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Beyond the Basics of the Park

  


One Of Many Overlook Views At SNP
Photo taken by Cindy Klinger
 
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. Stop often to absorb the scenery at overlooks along the Drive, you'll find it captivating.

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 a growing population. Try, for a while, to get out from under these burdens. Convince yourself that, for now, you don't have to do anything. 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 Sanctuary

Canada Warbler
Photo taken by Dave Wendelken 

Shenandoah, like other National Parks, is a sanctuary for natural processes and wildlife, which in turn makes it a special place for visitors to reconnect with nature and for some to experience the wonders of nature, close-up, for the first time. The scenery, wildlife, and flowers are samples of America as it used to be. It is a place for learning as well as rest.

But park visitation varies. Some parts of the park are crowded at certain times. On peak summer weekends and at the height of fall color the park has many visitors each day. Nevertheless, the park offers solitude, if you know where and when to look. At these busy times avoid the most popular spots. 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.

 

  Small and Subtle Pleasures

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 a thousand ants, take a minute to watch just one of them. 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.


Wild Strawberries
Photo taken by Henry Heatwole

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.

Wine berries, which you're most likely to find in the South District 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 there are several species, most of them rather sour. Grapes grow around old homesites, but many 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 seventy-five 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 live long enough to produce nuts.

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 walking is mainly a way to promote seeing - a means of transportation from one small and subtle pleasure to another. That's why, on the list of recommended hikes, the "time required" is longer than you'd expect. It includes time for seeing.


Deptford Pink
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

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, England, near London. Because it was brought to America by the colonists it's considered an "exotic," a foreigner, a recent immigrant in this land. The Deptford Pink belongs to a group of plants called the Pink Family, Caryophyllaceae. Perhaps 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 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.)

Unless you're a professional botanist you'll never earn much with such information. Nevertheless, a flower means more if you know a couple of things about it. Try an analogy, even though it may not work. Let's say that you have a good friend, you know a lot about: age, education, work, family, tastes, strengths and weaknesses. Each time you meet there's a flash of recognition and perhaps a brief warm emotion because you know the person. 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.)

 

  Gifting Nature to Children - The Junior Ranger Program


A Proud Member Of The Jr. Ranger Program
Photo taken by Michael Besant
 
Studies document the vast number of activities competing for children's time and attention, ranging from sports, to computer games, music, arts, and pre and post school day care. Television alone consumes an inordinate amount of time. With most households having two working parents, outdoor activities involving nature are not being experienced by today's children at anywhere near the level experienced by their parents or grandparents. While the Nature Channel provides wonderful programming, it in no way substitutes for experiencing nature up close and real. Shenandoah National Park works with local school systems providing teaching units and park visitation experience. In terms of numbers, this very successful program is just a drop in the bucket. The Shenandoah National Park Association outlets at the Visitor Centers have many child centered materials available to help all parents join with their children in making a park visit a family learning experience. The Explorer Backpack, which can be rented on a daily basis, contains most everything you need to explore the park's treasures, including binoculars, field guides, magnifying glass, paper and pencils. At any visitor center in the park you can find the Junior Ranger guides. By completing the activities inside a child can earn a Junior Ranger sticker, patch or badge. Check the park visitor guide, Shenandoah Overlook, for Junior Ranger Program schedules and locations.

 

  Textbooks and Teachers

Books on many subjects - trails, trees, flowers, ferns, mushrooms, mammals, birds, insects, geology, area history - are for sale at the Visitor Centers, many published by the Shenandoah National Park Association. Check out the Association to see a complete listing of what's available. It really pays to do some reading in advance. You will increase the enjoyment of your trip and perhaps whet your appetite for what's to come. You have a limited choice of books at gift shops. There's a wider selection at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Mile 4.6) and the Byrd Visitor Center (Mile 51).

Park Ranger interpreters are primarily educators. 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 exciting, often illustrated with color photos, and provide a learning experience as well as entertainment. During the summer season there are campfire talks at Big Meadows, Loft Mountain, and Skyland. You can learn even more from a ranger guided walk, because you can talk directly to the Park Ranger and ask questions about the things you see.

The schedule of Ranger Programs may change somewhat from year to year. Stop by a Visitor Center, lodging desk or entrance stations to request a free copy of the visitor guide, "Shenandoah Overlook" for current information. You can also check Shenandoah National Park.

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, preparing your food and cleaning up, can occupy your time. Here are other ways:

 

  Fishing


Native Brook Caught From An SNP Stream
Photo taken by Mike Talmarkes
Fishing is limited because our streams are small: they start near the top of the mountain and quickly reach the park boundary. Nevertheless, there are a number of trout streams 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 Big Meadows Wayside, or from local sporting goods stores. Most of the park's streams are Catch and Release streams. That means you must use barbless hooks and gently return the fish to the water after you catch it.

The park has a free brochure, Recreational Fishing, 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.

 

  Skiing

The park has no ski lift, no downhill run. Cross-country skiing is possible some years during periods of heavy snow. The park's trails are mostly narrow, and go up and down a lot. But the upper part of the Rapidan Road, Mile 51.3, is smooth and nearly flat. And some fire roads are possible choices.

 

  Bicycling

Bicycling is prohibited on all of the park's trails and fire roads. You can ride within the campgrounds, on the gravel road that runs into Big Meadows, and on Skyline Drive, but bicycling on the Drive is not encouraged. There are no paved shoulders or bike lanes and there are almost no flat stretches; the Drive is just about 100 percent up or down and some of the grades are miles long and steep. Unless you are a serious biker, it is suggested you leave your bike at home or confine your biking to paved roads in the developed areas. If you do plan to come to bike on the Drive, weekdays will provide a more pleasant and safer experience than weekends.

 

  Swimming

There are no swimming pools in the park. For one thing it's on top of a mountain, where there's very little water. It takes nearly all there is available 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. The individual trail descriptions mention a number of swimming holes. Please always be careful and remember, you swim at your own risk.

 

  Horseback Riding

There are 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 arrange for a trail ride at Skyland stables as described below.


Horseback Riders At Big Meadows
Photo taken by Cindy Klinger
 
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 go to Shenandoah National Park.

Renting a horse is less complicated. There are stables at Skyland (turn in at the south entrance, Mile 42.5, and 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 or check, www.visitshenandoah.com.

 

  Hang Gliding

Hang gliders may be launched from authorized sites: two in the north and one in the central area of the park. A Hang Gliding Special Use Permit is required. Please contact the Park Communication Center at: 1-540-999-3500 in advance for an application. Permission from landowners must be obtained to land on private property below the cliff edge. To make a launch you must have a rating of Hang 3.

 

  What Else Have You Got?

Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge have recreation rooms where you can find such things as card tables, checker boards, ping pong, and TV. There's a dining room at each facility, with good food at reasonable prices. The tap rooms offer a wide choice of beverages.

   
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