Most visitors to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia are quite delighted by its justifiably famous views: the panoramas, one right after another, visible at every twist of the Skyline Drive, the remarkable roadway that runs the length of the park for 105 miles.
No wonder, then, that Shenandoah -- celebrating its 50th birthday on July 3 with a commemorative ceremony -- has a reputation for being a park conveniently nearby that's perfect for a nice day's drive. As acting Superintendent Gerald W. Tays points out, "a vast majority" of the park's 2 million annual visitors "see the park through their windshield," exiting the same day they arrive.
*Not to disparage these quick-see motoring tourists: The drive from Front Royal at the north entrance to Rockfish Gap at the south is one of the great wonders of America's national parks. But it is only part of the park and, for me, not even the most impressive of its many attractions.
For all the allure of the Skyline Drive, Shenandoah really is a walker's park, where 500 miles of mapped and maintained trails take hikers up to craggy rock peaks for even better views or deep into shaded hollows following the paths of tumbling mountain streams.
You can, if you are not the really energetic sort, easily stride up Stony Man Mountain Nature Trail, a relaxing round trip of a mile and a half through oak and pine woods to the "forehead" of Stony Man at 4,010 feet. From this rocky ledge, a fine view of the Shenandoah Valley spreads out far below, a miniature land of acorn-sized farmhouses and fields you could hide with a thumb.
Don't be too alarmed by that rustle in the grass beside you; it's probably a pair of chipmunks scampering out of your way.
Another popular trail, about the same length but a whole lot steeper, is Dark Hollow Falls Trail. This one drops sharply from the Skyline Drive alongside Hog Camp Branch, a cascading stream that forms several pleasantly scenic pools before plunging 70 feet down a series of rocky steps. As on many of Shenandoah's paths, which often lead to waterfalls not visible from the drive, hiking down can seem almost effortless. Climbing back up takes more muscle, more breath and much more time.
*Other trails invite stronger walkers for a morning's hike, or a full day's outing or a long weekend's trek. For the hardy enthusiast, a 95-mile stretch of the Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail parallels the Skyline Drive from beginning to end, occasionally crossing the pavement and disappearing again back in the woods. To cover the whole distance might take a week or more.
In spring, tiny yellow and purple wildflowers tempt you to drop to a knee for a close-up inspection. On a hot summer day, it feels good to dangle your dusty feet in a trailside pool, or better yet find a more-secluded pool for a skinny-dip. The rich colors of fall seem most spectacular when you can hear the crunch of fallen leaves under your boots.
It is to this gentle wilderness -- "the park beyond the drive," as officials put it -- that I have returned many times. I have gone often as a day hiker; sometimes as a tent camper staying in one of the park's four roadside campgrounds; occasionally as an overnight backpacker, finding my own campsite in the back country; and more recently as a guest at Skyland, one of the park's two excellent park lodges. Perhaps I have become a bit smug about motorists who appear glued to their seats. They may leave Shenandoah impressed, but there's still so very much more they will have missed.
Shenandoah -- a wonderful recreational asset in Washington's backyard, with the northernmost point of the park just 60 miles west at Front Royal -- is shaped like a long, wiggly caterpillar headed due south, the result both of the park's geography and its unusual origins. In dimensions, it is about 13 miles wide, at its widest, and less than a mile wide at its most narrow. Its borders are incredibly irregular.
This lumpy caterpillar crawls along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which in Shenandoah climb briefly to just above 4,000 feet. To the east, down the wooded mountain side, are the rolling hills of Virginia's Piedmont; to the west, the farms and communities of the Shenandoah Valley. Along the Skyline Drive, which makes tipsy swings from one side of the ridge top to the other, you get both views.
Most of America's national parks have been carved out of large tracts of federally owned wilderness in the West. Shenandoah was molded almost plot by plot from land that had long been settled and ultimately stripped of its resources. Its resurgence as a near-wilderness in the past 50 years is a tribute to the resilience of nature.
