Shenandoah National What?

Shenandoah National Park. That's where we are, and that's what this book is about. To some people, "Skyline Drive" is a more familiar name for the Park. But the United States has many Skyline Drives, and only one Shenandoah National Park. It's true that the Drive is a magnificent scenic parkway. But more than that, it's a quick and easy way to reach the other features of the Park.

Shenandoah National Park is long and narrow, straddling the crest of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains for nearly 75 miles. It varies in width from less than one mile to about 13, so that the views from peaks and overlooks include not only the Blue Ridge itself, but also the patchwork of woods, farmlands and orchards on either side. Here and there the Park touches the Shenandoah Valley on the west side, or the Piedmont on the east; but throughout most of its length the Park boundary is partway up the mountain slope.

Shenandoah National Park is so long and narrow that I need two maps (pages 4 and 5) to show it. The shaded area on the maps is the Park; the wiggly solid line that runs the length of it is Skyline Drive. The dotted line that parallels the Drive is the Appalachian Trail, which extends some 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia; about 101 miles of it are within the Park. You can get within a very few miles of any part of the Park either by car on the Drive, or by foot on the Appalachian Trail. The dozens of side trails begin either at the edge of the Drive, or a short distance from the Drive via the Appalachian Trail.

Take another look at those two maps. Try to fuse them in your mind so that you visualize the Park as a whole. Note that two main highways cross the park, dividing it into three parts:

    The North Section, from U.S. 340 to U.S. 211.
    The Central Section, from U.S. 211 to U.S. 33.
    The South Section, from U.S. 33 to U.S. 250 and I-64.

For convenience I've divided the log of Skyline Drive into these three parts. Please note one more thing on the map of the southern half: the Park appears to end at Jarman Gap. Originally it did, and the Blue Ridge Parkway began there. Now the Park and the Skyline Drive continue to Rockfish Gap, although for most of this distance the Park is no more than a narrow

Shenandoah National Park — North Half
Shenandoah National Park — North Half

right-of-way on either side of the Drive. At many points between Mile 97 and Mile 105 you could throw a rock from the edge of the Drive onto private property (although I'm not advocating that you do so.)

Between Mile 97 and Mile 105 the Park has bought a scenic easement on private land beside the Drive, where landowners have agreed to build no

Shenandoah National Park — South Half
Shenandoah National Park — South Half

roads, put up no buildings, and cut no trees except in accordance with agreed-on rules.

Note that from Jarman Gap to Rockfish Gap the Appalachian Trail continues more or less parallel to the Drive. Here it's on a right-of-way easement on private land, or on land bought by the Park or by the Appalachian Trail Conference.

Q: When is the Park open?
A: Always, every day, for 24 hours. Occasionally a part of the Drive may be closed because of snow or ice. During hunting season parts of the Drive may be closed at night, to help control poaching. But the Park itself is always open. If you choose to hike in when the Drive is closed, no one will stop you.

 Of Parks and Forests

Q: Did you say "Shenandoah National Forest?"
A: No.

There was a Shenandoah National Forest once, in the mountains on the other side of the Valley. It was changed to George Washington National Forest in 1932, to celebrate GW's 200th birthday.

The National Forests, administered by the Department of Agriculture, are "multiple-use" areas where you can not only hike, and enjoy the scenery, and watch the wildlife; you may also, in certain seasons, shoot the wildlife. You may, with permission, "harvest" timber, or mine coal, or drill for natural gas. You may even rent a piece of the forest and build yourself a summer home.

The National Parks, administered by the Department of the Interior, are dedicated to the preservation of certain areas—their natural and historic features and scenery, their plants and wildlife. You may not shoot or molest any animal. You may not pick, cut, chop, dig, or collect. If you find gold (or even oil) in a National Park, it's going to stay there.

 What's in a Name?

Shenandoah is many things besides a National Park and a former National Forest. As you surely know, it's also a river and a valley. It's a mountain, a college, a county, and at least three towns. It's a tall sailing ship, an ill-fated airship, and a sleek modern motor ship. It's a song, a movie starring James Stewart, and a Broadway musical. At various times and on various documents it has been spelled Cenantua, Chanador, Gerando, Gerundo, Shendo, Sherando, Senantoa, Shanandoe, Shanandoah, Shanidore.

