I am a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park, but my blog represents my own musings and enjoyment of the NPS.
I remember being in school (K-12 and college) and waking up Friday morning knowing that the weekend was only hours away. I grew up in a house where my Mom was a homemaker (and trust me, she worked 7 days a week) and my Dad frequently traveled, often leaving Monday morning and returning Friday afternoon. According to my baby book, my first sentence was “Daddy go away.” Friday evening was a night out for my family and we used to each get a turn picking where we wanted to eat dinner. Inevitably I picked Ponderosa because I loved the idea of making my own sundae at the end of the meal. This was not my parent’s ideal choice, but to be fair, they let me have my way. In college, the weekend meant going to the game, playing intramural softball, making some money waiting tables and of course, the occasional party or bar. Then I entered the “real world.” My weekends are non-traditional these days and I call Monday “my Friday.” It used to bother me, knowing I couldn’t attend festivals, concerts and a myriad of other events that take place on Saturday and Sunday, but I’ve learned to embrace it. I can schedule appointments, go to the bank, pay bills and avoid weekend shoppers without taking time off from work. The best part is that my boyfriend and I share one day off. How can this be the best part? What a special day it is and we cherish it.
Like my parents, my boyfriend and I alternate choosing the day’s activities. It was my turn this week. I found myself in a conundrum as I started to plan. A hiking group that I had joined in the winter of 2010/11 was doing a hike in George Washington National Forest from Veach Gap to Elizabeth Furnace, a place I hadn’t explored yet. Now, my boyfriend and I both love the outdoors and this normally wouldn’t be an issue, but this particular hiking group consists mostly of retired people. It’s pretty typical for me to associate with older people as I’ve always been pretty reserved and grew up among my parent’s friends. I had reservations about asking him to tag along, assuming that the speed and frequent breaks would make him crazy. I broached the subject over dinner Monday night and he agreed to come along since it was a new place for him as well and was a 7.7 miler. I made him promise that if he hated it, he would never do it again just to appease me. We got up Tuesday morning and after getting our packs together, headed to our normal coffee spot, Daily Grind. Pumpkin Pie Latte in hand, we headed to the forest and met the rest of the group at Veach Gap. Only six of us today, perhaps the typical crowd being deterred by the length and 1200’ climb. I introduced everyone to my boyfriend and off we went.
The other reason I was excited about the prospect of hiking in this particular area was my interest in fire ecology. Earlier this summer, about 2000 acres or so burned in this area, a fire sparked by a lightning strike. The importance of fire in a forest is something I studied extensively last summer in preparing for a new campfire program. It was quite evident that the fire was low to the ground, thereby allowing the trail to become a natural fire break. We also saw evidence of what we assumed to be bull dozer tracks where they had gone in to create fire lines. The trees were all burnt on one side, green on the other.
But the forest comes back quickly, and lots of new, green growth blanketed the forest floor.
We also found a ground nest of wasps that looked like it had been recently disturbed, probably by a bear. I think Winnie the Pooh was around looking for his pot of honey. The wasps didn’t seem interested in us, and no one indicated that they were allergic, but what a dangerous combination that could have been. We later came across some firefighting gear that looked like it had been forgotten and/or destroyed by the fire. As we continued to ascend, it became noticeable that the fire was burning quite hot in some areas. We stopped at a spot that had a great view of the Shenandoah River for lunch.
Just a ways down the trail, we came upon two other wonderful overlooks. We also saw some elaborate campsites where people had not only built fire rings, but used the rocks to create chairs and even an entryway at one location. It was neat to see, and made a deep impression on me as this is not allowed at a National Park. It seems that the Forest Service is a little more lenient on their views of keeping nature natural. Our descent was steep and quite rocky in some areas and concluded with a stream crossing.
I hung back with my friend Maureen during the hike, and had noticed right from the start that my boyfriend was getting on famously with the other men in the group. They kept a fair distance ahead of us most of the time, stopping to let us catch up. Even though the hike probably would have taken him and me less than 4 hours, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he thoroughly enjoyed himself. I hope that he had enough fun to go again in a month!