The modern history of Shenandoah begins in the early 19th century. As farm land became scarce in the Shenandoah Valley, settlers began moving up the slopes into the Blue Ridge, clearing small plots in the remote stream valleys called hollows. The people, numbering about 5,000 by 1900, lived mostly a subsistence existence -- farming, fishing, hunting and lumbering. But the land wore out, much of the woods had been cut down, and game no longer was sufficient to feed the growing numbers. Many families began to move away.
In the mid-1920s, the National Park Service began a search for park sites in the Appalachian Mountains that would be close to the big cities of the East. The two locations finally chosen were to become Shenandoah -- an Indian name of obscure origins -- in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountain in Tennessee.
Congress authorized Shenandoah in 1926 but attached a stipulation that no federal money should be spent to acquire land. For 10 years, park backers sought donations, helped by a major appropriation from the State of Virginia. Bit by bit land was purchased.
At this time, about 450 families remained within the park's boundaries, according to a Shenandoah history by assistant chief park naturalist Charles Anibal. Many sold out and moved, but others had to be forcibly evicted. About 170 families who couldn't afford new land were moved to resettlement communities at the foot of the mountains. Some of their offspring now work in the park.
In 1931, President Herbert Hoover, who had a fishing camp in the new park area, gave the go-ahead for the construction of the Skyline Drive, using drought-relief funds to create jobs during the Depression. It was completed nine years later. Hoover donated his camp, which is still standing, to the government.
In 1933, his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered the establishment of six Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Shenandoah. They built the park's campgrounds, picnic areas and other facilities. On July 3, 1936, Roosevelt made a trip to Big Meadows, a large grassy clearing, to formally dedicate Shenandoah "to this and succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and re-creation which we shall find here." His typically emphatic and rousing speech, a part of the 20-minute film "Shenandoah, the Gift" shown daily at the visitor center at Big Meadows, can still send a tingle down your spine.
The 50th-anniversary commemorative ceremony will be held at Big Meadows, beginning at 11 a.m. on July 3. Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles is expected to address the gathering.
*In the years since the mountain people left, much of the park has returned to wilderness. The woods -- pine, oak, hickory and others -- have reclaimed homesteads, though many stone fences remain as reminders of these recent inhabitants, and wildlife has reappeared. Once the wild turkey seemed doomed to extinction; now park officials estimate they number 300 to 500, mostly very well hidden. And Shenandoah is home again to about 400 black bears, the highest concentration of these normally nonaggressive creatures in any national park.
You might think bears something of a disincentive to hiking Shenandoah's trails, but they are not easily spotted and tend to be as leery of you as you are of them. In my dozens of times in the park, I have seen only one bear -- and that was 10 years ago. I had just ended a day's hike and was emerging from the trees at the trailhead on the Skyline Drive. About 50 yards up the road, the bear similarly popped from the woods. I stood directly in its path as it came bounding toward me.
Before I could react, it caught sight of me; literally skidded to a stop; changed directions and scampered back into the underbrush. It was all over in a flash. According to Tays, I was lucky to have glimpsed the bear; some of his park staff, he says, have never seen one in Shenandoah.
On its 50th birthday, Shenandoah National Park is not without its difficulties.
Because of its location, it gets heavy use -- about 2 million visitors a year. On a summer weekend, many of the easiest trails can seem as crowded as a suburban shopping mall.
Park budget cuts, mandated by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, threaten visitor-education programs and other services next year. This year's cuts probably won't be noticed by most visitors, says Tay: The park is letting its grass grow longer along the road before cutting it, trash collection will be less frequent.
Last month, the Mathews Arm campground was temporarily closed to the public so it could be chemically sprayed for a massive infestation of gypsy moths. Shenandoah is the first national park to experience a gypsy moth threat, says Tays. Without spraying, the moths might have defoliated the campground in two or three years, resulting in the eventual loss of as many as 80 percent of its trees.
There is also a continuing problem with acid rain and other air pollution, says Tays. So far, no fish die-offs caused by acid rain have been discovered, "but you can see the needles dying on the white pine."
Air pollution has reduced the visibility from Shenandoah's view points to about 15 miles for about 50 percent of the time, says Tays, a grievous ill for a park that is noted for its outstanding panoramas. On a really clear day, you can sometimes see the skyline of Washington, about 90 miles distant. Tays saw it for himself recently from Hawksbill Mountain, at 4,051 feet the highest point in the park.
