One goal of this road trip was to cruise along the famed Skyline Drive and take in the majesty of fall. Another was to hike in the Shenandoah National Park, stretching my legs along trails with beautiful vistas and access to old farms whose inhabitants have long abandoned them.
None of this went as planned.
I did drive much of Skyline Drive, the 105 mile byway that begins at Royal, Virginia and stretches the length of the park before ending at the famed Blue Ridge Parkway.
This twisty mountain road can be accessed by a few different entrances to the park. On Friday afternoon, I arrived at the Swift Run Gap entrance and waited in a short line to pay for my entry and begin exploring.
The sky was grey but not discouraging motorists from taking advantage of the many pull offs from which you have a view that seems to go on forever.
I arrived too late to feel good about hiking so I stuck to the drive, traveling about 80 miles of the 105 mile road.
Being a holiday weekend in fall, the visitors centers, roads, restrooms, trailheads and lodges were all quite busy.
The next day, I arrived early to beat the crowds and get in a hike but quickly abandoned my plans. I intended to hike a couple of different trails before rain moved in later that day but mountain weather can be unpredictable, a lesson hard learned on other occasions. With high winds that literally took the hat off my head and storm clouds forming in the distance, I abandoned my original plans in favor of some shorter hikes that kept me near the car.
The best of these was a section of the Appalachian trail that features large boulders, a host of trees and colors, and a mixture of living and dead ferns.
I never thought I would use the word magical to describe dead ferns but this forest floor of fading ferns was like something from a fairy tale.
I only hiked a couple of miles that day, a far cry from the plan but I have learned it best to exercise caution when storms threaten the mountains and that plans are made to be changed.
I enjoyed my beautiful hike and headed down the mountain. Turns out, a storm threatened off and on all day everywhere I went but I never saw actual rain until later that night. I don’t know what happened in the park but I was at peace with my decision to cut my losses and go find something else to do.
This is the day that I found the working gristmill and had time to tour a plantation. It’s also the day that I found a wonderful used bookstore and went back to the hotel for a delightful bubble bath.
Truth be told, that park feels like it’s designed for tourists who want to drive, look at stuff from the safety of their car and get pizza afterward. The trailheads lack adequate parking and one of the trails I wanted to do, a moderate two mile loop, had no parking at all. Each scenic overlook has mostly the same view as the last. I don’t mean to insult anyone’s favorite park because I had a fine time but don’t feel a draw to go back again soon.
If I had stayed at one of the park’s three lodges or had better hiking weather I may have a different assessment. All the same, there was a ton to do in the area and I don’t at all regret my decision to visit.