There are two main ways to drive from Maine to NC on the interstate highways. One would be to follow I-95 out of Maine and all the way to Virginia, and then to pick up I-85 into Charlotte. This might seem on paper to be the most direct, but in reality this route takes you directly through many of the East Coast's largest metropolises (including Washington DC!), so my dad and I never took this route. Instead we would do a combination of 11 interstates, starting with I-95 in Maine, and ending with I-277, which is the spur that runs through Uptown Charlotte!
The interstate that you are on for the longest on the route that my dad and I take is I-81. We pick it up just outside of Harrisburg, PA, and remain on it until just south of Roanoke, VA. This brings the portion of the drive on I-81 to just shy of 350 miles... about 1/3 of the total mileage for the trip! And the majority of the time on I-81 is spent driving through the beautiful mountains and countryside of Western Virginia, otherwise known as the Shenandoah Valley.
My dad and I have spent many nights and taken countless rest stops in the cities and towns off I-81 in this region of Virginia. This was a part of the US that I was previously unfamiliar with before my first time helping my dad do the drive, and last week when I did the Maine/NC drive with my mom for the first time, it was delightful for her to get to see how beautiful the Virginia mountains are and how charming this area is! I thought that it would be fun to put together a travel guide blog post of some of my favorite places in this region that I have gotten to discover over the past few years. Without further ado, here is my travel guide to my favorite cities and towns off of I-81 in Western Virignia, from North to South!
Harrisonburg: This city of just under 50,000 is located directly off of I-81 in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. It is well-known for being home to James Madison University. My dad and I have spent many nights here during our road trips, as it's a good enough distance from either leaving or coming to Charlotte that it's a good place to stop at for a night.
Lodging: We usually stay at Marriott hotels on our road trips. We have enjoyed staying at both the Fairfield Inn and the Courtyard hotels in Harrisonburg and found both hotel stays to be pleasant experiences!
Food: A fast food staple of the Carolinas, especially for college students, is Cook Out, a late night drive-up chain known for their burgers and milkshakes (although my personal preference are their delicious quesadillas!). Cook Out does have some locations in Virginia, and one of the northernmost locations of all is in Harrisonburg! This is a great place to stop for something quick if you're just passing through and are unfamiliar with what is Cook Out, and it's also very accessible from a highway exit.
If you have a bit more time to spare, my dad and I have enjoyed dinner before at the Taste of India restaurant. We both adore Asian cuisine, and especially quality Indian food, and when we dined at this restaurant we were very impressed with both the service and the food!
Lastly, as a self-proclaimed milkshake coinesseur, I am very picky about the milkshakes that I give my seal of approval to. (I'm not even a big fan of the ever popular Cook Out shakes!) But I was absolutely blown away by my first experience having a chocolate malt shake at the famous Kline's Dairy Bar in downtown Harrisonburg. Emily of Emily Sacra photography took me there at the end of our photoshoot last year (more about that at the bottom of this post!), but if you are passing through the area and do have any extra time to spare, make a trip downtown to Kline's and you will not regret it!
Emily Sacra Photography
Staunton: This quaint Virginia town does not look like very much when cruising by the exit on I-81, but if you stop and drive a mile or two into town, you will be absolutely blown away! Staunton is full of vintage and local charm, and the downtown has one of the most charming and unique vibes of any small town that I've ever visited.
My only visit to this town was for one of the funnest rest stops ever: getting to meet up with my friend Meredith (of Meredith Sledge Photography) in May 2015 to both catch up, and have a photoshoot for my blog! To date, this was still one of my most creative and inspired photoshoots of all time. Meredith is unbelievably talented, and the town of Staunton provided the perfect backdrop for her work. I would love to return to spend more time in the downtown someday and see what else the area has to offer though!
Lodging: I have never spent a night here on road trips (Usually just north in Harrisonburg as it's not that much further up the highways, but there are a variety of lodging options in the town and near the highway!
Food: Meredith, my dad and I enjoyed coffee and treats and a delightful coffee shop called By and By, which is located on E. Beverley Street in the downtown area. This place was the epitome of what a local coffee shop should be!
Meredith Sledge Photography
Lexington/Natural Bridge: The last stop on my Western Virginia travel guide that I'll be covering is town of the Lexington, and the Natural Bridge attraction, which is just south of Lexington further down I-81. Lexington is a cute town that reminded me a lot of Staunton- not much to see from the highway, but as soon as you're in the downtown there is much charm and history. Lexington is also a college town and is home to Washington and Lee University, and Virginia Military Institute.
Lodging: My mom and I stayed at the Best Western Plus in Lexington on our most recent road trip from Maine to NC. An important note: there are two Best Westerns in Lexington: a regular one and then the Plus hotel. We really enjoyed the Plus hotel and found it to be clean, comfortable, and they provided a nice complimentary breakfast!
I haven't stayed here so I can't vouch for it, but when my mom and I enjoyed the downtown of Lexington, we saw the most lovely looking historic hotel called the Robert E. Lee Hotel. Definitely worth checking out if you are in the area I'm sure!
Food: My mom and I enjoyed dining at The Southern Inn restaurant in downtown Lexington! They serve contemporary Southern and American cuisine, and had a very diverse menu. (I personally would recommend the lamb meatballs appetizer!) If we had more time, I would have loved to walk on some of the town streets near the restaurant and universities.
Natural Bridge Attraction: One of my favorite things that I have ever stopped to do on a road trip, and possibly favorite nature related excursions ever, was when my dad and I visited Natural Bridge in August 2015! Natural Bridge is a natural attraction that was formed thousands of years ago when a cavern collapsed in Virginia's mountains. The result was truly a "natural bridge" formed by rock and land. You can take a hike on the various trails in Natural Bridge park to see the bridge itself, and the other beautiful nature in the park. This is very easily accessible from the highway, making it a perfect rest stop.
And this concludes my road trip travel guide to the western part of Virginia! Have any of you ever been to any of these towns and cities before? Or have any of you ever grown so accustomed to the same long road trip from repetition, that like me and my parents, you've discovered a new part of the country that you've grown fond of?
Lastly, if you ever are in this area or are in need of a photographer (or need a great photographer who travels!), I have to recommend Meredith Sledge Photography and Emily Sacra Photography, the two amazing photographers and sweet friends of mine from this area who I worked with for the shoots featured in this post!
xoxo Miss ALK