This week on our national parks journey, we visit a mountainous landscape on America’s east coast. Within the park are rocky peaks, rolling green hills, and spectacular waterfalls. It is also home to hundreds of black bears.
Welcome to Shenandoah National Park in the state of Virginia.
Shenandoah sits in the heart of Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountains are part of the larger Appalachian Mountain range. The park’s hiking trails, waterfalls and wildlife appeal to nature-lovers and adventurers.
A hiker on the North Marshall section of Shenandoah
Driving on top of the mountain
Shenandoah National Park is perhaps best known for the road that goes through it: Skyline Drive.
Skyline Drive runs nearly 170 kilometers north to south. It is the only road in the park. There are more than 70 overlooks along the way, where people can pull their car off the road. These overlooks provide visitors with beautiful views of the Shenandoah Valley.
The road was built in the 1930s, at a time when the automobile was becoming popular.
Early visitors drive Skyline Drive
Shenandoah’s north entrance lies less than 120 kilometers from Washington, D.C. Early planners wanted a major national park like those in the American West here on the East Coast, close to big cities.
In fact, Shenandoah was described as “an Eastern park in the Western tradition.”
And, early park planners wanted Skyline Drive to be “the single greatest feature” of the park.
Denise Machado is a park ranger at Shenandoah. She explains that the park soon became a place for people to escape the noise -- and heat -- of big cities.
“It was created just so people could kind of get away, a place to escape the big city hustle and bustle. Pre-air-condition days, this was the place to be. The temperatures were about 10 degrees cooler up here on the mountain.”
But, Shenandoah’s history is not without controversy. To create the place that park planners envisioned, many families were forced to leave behind properties in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Shenandoah National Park was formed from more than 3,000 individual land purchases. They were presented to the federal government by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Shenandoah officially became a national park in 1936.
Today, most of the buildings and structures that once stood in the area are long gone. But, you can find some signs of the past. A log building called Corbin Cabin still stands. George Corbin, who built the log structure, was forced to leave the land in the late 1930s, just after the creation of the national park. Today, the cabin is operated by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. The club permits people to rent the cabin.
Shenandoah National Park has more than 800 kilometers of hiking trails. They take visitors to rocky mountain peaks, grassy meadows, and forested canyons. Hikers are especially drawn to the park’s famous waterfalls.
“The waterfalls are definitely the most popular. We have nine waterfalls. Dark Hollow Falls is our most popular. It’s a beautiful waterfall, it's a 70-foot waterfall. It 1.4 mile hike round-trip. It follows along a stream. And you’re right at the base of the falls and you’re looking up and you can feel the spray. It’s a really great experience.”
Dark Hollow Falls, Shenandoah National Park
Grace Williams hiked to Dark Hollow Falls with her daughter on her birthday.
“My daughter’s gift for me to bring me to the national park. And it’s on my bucket list. I always love falls, I like the sound. The water is refreshing. So, they did tell us it's kind of like a moderate hike. I do have knee problems, but I just wanted to challenge it, and I’m glad I came. It’s beautiful.”
Another of Shenandoah’s famous hikes is called Old Rag. It is almost 15 kilometers long.
Hikers on the Old Rag trail
To get to the top of Old Rag Mountain, hikers must scramble up large rocks. It is a long and difficult hike. But, the views from the top bring hikers from all across the country and world.
Because it is close to many big cities, Shenandoah’s trails are often crowded with people. More than 1 million people visit the park each year.
Although Shenandoah was created to be an easy escape from big East Coast cities, today it sees visitors from all over the world.
“It's amazing how many people you meet that come from far-flung countries and corners of the world. We've had people from Africa. We get a lot of people from Germany, France, Sweden, Netherlands, so you just never know where they're going to come from."
Machado says summer and fall are the most popular times to visit the park. While summer is a good time to enjoy the waterfalls, the fall brings beautiful autumn colors. In the middle of October, the trees begin to lose their leaves. The leaves change from green to different shades of yellow, orange, and red as winter approaches.
Fall colors in Shenandoah's north district
On weekends in October it can take up to two hours just to get into the park.
Shenandoah’s black bears
Visitors to Shenandoah National Park have a good chance of seeing a black bear. The park is home to between 400 to 600 black bears. It has one of the densest black bear populations of any national park.
Denise Machado knows a lot about these black bears. In fact, her nickname is “the bear lady.”
“Well, I am known in Shenandoah as the bear lady. I see a lot of bears every season. I'm in the park early in the morning and late in the evening. I see anywhere from 400 or so bears every year. And, it's wonderful to see. I never get tired of seeing them. They are all different and they are all special.”
A black bear in Shenandoah National Park
Machado gives visitors advice for what to do if they see a black bear.
“So, if you see a bear, you want to clap your hands, you wanna say ‘Hey bear! Hey bear!’ They really don’t like to be startled. You don’t want to try to sneak up on them to get a photo or anything. You want to make sure that they are totally aware you are there.”
Malachi and his older brother Brent visited Shenandoah National Park with their parents. The family traveled here from Cincinnati, Ohio. The family hiked the Little Stony Man Trail. Along the way, they came upon a black bear.
“I really liked how we could see the animals. We saw a really big bear. And he was really friendly and he didn’t do anything. And he was just eating.”
The park’s bears and other wildlife are a big part of what attracts so many visitors to Shenandoah. Carol Bair and her husband visited the park from York, Pennsylvania. She said visiting Shenandoah is “like a breath of fresh air.”
“It's just quieter. You hear the birds. You look at trees different. The wind blowing through the fields, it's just really neat.”
A butterfly in a grassy meadow
I'm Ashley Thompson.
And I'm Adam Brock.
Ashley Thompson reported and wrote this story. Adam Brock was the editor.
Words in This Story
peak - n. the pointed top of a mountain
spectacular - adj. causing wonder and admiration
hustle and bustle - expression. busy and noisy activity
meadow - n. a usually flat area of land that is covered with tall grass
canyon - n. a deep valley with steep rock sides and often a stream or river flowing through it
bucket list - n. a number of experiences that a person hopes to do in their lifetime
moderate - adj. average in the level of difficulty
scramble - v. to move or climb over something quickly especially while also using your hands
recreation - n. activities done for enjoyment
dense - adj. having many of something in a certain area
startle - v. to surprise or frighten suddenly
sneak up - phrasal verb. to approach (someone) quietly and secretly in order to avoid being noticed