Over 1 million people visit Shenandoah National Park each year, the 200,000-acre park a popular escape for the metropolitan areas of Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. 500 miles of trail are open to hiking, a large percentage accessible from Skyline Drive, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. With a dozen large waterfalls, lush forests, remnants of former homesites and unending majestic scenery, Shenandoah is gorgeous any time of year; however it is in autumn that the colorful hardwoods spilling over the ridges into endless valleys create a cacophony of color that make the Park a destination not to be missed.
One of the most unique things about Shenandoah NP is that it was created entirely from privately-owned land as opposed to setting aside federally owned land for preservation. Many a western Park was established to preserve wilderness and natural features on already-public land, but the area along the Blue Ridge in Virginia was heavily populated and had been used/abused for centuries: farming, mining, logging, trapping, grazing and milling had utilized and depleted the natural resources starting in the mid-1700s. Still, the mountain views, water and air were an inspiration for a National Park, and soon the seeds of idea had been planted for a park on the Blue Ridge.
In the early days it was thought that there might be only one southern park, and supporters of the Great Smoky Mountains NP were quickly able to satisfy requirements for the establishment of GSMNP. However, it turned out that three National Parks were eventually established: at Mammoth Cave, in the Smoky Mountains, and along the Blue Ridge at Shenandoah. Authorized by Congress in 1926, there was still much work to be done including raising the money to buy out and relocate the 500 families that still lived in the hills. Over the following decade 24,000 Virginians pledged to contribute $1.3 million, while the legislature allocated an additional $1 million towards the creation of the Park, and it was 1935 before the Park was finally officially established. In the last 80 years forests have regenerated to cover over 95% of the Park in a remarkable example of recovery, the soils and plant diversity bouncing back after centuries of poor agricultural practices.
Our Shenandoah experience had started at the south end of the park (MP 105), and after a hike at Blackrock Summit (MP 84.8) we were once again headed north on the famous Skyline Drive. Our destination was the Byrd Visitor Center at MP 51, at which point we knew we would probably have to turn around. Although the Skyline is only 105 miles long, the 35 mph speed limit combined with a few thousand leaf-peepers results in a one-way trip easily requiring 3 hours… if you don’t stop even once. With scenic pullouts every few miles that are impossible to resist, traversing the entire park would result in a really long day. As it was, dusk was starting to settle as we drove the last miles to exit the park, however we were content with the portion we were able to see.
The Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center is part of the Big Meadows area that includes campgrounds, a lodge, a wayside and the visitor center as well as several trailheads. We stamped our National Park passports, explored the exhibits, watched a video on the creation of the Park, ate a hurried lunch at one of the windy picnic tables and then finished our Jr. Ranger activity books, earning a badge for the effort. Having picked up a few postcards we then headed out again, with the goal of stopping at a few more scenic overlooks on the trip back south.
Lauris and Mikus had been very patient with all the sitting in carseats expected of them, but they also had their activity books and Track Trails brochures to work on, snacks to eat and backpacks full of books and toys. Vilis was less content with the segments spent driving, and frequent stops would have been required even if the scenery hadn’t been as alluring. Luckily we had plenty of options of places to stop and stretch, photograph the scenic autumn vistas and inspect interesting rocks and leaves.
There are four points of access to the Park, the north and south entrances, Thornton Gap Entrance (MP 31.5) and Swift Run Gap Entrance at MP 62.7 We debated exiting at Swift Gap and taking an alternate route back to Charlottesville, but eventually the pull of Skyline won out. It was meant to be, because although it tacked on some additional time in the car, we would not have seen one of the highlights of trip had it not been for this decision. In my experience cars stopping in the middle of the road and people gawking at the woods means one of two things; an accident, or a wild animal. Luckily it was one of the resident black bears of Shenandoah foraging for its dinner that caused our backup.* In addition to the estimated 300-500 bears, the Park is also home to white-tailed deer, bald eagles, coyotes and timber rattlesnakes among dozens of other animals.
There was a steady flow of cars headed out of the park, but the parking areas and overlooks were still full of visitors enjoying the last hours of sunlight on the slopes. The twilight made the mountains glow, the effect invigorating yet completely eluding capture on film – a good reminder to put the camera down and live in the moment, to enjoy the scene without a filter. All in all it was a memorable day in Shenandoah; the combination of crisp fall weather, the brilliant leaf colors, a unique hike and finally a bear sighting for the boys captured the essence of autumn in the Blue Ridge.
* The picture of the black bear was taken from the safety of our vehicle. I do not condone nor encourage stopping in the roadway, parking on roadsides or approaching wildlife, all of which are dangerous to you, the animals and others utilizing the road. Please do not approach wild animals and do not feed them - let them remain wild.