Monday, April 27, 2015

Shenandoah National Park recap.

Shenandoah National Park is just a few hours from my parents' house near DC. Since we were so close and neither of us had been, we decided this would be the perfect spot to test our gear before hitting the road for our upcoming National Parks camping extravaganza.

After four days, two campsites, 21 trail miles, no bears and just a few April showers, we're happy to report that our equipment (mostly) passed muster. And although it was still pretty cold and the wildflowers weren't quite blooming, we had a great time exploring the park and the surrounding area. Here's a recap of our trip...

mainland park #1 - check!
(park entrance #3 of 4 - check!)

The hikes. Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Ranger Warne at the visitor center provided us with a handful of recommendations; from there we narrowed it down to one full-day hike and a bunch of little meanders.

Day One: we got in fairly late and thunderclouds were looming so after setting up camp, we took a short walk up to Lewis Mountain (not very exciting this time of year) and then hiked along the Appalachian Trail until the raindrops started.

pre-storm trekkin'

Day Two: we headed to Old Rag Mountain to conquer the billion-year-old boulders along a 9.2 mile return trek. Yes, billion-year-old. This is one of the more popular hikes in the park; it's also one of the more dangerous hikes, and absolutely impossible if the rocks are wet. Luckily we only ran into a few people and it was a gorgeous clear day.

first viewpoint from Old Rag Mountain

look what I can do!

one of the easier passages

the reward

(I keep saying "no more adrenaline-rush hikes, please" - this one required a lot of bouldering in narrow crevasses and along steep cliffs - but secretly I love these. Don't tell Patrick.)

Day Three: on our way to Big Meadows campground we stopped at Bearfence Mountain. Another scramble along boulders, this time only 1.6 miles round trip to nice panoramic views.

it wasn't that bad, really

After setting up our new camp, we walked along the AT to the Rose River Falls loop featuring a lovely creek and nice waterfalls.

Rose River Falls


The loop trail meets up with Dark Hollow Falls (not as ominous as we expected).

lower Dark Hollow Falls

The rain started just as we were making our way back along the Story of the Forest trail so we headed to the tent for a nap. We never did learn the story - with a name like that we were expecting signage along the route.

bet the deer knows the story

Day Four: we started the day with a verrrrrrry cold hike to Lewis Falls (from the parking area instead of the campsite, which saved us a mile or so).

ssssssoooooo cooooooold

After quick showers we stopped by Skyland to see what that was all about (tourist crap and conference centers, turns out), and then hiked to Hawksbill Mountain, the highest peak in the park.

nope, not quite spring yet

Old Rag Mountain in the background

Hawksbill Mountain peak

Finally, we headed to Stony Man Mountain and were pleasantly surprised to find a really interesting narrative tourbook at the trailhead. Our quick 1.6 mile stroll ended up taking longer as a result, but it was nice to get some context for all the trees and rocks we'd been seeing over the past few days.

some lichen grow just 1mm every year
... had no idea

Stony Man peak -
very nice, very old, very windy, very cold

The campsites. The park has four campsites but only two were open at the time we visited. We decided to try them both. It was early in the season so we had our pick of prime sites at both campsites.
  • Lewis Mountain Campground (we chose site #7)
    • Pros: smallest campground in the park; interesting history; fully stocked campstore and showers; excellent drainage at campsites; utility sinks and hot water (!) in bathrooms
    • Cons: not many trails within walking distance; campsites are pretty close together which could be annoying when the campground is full
first campsite of 2015!

sunset from Lewis Mountain campground
  • Big Meadows Campground (we chose site #52)
    • Pros: lots of walk-in tent sites with bear boxes; numerous trails within walking distance; the best campfire grills I've seen yet; utility sinks and hot water (!) in bathrooms
    • Cons: hard to find a tent site with good drainage; only one set of showers for a few hundred campsites

... far
(the view from our parked car)

The food. Non-campers often ask what we eat on our camping trips. Car camping is so easy compared to backpacking! Breakfast is usually oatmeal or cereal; lunch is usually sandwiches. Dinner requires a little pre-planning, a little patience and a little creativity (and a shoe box of spices), but we generally eat really well - and we almost never eat soup.
  • Post-rain dinner #1
bag of mixed frozen veggies, tofu, rice noodles,
ginger, curry, chili powder, salt, pepper,
delicious Allagash beer
  • Post-exhausting-hike dinner #2
fresh roasted vegetables, tofu, rice noodles,
garam masala, salt,
delicious Allagash beer
  • Nacho night dinner #3
roasted vegetables,
a can of diced tomatoes with chilis,
lots of cilantro and oregano

We ate so healthy (and hiked so many miles) while we were camping that we decided to indulge on the way home. Thanks, Spelunkers!

bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, philly cheese steak -
all surprisingly delicious

but the real winner was their custard of the day -
maple bacon bourbon

Before our fast-food binge we stopped by Luray Caverns - we were on the fence about this because it's privately owned and really popular with tourists. It turned out to be worth the short side trek and admission cost, which gets you into the caverns, the historic museum and the antique car collection...


how to save $30

it's a dog-powered treadmill butter churner
(I am so not kidding)

almost skipped the car museum -
but we ended up loving it

Luray was beautiful but very different from the caves we visited in Vietnam. We're curious to see how it stacks up against Mammoth and Carlsbad...

So that's our Shenandoah National Park trip in a nutshell. Lots of people just enjoy the views from Skyline Drive and its 70+ overlooks, but we definitely recommend staying a few days if you can, or at least getting out of your car to explore some of the quick walks. If you haven't been, go! (But maybe not in mid-April!)


We'll be posting about each park we visit in the coming months. We're still working out the format so we'd love any input on this one. Is the information helpful? Is it interesting? Is there anything you'd like to know more (or less) about? Leave a comment and let us know!


  1. That looks like a nice trip! I am incredibly jealous that you are out camping, and I am typing this comment and longing for nature. Welp, we can't all be so lucky! Enjoy the rest of your trip, I will have to check back in and see your next stop.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Our next stop is Great Smoky Mtns NP. Stay tuned. :) Hopefully spring in PDX is giving you some of your nature fill, at least...

  2. This looks like a ton of fun! We have friends that have a dream to go to every national park! Way to get it. :)

    1. Thanks Bonnie! We won't hit them all this summer but we're going to do our best to hit quite a few. :)

  3. I'd like to recommend Ramsett Park, Pawnee's most-visited park. The former site of a Wal-Mart, it's the perfect place for a quick game of handball or just taking a cautious stroll.