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Exploring Shenandoah National Park

September 1, 2003
Filed under Camping Destinations, National Parks, Southeast Camping

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Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine what a lovely place Shenandoah National Park is. Visitors come from all over the world to travel the renowned and spectacular Skyline Drive. Hikers who venture into the forest along any of the hundreds of day-hikes or commit to the arduous Appalachian Trail are rewarded with some of the most scenic views of Shenandoah. Most people come here to escape the pressures of a fast-paced world and to enjoy spending some quiet time mixing with nature.

Located just 75 miles west of our nation’s capital, Shenandoah offers some of the easiest access to pristine wilderness found in the eastern U.S. The highest peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains crown this peaceful place. Some of the best fly-fishing east of the Mississippi attracts anglers. Whether your family wants a weekend getaway or is looking for a week of serious camping, Shenandoah National Park has much to offer.

A (NOT SO) SHORT HISTORY

Established in 1935, this national park has a geologic history that goes back a long way. Although now located almost 250 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the area at one time was covered by a great sea. The fossilized remains of a prehistoric whale were discovered in a section of the park in 1994. Today, the largest marine life found in the park is the eastern brook trout.

Nearly 300 million years ago the area was the scene of great upheaval. Huge slabs of granite were forced upward as a result of colliding tectonic plates. These massive peaks have long since been eroded away, leaving only the rounded slopes we see today. The sediment that once made up these natural skyscrapers flowed downhill and helped to form the gentle rolling eastern plains farmed by Virginians today.

The mountains are now covered with acres of green forest, but on exposed mountainsides, the original “basement” granite can be seen. This gray rock, like that which makes up Old Rag Mountain, is more than one billion years old. The other type of rock found throughout the park is greenstone. These rocks are the remnants of an earlier period of volcanic activity. The lava that once flowed through cracks and fissures eventually cooled off and, in time, changed into the slabs of rocks so abundant throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Human influence on this region did not start until recently, by geologic standards. Native Americans first settled in the area approximately 10,000 years ago. Evidence of their presence can be found in the form of arrowheads and crude tools. A good place to look for these is at Big Meadows, an ancient Native American gathering spot located about halfway down Skyline Drive. Remember, however, that this is a National Park, and therefore, any artifact found must be left in place.

Not until the European settlers arrived during the 18th century did radical change occur. Aside from farming, these early Americans also cut timber and mined the area for copper. After time, interest in the area waned and people moved on, leaving a decimated land where only a few virgin stands of hemlock remained.
Then in the early 1900s, renewed interest in saving the area as a wilderness and an outdoor-recreation destination was expressed. It took a while, but the trees and other plant life began to grow back. Some species of animals, like the whitetail deer, had to be reintroduced. Over the years, with proper land and wildlife management, the area we now know as Shenandoah National Park has returned to some of its former splendor.

SPINE OF THE PARK

Skyline Drive runs the entire length of the park from north to south and is marked by stone mileposts that assist in finding the park’s many attractions. Access to every major trailhead and place of interest starts from this spinal road. There are 75 scenic pull-off areas, so be prepared for stunning views around each bend in the road. The 300-square-mile park is divided into a northern, central, and southern area, all connected by Skyline Drive.

There is one campground in the north section, Matthew’s Arm, and another in the south, Loft Mountain. Two additional campgrounds can be found in the central area, Big Meadows and Lewis Mountain. Dundo Group Campground is located in the southern section and caters exclusively to organized groups. Each campsite has a grill and picnic table. You should have no trouble finding plenty of sites large enough for a trailer or motorhome.

Although there are no water hook-ups, showers and dump stations are provided at selected campgrounds. It’s first-come, first-served for these sites, so be sure to get an early start.

