Location: Front Royal to Waynesboro, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Shenandoah National Park is at the northern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the broad Shenandoah Valley to the west and the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont to the east. The National Park encompasses nearly 199,000 acres, of which nearly 80,000 acres (40%) have been designated as Wilderness as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The most notable feature in the park is the 105 mile long Skyline Drive that consists of multiple trailheads and 75 overlooks. At the time of the full establishment of the park in 1935, there were over 500 families living within the boundaries consisting of small farms and communities. Although many were vehemently opposed to being forced to move, nearly all of the families were eventually removed, especially following the drought of 1930 that destroyed many of their livelihoods. A few that refused to move were allowed to stay until their death with the last occurring in 1979. Begun as a Works Progress Administration project in 1931, during the Great Depressions, the Skyline Drive is a testament to the hardwork and engineering of the nation’s young men in both the WPA and CCC. Skyline Drive was not completed until 1939 with the last section at Rockfish Gap was opened to the public. At the time most of the Shenandoah National Park had been heavily logged with the hollows in farmland, orchards, or pasture and looked much different from the lush forests of today. There have been many ecological challenges faced by the park including the loss of American Chestnut trees in the 1930s, which formed 1/3 of the mature trees in the forest. Although you can still see young chestnuts sprouting from the old roots, they seldom live for 20 years before the blight kills them. The many species of oaks then dominated the forest, although they have been severely hit by the gypsy moth in the 1990s. While they oak forests are recovering, the gypsy moth is still a serious problem in the park. The higher elevations in the park used to be dominated by hemlock trees before the arrival of the woolly adelgid in the 1950s that still poses a challenge for the park. Other challenges include air pollution including ozone and acid rain and the impact of climate change is still being investigated. Along with 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail that parallels Skyline Drive, there are over 500 miles of trails of all levels of difficulty. Visitors can seek out some of the best views east of the Mississippi, explore the many waterfalls, or seek out evidence of past human habitation. Fortunate visitors might also get an opportunity to watch some of the wildlife that inhabit the park, from song bird, raptors, coyote, deer, to the largest population of brown bear.
1) There are two Visitor Centers along Skyline Drive. Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is just a few miles inside the park from the north end and Byrd Visitor Center near the center of the drive. Especially if you want to get information about the hiking trails or other attractions in the park, you should drive the Skyline Drive from north to south. They have a continuously running video that lasts about 10 minutes before it loops again. The video gives a number of highlights about the different features that can be found in the park, from overlooks to falls to wildlife to historical.
2) We purchased the CD on the park that added to our experience. It has information about most of the overlooks and parking areas along Skyline Drive, but again it is ordered from north to south and would be useless if you are traveling the other direction. The information on the CD was interesting, but not as essential as a CD for the battlefields that we have purchased in the past. Still it was worthwhile.
3) Even though information on the web states that you can travel the entire 105 miles of Skyline Drive in 3 hours (the speed limit is 35), however, if you plan to stop at many of the overlooks, it will take a couple of days. Since we also planned on taking some short hikes, we allocated three days to our visit, which meant we exited the park at each of the entrances at Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap. We spent 6-7 hours in the park each day, which included two short hikes of around 2 miles each day (except for the third day when the weather was too foggy and wet) and all of the overlooks.
4) While the views from the overlooks are fantastic, to truly see the park, you have to do some walking. With knees and hips that complain about any serious uphill grades, we purchased the book “Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah National Park” at the visitor center. This book gave useful information and maps about 27 hikes that range from less than a mile to around 6 miles and difficulty from easy to moderate. With this book in hand we were able to select some interesting hikes under 3 miles in length on the easy side and plan our day.
5) The first hike we choose was Lands Runs Falls, which is 1.2 miles round trip down to a small falls. It is rated as an easy hike, however, since you first have to walk down to the falls, you then have to walk back uphill all the way back, which climbs 300 feet. The falls themselves were pretty, but not very impressive as it is just a small stream with very little water falling about 30 feet.
6) The second hike on the first day was a 0.8 round trip hike to Fort Windham Rocks, most of which is along the Appalachian Trail. This hike is also rated easy and since there is very little elevation change, it was an easy hike. The Fort Windham Rocks are an interesting rock formation of granite columns sticking up out of the ground with a side trail that winds around to the top of the rocks.
7) The first hike on the second day was the 1.4 mile hike to the top of Stony Man. This is rated as an easy hike with a 350 foot elevation change, but we found it much easier then the Lands Run Falls. Stony Man is a famous rock formation on the side of the mountain, which when viewed from the overlooks to the south resembles a man’s face gazing out to the west. This is also the peak of the Skyline Drive, so the views from the top of Stony Man at the end of the trail are spectacular. This is also a self-guided nature trail with a nice brochure.
8) The second hike on the second day was Limberlost, which is a 1.3 mile loop along a crushed greenstone surface with very little elevation change. It is a pleasant walk through the woods that can be done by anyone.
7) Since the weather was so foggy and wet on our third day in the park, we took only a single hike up to Blackrock Summit. This is a 1 mile loop trail that follows the Appalachian Trail on the way up and a fire road coming back. The elevation change is only 175 feet, mostly at the beginning, so it was an easy trail. Blackrock Summit is a talus field of broken quartzite rock that you can see on the side of many of the mountains and this is your chance to get up close to this slow moving river of rocks. The views from here are also suppose to be spectacular, however, with the fog we could see no more than 10 feet.