Park History: Shenandoah National Park

Cradled by the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Shenandoah was born out of the same movement that created Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- a need for more parks east of the Mississippi River.

Shenandoah encompasses not just human history, but geologic history as well. According to the National Park Service, "(T)he oldest rocks in the Blue Ridge Mountains were created over a billion years ago as magma deep within the earth's crust moved upward. Over eons it cooled, fractured, and was joined by younger metamorphic rocks formed from sedimentary deposits. All were altered and eroded to shape today's granite peaks and sylvan hollows."

"Around 8,000-9,000 years ago, but seconds in geologic time, the first traces of humans were recorded on the land that would become the park," the agency adds. "Native Americans seasonally visited the area to hunt, to gather nuts and berries, and to find sources for and to make their stone tools."

It was long before President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Shenandoah on December 26, 1936, perhaps as many as 9,000 years ago, that the rumpled landscape of mountains, hollows, ridge-tops, and valleys were home to Native Americans, who later were replaced 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. When the Great 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 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. 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.