Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shenandoah National Park

While we're spending some vacation time hiking the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu, we leave you with some thoughts on a more local hiking destination: Shenandoah National Park.

As much as we loved our Old Rag Mountain hike, we understand that it isn't for everyone.  After all, we paid a price for those spectacular views:  10 miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain, scrambling up rocks and through narrow crevices, and a brutal 0400 wake up call (what does the 0 stand for?  Oh my God it's early!).

Fortunately, there are plenty of other options in the region's National Park.  Yes, I know that there are technically lots of National Parks in the DC area, but when I think of that title, this West Coaster thinks of Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, etc.  By that measure, Shenandoah is "the" National Park in the area.  Fortunately, it is a good one.

Most visitors enjoy Shenandoah not more than 100 feet from Skyline Drive.  That's a good starting point but there is so much more.  After all, why restrict your excursion into nature by staying behind glass and on pavement?  Recently, we were joined by our hiking buddy Commie (his name is Comstock; he's not a Communist) for a 3 day stroll through the backcountry.  We chose a roughly 20 mile loop that started at Bootens Gap and included time in and around Jones Mountain, the Staunton River, and President Hoover's Rapidan Camp.

There are two things that make hiking in Shenadoah particularly nice.  There is plenty of access to water (i.e., less you have to carry) and all the trails are extremely well marked.

This particular hike was especially scenic and for a three-day weekend with pleasant (though at times rainy) weather, surprisingly empty.  The one area where we did see a few more people was at Rapidan Camp. 

I may have been in the minority but I loved having a splash of history and culture along mile 14 of our journey.  If nothing else, it was nice to get a chance to take the packs off, sit on a bench and get out of the elements for a while.  But if you're a bit of a nerd like me, you will be fascinated by this pre-Camp David presidential retreat that hosted President Hoover on nearly every weekend during the early years of the Depression.  The mental image of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet standing knee deep in the river with fishing poles and discussing the national crisis is... well... interesting.  It should also be noted that the cabin has hosted many other Presidents, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, and other dignitaries through the years.

But, back to nature.  As mentioned earlier, much of our hike passed by beautiful streams and ponds, including the one above that made for a refreshing dip.  And if you're not walking near water, you're most likely on a ridge that has breathtaking views.  On our second night, we were lucky enough to snag a camping spot along one of these ridges (and on the famous Appalachian Trail (AT)).

Not a bad way to spend a weekend when you have such beauty to greet you in the morning.

J Says

I don't know if B brainwashed me or what, but I really love spending a weekend away from civilization in the form of a backpacking trip.  After just two days, you feel as refreshed as if you've been gone for a week.  There's just nothing like being away from everything, including my beloved iPhone. 

As B said, Shenandoah has everything you'd want in a National Park and us Washingtonians are lucky enough to have it within easy driving distance.  If you're not ready to venture out on the trail overnight, there are lots of day hikes that you can cap off with an actual meal in a restaurant along Skyline Drive.  I suggest calling a ranger and getting suggestions for a hike or talking to someone in the book section of your local REI.  We've found all of our best hikes this way and they'll teach you how to beat the crowds. 

I hope your holiday season is filled with plenty of time with friends and family and just maybe (if the weather permits) a walk in the woods!


Mumbles said...

Hey, I really enjoyed reading--we're newish to the area, and haven't gotten a chance to really check out Shenandoah yet. We did a drive by to see the fall colors, but no hiking yet. We've pretty much exhausted Rock Creek, so this will be our next quest come spring. Thanks for the information and fun read!


B said...

Also consider Dolly Sods in the Monogahela National Forest (we're very tardy in writing about it). It is a bit of a drive but well worth it, especially for a multi-day backpacking trip.