Terry McLaughlin: Shenandoah National Park — wild and wonderful
“Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. Life is old there, older than the trees, Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.”
Those of us of a certain age likely remember the words to the late John Denver’s popular hit, “Country Roads.” Although I didn’t quite make it all the way into West Virginia this month, I did have an opportunity to drive a portion of the scenic Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive within the commonwealth of Virginia, and I found the words to John Denver’s song to be strikingly accurate.
Only 75 miles from Washington, D.C., lies a vast and amazingly beautiful tableau bursting with cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and fields of wildflowers completely divorced from the traffic, bustle and acrimony of our nation’s capital.
Formed from over 1,000 privately owned tracts of land, Shenandoah started as a patchwork of forests, fields, orchards, and home sites. This was in part because the 1925 authorization from President Calvin Coolidge to establish the park required that no federal funds would be used to purchase the land. Virginia slowly acquired the land through private donations, state allocated funds, and its use of eminent domain. Once completed, they gave it to the federal government to establish the national park. Remnants of old home sites can still be found in the park’s backcountry.
The 300-square-mile sanctuary that is Shenandoah National Park was established on Dec. 26, 1935, and formally opened and dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on July 3, 1936 as Virginia’s first national park.
Containing a wide array of flora and fauna, the park rises from a mere 550 feet at its lowest elevation to over 4,049 feet at its highest.
In 1976, Congress designated almost 40% of the park (79,579 acres) as wilderness, providing protection for this scenic wonder as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
From the beginning, national park planners, capitalizing on the new popularity of the automobile, called for Shenandoah’s “greatest single feature” to be a sky-line drive on which motorists could enjoy a leisurely drive through the Blue Ridge and experience the awe and inspiration of the magnificent views.
The creation of the park had immediate economic benefits to some Virginians during the Great Depression, as construction of Skyline Drive — the “road to the top” — began even before the national park was established by Congress. About 1,000 men and boys were employed during the development of Skyline Drive, and 100,000 more received training and jobs in Virginia through the Civilian Conservation Corps. In addition to Skyline Drive itself, Civilian Conservation Corps workers built rustic-style park facilities, some still in use, so anyone could retreat to the mountains for recreation and relaxation.
Today, Skyline Drive is a narrow mountain road with beautiful vistas and wildflowers along the shoulders. It follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, beginning at the north entrance in Front Royal, Virginia, and ending at the southern Rockfish Gap entrance in Waynesboro, W.V., where it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway, stretching 469 miles to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The overlooks along Skyline Drive provide breathtaking views, as well as sometimes amusing and curious names such as Gooney Manor, Hogwallow Flats, Gimlet Ridge, Hogback Overlook, Mathews Arm, Elkwallow, Stoney Man, Hemlock Springs, Old Rag View, Spitler Knoll, and Naked Creek. Surely there are some interesting histories behind each one of those curious names.
Chipmunks, groundhogs and other wild animals frequent Skyline Drive’s shoulders. You may see deer or bears darting across the road, as well as tenacious bike riders propelling themselves up the mountain, providing good reason to observe the speed limit. For those with the time, ability and desire, there are over 500 miles of hiking trails in the Shenandoah National Park.
Weary urbanites have visited the area for extended stays since the late 1800s. President Herbert Hoover and first lady Lou Henry Hoover purchased land for a vacation fishing camp near the headwaters of the Rapidan River. They used their Rapidan Camp as a retreat from the stress of their work and the summer heat and humidity in the nation’s capital. Upon leaving office, President and Mrs. Hoover donated the camp to the park, and today visitors can explore a restored presidential cabin and an historical exhibit about the Hoovers.
“Life is old there, older than the trees” — Music critic Ronnie D. Lankford Jr. explained that the lyrics to the song “Country Road” suggested that “it’s time for those tired of trying to solve all the world’s problems to leave them to Jesus and go away on their own.”
John Denver called this place “Almost Heaven.” I think that he may have been on to something.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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