Photo above: Bronson Howard's Greater Shenandoah. Photo courtesy Library of Congress. Photo right: Fall in Shenandoah National Park. Courtesy National Park Service.
The history of the Shenandoah region that spans the spine of Appalachia in the state of Virginia from the West Virginia border to Carolina is a varied lot. It is the history of a people who, for the most part, have endured a specific mountain culture, even though located only a short distance from the metropolitan areas of Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond. It is a history of nature, such a spectacular nature now evidenced within the confines of Shenandoah National Park and the awesome ride down Skyline Drive with its viewshed across the valleys on both sides of the roadbed below. It presents such a range of colors in fall that October is the highest attendance month of the year.
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It encompasses the history of the Civil War, with a variety of battles waged from the early days of the conflict to the later ravages of war in 1864. It contains wonders beneath the hills in caverns with a variety of forms, from the large caves of Luray to the smaller passageways of Skyline Caverns. The Shenandoah is a wonder that some on the east coast seem to forget and others marvel at with many forays to camp, for history, or for a drive. It is well worth the effort to explore, no matter your interest.
The area's history begins with Indian culture, and passes through George Washington and his exploits in the French and Indian Wars, to the battles of the Civil War during Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1862 and the cavalry battles between Sheridan and Early in 1864, and the exploration of the natural lands that now beget the protected national parks and forests of the area. The highest points of the region are over four thousand feet, Hawksbill, and most of Shenandoah National Park is two thousand feet above sea level.
Scenic Vistas - The many scenic vistas were made more accessible with the construction of Skyline Drive.
The Civil War Struggles - The Shenandoah and Blue Ridge mountains often provided sanctuary and a hidden path for Confederate soldiers throughout the war, but during two campaigns, the Jackson Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, and the Sheridan/Early battles of 1864, the sanctuary became a bloody battleground.
Photo above: Stream in the forest scene within Shenandoah National Park. Photo courtesy National Park Service. Below: Fence line at the Battle of Third Winchester battlefield, one of the Civil War locations within the Shenandoah Valley not far outside the National Park boundaries.
The park itself contains a rich history, and the various walks and talks by park rangers will concentrate not only on the natural beauty and nature that surrounds at every point of a hike, but the development of the park and drive through the Civilian Conservation Corps, plus the history of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the park, Massanutten Lodge, and Rapidan Camp, the former summer retreat of President Herbert Hoover.
Camping and hiking opportunities abound with miles and miles of trails all along the Skyline Drive area. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park on its winding way from Maine to Georgia. Camping is provided in four distinct sites, with spaces for RVs and tents. About 10% require reservations.
Skyline Drive - Four entrances throughout the drive allow you to get on and off after about an hour travel in each section. The second, below, is a spectacular winter scene at the entrance to a Skyline tunnel.
Museums and Tours - Exhibits and ranger guided tours are plentiful, check the information desk at the various visitor centers for their times and dates. They focus on birds, Shenandoah history, and other topics of the valley and mountain. Outside the park, if you love Civil War history, check out the many sites now being coordinated as the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Heritage District into five regional sites. Cedar Creek and Belle Grove is now a National Historic Site as well, including Cedar Creek battlefield and Belle Grove Plantation.
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Things You Should Not Miss
1. The drive in the sky. Once you rise from the valley floor onto the two lane road of Skyline Drive, you are taken back in a landscape so beautiful that you'll want to pull off at every lookout point. The landscape changes, of course, with the season. Spring with the abundance of flowers as they bloom, summer with the full poster of the greenery in full force bounded by the mature trees along every turn, and in the fall, oh, colorful, beautiful fall, when the tourists take flight all along the roadway to get a glimpse of the red, orange, yellow, and brown hues as they overtake the landscape. Even in winter, although the drive closes during very bad weather, the land takes on a different hue. There's a lot more along Skyline Drive and within Shenandoah National Park, too. Take a guided ranger walk and view the exhibits at the visitor centers.
2. The Civil War history in the area sometimes gets lost when compared to Antietam or Manassas or Gettysburg not too far away. But the National Park Service is attempting, since 1996, to coordinate these various sites into a new national heritage area, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, which is run the by non-profit Shenandoah Battlefields Foundation. At this time, the sites are a collection of local, state, private, and federal historic sites, most with a unique history all their own.
3. Dive into a cavern. No matter whether you like them large, like Luray, or small and twisting, like Skyline Caverns just outside the northern entrance to Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal, or Shenandoah Caverns, you'll be amazed at what beauty is in store below the ground, too.
Photo above: Distant scene of the Shenandoah Mountains from Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Site.