105 Miles of Beauty and History on Skyline Drive in Virginia
The Skyline Drive in Virginia was something I had never tried, despite having gone to high school just an hour away. The two-lane road traverses 105 miles of pristine wilderness in Shenandoah National Park, which is about 75 miles south of Washington, D.C. Skyline Drive is so-named because it crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the larger Appalachian range, affording breathtaking views of an ever-changing horizon.
East of Waynesboro, I reached Rockfish Gap and Shenandoah National Park. At the entrance to Skyline Drive, I paid the ranger the $30 fee for access to the 105-mile ribbon of road that traverses the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She handed me a map and told me that there were 75 scenic overlooks along the drive.
I pulled into the first of these, McCormick Gap Overlook and got out of the car to stretch my legs and absorb the rich hues of a sea of undulating green waves reaching to the horizon. Tall grasses merged into brambles and bushes that folded into leafy trees that became an endless cushion of canopy. I happen to look down and noticed a thick fat caterpillar lolling on a stick, master of his domain. It occurred to me that in my day-to-day life I would likely have been oblivious to his existence.
As I drove on, it struck me that I hadn’t yet seen another soul. While just miles from a major interstate highway I was nonetheless truly in the wilderness. I felt a tinge of uneasiness and then caught sight of a tree laden with unusual, heavy purple flowers. Eager to photograph the blooms, I felt a spurt of impatience that there wasn’t shoulder space along the road for me to pull over for several hundred yards. Finally able to nestle my car along the road, I jumped out, slammed the door, and back-tracked at a trot then happily began shooting. A loud rustling, from where I couldn’t tell, sent a jolt of fear through me–I may now be a city girl but I knew there were bears in these hills. I immediately walked quickly to the car, shifting into gear and leaving far behind whatever had made the sound.
100-Mile Skyline Drive in Virginia Route Traverses Spine of Blue Ridge Mountains
I spent five hours on Skyline Drive in Virginia, meandering along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, stopping at overlooks named Calf Mountain, Sawmill Run, Riprap, Doyles River, Rockytop, Eaton Hollow, and The Point. At each, I was awed by the expanse before me, primeval forest across which fell the shadow of passing clouds, verdant peaks piercing a brilliant blue sky.
At one overlook I saw a lone turkey peck his way across a small field; at another, I beheld a soaring bird aloft on wind currents, swooping above one mountaintop to the next without a flap of his wings—perhaps a Peregrine falcons, which are making a comeback in the park.
Spring is said to climb up these mountains at a rate of about 100 feet per day starting in March. In late May I was witnessing streaks of magenta azaleas and swaths of creamy rose-colored mountain laurel within the infinite green expanse of the forest.
Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which crosses Skyline Drive 28 times. At one overlook, four teenagers each bearing massive backpacks and carved walking sticks emerged from the abutting woods on a trail marked by white blazes painted on trees that signify the path as part of the A.T.
A signpost told me that the spot on which I stood was roughly two million steps from the A.T.’s southern end on Springer Mountain, Georgia, 860 miles away. Three million steps in the other direction leads 1,280 miles away to the A.T.’s northern end atop Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Each year, about 150 “thru-hikers” pass here as they trek the entire A.T.
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Skyline Drive in Virginia Reveals Colorful History
In another stop to take a short stroll, I saw a sign commemorating the efforts within the Park of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942. A part of the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC was designed to provide employment for young men in relief families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression, while at the same time implementing a general natural resource conservation program in every state and territory.
The first two CCC camps located in the national parks were established at Skyland and Big Meadows in the area that was to become Shenandoah National Park. At any one time, more than 1,000 boys and young men lived in camps supervised by the Army. The earliest CCC projects were concerned with the building of trails, fire roads and towers, log comfort stations, construction projects associated with the Skyline Drive, and picnic grounds within this narrow corridor.
At almost exactly the halfway point on the route I came to Big Meadows, which more than lives up to its name. Located at mile 51.2 on Skyline Drive, the area is named for a large grassy meadow where deer often graze. While I had long been seeing signs that the landmark was ever-nearing, I was nonetheless taken by surprise by the immense expanse of the wide-open space. My half-day’s drive had consisted of either narrow roads carved through dense forest, or pockets of panoramas that looked down at dramatic valleys below. This terrain of flat fields was exhilarating in its spaciousness.
Getting to Know Shenandoah National Park
Big Meadows Lodge was a mile further down the road. Arriving at almost 2:00 p.m., I was famished. Enjoying lunch in the lodge’s dining room, I felt transported back in time by the primitive but charming architecture. The interior structure of the lodge, including the paneling, is made from native chestnut trees of the national park, which are now virtually extinct.
Continuing on, I stopped at Skyland Resort for a cup coffee and to sate my curiosity about Massanutten Lodge. The property here has a storied history involving a chain of owners that included a Brooklyn couple who purchased 21,371 acres of land in 1854 for $4,750, selling the land one year later to the Virginia Cliff Copper Company for $1,000,000. With the mining venture unsuccessful, the property came into the hands of a promoter who organized elaborate balls, costume parties, teas, jousts and tournaments, musicals, pageants, and bonfires. The land became part of Shenandoah National Park upon its creation in 1935.
