The Blue Ridge Mountains are in some ways a reflection of the hardscrabble people who have always called them home, ranging from early Native American tribes to Scotch-Irish settlers to the mountain men and women who rode out the Civil War, mine conflicts and harsh conditions here. Perhaps there is nowhere better than this region that showcases the struggle between preservation of natural wonders and man’s desire to eke out a living on his own land. Located a mere half-a-day drive or less from urban centers like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is one of the most beautiful and has been one of the most controversial national parks from the eminent domain and private property issues that arose when the park was created to the fight to desegregate the park beginning in the 1930s.
As glaciers began to retreat, the valleys, hollows and ride tops became seasonal homes to native tribes who often came here to hunt animals, gather nuts and berries as well as make stone tools from the various materials they could find here. They developed footpaths and semi-permanent, agriculture-based villages began to appear by 900 AD.Tribes like the Piedmont Siouans, Shawnee, Catawbas, Delaware, Cherokees, Susquehannocks and members of the Iroquois lived and traded here, but by the time the first Europeans came to the area most had moved on.
Soon, settlements sprang up based on farming, grist mills, lumber mills, iron furnaces, and railroads. American mountain culture developed in the Blue Ridge similar to that of the Appalachians with isolated communities developing unique music, handicrafts, food and societal norms and rules. When the Civil War broke out, Tidewater Virginia seceded because the large majority of that part of the state had interests in slavery and the plantations that maintained the larger economy. West Virginia split off from the state as its mountains prevented such large scale farming and many of its people sided with the Union. The Shenandoah Valley was literally caught in the middle, with residents supporting both sides.
While these occupations helped families of the Blue Ridge earn a living, they were also dangerous both to workers and the environment of Shenandoah. Concerns rose that the beautiful Blue Ridge landscape would be decimated. This was coupled by the push in eastern states to bring new national parks into that region of the country as the vast majority were still in the west. However, some 500 families still called the Shenandoah Valley home and most were not willing to leave the land their families had owned for generations.
Officials from Tennessee and Virginia had been working to create a national park in their states for several years when National Park Service Director Stephen Mather approached the Secretary of the Interior Huber Work to create a park in the southern Appalachians in 1923. Work commissioned the the Southern Appalachian National Park commission, which recommended the Shenandoah as a location for a national park in the eastern mountains in 1924. Wealth business owners, bankers and politicians in the area began promoting the idea hoping it would bring in a new source of income and began raising funds to show the area was dedicated to the park’s creation.
The landowners fought against it with one, Robert Via, taking the law all the way to the Supreme Court. By the 1930s, only 43 families were still living in the park. Current residents were finally given special exceptions from the NPS and were allowed to remain in their houses until their deaths. Annie Lee Bradley Shenk was the last resident of the Shenandoah to live here, dying at the age of 92 and 1979. However, the overzealous seizure of the Shenandoah property to make the national park is still a point of contention and despite the intention of the national park system to conserve land, many in Virginia still feel distrustful of park authorities and government powers using eminent domain.
This would not be the last controversy the park would endure. While the CCC were busy building trails and structures throughout the park, the Jim Crow laws of Virginia invaded Shenandoah. The state of Virginia originally wanted to ban non-whites from visiting the park, but settled for creating created separate facilities for blacks and whites. Many of the concession areas as well as the Skyland Resort, Panorama Resort and Swift Run Gap were whites only while blacks could only use the facilities at Lewis Mountain, which was extremely inferior to the other park resorts.
Today, Shenandoah National Park encompasses just under 200,000 acres of land, mostly oak and hickory forests. These are new growth forests as Shenandoah is concerned a "recycled" national park in that most of its land was used and abused as is just now starting to regrow as nature intended. About 40 percent of the park is wilderness and while many prefer cruising up and down Skyline Drive, the park is also part of the Appalachian Trail, which gives hikers a closer glimpse at the natural wonders of the Blue Ridge. Shenandoah averages about 1.2 million visitors every year.
The Shenandoah serves as the headwaters for three important rivers: the Shenandoah River in the west and the Rappahannock and James in the east. Additionally, there are a total of 70 watershed basins and some 90 small streams located throughout the park, both beautiful streams, springs and creeks as well as majestic waterfalls reaching 28 meters high. These cool streams sometimes appear and then disappear based on rainfall and the snows melting off the mountain tops.
The parks thick oak and hickory forests begin at the higher elevations as the mountains began to climb. When the park was first opened, many areas that had once been woodlands were still grasslands, cultivated fields and clearcut forests. Red and chestnut oaks dominated the park, but other species native to the area such as maples, basswood, cherry and birches could only be found in 6 percent of these forested areas.
