We have all had fantasies about hitting the open road in an RV. Sometimes you’re just dreaming of a weekend getaway to the wineries. Other times, you imagine gunning the engine and never coming back. There are seasoned RVers who couldn’t imagine traveling any other way. We’re not them. We are just a couple of travel writers who have always yearned for the lifestyle and are trying it for the first time. This is the story of our RV try it before you buy it weekend in Northern Virginia.
Introducing Winnie – Our Minnie Winnie 31K Class C Motorhome
We picked up the Minnie Winnie 31K Class C Motorhome that would be our new home for the weekend in Manassas, Virginia. At first glance, she had everything we would need for life on the road: fridge, stove, toilet, shower, and a queen size bed. Of course, we could drone on with a feature by feature review about what we liked, loved, and hated, but we promise that we’re not going to do that to you. Instead, we’ll just get moving down the road and see how the trip plays out.
Day 1 RV Adventure: Skyline Drive / Shenandoah National Park from Fort Royal to Thornton Gap / Lands Run Waterfall
We christened our new ride Minnie as an homage to our Orlando home. As we pulled out onto the open road, we noticed just how much noise RVs make. There was just so much stuff to crack, creak, and rattle. Pulling onto I-66 put an end to my chorus of “It’s a Small World”. The shoulder was closed on this stretch of highway, and I was feeling very, um, claustrophobic. In that instance, Minnie became Winnie, and I promised not to sing any more annoying songs if we could just make it through construction unscathed. Truth be told, there were a few rounds of “Fort Royal” in the style of Lorde once the lanes opened up, but I claim that wasn’t too annoying. I was feeling pretty dang good driving Winnie by the time we hit Shenandoah National Park.
The Triton 6.8L V10 engine was more than powerful enough to pull the 14,000 lb. Winnie up Skyline Drive, but perhaps my singing offended someone because the heavens opened up and it was raining sheets. The park has a strict 35 mph speed limit and fairly wide lanes so I felt perfectly at ease cruising Skyline Drive, rain and all. We stopped by Dickey Ridge Ranger Center and learned about the best hikes in Shenandoah. The weather even cleared enough for us to hike to Lands Run Waterfall (which was really thumping). Of course, the greatest single feature of the park is the drive itself that runs 105 miles along the ridgeline with 75 overlooks providing views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont Valley to the east. As the sun was setting on day one, we exited Skyline Drive on US 211 at Thornton Gap and heading into our first campground – Endless Caverns RV Resort.
Camping at Endless Caverns RV Resort
Our first lesson from the road was how to plan like an RVer, which means that you pick your campsites well. With a little advanced planning, we could have gotten a spot in Shenandoah National Park. Instead, we headed down the hill and 30 miles across the valley to Endless Caverns RV Resort. It was a lovely campground with a large splash pool, racing-themed decorations, and a rocking game room. It’s also home to a cave tour in its namesake caverns with a discount for overnight guests.
We learned our second lesson on the road as well; you don’t go camping for the internet connection. It was a tad slow (by that we mean it took 15 minutes to send a tweet), so we figured we would knock out our work the next day, after all, this was our trial run as RVing bloggers. We settled in for the night and had a fantastic sleep in Winnie dreaming of our big plans for tomorrow.
Day 2 – Luray Caverns, Hiking Shenandoah, Skyline Drive Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap
Our first stop of the day was Luray Caverns, the largest and most popular cavern in Eastern America. The 10-story high formations didn’t disappoint. We also took advantage of another cool RV feature; you always have your home with you. We parked in the back of the lot, turned on the generator, microwaved lunch, and caught up on social media.
Once we felt like we had our heads above the social media water, we cruised back onto Skyline Drive. The sunshine on day two made the views phenomenal, so we made a point to head for Hawksbill Summit, the highest point in Shenandoah National Park at 4049′. Despite the elevation, the hike out was relatively easy 2.1-mile out-and-back from the Upper Hawksbill parking area with 520′ of elevation gain. Luckily for us, it was a Friday afternoon, so we could find a spot to park Winnie.
The parking for the next hike wasn’t as easy. We saw a park ranger keeping track of the hikers going into Dark Hollow Falls, the most popular .7 miles of trail of the over 500 miles of hiking in Shenandoah. We had a little over an hour before a heavy storm rolled in. We weren’t too happy with his suggestion to park at the Byrd Visitor Center and hike in via the Story of the Forest Trail. This would have doubled the trail length, and we would have been hiking in the rain for sure.
We spotted a spot in the gravel we could fit Winnie on the way out. We looped around and verified it was a legal spot (it was). It was our lucky day. We made it to the falls and back just as the skies opened up. We wanted to finish Skyline Drive but, with the rain and approaching darkness, we decided to forgo the final Skyline Drive segment and exit at Swift Run Gap. We knew we made the right choice as we pulled into Shenandoah Valley Campground just as the sun was setting.
