Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside and at the shore, but always close to my home in South Jersey. So it wasn’t until college that I began to travel and visit national parks, starting with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
I remember the drive from Williamsburg, VA to the southern Rockfish Gap entrance to the park, because it was one of my first drives in the Appalachian mountains. The flat terrain and straight roads you could see for miles ahead gave way to foothills and winding roads, the Appalachian
mountains visible in the distance. Surrounded by the lush, green forests of towering chestnut and red oak trees, we entered the park and weaved our way north on Skyline Drive.
We got a campsite at Loft Mountain campground, the largest in the park, towards the southern end of the park. It has an amphitheater with beautiful eastern and western views of the mountains. This was my first camping experience, and there was a rumbling of bear sightings near the campground the night before, so needless to say every rustle of a leaf or branch was amplified in my mind as I tried to sleep that first night. Alas, I slept and did not have a bear encounter.
The following day we drove north to our destination for the day – mile marker 45.6 to hike the very strenuous 8.2-mile Whiteoak Canyon-Cedar Creek circuit, past numerous waterfalls and cascades. It was summer so the trees were lush and offered ample shade as we descended from the road. The cascading waterfalls serenaded hikers beside the trail, and the smells of the creek lingered in the cool air. At one point, a brown bear was spotted drinking at the creek far below.
The water in the pools was cold, even in the summer, but refreshing for a quick dip after a long descent. Occasionally, we passed other hikers on the trail, especially around the crystalline pools, but most of the time we descended to the sounds of nature and the rhythm of our own footsteps.
The hike took 6 hours, even though we descended the steep side and ascended the “easier side,” which was recommended in an old hiking book. This is the opposite of what is recommended on the NPS site, possibly because you hit the waterfalls early and there is not as much to see on the difficult ascent. Sore and exhausted, but feeling accomplished, sleep came shortly after and the thought of bears in the campground didn’t phase me this time. The beauty of the hike stayed with me and I visited Shenandoah National Park many times after.
Shenandoah National Park Quick Facts
Year established: December 26, 1935 (Authorized May 22, 1926)
Size: 197,438.76 acres (79,579 acres of wilderness)
Annual visitors: 1,321,873 in 2015 (Peak 2,411,500 in 1970)
Hours: 24 hours
Best activities: Hiking, camping, fall foliage, spring wildflowers
Where to find the passport cancellation stamp: Two visitor centers – Dickey Ridge (North) and Harry F. Byrd Sr. (South)