Wild Ideas: Parks offer special programs and deals   

Some great opportunities to enjoy our state and federal parks are coming up around the summer solstice. This Saturday (June 17) is Park Neighbor Day in Shenandoah National Park, which will offer free admission and special programs. The following Saturday (June 24), many of Virginia’s state parks will also offer special programs to encourage camping as part of the Great American Campout.

View to the southeast from Mount Bleak House at Sky Meadows State Park. Photo by Pam Owen

Park Neighbor Day is an annual event in which Shenandoah honors neighbors who live in the counties and gateway communities surrounding the park. On the day, the park is waiving its entrance fee for all visitors. Byrd Visitor Center and the wayside at Big Meadows will have special activities from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information or go to their calendar page.

The Great American Campout, a national event, was created by the National Wildlife Foundation to help families learn about camping. On the day, Sky Meadows State Park, near Delaplane, is offering camping for $30 per campsite in the beautiful backyard of historic Mount Bleak House, where the view is far from bleak. The park’s special program that day features wildlife from the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, a demo by Dogs East search and rescue and a campfire sing-along. (See the sidebar at end of story for more on the campout and accommodations and programs in participating Virginia parks.)

I had planned to visit Sky Meadows park to see what was blooming in its meadows, but the press release about the campout finally got me in gear last Friday (June 9). As its name implies, much of the park is open land, which offers different species than where I on a forested mountain bordering Shenandoah.

Driving up the road to the visitor center that afternoon, I saw bluebirds exiting a series of bluebird boxes as I passed by. On a hill past the main gate was a meadow filled with common milkweed just starting to pop on the right, and a pond a bit further away on the left. As I learned from the park ranger at the visitor center, this was among the meadows the park had planted with native plants.

The 1,864-acre park has a wide variety of trails through uplands (including part of the Appalachian Trail, lowlands, riparian areas, woods and meadows. After telling the ranger my mission, she suggested a series of short, connected trails that ran mostly through low, open areas with water, the most likely place to find blooming meadow plants this early in the year.

It was a lovely afternoon, and after taking a few shots of the spectacular view from behind historic Mount Bleak House, I got my pack and my dog, Mollie, from the car and started out. I made my way to Hadow Trail, which runs through a riparian area with a big meadow on the north side of the trail and more meadow plants along the edge of the forest on other side. At that time of day (around 3 p.m.), the trail had intermittent shade, which offered welcome relief from the rising temperature.

Sky Meadows State Park slideshow — best viewed in fullscreen:

Along the trail I found lots of common milkweed, but the few blooms that were starting to open were deep in the meadow, which was densely packed with tall, diverse herbaceous plants — native and nonnative. Also in the middle of the meadow was a plant with white blossoms, which I thought might be beardtongue, considering gray beardtongue was blooming where I live and the flowers looked similar from that distance.

Not wanting to go bashing through the meadow in pursuit of photos, I contented myself with shooting some milkweed whose buds hadn’t quite opened along the trail edge, and some nonnative bull thistles that were slowly opening their buds. Whether native or nonnative, the plants — especially the few blooming ones — were attracting an assortment of insects. Among the milkweed buds, I found large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and other insects.

I had been under the weather earlier in the week, so within a mile I started to think how nice it would be to sit and take a break. We came to a bridge over the stream, where Mollie got a drink and a refreshing soak, then soon found a bench that offered a lovely view of the stream and the meadow running up to Mount Bleak House.

After that welcome break, we hit the trail again, passing through a woodland loaded with young pawpaw trees. I could hear a wood thrush singing high in the forest crown. The trail soon crossed the road from the park entrance, and at that point I knew I’d had enough for the day.

Mollie and I took a cutover to Corporal Morgan Trail, passing through another meadow, then headed for the road. In the process we bypassed Woodpecker Woods, the home of the red-headed woodpeckers the park is famous for. I had already planned to come back another day by myself to try to photograph them.

Instead, Mollie and I walked along the side of the road up to the meadow and pond I’d seen driving in. We found a nice little shady patch that offered a view of the meadow as well as a partial view of the pond, around which redwing blackbirds were calling. A few butterflies, including cabbage whites and fritillaries, were checking out the few blooms in the meadow, and tree swallows were swiftly pursuing the many insects flying above it.

Although the shade and breeze on the hill felt good, we finally headed on to the parking lot, passing a small patch of yarrow — the last wildflower species I saw blooming that day.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Upcoming nature events

Park Neighbor Day (June 17): Shenandoah waives its entrance fees to welcome its neighbors. Start at Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows, which will have special programs 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. From 11 to noon, Jeff Alt, a family hiking expert and author of “Get Your Kids Hiking,” teams up with the park’s rangers to lead kids and accompanying adults on a short hike loaded with hands-on family hiking tips and ways to explore the outdoors. At 1:30, in the center’s auditorium, experience artist in residence Kevin H. Adams’ free interactive demonstration showcasing his artwork inspired by the wonder of the national parks. The park’s official concessionaire, Delaware North, offers residents of the surrounding counties discounts (bring proof of residency) on select items in their retail stores and on food and some beverages at their restaurants. Listen to music by local artists and see exhibits by the park’s local communities and partners showcasing what they offer.

Great American Campout (June 24): Join the Great American Campout, in which 17 participating Virginia state parks are offering special programming about camping and other topics. Natural Bridge State Park, the newest Virginia state park, is holding a “Sky Party,” a program on astronomy. Accommodations include 1,800 campsites, along with yurts and cabins, with air conditioning in 300 cabins of the latter; all 800-933-7275 or visit virginiastateparks.gov to make a reservation. For more details visit the Great American Campout in our state parks at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s website.

Summer Solstice Naturalist Stroll at Leopold’s Preserve (June 21, 4-6): Join plant expert Carrie Blair on a walk highlighting the wildflowers, weeds, trees and shrubs at this 380-acre preserve in Broad Run. Butterflies should also be abundant there, along with other insects and birds. This easy stroll is free and open to the public. Wear comfortable foot wear, dress for the weather, bring drinking water, insect repellent, guide books, pen and paper, binoculars, etc. Please RSVP to canderson@whfarmfoundation.org. Go south from U.S. 55 to the preserve entrance, at 16259 Thoroughfare Rd, Broad Run. See more about the preserve on Facebook.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 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.”