Camping at Shenandoah Valley Campground
We never did figure out where you should park an RV when you’re registering for a campground. We always pulled over “somewhere” and nobody ever complained, but nothing felt quite right. I don’t think very many people pull into campgrounds for one night and one night only. There’s an RVer mindset that we were figuring out as we went.
We were really looking forward to this campground, in particular, their six hot tubs. Unfortunately, the power was out, and the pools were closed. The campground staff couldn’t pull up our reservation, so they had to find a spot that worked for us. I failed my second RV quiz of the evening and said we needed a 50-amp hookup (Winnie only used 30 amps). They found us a great spot that had both a 50 amp and a 30-amp hookup, so I didn’t need to return to the office to fess up. Besides, the power was out anyway.
In the morning, we woke to the beauty of the campground. It was situated right at a bend in the Middle River. There were inner tubes for people to take the 45-minute float trip from one end of the campground to the other available at the camp office. The takeout was a 25′ waterfall that tumbled right into the river. By the morning, the power was back on, and the pool and hot tubs were filled with families enjoying their weekend getaway. Shenandoah Valley Campground looked like an excellent place for families to get out and enjoy water in all its forms.
Day 3 – Montebello, Spy Rock, and Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Our destination for Day 3 was Montebello, a little mountain town just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s home to two popular hikes, Crabtree Falls and Spy Rock, as well as a post office, which serves as a resupply stop for Appalachian Trail through hikers. We also saw a new road sign on VA 56, “GPS Navigation Not Recommended.” We couldn’t figure out if that meant we should turn off our GPS, not trust our GPS, or turn around because our GPS took us here in the first place.
VA 56 was tight, but we took our time, and Winnie handled it like a champ. Our GPS took us right to Montebello Campground, but it didn’t direct us to the office, so we had to cruise into the campground past the “registered guests only” sign until we found a turn-around. The girls at the office suggested that we return via Blue Ridge Parkway (a more RV friendly route) and were thankful that the GPS lead us as close as it did to the campground.
Montebello is a sleepy little mountain town with lots of fishing and hiking and almost nothing else. We could feel the outdoor vibe all around us and in everybody we met. There were several groups of super fit road bikers getting ready to climb up to the steep road we just came down and many avid hikers, but our favorite personality was Rico, the hiking cat. Rico Suave has made it 800 miles on the Appalachian Trail and is on pace to finish by September. He walks some and hunts mice in the shelter, but usually, he rides in his owner’s shirt earning his master the dubious trail name “pocket pussy”.
Hiking Spy Rock
We considered hiking Crabtree Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi, but we were advised against parking the RV there. Instead, we stayed parked at the campground and took a sunset hike to Spy Rock. It was a beautiful, 6-mile round trip with about 1000′ of elevation gain. The rock itself is a massive rock formation on top of a tall mountain that offers unobstructed 360′ views.
Probably a dozen through hikers meandered up for sunset. We made friends with Buck and his trail dog, Mr. White. Buck thought that Spy Rock was the best view he’s had since leaving Springer Mountain Georgia. He even puts it over McAfee Knob because of the beautiful farmland and forests surrounding Spy Rock. We hiked back with headlamps, simultaneously looking forward to the comfort of our RV and a bit sad leaving the comradery of sunset at Spy Rock. Jenn said that Buck reminded her of an amalgamation of buddies from her days guiding whitewater rivers in Washington State.
Camping at Montebello Camping and Fishing Resort
We were starting to see specializations in campgrounds by this point in the trip. Each venue targeted a different audience with specific features. For example, last night, we stayed at a very family friendly campground where the kids could play in the pool or float in the river bend all weekend long. Montebello Camping and Fishing Resort spoke to us because it was heavily forested and tranquil. It brought us closer to nature than any other stay during the trip.
With all this nature, it’s not surprising that our quest for connectivity continued in vain. Not only wasn’t there Wi-Fi, but there also wasn’t even cell service. Nothing distracted us from enjoying the beautiful nature around us.
Montebello is a stone’s throw away from the state fish hatchery, which might be why their trout pond was so productive. We saw anglers catching fish all day long. You had to keep (and purchase) each fish you caught, so there’s incentivization for restocking. I could imagine how good fresh trout would taste cooked in tinfoil over an open fire with just a little butter, garlic, and dill. If you don’t have an RV, Montebello offers cabin rentals too. This makes a great alternative to cabins in Shenandoah National Park since the cost is less in Montebello for what you get and you don’t pay park entrance fees.
Day 4- Driving Blue Ridge Parkway and Adventure Caving in Fountain Cave
We’ve already talked up how beautiful Skyline Drive was. Blue Ridge Parkway is kind of like that. In fact, the road segment on Skyline Drive from Jarman Gap (mm 96.8) and Rockfish Gap (mm 105.5) was built as part of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1939 and was incorporated into Skyline Drive in 1961.