Inline at the concession stand for my afternoon cup of java, I eavesdropped on the conversation the woman in front of me was having with the cashier and heard rave reviews about the blackberry ice cream. The woman said she had first come to Skyland thirty years ago and had never forgotten the sweet tartness of the homemade dessert. She added that she looked forward to its taste more frequently, saying that she had recently moved back to the area from Chicago to care for elderly parents.
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Ranger Shares History of Skyline Drive in Virginia
That strong sense of family connection to the land here was underscored in a conversation I later had with local Claire Comer, an interpretative ranger with Shenandoah National Park. Claire shared her family’s historic ties to the Park’s pristine and powerful nearly 200k acres and provided a snapshot of how the Park came into existence. She also offered insight into the impact SNP’s creation had on local communities—both then and today.
“My brother and I live on our family farm, near Luray in Page County,” Claire explained. “My ancestors are German, and originally came from the Alsace region to Pennsylvania. They then migrated south and acquired our property in the 1700s through the Lord Fairfax land grant. My brother is the tenth straight generation to farm our piece of property.”
“Around the turn of the last century, farming here was really in its heyday,” she continued. “In the summer, my great-grandfather would be part of a big cattle drive herding the stock from the valley to his property on the mountain to summer. Other valley farmers did the same thing because of the difference in temperature and the absence of flies made for healthier cattle. Then in the fall, because the winters were so harsh, they would bring them back down to what we call the home farm.”
“My great-grandfather had a house and cabin on his mountain property.,” Claire said. “A brother and sister lived in the tenant house and in return for their occupancy, they watched over the property and cattle and did subsistence farming. When my great-grandfather would go to check on things, he would stay in this cabin.”
A Grassroots Effort to Create the Skyline Drive
“All that property was part of the tracts of land that were made into Shenandoah National Park,” she explained. “The desire to have a national park in this area was a grassroots effort. A lot of people think that the federal government initiated the establishment of Shenandoah National Park, but that’s not at all what actually happened, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge that. When I first started working with the team to develop the exhibits and research on the establishment of the park, I remember thinking ‘This is my opportunity to tell the displaced residents’ story.’“
“In fact, there were people that had an alternate vision for this area other than logging and mining,” Claire noted. “They wanted to establish a viable industry that wasn’t an extraction industry. A way to give the people of this area the opportunity to make money without destroying its natural beauty. And tourism was the answer.”
“That wasn’t a bad vision,” she observed. “Today, 90 million dollars is pumped into the regional economy just through the Park’s existence. That’s a pretty good realization of that mission.”
“But I want to be sure that people understand that the park did not come without pain and sacrifice,” Claire said. “The Park we enjoy today that provides rejuvenation, respite and economic support came at a cost to some people who were not always treated as they should have been. There were people who were displaced. That’s hard to go through for people. And especially in a place like this where families often lived on the same land for generations.”
“Although my family had land ‘condemned’ by the government via its powers of eminent domain, and taken into the Park, we still had the valley home farm, so we weren’t displaced,” she explained. “But I can well imagine the devastation of being displaced, having the kind of ties to the land that I have, because our farm has been in our family for so long, I certainly understand that sense of place. It’s not that the property belongs to you, it’s that you belong to the land.”
Remembering Those Who Were Displaced to Maintain the Land
“We did a temporary exhibit that would enable our stakeholders, the former residents and their children, to have a say in how we told the story,” she said. “The story behind the establishment of the Park is one of colliding passions and the importance of understanding all the perspectives. I named that exhibit ‘It’s a Mighty Thin Board That Has Only One Side.’ which is an oft-used local idiom.”
“There are over a hundred cemeteries in Shenandoah National Park,” Claire noted. “There is an agreement with the families that they can still use those cemeteries as long as they stay in the original footprint.”
“I used to do a walk for visitors that ended at a cemetery,” she said. “When you’re looking at this cemetery, towards the back you see fieldstone grave markers. Toward the front, you see modern-day engraved marble headstones. It’s a very vivid embodiment of the linear-ness of life here.”
“A lot of people don’t understand that connection,” Claire stated. “It goes back to my point of the land doesn’t belong to you. You belong to the land.”
“Right now a group of descendants of former residents have gotten together and built a series of monuments designed as chimney replicas that each have a brass plaque with the surnames of each family that was displaced from the park,” she continued. “These people are starting to tell their own stories through those monument sites. So far, they’ve established monuments in six of the eight counties in which people had land taken.”
“Being displaced did build up some bitterness against the government and the way that was done,” she said. “I think the way that we heal that is by telling that story, allowing those stories to be told. Because until you’ve heard all the stories, you don’t know the history. The history is a compilation of every single story.”
More information on the Skyline Drive in Virginia can be found here.