Escape to nearby Blue Ridge mountains

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Glenda C. Booth

Trees turn crimson and gold in Shenandoah National Park’s autumnal show of color. The 300-square-mile park is one of the few large national parks on the East Coast and only a 90-minute drive from the Washington area.
© Cecouchman | Dreamstime.com

We crouched down on our knees to study a thumbnail-sized, shiny green pendant dangling precariously by a silky thread from a three-inch-wide cement edge of one of the visitor center’s brick support columns.

It was the chrysalis, or pupal stage, of the monarch butterfly, the ranger explained, transitioning from larva to adult — a tiny miraculous marvel of nature in a 300-square-mile national park known for its broad vistas, dense forests of tall trees, bulging granite boulders, plunging waterfalls and soaring peaks.

The “bigness” of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park (SNP) is what typically gets people’s attention. But probing more deeply unveils much more. It’s the granular and the grand, the minute and the magnificent, for it is a park rich in diversity and eye-opening adventures, mini, mega and in between.

A park with a view

From atop the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains at 3,000-plus feet, a vast panorama of layered rolling mountains unfolds, fading from the foreground's lush green to a wispy bluish-gray and punctuated by multiple peaks shimmering through a gauzy haze across the horizon as far as the eye can see.

Trees nod and leaves softly rustle. The wind whispers as tufted titmice tweet and hop from limb to limb, as a crow caw-caw-caws in the distance. The serenity is mesmerizing.

Naturalist John Muir wrote, “Wilderness is a necessity.” Shenandoah National Park is a place to get your wilderness "fix" just 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Over a million people visit every year, one of the few big national parks in the East, and seniors are the number one population demographic, say park managers, but they quickly add, "There's something for everyone."

In addition to nature, visitors can get a slice of the South. A greeter at the Skyland Lodge restaurant drawled, “Y’all ok? I’ll be with ya’ll in a few minutes.” Groups like the Possum Ridge String Band and Shenandoah Valley Cloggers perform in the lodges.

Dishes like rainbow trout, roasted turkey, fried chicken and braised Smithfield pork shank jump off the menus, not to mention the not-to-be-missed blackberry ice cream pie, SNP’s signature dessert. You can start the day with the Southern Sampler breakfast: sausage gravy, buttermilk biscuits, buttermilk hotcakes and grits. At breakfast, the waiter bragged, "Our sausage gravy is just like my grandma makes.”


Hikers can take a steep 1.7-mile roundtrip trail to view the 70-foot Dark Hollow Falls near the Byrd Visitor Center at Shenandoah National Park. The park includes more than 500 miles of hiking trails.
© Svecchiotti | Dreamstime.com

Getting oriented

Shenandoah National Park, sprawling across Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, harbors rich forests, sparkling waterfalls, craggy peaks, inviting hiking trails and imposing rock formations. The Skyline Drive, with 75 overlooks, splices along the park’s spine for 105 miles and joins the Blue Ridge Parkway, which goes another 469 miles to Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.

Mileposts are numbered north to south starting at zero at the Front Royal entrance and ending with Rockfish Gap at the southernmost end (milepost 105). The 1 billion-year-old Appalachian Mountains, of which the Blue Ridge Mountains are a part, are one of the oldest ranges in the world.

German physician John Lederer met long-established Native Americans in what is now Shenandoah National Park in 1639, and more Europeans came in the 18th century. Created as a national park by Congress in 1935 to provide a traditional western national park experience in the East, it's one of the few big national parks east of the Mississippi. The Civilian Conservation Corps built recreational facilities, guard walls and trails during the Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1936.

The park has around 1,100 flowering plants, 100 species of trees, 300 animals and 200 birds. Waterfalls spill down the mountainsides. Hikers delight in over 500 miles hiking trails, including the Maine-to-Georgia Appalachian Trail, a 2,176-mile ribbon through 14 states.

Visitors can get glimpses of deer, bobcats, raccoons and foxes, for example. Families of wild turkeys waddle into the woods. Park managers estimate that there are several thousand deer and 300 to 500 bears. The really lucky might see the federally-endangered Shenandoah salamander which has only been observed on three mountain tops in Shenandoah National Park and nowhere else in the world.

Geology buffs can examine the nuances of sharp ridges and rocky outcrops of granite, sandstone, quartzite, phyllite, basalt and grandiorite. Two peaks, Hawks Bill and Stony Man, soar above 4,000 feet. Old Rag, 3,291 feet, is the most popular and most dangerous hike.

