Autumn has arrived. Where I live that means heavy weekend traffic from I-66 exit 13 west on Rt. 55 through Front Royal to the north end of Skyline Drive. In honor of the season today I will outline one of my favorite drives in the countryside in the area just east of the Blue Ridge that also provides an alternative route to Skyline that avoids that traffic and brings you to a gate that is less likely to be blocked up with long lines of cars.
This loop drive takes you down country roads through fields, woodlands, and small towns. It also passes several wineries, an excellent deli, and at about the halfway point, a pleasant restaurant that is good for lunch or dinner. The first part also is an alternative route to the Blue Ridge.
The loop is 52 miles of country roads. The largest town is Flint Hill. Driving it non-stop takes about 90 minutes, but if you are doing it as a day trip you may make several stops on the way. Be prepared for beautiful views and small, unexpected adventures.
To reach it, take I-66 to exit 18. At the bottom of the ramp turn south (left if you are coming from DC) toward Rt. 55. This puts you on Leeds Manor Road. The stop sign at Rt. 55 is mile 0 for the distances I will provide. The first part of the circuit, which follows Leeds Manor Road to Rt. 211, is also a nice bicycling route, with many small crossroads to explore. A small commuter parking lot to the right at the stop sign provides a good place to leave your car.
Also, not on this loop but just three miles north from the highway exit, Naked Mountain Winery is a must stop for those doing this as a wine tour, either before starting the loop or after completing it. Naked Mountain is one of the older wineries in Virginia had has an excellent selection.
Mile 0 (38°54’14” -78°0’-6”): Go straight (south) across Rt. 55 and continue on Leeds Manor a short distance to the T intersection at the railroad embankment. Turn right and continue on Leeds Manor Road. The road takes a sharp left turn to cross the railroad tracks and then goes straight into a wooded countryside, past several homes, including a hewn beam house and an old stone/hewn beam cabin.
Mile 3.6: Pass Philip Carter Winery on your left. Named for an early Virginia vintner who was the first American to win an award for his wines in London, this is the first of several wineries along this route and a must stop if you are doing this as a wine tour.
Mile 4.5: Pass Winding Road Winery on your left as you enter the village of Hume. This is one of the newer wineries, focusing on whites, and another good stop.
Mile 5: Hume stop sign. Go straight on Leeds Manor Road. Near the end of this trip you will return to this stop sign coming east on Hume Road.
After passing through Hume you will drive into the Virginia countryside, past farmland and through dense woodland to the hamlet of Orleans. Keep an eye out in the fields on your left for African and Texas longhorn cattle. The landscape is rural for the next six miles and includes dense wooded sections.
Mile 11.7: Orleans stop sign. This is the next stopping point on the road. The Orleans Market, on your left, is a good deli. Continue straight on Leeds Manor Road.
Mile 17.6: T-intersection at Rt. 211.Turn right (west). This is a divided, four-lane highway. Watch your speed. Rt. 211 is locally famous for its speed traps. If you are going to Skyline Drive, take this road through Sperryville and up onto the ridge to the Thornton Gap Entrance to Skyline Drive. This puts you less than a mile north of the Mary’s Rock tunnel. If you are taking the loop drive you will go west for approximately 10 miles. Either way you will pass several the Magnolia and Grey Ghost wineries.
Mile 25.5 Narmada Winery. This is a unique wine stop, founded and run by a couple originally from India. Mrs. Patel is the wine maker, and she creates unique wines. India has no tradition of wine making. Mrs. Patel is creating that in northwestern Virginia. The winery also serves mildly spiced Indian food. I particularly recommend the butter chicken. All the wines are excellent. We particularly like Mom, a sweet white dinner wine, and Midnight, a Bordeaux type dark red.
Mile 27.2: Pass Muskrat Haven, an old farm stand on your right. This is the closest landmark before the turn onto Ben Venue Road.
Mile 28.0 (38°43’11”, -78°-3’-59”): If you are driving the loop, turn right onto Rt. 729, Ben Venue Road. It is marked by a large sign advertising the Williams Orchard. This is a narrow country road that will take you to Flint Hill. If you pass it, the main road to Flint Hill is another couple of miles west and well marked. But you will miss the prettiest part of this drive. A quarter mile down this road you pass a brick side-chimney Federalist farmhouse (above) that dates to the turn of the 19th Century. Although the speed limit is 45 mph, the road is very with sharp little ridges and short sight lines that are best driven at much lower speeds. About 10 minutes down the road, at 38°43’44”, -78°-4’-10”, you pass the Primitive Baptist Church on your right as you climb a twisty piece of road up a knife-edge ridge. As you clear the top of the ridge and start down look to the left for the best view of the drive.
Mile 31.7: Ben Venue Road ends in T-intersection. Turn right on Zachery Taylor Highway. This takes you through the town of Flint Hill. Just after the turn, the speed limit drops to 35 and then to 25. Please obey these limits in town.
Mile 33.1: Griffin Tavern. This is an excellent place for an informal lunch or dinner with seating both inside and out. The Tavern occupies a large, yellow, Victorian building with a wrap-around porch, on the left just past the white Methodist Church. It is dog friendly, with the dining area on the side patio designated for humans accompanied by canines. If you see a dark green Miata in the parking lot look for a couple with a black border collie with a curled tail. That is me and my wife, Moire, so say hello.
Past there, follow the road out of town into the countryside towards Front Royal for four miles. This is a very nice, fast road that has moderate traffic.
Mile 37.0: Huntley Road. As you approach this T-intersection just past the tiny town of Huntley, you will see signs pointing right for Desert Rose Winery and Rappahannock Cellars. Slow down after the Rappahannock sign and turn right onto Huntley Road. Both wineries are worth the stop. Rappahannock, about a quarter mile from the intersection, is one of the oldest wineries in the state and beautifully laid out, with outdoor picnic tables and both indoor and outdoor seating.
Mile 38.9 Desert Rose Winery Desert Rose is one of the newer wineries in the area. Started by a retired couple who came originally from the Pacific northwest, it has a Western theme and often plays old cowboy movies on a TV in the back. It is dog friendly; you can bring your leashed dog with you into the building. If you like reds, try the Covert Cab.
Beyond the wineries you drive for several miles past fields that often contain cows or horses, and the entrance to Marriott Ranch. The speed limit is 45, which seems to be standard for country roads here, but again parts of the road are too curvy to maintain that speed. I find 35 to be more realistic for much of this road.
Mile 46.3: Hume stop sign. This is the same intersection you drove through near the beginning of the trip. Turn left onto Leads Manor Road and follow it back to Rt. 55 and I-66. Remember that just after you cross the railroad tracks and the road takes a right angle turn to the right you need to turn at the first left to reach the stop sign at Rt. 55.
Mile 52: This concludes the Leeds Manor loop drive. However, if you did not go there before starting the drive, you might follow Leeds Manor two miles further north to Naked Mountain Winery on your right. It is beautifully situated on a fairly steep hillside and well worth the detour. The magic word here is “Petite.” Both the Petite Verdot and Petite Mansang are standout wines in the area.