Return to Shenandoah

The mountains are calling and I must go.

Timeless words from the Father of the National Parks, John Muir. The first time I heard this phrase was my first trip to Shenandoah National Park. This was a time I also consider to be my first true experience with the National Park system. Suffice to say, I fell in love with this heavenly slice of northern Virginia. In the time since, I’ve visited 17 more of our national parks. Through all of this, Shenandoah has remained a personal favorite of mine.

When Kristen and I decided we were going to take a road trip and visit some parks, our first instinct was to look westward. As we tried to piece together our itinerary, it was soon clear: between the weather, our budget, and our narrow window of available time, we weren’t going to be able to take the trip out west as we had hoped.

For as disappointing as this revelation was, I was offered new opportunities… Namely the opportunity to finally meet my girlfriend’s family and a chance to show her a place that is so close to my heart. I also wondered if I would still feel the same about Shenandoah that I did during my first visit nearly 5 years ago. That was my first adventure into the mountains. By now, I had hiked Mount Ida in Rocky Mountain and slept under the stars at Olympic and photographed grizzlies in Yellowstone. Was this place truly so special or was it just nostalgia playing tricks on me?

The plan fell together easily after that. Eight days across four states and four national parks (I kinda have a thing for the National Parks, if you haven’t figured that out yet). First, we were to make a brief stop at Cuyahoga Valley, before spending a few days with her family in Ohio. After that, off to Shenandoah and a couple nights in Luray, Virginia. Next, we would be staying in Fayetteville on the cusp of the New River Gorge and then a couple nights in Gatlinburg to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. White water rafting. Ziplines. Family time. All the makings of a perfect getaway.

Once we dropped the dogs off at the sitter, we were on to Cuyahoga. For those who haven’t been, Cuyahoga Valley is fairly developed for a national park. It is nestled between Cleveland to the north and Akron to the south. The park became a National Recreation Area in the 70s and officially achieved National Park status in October of 2000.

As far as the NPs go, Cuyahoga is a bit underwhelming. There are more than a few areas where you might forget you’re in a park at all. You’ll find full-on neighborhoods and small towns within the park’s borders. There is a good deal of land not owned by the NPS inside Cuyahoga.

Another peculiar thing about this park is the number of metroparks that seem to reach within the park’s boundaries. A glance at the map tells me there are at least 9 or 10. While the Cleveland and Summit metroparks are mainly free of charge, it’s still worth knowing you might have to leave CVNP to visit spots like Tinkers Creek Gorge or Brecksville Nature Center.

For its downfalls, Cuyahoga Valley still offers what one might call an entirely Ohio national park experience and one that is absolutely needed in the Eastern Time Zone. Brandywine Falls offers an opportunity to get up close and personal with a large and voluminous waterfall. As it’s right near the road, you might find the trail and viewing area gets a bit crowded at times. If you’re lucky, an intimate experience with this spot can be quite serene.

The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail runs north-south the entire length of the park and is great for a relaxing and scenic bike ride or for hikers of any experience level.

The hot spot during our visit to CVNP was Beaver Marsh, by far. We walked the Canal Towpath Trail for a short distance until the trail gave way to the open expanse of Beaver Marsh. Sightseers with large and expensive-looking cameras littered a narrow wooden boardwalk that reached across a small lake. A quarter mile or so in one direction was the road we drove in on. A thick forest reached to the water’s edge on the other side. I remember my last visit having much more vegetation. I can’t say whether that’s seasonal or it was cut down for better viewing.

I was certainly not expecting so much traffic in early April with temperatures not much warmer than freezing. But for as much action was happening on the wooden path, it was pretty quiet on the water. A handful of ducks and a goose or two swam peacefully, but really not much more than that. As we were walking back, a stout man with a giant camera lens pointed to a spot across the canal. A dark figure slumped into the water. Perhaps a muskrat? It was the last we saw of him.

