TAKING A HIKE -- To get to Shenandoah National Park, take 66 West to the Gainesville Exit, 29 South to Warrenton, and 211 West to Skyline Drive. Admission for day visitors is $2 per car. The park sponsors a full range of activities -- including a ranger-conducted ''Step into Skyland's Past'' and a ''Night Watch,'' both starting from Skyland -- through the schedule's somewhat reduced for the fall. Call 703/999-2243 for further information. By the way, for home-cooking at reasonable prices, you might try the Brookside Restaurant, four miles west on 211 from the park's Thornton Gap entrance.
Tall as a tree and nearly as talkative, Mike Gibhards is just the sort of adventurer you'd expect to meet on the Appalachian Trail. The other afternoon, shouldering his backpack as if it were a trifle, he was four days into a journey on foot from Front Royal to the Florida Keys, where he hoped to hop a shrimp boat for Honduras.
"I have to get to Florida by the first of January," he let slip after a bit of prodding on the way from Mary's Rock, which looms at 3,514 feet in Shenandoah National Park. "I'll make it to Georgia at least, and then if it starts getting late I'll just take the bus."
He pushed the red bandana from his eyes, a motion revealing the "USN" tattoo securely anchored to his biceps, and scratche his scraggly beard. Then he shot his inquistor a cool blue gaze, which is how men of Nature lord it over city slickers. It's all very unsettling, like feeling the force of moral authority -- until you learn that not an hour before, Gebhards has gorged himself on the veal mozzarella at the diner down the road.
"First real meal I've had in days," he said, licking his chops.
Three restaurants straddle a 20-mile stretch of the famous path from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Spring Mountain, Georgia, as it crosses Virginia's Blue Ridge. Northermost of the three is Panorama at Thorton Gap; the Skyland Lodge dining room is ten miles to the south, and ten miles south of that sits the lodge at Big Meadows.
It would be nice to say that these spots are all superb.Alas, their (largely frozen) fare runs from edible to awful, while a few prices seems equally hard to swallow (Skyland's and Big Meadows' lobster tail, a miracle of modern cryogenics, is for $18). But what with postcard views of the valley through picture windows, plus friendly staffers who accept major credit cards, they still might offer a pleasant way to end a day on the trail. And the more challenging the hike, the hungier the hiker -- witness Mike Gebhards -- and the better these places play.
The hike's the thing, however, when it comes to Shenandoah.
About two hours southwest of Washington, a cruise through Virginia horse country capped by winding Skyline Drive, the park's normally a good ten degrees cooler than the city -- and a lot prettier. On a recent Saturday, a couple of urbanites drove up to Skyland, a resort that dates from before the land became a National Park.
The visitors picked up a map and set out for an afternoon walk down, then up, the White Oak Canyon route -- a tree-shaded trek to the falls a thousand feet below.
It began, deceptively, down a gently sloping trail from the White Oak Canyon parking lot, about half a mile from Skyland. Through the haze, it looked like a piece of cake, but those trudging the opposite way were all puffing. "You poor souls got a long walk ahead," on chapa cautioned, wiping away sweat. "When you're through, don't worry, you'll look just like us."
After several such warnings, each more breathless than the last, the hike could have conjured up Dante and his Inferno. It didn't though -- even as the path got rockier and steeper. Following mostly blue blazes, and at one point the white blazes of the A.T., the hikers happened on a spot called "Limberlost," a grove of towering hemlocks, some of them centuries old. They were half an hour into the hike, and the sky through the canapy had thickened with clouds. A wiff of wind huffed across the gorge. It was five o'clock. The savored the scene for a while, then pressed onward and downward.
Then they could distinguish in the general whoosh of wind the hiss of moving water as they descended on the right side of a creek, its banks graced with hemlocks and jutting boulders. After a narrow bridge, the trial looped around the drop got sheer: a wall of rock on one side, an impressive tumble on the other. The hikers tried to ignore pursuing gnats, which occasionally flew in their eyes, and focused on footing instead.
"I thought downhill was supposed to be easy," one marveled. He turned his ankle on a slick, wet spot."Ugh."
For good reason -- two deaths and countless injuries this year alone -- park rangers discourage hikers from splashing about the waterfalls. The authorities also can't vouch for potability -- "You never know what's going on above you," says assistant chief ranger Randy Baynes -- and advise thorough boiling before drinking. Some people, though, just aren't to be denied.
On arriving at the first of six falls in the canyon's series, the hickers crouched beside the water and scooped it greedily to their mouths. Then they decided to drench themselves. Stepping out among the stones and stowing their clothes atop a broad one, they stood bravely midst the torrent splattering against the rocks. But they'd wanted only to get wet, not numb. One of the hickers screamed. Through chattering teeth, the other allowed, "Ah. That's good." The first hiker's wristwatch having stopped dead from the shock, it was time to leave.
Through a drizzle, they returned the way the came. The hike against gravity went quicker than expected, spurred along by selections from old war movies and "Showboat" -- sung, if that's the word, at the top of their voices. They made it to the parking lot before nightfall, and headed ravenously for Skyland Lodge, where the prime rib was okay, but the fried chicken was a mistake. Still, four miles the healthier, the hikers wasted little and downed yet another dinner in the city.
There are about 500 miles of trail in the park, both for horses and hikers, and the Appalachian Trail accounts for 90. At Big Meadows, hikers can choose between two waterfalls -- Lewis and Dark Hollow, both four-hour jaunts at a leisurely pace -- and, until late September, can pick wild blueberries in the meadow.
Though regulations forbid taking the flora out of the park, you can pick what you eat, and park naturalist Dennis Carter says the blueberries are plentiful and sweet this year.
The Shenandoah boasts its share of copperheands and rattlesnakes, as well as black bears, but the forest seems benevolent on the whole. Out of more than 300,000 people who've hiked this year, none has been snake-bit and three have had but minor scrapes with bears. Randy Baynes says. As a safeguard, hikers carrying food should tie it to a tree limb, out of a foraging bear's reach, if they stop along the trail. (This month, though, what with mating season, even that precaution might not suffice.)
Among other wildlife in the park are all mannor of fowl, the most spectacular being eagles and falcons, plus bats, muskrats and mink. Mostly, though, there's whitetail deer -- hardly cause for alarm (an attitude that the deer seem to share regarding human beings: On the Lewis Falls trail, a hiker met a fawn, and they stared at each other until the fawn got bored and walked off into the brush).
The Big Meadows dining room -- run, like Skyland's by ARA Virgina Skyline Company -- matches the latter meal for meal and view for view. But Big Meadows can boast, as Skyland cannot, a saloon with live entertainment -- often a guitarist strumming country-western tunes.
On a solo trek from Big Meadows to Lewis Falls recently, a hiker took a wrong turn and found himself in a glade dotted with headstones. The names inscribed -- Jenkins, Weakly, Cave and such -- were those of the mountain people who actually lived off the land before Congress declared it a Natioanl Park in the late 1920s. The histor of the place, which you can glean from any number of books for sale at the lodges and the Byrd visitor center near Big Meadows, is as much an attraction as its beauty.
From Panorama, at the park's Thronton Gap entrance, the most popular route goes to Mary's Rock, rewarding the hiker with a commanding valley vista. It was here, the other afternoon, that Mike Gebhards crouched at the windy summit, where the thermometer skirted 60 degrees, and watched a turkey vulture circle and plummet. Then he put on his pack and headed down the A.T. for the long march to Georgia.