It has been written that a visit to one of our country’s national parks is in a sense a journey home. For me nothing can be closer o this axiom than making the over 400 mile drive from northern New Jersey to the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. This linear national park straddles the Blue Ridge range for 105 miles beginning at Front Royal from the north and ending at Rock Fish Gap near Waynesboro.
My most recent visit to the park, or should I say homecoming, happened in early May, 2012 and marked the sixth time that I’ve ventured to the “valley of the stars”– this being a possible Native American translation for the park’s namesake.
Every previous visit to this park has been an adventure.
Whether it’s driving ever so slowly and cautiously on Skyline Drive through fog so thick you can, well you know, or literally almost tripping over a bear on the Appalachian Trail while he was doing his business in the woods (this encounter took place in 2005 along the trail at Compton Peak, mile 10 off the drive) even sleeping in the car during a torrential all night down pour at the Big Meadows Campground, each visit serves up a cornucopia of unique life enriching experiences.
Skyline Drive is the predominant feature of this park. The roadway along with its numerous overlooks offers grand awe inspiring views of the Shenandoah Valley looking west and the Virginia Piedmont looking east.
On our most recent arrival the drive was “socked in” with fog. Kathy and I entered the park from Luray on Route 211, also known as the Lee Highway. We circumnavigated the fog from the Thorton Gap Entrance Station until we arrived at the Skylands Resort located at mile 42 on the drive.
After proceeding a distance of about 10 miles we both breathed a sigh of relief after not meeting by accident either bear or deer via way of car windshield.
I visit Shenandoah National Park for numerous reasons. A real big one is to meander among and photograph wildflowers, a “cast of thousands” that are located within the park. These little miracles – Bluets, Golden Ragwort, Trilliums, Wild Geranium, Golden Alexsander, Wood Anemone for starters, adorn roadside, meadow, and trail in April and May.
Armed with camera and guide, I set out to attempt to identify as many of these beauties as possible, perhaps correctly naming 30 out of the hundreds that I saw. There are more than 800 species of wildflowers that exist in the park.
I visit Shenandoah National Park to hike and to bike and to hike… or just ramble in an Appalachian forest.
I visit because there is an opportunity to hear (but not always see) more birds in a given minute than I’ll hear all year elsewhere. OK, perhaps that is a slight exaggeration but to hear the screech of a Peregrine Falcon, or catch sight of a regal looking Rose Breasted Grosbeak within the same day is a real treat for anyone who admires all things winged.
I visit for the waterfalls, for those downhill hikes to the cascading waters of White Oak Canyon Falls, the second highest waterfall in the park, or to Rose River, Lewis, or Dark Hollow Falls.
A hike to the White Oak Canyon Falls afforded me an opportunity to pass large granite like boulders, part of the Cacoctin Greenstone, one of the primary rock formations in the park, located near the base of the falls.
The cascading water emanating from these ancient rocks yielded some special moments in the mist, a chance to take a breather from the huffing and puffing that would no doubt come from the ascend back up the extremely steep trail.
Any waterfall hike undertaken in Shenandoah National Park begins by going downhill.
As for hiking uphill, a trek on the 1.6 mile Meadow Spring Trail at the mile post 33.5 brought by happy accident I’m sure, a genuine opportunity to take several photographs of a swallowtail butterfly which seemingly posed for me as it rested on a leaf of some unnamed plant along the path.
The trail, although short, is quite steep and quickly leads to an intersection with the Appalachian Trail. A short walk south along the trail here brings you to sweeping western views of the Shenandoah Valley, Massanutten Mountain and the Alleghenies off into the far distance.
Wildflowers along this trail included numerous wild geraniums and bluets.
Other views and vistas beckon and should not be missed. No trip to Shenandoah is complete without a ramble to the top of the two highest mountains in the park.
Hawksbill Mountain is first at an elevation of 4050 feet while Stony Man comes in next at an elevation of 4010.
The views from the top of both of these summits are stupendous and quite unforgettable.
From Hawksbill looking west on a clear day one can see as far as West Virginia while turning east provides a sweeping view of Old Rag Mountain.
From Stony Man one is presented with views of Skyline Drive, the town of Luray, Mansanutten Mountain, and from far off, the Alleghenies and West Virginia.
Farm fields, mountain ridges, clouds, piedmont and valley, all can be enjoyed from these and many other summits in the park.
Still another point of attraction to Shenandoah National Park and the greater Blue Ridge Mountains as well, is the chance to experience the music that is indigenous to the region.
Any opportunity to see and hear the local folk perform (and both the Big Meadow Lodge and the Skylands Resort Mountain Room offer live music every night of the week for most of the year) should not be missed.
Whether it is bluegrass, old time fiddle music or contemporary folk and rock, the sounds you will hear on any given night are rooted in the deep traditions of the Appalachian Mountains..
And this is music that crossed the Atlantic Ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries from England, Scotland, Ireland and Whales..
What started as ballads and dance music would develop into bluegrass and country music. But the roots can still be heard in the songs performed by such local groups as the Possum Ridge String Band and the High Ground Bluegrass Band.
Possum Ridge offers songs of the 18th Century and breathes new life into such traditional tunes as “Boatman”, “Gary Owen’s Jig” and “Over the Waterfall.”
High Ground on the other hand explores the bluegrass spectrum but can also do justice to the “Soldier’s Joy” a song that has roots in Ireland and was popular during the Civil War.
Yes there is something magical in these mountains. Mark T, a local performer believes this to be true.
“There is something special… something old and spiritual, that you find here,” he told his audience in the Skylands Mountain Room one recent evening.
And there is also something very special about the road that helps to define the park, Skyline Drive. For 105 miles the 35 mile per hour roadway has numerous twists, turns, plus 75 scenic overlooks that offer up jaw dropping views of pastoral scenes and mountain dreams - places to picnic, photograph, meditate, or go for a short walk or longer hike.
From the Beahm’s Gap parking area, located in the northern section of the park, I took a short, invigorating ramble through an area that the guidebook Short Hikes in Shenandoah National Park describes as offering up, “a true taste of the Shenandoah forest.”
Bacon Hollow, Eaton Hollow, Jewell Hollow, Gooney Run and Thornton Gap are among the many places where you can stop for either five minutes or five hours.
For 101 of those 105 miles the Appalachian Trail (AT) parallels the drive offering up scores of opportunities to access this more than 2000-mile path that begins in Georgia and ends in Maine.
According to the new handbook for Shenandoah National Park significant time can be devoted to traversing the AT in the Park.
“Serious backcountry enthusiasts and thru hikers of the AT can spend days or week on the Shenandoah section of the trail.”
The handbook goes on to state, that those who have less time, “might seek something less rigorous… they can easily access an AT trailhead from the drive and embark on day hikes ranging from a few minutes to 12 hour excursions.”
All of these reasons to want to return to this special place again and again and I could certainly go on. A cap that I purchased at the Skylands gift shop during my most recent visit provides a convincing (for me anyway) sound bite and answer for those who might question my desire to return to this venerable piece of real estate.