Skyline Drive Designated as a National Historic Landmark

Skyline Drive.

Skyline Drive. Image by Lorax via WikiMedia

A perennial favorite with generations of travelers is the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. The scenic road celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2006, and earlier this month was one of 16 sites in 11 states designated by the Secretary of the Interior as new National Historic Landmarks.

That designation recognizes the sites as "nationally significant historic places because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States."

You don't have cover all of the Skyline Drive's 105 miles to appreciate its scenic values, but what's "historic" about a roadway?

The idea for the drive had its origins in 1924 with the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee, which was tasked with finding a site for a new park that would be conveniently accessible to the 40 million Americans living in eastern cities. The result of that search is now called Shenandoah National Park.

As part of its recommendation, the committee suggested that the "greatest single feature of the proposed park should be a sky-line drive along the mountain top, following a continuous ridge and looking down westerly on the Shenandoah Valley…and also commanding a view of the Piedmont Plain stretching easterly to the Washington Monument."

The announcement of the Skyline Drive's addition to the National Historic Landmarks program provides a good summary of the why this road is so significant:

Designed and constructed as the backbone of Shenandoah National Park from 1931 to 1942, Skyline Drive—with its associated overlooks, waysides, and recreational areas—represents an important stage in the adaptation of the principles and practices developed for Western park roads to the gentler topography of the Southern Appalachians and the emerging Eastern ideas for parkway development.

The designers sought to create a road that lay lightly on the land, flowed gently with the natural topography, and put the visitor on top of the mountain.

Skyline Drive is an outstanding example of the naturalistic landscape design developed by the National Park Service in the 1920s and refined in the following decade in the national parks and parkways of the eastern United States.

Skyline Drive was praised for concentrating use to a relatively small area, leaving the balance in very light use appropriate for a wilderness setting. This became the model not only for the nation, but also for other nations.

Fewer than 2,500 sites in the country have received National Historic Landmark designation, and the majority of them are not part of the national park system. Landmark status won't result in any noticeable changes for visitors who enjoy this magnificent drive, but it will provide one more reason to maintain this national treasure in its present form.

A comment made decades ago by former U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd captures some of the magic of the Skyline Drive: “It is a wonder way over which the tourist will ride comfortably in his car while he is stirred by a view as exhilarating as the aviator may see from the plane.” If you've not had a chance to be stirred by these views, it's worth a trip!

Comments

Will you please provide the names of the other 15 sites and the states that received the National Historic Landmark designation? Perhaps an article that summarizes each one would be helpful.

Thank you

I am thrilled to read this.Skyline Drive was a major part of my childhood.The fall colors and the ride to see them was always a special time for me.When I went home (to Richmond) to visit, I took my husband and children to Skyline Drive.They were as entranced as I have always been and we have wonderful photos of our trip. This is a must do trip for anyone who appreciates fall color and natural wildlife.

Great article, Jim! A well deserved honor for a truly wonderful highway.

My family and I drove along 40 miles of the parkway on Sunday, 10/26, enjoying both beautiful high-pressure dominated weather and nearly peak fall foliage. (We traveled South from State Rt. 33 to State Rt. 250, or from Harrisonburg to Charlottesville VA.)

A very unique and enchanting aspect of this highway is the way it meanders along the ridges, giving visitors fantastic panoramic views of both the Shenandoah Valley to the West and the Piedmont to the East.

Come along as we explore some highlights of my family’s recent journey:

The Parkway. It’s hard to actually find a stretch to photograph, as it is secreted amongst the ridges and trees almost seamlessly.

Scenic Overlook on the Shenandoah Side. One can see why it is called “The Blue Ridge” in this photo. Massanutten Mountain in the background. Massanutten boasts a four-season resort, with a top-notch ski area that has runs that ascend to the top of the wave-shaped ridge pictured. You can hike from the top of a lift to the peak for great views of the resort itself.

My two year-old son on his first rock climbing route. Just look at that technique! (Disclaimer: No toddlers were harmed in the making of this picture).

Vistas like this await you at every turn. Scenic overlooks abound on either side of the ridge, as well as parking areas that access trailheads.

Speaking of around the next turn….

Colors were very near peak and quite stunning. The next week should produce some of the best colors of the season.

If you're ever in the area, no matter what time of year, I would recommend taking this drive or any portion of it. You will not be disappointed!

dap

Thanks for the comments.

Jim - here's a link to the press release from Interior about the recent designation - it gives a short summary for each of the 16 sites.

http://www.doi.gov/news/08_News_Releases/101408b.html

Jim Burnett,
Thank you very much for the press release. I have printed the release so that as my wife and I travel we can visit some of the new locations that may take a while to find their way into travel guides.

Jim

Considering that this is the highest honor that can be granted to a historic site in the United States, I am surprised that the Park did not bother to celebrate---- or AT LEAST acknowledge --- this milestone on their website, or in a press release. Sad really.

Dapster, those are some beautiful photos! They really make me want to visit.

I feel like such a hypocrite because I'd certainly love the drive; there's a nagging part of me that thinks we--and the NPS--shouldn't be celebrating roads. Page_Co, I was at a road celebration at Crater Lake, and it had a very strange vibe to it; I won't go into details here. But it felt almost sacrilegious to celebrate the fall of wilderness to industrial tourism. Maybe someday we'll celebrate the re-dedication of NPS roads as trails for bikes, horses, and pedestrians.

Frank_C,

Thanks for your kind comments! It was a beautiful day and the foliage cooperated, giving us gorgeous views the entire drive. If you're ever in that part of the country, do take the trip. It's an eye-opener for certain.

Page_Co, I share your wonderment as to why this "Celebration" was so underplayed. No mention was made at the Ranger Station/Entry point, no signs posted, flyers given out, nothing. If not for the article here on NPT, I would never have known about it.

Frank, I hear you on your sentiments about the celebration of roads, and know where you're coming from. I won't open Pandora's box on that aspect of this particular road.

But I will say this: It is truly amazing just how well this road resides within the wilderness. You simply cannot see most of the roadbed from anywhere except the road itself or an aircraft. Special care certainly was taken during construction to minimize the impact on both the ridgelines and the flora and fauna of the area, even in an era where this was not of chief concern.

Here's a photo I took attempting to capture a stretch of the road from a neighboring ridge. This was the best and only long-view vantage I could get in the 40 miles that we drove:

You can see how the road just vanishes into the trees and ridges. The Appalachian Trail parallels the road for the most part as well, and is equally invisible.

It is my sincere hope and firm belief that one day soon, we will celebrate both this marvelous roadway AND a newly introduced zero-emissions mode of transportation that would whisk us and the generations to come along its path silently and cleanly.