Cradled by the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Shenandoah National Park is perhaps best described as Great Smoky Mountains National Park's sister park. The two are even tethered together by the Blue Ridge Parkway, another unit of the national park system.
Shenandoah was born out of the same movement that created Great Smoky – a need for more parks east of the Mississippi River. President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Shenandoah on December 26, 1936.
Thousands of years before the park was created, this land of mountains, hollows, ridge-tops, and valleys in north-central Virginia was settled by Native Americans, and later by hardy white settlers who scraped out a living from the land.
Much like the settlers of Great Smoky, the Virginians had a hard life of farming the thin mountain soil and living off the land. Gradually, they cleared the forests and that led to a thinning of the soil. When the Depression struck in the 1920s, it was a death knell for the local communities. Between the Depression and the parks movement, many of the communities vanished from the landscape. Some remnants -- old orchards, stone fence lines -- linger, though time is slowly taking them over.
In 1926, Congress authorized the new park, under the condition that no federal funds be used to purchase the land. The State of Virginia slowly acquired land along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, forming a 100-mile-long swath of parkland. Shenandoah National Park was born.
Shenandoah's struggles were far from over, however. Even before the park was officially created, National Park Service officials were discussing segregation. Jim Crow laws forced the agency to create black-only visitor centers, campgrounds, and even picnic areas. Slowly, though, the Civil Rights Movement broke down many of those barriers. Still, traces of black-only signs and buildings can be found in the park, slowly fading away. A new exhibit in the Byrd Visitor Center tells the story of segregation in the park.
While today's presidents often head to Camp David to flee Washington, D.C., back in the 1920s a similar retreat was established at Shenandoah.
In fact, it was President Herbert Hoover who put the location on the political map with his frequent retreats to a small, woodsy compound first known as Camp Rapidan and later referred to simply as Camp Hoover.
Although he led a high-profile life before being elected president in 1928, Herbert Hoover still felt the heavy "pneumatic hammer of public life" as president. The innate pressures of the office led the president in the summer of 1929 to establish his retreat in a shady dell of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains that proved to be the forerunner to today's Camp David.
President Hoover had three main requisites for what became the first official summer White House: it must be within 100 miles of Washington, stand at least 2,500 feet above sea level, and be on the banks of a trout stream. After all, Hoover told Americans on August 17, 1929, when he announced the decision to head to the Appalachian highlands, fishing is "an excuse for return to the woods and streams with their retouch of the simpler life of the frontier from which every American springs."
Today, visitors can drive the length of Shenandoah on Skyline Drive, a mountain road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which also built most of the park’s facilities.
The construction of the road was a controversy in its own right, worrying some that it would detract from the park.
The park is directly accessible from the South via I-64 and indirectly from the north via I-66 and the west via I-81. Skyline Drive uses numbered mileposts, much like the Blue Ridge Parkway. The posts go from 0 in the north to 105 in the south. Skyline Drive is often closed due to ice in the winter, so be sure to call ahead, and there is a $10 entrance fee.
Visitors to the park can enjoy two separate visitor centers – Byrd VC at Milepost 51 and Dickey Ridge at MP 5. The Loft Mountain Information Center in the southern end of the park has been closed for several years now, and when/if it will be reopened is anyone’s guess.
There are five campgrounds in the park – Mathews Arm (MP 22), Lewis Mountain (MP 58), Big Meadows (complete with lodge, cabins, restaurant, and visitor center; MP 51), Loft Mountain (MP 80), and a group camp. A separate lodge is available at Skyland (MP 42). Note that most park facilities are closed from November-ish to late March.
Hiking and horseback riding are the primary activities, with both short and long trails threading the mountains. You can choose to visit old-growth forests, waterfalls, or mountaintop summits with sweeping vistas. The park is also home to 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and 40 percent of the park is federal wilderness.