Shenandoah National Park is a hiker's paradise: over 500 miles of trails lead up to peaks, or down to waterfalls and gorges tucked into cool corners of the park. Once the peak trails led to stunning vistas. Sadly, air pollution has reduced visibility dramatically, only one of its significant impacts on the park. More on that a little later...
Meanwhile, hike along with me...but move gently along the trails. Listen to that bird-song. Be still for a moment; perhaps that butterfly will land nearby. Enjoy the flashes of color from wildflowers that attract them. Be careful not to spook the squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. Don't just rush to our destination - cherish the journey
Oh, and keep a close eye out. We just might meet a bear.
White Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) along Rose River trail
I grew up a suburban child, daughter of two city slickers. I developed my love for hiking in adulthood, and Shenandoah National Park has long been my personal place of refuge. I love to track down isolated rock formations, off the most popular trails, where I can sit alone; the peace of the mountains soothes my soul, and the subtle beauty along the trail enchants my mind.
Confession: I'm a sucker for butterflies; their adaptive variation fascinates me, and of course their flashy colors don't hurt. I'll visit any butterfly house or butterfly garden I find. Shenandoah Park is something better: a natural butterfly garden. Every visit seems to yield a new find. Here are few I saw this past weekend alone:
Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) seen next to the creek at Overall Run falls. This could also be a Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis); the two are very similar except for subtle white markings under the wings (shaped like a question mark or a comma, whence their names). I based my identification on the preference of the Eastern Commas for habitats near water.
Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa antiopa) on the trail to Overall Run falls
Female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Overall Run trail
Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) with a broken wing - this butterfly flew just fine, surprisingly enough
Silver Spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) on the Appalachian Trail heading up Pass Mountain
Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) at Big Meadow
Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) at Big Meadow
Even the moths and flies here are something to behold:
Grapeleaf Skeletonizer moth (Harrisina americana). A seriously intimidating name for such a little creature. It was about 1/2" long; wingspan of around an inch.
Unidentified golden fly
But these guys? Well, not so appealing:
Mosquito on the way to Rose River Falls. One of many, unfortunately.
Listen! Can you hear the bird-song in the trees all around you? Look carefully, and perhaps you can locate the singers (these three photos are pretty heavily cropped.)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in Big Meadow - their name comes from their beautiful song
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) at the peak of Hawksbill Mountain enjoying a quick snack
Dark Eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), caught in song as we hiked down the lower Hawksbill trail
Shhhh! What's that rustling sound off in the woods? Move quietly to get a better view of the wildlife in the park.
Perhaps an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) will pose for you with his lunch
White Tailed Deer are everywhere - I met this buck grazing at Big Meadow
Proceed with caution! Now would be a good time to be very, very quiet and hold extremely still. Even putting the camera to your eye might be a risky move. Look up there on that hillside. Is that what I think it is?
Yes, thank you, I have quite a bit of zoom. But this was still a little too close for comfort. American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), around 200 pounds I'd say. A female. How do I know? Well...
Mama bear and cub - A female black bear with a cub is a very dangerous creature. Thankfully, she never seemed to notice us, and they soon moved away.
Now that you've enjoyed the journey, I'll tell you a little bit about the trails I hiked while working on this diary. Hike classifications vary - the park guides tend to rate as difficult trails the hikers guides rate as moderate. So I'll use my anecdotal ratings to describe each hike. But recognize that Shenandoah National Park is in the mountains. Hikes generally come in two flavors: Up to a peak and then back down, or down to a hollow and then back up. Even easy hikes have significant climbs. If you're looking for flat hiking, this is not the place for you.
Big Meadows is...well, it's a big meadow; 33 acres to be exact. It's not very photogenic taken as a whole, but a wander through it yielded birds, butterflies and bucks for our viewing pleasure. It's the closest thing to a flat hike you'll find. There are no real trails, just faint tracks through the brush.
