Shenandoah National Park is a long, lovely stretch of land, boasting waterfalls, streams, and mountains in Virginia. It offers many vistas and trails including sections of the Appalachian and can be traversed via Skyline Drive. If you’re going to spend the night there, there are a variety of options. My favorite way to spend time in the Shenandoah National Park, if I have the time, resources, and reservations, is to carry out a three night trip my husband and I call “Camp, Cabin, Lodge.” We spend three nights in the park in decreasingly rustic accommodations, while still remaining right in the thick of the beautiful Blue Ridge. Here’s how it works:
Camp: Big Meadows Campground
Big Meadows Wayside campground is part of the larger Big Meadows recreational area, at milepost 51 on Skyline Drive, which also contains the camp store, Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, and lodge. Skyline Drive is the beautiful road that runs all through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, often right along the ridges where the drops and views are magnificent. Once you enter Skyline Drive, you arrive in a more peaceful world where mileposts determine relative locations of rocks and hikes and places to sleep and are really all you need to know. In the big, grassy big meadow of this campground, you can wander to find blueberries and blackberries, as bears are also known to do. I have not seen a bear up there but they are native to the area and campers are strongly directed to be vigilant and lock up any leftover food at night.
Big Meadows is a secluded campground that is large and beautiful with over 200 campsites. I recommend getting a “walk to” site- these are sites that, as the name suggests, you walk to from the parking lot. The description of the site will tell you how far you will be walking. These sites provide a bit more privacy and natural vibe but can still be very close (depending on your preference) to your vehicle and the campsite’s bathrooms, picnic areas, and trash stations. The quiet and the fresh night air up there is humbling. For any place in the Shenandoah where you might build a fire, check ahead of time to see if you’re allowed to bring in outside wood- it is sometimes required that you purchase it in the park. The park site currently shares this firewood rule: “[d]ue to the spread of invasive insects, only kiln dried USDA approved firewood is permitted.” There was quite a large, though controlled, human-caused forest fire in early 2016 in this park, so any of us as visitors need to be respectful stewards of the trees.
Cabin: Lewis Mountain Cabins
Night Two: just down the road at mile marker 57.5 you’ll find the popular Lewis Mountain Cabins. These historic wooden cabins have bathrooms, electricity, heat, outdoor cooking areas, and beds, so they are a big step up in luxury from camping. Laid out in the trees like an antique, rustic, Brigadoon-ish neighborhood, they are lovely and fun to live in temporarily. Head out along Skyline Drive at sunset to catch the view at the Naked Creek Overlook south of Big Meadows and then return to your cabin in the woods to cook a simple meal over the provided grill. There is a camp store where you can stock up on marshmallows, firewood, or any essentials you’ve forgotten.
Lodge: Big Meadows Lodge:
Big Meadows Lodge is, as you might guess, a rather large, beautiful wooden lodge at milepost 51. The main lodge has 25 rooms and the adjacent cabins, lodges, and suites have 72 more rooms. The main lodge is the main attraction for me, with its big back deck overlooking a gorgeous panoramic view and its large chill sitting room with rockers, free wi-fi, and over-size checker boards. The Spottswood Dining Room serves yummy fare upstairs and the New Market Taproom downstairs has a great menu as well with many adult beverages. The Taproom also has live music and if you get a room in the main lodge it’s fun to have a few drinks downstairs before just conveniently heading upstairs to your room when you get good and sleepy. If you’re heading out for a local day hike The Spottswood will even pack you a lunch to go. Nearby hikes include Lewis Mountain Falls and Dark Hollow Falls. A map of nearby hikes is available from the National Park Service here.
Big Meadows Lodge opens on May 11, 2016. You could also try out Skyland Resort at mile marker 41.7. Last year I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Apple Butter Festival at Skyland which included live music, an apple butter cauldron that was communally stirred, and great BBQ. I haven’t stayed there but can say it also offers stunning views.
At all of these locations, you can enjoy excellent star-gazing. Shenandoah National Park hosts night hikes and presentations by a NASA “Solar System Ambassador” about outer space (on my to-do list). Big Meadows is just a little over an hour from Charlottesville, VA via 29 N and 33 W and about 2.5 hours from DC via 66 W and 211 W. Some of the rocks in the Blue Ridge Mountains are over a billion years old, and Shenandoah National Park was established in 1925. It’s an ancient, historic, and vibrant place. I’m a sucker for trees (here I am on my honeymoon in the redwoods of California) so I am admittedly biased, but I definitely think a visit to Shenandoah National Park is worth the time. The National Park Service will turn 100 years old on August 25, 2016, and they are planning some great centennial events this year. Here’s a quote from John Burroughs to get you thinking about the wonders of the forest:
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”