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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Shenandoah National Park

To get to Shenandoah National Park, we drove east on I-70 through Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland to Virginia. The changing trees along the way were so pretty. In early October most had not yet changed, but among the hills of green were gold, orange, and red in small bunches Not shades of these colors, just the one hue of each, like a paint-by-number picture.

When we finally turned south off the major east-west interstates onto a state route in Maryland, traffic slowed to mostly stop within the first mile. As we crawled along, we passed tables of crafts and knick-knacks and junk lining both sides of the street. We were passing through on the day of the little town’s festival, and it seemed the whole tri-state came out on that beautiful early afternoon. Cafes offered outside seating, and I volunteered to get out, run ahead to a pizzeria and buy us some lunch. Mark wasn’t keen on that idea—and he had all our money.

In the second mile of our crawl, 20 or 30 minutes in, we stopped just before a kettle corn stand on Mark’s side. We agreed we needed kettle corn so I hopped out while Mark dug in his pocket for cash. At Mark’s door I grabbed the five ones he held out for me, ran across the street and up the embankment to the stand. They saw me coming, and a few steps before I got there I ordered“large!” I handed over the ones and the lady handed over the large bag of carmelly popcorn. I turned and saw that traffic had started its crawl. Down the grassy embankment, across the street, around the car and in. As slick as that, we had our snack for the rest of the trip.

A few handfuls of corn and 2 hours later, we were at the park. One north-south road 105 miles long, Skyline Drive, runs the length of Shenandoah National Park. The road runs along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and part of the Appalachian Trail runs through the park. Entrance cost $15 a car, but we showed our National Park pass, collected the park brochure and drove in.

The park has 75 pullouts for overlooks down on farms and ponds or towns and rivers to the west, and hills and trees to the east. Trees are the draw to Shenandoah, and October is the busiest time of the year. Trees in Shenandoah seemed not as pretty as those on the drive out, and its more southerly location meant that we likely visited a week or two too early for the full blown colorfest.

Lots of bicyclists pedalled up Skyline Drive that Saturday. They all seemed to be going north; maybe it was a race. One pedaller sat atop a unicycle, traveling uphill!

We stopped to hike part of the Appalachian Trail and spotted a young deer nibbling bark from a tree. Mark wanted to see a bear, and one gentleman we passed, a long-distance hiker, said they were aplenty along the trail.

That section of the Appalachian ended at Byrd Visitor Center, and across from Byrd, to the east, lay the Meadow: acres of blood red, glowing in the early afternoon light, interspersed with bits of yellow grass and several scrawny, scraggly trees. Mountains backed the scene. Looking from the Visitor Center, we wondered at the cause of the vivid color. Upon hiking into the Meadow, we saw the stalks, about 18 inches high, with leaves from bottom to top, which had changed into their striking fall colors.

The only exit from the park besides the ones at mile markers 0 and 105 is at mile marker 32, which is perfect for those entering from the north entrance midafternoon. About 15 miles west of the park is Luray, where we had reservations at Days Inn.

The southern 60 miles of the park offered nothing that the northern 30 didn’t. Shenandoah National Park is too much like Ohio to thrill us, and as cliché as this sounds, getting there was half the fun.