After going to the gym and taking showers, our “date” continued at Outback Steakhouse in Winchester. We are big proponents of going to locally owned restaurants, but my choice was determined upon the other plans I had and time. We had discussed two movies that we each wanted to see and I was hoping to make that our final activity of the day. Based on the time of the movies, I opted for Outback because it was in the same plaza as Alamo Drafthouse. As chains go, Outback probably is one of my favorites. I had a Forbidden Fruit Tini to start, followed by a blackberry sangria with dinner. I usually let my boyfriend choose the appetizer and he opted for spinach & artichoke dip. We both chose wood-fired filets with sautéed mushrooms for dinner and I had a baked sweet potato and green beans with mine, while he chose sweet potato fries and asparagus. The food and service were wonderful and the timing couldn’t have been better. We paid the bill and made our way across the parking lot to see “Trouble with the Curve.”
First things first. My boyfriend doesn’t sit still well and therefore movies are not usually in the plans, but he is a Clint Eastwood fan as well as a big Justin Timberlake fan. Up to this point, he had not seen a JT movie and since we both love baseball, I thought everyone would be happy. I don’t want to give away the plot, but the movie basically revolves around a washed up former pitcher (JT), an aging scout (Clint) and his overly ambitious lawyer daughter (Amy Adams). I enjoyed it from both the baseball angle and the fact that it was a “chick-flick.” I know he enjoyed it too, so that made me happy. The other neat thing about this movie theater is that it’s a restaurant. I had checked out the menu ahead of time, and we are conscious about what we eat, so bar food didn’t sound appealing to me. However, we were interested in having a drink and since it’s a “drafthouse” it does have lots of options. Needless to say, it was a great day overall and I look forward to next Tuesday!
I’ve been remiss in my blogging for the last couple of months. There are a variety of excuses I could relay, but the truth is, I’ve been busy. Not a bad thing, but for those of you that actually read this, I’ve probably left you out of some neat experiences. So, a new season, a fresh start. On that note, Autumn officially begins today. I LOVE Autumn … I just don’t like what comes after. I’ve already made an apple crisp and indulged in the ultimate … Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte. There is something about the scents and flavors of this time of year that just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I started Tuesday with exactly that thought in mind.
Since my boyfriend and I currently share one day off together, we’ve made it a point to spend that day together. Each week we alternate who picks the day’s activities, and after a week plus of gorgeous weather, he was quite agitated to awaken Tuesday morning to gray skies and monsoon like rains. I told him not to be discouraged, I was excited to see what he had planned (I begged him to keep it a surprise) and that the temperatures were going to be in the lower 70s so a rain coat and waterproof boots would take care of any outdoor activities. After the purchase of a Pumpkin PIE Latte (the version offered at our local coffee shop), we jumped in his truck for our adventure. We hopped on I-66 and then south on I-81 to Strasburg. I pondered … a quaint little town in the Shenandoah Valley just begging to be explored by those passing through. We pulled into Hupp’s Hill, a small Civil War museum that had been closed in the not so distant past, the story I heard anyway, after the main philanthropist of the site passed away and his heirs felt no desire to use their inheritance to preserve the history of their native land. We were the only ones there, but the docent at the museum greeted us warmly and informed us of our options. For $5 per person we could look at the exhibits and watch a film but for free (an option those with a limited budget are always eager to hear about) we could walk the interpretive trail outside. Aha … raingear comes in handy already. The trail winds its way through the property and provided not only information on the Civil War history but the geologic history and its role in the fighting that took place in the area. The battle of Cedar Creek is probably the most famous engagement that took place in the vicinity, although in both 1862 during Jackson’s Valley Campaign and in 1864 during the waning months of the war, this area saw a massive amount of troop movement and battles. The karst topography of the area provided natural sinkholes and caves that would provide shelter and unwavering defensive positions for troops. In the distance loomed Signal Knob, the northern terminus of Massanutten Mountain and a key factor in signaling troop movements up and down the Valley. The walk was easy and pleasant. I truly appreciated that he would bring me here, as he’s not the Civil War buff I am. As I rambled off various tidbits of information at every stop, he would just smile and shake his head. Don’t worry … I got the chance to do so later.