For those who prefer the amenities of home, lodging is available. With more than 270 rooms, many of which are rustic cabins, there are plenty of choices. There is an historic lodge at Big Meadows that overlooks the Shenandoah Valley. Be sure to reserve early because many rentals are booked a year in advance, especially by eager fall-color watchers. Thousands of acres of national forest surround the park and offer additional camping options.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, a volunteer group that maintains most of the trails in and around Shenandoah National Park, owns six rustic cabins available for use throughout the summer. You will need to make reservations before you go. It is a good idea to brush up on your land navigation skills before heading out, as these cabins can be tricky to locate. Each is furnished with a bed, blanket, pots and pans, and a pit toilet. Located near a stream, the cabins make for good shelter in bad weather.

For the more adventurous, get a backcountry permit (at no cost) and head out on one of the more than 500 miles of trails. Remember to camp out of sight of the trail and hang your food high enough so that the black bears won’t be lured in. Yes, there are plenty of black bears here, so be careful while hiking or camping, and give them as much room as possible.

FAVORITE HIKES In Shenandoah National Park

As mentioned earlier, there are many trails that crisscross the mountains of Shenandoah. Some are more traveled than others, and “know before you go” is good advice here. A nice feature on the more popular trails is the use of cement marker posts at trailheads and where trails diverge. They give distance, direction, and the trail name and can help a wayward hiker find the way.

There are plenty of detailed hiking guides that can be obtained at any of the many ranger stations. Design your hikes to keep physical limitations, time, weather and experience in mind.

One of my favorite trails, Whiteoak Canyon, can be found near milepost 42. This is a tough 4.5-mile round-trip that takes in beautiful distant views of ridge after ridge of mountains and six waterfalls, including the second highest in Shenandoah. Deer can be seen along this trail, as well as the occasional black bear and, if you’re lucky, maybe a bobcat. Although it offers some superb waterfall views, this is a secluded path and you are not likely to run into very many people. It takes about four-and-a-half hours to complete this hike, so bring something to eat and plenty of water. Supplies can be purchased at one of the four stores located in the park. Mountain flowers are everywhere here and are a photographer’s dream-come-true. Be careful where you place your hands as you climb some of the rock faces, however, as timber rattlesnakes may be lurking about.
There are many trails easier than Whiteoak Canyon.

Some of the park’s most inspiring views can be reached in little more than 30 minutes. Traces Nature trailhead is located near milepost marker 22. You will have your best chance of seeing wild turkey while on this path. The trail is one of the easier hikes as it rises gently through woods carpeted with ever-expanding patches of fern. Be sure to look for Indian pipe flowers deep in the forest shadows. One of the nice things about this trail is that about halfway through, you will find yourself in an abandoned settlement. Put your imagination to work here as you ponder what life was like in these mountains more than 100 years ago.

In order to reach the park’s highest point, plan a 1.7-mile trip along the sometimes-crowded Hawksbill Mountain Summit trail. The trailhead is located about a half mile past marker 46. As the trail stretches upward (sometimes it feels like straight up) toward the 4051-foot summit, it passes a pure stand of rare red spruce. Noises normally heard along this busy path seem to diminish as it winds through these quiet trees, which can reach heights of 80 feet. From the peak, you are offered a view unmatched in the Mid-Atlantic States.

Before you lies the Shenandoah Valley with its winding river and the 40-mile long Massanutten Mountain. During the fall, this is a great spot from which to view migrating hawks and eagles. Bring a good pair of binoculars, a cushion and lunch. It will not be long before you see a kettle of hawks rising into the heavens as they catch air currents heading south. If bad weather blows in while you’re on the summit, there is a large shelter 50 yards away where you can wait out the storm.

PLENTY MORE At Shenandoah National Park

Whatever activity you tackle, always keep an eye on the sky. Weather can change very quickly here, so be prepared. During a recent hike down Rattlesnake Point Trail, I enjoyed cool breezes and low humidity. Later that day, bright blue skies quickly gave way to dark, ominous clouds. Within minutes, sheets of icy rain covered the side of the mountain I was hiking around. I was grateful to find shelter under a rocky outcrop of greenstone just before marble size hail began to fall.

Generally, summer temperatures average 72 degrees in the upper elevations and are much higher in the valley. This combination often mixes to generate powerful thunderstorms. In the winter, temperatures average well below freezing throughout the park and snow normally covers the ground from mid-December to late February.

