Shenandoah National Park, Virginia — The ranger station at Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, Virginia, is unattended as I glide past on my Harley Road King. “Pay at Exit,” reads the sign; I’ll be happy to, 105 miles up the road at Skyline Drive’s Front Royal terminus.
6:45 am, and it seems I have the national park all to myself. The mist-covered Blue Ridge Mountains glow golden in the morning sun. I pull into the first scenic overlook I come to—McCormick Gap—glide to a stop, shut off the Harley’s engine, and listen to chirping birds. It’s a quiet, warm late-July morning. I’ve come here by way of Washington, DC, en route to York, PA (for my “Planes, Trains, and Motorcycles” article for Harley’s HOG magazine—published Fall 2010). I’ve chosen to include Skyline Drive in the trip for its great scenery and pleasant riding.
Shenandoah National Park, established in 1935, is 200,000 acres, nearly 80,000 of which is designated wilderness. Skyline Drive winds its way north-south through the park, providing magnificent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Virgina Piedmont. Curvy and two-lane: 105 miles, maximum speed limit 35 mph. Heaven on a Harley. A touring Harley, anyway.
A few miles north of the ranger station, a young black bear scampers out of the woods; seeing me, he turns around and runs back. No doubt mama bear is lurking nearby. Shenandoah is home to about 50 different species of mammals and over 200 species of birds, so you’re apt to have an animal encounter here. “Last year a wild turkey about run me over,” Harley rider Jack Auker told me. “It ran out into the road, got scared, and started running ’round in circles.” Fortunately for all concerned, turkey and riders emerged unscathed, allowing Jack and his wife to return again this year (from Tallahassee, FL) on their Ultra Classic for their fourth visit.
Skyline Drive is popular year round; each season offers something different. October is the park’s busiest month, as visitors seek out spectacular fall foliage. In summer, views of the valleys are generally hazy; a sign at one of the overlooks advises this is due primarily to industrial pollution from power plants and factories. Winter may be the time for the clearest views, but cold and snow make that a less attractive option for a motorcyclist.
I stop midway through the park at the Harry F. Byrd visitor center (Milepost 51), and stroll through the historical exhibits, learning a little about the park’s history. I learn that Shenandoah was created by piecing together 3,000 privately-owned tracts of land, purchased or condemned by the state and presented to the federal government to create a national park near the nation’s capital. More than 2,000 residents of these mountains and valleys were evicted by 1934, not all of them willingly. Prior to their displacement, these early residents survived by farming, mining, logging, and moonshining—poor mountaineers that barely kept their families fed, to borrow a line from The Beverly Hillbillies. To create the park, Civilian Conservation Corps workers were brought in to attempt to restore the land to its original condition, obliterating much of the evidence of human habitation. I think it’s important to recognize the human toll that accompanied the creation of this important natural resource, and a stroll through Byrd visitor center provides a quick education.
Continuing north, I rumble through Marys Rock Tunnel at milepost 32. Over 600′ long and blasted through solid granite, the tunnel was considered a scenic wonder and one of the park’s icons in the 1930s.
After a relaxing day of riding, having stopped in just about every one of the park’s 75 scenic overlooks, I exit through the park’s north entrance in Front Royal and head for my hotel to rest up before my visit the next day to the Harley-Davidson factory in York, PA (see “Where Kings are Born”).
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t have to stop and pay at the Front Royal entrance station: with the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass I’d purchased earlier in the year, my admission to national parks and federal recreational lands is covered for one year. At $80, it’s a bargain for someone like me who loves to travel and visit our national parks.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Lodging, campgrounds, food and gasoline are available in the park; visit http://www.visitshenandoah.com/ for more info.
2011 is the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s official dedication of the park—visit http://celebrateshenandoah.org/ for a list of planned activities.
Shenandoah National Park homepage: http://www.nps.gov/shen/index.htm
Driving Skyline Drive: http://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/driving-skyline-drive.htm
NPS Skyline Drive history site: http://www.nps.gov/shen/historyculture/skylinedrive.htm