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A View From The Overlook: Oh, Shenandoah!


Editor's note: To bring you an additional perspective to life in the National Park System, we're happy to offer occasional musings and insights from PJ Ryan to the Traveler. Though he's retired from a 30-year Park Service career that landed him assignments at places such as Jewel Cave National Monument, Joshua Tree National Park, and even the Washington, D.C., headquarters, PJ hasn't lost interest in observing the world of the national parks. For a more regular dose of his observations, be sure to read Thunderbear.

It is always problematic to introduce a Westerner, particularly a Californian, to an Eastern national park.

Let’s face it; Eastern parks are statistically challenged.

“You call that a mountain?” the Westerner will demand incredulously. “Twenty-eight-hundred feet! Why, where I come from, the FLAT country starts at 6,000 feet, THEN we work up to some respectable peaks that have snow on them year ‘round!”

“You mean you have a name for that dinky little water fall? Out West, we don’t bother naming waterfalls unless they hit triple digit in height."

“You call THAT a big tree? (California specialty here, neighbors!) Why the BARK on one of our Giant Sequoias is thicker than the whole diameter of your 'big tree.' You THINK it might be as much as 600 years old! In California, we ignore any tree less than a thousand years old!"

And so forth and so on.

So it was with mild trepidation when our guest from California announced that she would like to see Shenandoah National Park. Betsy had done considerable backpacking in Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, but had never seen Shenandoah National Park (Though she knew and loved the folk song of the same name) and had always wanted to see Shenandoah.

We cautioned her about “The quiet, subtle beauty of the Eastern Woodland,” which is code for “Don’t expect too much.”

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried.

We entered Shenandoah at the “top” or Front Royal entrance and worked our way south.

Betsy was instantly, enthusiastically enchanted.

Shenandoah was at its very, very best. Through some early June atmospheric quirk, possibly never to be repeated in our lifetime, visibility was very nearly 100 miles; one would think that the coal-fired power plants had never been invented. We stopped at virtually every overlook to look into the next county or counties. In addition, everything that could leaf or bloom was doing so; there were snowdrifts of pinkish white Mountain Laurel, seven feet tall and in full bloom.

“We have nothing like this in California!” she said excitedly.

I gallantly defended California, suggesting the Big Sur Highway, allegedly the most beautiful and spectacular drive in the world, as taking the cake.

“No, she declared, “the two are very different: Here you have mountains, valleys and forests; in Big Sur, you have mountains and cliffs falling into the Pacific. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”

She was quite right. Shenandoah (and its attached and closely associated Blue Ridge Parkway) were quite unique; they probably could not be duplicated today due to environmental objections to building a highway along the military crest of an entire mountain range. It is the first (and only) national park dedicated to the theory of the automobile. It is no surprise that Henry Ford donated $20,000 toward purchasing land for the park. In theory, one could travel all the way from Front Royal, Virginia, to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a distance of 574 miles on NPS land without once getting out of your motor home. That, according to some, is the problem.

No matter! Betsy was enjoying herself immensely. “It’s so beautiful!", she exclaimed, adding, after a pause, “where are all the people?” Her question, no doubt, stemmed from the rather sparse number of cars, compared to say, Yosemite.

“Wrong season,” I advised.

“Summer? “ she said, surprised.

“Not as big a deal as fall. When the leaf colors change, then it will be almost bumper to bumper.”

Betsy liked the idea of peering into the Piedmont country of Virginia at overlooks on the left and views of the Shenandoah Valley on the right. The mixed hardwood forest surged wave on wave, ridge after hollow, in 30 shades of green. At this moment in time, it was a hard act to follow, even for a Western park.

Until fairly recently, one of the selling points of a proposed national park was its “virginal,” “unspoiled “ nature. This was certainly never the case with Shenandoah. If one may be permitted to anthromorphise a national park, rather than being “virginal,” Shenandoah was more like a favorite aunt who had been married and divorced three times, had a drinking problem, and had fallen down the stairs a number of time, but who had bounced back, sobered up, went to rehab and was now a solid citizen.

Shenandoah had been logged several times over, had its principle tree, the American Chestnut, killed by a blight, been farmed into soil exhaustion, been mined (copper) and violated six ways to Sundays by man and nature, including, more recently, ice storms, hurricanes and a Western-size forest fire of more than 25,000 acres, but it is still reinventing itself as a recycled wilderness.

Betsy rejoiced in the pioneer ring of the place names as we moseyed south; Hog Wallow Flats, Gimlet Ridge, Jewell Hollow, Stony Man, Old Rag. I wanted to show Betsy the Creation story of the park, which would be revealed onto to us at Big Meadows.

“Every park has a Creation Story,” I said. “Some are true, some aren’t. But you have to give Shenandoah National Park credit for telling the true story even if it’s a mite embarrassing.”

Betsy, a Berkeley sociologist, was intrigued that an organization would tell the truth about itself.

You find the unvarnished truth about the creation of Shenandoah National Park at the Harry Flood Byrd Visitor Center in a remarkably candid permanent exhibit.

