Shenandoah. A town? Check. Caverns? Check. A river? Check. A university? Check. A valley? Check. A national park? Check, check. But what it really is, is a national treasure. Extending 135 miles north from the Front Royal, Virginia area down the Appalachian Mountains to Charlottesville on the east and Harrisonburg on the west, it covers 311 square miles. It was designated a national park December 26, 1935 and dedicated the following July by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Keith Tomlinson, Smithsonian Associate, study team leader and interpretive naturalist captured the park’s majesty in a presentation recently hosted by Virginia Tech Lifelong Learning Institute and AARP Virginia.
Tomlinson referenced his overall theme as “landscape ecology” explaining it as the science of landscape diversity of the interactive results between biodiversity (living organisms) and geodiversity (surface geology), one affecting the other in significant ways.
The formation of the Appalachian Mountains dates to the Paleozoic period some 260 to 400 million BP, before present, with the formation of Pangea and early on may have been as high as the Rocky Mountains today. Some have said perhaps they may have even been as high as the Himalayas.
Impact of the Ice Age on topography and geography of the area is a fascinating study. Although glaciers of the age did not reach Virginia, there is historical evidence of tundra and alpine ecosystems along the higher ridges of the Appalachians with vast spruce forests in the lower elevations. The flora species seen today in the park spent the Ice Age in the area around the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida and Georgia. Eighty-five percent of the flora in today’s park crept its way back north after the Ice Age. The other fifteen percent comes from Neotropical species. A fascinating example is the Pawpaw tree which produces a delectable fruit, its flavor often compared to bananas with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus.
Tomlinson says that addressing the human history of the area can be a bit tricky as information about the populating of North American is evolving as new discoveries are made. What is known is that by the time Europeans encountered the people of North America, the area of Shenandoah was inhabited by the Manahoac in the north overlapping with the Monacan in the south. These people were more sedentary than their predecessors, living in community centers with at least part time farming as a means of survival in addition to the hunting and gathering of their ancestors. With colonial expansion, history shows the displacement of the natives with the immigrants deforesting much of the area by clearing for farming and logging ventures.
Today’s Park environment is ninety-five percent covered in forests, primarily oak and hickory forests. Some peaks reach 4000 feet+, a far cry from the early estimations of their heights. There are deep valleys with steep stream sources. There are occasional high meadows such as Big Meadows and Skyland and over the last few decades there have been added an excellent tourist infrastructure of campgrounds and other facilities.
One of the greatest draws to the park is its abundance of wildflowers, from the well-known lady slipper of the orchid family to a lesser-known member of the pipewort family with its trio of leathery petals that hides under its ground covering heart shaped leaves.
While most think of the role of bees in the pollination and germination of plants, Tomlinson described the importance of other insects, in the process explaining myrmecochory, an ant-plant interaction of pollination and germination of wildflowers in a symbiotic relationship that provides nourishment for the ants. The seeds have a layer of fatty lipid rich nutrients called elaiosomes. The ants gather the seeds, take them back to their homes, consume the elaiosomes, and then discard the seeds to germinate and continue the circle of flora life.
Birders flock to the park to see and listen to the hundreds of species of birds from the wild turkey to the peregrine falcon with an occasional sighting of the bald eagle. Ornithologists will find warblers, buntings, owls, nuthatches, tanagers, and the Veery, known for its beautiful song.
As varied as are the species of plants and birds, there is less of a variety of mammals in the park. Small mammals include the chipmunk, voles, and moles. Common larger mammals include deer and the black bear.
For the energetic outdoor minded, hiking trails provide another draw to the park. Hawksbill Summit at 4,050 feet with its north slope drop of 2,500 feet into Timber Hollow, draws thousands every year whose goal is to traverse its summit. The circuit trail of about three miles that includes the Salamander Trail, and the Hawksbill Trail is another popular draw.
From the park to the east is another area attraction, Old Rag Mountain. Though it is geographically outside the park its challenging trails provide another area attraction. Its Ridge and Saddle Trails are popular among hikers.
The year with the most recent reliable statistics of visitors to the park was 2019 when just shy of 1. 5 million visitors enjoyed the park. That number of visitors is both good and bad news. The good news is that all those people were able to enjoy all that the park has to offer. The bad news is that the human impact on the park has at times had been so negative, even destructive, that parts of the park have had to be closed off from time to time to allow for recovery.
Other conservation issues include the threat of invasive species. Of the 360 non-native plant species found in the area, 40 or so are considered invasive including garlic mustard. When herbicides are not an option, volunteers have been used to harvest and destroy the plant. The woolly adelgid, an insect introduced from east Asia reaching the Shenandoah area in the 1940s, has decimated the hemlock trees of the region, altering the ecosystem of the park as a result. The American chestnuts’ demise due to a fungus is another ecological tragedy though there is a controversial effort afoot to genetically modify the tree for a reintroduction.
Resources abound to help travelers prepare for their visits for a Shenandoah National Park adventure. Regardless of your area of interest, camping, hiking, birding, wildflowers, geology, geography, human history or conservation, Shenandoah National Park has something waiting for you. Pack your bags and let’s travel.
Park Contact Information:
3655 U.S Highway 211 East
Luray, VA 22835
The Flora of Virginia—Alan S. Weakley
Field Guide to Birds of North America—National Geographic
Field Guide to Wildflowers—National Wildlife Federation
Roadside Geology of Virginia—Keith Frye
Appalachian Wildflowers—Thomas E Hemery
Lichens of North America—Irwin M. Brodo
Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast—Laura Colleran
Shenandoah National Park: A Folding Pocket Guide to Familiar Plants and Animals—James Kavanaugh