We visited Shenandoah National Park the end of September. We were a little early for fall color but it was beautiful nevertheless. Shenandoah is a long, narrow park of mountain forest in northern Virginia.
We stayed in two different campgrounds – Loft Mountain and Big Meadows – within the park and explored. The weather was a bit difficult with dense fog and often heavy rain. One day it rained so hard that we spent quite a bit of time in the rv playing chess and gin rummy and only ventured out for a couple of short hikes. During one of those hikes we came across a pair of backpackers who were simply looking for a place to hunker down before it got even worse. They looked very wet and very cold and not particularly happy.
The Appalachian Trail winds along the Blue Ridge through the park and we were quite determined to be able to say we had hiked at least a small part of the Appalachian Trail. So we donned our raingear and headed out. There is something special about being on the “grand-daddy” of hiking trails. We had the trail all to ourselves except for a deer who appeared out of the fog. She was as curious about us as we were about her and apparently didn’t feel the least bit threatened. She simply stood and studied us for quite a while before slowly moving off. Our few miles on this special trail cross off another experience on our wish list.
Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935 with the idea of giving nearby urban residents the national park experience that had become popular in the West. The park was to represent the Southern Appalachian Mountains in pristine condition. In actuality, the parkland had been diversely exploited for over two hundred years so it became an effort to return the land to nature’s ways.
Capitalizing on the new popularity of motor cars, the “greatest single feature” was to be a sky-line drive on which motorists could enjoy a leisurely drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge and experience the awe and inspiration of magnificent views. Construction on the skyline drive was begun even before Congress established the national park.
The vast majority of the annual visitors drive Skyline Drive, stopping at many of the 75 overlooks. They rarely venture far from their vehicles, even though the park encompasses nearly 200,000 acres and more than 500 miles of trails. The speed limit on the 105-mile Skyline Drive is 35 mph. As the road twists and turns and is often blanketed with fog you don’t plan on getting anywhere fast.
Before the advent of the national park, the northern Blue Ridge had been heavily used and the extent of that use varied from hunting and gathering to stock grazing, mining, timbering and total clearing. Now Shenandoah National Park, relatively undisturbed throughout 95 percent of its area, has largely reverted to forest ecosystem.
The area was used for rest and recreation long before the national park was established. Skyland Resort hosted urbanites for longs stays beginning in the late 1800’s. President Herbert Hoover and the First Lady built their Rapidan Camp as a retreat from the nation’s capital.
Depression-era CCC “boys” came in the 1930’s to build many park facilities. As part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, Congress authorized the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1933, the first CCC camp was in Shenandoah and at one time there were over 1000 CCC “boys” there. They worked on the Skyline Drive, erected stone walls, built park amenities, cleaned up the landscape, planted trees, manned fire towers, fought forest fires and did anything else that needed to be done to ready the park for visitors.
To create the park Virginia state officials acquired 1,088 privately owned tracts and donated the land to the nation. Some of these tracts were sold willingly, others not so. Ownership of some of the parcels was difficult to prove as sometimes they had changed hands many times without a true paper trail. There were also long-time tenants living in the parkland. Some of the people claiming ownership were, and had been for decades, squatters who claimed ownership by right of longtime occupation. In the decade before and during the early phases of the park opening, some 465 families moved or were moved from their cabins and resettled outside the proposed park boundaries. Some of the older mountaineers, however, were allowed to live out their lives in the park and were buried in the secluded graveyards of Shenandoah’s vanished settlements. Annie Shenk would be the last of the long-ago people living in the park. She died in January of 1979 at the age of 92.
Shenandoah National Park is very different than the vast national parks in the West, both in its history and its purpose. It was a park created specifically to approximate the precolonial wilderness of hundreds of years ago and provide a place of recreation and regeneration for urban dwellers. By allowing most of the area to recycle itself it has become a realistic representation of that wilderness. I’ve heard it called “gently wild” and that seems accurate.
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