The summit of Hawksbill Mountain is one of the most popular spots in Shenandoah National Park. There are many good reasons for that.
Hawksbill is the highest point in the park at 4,050 ft. above sea level. You have a 270-degree view from the summit. Hikers love it since two trails lead to the peak, and a covered shelter is available. Plus, the view is incredible.
I chose the Upper Hawksbill Trail for several reasons to do my second hike in the park this year. The trail has less elevation, is shorter, and I had never hiked it before. I wasn’t disappointed. Birds and butterflies were abundant, and most hikers donned face masks as we passed on the trail.
As you can see, the rock outcropping of the peak is rugged and angular. The Appalachian Trail is 500 ft. below. The drop into Timber Hollow, however, is 2,500 ft., which is the most significant elevation change in the park. Unlike others, I stayed well away from the edge.
Awash with news and information about COVID-19, it’s easy to feel tense, confused, irritable, fearful, or even bored. Due to the global pandemic, millions of people of all colors, religions, cultures, and languages are experiencing similar trepidations.
A sense of hopelessness can be emotionally overwhelming. There’s a way to help overcome that despair. Head outside!
Studies have shown that connecting with nature calms fears, and uplifts spirits. I embrace those findings as often as I can. I recently headed to my favorite get-away place, Shenandoah National Park.
Mine was a twofold mission. Besides going into the wild, this was my first hiking experience since my knee replacement surgery last September.
I started early to beat the heat and humidity. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the Blue Ridge Mountains as I approached the park on U.S. 33. I exit that road into the park at Swift Run Gap.
Rounding a slight curve on a typically hazy summer morning, I noticed a large dark object in the opposite lanes of the divided highway. I slowed and rolled past a massive black bear standing beyond the grassy medium.
The magnificent creature looked both ways and then bolted across the roadway. It promptly disappeared into the steep, wooded hillside before I could even grab my camera.
Buoyed by that encounter, I arrived at the trailhead in high spirits. Surely, anything that I would experience the rest of the day would be anti-climactic, unless I saw another bear on the hike. I didn’t.
I walked a few yards on the Appalachian Trail to where it intersected with the trail I wanted, the Mill Prong. It was all downhill from there until the return trip.
The forest was amazingly still. No birds sang, and no vehicles hummed along the nearby Skyline Drive. I took in every moment, the wildflowers, the ferns, brightly colored fungus conspicuously growing on dead trees. The distant sound of water gurgling its way down the mountainside lured me onward.
I heard or saw no one else. A gray catbird burst from a bush beside the trail. A feisty squirrel angrily scurried away, flapping its tail in disgust of the human disruption.
I rested at the shallow stream. The morning sun filtered through the forest canopy, sparkling the gently rippling water. I felt exalted.
Farther downstream, I sat on a large rock and just enjoyed the sound of water trickling over ancient boulders. On my return trip, I passed a few other hikers. Each one donned face masks as we passed on the trail. More gratitude and thoughtfulness mutually expressed.
Turk’s cap lily.
Common Wood Nymph.
Young Dark-eyed Junco.
Covered in pollen.
Click on the photos to enlarge them.
When I reached the parking lot, the strengthening morning sun spotlighted some bright orange Turk’s cap lilies just off the trail. Their beauty drew me like a magnet. I snapped my camera’s shutter over and over, trying to preserve the glory I beheld perfectly.
Suddenly, a female tiger swallowtail butterfly alighted on the same flower that I was photographing. Again, delight and gratitude filled me to the full.
In the rest of the world, the pandemic raged. But in the wild, only the big black bear, the forest’s serenity, the kindness of other hikers, and this tango of floral and fauna mattered.
I was thankful for each magical moment, and for the skillful surgeon who had replaced my knee. Gratitude is appropriate anytime, but especially during this pandemic.
Connecting with nature does indeed do wonders for your soul. You can find peace and gratitude in a local park or even your backyard.
Get outdoors, follow the prescribed safety rules, and enjoy all that comes your way.
I am fortunate that I can incorporate my three favorite hobbies into one outing. Whenever I go hiking, I always take my binoculars and camera. Every now and then, I am rewarded with an opportunity to capture the beauty of birds.
This male Indigo Bunting landed on this jumble of dead branches just out of the morning’s sunlight. Still, the ruffle of the striking bird’s feathers as it turned its head revealed several shades of blue. Indigo is the perfect name for this avian beauty.
