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Shenandoah National Park  


Park History

Overlooks - Far North

Overlooks - Near North

Overlooks - Central

Overlooks - Near South

Overlooks - Far South

Shenandoah Valley

Skyline Drive

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center

Skyland Lodge

Big Meadows



The national park nearest to our nation's capital is Shenandoah National Park. Located in northwestern Virginia approximately 75 miles from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and close to other large population concentrations, covering an area long the long, narrow spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is one of America's more popular national parks. The 199,000 acre park contains mountains, such as the 4,011 foot Stony Man and 4,049 foot Hawkshill, and 60 mountain peaks which reach altitudes between 2,000 and 4000 feet. It also features rolling foothills, secluded hollows, creeks, forests, streams, waterfalls and cascades, and vistas of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the undulating hills of the Piedmont area of Virginia to the east.

One of the most appealing features of Shenandoah National Park is Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles from the north to the south end of along the crest of the Blue Ridge. Built between 1931 and 1939, the road provides spectacular views of the Piedmont area of Virginia to the east and of the Shenandoah Valley to the west. The road also contains 75 overlooks on both sides of the road which provide spectacular views of the forested mountains and valleys in the park as well as the areas outside the park. In this respect the park is particularly friendly to visitors in their automobiles.

Although the Skyline Drive road attracts most of the park's annual 2 million visitors, there are also 511 miles of hiking trails in the park, most accessible from Skyline Drive, its overlooks, and the lodges and other visitor areas. This includes 101 miles of the East Coast's famous Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous foot trail in North America. Other trails proivde views of the farms and buildings of the mountain people who lived in the area before and after the establishment of the park. The park also includes 190,000 acres of land designated as wilderness.

One of the most unique things about Shenandoah National Park is that, unlike many western parks which were established to preserve wilderness and natural features on land already owned by the federal government, Shenandoah National Park was created to enable lands which had been heavily used and were no longer wilderness to regenerate. The lands in the park were heavily populated and had been used over the centuries by farmers, mill owners, logging companies, miners, and trappers. The forests of the Blue Ridge and surrounding areas were logged since the 1700's. The park was created entirely from land owned privately, rather than just setting aside land already owned by the federal government for preservation.

When established in the 1930's much of the land in the park was unforested open space. By the present time second and third growth forest has reclaimed a full 95% of the park. Shenandoah National Park was the first park created from a large, populated area of land owned by private individuals. Darwin Lambert calls Shenandoah National Park a "recycled wilderness", and others have cited it as a "living museum of rebirth and renewal" (National Parks - Reader's Digest).

The park also contains a wide variety of animals, including some 300 to 500 bears (some sources indicate 600), as many as 6000 deer, and other large and small animals. Some 200 species of birds may also be found in the area.

Shenandoah National Park also contains a number of rustic, historical buildings, including visitor centers, lodges, stores, and other facilities. Skyland Lodge was one of the first resort areas in the Blue Ridge and its creator George Freeman Pollock was instrumental in establishment of the park. A variety of resources for day visitors as well as those who wish to spend the night in a campground or a hotel or resort are available in the park. Some other old buildings owned by the mountain folk who once lived on current park land can also be viewed in various places in the park.

Shenandoah National Park is a park for all seasons. Flowering trees are beautiful in the spring, the forests are impressive in the summer, the colors of the foliage are spectacular in the fall, and winter snows cause the park to present a very different appearance and a create a very different experience for the visitor.

Park History

Geological History The Blue Ridge on which Shenandoah National Park lies is part of the Appalachian Range. The entire Appalachian mountain range from Alabama to Newfoundland was created by the collision of tectonic plates resulting in a folding of the surface. The result was long, parallel ridges which formed the Appalachian Mountaims. This process began about 300 million years ago when coastal plates collided and pressed together, uplifting the land on which Appalachian Range arose. The range reached its maximum height about 200 million years ago, but it is not clear how high the mountain range might have been. The effects of eroision are clear, wearing away the uplifting mountains, but the rate at which this occurred is not known. The Appalachians may have been as high as the Rockies, or they may not ever have been much higher than they are today. The effects orf erosion on the softer rock have formed the valleys, and harder rock has become ridges.

At the present time there is no more uplift of the mountains occurring at Shenandoah, and only erosive forces are still working. And so the mountains are no longer getting higher, but only wear away slowly.

In addition to reducing the height of the mountain range, the erosion of the soft materials by wind, weather, and other climatic events created the many geographic features which are visible today. Climate is also in part responsible for the plant and animal life found in the park.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

Human History There is evidence that the Blue Ridge area has been inhabited or used for thousands of years. Implements from the Stone Age have been found in the general area of the park indicating at least seasonal use. The remains of mastodons and mammoths have also been found in the area. It appears that the park area was used 10,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers, and that people were visiting the higher areas of the mountains by 8500 BC. Between about 8000 and 1000 BC the inhabitants of the area were largely foragers and also hunters for their food. Between 1000 BC and the arrival of the European settlers the native inhabitants developed agriculture, eventually raising crops such as corn and squash. Humans also quarried stone for tools.

