Shenandoah National Park Hikes

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Spring at Shenandoah National Park
Spring blossoms in Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah National Park is the scenic mountain haven of the eastern seaboard. The park offers panoramic views from overlooks scatteredon lofty Skyline Drive, which runs the length of the 300-square-mile sanctuary. Beyond SkylineDrive lies another Shenandoah where bears furtively roam the hollows and brook trout ply thetumbling streams. Quartz, granite, and greenstone outcrops jut above the diverse forest, allowingfar-flung views of the Blue Ridge and surrounding Shenandoah Valley.

You must reach this other Shenandoah by foot. The rewards increase with every footfall beneath the stately oaks of the ridge tops and in the deep canyons where waterfalls roar among old-growth trees spared by the logger's axe. In some places your footsteps will lead you past pioneer cemeteries. The gravestones reveal another era of Shenandoah. It is a rich cultural history that once found pioneer farms squeezed into the narrow valleys and apple orchards lining grassy fields atop the ridges, where lives were lived inthe shadows of these Appalachian highlands.

This meld of natural and cultural history is fitting in Virginia where so much of this country's story has been played out, from the battles of the American Revolutionary and Civil War to battles in Congress where this park was established. Shenandoah National Park has also seen the depopulation and reforestation of the park, the building of Skyline Drive, the return of the deer, and the invasion of exotic pests that threaten the mountain trees. And through it all, Shenandoah has shone.

Shenandoah National Park offers much to see, yet our hurried lives afford little time to see it all. However, a respite in the mountains will revitalize both mind and spirit. Smell the autumn leaves on a crisp afternoon. Climb to a lookout. Contemplate pioneer lives at an old homesite. Put your life into perspective.

That is where this book will come into play. It will help you make every step count, whether you are leading the family on a brief day hike orundertaking a challenging backpack into the remote reaches of the park. With the knowledge youfind here, your outdoor experience and your precious time can be utilized to its fullest.

Often, park sight-seers randomly pick a hike without knowing where it will lead, or they follow the crowds wherever they go. Many times, I've been stopped with the question, “what's down this trail?” Choosing a hike at random in Shenandoah, where many trails drop steeply off the Blue Ridge, mayresult in a rigorous return to the car with no rewards to show effort.

Many of the hikes are off the beaten path, offering more solitude and lesser known yet equally scenic sights like Big Branch Falls and Furnace Mountain. This will give you the opportunity to get back to nature on your own terms.

Two types of day hikes are offered: one-way and loop hikes. One-way hikes lead to a particularly rewarding destination and return via the same trail. The return trip allows you to see everything from the opposite vantage point. You may notice more minute trailside features the second go-round, and returning at a different time of daymay give the same trail a surprisingly different character. But to some, returning on the same trail just isn't enjoyable. Some hikers just can't stand the thought of covering the same ground twice with 500 other miles of Shenandoah trails awaiting them. The loop hikes provide an alternative.

Most of the hikes offer solitude to maximize your Shenandoah experience, although by necessity, portions of some hikes traverse potentially popular areas. It should also be noted that loop hikes are generally longer and harder than one-way hikes, but a bigger challenge can reap bigger rewards.

Day hiking is the best and most popular way to “break into” the Shenandoah wilderness. But for those with the inclination to see the mountain cycle from day to night and back again, there are locations for overnight camping. Backpackers must follow park regulations and practice “leave no trace” wilderness-use etiquette.

When touring Shenandoah, it's a great temptationto remain in your car and enjoy the sights along Skyline Drive. While auto touring is a great way toget an overview of the park, it creates a barrier between you and the wilderness beyond. Windshieldtourists hoping to observe wildlife often end up observing only the traffic around them. Whileoverlooks avail easy views, the hassle of driving, the drone of traffic, and the lack of effort inreaching the views can make them less than inspirational. Shenandoah is great for hiking.

The wilderness experience can unleash your mind and body allowing you to relax and find peace andquiet. It also enables you to grasp beauty and splendor: a white-quartz outcrop with a windowoverlooking the patchwork valley below, a bobcat disappearing into a laurel thicket, or asnow-covered clearing marking an old homestead. On these protected lands you can let your mindroam—free to go where it pleases. This simply can't be achieved in a climate-controlled automobile.

Shenandoah is a special preserve; get out and enjoy it.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 12 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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