The forests climb up the mountains, which are themselves both a wonder of nature and geology. Four different types of rocks make up the Blue Ridge Mountains, which were at one time as tall as the Andes and Alps are today. The igneous and metamorphic rocks found in the park serve as the basis of these mountains and are the remnants of a mountain range that was even older than the Blue Ridge and Appalachians.
Numerous natural and man-made landmarks have become icons of the park, each showing unique facets of the park’s history. Sites with names like Hogwallow Flats, Gooney Run, Hogback, Pignut, Three Sisters, Stony Man, Limberlost, Naked Creek, Dark Hollow, Hazeltop, Bearfence, Bacon Hollow, Riprap and Calf Mountain add to the unique character of this region. Manmade structures found in the park showcase the lives of everyone from the poorest Appalachian farmer to the president.
Of course, the many mountains that dot the park are some of the most beloved aspects of Shenandoah’s landscape. At 4,050 feet, Hawksbill Mountain is the park’s tallest and one of its most popular climbing destination. A peregrine falcon restoration project has also been undertaken at this peak and hikers on the Appalachian Trail pass about 500 feet below the summit. Humpback Mountain is only 3,080 feet by comparison but is known for Humpback Rock, the stone formation that gives the peak its name. The exposed mountain top gives visitors a beautiful view of the valley below.
Knob Mountain is a popular but strenuous location frequented by backcountry hikers and the hike gives visitors views of formations like Strickler Knob, the Three Sisters and Jeremy’s Run. The mountain itself is only 2,671 feet tall, but the journey to it and up it can be dangerous.Neighbor Mountain is parallel to Knob Mountain and on the other side of Jeremy’s Run. It comes in at 2,612 feet and while it offers similar views, this mountain is more accessible from Skyline Drive.
Mary’s Rock measures in at 3,514 feet and is believed to have been named after a former settlers of the area. One legend claims that the hill was named for Mary Savage Thornton after Francis Thornton proposed to her atop it. Another story says their daughter, also named Mary, climbed the mountain and brought back a bear cub from it. Still, others say it was named for the wife of sculptor William Randolph Barbee, who was born in the region. Nearby is the Pinnacle, a 3,730-foot-tall peak easily viewable from Skyline Drive and known for its many builders as well.
Those who prefer to stay low to the ground can check out the various mountain gaps, the colloquial term for mountain passes. Rockfish Gap is partially in the park and has been a popular place to cross the Blue Ridge since the Native Americans dominated the area. The cities of Waynesboro and Charlottesville sprang up on either side of this gap through Afton Mountain. Swift Run Gap is a similar wind gap in the park and was once the site of a toll road. The Appalachian Trail passes through this area of the park as does U.S. Highway 33.
Dozens of waterfalls are located throughout the park, but there are a few that many visitors seek out because of their impressive height and the fact they are usually flowing during most times of the year. Of course, many tend to dry up in the summer. The park’s tallest waterfall is Overall Run, which comes in at a whopping 93 feet. It’s a 6.5 mile-round trip hike to get to it, but is well worth the walk. Those who want a shorter walk can try the hikes to Lewis or South River falls. The two-mile round-trip hike to Lewis Falls will take visitors to an impressive 81-foot fall while the South River Falls are 83 feet tall on a 3.3 mile loop hike. A rocky “shortcut” is also available for those who want to go a little off the beaten path.
Those who want more bang for their buck can seek out the waterfalls at Whiteoak Canyon. The canyon has six waterfalls reaching up to 86 feet in height, though not all are easily viewed from the trail. Visitors can take the 3.6 mile round-trip to see the 42-foot Jones Run Falls or do the entire 7.8 mile loop trail that also takes them to the two waterfalls at the Doyles River Falls. The hike to the 67-foot Rose River Falls is 2.6 miles. The most strenuous hike is the 3.4 miles to Cedar Run, but various waterfalls, swimming holes and natural rock outcroppings provide plenty of places to rest. Of course, the park’s most popular and easily accessible waterfall is the Dark Hollow Falls. At 70 feet tall, the 1.4 mile round trip hike is just off Skyline Drive.
Before there was Camp David, there was Rapidan Camp, the summer retreat of President and Mrs. Hoover during his tumultuous presidency. Visitors can check out the presidential getaway and exhibits at surrounding structures such as the Creel Cabin, Brown House and Prime Minister’s Cabin. Another house located in the park is Massanutten Lodge, the home of former Skyland Resort co-owner Addie Nairn Pollock. The home has also become an exhibit dedicated to the women who forged a living in the area and the Skyland resort during the 1920s, despite the social barriers of the time.
