One of the most popular national parks in the east, especially during the fall foliage season when seemingly everyone in the world descends upon the place to leaf-peep, Shenandoah National Park protects some 300 square miles of hardwood forest along the northernmost crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though the landscape looks natural now, the aboriginal forests were logged out and the landscape was heavily cultivated until the 1920s. During the Depression, when the depleted soils could no longer sustain the residents, thousands of farmers and their families moved out and the government began buying up the land to return it to its natural state.
Most people experience the park from the top, by driving along the famously beautiful Skyline Drive. This road climbs up from the Shenandoah Valley but mostly runs along the crest, offering grand vistas (when the air is clear, at least). Besides the hardwood forests, the park also protects numerous waterfalls, wildflower meadows, and understory plants like azaleas and mountain laurels, which bloom brightest in late spring. There is considerable development in the park, with a pair of rustic lodges and enough gas stations and restaurants and campgrounds to handle the thousands of visitors who flock here (especially in October, for the autumn foliage). Despite the crowds, it’s not hard to find peace and quiet, especially if you venture off on even the briefest of hikes.
There is a ranger station at each entrance to the park, where you pay your $15 per-car fee (or show your annual parks pass). There’s a visitors center (540/999-3500) at each end of Skyline Drive. Trails at Big Meadows lead past herds of very tame deer to Dark Hollow Falls, which drops 70 feet over greenish volcanic stone. The Big Meadows Lodge was built in 1939 and retains its cozy feel; this is also where the park’s largest campground is located. There’s another lodge to the north, at Skyland (milepost 42), the highest point on Skyline Drive. There are full-service restaurants at both lodges; all food and lodging (and most everything else in the park) is managed by a private concession, DNC Parks & Resorts (877/847-1919).