With 516 miles of trail, 75 overlooks, 60 mountain peaks and 90 streams, there’s always something new to see at Shenandoah National Park.
Annual park visitation tops just above 330 million, park ranger turned public relations coordinator Sally Hurlbert said. Hurlbert has worked for Shenandoah National Park for 23 years. She has a background in geology and use to work professionally in Alaska. In 1996, she heard Shenandoah National Park was looking to hire a park ranger to develop geological programs and hikes for the park. She was offered the position and began her daily routine of planning hikes and outreaches for the community.
“I love being out hiking, taking people out and showing them the rocks, telling them the stories and seeing that lightbulb in their head go off,” Hurlbert said. “A lot of people don’t realize that some of these rocks are over a billion years old.”
Frank Gebhard, a senior biology major, has visited the park nearly 30 times. The avid backcountry camper has grown very familiar with the ancient Grenville rocks, lava flows and sediments throughout the park. Gebhard says the best hike he’s planned in Shenandoah was a 40-mile trip stretching from Little Stony Man to Abbey Creek overlook. The trip lasted five days and four nights. However, for small-scale trips, Gebhard recommends Bearfence Mountain.
“Bearfence has a lot of bouldering, like rock climbing. And there’s an awesome lookout at the end,” Gebhard said. “It’s a little bit challenging but it’s not impossible for a beginner.”
Hurlbert says there’s four different types of hikes throughout the park and four separate entrances: Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap and Rockfish Gap. A lot of times the area that park rangers recommend to visitors depends on their locality.
“You can hike up to a viewpoint or you might just want to take a drive on Skyline Drive and stop at an overlook and enjoy the view,” Hurlbert said. “You can hike down a trail to one of our waterfalls or you can hop on the Appalachian Trail.”
If Gebhard visits the park for a day trip, he’ll bring a jacket (depending on the weather), water and a snack. If he plans an overnight trip, he’ll also throw in his helmet, an extra set of clothes, a hammock, camping stove, coffee presser, rain jacket and a knife. For evening hikes, he recommends Hawksbill Mountain — the highest peak within Shenandoah sitting 4,049 feet above sea level.
Maddy Williams, a 2017 SMAD graduate and photographer, planned a Shenandoah engagement photo session at Timber Hollow overlook during September 2018 at golden hour. She chose Timber Hollow because of the alluring views of the mountain range and the open quarry to walk around.
“[Shenandoah National Park] is absolutely stunning on its own,” Williams said. “I really didn’t need to do anything else from my end of the camera to capture all its beauty.”
Aside from the exquisite rock formations, trails and quarries, visitors are likely to observe some of the 53 species of mammals, 24 species of amphibians or 200 species of birds throughout the park.
Gebhard reported seeing a couple bears, chipmunks and even a mountain lion throughout his 30 trips. Instead of listening to music while he’s hiking, he prefers to “hear the nature” and take in the sounds of the birds around him.
The most visited waterfall in the park is Dark Hollow Falls. Risk-takers like Gebhard have taken a ride down its natural waterslides, but Hurlbert recommends visitors enjoy the falls by playing in the waist-deep water rather than climbing the slippery rocks.
For those who prefer going on evening hikes to stargaze, Hurlbert recommends climbing to viewpoints like the top of Hawksbill or Little Stony Man — just don’t forget a flashlight, she says. For a more open location that doesn’t require hiking, Big Meadows recreational area is the perfect pull-off destination.
It’s important that visitors practice the Leave No Trace method, Hurlbert said. The Leave No Trace method is an outdoor ethics code for preventing and minimizing recreational impact on the environment and surrounding wildlife. Shenandoah National Park rangers have noticed increased trampling of vegetation on trails and an influx of trash throughout the park.
“[Shenandoah National Park] is an area that shouldn’t be taken for granted,” Williams said. “All the beautiful mountains and quarries, we need to keep them just as they were left.”
Contact Jamie Graeff at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.