May 14, 2016

Shenandoah National Park - Waypoints and Wildlife (Apr. 2016, VA)



Shenandoah National Park
Virginia

April 15-17, 2016
Start of Skyline Drive: 38.906467, -78.199704
End of Skyline Drive: 38.033902, -78.859108
Entered at Front Royal, VA; Exited at Waynesboro, VA
Sunny weather through the whole trip.
All photos made on my OnePlus One phone

Note: This is a summary post of my recent trip to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I expand on some of the topics in here in other posts. The links are provided throughout.

After weeks of planning (and daydreaming), my buddy Templeton and I finally took our adventure to Shenandoah National Park in mid-April. The whole trip to the Shenandoah valley was set up by my travel to DC for a work conference. Given that spring was starting to green everything up, it was a perfect opportunity to catch some camping and hiking at a national park on my jaunt to the east coast.


Skyline Drive Panorama View

The amounts of rain that most of the eastern U.S. (and Chicago) had seen over the previous two months kept us in rain mode. For far too many times, we both had been stuck in rainy situations with less-than-ideal preparation. Now adult versions of our Eagle Scout selves with many weekends worth of soggy clothes in our memories, we were ready for the worst of storms. However, the weather ended up turning beautiful, which set the stage for my prelude hikes in D.C. the days before our trip to Western Virginia. We were ready for some mountains, but I don't think we were truly aware of the suprising views that the park offers its visitors. It was nothing but sun! However, the tops of the Blue Ridge get chilly at night. As such, we weren't in the clear for shorts and t-shirts the whole way through.

It cost us $25 for a 7-day car pass. Had we entered one day later, our admission would have been free in honor of National Parks Week to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. Oh well, we wanted the extra camping day. We entered on the north end of the park at Front Royal and stayed Friday thru Sunday. I'll cover the highlights here, but click on links throughout the article to be taken to additional articles that expand on some of these topics. There's just too much about Shenandoah to cover in one post!

We only had two days, so we tried to get as much as possible in. There's too much to do, but we got the essential experiences: driving, hiking, camping, wildlife, wildflowers, overlooks, and landmarks. Reflecting now, I feel like I got everything I should out of a first trip to the park. However, I believe some measure of a park should be how much it draws you back. If that's the case, this park has highest marks, as I want to learn it much better than my two-day speed date afforded me. We crammed a lot into two days!

Skyline drive

Shenandoah is defined by its signature Skyline Drive that rides the tops of the many Blue Ridge peaks. We drove the 105 miles of rock-wall-lined highway to see the ups and downs of each peak.

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I read that the rock walls were built in the 30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was fascinating to see that all the beautiful stonework was still pristine along the entire stretch of the park.

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The drive has over 50 overlooks, each giving us unique expansive views of the valley on both sides of the ridgeline.

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In addition, almost every gap, peak, and river run in the park has an associated hike that you can do. I'm sure we passed over a hundred trailheads on our drive, making it impossible to catch them all in one weekend. A later read of the map confirmed our hunch...a network of seemingly endless trails stretches its fingers along the edges and through the ravines next to the drive. Lots of opportunities here to get to know this park, which would take a lifetime.

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Landmarks

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, the welcome mat to the park.
This is the first visitor center we saw as we came in from the north. Guides are there to answer questions and a gift shop offers mementos and snacks. We asked about camping and were given directions to find our place to sleep for the night.

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Big Meadows Visitor Center.
By the time we got to Big Meadows on Friday, the center had already closed. We visited the next day and grabbed lunch before our afternoon of hiking. The visitor center at Big Meadows has a gift shop, camping store, and full restaurant. It is less than a mile walk/drive from the Big Meadows Campground and has a gas station for mid-point refueling.

A bronze CCC worker guards the front of the Big Meadows Visitor Center.

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Mary's Rock.
Mary's Rock is a climbable peak close to the center of Skyline Drive. The mountain is memorable because it's the only tunnel on the drive. An interpretive board is close to the entrance next to the tunnel.

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Stony Man Mountain.
Look at the mountain to the west and behold an old man's visage gazes out to the valley. Signs clearly indicate the Stony Man Mountain viewpoint from the Drive. We stopped at an overlook to visit the Stony Man.

