The essential guide to Virginia's Shenandoah National Park

By Rebecca Powers

A blush of reds and golds in autumn, Shenandoah is equally known for its impressive wildflower displays.

Autumn foliage in Shenandoah National Park. Photo / 123RF
Autumn foliage in Shenandoah National Park. Photo / 123RF

As the USA's National Park Service celebrates its centenary, we're profiling the wilderness areas it manages.

Today: Virginia's sole national park . . .

Shenandoah National Park

"The overall idea was that motorists should be able to drive out of Washington for a Sunday's mountain experience and get back home by night."
- Charles E. Peterson, Park Service landscape architect, circa 1930s

A classic road trip lies within the boundaries of this park. Skyline Drive runs like a 169-kilometre spine along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With 75 scenic overlooks and a leisurely speed limit, travelling end to end takes three to four hours.

The roadsides bloom with a seasonal progression of wildflowers — from early trillium through azaleas and mountain laurel to black-eyed Susans and goldenrods.

The Wilderness Society listed Shenandoah among its best parks for autumn colour. The annual Fall Foliage Bike Festival coincides with that display.

Although the park can be driven in a day, accommodation and dining are available for those who linger to explore the paths, including 162.5km of the Appalachian Trail. Overnight options include the 1939 Big Meadows Lodge, a stone and wormy-chestnut structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Before the area was designated as a park, homeowners here kept farms, orchards and grazing animals. Traces of former residents include garden-patch daffodils and more than 100 family cemeteries, some still maintained by descendants.

The Little Devil's Stair Overlook in Shenandoah National Park. Photo / Creative Commons image from Shenandoah National Park's Flickr account
The Little Devil's Stair Overlook in Shenandoah National Park. Photo / Creative Commons image from Shenandoah National Park's Flickr account

One site of note is Rapidan Camp, the summer retreat of President Herbert Hoover. Here, 112km from the White House on 164 wooded acres, the president, first lady and friends relaxed and held meetings. The guest book of the 13-cabin compound includes such names as Lindbergh, Ford and Edison.

In 1935, the compound became part of the park; its three remaining buildings are open for ranger-led tours.

Today, summer visitors may catch a view of a more ethereal variety.

"Fog lies like a soft white blanket on the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont, while the mountaintop is clear," says visitskylinedrive.org.

"If conditions are right, you can look down on a 'fog ocean', with the lower peaks rising above it like islands."

Size: 199,173 acres

Founded: 1935

Attendance: 1,321,873 (2015)

Read more:

The essential guide to Alaska's national parks
The essential guide to the National Park of American Samoa
The essential guide to Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park
The essential guide to California's national parks
The essential guide to Colorado's national parks
The essential guide to Florida's national parks
The essential guide to Hawaii's national parks
The essential guide to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park
The essential guide to Utah's national parks

- Washington Post

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