We were awakened that morning by shuffling sounds outside our tent. Nearby noises are common in a campground so we weren’t concerned, but this time we decided to poke our heads out to investigate. Close to the tent, munching on mouthfuls of dew-covered grass, was a nonchalant white-tailed deer. My children were thrilled to see the animal so close, and their barely concealed glee soon drove the doe to a more distant breakfast.
This scene played out several years ago when camping was our regular family getaway, but deer still make a peaceful home at Shenandoah National Park. Forty percent of the park is federally designated wilderness area, protecting plants and wildlife, including 66 rare plant species and 300 species of animals. Fifty species of mammals wander the forests and meadows, including foxes, coyotes, bobcats, skunks, black bears, raccoons, rabbits, and white-tailed deer.
An easy drive from Richmond on I-64, time spent at Shenandoah gives kids valuable exposure to nature. Richard Louv’s eye-opening book, Last Child in the Woods, showed a link between a lack of nature experiences in the lives of today’s kids – he called it “nature-deficit disorder” – and childhood trends like obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Later research has shown that time outdoors is helpful to the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
For my family, camping was a favorite outdoor pastime. Pitching a tent or cranking up our pop-up camper guaranteed together time and made travel more affordable. Spending a night in the outdoors was an added benefit, even before the term “nature-deficit disorder” was coined.
Not all families want to camp, but many parents recognize the value of a family trip into nature, away from TV and other distractions of home and hotels. Yes, I mean iPods and smartphones, too. Our national park system makes outdoor time easy, for campers and for those who want creature comforts. Celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary this year, Shenandoah National Park, embracing 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia, is crisscrossed with over 500 miles of trails and dotted with support facilities. Skyline Drive bisects the park and offers dozens of beautiful scenic overlooks. The drive runs from the south entrance station – off of I-64, easily accessed from Richmond – north to Front Royal, with two other entrances along the way.
The park and its concessionaire, Aramark, educate and entertain people of all ages. Programs and information are scattered throughout the park, with easy access from all entrances. Visitors’ centers provide trail maps, program listings, and other interpretive materials. Some have exhibits and gift shops. National Park Service and Aramark websites (www.nps. gov/shen and www.visitshenandoah.com) provide comprehensive information as well, including program details, downloadable trail maps, and contact information.
Park service rangers present informative talks and accompany visitors on guided walks and hikes, sharing their knowledge on plants, wildlife and history. Exhibits at the Big Meadows visitors’ center tell about the park’s flora, fauna, and history. Most National Park Service programs and exhibits are free and don’t require reservations.
Among the most comprehensive and gratifying kids’ activities are the Junior Ranger (for kids ages 7 to 12 ) and Ranger Explorer (for kids 13 and up). Using these guidebook-based programs, kids explore the park and participate in ranger-led activities, for recognition like badges and pins, but ultimately for a greater knowledge and appreciation of our world.
Aramark provides additional programs, including full-day guided hikes, rock climbing and rappelling, horseback riding, scavenger hunts and night sky programs. Skyline Drive is open to cyclists, but the curvy, hilly ride along the road is only for the in-shape and intrepid, not for kids. Bicycles are not allowed on trails. Fishing is allowed but regulated within the park.
My favorite way to experience the mountains is on foot, for the full sensory experience: breezes and fresh air, bird calls, smells, sights both near and far, and a sense of nature’s presence. Shenandoah hikes range from easy to challenging, some leading to summits and breathtaking vistas, others to waterfalls, and others through forested wilderness areas. Temperatures are typically ten degrees cooler than in the valleys.
My kids were great campers, but they weren’t as fond of hiking, so we learned to adjust our expectations and find hikes that fit their stamina and attention span. I recall one hike where we pretended their favorite superheroes were hiding behind trees, a ploy that amused them for a little while. Jeff Alt, Appalachian Trail hiker and author of A Walk for Sunshine, suggests stopping to explore any little item that your child takes an interest in or identifying animals, trees, and flowers for your young explorer. The park has helpful tools, too, including a park-specific scavenger hunt book and sun-print kits, available from the gift shops; EarthCaching (an alternative to geocaching) with instructions on the NPS web site; and GPS Ranger electronic guides at the Byrd Visitor Center.
The Appalachian Trail winds through Shenandoah for 101 miles, linking to several park trails. Surveying the Trail’s three-sided shelters offers a glimpse into the backpacker’s experience. When you spot a veteran “through-hiker” emerge from the 2,160-mile trek to enjoy the relatively glamorous park facilities, it’s a bit like seeing wildlife or a celebrity. It might even inspire a young hiker to set his or her own lofty goals.
Shenandoah activities offer more than just nature immersion. The park recognizes its cultural roots, too. A hike or tour-bus trip with a history lesson goes to Rapidan Camp, the retreat home for President Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou. I was surprised by the small, rustic buildings that the Hoovers designed, and pleased to note the affinity that the couple had for simplicity and the outdoors.
Special events at the park give families a taste of the area’s Virginia heritage, like September’s Apple Butter Celebration, artisan demonstrations, musicians, and storytellers. At “Tea with the First Ladies,” historian Babs Bodin tells of some of America’s spirited women.
Facilities throughout the park help visitors make the most of the natural surroundings in comfort. There are four campgrounds plus lodge rooms and cabin facilities for guests who prefer a climatecontrolled room with more creature comforts. Amenities vary, but take note: There are no phones or in-room Wi-Fi.
Meal options range from snack counters to fine dining. A big surprise at the park is the quality of the food. In the dining rooms at Skyland and Big Meadows, creative dishes are made with fresh local ingredients that reflect the region without possessing the heavy quality of standard Southern country fare. Chefs there gladly accommodate children with food allergies, too.
The park is open year-round, though organized programs run spring through fall. The rewards of autumn are cooler temperatures and lighter crowds. Leaves begin to turn in late September, reaching a dazzling peak of color in mid to late October. The bare branches that follow allow for expansive views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. As the winter approaches, visitor facilities close one by one, until by the end of November only the trails and a handful of picnic grounds are open.
Some of the best memories I have with my kids are from our trips into the great outdoors. They drifted off to sleep to the calls of night birds, insects, and frogs. They learned that these strange sounds are simply a different part of our world, one that we are sometimes privileged to be a part of.