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Shenandoah National Park

by Ana Eastep

By Molly Fellin Spence

Its nickname is “the Yellowstone of the East.”  With its awe-inspiring landscapes, abundant wildlife, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails, Shenandoah National Park certainly lives up to that impressive title.

Yellowstone was this country’s first designated national park. Opened in 1916, it certainly is one of the most impressive parks in America. But for East Coast dwellers, a trip to Wyoming isn’t naturally on an annual travel to-do list. A trip to Shenandoah, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, should be.

Outdoor enthusiasts will love the park for its more than 500 miles of trails, opportunities for horseback riding, biking, rock climbing and fishing. But those interested in a more relaxing escape can find delight as well. Sit back on a cozy rocking chair in a retro lodge, warming up near the fireplace, and see the scenic vistas stretching out ahead. Live music is available almost every night, and wine, beer and cocktails are served alongside an impressive menu prepped by an executive chef.

However you like to escape your everyday monotony, Shenandoah can likely provide the respite you desire.

Let’s take a ride in an automobile…

As described in the park’s literature, Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935, long before skyscrapers and air travel were commonplace. In fact, the park’s planners worked diligently to capitalize on Americans’ newfound love of the automobile, and made sure that the park’s “greatest single feature” was the now famous Skyline Drive —a road that winds along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Awe-inspiring views are available literally every few feet of the 105-mile stretch through the park. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) “boys” began construction on Skyline Drive before Congress officially established the national park. The idea was that motorists could venture to the park, then drive through it, seeing amazing beauty without leaving the comfort of their cars.


The speed limit remains at 35 mph, though visitors may want to go even slower so they don’t miss any of the 75 scenic, rock wall-lined overlooks or the many deer or black bears that sometimes cross the drive. For day-trippers, such as the thousands of motorcyclists who use the road each season, three “waysides” offer gas, food, gifts and convenience store amenities. The Big Meadows Wayside, located about halfway on Skyline Drive, even offers a sit-down restaurant, with a cozy, diner-style vibe, and fried chicken and pulled pork sandwiches on the menu. Those who plan to stay a bit longer have even better options.

You won’t need to ‘rough it’

If camping is your thing, Shenandoah has plenty of options for RVs and tent campers. Four large campgrounds are spread throughout the length of the park, three of which are RV accessible. Backcountry camping permits can be obtained for free for those desiring a truly rustic experience.


But staying overnight at a national park doesn’t have to involve tents and communal bathrooms. Lovely furnished cabins and hotel-style rooms of a variety of shapes and sizes are available at Lewis Mountain, Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge.

Lewis Mountain cabins offer the most seclusion; Skyland rooms are generally the most modern. Big Meadows Lodge is the rustic, yet comfortable, old-fashioned lodge experience you’ve been looking for.  At the main lodge, a large, comfortable lounge with plenty of sofas and chairs, and a long row of rocking chairs along a wall of windows awaits. Most days a fire is roaring in the big fireplace and families are busy playing cards or reading newspapers and magazines, happy laughter emanating through the space.

Down the hall, Big Meadows’ Spottswood Dining Room opens  for a hearty breakfast of buttermilk pancakes, the Blue Ridge omelet (filled with your choice of bacon, sausage, ham, peppers, onions, mushrooms, spinach, asparagus, tomatoes, cheddar or Swiss), or the Stony Man (two cage-free eggs any style with toast, choice of bacon, sausage, or Virginia ham, and home fries or cheese grits). Named for a great hiking trail nearby, the Stony Man is a good choice for a hearty start before a long hike.

After that hike, consider a visit downstairs to the New Market Taproom, where you can enjoy a pint and some snacks. Stay a bit later and you’ll find yourself tapping your toes to live music, and probably ordering a specialty drink, many of which feature a spirit called Virginia Lightning, a corn whiskey distilled in Culpeper, Va.

Try the Revenuer’s Reward (Virginia Lightning, sweet vermouth, cherry juice) or the Copper Kettle Cooler (Virginia Lightning, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, sweet ‘n sour mix). For the kids, a Bear’s Kiss (orange juice, sour mix, grenadine) is a fun choice.

Get on Your Hiking Shoes

Shenandoah is known for its beautiful hiking trails that range from easy to strenuous, and can be accomplished by novices or experts. There are more than 500 miles of trails available in the park, more than 30 percent of which are in designated wilderness. About 101 miles are part of the Appalachian Trail. So, bottom line, you have a lot of options!

Shenandoah-hiking-trails-Byrd-visitor-center-Big Meadows, Virginia

Two truly easy hikes that are worth doing are the Story of the Forest Trail, meant for families, and Big Meadows. Stop by the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows first to chat with knowledgeable park rangers, walk through an interactive exhibit (“Within a Day’s Drive of Millions”) that explains the history of the park, and pick up a free guide for Story of the Forest. The trail is a 1.8-mile loop with virtually no elevation change. Along the way, complete a scavenger hunt that teaches you about natural features of the park.

Allow an hour or two for a leisurely hike through Big Meadows as well. The area, considered a wetland, has the highest concentration of rare plants in the park. In spring and summer, wildflowers bloom waist high, allowing hikers to get lost among natural beauty. To keep Big Meadows a meadow, park rangers participate in controlled burns to allow for reduction of woody shrubs and encourage sun-loving flowering plants to thrive.

From Big Meadows, meet up with one of two gorgeous hikes, taking you to some of the park’s brilliant waterfalls. Choose the Lewis Falls Trail, a 3.3-mile circuit leading to an observation point for the 81-foot waterfall, and returning via the Appalachian Trail. This hike is of moderate difficulty, with some steep, rocky areas. Another option is the very steep Dark Hollow Falls Trail, which is only 1.4 miles round trip, but will take quite some time to traverse. The trip is worth it, for views of the 70-foot waterfall.


Another favorite is Stony Man Trail, which leads to amazing views of the Shenandoah Valley below. It’s so named because from a distance the cliff face looks like the profile of a man. The 1.6-mile loop is an easy-to-moderate hike; at the top, there’s plenty of space to stretch out and enjoy the view, and maybe a few snacks as well.

After your hike, take a rest in your cozy cabin and shower up for a hearty dinner at Skyland Resort’s Pollock Dining Room. Each season, executive chefs prepare farm-to-table menus, featuring local and seasonal products.

A recent dinner menu included Rapidan Camp Pan-Seared Trout, prepared with pecan whiskey butter. The delicious butter is made with Copper Fox whiskey, distilled in Sperryville, Va. Other solid choices are the New York strip steak, shrimp and grits or beef brisket braised with Old Hill Heritage hard cider, made in the Shenandoah Valley.

Whatever you choose for your entrée, save room for dessert! The region is famous for its blackberries, and a scoop of blackberry ice cream is a must, either by itself or on top of homemade pie. Got a bit more room in there? Then order the mile-high blackberry ice cream pie: one of the few times eating something purple is a good idea.

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