The Northwest area of Fauquier County holds some of the most breathtakingly beautiful, if sometimes more vertical walking. Here the highlands rise from lush, horse-filled valleys to form the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the picturesque villages of Paris, Upperville, and Middleburg may temp the visitor to imagine that they are on a holiday in the English countryside. Fauquier’s section of the Appalachian Trail can be found meandering along the borders of Sky Meadows State Park, named “Skye Farm” by former owner Sir Robert Hadow for its echoes of the distant Isle of Skye in Scotland. Unlike Skye, there is no Black Cuillion to slicing the bleak sub-arctic sky above the head of the bewildered traveler here. Instead, the beauty and serenity of Crooked Run Valley stretches out below you as cloud shadows checker the lush fields rolling into the south where happy people taste wine in pastoral vineyards. You can thank Paul Mellon for donating over 1500 acres to form the park in the 1980s, but its history goes back, like many things in this part of the country, much farther.
This section of the Blue Ridge mountains is pierced by Ashby Gap which allowed early settlers access to the Shenandoah Valley. Lord Fairfax was selling off property near Ashby Gap in 1731 and the land was divided and subdivided over the next few hundred years. Sometime around 1850, Abner Settle built the stone house of Mount Bleak which sits so grandly near the trail head. One wonders if Mr. Settle suffered from melancholia, or possibly macular degeneration as the surrounding prospect of his house seems anything but bleak. Winter, I understand, brings a slightly more lugubrious and windy affect. Mr. Mellon saved the area from becoming a luxury home development in the 1975 when he purchased and donated the 1,132 acre tract to become a state park.
The ride up I17 from I66 and Warrenton, through the bucolic area of Delaplane and the piedmont valley towards Paris is therapeutic in itself. About 2 miles south of Paris where Ashby Gap is visible as a notch in the hills to the left, the turn for Sky Meadows State Park on Edmonds Lane appears on the left. A little further north one can access the 7 miles of bridle trails included in the park like Rolling Meadows, Hayfield trail, and Lost Mountain trail (former property of George Washington). Horses are not included.
After turning into the entrance of the park, purchasing your ticket ($3-5 depending on day of the week) and proceeding past the campgrounds to the main parking lot, you will notice the classic simplicity of the stone and timber Bleak House on your left. This structure was built in 1847 by Abner Settle as a typical upper middle class gentleman’s farmhouse to be comfortable and useful. It is the main building of a historical farm complex that includes 23 buildings dating from the early 1700s to 1954 and is open for tours. Enquire with the friendly park rangers. The lawn surrounding the house makes a lovely place for picnics. The visitor’s center close by offers restrooms, a gift shop and soda machine.
The walk begins shortly beyond the parking area, near the kiosk, where you follow the paved road toward the park offices before turning left onto the green blazed Boston Mill Road. This gravel road rises and falls through a chlorophyll valley of walnuts, black locusts and paw-paw trees, bordered by tumbledown stone walls that helped to drive cattle from the farms and mills to Paris. The path heads gradually downhill for just under a half mile before turning right into an open meadow and becomes the yellow blazed South Ridge Trail.
Start uphill into the meadow another 75 yards until the South Ridge Trail veers off to the left and back into the woods. Before long, there is a small jog off to the right where a wooden bench being swallowed by the forest marks an overlook. Past that you come to a sign indicating the ruins of Snowden Manor House. In the winter, a substantial foundation can be seen. In summer, the grey, lichen kissed rocks are mostly subsumed under green mounds of carpet grass and clusters of paw-paws. More easily spied is the orange toned rock of the main chimney standing like a gothic church window or a memorial to a forgotten god. 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Little is known of Snowden other than it was owned by one Randolph Colston in pre-civil war times and likely burned empty in 1910. Ponder how the anxieties of the day must have seemed all-consuming to these people who have now returned to dust. Fortify yourself with deep breaths scented with honeysuckle and wild rose as you continue up the steeper South Ridge trail for the next mile to the intersection of the North Ridge Trail.
After turning left on the North Ridge Trail, you have another 1/3 mile until you run into the Appalachian Trail with its white blazes. If you’ve read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, chortle knowingly to yourself and look around for cooking pots that Katz might have heaved into the underbrush. If you haven’t, chide yourself for your churlish ways and reserve it from your library as soon as you get home. Happily, there is a bench at the intersection and the rest of the walk is almost all downhill from here.
Head right, or north, on the Appalachian Trail and watch as the forest starts to give way to open meadows along the high neck of the Blue Ridge. In one such opening, the path diverges to the right from the AT which heads toward Ashby Gap and Harpers Ferry. You will head right on Ambassador Whitehouse trail. There is another overlook before descending into a pleasant woods. You will come to another intersection with the North Ridge trail. Turn left onto it for about 75 yards until you get to the Piedmont Overlook trail. It looks discouragingly uphill for 0.1 miles but do not quail, the best is yet to come. After that brief climb, an anti-cow style is the only obstacle between you and a panoramic prospect of the Crooked Run valley stretching into a hazy distance. The metal roofs of silos and mansions sparkle in the sun over the smooth grassy expanse of verdant slopes falling away to Bleak House below you. There are several handy benches to post humblebrag photos to your Facebook account from. The pond behind Belle Grove plantation, south of the park, mirrors the pale sky and the distant peaks of the Cobbler Mountains rise in the distance to the right. Amanda Edmonds (1835-1921) lived at Belle Grove and kept the diary which gives us most of what we know about the local characters and homes.
The rest of the way down to Boston Mill Road is steep but the views can’t be beat and you’re quickly back at the parking lot. Take a tour of the house, explore the historical grounds including the early 18th century log kitchen where, if you are lucky, a volunteer will share some warm cornbread slathered in fresh churned butter and honey. Then head into Upperville or Middleburg to have a well-deserved pint of refreshment at the Hunter’s Head Tavern or Red Fox Tavern. You’ve earned it.