Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park.

Skyline Drive, which runs for 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains, is flanked by a rumpled panorama of forests and mountains. To many who drive, the highway itself is a park, complete with numerous deer sightings along the way. But the cars are passing the real Shenandoah. More than 500 miles of trails can be reached from Skyline Drive, and the Appalachian Trail roughly parallels it for nearly its entire length. The drive, following ridge trails walked by Indians and early settlers, transports visitors to a park built on a frontier that lingered into modern times.

Unlike most national parks, Shenandoah is a place where settlers lived for over a century. To create the 197,411 acres park, Virginia state officials acquired 1,088 privately owned tracts and donated the land to the nation on 26 December 1935. Never before had a large, populated expanse of private land been converted into a national park. And never before had planners made a park of land so used by humans. Before the park opened and during its early days, some 465 families moved or were moved from their cabins and resettled outside the proposed park boundaries. A few mountaineers, though, lived out their lives in the park and were buried in the secluded graveyards of Shenandoah’s vanished settlements. Shenandoah National Park was built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a government jobs program created during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Workers constructed the rock walls, overlooks, picnic grounds, campgrounds, trails, and the Skyline Drive. They also planted the mountain laurel that lines the road, and built more than 340 structures in the park, many now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The work of the CCC is commemorated by a statue of a CCC worker, Iron Mike.

Much of Shenandoah consisted of farmland and second- or third-growth forests logged since the early 1700s. Today the marks of lumbering, grazing, and farming have mostly disappeared, as forests have slowly come back.

Spring arrives first in the park valleys and then moves upward. Walking up a valley trail, a visitor can follow spring’s path and see, in a single day, a variety of flowers that bloom elsewhere over a span of weeks.

Credit: National Geographic Society.