What's in it for Me?

What can you do here? You already know about the Drive, and the views from its overlooks. The appeal of these vistas grows stronger, not weaker, as they grow more familiar. I still stop to absorb the scenery at overlooks beside the Drive, though I've been doing so for many years.

Perhaps the most rewarding thing you can do, to start with, is nothing at all. You'll find that difficult at first. You're accustomed to the demands of your work and your home, and the thousand pressures applied by fellow members of an exploding population. Try, for a while, to get out from under. Convince yourself that, for now, you don't have to do anything. Try to believe that the most profitable way to spend your minutes is to throw some of them away. If the weather is right for it lie down in the grass, in the sunlight. Close your eyes. Shift your mind into neutral. Stay there till the tension seeps away.

 The Green Museum

Shenandoah, like our other National Parks, is a museum. Its exhibits are scenery, wildlife and flowers, clean air and clear water—samples of America as it used to be. In this museum you can find instruction as well as rest.

But Park visitation, like population in general, is exploding. Some parts of the Park, at certain times, are intolerably crowded. At the height of fall color the Park has more than fifty thousand visitors a day. The summit of Old Rag can be thrilling if you're alone there, or with a close friend. But on a Saturday afternoon in summer you may find a hundred people on Old Rag summit, and it's elbows in the ribs for everyone.

Nevertheless the Park offers solitude, if you know where and when to look for it. Crowds love summer, good weather, weekends, holidays. Crowds love those few overpopular spots where crowds already are, But even if a sunny summer weekend is all you have, you can still escape from crowds and elbows. Instead of mingling with the multitude at the bottom of 70-foot Dark Hollow Falls, move on down the ravine another tenth of a mile. Pick out your own three- or four-foot waterfall. You can get very close to it, and you can probably have it all to yourself.

In the worst case—a holiday weekend—keep walking down the hollow until the trail leaves the stream; then follow the stream. You'll find yourself alone.

 Small and Subtle Pleasures

I suggest that you spend some time alone, staring into running water, letting the sound of it fill you. Let your mind run as fast as the water if it wishes; let your mind have its way. Then you may find yourself; you may begin to know yourself better, and find out if you're good company. If you come on a shrew or a snake or a bear or a beetle, stand still and watch till it moves out of sight. If you find an anthill bustling with ten thousand ants, take a minute to watch just one of them. You may be surprised to learn that the principal activities of ants are shirking, dithering, featherbedding, and coffee breaks. Or, in a different season, catch a single flake of fine dry snow on the sleeve of your jacket; look at it closely (through your magnifying glass if you have one) while holding your breath so as not to melt it. You'll see, maybe for the first time, that it's a six-sided crystal just as the books say it is, except that one of the six sides broke when it struck your sleeve. Keep trying until you find a perfect crystal.

And now, if you're thinking impatiently that these are not suitable activities for an adult, go back to lesson one. Lie down in the grass and close your eyes.

You're in luck if it's berry season. Picking berries is a quick and thorough cure for being too adult. In spite of the general "no picking" rule you're free to collect berries, fruits, and nuts, as long as they're for your personal use here in the Park. Strawberries grow in open places, and ripen in June; scarce in some years and plentiful in others, depending on the weather. They're small but tasty. Later come the blueberries, also small, also tasty. Blackberries and raspberries are uncommon but good. Dewberries, which look like blackberries, are common; they're edible, but hardly delicious.

Wineberries, which you're most likely to find in the South Section of the Park, are shining red translucent raspberries that look like jewels. When they're fully ripe, so that they almost drop into your hand at a touch, they taste as good as they look. Thimbleberries look like big flat raspberries, which they are. Some are dry and seedy, others quite good.

Cherries are common and we have several species, most of them rather sour. Grapes grow around old homesites but I find them too sour to eat. There are hundreds of apple trees in the Park. The apples are about what you'd expect from trees that haven't been pruned or sprayed for sixty years. You may find a persimmon tree here and there; the fruit is good when it's fully ripe, and very bad when it isn't.

The American chestnut trees were killed by the blight; but some of their roots are still alive, sending up shoots that live for several years before the blight kills them. Some may live long enough to produce nuts. If you're lucky enough to find the right tree at just the right time, you may be able to collect half a handful of chestnuts.

There are five species of hickory in the Park; two of them produce bitter, inedible nuts. The sweetest are those of the shagbark, which is easy to identify. When you find hickory nuts on the ground, look at the trunk of the nearest tree. The bark of shagbark hickory is conspicuously shaggy.

Hazelnuts (called filberts in the supermarket) may be found throughout the Park, and in midsummer you'll find bushes loaded with them. But you may never see a hazelnut ripe enough to eat. The deer, bears, squirrels, and chipmunks are less particular than we are.

 Walking, Seeing, Learning, Knowing

Walking is fun. After a day on mountain trails your thighs will ache and your feet will complain; and you'll feel great. But I think of walking mainly as a way to promote seeing—a means of transportation from one small and subtle pleasure to another. That's why, in my list of recommended hikes, the "Time Required" is longer than you'd expect. It includes time for seeing.

(There are Walkers who deserve a capital "W". They love to spend the whole day Walking, and the whole night talking about how far they Walked. I'm not one of them. Neither are you. If you were you'd be out there Walking, not reading a book.)

