Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is a very large wilderness-like area very near to one of the greatest concentrations of human population in the world. Rather than preserving a pristine wilderness, Shenandoah was created to preserve something like wilderness within reach of our nation's capital. Though sometimes disparaged as an artificial wilderness, designed for political reasons to shift some of the National Park Service's budget to the East, it does provide high-quality habitat for wild creatures, as well as providing a taste of wilderness for millions of Americans who might never be able to visit the arguably more grand national parks of the West.
I've visited Shenandoah during three very different phases of my life, and it was always a most welcome escape from urbanity. As a teenager, I went camping there with my father and my brothers. This was my first experience with mountains, with national parks, and with anything like wilderness on so vast a scale. A few years later, while attending college in Philadelphia, I was grateful to be able to take a few breaks from my first experience residing in a true city to go camping in this peaceful, seemingly unspoiled place. Still more years later, when I was in the Navy and stationed in Norfolk, I brought my wife and young children there a few times to introduce them to all that I loved about the mountains.
It has been many years since my last visit to Shenandoah National Park, but I still treasure many memories of the place.
Maybe I ought to hike up Hawksbill Mountain at least once more before I start to get old.
How to Get There
Shenandoah National Park is within a day's drive of almost anywhere on the U.S. East Coast, from New York to Atlanta to Indianapolis. From anywhere north of Virginia, go to Washington, DC first. From anywhere south of Virginia, head to Richmond. From the west, head toward Charleston, West Virginia.
If your route gives you a choice between Interstate 81 and Interstate 95, follow the more scenic and less congested 81.
From Washington, take Interstate 66 west toward Front Royal, Virginia, maybe an hour from the beltway (starting at the Falls Church corner of the beltway). As you approach Front Royal, you should see signs for the park via U.S. Route 340.
From Richmond, take Interstate 64 west past Charlottesville. Just about 15 miles west of there is the exit for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the park.
If you are northbound on Interstate 81, look for the place where Interstate 64 joins the road at about Lexington, Virginia. For a while, you'll be going both north on 81 and east on 64. When 64 splits off at Staunton, Virginia, follow it east toward Waynesboro, then follow the signs to the park at the Blue Ridge Parkway exit.
If you are southbound on Interstate 81, take Interstate 66 east from a point just south of Winchester, Virginia, toward Front Royal. There you'll see signs for the park via U.S. 340.
There are four main entrances to the park, and a few smaller ones. The north entrance is near Front Royal. Farther south is the Thornton Gap entrance between Luray and Sperryville on U.S. Route 211. Next south is the Swift Run Gap entrance between Elkton and Standardsville on U.S. Route 33. The south entrance, Rockfish Gap, is near Waynesboro on the Blue Ridge Parkway (which becomes Skyline Drive inside the park).
Access fees depend on how you get there (on foot or by vehicle), what time of year it is, etc., so check the U.S. Park Service Web site for the latest information. As of this writing, a private motor vehicle day pass costs $15.00 for the March-to-November season and slightly less during the off-season.
There are four main campgrounds within the park. Fees can change, so check the Web site. As of this writing, they range from $15.00 to $20.00 per night, depending on which campground. Reservations are available and recommended at most campgrounds. The campgrounds are closed in the winter, but the specific dates they open in spring range from late March through mid-May, and fall closing dates range from late October through late November. Backcountry camping requires a permit, which is available for free, but only on a first-come-first-served basis.
There are many cabins and lodges in the park for those who do not appreciate the splendor of a tent. Aramark, the main concessionaire also runs guided activities from horseback riding to rock climbing, and a very wide variety of other activities. Visit Aramark's Shenandoah Web site for information and to make reservations.
Terrain and Ecosystems
Shenandoah National Park is a recovered wilderness. When the park was first created, the land consisted of thousands of acres of farmland, orchards, and pasture, largely exhausted from a couple of centuries of poor agricultural practices, with a few pockets of nearly unspoiled forest. Some of the remaining natural areas were places that were reserved as natural recreation areas, either commercially operated or private estates of the wealthy (including Rapidan Camp, the "Summer White House" of President Herbert Hoover). A few were simply too steep for farming, grazing, or timbering, and were just left natural. Once the park was established, natural plants and animals radiated from these islands of wilderness to recolonize the park. This recolonization was aided by the efforts of the park service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, so that in only a few decades, the park returned to a semblance of its natural condition.