Q: Shenandoah is an Indian word, right?
A: It must be. My Mexican friend Jorge Alatriste, who claims to be part Indian, says that "Shenandoah" is the most beautiful sound in English.

Q: What does it mean?
A: You'll be sorry you asked. The "experts", each writing with some conviction, have galloped off in all directions. Here are some of their theories:

  1. It means "Daughter of the Stars".
  2. It means "Silver Water".
  3. It's from Schinhandowi, meaning "River through the Spruces".
  4. It's from Onandagoa, meaning "River of High Mountains".
  5. It's from the Iroquois Skahentowane, meaning "Great Meadow" or "Big Flat Place".
  6. It's named for the fallen chief Sherando.
  7. It's named for a tribe of losers called the Senedoes, who lived in the Valley until about 1730, when they were exterminated by another tribe that wandered up from the south.

Of these possible meanings I find "Big Flat Place" (referring to the Valley) most plausible, and "Daughter of the Stars" most pleasing. I choose pleasing over plausible. If you'll agree, then "Shenandoah" shall henceforth mean "Daughter of the Stars"; for the river has its sources in high mountains, and on a clear night in those high mountains the stars seem very close indeed.

 A Recycled Park

Q: In glancing back at the maps to get re-oriented, I note that the Park is shaped like a ruptured gerrymander. What happened to it?
A: The Park follows the Blue Ridge, which is long, narrow, and wandering. The torn and tattered boundary (which I have somewhat simplified and straightened for the purpose of these maps) is a result of how the Park came to be. Because the boundary rarely follows any natural or man-made feature, such as a road, a stream, or a ridge crest, it's an administrative nightmare. The Park has a continuing policy of land acquisition by donation and land swapping, both aimed at straightening the boundary.

Most of our National Parks have been created simply by reclassifying what was already government land. In only a few was private land involved. In Acadia and Grand Tetons, the Rockefellers bought large areas of land and donated them to the government.

In 1930, what is now Shenandoah National Park was entirely private property. There were some large tracts of pasture and timberland. There were hundreds of small subsistence farms-many of them as small as five acres. Some two thousand mountain people lived here in 1930.

The act of Congress that authorized this Park specified that no federal money could be spent to acquire land for it. The Virginia State Legislature appropriated over a million dollars, and private contributions. There were a few donations of sizable tracts. Thousands of people contributed the price of an acre of land, and school children contributed pennies. This Park is a gift to the nation from the people of Virginia, who bought it for us-one small parcel at a time.

And that accounts for the ragged boundary, which shows where the money ran out, where land was more productive and therefore more expensive, or where reluctant owners successfully resisted condemnation proceedings.

This has been called a recycled Park because it started with land that had been changed by human occupation. Under the protection of the National Park Service, the land has grown toward climax forest conditions.

 The Theme is Change

The recovery of this land from human use, and the succession of plant and animal life that goes with such recovery, will continue. Some roads will become trails, and some trails will vanish. Access to the Park from the bottom of the hollows may get easier, or it may become impossible. The number of visitors will increase, and Park personnel must cope with the resulting pressures. The Park has recently spent large sums to build new sewage treatment plants. Eventually it may be necessary to ration access to the Park in order to protect those things the Park was created to preserve.

This book will be a little out of date before it gets into print, and worse before you see it. I'll point out, as we go along, subjects on which you should check with the rangers for the latest information. But that's all I can do. There is no facet of this Park that's immune to change.

 Speaking of Rangers...

The people you see with dark green and gray uniforms and flat-brimmed hats are Park Rangers—not Forest Rangers.

You may find rangers working at the information desk at our visitor centers, leading conducted walks or giving a campfire program. Rangers also work the entrance stations and campgrounds, patrol the Drive and the backcountry, or conduct the many natural resource studies.

Other Park employees that wear the National Park Service uniform are the ones that keep the Park clean, the Drive open and the facilities working. Any one in uniform will answer your questions if they can, and help you if you need help. All may be called on to fight fires, or participate in search or rescue missions.