Of course, most of the park’s former residents lived in places like the Corbin Cabin, which is now maintained by the Appalachian Trail as a place for hikers to get a bit of rest and relaxation. One of six cabins the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintains, the cabin was built around 1909 by George T. Corbin and was abandoned by his family when they were forced to abandon the park in 1938. The cabin was one of the few structures in Nicholson Hollow that was left standing after the park was opened, and remains a good hike from the nearest road.
Near the Byrd Visitors Center at Big Meadows, visitors can spend the night at the Big Meadows Lodge and have the option of eating at the full-service dining room in the Big Meadows Wayside or the more formal Big Meadows Lodge. These dining areas are also the closest to the cabins for rental in Lewis Mountains. Of course, Skyland is the place most people want to stay at when they come to visit the park. Not far from Big Meadows either, the Skyland Resort has both guests rooms, rustic cabins, multi-unit lodges and modern suites for those who don’t want to rough it. Skyland also provides a dining room with table service and excellent views of the park.
Flora and Fauna
The park is home to 26 reptile species including 19 types of snake, four turtles, one lizard and two skinks. The Eastern hog-nosed snake is one of several species that is being restored to the park and is one of many snake species monitored by park officials. Some like the copperhead and timber rattlesnake are important to the park’s ecosystem but are sometimes eliminated by man because of the dangers they pose. The turtles found in the park, including the painted turtle and snapping turtle, are some of the most popular reptiles tourists in the park seek out.
The park also has 41 fish species found in the park’s rivers, ponds and 90-some small streams. The most commonly found fish is the brook trout, which was introduced to the park along with the common carp, greenside darter, and largemouth bass. The introduction of these species has contributed some harm to more native species like the yellow and brown bullhead, American eel, satinfish and spotfin shiners, cutlips and bluntnose minnow, northern hog sucker, redbreast and green sunfish, pumkinseed, bluegill, longear sunfish, American brook lamprey, fallfish, and tiger trout. Some of the most commonly found native species in the park include the blacknose dace, longnose dace, bluehead chub, and fantail darter.
Of course, the park’s 46 mammal species are the ones most visitors to the park look for. Larger wildlife include coyote, beaver, black bear, red fox, gray fox, white-tailed deer, river otter and bobcat.The park is also home to several smaller species including the Virginia opossum, woodchuck, muskrat, mink, raccoon, cottontails, fisher, skunk, five species of squirrel and chipmunks, eight types of shrew, three kinds of voles, three types of moles, two species of weasel, nine species of bat, and nine species of mice, of rats and woodrats
Birders can also find enjoyment tracking down the 196 bird species who live here. About half of these species are seasonal or breed in the park while around 30 are year-round residents. Some of the most commonly seen birds in the park are tufted titmice, red-tailed hawks, Carolina chickadees, wild turkeys and barred owls. Other resident species in the park include the sharp-shinned hawk, brown creeper, Northern bobwhite, red-headed woodpecker, fox sparrow, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, red-breasted nuthatch, and white-throated sparrows. Birds also run the gamut from waterfowl like mallards, teals, ducks, egrets and herons to birds of prey such as hawks, peregrine falcons, golden eagles and owls to songbirds like the Northern cardinal, finches, grosbeaks, sparrows, warblers and wrens.
The woodlands, meadows and mountains of the park also give way to a wide variety of flora. The park has both big and small plants throughout and the location of many of these species correlates to elevation. Among the smaller plants, the park has 60 species of fern, 20 species of fern allies like club mosses and horsetails, more than 400 species of fungi, various mosses, liverworts and lichens and more than 125 species of grass, sedges and rushes. The park is also home to a variety of freshwater plants in its wetlands including some of those grasses, sedges and rushes as well as more floral varieties like the marsh willowherb, blue flag iris and cardinal flowers.
The fall color these trees give off is a major draw during the autumn months with leaf peepers packing into Skyline Drive to see the seasons change. The park also gives weekly fall color reports to help visitors plan their visit accordingly. Of course, the park’s coniferous trees - like the balsam fir, Alaska cedar, Norway spruce, red spruce, shortleaf pine, Table Mountain pine, Virginia pine, white pine, and red pine - remain evergreen year-round. However, invasive species such as the gypsy moth, hemlock wooly adelgid, and emerald ash borer have threatened the forests and biodiversity of the park over the years.
Wildflowers are another one of the park’s major draws. Shenandoah has more than 800 species of wildflowers and about 20 percent of those are part of the aster family, including goldenrods, asters and wild sunflowers. The next most common type of flowers belong to the pea, lily, mint and mustard families. The flowers that grow on the lower elevations and along streams tend to flower earlier in the year while the Big Meadows and Skyline Drive are the home of some of the park’s later blooming flowers during the summer and early fall.
