“For me, it’s Yosemite and Shenandoah.” ~ Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker
As I sit perched atop Blackrock Summit, the highest point in the Big Meadows area at 3,721 feet, I ponder the panoramic vista of the Piedmont below, squinting to see if I can make out Washington, D.C. in the hazy distance.
Amazingly, our nation’s capital is less than 75 miles away, or about a two-hour drive (depending on traffic). Unlike the majestic grandeur of national parks in the West, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is set at a smaller scale – a kinder, gentler version of mountains, forests and waterfalls, offering a convenient retreat from nearby urban madness.
This year, Shenandoah celebrates its 75th anniversary as one of the Eastern Seaboard's favorite parks. The landscape is “softer” on the East Coast because it’s older. And according to Park Superintendent Martha Bogle, it's because the Shenandoah Mountains are so much older that they demand respect.
“At one time these mountains were taller than the Himalayas and full of superlatives,” says Bogle. “Now they are old and deserve respect.” She cautions that the mountains do not shout their presence; one must look closely for their beauty and treasures. “These mountains whisper to me,” she says with both awe and reverence.
Skyline Drive: The Road in the Sky
Sometimes, however, the mountains do give off a little shout – as in the case of Skyline Drive. The snake-like scenic byway affords a stupendous view of the Piedmont to the east and the Shenandoah Valley to the west.
With 105 miles of curvy road running along the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it also parallels the Appalachian Trail most of the way. Designated a National Scenic Byway, Skyline Drive contains 75 scenic overlooks along with 500 miles of hiking trails.
I stop at the Byrd Visitor Center in Big Meadows to visit their newest exhibit on the history and culture of the park.
Apparently the area was once home to farmers, homesteaders and logging operations. When a decision was made by influential citizens to establish an East Coast park close to millions of city dwellers, the state of Virginia acquired a patchwork quilt of land parcels by eminent domain. Virginia then gifted the federal government with the land in 1935. On July 3, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the park to the people of America.
After browsing the exhibit and gift shop, I headed for a ranger-led walk through the grassy lands of Big Meadow. An interesting factoid is that Shenandoah National Park has 431 rare plant populations representing 66 rare plant species. And, of course, the highest concentration is in the Big Meadow area. This is a walk that should not be missed and is easy enough for all ages.
I jumped at the opportunity to join a ranger-guided van tour to Rapidan Camp – the first “real” presidential retreat before Camp David came into being. (Tours are offered late spring through fall.) Built in a secluded area on the Rapidan River in 1929, President Hoover and his wife Lou came here to escape the sweltering heat of Washington, D.C. as well as seek solace from the burdens that a Depression-era presidency would bring.
I was surprised to learn that Lou was instrumental in designing and overseeing construction of the retreat, also known as the “Brown House.” She incorporated utility and comfort as well as natural elements for guests at the camp.
Just as remarkable as the tour of Rapidan Camp was the 30-minute van ride each way: we spotted a giant black bear lumbering through the forest, a wild turkey by the roadside and several browsing white-tailed deer.
Room with a View
Over the course of three nights and days in Shenandoah, I split my time between Skyline Resort and Big Meadows Lodge. Since my kids are grown, camping is a thing of the past with me: I now require cushy creature comforts and Shenandoah doesn’t disappoint.
At Skyland Resort, the highest point on the Skyline Drive (3,680 feet), lodging ranges from campsites to rustic cabins and comfortable suites and rooms. And with Skyland Stables nearby, it’s easy to take an hour guided trail ride past an old apple orchard and through fern-laced forests. At the end of my ride, I spy a doe and her fawn at the edge of the forest.
Later, I settle into my suite, taking in scenic vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and valley below from the convenience of my balcony. I watch as a lone doe grazes nearby. That evening, I am rewarded with a most magnificent sunset.
My lodging at Big Meadows is equally splendid, with vistas that linger long after in my mind’s eye.
For a real treat, try Spottswood Dining Room (Big Meadows Lodge) for their signature sweet potato sticks as well as fresh Rapidan Camp trout.
A “must try” desert is the Mile High Blackberry Ice Cream Pie. Look around at the other diners, as chances are most of them are gorging on the blackberry ice cream pie, too. If you can, it’s best to share.
CONTEST TIP: It's not too late to enter the "75 Reasons to Visit Shenandoah National Park and the Surrounding Communities" contest, with the grand prize a vacation package for two that includes Skyland Resort lodging for two nights, two dinners, two breakfasts, a one-hour guided horseback ride, and an hour-long flight over the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont on a biplane.
Entries must be received by November 11, 2011. Check out www.CelebrateShenandoah.org
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