However, it’s a little different on BRP. Skyline Drive was built as the main attraction for Shenandoah National Park and, as such, it has significantly more and better overlooks. Also, the park service maintains these overlooks while a lot of the Parkway’s overlooks are obscured by vegetation. That being said, Blue Ridge is a beautiful road, and we saw several groups of motorcyclists enjoy the turns and the 45 MPH speed limit (As opposed to a strictly enforced 35 MPH in the park). Also, you don’t have to pay a park entry fee to enjoy Blue Ridge Parkway.
Adventure Cave Tour of Fountain Cave
The highlight of Day four was the “Adventure Caving” at Fountain Cave in the aptly named town of Grottoes. We really didn’t know what to expect. We were sure that it was going to be more challenging than Luray Caverns or Ruby Falls, but was it going to rival our trip to Rio Secreto? We would soon find out!
Gearing up, we realized that Fountain Cave might live up to its adventure billing. We put on full coveralls, gloves, and knee pads and our helmet had a really nice one-watt LED headlamp. This certainly felt like preparing up for caving. We even had two guides on the trip, Abbey and Daniel, just in case anything should happen. Abbey unlocked the cave and opened the door with a loud creak while Daniel introduced cave safety with the rule of threes:
- Three people at all times
- Three points of contact
- Three sources of light
Truth in advertising, this wasn’t a wild cave tour. Fountain Cave was a show cave in the 1800s, which blended a great deal of history into the tour. We could see the torch marks from where the guides climbed the formations and nature stage where choirs would entertain the guests. At one point, Daniel lit a candle and had us imagine the regalia of 5000 candles illuminating the main chamber. We even found century-old signatures. However, the cave has been locked for almost 100 years before Grand Caverns began running these adventure tours just a short time ago.
The cave itself was one large chamber with several areas of breakdown and formations, including the rare shield formation where the flowstone forms a flat disc. Daniel said that Fountain and neighboring Grand Caverns are the only commercial caves in Virginia that you’ll see shields in. There were some optional crawling and climbing that was fun but not too difficult. Fountain Cave was a great taste of sport caving in a well-controlled environment.
Camping at Misty Mountain Campground
Our final camp was at Misty Mountain Campground near Rockfish Gap where I-64 splits Skyline Drive from Blue Ridge Parkway. The campground was ideally situated just off the freeway where you could explore either of the scenic drives or the area’s many wineries. We continued our streak of zero connectivity since the campground’s Wi-Fi got struck by lightning during the storm. At least the data was fast on our phones.
We also learned just how nice RVers are. We hooked up and started to clean up from caving. Our neighbor knocked on our door because our hose was leaking. He has been on the road for 20 years and had a well-stocked toolbox in his rig including the exact hose gasket we needed. He also explained the sewer dump to me.
Apparently, there are two types of sewer couplings, a friction fit plug or a screw coupler. I understood the friction fit plug but that quarter turn on the coupler baffled me. I’m glad I got a little education before I made a mess of things. Even though I was afraid of the waste dump, it was surprisingly clean and easy (once you got the coupling on properly)
Lessons from the Road
On the road back to Manassas, we recalled the lessons learned from our try it before you buy it weekend.
- Pick a rig that matches our travel style. We tend to pack a lot of activities into our trips. If we were going location independent in an RV, we’d almost have to have a towed vehicle or a much smaller RV like a camperized van. If we did the van option, it would limit our time we could spend on the road.
- We have to solve connectivity. All weekend long we chased web access, even in relatively civilized northern Virginia. Between Wi-Fi, cellular, and satellite, there are options with new technology being developed every day.
- We have to utilize all the storage. Winnie had storage everywhere that we didn’t fully take advantage of because we were only on a weekend trip. Packing and unpacking a suitcase works better in hotel rooms.
- Cleanliness is next to godliness. We had to clean up regularly to keep our small space livable. Full-time life on the road would require a habitual clean as you go lifestyle.
- Personalize everything. Perhaps the biggest selling point for an RV is that we can take our fur-babies with us. However, having our coffee maker, our toys, our little touches of home where ever we roam would keep us feeling grounded.
- Keep up on maintenance. There’s a domino effect of delaying maintenance in a small space with lots of compact systems. We didn’t have a hose washer, so we didn’t hook up to city water, so our showers didn’t have full pressure. This was one chain from one weekend, but I could see the effects snowballing.
We are so thankful for GoRVing for providing this opportunity to us. We learned a lot about ourselves and the RV lifestyle. We can definitely see it as a possible future and would highly recommend renting an RV and taking your own ‘try it before you buy it’ trip if you are curious about RV travel/lifestyle.
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