Our next stop was down the Valley Pike (modern day Route 11) just south of Mt. Jackson at Meems Bottom Covered Bridge.
This bridge spans the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and has been rebuilt a number of times, including most recently after some Halloween shenanigans in 1976. Knowing that, all I could envision was the Headless Horsemen riding through (the corn maze alongside the road probably contributed to that). We walked down to the edge of the river to take some pictures.
We noticed some fresh water clam shells on the banks, a mollusc I’ve never had the pleasure of finding alive. After exploring the water, we went back to the road for some more photo ops and then drove through on our way to another (impromptu) stop. This picturesque setting left me yearning for more and I mentioned a covered bridge showing up on future Tuesday itinerary.
The Route 11 potato chip factory is located in a small industrial park near Shenandoah Caverns and just off I-81 at exit 269. I grew up near US Route 11 and then subsequently lived right on it in my previous two summers working at Shenandoah National Park. I’d grown up my whole life listening to my dad talk about family trips to Mississippi to see his grandparents. Since these trips were in the 1950s, I-81 was not an option and US Route 11 was the highway taken. When I lived in New Market, my father would often want to take Route 11 instead of the interstate, reminiscing about how he’d probably eaten at some of the mom & pop places along the way. I guess in some silly way, eating potato chips made on (or in this case near) Route 11 makes me feel like I’m home. This small plant ships to retailers around the country, but production is limited. They happened to be frying when we stopped. One of the employees gave us a brief introduction to the frying process and then we watched as a batch of new potatoes was fried to golden perfection and then seasoned and packaged, a fresh batch of Dill Pickle ready for shipping. We’re not big potato chip eaters, but we are about buying local. I watched my boyfriend pick up a bag of Sweet Potato chips, but the thought of a nice dinner must have curbed the craving and we passed on any purchases. I so noted the move for a future potential stocking stuffer. The Route 11 chips have been a gift in the past enjoyed by all recipients, young and old.
After leaving the factory, we jumped back on the interstate to take the quick route (we’d followed Route 11 from Strasburg) back to Toms Brook. We had passed a store before that I knew had enticed the hunter in the truck. We pulled into the parking lot and I knew that this was the stop where I would smile and shake my head. You know the move I’m talking about … the I’m lost but I’m glad you’re happy look. Well, that’s me when it comes to anything hunting related. He drooled over bows that he can’t afford right now, talked with an employee about an archery league and I again saw that excitement of the thought of opening day appear on his face. After seeing that venison was being sold at Wegmans for $32.99 for 12oz., I too looked forward to him coming home with a kill or two this fall.
After spending the afternoon out and about in the Valley, we headed back to Front Royal to change out of muddy boots and then headed off to the other side of the Blue Ridge to Flint Hill. There I found myself treated to an outstanding dinner at Griffin Tavern. It gives the allure of fine dining without being ostentatious and provides a pub like atmosphere in the back for those interested in a more casual atmosphere. Although I haven’t partaken, I know that they have a trivia night, which is always a good time with a group of friends. We were seated in one of the front dining rooms and quickly greeted by a young lady that was very pleasant and I suspect kind of bored considering it was Tuesday, but that may have led to what I felt was a very rushed experience for such an establishment. I always have a hard time deciding what adult beverage I’m interested in and in this case I was considering wine but didn’t know what I was having for dinner yet. Despite telling her I needed more time, I feel like I was given all of 30 seconds before she approached me a second time. At any rate, he opted to have a bowl of their soup de jour, white beans, Italian sausage and butternut squash, as an appetizer. I went with the small house salad served with shallot vinaigrette since I read that all the salad dressings were homemade. I also did finally order a Sauvignon Blanc to drink. We both decided to have one of the specials, a blackened Mahi-Mahi served with sautéed spinach, black bean & corn salsa and jasmine rice, for our main dish. The food was delicious, but yet again I felt rushed. I would have preferred more time between appetizer and meal and the server offered dessert when I was only half way done with dinner. These things are noticed by me because I’ve spent my fair share of time waiting tables, and since these Tuesday’s are special to me, I want to relax and take my time. Truth be told, she would have gotten another round of drinks out of us, in turn receiving a bigger tip, but instead we enjoyed our aperitif at home.