The park straddles the Blue Ridge, the easternmost of a series of long, nearly continuous, nearly uniform ridges that comprise the southern Appalachian Mountains. These mountains, among the oldest in the United States, are worn down to such a degree that they expose the geologic history of not one, but two complete cycles of mountain building and continental rifting with attendant volcanism and ocean formation. None of the mountains in Shenandoah are volcanoes, but most are folded layers of granite or basalt that cooled from lava that flowed in from rift eruptions farther east. Within the hollows of the Blue Ridge are sedimentary rocks from the ancient Iapetus Ocean, while the ridge itself consists mostly of the granite that cooled as the Iapetus Ocean was opening, or the basalt that flowed in upon the birth of today's Atlantic Ocean.
All of this rock is so thoroughly eroded that it is mostly covered in rich soil and supports dense forest. Here and there you can see bedrock, on some of the extremely steep cliffs and a few other outcrops. The steep, rocky cliffs, as I recall, are mostly those that face west.
Elevations in the park range from just over 500 feet to just over 4,000 feet. The park's situation in rather warm, southern latitudes and in the path of weather patterns flowing northeast from the Gulf of Mexico, results in a mild, humid climate. It can be stiflingly hot in the summer, and even the elevation provides little relief on the worst days. However, most of the time, it is pleasantly cooler than the sauna of the Tidewater region.
As I recall, the forests are mostly hardwoods, with some softwoods. I do not recall the pattern of distribution, as to whether the softwoods dominate in some areas, and what characterizes those areas. My memory is of hardwood forest, but I'm sure there were pines and firs as well. Despite the difference in elevation from my home in Delaware, the trees were almost all familiar - white oak, tulip poplar, American beech, sugar maple, pignut, sassafras and such - with only a few exotic-to-me mountain species like mountain holly, sweet birch, red spruce, and balsam fir.
These forests are home to the full menagerie of Eastern U.S. wildlife. Many of the animals have become accustomed to the National Park lifestyle, and are quite unafraid of humans. Whitetail deer will calmly browse and gather acorns within just a few yards of you. Smaller animals are more cautious, but still easy to observe. There are gray squirrels, striped skunks, opossums, and red foxes. Forest birds include an assortment of sparrows, finches, wrens, thrushes, and woodpeckers, the usual blue jays and crows, and a few species of hawks. Some that were strange to me at the time were the raven, the catbird, and the eastern bluebird.
Besides the forest, there are several meadows in Shenandoah National Park, most notably Big Meadows, near the middle of the park. This roughly circular clearing is aptly named, at about a half a mile in diameter. It is home to all manner of wildflowers that change with the seasons, and a waist-high jungle of blueberry bushes. Here you can observe a different population of animals and birds, including cottontail rabbits, groundhogs, mice and voles, pheasants, chimney swifts, and northern flickers. Though deer are not normally open-ground creatures elsewhere, you will see many of them in broad daylight in Big Meadows.
Many of the meadows, and most especially Big Meadows, provide habitat for threatened or endangered species of plants, some found nowhere else in the world. Because the natural succession of forest might obliterate these meadow plants, the National Park Service does a little artificial landscaping to keep the meadows open.
There are also some wetlands within the park, but I did not explore any of them in my visits. The same goes for the many small rivers and streams, though I did hike to some of the famous waterfalls.
This is a national park. All of the trails are very well marked and very well maintained. Quite a few are handicapped accessible, but some of the longer back-country trails are rather rugged. Some of the trails are designated for horseback riding. You are free to hike on these trails, and they are wide and not too rugged, but watch your step!
Also be aware that, being a national park, Shenandoah has some strict rules. Pets are not permitted on certain trails, so be sure to check in advance. And in all cases, stay on the trails!
Here are a few of the trails I remember hiking:
- Hawksbill Mountain. This highest peak in the park is easily accessible from a couple of trail heads along Skyline Drive. I always parked in the Upper Hawksbill Parking Area. From there, it's barely more than half a mile to the summit. The trail starts out as a typical wide, easy, national park trail, then after a quarter of a mile it joins a much wider, steeper trail that looks like an old road. This wider trail is part of the Appalachian Trail. And although it is steeper than the first trail, it is not at all difficult. The summit provides a broad view to the east, but somewhat restricted by tree cover to the west.
- Crescent Rock Overlook. Not a "trail" per se, but we often stopped there to enjoy the sweeping view to the west. We would walk a short way up or down the Appalachian Trail from there, just to look around.
- Franklin Cliffs Overlook. Again, not a "trail," but a nice place to hang out. If memory serves, this was a place where you can climb along the rock face and come to a tiny trickle of water that provided a cool splash on the face on a hot afternoon.
