Virginia – May 2018
Take your children to Shenandoah National Park to enjoy hiking along trails that lead to glittering waterfalls. Let them scamper along gorgeously wooded paths to find abundant wildflowers decorating the landscape. Take your children to learn about the profound sacrifice that was required to form this mountain oasis.
The creation of Shenandoah National Park is a story of volunteer and forced personal contribution to establish a sliver of preserved land along the Appalachian Mountains. It was conceived as a respite for people in large eastern cities, so they too could enjoy a place like the national parks in the west. A stop at the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center prior to exploring is key to understanding and appreciating this place.
Besides extraordinary natural beauty, exquisite hiking trails, and excellent camping accommodations, time spent here is a great way to explore environmental philosophy. Was it right for the State of Virginia to utilize eminent domain to forcibly remove citizens to create the park? How much oversight are we willing to accept from government to regulate our individual choices when it comes to environmental protection? How much sacrifice are we willing to self-impose? How can we improve choices that we make as individuals so environmental decimation does not entail mandatory or government directed change? During our visit, our children were asked to help raise the flag at the visitor center. This park offers a great way to consider the conjunction of citizenship and environmental protection.
Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Book from a visitor center and let your children complete the booklet. When completed, return it to a park ranger for them to take the park pledge and earn a Junior Ranger Badge! Don’t forget to drop some money in the donation box to pay for the expenses. At Shenandoah, children will learn about:
- Using senses
- Seasonal changes
- Water cycle
- Nature journals
- Animal adaptations
- Map reading
- Weather and climate
Look Up! This densely wooded landscape is serenely graced by chestnut, red oak, maple, birch, ash, basswood, and poplar trees. Remember, that what grows up must also come down (eventually). When hiking, picnicking, or setting up your campsite remember to look overhead particularly at the sound of any creaking or groaning heard from above. On our trip, we were certain to look overhead before setting up tents in the back-country. We chose an area in a clearing with no overhanging branches. After sunset, we heard several pops and cracks. At first, we believed that it might have been wildlife. Alright admittedly, I thought it was a bear. When two large limbs crashed to the forest floor I screamed (loudly) imagining a bear rushing! It was especially terrifying when we saw how gigantic the fallen branches were the next morning. They were tent crushers, for certain! We are so grateful that we looked up prior to setting camp.
Consider densely caloric, easy snacks, for children to carry. Honestly, I still haven’t figured out the exact amount of gear necessary for our backpacking trips. I know I would pack lighter if it were just my husband and I. However, with my children joining us it is always hard for me not to lug everything and the kitchen sink. I have learned that food needs to be carefully chosen. I don’t like relying on water in nature to prepare all our meals. I avoid perishable (easily squished) items as much as possible. I am plugging Pro Meal Bars (never received money or samples…yet)! They really are delicious, they stick with you for a long time, they make the best quick lunch while hiking. Oatmeal in the morning is easily prepared with a little boiling water. There are many prepared backpacker dinner meals available. I have found them to be either too spicy or too bland for my taste, and picky children might have an especially hard time eating them. We have started making our own dinner meals with rice, soup mixes, and cooked chicken pouches – make sure you are using a quick cooking rice (under 15 minutes). I give each a 1-gallon seal-able plastic bag with all our meals inside. They serve dual purpose as trash bags and we put them all together in one bag at night to tie in the tree for bear protection. I add a few hard candies, and I always bring along a little extra food for the kids. They trip, and the food spills, and you don’t want them going hungry. But, you probably won’t need the kitchen sink after all!!
Many hiking trails are steep. This park follows a ridge line, so trails predominantly slope off to one side or the other. There are exceptions near visitor centers, where nature hikes offer a more leveled experience. Hiking trails to waterfalls are generally quite steep. Back-country trails for the most part are both steep and rocky. We manged a 10-mile hike over 2 days/one night. I recommend hiking poles or walking sticks. Younger children who have never hiked or backpacked might find many areas especially challenging. For a more enjoyable trip consider height elevation changes in your planning.
In our experience, a general rule of thumb in National Parks is that dogs are only allowed within campground or other paved areas where there is an abundance of people. Each National Park is unique and generally has very specified rules regarding where “man’s best friend” can roam, leash lengths, etc. Park rules must consider the safety of visitors and wildlife. Please, review the rules for every place that you visit prior to going and make accommodations accordingly. These specified rules are available on park websites. Shenandoah National Park allows for dogs to accompany you in many locations, including hiking trails. However, some hiking trails specifically prohibit pets. Always, always be prepared to pick up after your pet, and carry or bury as permitted.
When to Go:
With over 1 million visitors per year enjoying Shenandoah National Park, solitude can be a little out of reach at popular times of the year. We enjoyed our visit in early May, when Big Meadow Campgrounds first began to allow reservations. There were still plenty of campsites available when we arrived on Thursday, but the campground quickly filled though not to full capacity. Unfortunately, many of the trees were still leafless and will not be fully dressed until the end of the May. Abundant wildflowers, however, were in full view. Popular hiking trails had a spattering of people, but we were able to find our perfect back-country campsite on the Rose River Loop where we were secluded. Thankfully, we were alone enough that nobody came running to the sound of my screaming when a bear…er branch fell.
Where to Eat:
The Appalachian Trail runs directly through Shenandoah National Park. As such, there are wonderful amenities for hikers within the park. Check out the Waysides for dining room or take out options that provide breakfast, lunch and dinner.