Shenandoah National Park

October 27 – 31 — Just 75 miles west of Washington D.C., in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies Shenandoah National Park.  This park was established in the 1920s and ’30s as a response to the development of large national parks in the West.  With automobiles making getaways from big cities possible (‘within a day’s drive for millions,’ as it was touted), and large population centers in the East seeking places to visit, the demand for ‘an Eastern park in the Western tradition’ was answered by establishing this park.

Scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
Scenic Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah’s boundaries are ragged, for it was created through an amalgamation of a 19th century resort, Skyland; a Rapidan River fishing camp; a large meadow, Big Meadows, which was purchased by the state of Virginia and turned over to the Park; and most controversially, small plots of land that were taken away from local residents in less-than-compassionate ways.  Running like a spine through the park is Skyline Drive – 105 miles of a lovely, winding roadway that runs essentially north to south through the park.  It ranges from 13 miles at its widest point to just over a mile at its narrowest.  Along this beautiful scenic parkway are 75 overlooks which offer views that stretch for miles.

A couple of U.S. Presidents are linked to this area.  First, President Herbert Hoover built Rapidan Camp – a.k.a. Camp Hoover; a.k.a. the Brown House (in contrast with the White House) – in these mountains and used it as a summer rustic retreat during his administration from 1929-1933.  Then in 1933, just months after he took office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for the creation of this National Park to help cure the ‘Depression Blues’ and bolster public confidence in the public works programs that we was establishing.

We owe much of what’s in Shenandoah today to President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) works program.  I’ve talked about this group before in previous posts as we are indebted to them and their service in many of the national parks, and Shenandoah National Park is arguably their most extensive work.  Between May ’33 – March ’42, ten CCC camps were established to work on the park.  At any one time, more than 1,000 boys and young men lived in these camps.  They planted trees and shrubs; built trails, fire roads, and towers; built log comfort stations and picnic areas; and, most notably, built the stone walls that line parts of Skyline Drive.

On July 3, 1936, President Roosevelt dedicated Shenandoah National Park.  In his remarks, he stated, “We seek to pass on to our children a richer land—a stronger nation. … And so, my friends, I now take great pleasure in dedicating Shenandoah National Park, dedicating it to this and succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and for the re-creation which they shall find here.”

Indeed, much recreation is found here.  There are 500+ miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail (the A.T.).   Forty percent of the park is designated federal wilderness area, protecting 1,400+ plants and over 300 species of animals including one of the largest concentrations of black bears in the U.S.

"Iron Mike" the CCC worker at Shenandoah National Park
“Iron Mike” statue that commemorates the CCC workers who created this park

As we are wont to do, we took two nice hikes in Shenandoah.  Our first was a 6-mile “moderately difficult” out-and-back trail to see Overall Run Falls – a 93′ waterfall.  The second, two days later, was the renowned “very challenging” 9.2-mile hike and rock scramble to the summit of Old Rag – a 3,291′ rock mountain created some 1.1 billion years ago.  This hike offered many spectacular panoramic views, but it’s best known for the rock scramble.  Challenging and steep, it requires squeezing between cracks in rocks, ducking through a rock cave, and navigating many narrow passages with several spots requiring hand over hand climbing.  It’s not for the novice hiker!

Here are a couple of pictures from our Old Rag hike:

Part of the rock scramble up Old Rag
A section of the mile-long rock scramble up Old Rag
A resting spot on our hike up Old Rag
A resting spot and beautiful vista about halfway up Old Rag
We made it - 2,510' up to the Old Rag summit at 3,291'
The fire road trail back down from Old Rag
A lovely fire road with a pretty carpet of leaves on the forest floor; part of the trail back down from Old Rag
Layers at Shenandoah National Park
Layers of mountains extend out into the horizon at Shenandoah National Park

We visited the park from the north entrance – Dickey Ridge – then we dry camped (no water or electricity) in the park for three nights about halfway down Skyline Drive at Big Meadows Campground.  After three mostly-overcast days and very cold evenings in the middle of the park (with no power to run the furnace regularly, and following campground rules, only being able to run our generator a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening, and only until 8p – thank goodness for the flannel sheets I had recently purchased!!!), we drove the rest of the way down Skyline Drive and out of the park, then without passing Go!, we proceeded directly to our next campground with electric hookups to supply our heat source!

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