I am happy to share my Photo of the Week with you, “The Blues Have it!”
I easily spotted the small patch of Turk’s cap lilies as I finished my hike on a trail in Shenandoah National Park. The morning sun perfectly highlighted them against the forest green background. Since they stood high above other plants along the trail, I knew I could get a good shot of these nature wildflowers.
I took a few photos when this female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly suddenly attacked the flowers, flitting from one to the other. It was a very pleasant surprise. The beautiful butterfly moved around so much that it was difficult to get a good angle. As I snapped the last shot, which was this one, the butterfly fluttered off out of sight.
I was driving along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park early in the morning when I came upon this scene. Fortunately, the fog was rolling up the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains right at an overlook.
Watching the fog rise rapidly out of the Shenandoah Valley and up over the mountains was a treat. The sun was just peeking over the eastern ridge when I turned and caught this scene. The crown of the tree scattered the sun’s rays into the eerie fog, creating this spectacular scene. The high clouds perfectly framed my Photo of the Week, “Shining Through.”
My wife and I have enjoyed Shenandoah National Park since we moved to Virginia three years ago. There’s a lot to love about the park, and it’s less than an hour away.
We’re not the only ones who appreciate it, of course. The estimates of annual visitors compare to those of Ohio’s Amish country, our former residence. Each location attracts millions of visitors a year.
Of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on tourist numbers everywhere. With the virus cases flattening out in Virginia, the park has mostly reopened.
When we want to break our stay-close-to-home routines, Neva and I head for the hills. Sometimes I will venture out alone, birding, hiking and shooting photos. It’s an enchanting place, a multi-sensory extravaganza.
I hear the beautiful song of an indigo bunting, and I raise my binoculars, scanning the area for the likely source of the melody. Novice that I am at identifying bird calls, I want to make sure I am matching the right species with the song. I’ve learned that, like human accents, bird calls of the same species vary geographically.
Once I find the bird, I switch to my camera to try to get a decent photo. With the trees in full summer canopy, that’s not easy to do. Now and then, I am fortunate to find a bird singing in the open, and I click away.
I catch a slight, silent movement out of the corner of my eye. Is it a doe with a fawn, or perhaps twins? Is it a black bear grazing before nightfall? One never knows. On warm days, keeping a lookout for a lounging timber rattler while scrambling on a rock outcropping is always a good idea.
Male Indigo Bunting.
Beauty in any season.
Gold and black.
Pink and blue.
The park is a great place to take sunset photos, too. But sunsets in the mountains can be problematic.
The expansive, rolling Shenandoah Valley is bordered on the east and west by mountain ranges. Sunsets can be as disappointing as they are stunning. Weather plus geography equals a formula for the unknown.
When we lived in Ohio, all we had to do was look out our windows to know the potential for a spectacular sunrise or sunset. We were spoiled.
Here in the breadbasket of Virginia, the rising and falling topography makes it iffy to predict what the eastern and western skies will do at dawn or dusk, respectively. You hope, pray, and go for it. Sometimes you are disappointed. Other times, you are speechless.
…to this dreamland sunset in a matter of minutes.
(Mouse over the photos for the captions)
It can be cloudy and raining in the valley. The view from the mountains of the park, however, might be spectacular if you wait long enough. Pick one of the many west-facing overlooks along the majestic Skyline Drive, and prepare yourself for come-what-may.
The elevation of the old, folded mountains ranges up to 2,500 feet higher than that of the valley. From the park, you can see the Allegheny Mountains that mark the boundary between the Commonwealth and West Virginia.
Patience, intuition, and good fortune can be the formula for bathing in a dreamland. Even with a thick cloud cover, the sun can still break through, turning drabness into beautiful in the blink of an eye.
I’ve learned to be ready for the unexpected as the sun slinks below the jagged horizon. Will the clouds refract the sun’s rays into pinks and blues, lavenders and oranges? Or will they merely steal away the sun without fanfare?
You don’t have to have a national park to enjoy heavenly landscapes. Wherever you are, just wait and watch, and let nature do the rest.
My wife and I have closely followed the stay-at-home coronavirus requirements since they began in mid-March. We hadn’t even been out of our county until just the other day.