Seeing and learning—each strengthens and sharpens the other. And learning can be fun, once you're safely out of school and no longer have to do it. That pink-magenta flower in the grass—the one with the tiny white spots on its petals—that's a Deptford Pink. Unlike many of our wildflowers, that bloom for only a couple of weeks, this one stays all summer. It's named for the town of Deptford, near London, England. Because it was brought to America by the colonists it's considered an "exotic," a foreigner, a recent immigrant in this land, just like you and me. (If you're an American Indian don't feel smug; your people too came from somewhere else.) The Deptford Pink belongs to a group of plants called the Pink Family, Caryophyllaceae. Maybe you know other members of this family, such as garden dianthus, and carnation, and chickweed. Not all pinks are pink; the name refers not to the color, but to the teeth on the ends of the petals, which look as if they'd been snipped with pinking shears. The Deptford Pink, like all our wildflowers, has a scientific name in Latin. If you like words, and the sound of words, you'll enjoy the feel of Dianthus armeria on your tongue. (Even more fun is the Latin name of flannel mullein: Verbascum thapsus. Say it over and over; it makes a dandy mantra.)

As you can see, my knowledge of the Deptford Pink is trivial, rather than profound. You'll never earn a cent with such information, not even on a quiz show. Nevertheless, a flower means more to me if I know a couple of things about it. I'd like to try an analogy, even though it may not work. Let's say that you have a good close friend. You know a lot about him: his age, his education, his work, his family, his tastes, his strengths and weaknesses. Each time you meet him there's a flash of recognition and perhaps a brief warm emotion, because you know him. It's possible to have a similar emotion, on a smaller scale, each time you see a Deptford Pink. (Or a skink. Or a skunk. Or a water strider.)

 Textbooks and Teachers

Books on many subjects—trails, trees, flowers, ferns, mushrooms, mammals, birds. insects, geology, the mountain people—are for sale at points throughout the Park. You have a limited choice of books at lodges and waysides. There's a wider selection at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Mile 4.6) and the Byrd Visitor Center (Mile 51.0).

Our interpreters are primarily teachers. They will answer your questions if they can; if they don't know the answer they'll try to find it. Their campfire programs are informal talks often illustrated with color slides, and provide a learning experience as well as entertainment. During the summer season there are campfire talks at Big Meadows, Loft Mountain, Mathews Arm, Skyland, and Lewis Mountain. You can learn even more from a conducted walk, because you can talk directly to the interpreter and ask questions about the things you see.

The schedule of campfire talks and conducted walks may change some- what from year to year. Stop by a Visitor Center, lodge or entrance station to request a free copy of the Parks newspaper, "Shenandoah Overlook" for current information. Or look for an outdoor bulletin board: the activities schedule is posted there. There are about 50 bulletin boards in the Park: at picnic grounds, campgrounds, waysides, lodges, and some of the overlooks.

The Park offers more than vistas and walking, seeing and learning. Camping is a major pastime, not just a way to sleep and eat. Setting up your tent or trailer, building your fire, preparing your food and cleaning up, can occupy your time. Here are other ways:


Fishing is limited because our streams are small: they start near the top of the mountain. and quickly reach the Park boundary. Nevertheless. we have a number of trout streams that you may find worth while. There are rules. of course. You may fish year round and you may use only artificial lures. You'll need a Virginia fishing license, which you can purchase at the Panorama Restaurant, Big Meadows and Loft Mountain Waysides, or from local sporting goods stores. Most of the Park's streams are Catch and Release streams. That means you must gently return the fish to the water after you catch it.

The Park has a free brochure, Recreational Fishing. which is available at the entrance stations and visitor centers. listing the designated trout streams and the rules and regulations. These are subject to change from year to year so check with a ranger for the latest information.

  We have no ski lift here, no downhill run. The rangers tell me that cross-country skiing is encouraged, but few places are suitable for it. The trails are narrow, and go up and down a lot. But the upper part of the Rapidan Road, Mile 51.3, is smooth and nearly flat. You may ski on the Drive itself when conditions permit.


Bicycling is discouraged within the Park. Bikes are forbidden on all the trails. They are confined to the campground roads and Skyline Drive. The ups and downs on the Drive look a lot steeper from a bicycle than they do from your car. Bicycling on the Drive is strenuous exercise, and it's dangerous.


There are no swimming pools near the lodges or campgrounds, in spite of public demand. For one thing we're on top of a mountain, where there's very little water; it takes nearly all we can get just for drinking and flushing the toilets.

But you can swim. All the major streams have small pools where you can get thoroughly wet and very cool. There's a restriction: if you swim within sight of a trail, you're required to wear something. For skinnydipping, find a stream that has no trail beside it. Naked Creek (Mile 53.2) might be appropriate.

 Horseback Riding

We have more than 150 miles of yellow-blazed horse trails and fire roads where horses may be ridden. You can bring your own horse if you have one or, from May to October, you can rent one in the Park.

Your own horse: ride in on one of the designated horse trails, or bring your horse in a trailer. Backcountry camping trips on horseback are not encouraged. There are strict rules—not for your annoyance, but to protect the Park and the other visitors. For more information stop at either Visitor Center or write to: Shenandoah National Park, 3655 US Highway 211 East., Luray, VA 22835.

Renting a horse is less complicated. There are stables at Skyland (turn in at the south entrance, Mile 42.5, then stop at the first parking area on the left.) All horseback trips are guided; you can't rent a horse and take off on your own. For children, there are pony rides at Skyland. Ask at the stables or at Skyland for information, schedules, and reservations.

 What Else Have You Got?

The two lodges have recreation rooms where you can find such things as card tables, checker boards, pingpong, and TV. There's a dining hall at each lodge, with good (if not gourmet) food at a reasonable price. The tap rooms offer a wide choice of drinks, from champagne cocktails to "white lightning" in a fruit jar.

Q: Why couldn't they fill a swimming pool during the winter? Why no swimming pool, golf course, tennis court, ski lift, drive-in movie?
A: All those things are available nearby, outside the Park. If we had them here we would attract people who want only to swim, or only to play golf. The result: more pressures on limited facilities. And, for those who come to enjoy things that are unique to the Park, more elbows in the ribs.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved