Pretty, Remote, and Quaint

This is the 75th anniversary of Shenandoah National Park – 200,000 acres of raw, splendid nature, and the only national park in the mid-Atlantic region.

The first time I visited Shenandoah National Park, I was a toddler. Though my family lived in Northern Virginia, my parents often drove my sisters and me “out west” when we were young, even in the middle of the week. Time after time, for a half a day or two, Shenandoah National Park (SNP), was a serene respite from our hectic lives. Then, when I was nine, something truly serendipitous occurred: My parents bought a house in Rappahannock County—and suddenly the park’s Thornton Gap entrance was but a short drive away. The national park effectively became our backyard from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. How lucky could we be? Sometimes we picnicked, sometimes we hiked, and sometimes we camped for a night or two. Always, it was an amazing place for a young person.

The natural environment always encouraged my curiosity—as it does for most people. After all, it was the great and intriguing outdoors, full of different and mysterious things. I soon learned to recognize sassafras and prickly pear cactus, poison ivy and turkey fungus. I could identify rabbit holes, bear prints, deer scat and the call of the eastern tohee—one of the park’s 200 species of birds. My family came to know the park rangers on a first-name basis, and attended nature programs hosted by our favorites. Of course, we spent many nights roasting marshmallows over campfires and exchanging stories.

I grew up, got older, went to college and drifted away from SNP. In recent years my youthful park adventures felt like fables from a distant past. So I jumped at the opportunity to visit it in mid-May, with my family, on the cusp of the park’s 75th birthday. Doing so made me one of the park’s 1.2 million annual visitors, though this year that number could rise significantly. “My staff and I expect big crowds,” says Gene Rudolf, the amiable general manager at historic Skyland Resort, one of two resorts at Shenandoah. “But we want to continue treating each guest with small town friendliness.” That’s been the park’s philosophy since it first opened on December 26, 1935. Then, as now, it is the only national park in the mid-Atlantic region. Its nearly 200,000 acres of oak-hickory forest border eight Virginia counties—Rappahannock, Madison, Greene, Albemarle, Page, Augusta, Rockingham and Warren.

A national park offers a variety of benefits to visitors—aesthetic, educational, even psychological. It can also be an economic fillip to the distinct counties that surround it. According to a 2006 report by Hardner & Gullison Associates, a private consulting firm, the U.S. national park system generates “at least four dollars in value to the public for every tax dollar invested in its annual budget.” In the case of Shenandoah, about 80 percent of Page County’s property tax revenue comes from the park. What’s more, according to SNP official Helen Morton, most multi-night visitors to Shenandoah leave to explore a local community such as Warrenton, Sperryville, Luray or Front Royal within the first three days of their stay. These tourists spend their money at museums, artisan studios, shops and restaurants—and might even book a bed-and-breakfast, too.

To my delight, I would be staying in Skyland Resort. As an Arlingtonian, I was more familiar with it growing up than Big Meadows, the other lodging area in Shenandoah and the focal point for SNP’s anniversary activities. Skyland is the highest point on Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the park. Comprising 28 buildings on 36 acres on the northern end of Skyline Drive, Skyland attracts a lot of guests from Northern Virginia, while the somewhat smaller and more southerly Big Meadows Lodge, with 11 buildings on 10 acres, is more popular with people from Richmond, Charlottesville and Tidewater. Skyland was built in the 1920s, before the park was created, and quickly became a popular, even glamorous destination for wealthy Washingtonian couples eager to escape Prohibition laws and to dance to the naughtiness that was jazz. (Tourists would buy moonshine from residents of the hollows, who sold it, along with traditional baskets, as one of their mountain crafts.)

Most of Skyland’s buildings are second-generation motel-style structures with a cabin flair built between 1960 and 1980—but some earlier, pre-park structures still exist. Though there are several freestanding cabins for couples and families, most people stay in one of 178 motel rooms, located in complexes separate from the lodge. One hundred and three of these rooms have TV sets, 38 have air-conditioning, and none has a telephone (they’re in the lodge). All have fans and heat, as well as a smoke-free policy. Most rooms have balconies, and all the cabins have fireplaces. My Skyland room was homey and in harmony with the surrounding habitat. Except for the black television set, everything was earth-toned and charmingly rustic. Watercolors showcasing the park hung on the walls over each of the two queen size beds. I was happy to learn that there was no Wi-Fi, limited cell phone service, and only five TV stations available—a break from technology and cultural noise!

Soon after unpacking, I slipped back to the lodge for an early dinner and a few words with some of the folks who manage Skyland. Aramark, SNP’s hospitality concessionaire for the past 30 years, manages Skyland Resort, from its lodging to its dining to its horse stables. One hundred and fifty Aramark employees work at the lodge. Rudolph, the soft-spoken and earnest general manager, has worked at Shenandoah for three and a half years, following a decade-long stay at Yellowstone National Park. When I met him in Skyland Lodge’s main lobby, he was wearing a ski sweater with a white collared shirt and khakis. He repeatedly broke away from our conversation to greet new and familiar guests. Friendliness is not Rudolph’s only priority. “Cleanliness is number one in my book,” he says, adding that all guests appreciate a well-kept space. When I asked him to describe Shenandoah National Park, his response was succinct: “Pretty, remote and quaint.”

I soon migrated from the lobby to Skyland’s popular restaurant, the Pollock Dining Room, which was named after George Freeman Pollock, the founding owner of Skyland. The moment I sat down, I sighed at the greenery that filled the view outside my window. As Brian Brown, Skyland’s food and beverage manager, puts it: “Some places, you open your back door and all you see is a brick wall. Not here.”

I read the menu slowly, like a fine piece of literature. A man at the table next to me was equally delighted. “I love this motif—the Depression [era] stuff,” he told his wife. He was referring to the specialty drink names that are nods to the Roaring Twenties or Great Depression, such as Prohibition Punch, Blackberry Flapper Frappe, Margarita Blues, Virginia Depression Sour and Speakeasy Sour.

Earlier in that evening, I had spoken to Patrick Miller, the restaurant’s chef du cuisine. When Miller came to Shenandoah three years ago, he noticed that Skyland’s menu emphasized heavier foods like beef stew. He thought lighter fare made more sense for his customers—and today, he still thinks health-consciously, asking himself, in effect: What would a hiker want to eat? That doesn’t mean that one can’t find succulent Southern cuisine in the restaurant. Miller, practically beaming at the uniqueness of his workplace, told me, “To go to a place where you can escape from [everything] and get to know your kids through doing physical activities like horseback riding or kayaking … and still get great food from chefs who care about what you eat … that is a really rare opportunity.”

The Pollock Dining Room, which dates back to the 1960s, was packed on a Thursday night. Like the guest rooms, it had a rustic aesthetic that hovered somewhere between casual and romantic. Not long after placing my order, I was digging into the Virginia Wild Mushroom Tart, Steak Diane and Blackberry Ice Cream Pie. I washed it all down with Old Dominion root beer. After dinner, I dropped in the Mountain Taproom, which offers live entertainment every night of the year. That evening, a pair of middle-aged men with the stage names Shen and Park were singing folk songs. The crowd, mostly mellow Baby Boomers, applauded the duo, even when they slipped up and “approximated” lyrics.

The next morning, I woke to a world shrouded in fog. I could barely see the trees outside my window. I felt lost in some mythical time. I was scheduled to ride a horse—something I had never done (unless you count time spent on a pony at a kiddie fair). Giddy about the excursion, I marched up to the lodge for breakfast. I chose the Healthy Hiker—two strips of turkey bacon, a fruit kabob, a blueberry muffin and scrambled eggs. A half an hour later, I was at the Skyland stable, where 17 horses and two ponies were kept. In late summer, Aramark brings in more horses to accommodate the surge of tourists keen to see autumn foliage. The stable’s season starts in mid-March and ends around Thanksgiving, when it gets too cold to ride comfortably.

After waiting out a brief rain shower, I mounted Blossom, a horse about six years old, and my guide climbed up on her younger stepbrother, Lightning. We then set off on a centuries-old logging trail, the passing scenery wavering like a dream. My favorite moment during the ride came when we crossed a creek. The fog limited our visibility so much that I could identify the creek only by listening for the faint tinkling song of its water. I half-expected the Lady of the Lake to emerge from the waters when the fog subsided, but alas, a chipmunk greeted us with chrrit-chrrit instead.

I napped after the horse ride and woke up hungry. For lunch, I ordered Crab Fritters, Turkey Pot Pie and Tall Mountain Chocolate Cake. After poking around for a few hours—taking photographs, browsing through the gift shop—it was time to eat again. It would be my last meal at Skyland. For dinner, I had the Spinach & Artichoke Dip Au Gratin, Roosevelt Fried Chicken, and a single scoop of blackberry ice cream with iced tea. Skyland’s portions are generous, and with every bite of my appetizer, I chided myself for not saving room for my entrée. No matter; I made room—determined to taste the fried chicken others had raved about. It lived up to its billing. The Yukon mashed potatoes served alongside the chicken were also tasty. And I certainly couldn’t complain about the ice cream.

After dinner, I bid farewell to Skyland—but not to Shenandoah, which was a good thing, as I hadn’t done much more than eat and ride for the first 24 hours of my two-day stay. Within an hour, I had met my family and we’d checked in at Big Meadows campground. As soon as my father parked the RV, my younger sister, Helen, and I got out and ran around the campground. Feeling like teens again, we wanted to scope the territory. Despite the rainy weather, many of the campsites were full. A bunch of boys in their early teens blocked the road with a game of football. We heard little girls somewhere singing Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” We smiled when we picked up two familiar park scents—the stink of burnt hot dogs and the perfumed sweetness of honeysuckle. We slipped past lichen-covered trees in silence.

Moments later, a quarter-mile away from our campsite, we ventured onto a stretch of the Appalachian Trail and started walking. Of the 2,180 miles that constitute the Appalachian Trail, 101 of them run through the park. Immediately, all grew quiet. The sounds of children yelling and adults discussing tent-pole connections faded. The woods were draped in a pleasantly eerie mist that enveloped boulders, shrubs and trees. For most of the 75-minute hike, my sister and I were alone. Entranced, we exchanged few words. The Appalachian Trail is the most prominent hiking path in Shenandoah, of course—but it’s only one of more than 180 trails in the park covering 400 miles. No wonder SNP is a hiker’s paradise, whether one prefers easy, moderate or difficult terrain, or even multi-day treks. At one point, we strayed from the trail and climbed onto a large green and gray rock formation. Even in the fog, the granite sparkled. From the rocks, we peered over a cliff and out over hundreds of trees. Somewhere high in the sky stood the blue silhouette of a mountain. We took photographs, knowing that they would not adequately reflect the view.

By the time we got back to our campsite (we’d been gone more than an hour—Shenandoah subtly robs you of time, which is one of the joys of being in the woods) our parents were sitting beside a campfire, talking the way old lovers do. At that point, the drizzle turned into true rain and it was time to go inside the RV. My sister and I cuddled up in our respective corners and read until we drifted off to sleep.

The following morning, after a hardy meal of my mother’s grits and eggs, I bumbled about for an hour before going to the Big Meadows Amphitheater for a Birds of Prey program. Just before I headed to the ranger talk, my mother spotted a bright, red-spotted newt in our campsite. I shrieked excitedly. The newt was in the eft, or terrestrial juvenile, stage. Efts are adorable—they look like soft jelly lizards with little smiles and shiny eyes—and rare in busy campgrounds. I plopped down on the ground and took a few photos, then bounded off for the amphitheater.

I slid onto my seat just as Ranger Georgette Vougias, an animated brunette, was beginning her presentation. She immediately wowed the small audience with her humor, stories and knowledge. Vougias, who has worked at the park seasonally for four years, elaborated on the three unique physical characteristics of birds of prey—razor talons, sharp eyesight and hooked beaks—and explained how these magnificently intimidating creatures contribute to their ecosystems. Among the 15 ranger programs at Shenandoah, Birds of Prey is the only one that features live animals.

The ranger presented three birds—a red-tailed hawk, a bard owl and a screech owl. With their beauty and power, even the smallest of raptors demands respect. All three birds had been victims of car accidents. Ranger Vougias said that the red-tailed hawk had sustained brain injuries that hindered his ability to properly think and hunt, and as a result he could not be released back into the wild. We were all mesmerized by the hawk’s piercing eyes and majestic, glossy plumage. Next, the ranger took out a half-asleep bard owl. The nocturnal bird’s eyelids flickered open and then closed throughout his time on stage. The highlight of the bard owl talk came when Ranger Vougias theatrically imitated his call. “Whocooksforyou?” she hooted, squeezing the words together quickly to imitate the call. “But some of them sound more Southern,” quipped the ranger, “and say, ‘Whocooksfory’all?’”

Last came the nearly pocketsize screech owl. Like the bard owl, he could hardly keep his eyes open but appeared more alert than the other birds. He even performed a dance for the group. Contrary to common belief, the screech owl does not screech; he whinnies.

Ranger Vougias made clear that many species of raptors—including these three—are either endangered or threatened. After the talk, she told me that she sees the park like a game of Jenga: Every time you pull out a piece, the ecological system becomes less stable. For that reason, the park’s management philosophy focuses on minimizing human impact, and that sometimes applies to visitor rules as well. Several trails, for instance, are not open to pets, and visitors are not allowed to feed wild animals under any circumstances.

“We’re trying to let nature write the story,” Ranger Vougias said of the park’s largely hands-off approach. That’s a far cry from the park’s earlier practices. Back in the 1950s, for example, park rangers put up bleachers so that visitors could sit around “bear dumps” and watch the big creatures rummage through the sludge for food.

After the program, I joined my family to check out the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center. It’s a worthwhile stop. Rangers mill around, happy to answer questions. There’s an engaging exhibit about the park, a mini movie theater for nature and history documentaries and a gift shop. The exhibit limns the park’s early history, including how it was formed by the displacement of hundreds of mountain families. I was impressed by Shenandoah’s use of multimedia—film clips, audio segments and interactive features—in this permanent exhibit.

A Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon stay is not nearly enough time for a visit to SNP. There’s too much to see and do. There are, for example, 15 different ranger programs in any given season—on such topics as ancient volcanoes and the historic Massanutten Lodge. Shenandoah also hosts the Blackberry Festival in July, the Apple Butter Festival in September and Oktoberfest.

My visit sent me spinning back into my childhood for a weekend. I’m only surprised that I didn’t spot a black bear; usually one lumbers into view at some point during a stay. I usually regret having to leave the park, but this time not so much as I knew that I’d return in about a month to lose myself in the park’s 75th birthday activities, trying local barbecue, lingering at overlooks and viewing the night skies. Sierra Club founder John Muir once said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” There certainly are plenty of refreshing, even transformational, experiences at Shenandoah National Park.

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