Friday, July 19, 2019

Shenandoah National Park

The very most important thing to know about Shenandoah National Park: there are black bears. Plenty of them. Just because one spends a week in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone/Grand Tetons (at different time, obviously) and sees not one bear (minus a back of a large black bear in Cades Cove and a grizzly on a ridge several thousand yards away in Yellowstone) doesn't mean that you should confidently go without bear spray for a few hours in Shenandoah because you will in fact run into a black bear. I'm speaking from experience because that exact thing happened to us. I'm shaking my own head at myself for my stupidity on this one.

Our day began bright and early because we had a LONG day ahead of us. We left our hotel in West Virginia around 9 a.m. and drove to Ocean City, Maryland by way of Shenandoah National Park. We knew ahead of time that we wanted to hike a couple of shorter trails in Shenandoah, so we were prepared for our long 16 hour day in the car. Luckily, it only wound up being about 15 hours. It was a fairly easy drive until we got into the DC area during rush hour and had to figure out tolls. Then a kid, then another, had to pee. Did you know DC gas stations don't have bathrooms open to the public?? Every restaurant (fast food wise) and store has locks on their bathroom that you need codes or a key to enter. You must be a paying customer to gain access to these. It's kind of a nightmare when your kids have to pee. That's how we ended up with okay-ish Panera bagels for dinner and a reset route to Ocean City.

But back to Shenandoah National Park. We began at the South end of the Park because that's where we were coming from. It's quite evident that most people began their drive through the Park via Skyline Drive on the North side. We had to wait until we were halfway through the Park for a visitors center. The Park has some amazing hiking trails and okay views. It's honestly not as pretty as the Smoky Mountains and doesn't come close to the views of Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. Much like Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Shenandoah is more than likely gorgeous in the fall and probably the preferred time to go. Obviously, the highlight of our time in the Park was seeing the black bear run in front of us.

The drive out of West Virginia and into Virginia was beautiful. Luckily I didn't have driving duties that day so I got to enjoy the views!

When we arrived at the southern end of the Park, to the north was Skyline Drive (through Shenandoah) and to the south was Blue Ridge Parkway. We drove part of Blue Ridge Parkway in North Caroline back in 2016. At the time, we didn't stop to get a sign picture with the kids. Nearly three years later to the day we got our sign picture. Better late than never!

I'm not really sure I got the better end of the deal by not driving. I had to play referee for the kids and navigate our way through the Park because we didn't have cell signals. You know you rely on GPS too much when it takes you a moment to figure out the Park map!

We stopped at as many lookout points as we could. Well, Hubs and I did. For most of them the minis stayed in the car.

The top picture is minutes before our bear encounter and the bottom picture is minutes after our bear encounter. I should add that the kids didn't actually see the bear but Hubs and I sure did! So, here's the story:

As we began our drive through Shenandoah earlier in the day I had asked Hubs if there were bears in Shenandoah. His reply, "I'm not sure. Not a lot if there are." So, usually we do our homework and plenty of reading about where we're going. However, since we were only driving through Shenandoah I didn't do a lot of reading. At all. As we drove towards the visitors center, we had a few hikes in mind but preferred to speak with a ranger first. This is our rule for all National Parks we visit, as Rangers are the most qualified to tell you of any dangers or closings on the trails. Plus, they're excellent at making suggestions. No one mentioned bears to us as the visitors center. I didn't even bring bear spray with us on this trip because we were simply driving through the Park with a nice hike or two along the way. These were all mistakes that could have led to a very dangerous situation. As funny as this story is, I'm not naive enough to think that this could have turned out very different for us.

Since we like to adventure quite a bit with our kids, we have spent much of the last three years teaching them trail etiquette and how to deal with wildlife. Bears and mountain lions in particular. We chose a trail close to the visitors center, but that also meant taking a lesser used path to the main trail. As we set foot on the trail, the kids went a good several feet in front of us, talking loudly and not a care in the world. Hubs and I were behind them, but not within arms reach. Not even a quarter of a mile in, I heard a twig snap off to the right of me. I looked at Hubs, Hubs looked me. We looked where the noise came from and saw bushes moving. Instinctively, I called the kids back to me and Hubs began moving in front of the them. At that moment, as the minis were turned looking at me a black bear ran right in front of Hubs, right where the kids had been. We were loud enough that it was scared and ran away from us. I calmly told them there was a bear and to start walking back to the beginning of the trail. The minis did exactly as they were told to do, as well as continue making loud noises to keep the bear away. No one panicked and everyone kept calm. I was so impressed with them and so happy we've taught them how to act in these situations. I am also so happy we can look back on this with amazement...and the insight to always carry bear spray when hiking.

My new saying is now "spend a week in the Smokies and Yellowstone and see no bear. Spend a few hours in Shenandoah and see one."

Never got to see the Falls, but apparently it's one of the best in the Park. Instead we settled for a boardwalk trail that was a small loop. Well traveled so we didn't have as many worries about bears.

Matt's imitating a bear getting the kids. Isn't he hilarious?? Major eye roll as I type that.

The northern part of Shenandoah was prettier than the south end.

Our last stop in the Park was at the bathrooms, where we saw this sign. Again, it would have been helpful to see this at the beginning of our drive!

While Shenandoah is by far not our favorite National Park, I would go back for some fantastic hiking trails (with bear spray obviously). I would have loved to do more hiking had we had more time. Several hours, numerous potty breaks, a few wrong turns, and one meltdown with the GPS after the last picture at Shenandoah was snapped, we arrived at our beach side condo in Ocean City, MD.  We were all in heaven going from mountains to oceans--everyone had their favorite things within 24 hours of each other.

With all of the National Parks and Monuments, National seashores, and conversation areas we've visited, we have our top five easily picked. What's your favorite National Park you've visited?