Pass Mountain: I chose this trail because I'd already hiked Overall Run falls (see below) that morning. It was a beautiful day, and I wanted to visit a mountain top, but I was bushed. Pass Mountain was the easiest at 1.6 miles round trip and only 495 feet elevation change. Plus, if you hike it you can say you've done a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. An easy hike if you're even in moderately good shape.
Westward view from Pass Mountain; I climbed that day because it was one of the clearest we'd seen. Even so, you can see the ubiquitous haze.
Hawksbill Mountain: This is the highest peak in the park at 4,050 feet (yes, Westerners, I know...our mountains aren't very tall). There are two ways to get there - the upper and lower Hawksbill trails. I recommend the lower. It only adds a mile and 100 additional feet of elevation change (Upper is 520 feet) and is much prettier. Unfortunately, the park service has built a viewing platform at the peak...I prefer my destinations undeveloped.
I'd classify Upper Hawksbill as easy for someone in even moderate shape. Lower Hawksbill is still not very tough, but requires you to be in a little better condition.
Rock formation at the Hawksbill Mountain peak
Rose River Falls (67 feet high): This trail is 2.6 miles round trip, with an elevation change of 720 feet. No hiking experience is needed, but parts of the trail are steep and very rocky. You'll need to be in fairly good shape, or the hike back out could be challenging. When we were there the falls were blocked by a couple of logs, but still quite beautiful.
Rose River Falls
Falls in the park can be deceptive - they never look as tall as you expect. And in a dry summer they can slow to a trickle. We've had very dry conditions the last few years, but this spring and summer have been wonderfully wet, so even in late June the falls look great. Check recent weather conditions before hiking any of the falls.
Overall Run Falls (93 feet high): These are the highest falls in the park, but you're going to have to work for them. The trail is 6.5 miles round trip, with an elevation change of 1850 feet - and that's just to the falls head. It's steep in places and often extremely rocky. This is a moderately difficult hike; if you're not in good shape, you'll want to work your way up to this one.
Once you've reached the falls head, you'll need to climb all 93 feet down the rocks to get a decent view. And if you want an unobstructed photo, you'll need to stand in the creek. It's about calf deep, slow moving and very refreshing. But the rocks can be slick, and your camera won't thank you for a dunking, so be careful
Overall Run Falls, taken from the middle of the stream at the base of falls.
I can remember when more days than not you could gaze westward across the Shenandoah Valley and clearly see the Alleghenies in West Virginia. Days like that are rare now; the haze over the valley seems ever-present. The beauty of the park remains, but at times now the view over the valley that is my home brings tears to my eyes rather than peace to my soul.
Of course, the reduced visibility is just the tip of a tragic iceberg. More from the National Park Service on the impact of pollution on the park:
Air pollution, particularly during the summer season, has significantly degraded the distance, color, contrast and landscape details of park views from Skyline Drive, the Appalachian Trail, and high points in the park. Acid deposition has adversely impacted the acid-sensitive blacknose dace and acid-tolerant Appalachian brook trout at the individual, population and community levels. Despite improvements in air quality under the Clean Air Act, the park’s visibility and most sensitive aquatic systems are still degraded relative to estimated natural or pre-industrial background conditions. In addition, the park does not currently meet ground-level ozone standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect public health and welfare. The park registers some of the highest ground-level ozone measurements recorded at all national parks. Foliar injury caused by ground-level ozone has impaired the aesthetics of many of the park’s 40 known ozone-sensitive plant species. Scientists are also concerned about potential ground-level effects on forest growth and the health of several species.
I hate to see my wilderness haven slowly being destroyed from outside. I fight where I can to save it, and the other stunning wilderness spots in Virginia's beautiful Shenandoah Valley. At times I'm afraid it's a losing battle.
A few more, just because.
This is the third in a series of Shenandoah National Park photo diaries. The first two were:
And if you liked the butterflies here, watch for my upcoming diary "Tiny treasures by a small pond" featuring dragonflies, damselflies and the occasional bullfrog.
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