It’s kind of been an unspoken goal of mine to visit a national park every single year on vacation. It all began in 2004 when I visited Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park. So far this year, I’ve been to Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park. You could say that I love experiencing the beauty of the American wilderness. Last year Shenandoah National Park in Virginia was my destination.
Shenandoah National Park is one of the few parks located east of the Mississippi and sits within the Blue Ridge Mountains, east of the Shenandoah River Valley and west of the Virginia Piedmont. The park was formally established in 1936, but prior to that time, much of the land was held by private owners and used for farming. Today, the park is characterized by its 105 mile Skyline Drive which provides scenic views to both the east and west as well as exquisite back country camping and backpacking. In fact, the famed Appalachian Trail runs right through the park. As an avid hiker, Shenandoah had be a destination of mine for a long time so I made it a part of a trip to Washington D.C. during my senior semester (I only needed one) of college.
If you enter Shenandoah country from the west, chances are you’ll pass through the small, but bustling town of Front Royal. I love small towns in Virginia. For me, they exude Americana with their colonial houses, classic white chapels, and festive town squares. Close your eyes and it’s not hard to envision Civil War soldiers marching through the towns or revolutionary patriots shouting for liberty in the village courts. Regardless of how you consider the history of a town like Front Royal, one look at the town and its easy to see how it forms the perfect gateway to Shenandoah country.
The entrance to the park lies just a few miles south of town. It was a warm, sunny October weekend when I visited the park and I remember vividly driving my car up into the mountains and taking in the tremendous beauty of the fall foliage and rolling peaks. After I paid my admission fee and entered the park, I drove my car along Skyline Drive, pulling off from time to time to take pictures of the sprawling landscape I now had an amazing view of. After a time, I was ready to pull my car off for the day and evening to do some backpacking. I made sure to park near the Appalachian Trail at Matthew’s Arm Campground to at least take a few steps on the famed path.
Hiking in Shenandoah
I had done some research before going to Shenandoah and picked out Matthew’s Arm as the place to start my backpacking excursion. The trailhead for the Tuscarora-Overall Run Trail lies right by the entrance to Matthew’s Arm and on that trail lies the amazing 93′ Overall Run Falls (seen below) as well as some gorgeous cascades nestled deep in the woods. The trail itself is about a 12 mile loop that lets you hike down into the valley, Take in the falls and the cascades and then hike back out. The halfway point, right by the cascades offers some great campsites to set up for the night. Best of all, the trail is relatively quiet and other hikers are few and far between.
I started my hike by taking the northern leg of the trail. In order to catch a glimpse of the falls, you’ll actually have to hike down a little ways from the campground. The best views of the falls are about a mile and a half beyond the campground. Once you’re done checking out the falls, you begin a rather sharp decent down into the valley. The trail is very rocky at times, but the good news is that the climb out of the valley on the other end of the trail is much easier. Once you get down into the valley floor, you’ll hike a few miles before reaching the cascades and your campsite. The hike out the next day on the later half of the trail will take you along a slow but steady climb back to the campground. I had a great time hiking and was struck by the fantastic fall colors, gorgeous views of the Shenandoah River Valley, and the sounds of the pounding falls. It gave me a chance to experience the magic, the Appalachian mountains contain in a very manageable way. Of course, I did take a bit of a risk by going out by myself into bear country, but facing your fears is never a bad thing.
Although the risk of running into a black bear is fairly significant, I was fortunate enough to never have met one face to face. Some hikers do see them, but making plenty of noise while hiking and storing food in bear containers up in trees at night can minimize the risk of an encounter. When I woke up in the morning, I had a relatively easy 6 mile hike back to my car. The nice thing about Shenandoah is that there is more to do than just backcountry camping so I headed down the Skyline Drive to the Skyland area to check out some more stuff. It was there that I had a great lunch at the hotel restaurant and took in some more mountain views.
I’d highly recommend checking out Shenandoah National Park if you ever have chance. The hiking is great, the views are amazing, and if you’re on the East Coast or in the Midwest, it’s very easy to reach. Just be careful of the black bears and have fun!