Shenandoah National Park

A view of the fall colors along Skyline drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP via Getty Images)

Enjoy All the Blue Ridge Mountains Have to Offer

Shenandoah National Park is a long, narrow park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The park is more than 40 percent wilderness, though most people choose to tour it via the scenic Skyline Drive. The long stretch of road features sweeping views of the Shenandoah River valley to the west and the hills of the Virginian piedmont to the east. The hills and valley burst with bright colors during the autumn.

This part of the Appalachian Mountains is home to some of the oldest rocks in Virginia. The exposed faces in the park date back more than one billion years. While this might fascinate geologists, most park visitors are probably more interested in hiking the rocky terrain, like the challenging scramble up Old Rag Mountain.

Prior to being named a national park, the land in this region was primarily used for farming. Much of the land was acquired by the state after a tragic drought in the 1930s caused many homestead farms to fail. Virginia purchased the land from owners or else forced them out by eminent domain in order to secure land for the park. A few holdouts remained, although their communities were displaced or destroyed — a sad but true stain on the history of one of America’s most beautiful national parks.

Activities in Shenandoah National Park

Hiking, Horseback Riding and Backpacking

With more than 500 miles of trails to explore, hiking is really popular way to get to know Shenandoah. Day hikes are popular along the park’s many fire roads and foot paths, and lots of downloadable trail maps are available at the park’s website. Be sure to check hiking conditions before visiting the park, as some areas may be closed or partially restricted for overlook reconstruction or other reasons. Backcountry campers must pick up a free permit from a visitor center if they plan on staying overnight in the wilderness.

Visitors can ride horses on about 180 miles of trails within the park. Horse tours are available through the park’s concessioner, but visitors can also bring their own horses if they wish. Use horses only on designated horse trails.

Shenandoah preserves 196,000 acres of Blue Ridge Mountain wilderness, including more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The park suggests a number of different trips along the trail, highlighting scenic views and waterfalls along the way. The park even suggests that portions of the trail can be explored during winter time to alleviate crowding.

Known to some as a rite of passage, the scramble up Old Rag Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park. But since it involves a strenuous elevation change or more than 2,000 feet, and a section of climbing over bare rocks, the eight-mile hike is not a good choice for people that lack the upper body strength and full range of movement that’s required to make the summit.

Bicycling

Biking is a great alternative to driving the Skyline Drive scenic byway in Shenandoah National Park, but cyclists should exercise a few precautions to ensure a safe journey. Because fog can limit visibility, bikers should have reflectors and lights mounted on their bikes. They should also be prepared for the weather and temperature differences that can accompany elevation changes from the lowland valleys to the mountains. Cyclists are also permitted to bike on paved areas of the park, but not on any unpaved trails. The one exception is a one-mile stretch on the Rapidan Fire Road.

Fishing

Sport fishing is a time-honored recreational activity in Shenandoah National Park. Although they are now commonly found throughout North America, brook trout are native to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they inhabit mountain streams. Rainbow and brown trout are also found in the waters of Shenandoah National Park. The catch limit on trout is six of any variety per person. Catch-and-release fishing is favored in the park, and all waters are open for it. Designated waters are open for harvest.

Visiting Shenandoah National Park

Seasons, Fees and Reservations

It’s very popular to come visit Shenandoah during the autumn, when the park’s deciduous forest is set ablaze with brilliant fall colors – rich golds punctuated by the occasional fiery red maple. But visiting in the spring can also be rewarding. When the snow thaws, creeks swell and waterfalls roar with fresh runoff. As the weather warms, wildflowers bloom. The park usually hosts a Wildflower Weekend program, which highlights native blooms during naturalist-led hikes and features keynote speakers and photography workshops. In the summer, the park’s elevation offers respite from the Shenandoah Valley heat. The temperature difference averages about ten degrees, making conditions ideal for day hikes.

The park’s four car-friendly campgrounds are generally available on a first-come, first-serve basis, but approximately 20 percent of the sites at Loft Mountain and Mathews Arm Campgrounds can be reserved ahead of time. These and the grounds at Big Meadows are large enough to support RVs. Campgrounds are typically open from May through October, but Big Meadows has a longer season of March through November.

Backcountry campers may only use designated campsites in the wilderness, and must pick up a free permit at a visitor center. Permits can also be requested ahead of time and mailed to visitors.

Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive is a 105-mile-long scenic byway that runs north-south through Shenandoah National Park. It is the only public road through the park, and maintains a 35-m.p.h. speed limit throughout its course. There are 75 overlooks scattered along the route, and there’s even more opportunity to check out the park’s abundant wildlife — just be sure to watch out for white-tailed deer crossing the road. The road is wide enough to accommodate RVs and other large vehicles, but drivers should be prepared to shift into low gear for some of the road’s steeper sections. The clearance on the Marys Rock Tunnel is 12 feet, eight inches.

Special Programming and Events

Shenandoah has a tradition of providing a variety of family-friendly activities. These range from special programming on select weekends and ranger-led walks and talks, to concessioner-hosted entertainment and events like wine tastings and cooking demos. One popular fall event is the park’s Wilderness Weekend, which explores Shenandoah’s frontier heritage by demonstrating some of the traditional tools that are used to maintain wilderness trails.

Wildlife in Shenandoah National Park

Most of Shenandoah National Park is forested, which makes it a haven for wildlife that have suffered from habitat loss due to human development. There are around 200 transient and resident bird species in the park, as well as more than 50 mammal species and 30 different species of fish. Black bears are active in the park (as they are in most of Virigina) so hikers should take precautions, particularly in the backcountry.

Cerulean Warbler

Although the cerulean warbler still has a broad range in North America, it is only a fraction of it once was. But fortunately, Shenandoah remains a popular refuge for the birds, who play an important role in the park’s ecosystem by feeding on insects — such as cankerworms and moths — that can harm trees. Adult males of the species have bright blue feathers, as their name suggests. Females and young warblers are blue-green in color.

Brook Trout

Brook trout, sometimes called native trout or “brookie,” are a common game fish found in Shenandoah National Park. They are native to the Appalachian Mountains and eastern United States, but have been introduced all over North America. Known by their dark base coloring with a pattern of light colored spots, brook trout will also breed with brown trout where the two species co-exist, forming a hybrid called tiger trout. Tiger trout are popular stock fish because they help control populations by eating other fish, and are almost always sterile (hence, will not propagate and take over ecosystems). Brook trout can be found in many of Shenandoah’s mountain streams and tributaries. The catch limit is six trout of any kind per day.

Black Bear

Black bears are common throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains, and may number as many as 6,000 individuals in Virginia. Bears have a special place at Shenandoah National Park, since about 40 percent of that park’s heavily forested land is protected wilderness. Black bears are avid climbers, and will venture up into trees in search of food. In fact, they’ll seek out food almost anywhere they can find it, especially during the feeding binge that precedes their yearly winter hibernation. Bears have been known to raid orchards, cars and even garbage dumps in search of food. Because of their voracious feeding and curious nature, it’s very important that visitors secure their food items and take other precautions while in the park. Never feed bears.

History of Shenandoah National Park

The earliest known inhabitants of the Shenandoah Valley were prehistoric hunter-gatherers that used the land more than 9,000 years ago. European settlement started at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the mid-18th century but gradually made its way upslope in search of pasture and farmland. Orchards were planted, and fruit growing soon became an integral part of frontier country life — but not in the way that you might expect!

Fruit, particularly apples, were grown for two primary reasons — to feed hogs and to make hard, alcoholic cider. Apples as a food item were only a tertiary consideration. Every planter had an orchard, and every orchard produced fermented cider for daily consumption. Even children drank diluted cider when milk was not available. Mountain folk also distilled whiskey from crops like rye. Distilled spirits were an effective commodity for several reasons — they were easy to transport, had a long shelf life and were almost always in demand.

While mountain life could be hard, and negative stereotypes of mountain folk have been perpetuated over time, new archeological discoveries have worked to counter the myth that all inhabitants of this region were “primitive,” “unlettered,” or even “medieval.”

A drought in the 1930s caused serious problems for the agrarian communities of settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. The state of Virginia and the federal government began acquiring — by purchase or by condemnation — about 3,000 separate tracts of land for the establishment of a national park. Some saw this as a humanitarian effort, since the denizens of these lands were thought to be backwards and “almost completely cut off from the current of American life.” The idea was to make something beautiful out of something ugly. But in the process, around 500 families were displaced, their communities lost and their lifeways forever altered.

The park was established in 1935, during the Great Depression, and received a lot of attention from the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped build its famous Skyline Drive, among other things. In fact, the Shenandoah Valley and Skyline Drive were toured by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt before the park was even opened, to help highlight the administration’s new public works projects.

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