Even though Rockingham is the second-largest county in square miles in Virginia, we stayed close to home nevertheless. We have taken the pandemic and the safety recommendations suggested by medical professionals seriously.
While waiting for the predicted rain to arrive, Neva and I went about our regular homebound routines. She sewed and read. I wrote and spent too much time on social media, including sorting my many daily emails. When our church’s weekly newsletter landed in my inbox, I got an idea after reading it.
Friends had recently visited Shenandoah National Park, which stretches 105-miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mountains grace and mark the eastern boundary of Rockingham County. The mountain laurel bushes were in full bloom.
That’s all that I needed to read. With the afternoon half gone and the forecasted rain failing to appear, I suggested we head to the park, too. Neva gladly agreed.
We dressed for the cooler weather that we were sure to encounter in the higher elevations of the park. We were glad we did. Fearsome black clouds hovered over the mountains as we headed east.
We have lived here long enough to know that the mountain weather’s main characteristic is fickleness. The weather changes quickly in those blue mountains.
Sure enough, in the 25 miles we drove on Skyline Drive to Limberlost Trail, we dodged in and out of the sunshine, clouds, fast-moving fog, mist, and even a little rain. We kept going.
We were so glad we had. Only a couple of other cars were in the parking lot of the handicapped accessible trail. Limberlost is a 1.3-mile loop trail that is beautiful in every season.
I had never been on the trail in the spring when the mountain laurel bloomed. Neva had never been there at all. We were both in for an awe-inspiring treat.
We only had to walk a short distance before we encountered the beautiful blooming bushes. We were glad that we had dropped what we were doing and followed our friends’ advice.
Individual bushes and thickets of blooming mountain laurel flourished all along the circular path. They overwhelmed other, more subtle wildflowers that I almost missed.
This area of the park had burned several years ago. Many of the old-growth trees were gone, replaced by patches of spindly saplings. The trail ran through them, creating a fairy-like world. Colorful fungus grew out of tree stumps, and fallen timber left lying right where they landed.
Lush Christmas ferns carpeted the forest floor. The fragrant pink and white blossoms of the mountain laurel painted a lovely contrast to the emerald of the tree canopy above and the sea of ferns below.
We noticed no bees or butterflies, however. I later learned that this variety of rhododendron is toxic to both pollinators and humans. Look, but don’t touch.
A chorus of warblers, vireos, and other woodland birds serenaded us on our enchanting stroll. We were clearly in a national park, but it felt like paradise. Our spontaneity had certainly paid off.
I realize not everyone has a national park to hurry off to in less than an hour. But you likely have a special place that you have meant to visit, someplace you haven’t been since a child.
So, pack up the kids, the snacks, drinks, and don’t forget the hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and your camera. You just might find paradise, too.
I had spent half a day in Shenandoah National Park photographing the fall foliage, which was rapidly fading and falling. As I neared my exit of the Skyline Drive to return home, I came upon this stunning scene. The afternoon sun enhanced the already beautiful coloration of this field of hickory tree saplings.
The previous day I had met with my orthopedic surgeon seven weeks after my knee replacement surgery. His last comment to me succinctly and professionally summed up his analysis of my progress. “I’ll see you next September,” he said with a broad grin.
I had driven myself the 35 miles south to the doctor’s appointment. Previously, my lovely wife had served as my chauffeur.
I still had a few physical therapy sessions to complete, and the doctor wanted me to return to the gym for some specialized exercises to strengthen my legs. Other than that, I had no restrictions, and I intended to make the most of it.
After an hour session with the physical therapists the next day, I decided to head to Shenandoah National Park. I had seen some beautiful photos of gorgeous fall foliage in the park, and I wanted to experience it myself.
Such an excursion would get me out and about so I could shoot some photographs of my own. My limited mobility had kept me close to home. On this beautiful, bright day, I felt free.
So after lunch, I headed to the park. My initial intentions were to do double-duty. A friend had a short film previewing in Charlottesville not far from the national park’s southern boundary. I figured I could do the Skyline Drive, take a few photos, and make the mid-afternoon screening.
I drove half an hour to the park entrance, where I joined a long line of vehicles. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to enjoy this gorgeous day.
At one of my stops at an overlook on the famous scenic Skyline Drive, reality hit. Altogether, the physical therapy, the driving, the numerous frequent stops had taken their toll. I was exhausted.