What adventure awaits next week is up to me. I have some ideas, but we’ll keep it a secret.
Hiking … I love hiking! I went on my longest solo hike last week. It encompassed a waterfall and almost 2000’ feet in elevation change. It was almost 10 miles in length. And … it was awesome!! I took advantage of my easy access to Shenandoah National Park and parked at Mathews Arm Campground. I used the Traces Trail to access the Tuscarora-Overall Run Trail. I saw some beautiful Wild Columbine blooming along the trail.
Pretty soon, I approached the 29’ initial cascade. I saw a lady enjoying her brunch sitting on the rocks, and she insisted I stay, that it was the best view. I tell you, it wasn’t bad!
The morning started off cloudy and cool, but as the day went on, the weather was perfect for hiking. The sun came out and it warmed up just enough. After moving on from the first cascade, I continued down (literally) to the overlook to the highest waterfall in the park, 93’.
It was too bad that I couldn’t play in the water, but I enjoyed taking in the views. Virginia is sure different from Death Valley!
As I continued on down into the hollow, I wondered how long I would be descending, knowing full well that at some point I had to go back up. After departing from the Tuscarora Trail (which goes up into Pennsylvania) I found a wonderful place for lunch. I got to sit on the rocks and stick my feet in the water while watching some swallowtails sipping the water in a puddle.
I followed the stream pretty much all the way along the hike. At one point, it was clearly evident that a fallen tree was, in fact, the trail.
As the trail continued, I crossed the stream many times. I saw lots of wildlife, including a bear that clearly saw me first, as he only attracted my attention in his haste to get away. My eye did spy a juvenile praying mantis and that was actually cooler than the bear.
By the way, this was on the ascent, so I was happy to stop and watch him for awhile. My trip took me along the Heiskell Hollow trail as I made my final approach back to the campground and my reward of a caramel flavored yogurt (limited time only Dannon flavor). It took me six hours to hike this 9.5-mile loop. I was happy with the time I made and excited to have finally, after having already worked at the park for two summers, seen the highest waterfall. Hopefully I’ll get to enjoy some more of these longer treks in the North District this summer!
I always think I’m going to have time for a million things and then before I blink, my weekend is over. I’m lucky to have so many options right in my backyard. I ventured just a few miles down the road a few days ago to check out Shenandoah River State Park in Bentonville, VA. I somehow spent $66 on a VA State Parks Annual Pass that I’m not quite sure how I’m going to get my money’s worth out of, but it sounded like a good idea at the time. Hopefully it will force me to check out some other great places because VA has one of the best state park systems in the country. Many of them preserve beautiful lake and river shores or are nestled within the various chains of the Appalachian Mountains. This one, as the name implies, lies on the banks of the famous Shenandoah River. This fairly calm, meandering stream shows its age in its path. Just take a look at a map and you’ll see how many times it bends back and forth as its two forks lap against the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountains. Its gentleness, however, is what lends to its appeal. Front Royal, VA is known as the canoe capital of Virginia and a variety of companies provide the novice, such as myself, the opportunity to take an adventure on the river by canoe, kayak or tubing. It’s been awhile since I’ve done this, although it’s on the list for this summer, but about 10 years ago I took a tubing trip and it was one of best experiences ever. At any rate, Shenandoah River State Park has river access in addition to hiking and biking trails of varying lengths and difficulties, picnic facilities, campgrounds and cabins for rent. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Shenandoah National Park, but, if you’re looking for a lazy day hanging out by the water, head 9 miles south on US-340 from the Front Royal Entrance station on Skyline Drive and get your fill. Take in the sights and the sounds, bring your kayak and go rolling on the river.
