Shenandoah National Park is one of the most popular parks in the country, as it is only 75 miles from Washington DC. We decided to go based on its reputation for beautiful Fall foliage, many hikes with waterfalls, and a good chance to see a black bear.
Our route took us through 7 states, but the 9-hour drive was uneventful, other than seeing an Amish buggy in… Pennsylvania, of course! Even knowing that Shenandoah is popular, we were surprised by a long line of cars waiting to enter when we arrived on Sunday afternoon. However, we got in and had time to take 2 hikes – and saw 2 black bears just 30 feet away on our very first trail! We later learned that the bears in Shenandoah are widely infected with mange and so the population is down. Also, the park was more popular in 2021 than in any other year, and the high number of visitors has pushed the bears further into backcountry – so we got lucky!
Shenandoah National Park stretches along the 105-mile Skyline Drive. The Park was created from nearly 1000 private parcels, so old roads provide hundreds of trails from points along the main road. It isn’t hard to get away from the crowds, although we did time some of the more popular hikes for early enough to miss the day trippers. We did a couple of hikes to waterfalls, very full due to the unusual amount of rain in September and October, and lots of walks through beautiful forests full of ash, maple, hickory, sassafras, black gum, poplar, birch, and maple. While the lack of sugar maples meant none of the bright oranges and reds of New England’s fall, the bright golds and yellows of the trees were beautiful. Over one meadow, we saw two bald eagles, and on one walk got very close to a perched red-shouldered hawk. We also saw downy woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos and heard barred owls.
We stayed in Skyland, one of the lodges within the park – there are several clusters based on old CCC camps from those who built the Park in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We chose a place that had adjoining cabins, so that we had our own entrance and no shared space. We had a deck, and while it was too cold to sit outside, it was a handy place to use our camp stove to heat up our dinners.
We got up early each day and saw white-tailed deer each morning. We had one rainy morning and woke up to thick frost on the car on our last full day in the Park. On that icy day we bundled up and climbed up a mountain, watching the sun rise and kiss the tips of the trees with mottled light shining through. While deeply discouraged about the Election Day results in Virginia and elsewhere, the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley made us aware of how many resources and how much potential this country has – we should be doing so much better.
On our last day, we climbed 3 different mountains. In spite of sore feet by the end of our trip, we celebrated being healthy enough to do so much hiking and to be able to enjoy this beautiful spot – and to see bears!