The mountains are known for the ever-present bluish-gray haze, hence the chain’s name. Sadly, 80 percent of the haze is pollution from the industrial and traffic fumes drifting in from nearby and afar. Visibility has decreased 50 percent in the last 50 years thanks to human activity. At night, the lights of towns below make the valleys twinkle.

Fog too can shroud the mountains, and while fog may blur long-distance vistas, the fog provides a softly comforting, almost surreal atmosphere and opportunity to observe things up close like butterflies nectaring on blossoms, insects probing dewy flowers and thistles releasing their seeds, amid a chorus of chirping chickadees.

Four-season serenity

"People have been coming here for 100 years to escape the heat of the city and experience things they cannot see in the city,” explained Lorrie Knies, supervisory interpretative ranger. "It's close and quieter, slower, a way to get away from the city."

Quietly imbibing the peace and beauty are plenty for many people. Some folks like ranger programs. Active types may plunge into the wilderness, gear and meals in tow. Others enjoy a slow, winding drive along the mountaintop, stopping at overlooks.

The best time to go? “It depends,” says Knies. There’s something for everybody every season, she maintains.

Fall foliage astounds all when the park’s blazes with orange-red-yellow hues. Warblers and monarch butterflies migrate through. It is the busiest season and quieter on weekdays than on weekends.

Spring climbs up the mountains 100 feet a day starting in March, say rangers. The park sparkles with rushing streams, waterfalls, vernal pools and plants like trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit, mountain laurel, rhododendrons, dogwoods, azaleas and lady slippers.

Summer is cooler on the mountain tops than down below. Fawns and bear cubs start exploring and streams murmur. Baby birds fledge.

Winter offers quiet, crisper air and clearer views. Foxes and bobcats become more active.

The Byrd Visitor Center’s (milepost 51) exhibits outline the park’s history. Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (milepost 4.6) exhibits explore nature.

Around 500 miles of easy-to-strenuous hiking trails get people into the woods. Trails range from short walks to a 101-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail. Over 95 percent of the park is forest, but the 130-acre, treeless Big Meadows has vernal pools and at times an explosion of small critters, a “supermarket for insect-eating birds,” one ranger said. Barn swallows dart around snagging gnats midair.

Ranger programs, especially in summer, include basket-making, cooking demos, hikes, campfire talks, raptor demonstrations. They take visitors on walks to some of the more than 100 cemeteries in the park, some with small plots, others with up to 100 gravesites.

Rangers lead a 30-minute bus ride to Rapidan Camp, President Herbert Hoover’s restored, rustic retreat, about which Hoover said, “This is just what I want — a camp of retreat, far removed from the city environ and the confines of the White House.”

Conservation advocate Sigurd Olson, explained the lure of the wilderness in 1946: “Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”

If you go

The park’s two lodges are in the central part of the park between U.S. 211 at Thornton Gap (milepost 31.5) and U.S. 33 at Swift Run Gap (milepost 65.7). Both have comfortable rooms.

Big Meadows Lodge (milepost 51.2), a stone and timber structure with a chestnut interior, offers rooms and cabins, a dining room and a great room with expansive views of the valley. Skyland Lodge (milepost 41.7), at the park’s highest point, 3,680 feet, has a dining room, lodge, motel-type rooms and rustic cabins.

There are also some back-to-nature cabins (some without water) and trailside huts. Campgrounds offer both first-come, first-served and reservable sites. Study the facilities’ details carefully before reserving.

The park has four entrances: Front Royal, on U.S. 340 near Interstates 81 and 66; Thornton Gap, on U.S. 211; Swift Run Gap, on U.S. 33; and Rockfish Gap, at Interstate 64 and U.S. 25.

A vehicle is a must. Amtrak serves Charlottesville and Greyhound serves Waynesboro, towns that have car rental companies. Gas stations inside the park are open only from spring through fall.

Park managers recommend lodging and camping reservations well in advance, especially for fall visits. In winter, only a few facilities are open.

For more information, see the National Park Service’s brochure on SNP at www.nps.gov/shen. Lodging reservations can be made at www.goshenandoah.comor by calling 1-877-847-1919 Campground reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov or 1-877-444-6777.

Glenda C. Booth is an Alexandria, Va.-based freelance writer