(this photo was found at www.freeamazingimages.com)
I called my dad this morning as I headed out of VA. I wanted to say something fun, so when he answered the phone I said, “This is Death Valley Jenny to Papa Bear.” He laughed and said “Coming through loud and clear.” And that was how it started. To this point the biggest journey of my life. I’ve decided to work at Death Valley this winter, so my boyfriend and I packed up my place and began the 2500 mile journey.
I sit in a hotel in TN this evening, refreshed after my delicious Waffle House dinner which consisted of hashbrowns, raisin toast and a bowl of grits with some apple butter. I’m being completely serious, that random selection of breakfast items really hit the spot. And the nice thing about packing up your apartment, beer and wine chillin in the back of a U-Haul. So, now my dessert is some Riesling and football. Another long day in the car looms in front of us, but after Nashville, it’s highway I’ve never traveled on, so I’m not at all deterred by the long stretch of desert so many have “warned” me about. I didn’t really get the camera out today, but from here on out, I’ll be sure to have some photos to post.
Last Tuesday I embarked on the great pastime of Shenandoah National Park … the hike to the summit of Old Rag. I’m going to be honest from the start. I went with a group and we DID NOT do the infamous rock scramble, but instead came up the back way from Berry Hollow. I’m sorry, I know, it’s most embarrassing for a ranger to “cheat.” It was, however, a gorgeous day for hiking with the high being 57 and not a cloud in the sky.
Our journey began at about 10am and the group consisted of 17 of us from all over northern VA and the Shenandoah Valley. The ascent began on a well maintained fire road and after a quick stop at the outhouse, we continued up the Saddle Trail. It took us roughly two hours to reach the summit, where we all took in the breathtaking 360 degree view. For those of you that have not experienced the peaks of Virginia at this time of year, the color was spectacular. While I would say the best leaf colors had already been reached at the highest elevations, looking out onto the rolling hillside provided an abundant amount of beauty. I also observed a raven soaring so close at times I thought I might touch him. The vegetation is sparse on this rocky summit, with a few hardy mountain laurel and pines clinging to what little soil was available. We all sat down and enjoyed a 45 minute lunch, sitting atop the 1.1 billion year old Pedlar Formation (“Old Rag”) granite. This ancient rock provides a glimpse into the long past of the Appalachian mountains. Although the heights are not nearly as immense as those expereienced in our Western states, the fact that you can be in contact with something that predates most life on Earth is by far and away mind-blowing. I often relate to quotes from childhood favorites and this one jumps to mind instantly when I think about what may have happened on the very surface I sat upon eating a turkey sandwich.
Charlie Brown: Don’t think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination. He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon, or even Nebuchudnezzar.
Pig-Pen: Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?
No matter how you reach the summit, the views are well worth the climb. I hope the next time you’re in Virginia, you have a chance to experience this place where the past and future meet. It’s awe-inspiring and truly peaceful (well, as long as you go on a weekday!).
So as I walk in the local park I realized not everyone gets to enjoy the beautiful scenery that I have right in my backyard. What a beautiful fall day!
I’m a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. This beautiful park stretches from Front Royal, VA (70 miles from our nation’s capital), to Waynesboro, VA. There are over 500 miles of hiking trails, including 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. These trails will take you for walks in the woods, to high peaks and to gorgeous waterfalls. At Dickey Ridge (milepost 4) and Big Meadows (milepost 51), you will find visitor centers to better orient you to the over 196,000 acres that are available for you to explore. Enjoy the exhibit, watch a short film about the park’s history or just simply sit and watch the world go by. I look forward to seeing you! If you want to familiarize yourself before you visit, check out the website at www.nps.gov/shen.