The Great Appalachian Odyssey of 2015 filled a shelf full of adventure tales for Don and me this April. Each day was like opening a brand-new book and not knowing what to expect. One day in Nashville, six days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, four days on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Shenandoah National Park played the role of bookends. We visited there on the drive down, and again on the drive back, spending two half days each time. The two visits could not have been more different.
Shenandoah National Park is a long narrow park along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia. The highlight of the park is Skyline Drive, which runs the length of the Park along that spine, 105 miles from Front Royal to Rockfish, where it meets the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road is a narrow two-lane byway that winds and twists along the edge of the mountains. There are numerous scenic overlooks along the road from which to see the Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain on one side and the rolling hills of the Piedmont on the other. 500 miles of hiking trails criss-cross the Park, leading to waterfalls, peaks and grand views.
Don, Robb and I had planned a visit the previous Thanksgiving, but were thwarted by a heavy snowfall. So Don and I were getting a second chance.
On the first day of our two-week trip, we arrived at the northern entrance of Shenandoah after nearly 7 hours on the road. Here’s the obligatory sign photo! Which was followed by the obligatory visitor’s center stop, in this case the visitor’s center and gift shop at Dickey Ridge.
I was looking forward to driving the two-lane Skyline Drive after all those hours on the highway. Be careful what you wish for. Not long after leaving Dickey Ridge we stopped at an overlook – I think it was Signal Knob – where I took my first photo from Shenandoah National Pak, with the Shenandoah Valley and River below. Clouds hung over the mountains beyond. We tried in vain to spot Signal Knob on the northern tip of Massanutten.
The fog quickly grew so thick it swallowed the mountains, river, valley and even the trees and shrubs just beyond the roadside. It threatened to swallow my car as well. We saw no more of Shenandoah National Park that day.
What followed was 25 miles of the most difficult driving I’ve ever experienced. We made the decision to push south to the Thornton Gap entrance, hoping the fog would lift. We couldn’t see beyond the side of the road, even the rock overhangs; much of the time I couldn’t see the left side of the road. I could see ahead of me for maybe twenty feet. I drove the with my hazard blinkers on, following the yellow lines on the road and using my GPS to anticipate the frequent twisty curves. At one point a band of bicyclists materialized out of the clouds too close for comfort. By the time we left the Park and descended out of the fog into Luray I was exhausted.
Too exhausted to sleep that night. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t feeling well the next day, so Don declared a one-day layover in Luray to rest and recuperate. After a morning of me moping about, he found a cure for my malaise by suggesting we try Shenandoah again. We entered at Thornton Gap and immediately ran into our old friend the fog at the entrance station. Don insisted we push south for a bit, and this time I’m glad he did. The gloom began to lift, my mood with it, and we pulled into an overlook.
Above the clouds the sun was coming out. And suddenly it got warm! We enjoyed a close-up view of a groundhog, and posed for the only picture of both of us taken on the trip, Don trying to hide in the shadow of his hat.
Our destination for the day was Skyland Resort. It has a lodge with a gift shop and two restaurants, and we were eager for a late lunch. While there, the clouds rolled back in. It wasn’t long before we were driving through the fog again on the way back to town, but by now I was an old hand. Driving through the Mary’s Rock Tunnel was dicey, though.