VA: Shenandoah Shenanigans

Shenandoah National Park

Our bucket list has always included our country’s national parks, but it’s getting serious now: this is #43 of 51 in the lower 48 states. Hard to believe it’s been 11 years since we lost our national park virginity to Zion.

Shenandoah is long and skinny, like Pete Davidson, or Abraham Lincoln during the worst days of the Civil War. The Shen runs 105 miles along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, connecting with the Blue Ridge Parkway at its southern end, and then on to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It takes about three hours to drive the entire Skyline from end to end. Ever heard of a mobile visitor center? They have one … roaming the southern end of the park and setting up shop werever they see fit. Like on the Blue Ridge Parkway, there is at least one tunnel near Luray through which the average RV will NOT fit, so advance planning is paramount.

Shenandoah’s defining feature is Skyline Drive, the one and only public road running the length of the park. Picture Skyline like a curved, bony spine of your back, sitting on a high ridge with hundreds of overlooks gazing 4,000 feet to the Shenandoah Valley below, and well-marked trails reaching out from both sides. That’s Shenandoah.

Shenandoah ranks #5 in the country for hiking, and it’s no mystery why, with over 500 miles of trails. (I know you’re wondering #1-4, so: Yosemite, Smoky Mtns, Yellowstone, and Olympia.)

Almost all of their trails are dog-friendly, which is a welcome departure from the policy of most national parks. They are also on the difficult side because of the mountainous territory, but we found a few that we could manage.

The Hawksbill Gap hike leads to Shenandoah’s highest peak, with a viewing platform at the top to enjoy stunning 360-degree views of Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge, and the Virginia Piedmont.

The Mary’s Rock hike leads to an outcropping of ancient granite, the perfect perch to enjoy Virginia’s pastoral hillsides and classic peaks.

Along the way, remnants of early settlements from pre-park days. A portion of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (discussed here) runs almost the entire length of Shenandoah, and the AT logo is blazed along many of the trails.

We saw many thru-hikers but most enjoyed chatting with a couple who had just sold everything they owned and after finishing the Appalachian Trail, were heading to South America to hike there. They talked about how strange (yet freeing) it is to be keyless: they no longer own a single key to anything! The bulging bundle in my purse tells me I have a long way to go to achieve that level of freedom.

Shenandoah also ranks high for black bear populations, but we didn’t see any — just pretty (but ordinary) deer like this, curious and unafraid of the big white polar bear (Finn) in their midst. Did you know male bears are the ultimate “deadbeat dads”? After mating, they wander away into the night, and eight months later the females raise the cubs alone.

Shenandoah also has waterfalls, historic sites including Rapidan Camp, the rustic getaway of President Hoover, and the world-famous blackberry ice cream pie that can be found at the main lodge. But for our money, hiking is what it’s all about at Shenandoah!

Luray Caverns

We stayed at Luray, VA, which enters the 105-mile stretch of Shenandoah at around mile marker 31. Here, Luray Caverns is the largest series of caverns in the Eastern U.S., an attraction 4,000,000 centuries in the making.

Three acres of underground natural wonders, in a cave 10 stories high, it is a true “fairyland in stone,” according to National Geographic. More people visit Luray Caverns than any other caverns in the U.S.

We’ve done a lot of cave tours over the years, but Luray Caverns had a unique draw: the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The world’s largest musical instrument, it looks like a normal organ just sitting there underground like some strange interloper.

But aha!! there is a secret. The organ is wired to soft electronic mallets that strike 37 various stalactites scattered over 3.5 acres of the cave. The creator, a mathmetician and scientist at the Pentagon, spent three years in 1954 locating the correct stalactites (length and thickness) to correspond to the musical notes. “Man’s genius and the hand of God are in perfect harmony,” proclaims a nearby plaque. It is able to be played manually, but these days it is an automated system, no doubt soon to be taken over by A.I.

Another unusual feature was the various pools of water in which the stalagtites and stalagmites reflected their beauty in a kind of optical illusion of great depth; however, this Dream Lake pool, for example, is only about 18″ deep.

The Wishing Well is a teal-colored pool that has collected coins and dollars, wishes and dreams, hopes and needs of visitors since the 1950s. Money collected is given to various designated charities (or so they say …). Mr. Miller threw TWO dollars in, just to double his chances on his wish … can you guess what it is? (Let me help … R . E . T . I . R . E . M . E . N . T)

We stayed at a fabulous campground called Spacious Skies Shenandoah Views, which earned a rare 10/10 rating from the Millers. It had it’s own little pergola patio, beautiful views, and sheep and alpaca peaceably grazing just down the hill.

It had BIG views …

… a BIG fenced bark park ….

… and a really BIG jacuzzi … or so we thought?? Philip went to ask the office to unlock the gate to the fenced jacuzzi. The lady replied, “Jacuzzi? What jacuzzi? You show me a jacuzzi, and I’ll unlock it.” Turns out it was a child’s play pool, as big as the main pool.

RVers, if you are using this blog to plan future trips, this is a reminder that we log and rate all campgrounds on our Past Travels page. Zoom in or out, and navigate to your area of interest. Click on any location flag for further information on that campground or RV park!

Family Time!

Another stop in Vienna, VA, just outside Washington, DC, had us savoring family time with Philip’s nephew Tim and his wife Karen. Their son Henry was graduating from high school, and Philip’s brother Dennis also came in from South Carolina for the occasion. The three days flew by, as time with family usually does.

L – R: Dennis, Tim, Henry, Karen, Philip

The occasion (besides passing through) was Henry’s high school graduation. He’s all grown up now, and ready to party with his celebratory sombrero on!

A trip to Vienna is not complete without a visit to the popular, divey hole-in-the-wall Vienna Inn. Much important government business has gone down here over the decades, over a paper plate of their famous chili dogs. Dennis, whose career was with the CIA in Washington DC (just 17 miles away), has been here in every decade of his life: his 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and now that he just turned another decade, his 80s. He should get a plaque on the wall or something, or probably they would just use a Sharpie on the restroom stall in a place like this. We loved it.

Tim brought his tricked-out #vanlife classic Volkswagen Vanagon Synchro to the campground so we could check it out. It’s his baby, his joy, and his free-time recreation. Henry and he work on it together, and camp out in it frequently. So fun!

Speaking of the campground …. uhhh, what?? I should watch out for snakes inside the bath building? I was assured, “oh, don’t worry, they are usually only copperheads.” Ohhh kayyy. I always made Philip do a full sweep before entering.

Virginia’s state slogan is “Virginia is For Lovers,” and we’re in full agreement on our first visit to this gorgeous state — Virginia is truly a place to love!


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