The programs offered by the National Park Service in Shenandoah are of exceptional quality. There truly is something for everyone. For the kids, there is the Junior Ranger program made up of one-hour talks and hikes. There is a wonderful presentation on birds of prey that includes wild birds that can no longer fly due to injuries. More information about times and subjects can be picked up at Dickey Ridge and Byrd visitor centers. Stick around for the evening campfire presentations afterward. There are more than 35 different ranger-attended activities addressing subjects such as fishing, forest fires, birds, bears, and plenty more.
Bike riding is one of the more popular activities during summer. Many families bring bicycles to Shenandoah and pedal down (and up!) Skyline Drive. Remember to stay on the paved areas only. Nonpaved trails are off limits to bikes due to the destruction the tires can cause. Be sure to check your bike’s brakes before starting out. The road falls away quickly in certain hilly areas and your speed can rapidly increase down the straightaways.

Another fun activity is horseback riding. Since most people don’t bring a horse with them, the park service has provided them, complete with tour guides. There are a couple of different rides to take, so contact the stables at Skyland for more information.

LISTEN FOR THE SONG

My favorite pastime is fishing, and this is how I first heard Shenandoah’s song. It was a quiet spring morning several years ago. I had camped about a quarter of a mile from what has become my favorite stream. At sunrise, I was casting hand-wrapped flies onto the surface of the stream near a tranquil eddy. Each flick of my wrist threw the bait closer to its target. A small brook trout teased me by taking the fly, only to spit it out seconds later. It didn’t seem to matter, though. I was standing in a stream, surrounded by tall trees and even taller mountains. Surely, life couldn’t get much better. A whitetail deer had come to the stream for a drink and watched me for awhile before moving on. Later, a black bear meandered down to the water. One look at me and he took whatever business he might have had somewhere else. I thought, “what a place this is” and wondered at my good fortune in seeing these impressive mammals on their own terms.

Whether you are hiking one of the many trails that traverse these quiet forests, or are just resting at a particularly scenic pull-off along Skyline Drive, take the time to listen closely. Smell the fresh mountain air and touch the rocky soil beneath your feet. Sit quietly for awhile. With a little patience and a bit of luck, you too will hear Shenandoah’s song.

When You Go To Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is only a 90-minute drive from Washington, D. C. Just head west on I-66 from the Washington Beltway. If you fly, the best bet is to land at Dulles Airport. From there, it is only a short drive. Once in the area of Front Royal, Virginia, exit onto Route 340 and head south. The park entrance is just five miles away. Although there are four entrances, Front Royal is perfectly situated at the northern end of Skyline Drive. This 105-mile-long road runs the length of the park from north to south and is one of the most beautiful drives in the country. It is also part of the longer, Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects at both the northern and southern sections of the drive. The speed limit is 35 mph within the park, and this applies to bicycles as well as vehicles. On a recent trip down the often-winding Skyline Drive, I counted no fewer than 120 whitetail deer feeding at various points along the way. Keeping this in mind, the speed limit makes a lot of sense for the safety of the wildlife, as well as the visitors. If traveling to Shenandoah from the south, take
I-64 directly to Rockfish Entrance Station. This is just outside Waynesboro, Virginia.

Sources

For a list of planned ranger programs and other activities, send for a free copy of Shenandoah Overlook, the park’s newspaper.

Shenandoah National Park
3655 U.S. Hwy. 211 East , Luray, VA 22835
540/999-3500; nps.gov/shen/home.htm

Potomac Appalachian
Trail Club
540/678-0423; patc.net

Big Meadows Campground
Reservations required mid-May through November
800/364-2267

Shenandoah Lodging
Aramark Virginia Sky-line Company
P. O. Box 7727NP, Luray,
VA 22835
800/999-4717

Visitor Information Center
Luray Chamber of Commerce
46 E. Main St., Luray, VA 22835
540/743-3915; luraypage.com

Shenandoah National Park Magazine
American Park Network Columbus Circle Station
P.O. Box 20113, New York,
NY 10023
212/581-3380; americanparknetwork.com

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