November 10, 2012

Shenandoah National Park

After all the cities we’d been to over the last month, getting back out into nature was a very welcome reprieve. Wednesday morning, after the elections, we packed up and went west of Washington DC to the entrance of Shenandoah National Park. The park is home to the famous 100 mile stretch of scenic byway called the Skyline Drive, and we had plans to drive that road from beginning to end.

I’d read Bill Bryson’s "A Walk in the Woods" on hiking the Appalachian Trail (Bill’s super funny in my opinion, pick up one of his books if you’re looking for some humor) and he had mentioned that the portion of the trail that ran through Shenandoah Valley was one of the prettiest stretches of the 2,184 mile hike. Two of my friends who’d through-hiked the AT had also mentioned that this portion, along with the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains, was in their opinion some of the best of the East. Sky and I were really looking forward to experiencing what nature had to offer on this side of the country.

We drove into through the North entrance at Front Royal, Virginia. The entrance fee would have been $15, but because we have the Annual Parks Pass we didn't have to pay a dime. The ranger at the entrance gate let us know that portions of the park were still closed due to blown over trees and snow accumulation from the recently passed Sandy storm, but that the byway was clear for travel. Our plan was to camp for two days at a Jellystone RV Park about 30 miles into the drive, just outside the park boundaries on the west.

Driving on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
Driving on Skyline Drive
Views off of the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
Views off of the Skyline Drive
We’d driven in just after lunch so we had limited day light to work with (darn winter! Or maybe we should look into waking up earlier?). Since we were anxious to get out and walk in the woods as soon as possible, we pulled over 20 miles in and after eating a quick lunch, set out to hike the Jeremy’s Run trail. We hiked 2 miles out to a creek bed and then turned around. On the way back we let Sam and Chloe off leash and they raced around smelling the forest.

Jeremy's Run trail head in Shenandoah National Park
Jeremy's Run Trail 
We’d finished the hike close to dusk, just about the time most animal life comes alive for dinner time. On our drive to the RV Park we came across several deer right on the side of the road. We were driving down a straight stretch of byway when Sky yelled out “Bear!” and put the brakes on. At first I didn't see it, but then the black bear came tumbling down the 20 foot embankment on the right side and just as he met up with the pavement, we drove up. Sky was still in the process of slowing down the truck and trailer. Thankfully the bear reacted and instead of jumping out in front of the truck, he ran alongside us for about 50 feet. This gave us enough time to come to a complete stop, at which point he went about crossing the road. He made it over there safely and jumped the stone wall to disappear out of view. All this must have happened over 30 to 45 minutes, but in the excitement of it all I didn't even get a picture.

The next morning, following the park ranger’s recommendation, we decided to hike (with bear bells on, no less!) the Overall Run Trail, a 6 mile out and back hike to a waterfall overlook. The trail started at 2,750 feet elevation and we hiked down into the canyon. The first mile of the descent was packed with snow. The pristine white was blindingly gorgeous. We hiked out to the rock outcropping overlooking the waterfall and sat on the rock for a while admiring the beautiful views. I was secretly hoping we’d see some bear on the hike, but realized that it was probably best that we didn't.

Snow on the Overall Run Trail in Shenandoah National Park
Snow on the Overall Run Trail
Waterfall view on the Overall Run Trail in Shenandoah National Park
The waterfall view from the Overall Run Trail
On our way back to the RV Park that evening we were driving the same stretch of road as the night before. We rounded a corner and smack right in the middle of the two lane byway was another black bear! This time we had no problem bringing the truck to a quick stop (sans trailer), and we watched the bear again disappear over the stone wall to the other side of the road. Sky cautiously got out of the truck (leaving the door wide open in case of an emergency escape) and peered over the wall to the hillside where the bear had gone. About 30 feet away he spotted two cubs and then the mother (the bear we’d seen) another 20 feet further. The cubs, in their excitement, started running towards Sky, but then realized that mom was not following. The three of them then reversed their direction and ran off into the woods. This time we’d had the wherewithal to grab the camera, but the few shots Sky got of the bears were blurry (it’s possible Sky’s hands had been trembling when he saw the cubs running at him).

The next day we re-hitched the trailer and slowly drove the remainder of the Skyline Drive. The views from the road were quite pretty, but I’m sure they would be twice as nice during the warmer months of the year. We saw rolling hills in the valleys below on both sides of the road, the quintessential picture everyone imagines when thinking about this part of the country. We didn't see any more bears, but drove by plenty of grazing deer. I’m really glad we got to see this park for ourselves. Maybe someday we’ll come back and hike the 100 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that runs parallel to the Skyline Drive?

View of the Shenandoah Valley from the Skyline Drive
View of the Shenandoah Valley from the Skyline Drive
To see more pictures of Shenandoah National Park, click here.

Happy bear spotting in Shenandoah Valley!


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