Now most Western national parks were carved out of existing federal land, annoying only the U.S. Forest Service or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. An Eastern park would have to be acquired from private landowners, many of whom did not want to sell.

The exhibit tells the story of how the small farmers were dispossessed for “The Greater Good,” for the creation of the Park. The dispossession was especially cruel, as it was based to a degree on fake sociology that depicted the mountaineers as retarded hillbillies who needed to be “relocated” for their own and society’s good.

The exhibit also documents Shenandoah National Park’s status as our only officially segregated national park, with it’s own “Negro Area”, complete with its own “Negro” waterfall (Lewis Falls). Many visitors, and to their credit, NPS staff members, objected to segregation, and the park was completely integrated by 1950, nearly 15 years before the rest of Virginia was desegregated.

Now I can’t guarantee that you’ll have as perfect a day as we had in Shenandoah, but I can guarantee that if you’ll stop by the Harry Flood Byrd Visitor Center you’ll get a sobering look at how a park was created, or to paraphrase Bismarck: “ People with weak stomachs should avoid the making of sausages or national parks.”


This is a wonderful post and really captures the essence of Shenandoah National Park - one of my very favorite places in Virginia. I've been to the big name parks out west and they are awe inspiring, that is for sure, but SNP hassubtle magnificence in its own right that is hard for any other park to rival. Betsy had it right!

This is a wonderful depiction of our uniquely magnificent park. I have heard Martha Bogle, Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, says this--with all due respect to the western national parks: the mountains of the western US are big and bold and loud. Our eastern mountains are smaller, more gentle and quieter. I'd rather be whispered to than yelled at.

Very nice article. Great description of a wonderful park. I do have one problem, though, with the words 'unvarnished truth about the creation of Shenandoah National Park'. I have too many friends whose ancestors were 'removed' from the lands that are now the Shenandoah. They all agree that the current display, which replaced the out and out lies of the previous display, is a lot closer to the truth, but there is still a ways to go in telling the complete and total truth behind this wonderful land.

I've just added this park to my bucket list. BTW- is there a book available that tells the true unadulterated story? Maybe a reliable website, other than the Park's?

Living in the shadows of the Shenandoah and having traveled to almost all of the bigger National Parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Tetons, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, there is something unique and special about each and every park so making comparisons for me is totally missing the point of why we have these places. Most see Shenandoah as a combination of what the Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood saw on his 1716 expedition and the ideas of the 20's and 30's freedom of movement that the automobile provided to "normal" folks. Just as in all National Parks, you can choose to stay close to the road for one experience and venturing off creates something completely different. Intimate waterfalls, abundant wildlife along with mountain culture are just a few things that make Shenandoah unique plus the chance to visit the first summer White House (Herbert Hoover's Brown House) via a hiking trail! All this is within a day's drive of a good chunk of the population on the east coast.

It is still a touchy subject for some in the area but if you are interested in firsthand account of the creation of the park, this book: Answer at Once: Letters of the Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park. 1934-1938, is a good source. The library at James Madison University in Harrisonburg also has a collection of interviews from individuals that lived in the mountains where the park was formed that gives great details of life in the mountains and about that time period.

Ahhh - you sound a bit hesitant to give Shenandoah any glory, unlike your companion. Maybe you should engage yourself in our">Guide To SNP Web site, the most thorough around (yes, far better than the NPS alternative). It's packed with lots of information (including history) and awesome photos as well.

And if you don't quench your thirst from the Guide To SNP site, and have a little time to kill, check out my">photostream on Flickr.

I am in this park all 52 weeks of the year - and none of the 'big boy' parks has anything on her :-)

I have read Answer at Once: Letters of the Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934-1938. It is a collection of letters from the SNP archives, written by those affected by the Park's creation. The author has done nothing to correct the grammer, misspellings, etc., but don't let that fool you. The pain is real, and can be heart-breaking.

Is there a single book that tells the Park's history? Not that I am aware of. I hope someone can jump in and let us know if there is. Between a friend's collection (his ancestors were removed from their lands, and they still have an active cemetary located there) and mine, we have about two feet worth of shelf space that are stories of the Park. The most interesting books are those written by Carolyn and Jack Reeder.

Interesting article and it accurately reflects the Shenandoah National Park as one of those truly authentic places that touches the heart and refreshes the mind. Yes, I agree the mountains of the western US are big and bold and loud – as the National Park Trust points out our mountains are smaller, more gentle and quieter- but the mountains are just as dramatic. One of the most amazing features is the Skyline Drive, 105 miles of pure driving pleasure with 75 overlooks that showcase the beauty of the region. I remember taking my parents- in their eighties to see the park and thinking how wonderfully accessible all this beauty is – because of Skyline Drive. Here is a great resource for visiting and enjoying the Skyline Drive.

You can see Shenandoah Valley from the many overlooks, lush and green, feel the breeze and open spaces that I crave after a week hustling through work and traffic. There is a harmony there, bringing so many of us back again and again. Here is a great resource for visiting and enjoying the Shenandoah Valley.

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