National Park Number: 25 of 59
Before we got to Shenandoah, we made a stop at Dinosaur Land, an “educational prehistoric forest” just north of the park. It was an A+ roadside attraction, kitschy and fun and exactly the kind of thing we love stopping for. Then it was on to the park.
Our time in Shenandoah was largely centered around the Appalachian Trail: learning about its history and hiking sections of it. Throughout our trip, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by trails, these man-made things we’re usually dependent on for our experience of wilderness. We often go into the woods to feel free, to escape civilization, but a trail represents one of the most ancient forms of civilization that exists and reduces, rather than increasing, our options. The Appalachian Trail is one of the most popular thru-hikes in the world, stretching over 2000 miles from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. The trail actually now continues (as the International Appalachian Trail) up through Canada, to Scandinavia, Western Europe, and down to Morocco, following bits of Appalachian geology.
The Appalachians are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. They started off taller than the Himalayas, but have been worn down over eons into their present modest size. Shenandoah is a narrow stretch of protected land along the crest of the mountains in western Virginia; it encompasses 530 miles of hiking trails.
We started our trip with an exploration of Skyline Drive, the road that runs down the backbone of the park and makes up the first stretch of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a bitingly cold day, and along the higher stretches of road, the ground and trees were painted with frost.
The next day was a tiny bit warmer, but foggy and wet. We hiked the Stony Man Trail, but when we got to the overlook at the top, we could only see a few feet beyond our noses.
We decided to make the most of the day by attending ranger programs. First we went to a talk about birds of prey, where we met a red-tailed hawk; then we joined a hike of the AT and learned from the ranger about its history. My favorite story was about Emma Gatewood, the first woman to thru-hike the AT. She had 11 kids and an abusive husband who once beat he so severely she called the cops; they ended up arresting her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she told no one when she left to hike the trail, saying only that she was going out for a walk. She hiked in sneakers and a skirt, and carried no map or guidebooks and no tent. When she made her hike, the trial had been neglected for several years and was overgrown and badly maintained. During interviews with various journalists after she finished, she helped bring attention to the trail’s poor condition and it was largely her influence that got the trail in better shape again.
Our last day was clear, but bitter cold. We hiked to Rose River Falls, then decided to spend the rest of the day in the heated bus, driving the gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway down to Tennessee.
The foliage in the higher elevations at Shenandoah had mostly fallen from the trees, but as we wound our way out of the park, we hit lots of views that were still full of color. The landscapes looking out over the valley were so stunning. We took the Blue Ridge Parkway all the way to Roanoke and loved the slow, winding drive through incredible forest. It was one of our favorite drives of the trip so far; if you have a chance to drive it, don’t miss it!
We definitely want to come back to Shenandoah in the spring to catch more waterfalls, and in the summer to enjoy the sun in the mountains, and earlier in the fall to catch more foliage. But we loved being here in November. The roads were quiet and the woods were still and ground was carpeted in rich rusts and golds. After it snowed, the sound of the slush sliding off branches onto the frost-laced ground was as blissful a sound as I’ve encountered. We knew going into this trip that we couldn’t hit every park at its peak in terms of weather. But we’re starting to question the notion of peak weather in general. It’s nice to be at a park in the off-season, to see the skeletons of the trees and the birds’ nests exposed. We’ll definitely be back here, but all in all, we decided a November visit was a perfect introduction for us.