As I continue to delve deeper into the endless pot of gems that is the United States, i’m now and then reminded of the fact that I don’t know everything, and although I may think i’m sure of my top 5 favorite national parks, a place I knew little about is ready to slap me in the face and force me to reconsider.
As I continued to move along the Appalachian Mountains this summer, I came across Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Honestly (and I feel bad about this), I knew nothing about it. I’d perhaps heard the name, it felt strangely and distantly familiar, but that’s as far as my knowledge stretched. I wanted to get in and explore it, i’ve revisited a lot of national parks in the last couple of years, trying to get away from the tourists and deeper into the parks, so it had been a while since I entered a park I knew nothing about.
Job one was to find a campsite. As I drove my tidy little Kia into the park gates and dutifully flashed my NP Annual Pass (luckily just valid for another two weeks), the lady at the kiosk gave me some great advice alongside a couple of campground maps. Her recommendation was to shoot south and head to the biggest site in the park, which also apparently had the quietest sites and some nice views. Done!
Fifteen minutes, and a wonderful winding drive later, I was pitching the tent and hammock in the Loft Mountain campground. It really was a beautiful site. It’s a tremendously large campground considering its location, rows and rows of tent sites and absolutely no RV’s. Perfect. Even more wonderful, on the outside edge of the grounds, which essentially forms the ridge of the mountain, are tent sites you walk down to, which are slightly more remote, quiet and have super evening views of the sunset. I couldn’t believe my luck. Although the Rolling Meadows campground is located more centrally in the park, I would chose this above it every time.
I headed to the visitor centre, which is very close to the centre of the park, perhaps a 20 minute drive from Loft Mountain, and asked the rangers about good hikes. I do love a waterfall or a stunning view on my hiking trips and its not just the photographer in me, I just like there to be a point to all the walking, a payoff for the work put in. It’s only fair that I receive some pleasure to counteract my blisters. The staff were great and I spent the next few days exploring.
Hawksbill is the epitome of a Shenandoah hike. The whole park is essentially a long thin stretch of forest following the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the Shenandoah River on the west side, and the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont on the east, almost every hike gives you unbelievably beautiful views at some stage. Driving north for perhaps ten minutes from the visitor centre, you will reach the Hawksbill trail head.
My advice would be to hit this in the late afternoon or better, sunset. It’s maybe the best spot to see the dipping sun pass beneath the rolling mountains which spread and flow in all directions from it’s rocky outcroppings. An added bonus is the ludicrous amount of Hawks which, as the name suggests fly and hunt in the area. At one point I sat filming maybe a hundred birds circling on the mountainside.
Another advantage of the park being long and thin, is your chances of seeing wildlife are exponentially increased with every day you’re there. I think I saw a bear and cubs on almost every drive up and down skyline drive, (which runs the length of the park) deer hop around the campsites and hiking trails in large numbers and as we’ve already seen, there’s plenty to look at for the avid bird lover. Perhaps this is also because despite the skyline drive passing through, 40% of the land area of Shenandoah, 79,579 acres has been designated as wilderness and is protected as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Another top hike I roamed was the White Oak Canyon trail. It takes you to one of the park’s more famous natural features, the White Oak Falls. They are well worth the walk, but pack a bit of food and water because you’re going to want to sit here for hours. Perched on a ledge high above the falls I spent a good while just relaxing with a book. At one stage a man came off the trail to find me and ask for water as his girlfriend was struggling with dehydration, crazy really in such a well maintained park with so many amenities, but it just goes to show how easily you can get into trouble.
On the return leg I encountered a black bear in the trees off to my left, a lone male who appeared to be pounding the ground. I backed up sensing his aggression and then froze as he bolted full sprint across the trail ahead of me. I realized upon hearing the following hum, that he had raided a beehive!
And so my days passed with hikes, calm nights in the hammock watching sunsets and campfires. The park is the perfect retreat for a week of relaxation, if you need to get your fix of nature, there aren’t many places better I can think of to start.