Wild Ideas: The park’s shut, but nature is still open

My brother Dana, who lives in Alaska, usually comes to visit for a week once a year in the spring or fall. With both of us being big nature fans, we try to take advantage of the great natural resource that is literally out my backdoor, Shenandoah National Park, during his visit. However, this year his visit coincided with the start of the government shutdown and we had to look for other opportunities to enjoy nature.

This massive orange mushroom (tentatively identified as a sulphur shelf mushroom, Laetiporus sulphureus or chicken of the woods) was growing out of a tree near the park’s visitor center. It’s still in the early bloom stage, when it is most tender and tasty, although only experts should risk eating any wild mushroom, since some are poisonous. Photos by Pam Owen.
This massive orange mushroom (tentatively identified as a sulphur shelf mushroom, Laetiporus sulphureus or chicken of the woods) was growing out of a tree near the park’s visitor center. It’s still in the early bloom stage, when it is most tender and tasty, although only experts should risk eating any wild mushroom, since some are poisonous. Photos by Pam Owen.

Invariably, for whatever reason, few interesting local activities coincide with Dana’s annual visit. This year, however, the Autumn Conservation Festival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal was planned for that time. I had a VIP pass for the event and was really looking forward to showing my brother the facility as well as hearing SCBI scientists talk about current conservation research there. We also planned, as usual, to hike in Shenandoah, and maybe even go down to Rockfish Gap to try to catch some of the annual fall hawk migration.

Instead, the government shutdown meant the festival was cancelled and the park closed. Very disappointed, we looked around other ways to enjoy nature nearby. We took a nice walk along the Rappahannock River at a friend’s place near Flint Hill. It was during the recent heat wave, and I wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to start early in the morning, so we didn’t figure we’d see much wildlife, but we did spot a few birds, including three wild turkeys.

Later in the week we made an impromptu decision to find another place to hike. It was still hot and dry, so somewhere near water sounded good. I had visited Raymond R. “Andy” Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park, near Bentonville, in 2000, just after it opened. I had just taken a quick drive through it and hadn’t gone back since but had wanted to, so we headed there.

The main attraction of this 1,600-acre park is its 5.2 miles of shoreline along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. As the park’s web page describes, it also offers a large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access and a car-top boat launch, 10 riverfront tent campsites, a campground with water and electric sites, cabins and a group campground. What we found most interesting were the more than 24 miles of trails along the river and up the ridges.

After paying the $3 parking fee for the car, we went to the small visitor’s center, which had information about the park along with stuffed specimens of native animals and a gift shop. We asked the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation employee staffing the center to suggest a relatively short hike that would take us to the river but also offer a view from one of the park’s ridges. She helped us put together segments of two trails that would total a bit more than two miles.

The writer’s brother, Dana Owen, looks across the Shenandoah River to Massanutten Mountain during a hike last week in Raymond R. “Andy” Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park, near Bentonville.
The writer’s brother, Dana Owen, looks across the Shenandoah River to Massanutten Mountain during a hike last week in Raymond R. “Andy” Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park, near Bentonville.

Leaving the visitor’s center, we walked down through the remains of a hemlock forest that had, like most such stands of native hemlock, suffered from woolly adelgid infestation. While beautiful, it would have been more so before the bug had infested it and when it wasn’t so dry. At the bottom, we joined a trail along the river that wound through a forest of paw-paw, sycamore and other water-loving deciduous trees.

The trail paralleled a sough for a while. With the recent drop in rainfall, the water was clear but didn’t appear to be moving. Only the occasional fish breached its still surface to catch insects above it.

Further down the trail we found a short cut-over to the river, emerging at a bend that offered a beautiful view of the river and, on the other side, trees and meadows, with Massanutten Mountain rising up behind them. Through the clear, shallow water, we could see the diagonal striations of rock that made up the river bed.

After taking in the view, we got back onto the main trail, eventually coming to a small water-treatment plant that served the park. Just past the plant, we left that trail, passing through a campground. We picked up the ridge trail again on the other side and climbed the 200 feet or so to the crest, where a platform offered a spectacular view of the river and Massanutten Mountain to the west, and Shenandoah National Park to the east. The river rolled lazily below us, with two people fishing in it to the south. From the outlook, it was a short jaunt back to the visitor’s center.

One the way back home, going through the gateway communities on both sides of Thornton Gap, we wondered how the shutdown was affecting them during this peak tourism season. While we both lamented once again not being able to hike in the cooler heights of the national park, where it’s easier to find solitude in nature, we enjoyed what the state park had to offer. Chief among these was the chance to commune with another natural treasure — the Shenandoah River, the Daughter of the Stars.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 278 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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