In pre-Columbian times it appears use of the park area was seasonal. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, native Americans used the Blue Ridge area for hunting and gathering. There were few if any permanent villages within the confines of the current park.

From about 800 A.D. on, through the time of the arrival of the first Europeans, some Indians lived in the area. Monocans and Manahoacs, Sioux-speaking tribes of native Americans, were present around 1650. Indians made use of deer for a variety of purposes, including for food, clothing, tools, musical instruments, fish nets, and bowstrings. Farming was adopted by the people of the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley at this time. Significant use of agriculture began around 900 A.D., although hunting was still the main source of food. However, the native American inhabitants and users of the area had a relatively minmal effect on the land itself. By the late 1600's and before the beginning of white settlement use of the Blue Ridge area by native Americas, for a number of reasons, had virtually ceased.

Europeans were settling in Virginia by the 17th Century. The first white man known to have climbed the Blue Ridge was John Lederer in 1669, 62 years after the founding of Jamestown. Lederer reach the Blue Ridge and climbed one of the high peaks in the area. He reached the crest of the Blue Ridge on March 18, 1669. Lederer made 3 more trips to the area, and was the first man to leave a written account of having climbed the Blue Ridge, publishing an account of his explorations in England in 1671.

It was 47 years more before there was exploration of the great valley (Shenandoah). In 1716, Virginia Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood led an expedition across the Blue Ridge, eventually reaching and crossing the south fork of the Shenandoah River in the valley to the west. He may have crossed the mountains at Swift Run Gap, near Big Meadows, or perhaps elsewhere.

Shortly thereafter, settlements began to be established in the Shenandoah Valley in the period from around 1725 to 1730. The first settler in the area of the Blue Ridge where the park is now located was Michael Woods in 1734, near Jarman Gap. Eventually, settlers created small farms by clearing or thinning the forests, although the soil in the mountains was thin and vulnerable to erosion. They also hunted deer, bear, and beaver, and harvested nuts and bark form the plentiful chestnut trees. During the 1800's, settlement spread from the valleys and lowlands into the mountains or uplands. The settlers who came to the Blue Ridge area cleared the forests for homestead and planted crops such as corn or tobacco. The portion of the Blue Ridge which is now part of Shenandoah National Park was dominated by the plantation system from about 1740 to the civil War.

The lands of Shenandoah National Park had been used by Indians, settlers, and American inhabitants for many years. Repeated cycles of clearing, cropping, and grazing, with too-short intervals of return to forest, wore out the land. By beginning of the Civil War the fertility of the soil in the park area had dwindled considerably. Economic changes brought on by the the Civil War further reduced the importance of the agriculture taking place in the Shenandoah Valley. Additionally, mining activities, including copper on the blue ridge and iron and manganese on the western slopes, dwindled. Lumber activities, as well, were reduced. Poor agricultural practices, however, contributed to the destruction of the soil, and the land was impoverished by the end of the Civil War. By the end of the 19th century the soil in the area was worn out from repeated use. Early in the 20th century, after 1910, a fungus caused the elimination of most of the chestnut trees which had been dominant in the forest and heavily used by settlers. Droughts also were experienced in the area in the late 1920's. Adverse conditions caused many people to leave. At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of people within the current borders of the park was about 10,000. By the time of the establishment of the park, more than half the previous population of residents had left.

Late in the 19th Century resorts, such as Skyland, were developed in the area. The coolness of the mountain air, in an age before the existence of air conditioning, was an attractive feature of the area and provided a welcome escape for residents of hot, humid areas in the summer. The resorts gave mountain residents, who always struggled economically, the ability to provide goods to the visitors as well as local color for entertainment and educational purposes. The resorts also exposed visitors to the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge area, and made local residents aware of the economic potential of tourism.

The origins of the idea for a national park in the Blue Ridge area came from several directions. Around 1920 the federal government began to explore the idea of establishing a national park in the eastern United States. National Park Service head Stephen Mather wanted to see a national park established in the eastern section of the country. In 1923, Hubert Work, Calvin Coolidge's Secretary of the Interior, suggested that Congress establish a Southern Appalachian National Park Committee.