- Weddlewood Trail. This is a little loop through the woods, not a mile and a half around, that begins at the north end of the Matthew's Arm Campground and returns to the west end. Most of the trail is also a bridle path, and part of the return "trail" is actually a road. The trail is mostly level, but it does climb down to the valley of a small stream and back up again. It is a great way to tire out a troop of little kids after lunch. At a couple of points, the trail comes quite close to some steep cliffs, providing a vista of a deep valley to the north.
- Lewis Falls Trail. A three-mile loop from the Big Meadows Campground to see an impressive 80-foot waterfall. Somewhat long and steep for little ones, I never brought my kids here.
- Deadening Trail. I can't find this on the current maps, but as I recall, it was a rather educational self-guiding tour of how the natural ecosystem was recovering from heavy human use in the early 20th century. This might be the one that is now called the "Story of the Forest Trail." It was a two-mile loop from the Big Meadow Campground, quite easy and level, and paved for part of the way.
- Loft Mountain Campground. There was a loop of hiking trail all the way around the campground, part of which is actually part of the Appalachian Trail. This campground is situated on a wide, flat mountaintop that, at various points, affords beautiful views both east and west of the park. Great little afternoon walk with the kids.
Plants and Animals
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things I remember seeing there, and some of the more interesting things I saw there. It also mentions interesting things that I did not see, but that you might look for if you visit.
- Whitetailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Amazingly abundant and unafraid of people. You will never see wild deer so plentiful, and so well-fed looking, as at a national park.
- Black bears (Ursus americanus). They were uncommon when I visited Shenandoah in the early 1970s and 1980s, but I understand they are more plentiful now.
- Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). This is the only place where I've spent time in the mountains where gray squirrels were the most common squirrel. Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are present, but not common.
- Chipmunks (Tamias striatus). It just wouldn't be camping without chipmunks running all over the place, now would it?
- Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). Rather common in the meadows. Less common is the Appalachian cottontail (S. obscurus).
- Woodchuck (Marmota monax). Very common along the roadsides and meadows. You are almost certain to see a few of them grazing and romping in Big Meadow.
- Raccoon (Procyon lotor). You are nearly as certain of a raccoon or two visiting your camp at night as you are of chipmunks in the day.
- Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). They are plentiful, but shy. You may see one sneaking around your campsite in the night.
- Skunks. Striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are plentiful, and not at all shy. After raccoons and bears, these are the main reason to keep your campsite tidy and keep your food locked up. Spotted skunks (Spilogale putorius) are present, but not common. It is possible that the skunk that raised a ruckus under our camper was one of these, but it was more likely a striped skunk.
- Mice. Both deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and nearly identical white-footed mice (P. leucopus) might scurry around your campsite in the night. In the meadows in the daytime, you might come across a meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) or a southern red-backed vole (Clethrionomys gapperi). You might even be lucky enough to see a meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius), as I did twice.
- Bats. You will probably see both big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) and little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) around the campgrounds in the evening. There are other bats in the park, including the eastern pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus), but they are far less common.
NOTE: I must say, I believe Big Meadows is the best place I know to see upland songbirds. There are many, many birds, and many different species which are not commonly seen together in other places.
- Chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica). Almost always visible swooping over the meadows all summer long.
- Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). Like everywhere else in their range, you don't see them often, but when you do see them, they cover the berry patches in huge numbers for half an hour or so, then disappear again.
- Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). You can see them everywhere, both in the meadows (especially in the blackberry bushes) and in the forests.
- Finches. The American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis), indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), northern parula (Parula americana), and rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are very common in Shenandoah. Other finches found there include the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus), and evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus).
- Sparrows. The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia), chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), field sparrow (S. pusilla), white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) and others are very common both in the forests and in the meadows.
- Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Shenandoah National Park is the best place in the East to see hummingbirds, in my experience. They are actually common in the meadows.
- Broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus). The most common large-ish hawk in Shenandoah, often seen hunting over the meadows. Red-tailed hawks (B. jamaicensis) are also present, but less common. If the woodchucks disappear, check the sky for hawks.
- Accipiter hawks. Both Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) and sharp-shinned hawks (A. striatus) can be seen in the forests, and they're hard to tell apart without getting a pretty good look.
- Crows and ravens. The common crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is everywhere all the time. Ravens (C. corax) are more likely to be seen near the mountain peaks or soaring over the valleys.
- Vultures. Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are very common, and turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) only slightly less common.