I can honestly say the people watching was better in Beaver Marsh than the wildlife viewing but most likely due to our own timing, with the Marsh slowly waking up from the winter slumber. Once we had our fill, we left Cuyahoga to Kristen’s Grandma’s place, about an hour away.

I spent a wonderful few days enjoying Grandma’s hospitality and getting to know some of Kristen’s family. I can honestly say we had a great time. Knowing what we had to look forward to, it would have been easy to take our time for granted, but there isn’t a doubt that we made the most of our visit. After a lovely weekend and tearful goodbyes, we departed on the 5 hour drive to Virginia and Shenandoah National Park.

We passed through several storms and states on our way to the park. All to be expected, of course. The bad weather seems to follow me whenever I am on the road. Bad weather, that is, unless you make the most of it. There is opportunity to be found in cold or wet or dreary weather. For the properly prepared, there is no such thing as bad weather. When the masses are staying inside, the day is for you and Mother Nature. I’ve had some of my most memorable experiences to a soggy, gray backdrop.

The rain seemed to let up as we neared the park but the overcast skies remained. I had already accepted we might get some subpar views from the Skyline Drive on our first day at Shenandoah.

We arrived at the North entrance station, through Front Royal, around 3pm. There wasn’t a line… not really a surprise on a cold Monday afternoon in April. Once through the gate, we embarked on our first leg of the 105 mile Skyline Drive.

Skyline Drive is the backbone of Shenandoah National Park. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps when the park was established in the 1930s and is the only way to get to most points of the park. The road weaves through the mountain tops providing some phenomenal views and has several dozen overlooks where you can take it all in. A few even have hidden trails through breaks in the barrier wall that take you to the real overlook. Even if you were to take away everything else the park has to offer, Skyline Drive is still a marvel.

The higher we climbed, the less we could see. The clouds were unusually thick and hazy this afternoon and Kristen commented how reminiscent this place was to the Smoky Mountains. After a few brief stops to take some underwhelming photos, we arrived at the Visitor Center, where the park ranger had the answer we were looking for.

Rangers at the State Park next door were to be running controlled burns throughout the week. The resulting smoke had a noticeable effect on visibility and air quality. We pressed on. Further south, away from the fires, it began to dissipate and by the time we got to Luray, the smoke was hardly noticeable. It wouldn’t bother us again during our stay.

We reached our accommodations not long before the Sun began its descent. There was almost an air of abandonment. Not a vehicle in sight. The windows to the office and adjoining restaurant were dark and dusty. There was rust speckling the rooftops and the roadside sign that read Brookside Restaurant Luxury Log Cabins. Believe me when I say, “Luxury” seemed to have left this place long ago. I was feeling a bit apprehensive as we felt our way through the check-in process, which included an envelope taped to the office door.

To my surprise, our cabin seemed to be recently renovated, with fixtures that were clearly new, mixed with some older equipment that still had utility. For all the charm that was missing from the road, our suite was plenty comfortable for the two of us. Each cabin even had its own little deck with a seating area next to the river that ran through the property. The cabin was the perfect homebase for our Shenandoah adventure, and right in the shadow of the park. (Kristen tells me this place was only available through their own website and not through typical travel sites, for anyone who may be interested!)

Tuesday morning, we woke up to cold and wind and rain. Perfect weather for a 9am zipline tour! After much hemming and hawing about the proper attire for this adventure, and several wardrobe changes to go along with, we made our way to Bear Mountain Ziplines.

I will admit, I was a bit anxious about our zipping through tree canopies on a wet wire but that anxiety faded pretty quickly when we met our guides. KT and Justice were about as different as could be. KT was a middle-aged, blonde mom who had gotten her son off to school before coming into work and Justice was an 18 year old kid with curly dark hair and olive complexion. He was not a morning person. Both were friendly and relaxed and chatty. They each had plenty of jokes and KT offered us a taste of the sour watermelon flavor Peeps she had brought in that morning for Justice. They taste exactly how they sound.

