Shenandoah National Park
|Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (Nathan Borchelt|
Shenandoah is not really an English word. It's a thoroughly American word, pregnant with meaning and rich in history.
First and foremost, the name Shenandoah conjures up a legendary river, one that flows through America's past in song, print, and folklore. And the valley that bears its name is easily the most beautiful in Virginia, an idyllic landscape of rolling hills and pastures, bounded by mountains on either side and bisected by the majestic river.
Shenandoah National Park lies high above this classic American panorama, 300 square miles stretched out along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a precious reminder of the great hardwood forest that once blanketed the northeastern United States.
Maybe it's Shenandoah's serpentine shape, the fact that it parallels a river, or the famous motorway that bisects the park, but this is a park meant for motion. People come here to paddle, to bike and drive, and, of course, to hike. For on top of everything else there is to do in and around Shenandoah, a certain hiking path known as the Appalachian Trail just happens to run for 101 miles through the entire park.
Chances are you won't be able to see and do everything you planned when visiting Shenandoah, but you won't be alone if you feel the need to return again and again.
Cruise Skyline Drive
A great many people head to Shenandoah for one thing only—driving. Skyline Drive, the park's storied highway, is probably at least as famous as the park it intersects, and for good reason. This 100-mile, two-lane road snakes along the entire length of the park, riding the spine of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. This is the scenic drive against which all others are measured, with scores of pull-offs for you to enjoy the panoramic views, grab a bite, or take a hike. The best place to start is at the beginning, in Front Royal, Virginia. Drive the first third, 29 miles south to Beahms Gap. There's plenty to see and do along the way, and if you want more, there's nothing to stop you from going all the way.
Backpack the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, giving visitors more than 100 miles of prime trail to hike and backpack along. It's hard to go wrong anywhere along this classic trail, so why not start off with a moderate weekend backpacking trip? The 26-mile Stony Man/Big Meadows traverse takes you through some of the choicest sections of the Appalachian Trail, with cabins along the way for those who don't dig sleeping on the ground. Highlights include Marys Rock, which boasts some of the most spectacular views in the park; Hawksbill Mountain, site of a peregrine falcon release program; and Hazeltop Mountain, the Appalachian Trail's highest point in the park.
Cycle the Shenandoah Valley
You probably think Skyline Drive makes for a memorable bike ride. It sure does, but the memories won't necessarily be good ones. The problem? Killer climbs, screaming descents, and all of those pesky cars. This is primo scenic driving territory, and you'll have to contend with people whose eyes are more on the views than the road. So play it safe and head for the safer lowlands of the Shenandoah Valley. This charming slice of Virginia is chock full of historic towns, old farms, meandering streams, and scenery that hasn't changed all that much since the Union and Confederate armies slugged it out up and down the valley during the Civil War.
Angle for Mountain Trout
If you want to experience eastern trout fishing the way it used to be, cast your fly upon the myriad waters of Shenandoah National Park. Since the introduction of the European brown trout in the late 19th century, the native brook trout have been displaced from all but the coldest, highest, and most remote streams. Shenandoah is one of the last wild brookie refuges, with more than 30 trout streams open to anglers. Many are small streams well off the beaten path, combining a nice hike and solitary fishing. The Rose River is one of the park's bigger streams and holds some of the park's biggest brookies. The fishing is never easy, but that's why you'll keep coming back.
Paddle the Shenandoah
No trip to Shenandoah National Park is truly complete without a trip down the river that gives the park its name. Floating down this famous river is far more than just a canoe trip—it's a time trip, a journey past historic towns and traditional farms that hearken back to America's pastoral past. And a journey down the river's south fork is perfect for paddlers more interested in taking in the idyllic surroundings than negotiating hair-raising rapids. This majestic stream meanders back and forth through the valley formed by the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountains. The scenery is constantly changing, from forested slopes to limestone cliffs to cow pastures to shady bowers between sandy islands. Make sure to bring a camera and plenty of film.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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