Shenandoah National Park
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Shenandoah National Park

The Magic of the Forest

Deer in Shenandoah National Park Virginia © Carla Suson / USATourist.com
Near sunset, the deer frequently forage on the open areas near the overlooks.

If you stood among the ancient hardwood trees and watched the mist flow across the land, you would swear that Shenandoah was a magical place filled with fairies hiding in the mountain laurel and gnomes dancing from rock to rock. Although there are no fairies or gnomes, this huge section of land is a wilderness filled with color and quiet splendor underground, in the forest and across the sky.

Located in the northwestern third of the state of Virginia, Shenandoah National Park is a wilderness that is part of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the middle section of the Appalachian Mountains. These East Coast mountains are about 300 million years old and were formed when two of the Earth's plates were crushed together, pushing miles of volcanic rock, limestone and greenstone (green metamorphosed limestone) upward. In the beginning the peaks were as tall as if not taller than the Rocky Mountains but time and water have worn the sharp facades into gently sloped mounds and deep valleys.

The Recycled Forest

When English explorers searched for passages through the mountains, they discovered the Indian tribes of the Monacans and Manahoacs who lived peacefully with the forest. As American settlers filtered across the mountains, they cleared the timber for farming. The native animals were hunted to close to extinction. Although the Shenandoah Valley is still covered with fertile farms, the thin mountain soil eventually gave out and the farmers moved on to better lands.

In the early part of the twentieth century, people from the increasingly crowded East Coast cities began to appreciate the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1926, Congress selected the Shenandoah area to become a national park but it took time to buy the land back from private investors. The park wasn't dedicated until 1936. In that time, the land returned to its natural state by simply letting the trees and wild growth re-emerge. Over time, wildlife in the form of birds, beavers, deer, squirrels, and bears all returned too.

What to See

Skyline Drive cuts through Shenandoah National Park and eventually connects with the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. It is a lovely winding drive around the mountain with many picnic areas and scenic overlooks every few miles. Stopping at every overlook is well worth the view but can drastically eat into your visiting time. However, near sunset, the deer frequently forage on the open areas near the overlooks. Many people prefer to park somewhere and explore some of the 500 miles of hiking trails, most of which are relatively short but at least one trail is as long as 101 miles representing part of the historic Appalachian Trail used by the first settlers. The Whiteoak Canyon Trail is one of the most popular because it leads to six lovely waterfalls and an old-growth forest.

Woodland Waterfall in Shenandoah National Park Virginia © Carla Suson / USATourist.com
The magic of the mountain comes alive in the early morning mists and stays all day around the many waterfalls that are swollen from melting snow runoff.

When hiking, don't be afraid to explore the quiet places off the trail and look for the smaller hints of beauty. In Spring, the pink azaleas, yellow lady slippers, and white mountain laurel begin to bloom and continue deep into summer. Even the Indian pipe, an all-white plant that looks more like a ghost than a flower, can be seen in rare corners near the base of trees. The clumps of mushroom too are come in a variety of shape, sizes and colors as you find turkey-tail, yellow coral or the red Caesar's amanita mushrooms hidden in old stumps and tree bases.

Adjacent to the park, privately owned caves also dot the area. For an entrance fee, you can take guided tours deep into the mountain and look at the beautiful stone sculptures that nature created. Luray Caverns in Luray, Virginia are the best, most developed tourist caves. Shenandoah Caverns has the beautiful wet caves but also the American Celebration on Parade for the children. It is a collection of automated statues from past Tournament of Roses parades set in lovely backgrounds. At Skyline Caverns, Front Royal, Virginia, you can see the rare rock formation of anthodites, beautiful rock "flowers" growing out of the limestone walls.

Amenities and Accommodations

Numerous bed-and-breakfast style hotels are nestled the little towns that border Shenandoah but they tend to cluster at the four main entrances of Front Royal, Luray, New Market, Elkton and Charlottesville, Virginia. Inside the park, visitors can stay at Skyline Lodge, Big Meadows Lodge, or Lewis Mountain cabins which are all run by Virginia Sky-line Company. Each area has dining rooms, grocery stores and coin laundry facilities.

There are three campground areas at Big Meadows, Lewis Mountain and Loft Mountain that have a 14-day limit and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. They have shower facilities but no electrical hookups and campers are warned to keep all food safely locked away in the cars. Primitive camping is allowed in the backcountry as long as you get the appropriate permits first.

For those who want to just stay the day, there are bathrooms and exhibits at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadow. The Byrd Center is particularly wonderful near sunset because it offers a great balcony overlook of the meadow while the deer graze. Horses can be rented for an hour or all day at Skyland Lodge and bikes are encouraged along Skyline Drive's paved roads where the cars are only allowed to go 35 miles per hour. Fishing is allowed with a Virginia license during April to October and birdwatching is at its best during the spring.

When to Tour

Shenandoah is beautiful at any time of year but not always accessible. From late March through June, the hills come alive with yellow lady slippers, lilies called blue-eyed grass and white mountain laurel as well as many other beautiful flowers. The magic of the mountain comes alive in the early morning mists and stays all day around the many waterfalls that are swollen from melting snow runoff. As the days lengthen into summer, the mountains take on a deep green color with leaves at full growth and moss covering the forest floor. This is the peak visiting season because the mountains are 15 degrees cooler in the mountains than in the valley, making a great retreat from the summertime heat.

The Fall brings the reds and yellows to the trees. New England people say this is one of the best times of year as the mountainsides come alive with the fiery fall colors from maples, ash, and ferns. The Skyline Drive becomes breathtakingly beautiful during this short time which usually begins about mid-September and lasts about one month. Then, when winter snows blanket the area, the land is pristine white with bare limbs that scratch sparse black lines against the deep blue sky. Although the park itself is open all year round, severe ice or snowstorms can close Skyline drive for short periods during the winter. Also the lodges close down around late October and will not open again until March or April.

Written by: Carla Lee Suson
Top Photo Credit: © US National Park Service
Photo Description: Shenandoah National Park