If you have a complaint about the Park, suggestion/comment cards are available from each visitor center or write to:

    Shenandoah National Park
    3655 US Highway 211 East
    Luray, Virginia 22835

 Some Numbers

Here are some approximate statistics, all of them subject to change:

Total area of the Park, about 196,000 acres.
Number of visitors per year: about two million.
Park employees. Permanent: about 107. Peak seasonal: about 100.
Concession employees. Permanent: about 35. Peak seasonal: about 270.
Total roads: about 300 miles, including 105 miles of Skyline Drive.
Total trails: about 500 miles. (Note: some of the roads have been reclassified as trails, and are no longer used by vehicles.)

There are 57 separate water systems in the Park; five campgrounds with a total of 708 sites; eight picnic areas with a total of 299 sites; six restaurants with a total of 826 seats. The lodges at Skyland and Big Meadows, plus the cabins at Lewis Mountain, offer a variety of 281 rooms.

The Park has more than 60 peaks with elevations of more than 2,000 feet. Some of the highest are:

   Hawksbill ................. 4050
   Stony Man ................ 4010
   Hazeltop ................. 3815
   Blackrock ................. 3721
   The Pinnacle .............. 3720
   Bearfence ................ 3640
   Hightop .................. 3585
   Marys Rock ............... 3514
   Hogback .................. 3474
   Big Flat ................... 3389

Hogback is in the North Section, Hightop and Big Flat in the South. All the rest are in the Central Section. The summit of Fork Mountain, elevation 3852, is just outside the Park boundary in the Central Section.


During most of the year our waterfalls display a rather modest volume of water. Because they're fairly close to the top of the mountain, the streams that form them drain relatively small areas. Even so, our falls are often spectacular in springtime, when warm rains melt the accumulated snow.

Here is a list of our highest falls. At several of these the water drops in two or more steps; the listed height is the total for all the steps. Where there are two or more falls on the same stream, I've numbered them from the top down.

The only waterfall visible from Skyline Drive is at Mile 1.4. It has no name, and it's dry for part of the year. The next closest is Dark Hollow Falls, 0.7 mile from the Drive. You can walk to any falls on the list. Some of the trails are difficult, others fairly easy. All of them are among the recommended hikes in the list that begins on page 59.

FallsHeight, ft.SectionTrail Head

Overall Run93NorthMile 22.2
Whiteoak No. 186CentralMile 42.6
South River83CentralMile 62.8
Lewis81CentralMile 51.2
Dark Hollow70CentralMile 50.7
Rose River67CentralMile 49.4
Doyles River No. 263SouthMile 81.1
Whiteoak No. 262CentralMile 42.6
Whiteoak No. 660CentralMile 42.6
Whiteoak No. 549CentralMile 42.6
Jones Run42SouthMile 84.1
Whiteoak No. 441CentralMile 42.6
Whiteoak No. 335CentralMile 42.6
Cedar Run34CentralMile 45.6
Doyles River No. 128SouthMile 81.1

 The Names of Places

Names tend to evolve, and you'll find minor variations in spelling as you read various books, maps, and signs. Don't let it bother you. Doyle's River, Doyles River, and Doyle River are the same small body of water. Whiteoak may be one word or two. And so on, endlessly. (But there are two different Fork Mountains, and two Blackrocks.)

How places got their names is a subject that fascinates me, although not everyone shares my enthusiasm. I'll deal with some of the names at appropriate points in the log.

The truth is that many of the place names are so old that no one knows how they came about. Here are six names that you'll find on the latest maps: Shenandoah River, Conway River, Hawksbill Creek, Swift Run Gap, Devils Ditch, Naked Creek. But you'll also find them in the journal of Thomas Lewis, who passed this way in 1746.

Some names describe physical features; those are the easy ones, such as Stony Man, Hightop, Big Run. Some things are named for wealthy absentee landowners; for example Mt. Marshall, Browns Gap, Patterson Ridge. Others, such as Nicholson Hollow, Cubbage Hollow, and Dean Mountain, were named for the people who lived there.

Some names, such as Marys Rock, give rise to legends. The origin of still others, like Fort Windham Rocks and Dog Slaughter Ridge, remains obscure, mysterious, tantalizing.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved