route 15 toward Gordonsville. There are long views of Orange County, but this is truly Madison Country. Land in the vicinity was part of the Madison family’s Montpelier patent of 1723. More than a hundred years after the family’s arrival here, estates and plantations were still being created from the original holding. Mayhurst, built in the 1850s, now a B&B, was the home of John Willis, great-grandnephew of James Madison. Gordonsville, named for Nathaniel Gordon, who kept an inn here in the late eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson, Major General The Marquis de Lafayette, and other notable figures of early America were guests at the tavern. The village grew rapidly with the arrival of two railroads in the 1840s and early 1850s. Gordonsville also was at the crossroads of two major turnpikes. The Civil War was the first war to rely on railroads to transport supplies and soldiers. As a transportation hub served by rail and road, Gordonsville became strategically important to the Confederate Army. In 1862, Stonewall Jackson had his headquarters at the old Gordon Tavern for several days. The Gordonsville Receiving Hospital, which occupied the stylish Exchange Hotel, treated and cared for more than seventy thousand soldiers. The former hotel–hospital is now the Exchange Hotel Civil War Museum, an essential stop on The Journey Through Hallowed Ground.
Leaving Gordonsville, travel north on route 231, the old Blue Ridge Parkway through scenic rolling hills with mountain views and glimpses of historic estates (see Orange County, Tours, for information on guided history tours). At the junction with Route 20 is Old Somerset. The charming chapel is Somerset Christian Church. Built circa 1857, its Italianate bracketed cornice and porch are a departure from the Gothic and Greek Revival styles of most nineteenth-century Virginia country churches. The structure is virtually unaltered from its original appearance; the interior retains its original furnishings, including its pews. From here, look south, back toward Gordonsville, for an open view of Somerset House, home of Thomas Macon and Sarah Catlett Madison Macon, sister of President Madison. North of Route 20, cross the Rapidan River into Madison County. The views along the Blue Ridge Turnpike become more open and expansive. To the west are nearly continuous imposing views of the mountains. The Battle of Jack’s Shop was fought in and around the crossroads village of Rochelle. There is a roadside Civil War Trails marker overlooking a farm field a short distance north of the settlement. In this afternoon battle on September 22, 1863, J.E.B. Stuart was ambushed during the retreat and almost captured by Union cavalry under Kilpatrick and John Buford. The countryside today looks much the way it did at the time of the battle. Most of the homes dotting the old turnpike were present then.
At the junction with Route 230, you can continue north toward Madison or enjoy an interlude of picnicking and a hike along the Rapidan River in Shenandoah National Park. For this side trip, turn left on Route 230 and follow the route west across Route 29 to Wolftown (for a short cut, instead of turning left onto 230, turn left onto Shelby Road, Route 662, which will rejoin Route 230). In Wolftown, stop at the Wolftown Mercantile Country Store for a picnic lunch—fried chicken and a couple of sides for about five bucks. From the Wolftown store, follow Route 662 six miles through striking scenery past the former village of Graves Mill, which was wiped out in the flood of 1995. At the Staunton River trailhead in Shenandoah National Park, you can find a picnic spot at the trailhead, then take an easy stroll upstream to little pools and sunny boulders. The trail leads four miles up to Bear Rock Church, alternately known as Bear Church Rock, where there are incredible views of the Rapidan valley. It’s a strenuous three-hour round trip trek, only for the hearty (and definitely not for little kids), but the rewards are legend. Back on the Journey, Route 231 leads into Madison, the county seat. The county courthouse, completed in 1830, is an architectural marvel of federal-style craftsmanship. The museum at the Madison Arcade Building exhibits artifacts and interprets local history. President and Mrs. Hoover had ties to Madison. Hoover personally financed the construction of Camp Hoover, a mountain retreat meant for U.S. presidents and their advisers, not far from here. You can visit the retreat from Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. There are three restaurants on Main Street, ranging from pizza to a family restaurant to the upscale Madison Inn. They are all within a few steps of one another There also is a lunch counter at Madison Pharmacy, where you can have a sandwich and a fountain soda.
Route 231 north from Madison to Sperryville is surely among the most beautiful scenic drives in America. Mile after mile of pasture along the road creates open views of the mountains in Shenandoah National Park. In Banco, the Old Blue Ridge Turnpike breaks left to disappear into the mountains, where it now ends at the Rose River. You can keep traveling the Blue Ridge Turnpike on foot, up and over the mountain. On the road to Sperryville, there are a couple of roadside stores where you can stop for snacks. Along the way, there also are trailheads into the national park—most notable is the one at Old Rag Mountain.
Route 231 ends at Route 522, just east of Sperryville. To complete this scenic loop via Culpeper, turn right. To return via Skyline Drive, turn left and follow the signs. At Skyline Drive, you will travel south to Route 33, which leads east through the historic town of Standardsville en route to Orange. Either way, a stop in the one-street town of Sperryville is in order. Here, you’ll find a fine little bookstore, an old-fashioned grocery, a couple of galleries, and a few restaurants.