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Travel: Shenandoah National Park Offers Something for Everyone

Randi Walle Randi Walle Travel: Shenandoah National Park Offers Something for EveryoneShenandoah National Park - All photos by Randi Walle
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Virginia is home to one of 11 National Parks east of the Mississippi River. Located along the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park has nearly 200,000 acres of protected forest, waterfalls, streams, rocky peaks, and wildlife. The park is about a six-hour drive from Columbus and offers attractions for everyone from a casual day-hiker to an Appalachian Trail trekker to a sightseeing road-tripper.

People lived in the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains for hundreds of years before the National Park Service even existed. Families farmed and established homesteads throughout the region. In some areas, entire communities were formed with schools, churches, stores, and post offices.

People in the surrounding areas started to realize all the mountains had to offer, and a few resorts were built, notably the Skyland Resort in 1888 which still exists today. The resort was built at the highest point in the park with an elevation of 3,680 feet.

As popularity of National Parks grew in the West, tourists were calling for the area to be turned into a National Park. Scholars and sociologists studied the area and the mountain-dwelling families and made reports that negatively portrayed the residents and ultimately swayed the decision in displacing locals to establish the park. Several hard decades of planning and negotiating later, Shenandoah National Park was officially established in 1935.

Much of the park was built with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a depression-era volunteer group of unemployed and unmarried young men. The “CCC Boys” laid roads, cleared trails, built comfort stations, and constructed walls. They are largely credited with the majority of Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that traverses the entirety of the park. The road starts in the northernmost entrance in Front Royal and travels south past two other entrance points and ends at the southernmost point in Rockfish Gap. Straight through, the drive takes about three hours. However, there are over 75 overlooks and vistas where motorists can stop off for a view of the valley and surrounding mountains. Many of these overlooks still have the original stone walls built by the CCC boys nearly a century ago. The eastern-facing overlooks provide an excellent view of the sunrise, specifically Tunnel Parking, Hazel Mountain, Meadow Spring, Pinnacles, Simmons Gap, and Loft Mountain.

A big part of what the CCC did in Shenandoah was eliminating evidence of prior habitation by dismantling houses, uprooting crops and orchards, and planting new vegetation. Because of their work, there is little sign left of the over 500 families who once dwelled in the area that were displaced during the formation of the park. In essence, many of the views we now see from the overlooks were once curated by the CCC and project planners.

Unfortunately, politics and tensions surrounding the park did not dissipate after its establishment. In fact, they grew worse as local, state, and federal governments disagreed on the idea of segregation within the park. Despite the federal government prohibiting segregation, Lewis Mountain was established as a separate area for all non-white visitors to picnic, camp, and hike. Maps, park literature, and signage depicted the separate areas and facilities. The park was repeatedly told not to distribute information indicating segregation, but they did anyway. After a decade-long political battle, the park was officially desegregated in 1950 by newly appointed officials.

Over the past few decades, archeologists, sociologists, and historians have studied the origins of the park and the people who once dwelled within its boundaries. Over 3,000 individual plots of land were acquired for the park. Stories have been recorded and books have been published that tell the experience of the mountain people who were displaced. Several of these books are available within the park’s giftshops, and more of the history is explained on the National Park Service’s website.

Despite its rocky beginning, Shenandoah National Park is a beloved, well-traveled park today with over a million visitors each year. Its close proximity to both the Midwest states and the East Coast states makes it a popular choice for both weekenders and experienced backpackers looking to enjoy a mountain getaway. The park is very family-friendly, and pets are permitted on most trails. There are lots of informational signs that depict the history of the park, including its original inhabitants, its role in the Civil War, and the wildlife that call the park home.

Within the park there are four campgrounds: Matthew’s Arm, Big Meadows, Lewis Mountain, and Loft Mountain, as well as a group campsite and several lodges and cabins. The parks also offer several primitive campsites for backpackers looking for a more secluded experience. One thing to note when visiting the park is that it is bear country. Black bears are very prevalent in the area and guests are instructed not to leave food out and to always be on the lookout for bears.

Sprinkled along Skyline Drive are a few “Waysides” that are part restaurant, part camp store, part gift shop; they are located at Elkwallow, Big Meadows, and Loft Mountain. Visitors will find everything from t-shirts to matches to bugspray to ice cream inside the waysides, and Big Meadows has a gas station for motorists to refill. Also available at the waysides are specialty wines, bottled exclusively for Shenandoah National Park by Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery, that use local Virginia grapes to capture the essence of visiting the park.

For hikers that want to venture past the scenic drive, Shenandoah offers dozens of trails where adventurers can immerse themselves in the nature of the park. Trails range from easy to hard (although most are moderate) and offer views of the ridgeline, waterfalls, streams, and the valley below. More trail info can be found on AllTrails.com, or in Top Trail’s book Shenandoah National Park by Johnny Molloy. Below are a few suggestions:

  • In the North region: the moderate 4.7 mile Sugarloaf Loop offers views of the ridgeline and streams; the moderate 3.2 mile Compton Peak offers a summit and views of the ridgeline; and the easy-moderate 4.3 mile Dickey Ridge offers a ridgeline view.
  • In the Central region: the moderate 5.2 mile Hazel Falls & Cave offers views of the ridgeline, streams, and a waterfall; the moderate 3.3 mile Lewis Springs Falls Loop offers a summit and views of the ridgeline, streams, and a waterfall; and the moderate 4.5 mile South River Falls Loop offers views of a stream and waterfall.
  • In the South region: the moderate 6.8 mile Furnace Mountain offers a summit and view of the ridgeline; and the moderate 3.2 mile Hightop offers a summit.

Shenandoah National Park offers something for everyone. Tourists looking for a scenic drive will appreciate the dozens of overlooks. The park is especially popular for motorcyclists who enjoy winding around the curves and bicyclists who enjoy the challenge of the hills. Those looking for an ideal picnic have lots of options from overlooks to meadows. Hikers will find challenging hikes, some even part of the Appalachian Trail, and casual walkers will find paths and easier trails that showcase the hundreds of varieties of wildflowers and trees. No matter if your goal is driving, hiking, biking, or sightseeing, Shenandoah will not disappoint.

For more information, visit the National Park Service website.

All photos by Randi Walle

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