I altered my plans. I wouldn’t make it to Charlottesville. In fact, driving to the park’s southern entrance was also out.
I continued driving, stopping, and photographing the incredible scenery. The old, folded mountains, dotted with nature’s emerging color-scape, and the clarity of the day had emotionally thrilled me despite my tiredness.
At one turnout, I found complete contentment despite my fatigue. I had observed several monarch butterflies floating on the day’s easy breeze. They looked for any sign of sweet nourishment on their long journey south. A lone monarch flitted around in front of me until it rested on a single fading flower.
The view across the storied Shenandoah Valley was pristine. The atmosphere was so clear that I could easily see from my spot on the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Allegheny Mountains 40 miles to the west. Their summit ridge separates Virginia from West Virginia.
In between lay the iconic valley itself. I spotted Mole Hill, a local landmark. Mole Hill is a long-extinct volcanic dome now capped with a deciduous forest that still showed mostly hunter green.
Earth toned farm fields fanned out from Mole Hill. The afternoon sun highlighted bright white houses and bank barns of Old Order Mennonite farms. From so far away, they appeared as miniatures. With that satisfying scene etched in my mind, it was time to head home.
By realistically reevaluating my situation, I was able to take my time, expend my energy to the max, and enjoy the colorful landscapes. I had passed my first test of independence.
Of course, I exacted a price for exercising my freedom. Fatigue and the day’s pleasantries helped me sleep well that night.
Not long after we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than two years ago, I sought a nature spot. I wanted a place where I could practice my photography, quietly watch birds, or simply do some walking.
I had many such places within an hour of our home in Holmes County, Ohio. They all had their unique features that attracted many folks in addition to fulfilling my photography, birding, and hiking desires. I had hoped to find one location close to our Virginia home that met those needs, too.
I have plenty of choices when it comes to getting out into nature for walks, birding, and photography in the Shenandoah Valley. I hit the trifecta if I can incorporate all three into one trip.
When you have a national park within the boundaries of your county, the answer seems obvious. It’s a 40 minutes drive to the park’s closest entrance. Shenandoah National Park was formed out of parts of eight Virginia counties, Rockingham among them.
The park offers a host of options for visitors, though I have only been able to thoroughly explore a few so far. Big Meadows is one of those, and to date, it has been my go-to spot.
Big Meadows is a wide-open space on the summit of Skyline Drive at mile-marker 51. Its simplistic name perfectly describes its main feature. The place is a big meadow.
What’s it doing there, and why? With the park’s dense forests, fast-running streams that often lead to crashing waterfalls, Big Meadows is an anomaly to the park. No one seems to know how or why Big Meadows was formed. It’s certainly a fish out of water given the diverse geology, geography, and biology in Shenandoah National Park.
Big Meadows is and always has been lush with wildflowers, grasses, and low shrubs. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans camped in Big Meadows. Evidence shows they used controlled burns to flush out the abundant wildlife of the area. The park service still uses controlled burns to keep Big Meadows Big Meadows.
The area is more than a big meadow, however. The Byrd Visitors Center offers an informative display on the formation of the park, along with a gift store, and restrooms. A way station for hikers, an amphitheater, a lodge, restaurant, campgrounds, picnic areas, and multiple hiking trails can all be reached from Big Meadows.
A few photos from my most recent visit to Big Meadows.Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
A Painted Lady near the Big Meadows parking lot.
The big picture of Big Meadows.
Silver Spotted Skipper.
Browsing near Big Meadows.
Of course, the Appalachian Trial runs on the west slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the edge of Big Meadows. Waterfalls are not far away along with some incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley.
On a hot summer’s day, Big Meadows is a pleasant escape from the valley’s heat and humidity. The temperature on the mountain can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler.
Even for those who aren’t able to hike very far, Big Meadows offers a lot. Visitors can sit in their cars while butterflies flit from one group of flowers to another. I’ve even seen dark-eyed juncos pecking for food around the Byrd Visitors Center in the summer.
The winter weather gets so wicked, however, that I tend to only visit spring, summer, and fall. Besides, the park often closes the Skyline Drive in the winter anyhow.
Everyone needs a place to get away, a place to relax, to take a load off, retreat from the hectic, pounding pace that we’ve come to know in the early 21st century. Big Meadows is such a place for me. Where is yours?