- Wrens, including the common Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and the more rare house wren (Troglodytes aedon) and winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). These are commonly seen in the forests.
- Warblers. The chestnut-sided warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica) is common in the woodlands all year long. Others, such as the yellow warbler (D. petechia), magnolia warbler (D. magnolia), and pine warbler (D. pinus) and others are seen only in spring and fall as they migrate through the area.
- Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). Very common in the forests and around the higher roadside overlooks.
- Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis). Very common. Distinguished from the less common black-capped chickadee (P. atricapillus) by its lack of white fringes on its wing feathers, and a higher-pitched call. (Okay, they're nearly indistinguishable except on very rare occasions when you might see one of each species together. Once you see the difference, it's clear enough. I'd show you pictures, but I have this problem photographing chickadees.)
- Thrushes. Many species are very common in the forest, including the veery (Catharus fuscescens), wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), the ever-present American robin (Turdus migratorius), and the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis).
- Woodpeckers. The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) can be seen both in the meadows and on the forest floor. The most common typical tree-feeding woodpeckers are the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) and the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Others, such as the hairy woodpecker (P. villosus) and the red-headed woodpecker (M. erythrocephalus), are harder to find.
- Owls. Both the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and the barred owl (Strix varia) are often heard in the evening. Others are present but more rare.
- Salamanders. I never saw one, but there is a species, the Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah), which is found nowhere else in the world. I certainly wouldn't recommend disturbing this endangered species, but if you do see one, you can tell it from the closely related eastern red-backed salamander (P. cinereus) by the lack of mottling on the belly, and the somewhat narrower stripe on the back. (Of course, both species have both a striped phase and an unstriped dark phase, and the width of the stripe doesn't help much in the dark individuals.)
- Pickerel frog (Rana palustris). Often seen in the meadows, jumping out of your way as you walk through the grass.
- American toad (Bufo americanus). Common in the forest, less so in the meadows except during breeding season.
- Goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia). Plentiful in Shenandoah in late summer and fall, as common as the goldenrod itself.
- Eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus). As the name suggests, you'll often see them sunning themselves on fences in the campgrounds. When they can't find a fence, they'll pick a sunny bush.
- Small harmless snakes. Look carefully in the leaf litter, and you may see a ringnecked snake (Diadophis punctatus) or a red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata). Larger, and somewhat easier to see, are the rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta) and the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).
- Venomous snakes. While not seen very often, both copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) and timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) are present in the park. You won't stumble on one if you stay on the trails. Count yourself lucky to see one.
- Oaks. White oak (Quercus alba) and red oak (Q. rubra) are probably the most common trees in most of the park, but no species is quite dominant.
- Pignut hickory (Carya glabra). Also very common everywhere.
- Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). Also very common.
- American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Dominant in some places, as I recall. Perhaps the most common tree within the Big Meadows Campground and near the peak of Hawksbill Mountain.
- Pines. As I recall, the most common pine was the white pine (Pinus strobus), but I'm pretty sure there were others as well.
- Balsam fir (Abies balsamea). My best recollection is that these tend to be more common in shaded valleys, such as near the waterfalls.
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Often seen around the fringes of meadows and along the roadsides.
- Apple (Malus pumila). Apples are not native to Shenandoah, but they remain to mark the old homesteads, forcibly abandoned less than a century ago.
- Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). This seemed to be a favorite with landscapers as the park was being built, as it is just everywhere along the Skyline Drive. Must be a sight to see when it blooms in spring, but all my visits to Shenandoah were in late summer.
- Flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). After Norfolk's famous Azalea Gardens, it was a treat to see the plant in its natural form.
- Pasture rose (Rosa carolina). Rather common in the meadows and along the roadsides.
- Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Abundant along the roadsides and in meadows where it is not shaded by the berry bushes.
- Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Blankets the meadows in late summer.
- Daisy fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus). Found along the edges of forests and in small clearings, it is not so common in the large meadows.
- White wood aster (Aster divaricatus). Grows in the woods where just a bit of sunlight reaches the forest floor, but not in the meadows.
- Woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus). Along forest edges, but rare in the meadows.
- Low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum). All over Big Meadows. Things may have changed, but when I was in Shenandoah, picking berries was permitted, but only if you ate them on site. No bringing them back to camp with you. This is a different species from the ones I've come to know here in New Hampshire (V. angustifolium). The berries are similar, but the bushes in the White Mountains are very low to the ground, while the ones in Shenandoah are about waist-high.
- Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Very common climbing the trees in the forest.
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