Shenandoah National Park

I was born in Waynesboro, VA, about 6 miles from Rockfish Gap, a pass in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville. Rockfish Gap, at 1900 feet, is one of the lowest gaps in the central Virginia Blue Ridge, and US-250 and I-64 cross here from the piedmont and into the Shenandoah Valley. Rockfish gap also marks the southern end of Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive, and milepost 0 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Overview

Shenandoah National Park runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge from Front Royal in the north, to Rockfish Gap in the south. Accessed primarily by the Skyline Drive, a winding, two-lane blue highway running 105 miles along the crest of the mountains. The park also contains 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and over 500 total miles of trail. Camping, hiking, and biking (currently allowed only on paved roads) horseback riding, and fishing are the main activities in the park. Lush forests harbor wildlife including white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkey, and Appalachia's peculiarly shy enclave of ravens. Waterfalls and crayfish are common in the streams.


Natural History

Back in the day, geologically speaking (~400 mya), the east coast of the United States was subducting the sea floor of the Iapetus Ocean. On the far side of the Iapetus, Africa and Europe were being drawn closer. In a series of mountain building events, together called the Appalachian Orogeny, the collision between the east coast of North America and the west coasts of Europe and Africa crushed, folded, compressed, heated, and generally scrunched up the rocks which formed the current Appalachian Mountains. The obvious result of this is the remarkably long, straight Blue Ridge itself. The Blue Ridge in SNP is composed of greenstones (formed from basalts metamorphosed deep underground), granite, and sandstones and meta-sandstones.

The mountains of Shenandoah National Park are lushly forested with an Oak/Hickory canopy sheltering an astonishing variety of wildflowers including orchids, mountain laurels, flame azaleas, rhododendron, and cardinal flower, just to name a few that come to mind. At higher elevations, conifers such as spruce and fir are more prevalent. Sharing the skies with the ravens are vultures, hawks, and golden and bald eagles. There is currently an effort to expand the numbers of endangered peregrine falcons in the park as well. A large portion of the park is designated as protected wilderness areas.

American History

History is one thing that Virginia boasts in spades. Not far from the southern end of the park is Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. The Blue Ridge, and the Appalachians in general, presented the first major physical barrier to western expansion of European settlers from the fledgling American Colonies. Hidden away in sheltered coves and levels are many remnants of the pioneering homes and settlements, many of which predate American independence. The Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley were also an important side theater in the Civil War struggle for northern Virginia. Both the Confederacy and Union wanted to be able to use the railways of the Shenandoah Valley to ferry troops around the flanks of their enemies behind the protection of the Blue Ridge.

Skyline Drive

The simplest way to experience the park is to drive along the Skyline Drive. This road meanders leisurely along the crest of the Blue Ridge, affording views of the piedmont to the east and the picturesque Shenandoah Valley to the west. Frequent overlooks give breathtaking views of the mountains, valleys and countryside. Many of these overlooks provide access to the hiking trails of the park, and most will have small interpretive signs pointing out interesting (or not) features that can be seen from the overlooks.

The Shenandoah Valley, part of the Great Valley which runs from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, lies to the west. Here, it is a wide valley (often over 20 miles wide) split down the middle by the unmistakable double-ridge of Massanutten, formed by a massive fold in the rocks of the valley floor. On either side of Massanutten run the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River. For 20 or 30 miles south of Front Royal, the South Fork meanders back and forth across the valley floor between the foot of the Blue Ridge to Massanutten, forming lazy loops of silver between the green and brown fields of the valley. Nearer the foot of the mountains are picturesque vales harboring white-washed churches, country villages, winding roads crossing covered bridges (Madison County of book fame, extends east from the park into the piedmont).

The Skyline Drive is an easy way to get into the park, allowing a good view of the mountains. But while it is by no means an autobahn (the speed limit never tops 35mph, and long stretches are too winding and hilly to allow passing) driving through in car alone will mean you miss the best features of the park. Get out of traffic (which can be bad, especially in those no-passing zones, some of which last literally tens of miles), and do some hiking or bird watching, or just smell the air.

Trails

Shenandoah is one of two major national parks crossed by the Appalachian Trail (the other being Great Smokey Mountains National Park). The AT would be the other great way to see the park, for those who prefer boots to brakes (my aren't I glib?). It runs the full length of the park, crossing the Skyline drive several times, and affords access to many of the other trails in the park. Many of the waterfalls in the park are accessible by hiking trails, and they're worth seeing. The flipside is they're the most popular, so look elsewhere for solitude. Books on other trails are available in the park offices, or at many outfitters (Rockfish Gap Outfitters in Waynesboro was good last time I was there). Backcountry camping is permited, although a free permit is required. There are bears around, so hang any food and toiletries (toothpaste smells like food!) ten feet above the ground at night. This keeps smaller varmints from eating much of your food. Don't feed the animals.

Facilities

Shenandoah has:
  • 5 campgrounds
  • 6 restraunts and/or snack bars
  • 3 gas stations
  • 3 main visitor centers
  • ATMs, for god's sake
This is a posh park.

Getting There

You can get into the park at:
  • the north entrance at Front Royal from US-340 (from I-66)
  • at US-211
  • at US-3
  • the south entrance from US-250 or I-64.
Have fun!


Sources
Shenandoah National Park website: http://www.nps.gov/shen/

Guide to SNP - Log of the Drive: http://ajheatwole.com/guide/log.htm

Roadside Geology of Virginia, by Keith Frye, ISBN 0-87842-199-8

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