Things to Do
Of course, hiking is one of the most popular ways to get around the park and explore. Many of the hikes are broken up into sections and get more difficult as the hike continues and the elevation increases. Many trails offer different loops and paths or connectors to help visitors create a hike that caters to their needs. Based on the time of year and difficulty, some hiking paths may also be more crowded than others. The park divided its hikes by district with the Northern District ranging from Front Royal to U.S. 211, the Central District from U.S. 211 to U.S. 33 and the South District from U.S. 33 to the intersection of U.S. 250 and U.S. 1-64.
The Central District of the park has the most trails of any area. Marys Rock is located in this section and two popular hikes up the peak are the 3.7-mile round-trip to the Summit and the 3.4 mile Pass Mountain Loop, both of which are off the Appalachian Trail connector. The Nicholson Hollow area provides two mildly strenuous hikes, the 4-mile Corbin Cabin loop and the 4.2-mile Little Stony Man Cliffs. Visitors can also tackle Stony Man and Little Stony Man from the easy 1.6 mile Stony Man Trail or the more moderate 3.5 mile Passamaquoddy Loop. Around Hawksbill, visitors can try the easier 1.7 mile Lower Hawksbill Trail or 2.9-mile Appalachian Trail-Hawksbill Loop.
Not far from the Big Meadows Campground in the Central District is the 0.4-mile Blackrock Viewpoint Trail and the 3.2-mile round-trip Lewis Springs Falls, which springs off the easier Blackrock Trail. Milam Gap is home to the 2.1-mile Appalachian Trail-Tanners Ridge Trail and the 4-mile Mill Prong-Rapidan Camp Trail while those looking for the South River Falls can either hike 2.6 miles to the overlook or 3.3 mile to the falls themselves. One of the most popular hikes in the Upper Hawksbill area is the easy 2.1 mile Upper Hawksbill Trial while the Bearfence area offers the moderate 1-mile Bearfence Rock Scramble and the easier 1.1 mile Bearfence Viewpoint trails.
Of course, hiking in Shenandoah doesn’t always mean staying on the beaten path, especially as the Appalachian Trail comes through the park and connects with many of the park’s trails. Visitors can hike parts of the AT as well as backcountry hike in 196,000 acres of park wilderness. Certain areas of the park are closed to backcountry hikers to protect the environment and may need certain permits to hike and camp in these areas. Those who aren’t comfortable exploring on their own can get a guided tour from commercial vendors allowed to offer services like hiking, rock climbing, cycling and fly fishing tours of the park.
Those who want to experience nature but don’t want to be too isolated can set up camp at one of the four campgrounds in the park. Opening and closing dates depend on the year and the weather. The Big Meadows Campground has the most amenities of the park’s campgrounds though supply stores are located at the Matthews Arm Campground. The Loft Mountain Campground is the park’s largest while the Lewis Mountain Campground is the park’s most isolated and the smallest. Each campground has its own regulations and most take reservations.
Technology has also come to the park in a form of geocaching known as earthcaching. Physical geocaches are not permitted in the park, but the virtual geocache known as earthcaching allows visitors to employ similar methods to finding geocaches without disturbing the natural and geological features of the park. Visitors can use their GPS devices to learn more about the park, document their adventures and answer questions about the park. Documenting earthcaching explorations with a camera is one of the best ways to leave no trace in the park.
- Shenandoah National Park | National Park Service - Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is your escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows—take a hike, meander along Skyline Drive, or picnic with the family. 200,000 acres of protected lands are haven to deer, songbirds, the night sky…and you. Plan a Shenandoah escape today!
- Shenandoah National Park | National Geographic - Skyline Drive, which runs for 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains, is flanked by a rumpled panorama of forests and mountains. To many who travel the drive, the highway itself is a park, complete with numerous deer sightings along the way. But the cars are passing the real Shenandoah. More than 500 miles of trails can be reached from Skyline Drive, and the Appalachian Trail roughly parallels it for nearly its entire length.
- Shenandoah National Park | National Park Foundation - Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, just 75 miles west of our nation’s capital. The scenic roadway Skyline Drive takes you through the 105 mile long park, providing more than 75 overlooks with spectacular vistas. Five hundred miles of trails, consisting of 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, lead visitors to waterfalls, panoramic views, protected wilderness and preserved human history in the Shenandoah valley. Many animals, including deer, black bears, and wild turkeys flourish among the rich growth of oak-hickory forest.
- Shenandoah National Park Trust - The Shenandoah National Park Trust touches every aspect of the park we all enjoy. We help protect what you love about Shenandoah National Park, while creating programs to inspire the next generation of national park stewards. As the official philanthropic partner of Shenandoah National Park, the Trust invests in programs and initiatives which help ensure that Shenandoah remains a crown jewel of the Park Service, an economic driver for the region, and a national treasure for all to enjoy, for generations to come.