Turns out we were the only people who had a tour booked that morning, so when our two guides finished giving us the rundown, we were off. Kristen went first, seeing as how she was the more experienced zipliner of the two of us. As I stepped to the edge, a memory I hadn’t recalled in years started playing in my head.

8th grade me, on field trip to a ropes course, in weather a lot like this. Panicking as the trees swayed in the wind. I couldn’t force myself to tackle the very first obstacle. My fear was paralyzing. Embarrassment as I was lowered back down.

I jumped.

We zipped (Ha!) through the 7 ziplines at Bear Mountain in about half an hour. The fear was gone before I finished the first line. By the third line, I felt like an expert. I had such an awesome time, even with the rain and cold and I credit our tour guides for most of that. They were great people. The only negative thing I can say is the experience was over too quickly.

After topping off the gas tank, we headed back into Shenandoah, intent on completing a hike I finished a few years ago. Yet again, the rain cleared up as we entered the park. With yesterday’s smoke out of the picture, Shenandoah finally got a chance to show us her true beauty at one of the first vistas we approached. The overcast sky was dark but high above us there was a heavy fog below, settling between the mountains like islands in the sea. The result was breathtaking.

We slowly meandered our way along Skyline Drive, stopping to take in every view the park offered us. Our plan was to hike to Dark Hollow Falls, just under a mile, and then another two miles or so onward to Rose River Falls and then back to complete a loop of a little over four miles.

Not long into our hike, my trekking pole slipped (my own fault, I had the wrong tip equipped) and I banged my knee pretty hard against a large boulder. It eventually turned into a pretty nasty bruise but I was able to walk it off and we continued on.

The hike to our first stop was pleasant, but a bit crowded, even with the day’s spotty weather. We stopped for a few pictures and videos and several minutes of device-free quiet enjoyment before beginning the second leg of our journey.

To call this next segment picturesque doesn’t quite do it justice. We rarely encountered another hiker as we traversed the muddy, rocky trail. Neither of us remained clean for long but time ceased to exist so deep in the forest. Mossy stones and boulders filled the mountain streams and gave rise to visions of the Pacific Northwest. A few times, white tailed deer watched us curiously from a distance, the leafless forest doing little to conceal their whereabouts.

A couple miles, a couple hours, and a couple bruises later, we arrived at Rose River Falls. In the time we took to rest and relax and unwind at the Falls, it was clear to me that this place is special. The same feelings I remembered from my first visit to Shenandoah and this same spot filled my heart once again. Shenandoah National Park truly is a special place, and one I will hold dear to me for as long as I live. And this time, I was fortunate enough to share that feeling with someone I care deeply for. I know Kristen felt many of the same things I did during our visit.

Shenandoah is one of the underrated National Parks, but I think the park wants it that way, so it remains a mysterious piece of heaven, just waiting for you to discover what it has to offer.

The next morning, we made a quick stop at Luray Caverns, the other major attraction in the area. The caverns were cool, but perhaps a bit overpriced. Even if you’ve been in a cave before, it’s always fun to marvel at how many eons these formations took to create. Dream Lake was personally awe-inspiring; I could have stared at its mirrored surface all day. And of course, I made sure to toss a quarter into the Wishing Well and hoped that maybe we might see a bear on our last drive through Shenandoah. No such luck.

We headed into the park one last time, southward and on to our next destination. The park didn’t want us to leave and had one more thing to show. I had to feel my way through heavy clouds that covered the mountainside. Visibility was so low I could hardly see past the hood of my Cherokee at times.

We made a few final stops on our way out of the park, with one being particularly memorable. There was an open field on a hillside. A handful of white-tailed deer gathered on the edge of the forest and enjoyed their breakfast. It was so hauntingly beautiful and such a wonderful parting gift from the park. That’s just like Shenandoah, always leaving you wanting more.

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