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!