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Rapidan Camp.
Before there was a Camp David, there was Rapidan Camp. President Hoover used Rapidan Camp to escape for some fly fishing. Streams run through this whole area near Big Meadows with many falls and water running out of the sides of the mountains.

We didn't make it all the way to Rapidan Camp, but we did hike a significant portion of the Rapidan Fire Road, which came close to Rapidan Camp. It would have been a nice site to see, but was out of our way based on our planned route.

Appalachian Trail.
The AT spans along the entire park, almost entirely hugging Skyline Drive. Many of the park's hiking trails intersect or run parallel to the AT at various times. The trail is silver blazed and has AT markers throughout. We found ourselves on only about a mile of the AT toward the end of our hiking day, and seemed to choose a part that was almost entirely vertical gain. Luckily, it was at the end of our hike, so we were ready for some dinner after the workout.

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The views, though, from the AT were breathtaking. They make for some really overwhelming points of reflection. You can take in the whole world from this trail. I would love to hike the AT portion that runs through Shenandoah some day. In anticipation of this likely years-off goal, I picked up some trail maps of the Shenandoah area produced by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club

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And of course, we had to stop at Jeremy's Run.

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Jeremy's Run was just a river that ran in a ravine between two mountains. There was a trail, but it was steep and we wanted to drive more.

Camping

There are many campgrounds throughout the park. Many are only seasonal, and we had yet to reach peak season. We ended up choosing Big Meadows on a hunch, and we were pleasantly satisfied with our choice. The campground was large and had a small store and amenities available to campers. The campground became completely full on Saturday, likely due to free admission to the park for National Park Week. It's good we got there a day earlier than everyone else to stake out a good spot.

Read more about our camping experience here (link to come soon) »

The Appalachian Trail sidelines the campground and serves as a nice stop for Shenandoah AT hikers.

Cool Stuff

Many of the trees hadn't yet leaved. Outstretched branches loomed over the entirety of the park, just waiting for a few degrees warmer weather to break out the green.

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The wildflowers had yet to really come out, but we saw some first signs of spring during our day of hiking on Saturday.

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We encountered a hemlock graveyard on the drive. Tall, dead hemlock remain as a reminder of how a single intruder in an ecosystem can devastate an entire species. In this case, it was the woolly adelgid which destroys hemlock en masse. An interpretive board gave us some background as we reflected on this monument to the destructive power of invasive species.

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We saw some wildlife too. I had never seen a ruffed grouse before. I was greeted by what I called a "forest chicken" as we did our day of hiking in the park. My photos don't do it justice as I shot it from the phone, but you can see its tail feathers spread out as it strutted like a chicken.

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A group of hawks soared above the valley, specks of dark in the blue sky.

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Also surprising, but exciting (but shouldn't be as they were coming out of hibernation) was our encounter with a black bear looking for berries along Skyline Drive. We and he stopped simultaneously and watched each other for a while. It jumped up on the wall and walked along it for a while, before hopping down and running down the mountain's grade on the other side.

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It shouldn't be any surprise, though, for this is bear country!

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The park is a deer haven. Being a natural nursery as hunting is largely prohibited throughout the park, the deer get within inches of visitors without a care in the world. Their only concern is the next blade of grass they want to munch on as they go about grazing. We saw multiple deer in groups along the drive to the point they were more numerous than the number of people we saw on the drive.

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A defunct interpretive board has been repurposed to remind us of the beauty of the land. Take in every glimpse, look out every overlook. This place is magical.

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Extras

Photo albums

Note: The image below is a Flickr photo album. Hover over or tap to get slideshow controls
Shenandoah National Park - Waypoints and Wildlife (VA)

Stamps

You can get National Park Passport stamps from the Dickey Ridge and Big Meadows visitor centers.

Appalachian Trail Passport StampShenandoah National Park Centennial Passport StampShenandoah National Park - Big Meadows Passport Stamp
Shenandoah National Park - Dickey Ridge Passport StampShenandoah National Park Wilderness Passport Stamp

Patches

The gift shops had some patches for the park and its wilderness, as well as the AT and the VA AT segment.

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