One other problem, less critical, also irritates Tays. All of Virginia's state road signs directing visitors to the park read "Skyline Drive," he says, not "Shenandoah National Park." "We've always been in a real identity crisis."
These are troubling matters, and their successful resolution is neither immediate nor assured. But they are being addressed, and the birthday celebration is expected to be an optimistic one.
I have many good memories of Shenandoah, and an occasional uncomfortable one. This is, after all, the outdoors, and you can't always expect sunny days and pleasant nights.
Once a group of friends and I spent an entire day hiking the Appalachian Trail wrapped in one of the rather frequent spring fogs that settle over the mountains. We had come for the views but could barely see two or three yards in any direction. Stubbornly we plodded on, hoping the weather would clear. It did, but not until the next day as we made our way back to the car for the trip home.
Another overnight hike, however, was as perfect as we could have imagined. After obtaining the required back-country camping permit, we descended Jeremy's Run, one of the park's most popular trails, which begins at Elkwallow Picnic Grounds at the northern end of the park. The trail drops gently but steadily for about five miles, crossing and recrossing the stream, sometimes over stepping stones. We could spot small fish, plainly visible in the clear water of the pools.
At the bottom, we found a much larger pool -- and since the day was warm and we had encountered no other hikers, we stripped for a skinny-dip and sunned ourselves on the rocks. It was a refreshing break that prepared us for the much more arduous climb back out of the hollow on an intersecting trail named Good Neighbor. For about three miles, we zigzagged up the thickly forested slope, until we almost reached the top.
We pitched our tent on a small patch of level ground with a good view of Shenandoah Valley, not anticipating how spectacular a show we were going to be treated to. First came a lingering orange and red sunset, which we caught every moment of as we cooked our light dinner over a pack stove. As the sun disappeared, the valley lights twinkled on, another delightful display that lasted until we fell asleep. We felt a bit like spies, hidden up there high on a woodland ridge, watching the unsuspecting communities below.
Not long ago I visited the park again, this time staying at Skyland Lodge (the other lodge in the park is Big Meadows). Both are attractive and comfortable places built of native wood and stone. The rooms -- some in cabins, others in motel-like wings -- are nicely scattered so you don't feel hemmed in. Many of the structures sit on the edge of the ridge, so you have a grand valley view right from your deck.
Skyland, which is more isolated and has the best views, is located just off the Skyline Drive at a point where it climbs to its highest altitude at 3,680 feet. This is Milepoint 41.7, as measured from the north entrance. (Each mile of the road is marked with a concrete post. The posts are especially useful when you are looking for the beginning of a trail that starts from the road.)
About a mile-long segment of the Appalachian Trail passes through the lodge area, and it proved a handy route to get from my room to the dining room. On both of my breakfast walks, I saw several deer nibbling the thick green lawns not far from the lodge office. A rabbit made it his habit to breakfast on the patch of lawn outside my room.
My stay reminded me just how remarkable a getaway the park and its lodges can be, and what a bargain they are. I took one of the ledge-side rooms with a valley view; the rate -- the highest charged this summer -- was $52 a night double. Other rooms begin at $27.50; the price range is the same at Big Meadows. This, mind you, is the price for a room right in the heart of Shenandoah, one of the most-scenic places in the whole mid-Atlantic region.
Both lodges have large dining rooms with wide expanses of window so you can keep your eyes on the views. Both are somewhat rustic in appearance, befitting a mountain restaurant, but they also have a touch of big-city formality to make an evening at dinner seem special.
The price of entrees (with salad and potato or vegetable) ranges from an inexpensive $5.75 for southern-fried chicken with a corn fritter to a still-reasonable $14.25 for broiled lamb chops with walnut glaze, as tasty a dish as I have eaten in any national park restaurant. Cocktails are available, and the wine list, though short, is fully satisfactory. The best dessert is blackberry ice cream pie.
The other big cost of any vacation is recreation. At Shenandoah, if you want to get to know it well, you will go for a long hike, or at least a short one. And that, of course, is absolutely free.