Shenandoah National Park
Having flown into Virginia for a friend’s wedding and getting thoroughly wasted (understatement) in the subsequent after-party, we took advantage of being in the area to drive 40 minutes up to Shenandoah National Park. Still feeling queasy during the drive up, the winding roads and the famed rolling hills of Virginia did not help my particular condition (read: hangover AF). But as we entered the park from the Thornton Gap entrance station and reached the scenic Skyline Drive, we pulled over to a lookout point overlooking the lush green valleys below. The gentle rustle of the green summer foliage, and the fresh mountain air seemed like the best hangover cure I could've asked for.
We checked into our campsite at the Big Meadows campgrounds and took a short afternoon nap before we would get dinner ready and head out to see the sunset. I was woken up by some rustling near me, when I noticed that a photographer was nearby with what looked like a huge Canon 600mm wildlife lens. I turned around to see a doe and her fawn foraging at a small oak grove just feets away from our tent. We’d see a lot more wildlife over the next couple days, in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever near-missed a deer while driving in a national park as much as in Shenandoah.
After fixing a quick dinner, we drove up to Stony Man summit trailhead, just north of the Skyland district. The sky was darkening and the wind was blowing pretty hard when we started our short hike up to the summit. A storm was rolling in. We reached the rocky summit in no time, and just in time for an epic sunset. With dark stormy clouds above us and a stunning sunset just ahead.
I could’ve spent hours here trying out different compositions of the rocky summit and the valley below. But the clouds were quickly moving in and we’re in a very exposed peak, so we headed back down to our camp before it started raining.
The best part about Shenandoah is the 100-miles long Skyline Drive. Stretched along the Blue Ridge Mountain, the road traverses the spine of the mountain with spectacular views of the valleys and rolling hills on both sides. Trying to take advantage of this, I got up early to try and see if I can get any decent sunrise pictures of the mountains. But the grey overcast skies pretty much dulled out any views that can be had. A little discouraged, I made my way back to Big Meadows.
But just outside the campground (and ironically, right next to the “This is Bear Country” sign), I spotted a mama bear and her three cubs! Holy cow, this was my first ever bear sighting! I pulled over and jumped over to the backseat of my car to grab my camera and tried to get a shot of them (under no circumstances will I step out of my car in proximity to bears of any kind). Wasn’t able to get any clear shots since the pack shuffled back into the trees, but I got to see the 3 little cubbies frolic. We’d have two more bear sighting by the end of the day.
With the completely overcast skies and fog, doing any peak hikes or getting to any lookouts might not be worth it, so we decided to do a couple forest hikes to the many waterfalls in the area.
This early in the summer, most of the waterfalls will still have a decent current running through it. We quickly realized that most hikes in the park always start with an easy downhill, and a challenging uphill hike on the way back. We hiked down towards Doyles River Falls, which is around 3.5 round trip to the upper falls. Coming down was a breeze, didn’t even break a sweat as we walked under the forest canopied trees. Going back up was an entirely different experience. The upper Doyles falls is a beautiful cascade waterfall surrounded by thick foliage. One thing I keep thinking during my time here is that how much more beautiful this park is during fall colors season.
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking for a quiet little spot to have our supper. We ended up at The Point overlook, which typically would’ve provided a nice beautiful sweeping view of the Shenandoah valley below. But since there was no sunset to be had with the cloudy skies, I opted to try a more moody shot of the path leading to the edge of the lookout.
The rest of the night we hung back at the Skyland Tap Room, where a rotating list of resident artists would perform nightly. Another impressive thing about this park is how well kept, complete, and accommodating the amenities are for a relatively smaller park.
Sleeping in the next morning, we packed up our tent and gear and loaded up the car. Had a nice breakfast at the Big Meadows Lodge dining room.
We started driving north on Skyline Drive with plenty of stops along the way, soaking in the beautiful sunny weather. Stopping at the overlooks every now and then to take in one last view of the valleys and mountains. I’m a little jealous for how easily accessible this park is from the cities around (less than 2 hours from Richmond and Washington DC). I hope I can come back here to see the fall colors one day...