Shenandoah: History And Nature In Virginia’s Blue Ridge


You may know the song. What do you know of the US national park that shares its name, though?

Shenandoah National Park is in Virginia, in the northwest part of the state. While it is well loved and visited, there are surprising things about this area of natural beauty you may not know.

shenandoah plants in tree

There are riches of nature to appreciate in Shenandoah.

There are 862 species of wildflowers in the park. They bloom across different seasons, and the mountainous landscape (the park lies on the Blue Ridge Mountain side of the Shenandoah Valley) allows for terrain and micro climate suited to varied sorts of plants, and allows for good viewpoints to see them as well. Among the flowers you might spot are trillium, bluets, wild geranium, columbine, azalea, wild sunflowers, and mountain laurel.

Most of the park’s area is forested. The trees you will see most often are red oak and chestnut. You may especially notice the presence of maple and poplar and that red oak in the autumn as their leaves change colour.

Among other plants in Shenandoah are mint, blueberry , and raspberry.

This wealth of plant life, the extensive woodlands, and location along a mountain ridge, attract wild life and wild fowl, too. Turkeys, hawks, and barred owls live in Shenandoah year round, while migrating birds find Shenandoah a good stopover.

shenandoah mountain view

All these things have drawn in people, too. The landscape of the mountains has meant that no towns appeared along the ridge tops, but many have lived in the mountain across the centuries. Archaeology tells us that First Peoples came to Shenandoah on seasonal visits to hunt and harvest as long as eight to nine thousand years ago. Gradually more permanent settlement down in the Shenandoah Valley began. As European settlers and explorers arrived, some began to settle on the ridge tops as well.

By the time it was thought to establish a national park in the Shenandoah region in the 1930s, several hundred families lived in the mountain areas which state and federal agencies wanted for the proposed national park.

Ideas at that time held that national parks should have no trace of human habitation.
Some people left willingly; others were forced to seek lives elsewhere.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built roads and trails in the park as the families moved away.

For many years there was no notice of or respect given the mountain residents who gave up their homes and communities. Recent changes in ideas mean that they are now recognized both in physical notices and in stories and videos at the park’s official online presences.

The presence of the folk who lived in and visited these mountains has always been around, though.

As you may pull aside on one of the overlooks of Skyline Drive which runs through the park, and especially as you walk the mountain trails, you will find parts of an old wall, come across a one time hearth, and happen upon a stand of apple trees from what was once an orchard.

shensndoah buidling

You may also walk Lewis Mountain. In the time of segregation, this was the only part of Shenandoah National Park where people of colour could picnic or camp. There is recognition of this now in park materials, too.

Today, as you walk the trails of Shenandoah National Park, experience the forests, enjoy the visitors centers, take in the mountain vistas from Skyline Drive. have a thought for the long history of those who. for their various reasons, have lived and visited in what is now Shenandoah National Park.

People of the Virginia mountains did, and still do, tell their stories through music. You may like to read about the work of Robin and Linda Williams, who live in the Shenandoah Valley, and a project which Terri Allard, Sissy Spacek, and other professional songwriters did with the children of Albemarle County, which is just to the east of the park. It’s called I Used to Know the Names of All the Stars.

You may be surprised by some things about the song Shenandoah, too. It has its own geography and history, connected with New York State, Virginia, the Missouri River, and clipper ships. That is worth a story of its own, I think. For now, here is the late Pete Seeger singing it; he often included the song in his concerts for children and adults the world over, and had them singing along.

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