Shenandoah Valley a must-visit for history buffs, nature lovers

Stretched along Interstate 81 in northeast Virginia, quaint mountain towns dot the Appalachian landscape that makes up the Shenandoah Valley. Though the valley expands beyond the borders of Virginia, the state is a mecca for sightseers, and with good reason.

In the autumn, the trees blaze with marvelous orange, yellow and red leaves, then lay bare beneath a blanket of winter snow. Come spring, the landscape blossoms with budding greens and pinks, and holds this breathtaking beauty for summer tourists. Home to several picturesque downtowns, the Shenandoah Valley is an ideal vacation spot.

Here are our top five must-see stops in Virginia's valley:

Wonderful Winchester

Start your trip at the northern tip of the valley, in the ever-expanding city of Winchester. History buffs and shopaholics can each get their fill in the city's Old Town district.

The walking mall provides browsers with plenty of boutiques and restaurants to find treats and eats. Along the Old Town square, several sites boast Civil War history, including Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters Museum and George Washington's Office Museum. Civil War re-enactments are another common occurrence.

To explore the city's major highlights, follow the Apple Trail. The pink and red apples painted along the blocks of town take visitors to key spots in the city, as well as pay tribute to the Apple Blossom Festival held each spring, and Apple Harvest Festival in the fall. A CD to accompany the self-guided tour is available from the visitors center or by calling 877-871-1326. Visit www.visitwinchesterva.com.

On your way out of town, make sure to stop by Marker-Miller Orchards. This family-owned, pet-friendly market offers locally grown produce, home-baked goods, hayrides and ongoing weekend festivals. Visit www.markermillerorchards.com.

History in Harrisonburg

About an hour south of Winchester sits Harrisonburg, a town full of life thanks to the bustling college students from James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University.

Sporting events, lectures, art exhibits and music concerts are constantly attracting visitors to the town, and the cute downtown square is filled with trendy retail shops and novel eateries to keep tourists busy before and after their selected events.

Have a bite to eat at the Artful Dodger, a favorite hang-out spot among locals. Featured in the coffee shop/cocktail lounge is a rotating art gallery of pieces by local and regional artists, as well as a large menu of American-style cafe fare. Visit www.artfuldodger.org.

Discover more about the city's timeline with the self-guided Historic Walking Tour of downtown, or audio driving tours of the greater Harrisonburg region. Focal points on the tours include Woodbine Cemetery, where hundreds of Confederate soldiers are buried, and the Thomas Harrison house, the oldest building in Harrisonburg, dating back to 1750.

Visit www.downtownharrisonburg.org.

Staunton's a standout

Exuding a smooth, eclectic charm, Staunton sits in the center of the valley and is unlike any of its neighboring Shenandoah cities. Staunton has so much going on, the small town needs two visitors centers to help guests sort through the collection of bed-and-breakfasts, retail and antique shops, art galleries and restaurants.

Recognized as one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this city is filled with unique attractions such as the Frontier Culture Museum, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and glass-blowing demonstrations at Sunspots Studios.

From April to November, the Staunton/Augusta Farmers Market is a major draw for residents and tourists, as is Shenandoah Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse. Recreating Renaissance-style theatrical performances, the Blackfriars Playhouse presents a variety of Shakespearean works throughout the year to create an awareness and understanding of the life of the theater, both past and present.

Visit www.staunton.va.us.

Loving Lexington

At the south end of the I-81 itinerary is Lexington, a small town full of character. It's largely made up of Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.

This tourism-heavy town offers a variety of odd shops and interesting diners, as well as swanky restaurants and high-end boutiques. Visit www.lexingtonvirginia.com.

On the Washington and Lee campus, Civil War enthusiasts can get their fill with a visit to the Lee Chapel and Museum, a National Historic Landmark that was built in 1867 under Robert E. Lee's supervision. Lee and members of his family are buried beneath Lee Chapel on the museum level. Visit chapelapps.wlu.edu.

Slightly north of town, wine aficionados can top off their glass at the Rockbridge Vineyard, which produces fine Virginia wines and is open May through October for tours, tastings and various festivals. Visit www.rockbridgevineyard.com.

Spectacular Skyline

No visit to the valley would be complete without a drive along the famed Skyline Drive of the Shenandoah National Park. The 105-mile drive travels through the immense national park, starting in Front Royal and winding its way to Rockfish Gap. Along the way, the drive is filled with enough viewing spots, camp sites, hiking trails and outdoor activities to fill an entire vacation.

The highest point of the drive is Skyland Resort, where drivers can stop for a stay at the inn or a meal at the Pollock Dining Room. With maximum speeds of 35 mph on the drive, there are plenty of chances to enjoy the view and spot area wildlife, including deer, black bears and wild turkeys.

Visit www.nps.gov/shen or www.visitshenandoah.org.