Article by Stefanie Payne. First published on The Greatest Road Trip.
Seeing an Old Friend in a New Light: Shenandoah National Park
When we arrived to Shenandoah National Park in February, it was very much a world without color. A recent cold snap had blanketed snow on much of the mountains and trails. It had also frozen the waterfalls, and conjured high winds that were bitter cold when exposed to them but also that smoothed the snow so the tiny footprints of animals were visible. Half of the park was closed due to black ice on the roadways. The park was silent and still.
This version of Shenandoah was a new world to us. We had been living in the DC area for almost eight years and the park was our regular respite from the busy city life – the outdoors that we craved so much. I had photographed the park many, many times in all seasons. We knew the trails in spring when the air was still cold at night and we would make our first forage into the mountains to setup a tent. We knew the trails in summer when we joined the throngs of DC folk on the way up to Old Rag Mountain in desperate need to breathe fresh air and gaze upon the wooded valley below. And we knew the park in the fall when the autumn colors exploded in the brightest yellows, oranges, and reds. But for some reason, we had never explored the park in winter. Until this year.
With fresh eyes we hiked new trails. Our first hike was Mary’s Rock Trail, located in the aptly named Panorama section of the park. Mary’s Rock Trail is part of the Appalachian Trail, and the summit provides incredible views of the valley below. Frozen waterfalls piqued our curiosity, so we tracked down to Lewis Falls and the Dark Hallow Falls. Standing next to water frozen in time and space as it once cascaded over the rock is in amazing feeling. My good Nat Geo buddies Keith and Scott met us the next day to tackle White Oak Canyon trail in the Central District, a steep but beautiful trail with yet another frozen waterfall that we had all to ourselves. And we drove the famous Skyline Drive all the way to the southern entrance, stopping by the numerous lookouts for different and unique views.
We found life in the frozen wonderland. Deer fed on tufts of grass poking out of the snow at Big Meadows. Downy Woodpeckers, the smallest American woodpecker, flew from tree to tree and eluded our cameras but not our ears. Fresh tracks in the snow of animals big and small gave away their presence but not their location. If you stood still enough, the forest came alive.
Experiencing Shenandoah in the winter was like getting to know an old friend in a new way. We had spent eight years together, walked through three seasons upon her trails, drives, and overlooks. Yet we never knew the beauty she possessed in the crisp air of winter. It was not only a surprise, but also a pure delight. For this reason, we are presenting all the images in black and white….a form of photography which is also an old friend and one that fits very well in this colorless, winter world of Shenandoah National Park during February.
The Visitor Center was closed when we were there due to weather, so no hiking stick medallions from Shenandoah for us at this time!
“If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.”
— Bill Bryson
199,000 acres | 40% of the area designated as wilderness | Appalachian Trail connection
Official name: Shenandoah National Park
Established: May 22, 1926
Location: Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia
How the park got its name: The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” Natives used the area for hunting and shelter. Miners and loggers used it to harvest valuable resources. Soldiers used it as a fighting ground. Shenandoah is the name of a river, mountain, valley, county, and many other things, so, the origin of the National Park name is unclear. Daughter of the Stars. That’s beautiful.
Iconic site in the park: A climb to the top of Old Rag Mountain is undoubtedly the most popular, and the most difficult hike in the park. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But for those of you ready to take on the challenge, you will find yourself in the clouds. The circuit hike is about 9 miles, with significant elevation change, and strenuous rock scrambles. This hike takes 7-8, and sometimes longer depending on how many people are out there—waiting in line to pass through scrambles is par for the course. In our experience, hitting Old Rag on a weekday and/or during off-season is a much more pleasing experience.
Accessible adventure: The Skyline Drive scenic byway is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road travels through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness. Stops along the way bring you to trailheads where you can explore the forests, waterfalls, rocky areas, and hopefully have a wildlife sighting. It’s a pretty amazing place in terms of wildlife – there are black bears, deer, woodpeckers, owls, raccoons, skunk, fox, coyotes and wild turkeys, just to name a few of the types of animals you might run into out there.
Big adventure: One of the best ways to go big in Shenandoah is to hit the pavement on a bicycle and traverse the entire length of Skyline drive. With 105-miles of twists, turns, and incredible views throughout, it is truly one of the great rides in the U.S. As this is also a very popular drive, this adventure is suited for experienced riders who know how to navigate and coexist among traffic. There are a couple of outfits in the area who offer multi-day guided bike excursions if you want to hit the road with some additional support.
Did you know?
Skyline Drive rides the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, and joins the Blue Ridge Parkway which connects Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC. As an aside, this is the same ridge that was walked by American Indians and early settlers of Virginia.
Shenandoah is without a doubt one of the coolest leaf-peeping spots in the United States when fall foliage changes color each year. Until we took to the road, we hit the park to capture autumn leaf pics every single year.
In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed a law known as the Wilderness Act, from which a National Wilderness Preservation System was created to provide an “enduring resource of wilderness” for present and future generations. Forty percent of Shenandoah is designated as a wilderness area, representing one of the largest wilderness areas in the eastern United States.
Rapidan Camp, within the park, was the summer White House of President Herbert Hoover.
101 miles of the 2,184-mile Appalachian Trail is located in Shenandoah National Park.
“In every part of the country, local and state and federal authorities are engaged in preserving and developing our heritage of natural resources; and in this work they are also conserving our priceless heritage of human values by giving to hundreds of thousands of men the opportunity of making an honest living.
I saw this work in progress when I was here two years ago. I have seen it in progress in many other parts of the land; and so I can say, from first-hand evidence, that the product of the labor of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who have opened the Shenandoah National Park and other parks to the use and enjoyment of our citizens, is as significant as though instead of working for the Government they had been working in a mill or in a factory. They have a right to be as proud of their labor here as if they had been engaged in private employment.”
— President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from his dedication of Shenandoah National Park in 1936