In Virginia, one of the first champions of a park in the Blue Ridge area was Hugh E. Naylor, the secretary of the Front Royal-Riverton Board of Trade. The idea of a national park in the Blue Ridge area was most famously supported and promoted by George Freeman Pollock, owner of the Skyland Resort and about 5000-6000 acres of land in the area. Pollock used his Skyland resort and in many cases his own funds to convince prominent individuals of the beauty of the Shenandoah area and its worthiness for inclusion in a new national park. He formed the Northern Virginia Park Association to promote enthusiasm in the idea. Pollock and his colleagues were also instrumental in convincing people that a Blue Ridge-based park was a better idea than a competing one on nearby Massanutten Mountain. In 1924 park supporters created a brochure entitled "A National Park Near the Nation's Capital" which was printed and distributed to good ends.

Enthusiasm for the park was also driven by President Herbert Hoover, who in 1924 established a resort called Rapidan Camp in the future park which he used during his presidency. Hoover became convinced that there was a need for a road from his camp to Skyland where press and official visitors were often housed, and saw other value in such a road as well. He authorized the use of federal drought relief funds to begin work on a road along the crest of the Blue Ridge which might otherwise not have been begun because of the serious economic conditions of the Depression.

Through much of the early days of promotion of a park on the Blue Ridge it was thought that there was competition for a southeastern U.S. park with another in the Great Smoky Mountains. However, supporters of the Great Smoky idea were fairly quickly able to satisfy the requirements for establishment of a park there. However, as it turned out both were successful, and in 1924, the committee examining the potential of eastern parks recommended that parks be established at Mammoth Cave, the Great Smokies, and at the Blue Ridge.

A national park on the Blue Ridge was actually authorized by Congress in 1926, along with authorization for what became Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to the terms of authorization the Commonwealth of Virginia had to acquire a minimum amount of land (521,000 acres, other sources cite 385,000), and the land had to be acquired at no expense to the Federal government and deeded to it. The minimum size required was reduced in 1932 to 160,000 acres to make the necessary land purchases affordable and practical.

However, for a park to be established at Shenandoah land had to be acquired, meaning purchased from the many owners of lands within its proposed borders. In the past, national parks in the west were usually established on existing federal land. Congress had never before appropriated money for the purchase of land for a national park. So it was necessary to explore a number of methods of raising money. A variety of fund raising activities were undertaken. A drive was instituted to raise money to buy the land necessary for the establishment of a national park in the blue Ridge. Over a period of years, more than 24,000 Virginians pledged to contribute $1.3 million, while the legislature allocated an additional $1 million.

At the time that work begun to create the national park, it is estimated that about 500 (other sources say 465) families still inhabited its lands. The land owned by these people had to be acquired. Some of the mountain landowners moved peacefully, but a number of others resisted relocation. The claims of about 600-700 families were purchased by the state, and most of the people were then relocated outside the boundaries of the new park. Much of the work involved in acquiring this land, as well as promoting the park idea and organizing the effort to establish it, was done by William Edward Carson. Carson also promoted the idea of a highway or road along the Blue Ridge itself, which came to be the outstanding feature of the park in its early years. Carson was also influential in getting President Calvin Coolidge to support the idea of a park.

The necessary land was acquired from its owners, and on December 26, 1935 William Carson and the Commonwealth of Virginia presented deeds to the land it had acquired to the U.S. government and the park was officially established. It was dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a ceremony held in Big Meadows on July 3, 1936. President Roosevelt was in favor of the park idea, and he was influential in keeping money coming into the park effort.

Work continued on the park after its establishment. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided a lot of labor in the park during the 1930's, as it did with a number of other national parks. The first work by the CCC began in 1933. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited one of the CCC camps in the park in that year. CCC personnel worked on landscaping the right of way for Skyline Drive and the overlooks along its route and the Skyland resort, also worked on trails and also other facilities, took part in fire fighting, and constructed campgrounds and picnic areas. The CCC personnel worked throughout the lat 1930's, and the last of the 6 CCC camps where the workers lived was finally closed in 1942 near the beginning of the U.S.'s participation in World War II.

When the park was established there were large area of grassland along the Blue Ridge. Since the establishment of the park, however, the forest has returned to most of these area in a remarkable example of the recovery of nature. 95% of the park area is now covered by its new forests.

The first park superintendent of was James Ralph Lassiter. Among the many decisions made by the superintendant was to route Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge. Hikers and their organizations preferred a route which would keep the road further away from the mountain crest and away from the hiking trails.

In 1937 the now established park signed a contract with the Virginia Skyline Co. to provide lodging and food services to visitors in the park. This included Skyland, the original visitor facility in the area.

In November of 1976 the Wilderness Act passed by Congress was signed, setting aside wil lands for preservation. This included land in Shenandoah National Park. As a result some shelters and bridges were removed. Fire roads were designated as trails. Also some culverts were removed, and in places the natural drainage was restored.

Shenandoah National Park remains a spectacular place to visit, and one which is accessible to the homes of a large numbers of people along the east coast.

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