Monday, October 12, 2015

Shenandoah National Park

Virginia's Shenandoah National Park is always open. It encompasses 197,442 acres of land, 40%  of which (80,000 acres) is designated as wilderness area. The only public road through the park is Skyline Drive which runs north and south through the entire park along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sections of the road may be periodically closed during inclement weather and at night during deer hunting season, but visitors can generally still enter the park on foot to hike even when the Drive is closed. Although Shenandoah National Park was authorized by Congress on May 22, 1926, it wasn't established until December 26, 1935. The park was officially dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 3, 1936.

In the 1930s, over 400 families lived within the boundaries of what is now Shenandoah National Park. Some families moved out on their own and others moved into homes in the resettlement communities set up by Rural Resettlement Administration. These homes, in several areas near the park, could be bought with no down payment and a low-interest mortgage. Several older individuals were allowed to live out their lives in their home within the park.

The park was named after the Shenandoah River which flows through the Shenandoah Valley located just west of the park. Many versions exist as to what the word "Shenandoah" means, including: "daughter of the stars," "silver water," "river through the spruces," "river of high mountains," "great meadow." and "big flat place." It could also be named for the fallen chief Sherando or for a tribe called the Senedoes who lived in the valley until 1730.

There are two visitor centers in the park, Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at mile 4.7, and Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center at milepost 51. To live-view the marvelous scenery, go to the park service's webcam here.

The highest point on the Skyline Drive is 3,680 feet at mile 41.7, at the northern entrance to Skyland Resort. The highest point in the park, accessible by a moderate hike, is the summit of Hawksbill mountain at 4,050 feet. The top of Stony Man mountain, a fairly easy hike, is 4,010 feet.

The maximum speed limit throughout the park is 35 miles per hour. Speed limits are reduced in developed areas such as campgrounds and picnic grounds.

The park purposely leaves the roadsides unmowed so wildflowers put on a show all year long. In early spring you can see trillium peeking through the grass. June's display of azaleas is spectacular, and cardinal flower, black-eyed susans, and goldenrod keep the color coming right into fall. Deer, black bear, wild turkey, and a host of other woodland animals call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels. Watch carefully for these animals may dart across your path without warning.

Several hundred black bears live in Shenandoah National Park. When visiting the park, you may spot a bear virtually anywhere while hiking, camping, on a nature walk, or simply walking between your car and a lodge or restaurant. The opportunity to see a bear in the wild is the highlight of many park trips, a highlight I did not get to witness and enjoy.

Fall color change generally seems to be most brilliant around the 2nd to 3rd weeks of October, though this does vary. Over the last several years, many park trees were still showing off their fall foliage well into November. The color change does not happen all at once, as trees at the higher elevations change first, and then the change moves slowly down the mountain.

Most people need at least 3 to 4 hours to simply drive through, but give yourself more time if you avail yourself of any of the hiking trails or stop at some of the 75 overlooks that offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was a part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New-Deal program, and from 1933 to 1942, thousands of young men lived and worked in CCC camps in and adjacent to the park. They built rock walls, trails, fire roads, log structures, scenic overlooks, and more, and also planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs and are responsible for much of what visitors to Shenandoah see today. In fact, even though it’s native to these mountains, much of the beautiful mountain laurel you see blooming along Skyline Drive in June was planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. My photos were taken in March so I'm sorry, but no flora shots.

110 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail pass through the park, and Skyline Drive actually crosses the trail over 30 times as they both meander through the park. It is said that through-hikers are more likely to spot wildlife on this trail section within Shenandoah than anywhere else along the approximately 2200 mile trail. Below is a photo of one of those crossings where I managed to get a photo of the trail and an AT marker post. Shenandoah offers over 400 miles of hiking trails in addition to the Appalachian Trail, ranging from short, easy walks to long, rugged rock scrambles.

There are a number of waterfalls in the park, though none are visible from Skyline Drive. The shortest hike to a waterfall is 1.4 miles roundtrip to Dark Hollow Falls near milepost 51. It's a very popular hike that is steep and rocky in places. Hogcamp Branch, the source of the waterfall in Dark Hollow, parallels the trail the entire way. The waterfall itself is a series of frothing cascades, glistening in the sunlight which filters through the trees. It is well worth the roundtrip trek of 1.4 miles, as long as you can take the return climb.

Wildflowers comprise 862 species, or greater than half of the 1406 vascular plant species found in Shenandoah National park. Almost 20% of these species are in the aster family. The next most abundant wildflower plant families are the pea, lily, mint, and mustard families. The rich diversity of wildflowers in the park is particularly evident in spring at the lower elevations. Later in the season, the banks of Skyline Drive and the Big Meadows area are great places to see summer and fall wildflowers. More info on the park's wildflowers an be found here. Here's a photo of the Bloodroot.

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