Hiking with History: Shenandoah National Park

For many long-distance hikers, the value of Shenandoah National Park is usually measured in easy trail miles, beautiful views, plentiful black bears, and easily accessible waysides where they can fuel up on cheeseburgers and blackberry milkshakes. These are all great features of the park. But another characteristic, one that I believe enriches the thru-hiking experience (or any hiking experience for that matter), is the park’s interesting and many-layered history. When you are hiking through Shenandoah National Park you are in a very real sense hiking with history at your side and under your feet.

The problem when composing a post on the history of the park, however, is where to begin and what to include. Should I start with the earliest history possible and talk about an early Earth in motion, the collision of long-lost continents and the casting up of a mountain range that, according to some scientists, was once as high as the Himalayas and that now serves as the foundation for portions of the Appalachian Trail in the region? Or perhaps I should examine the volcanic origins of much of the area’s geology, or mention the continental tilt that reversed the flow of ancient rivers and gave them the energy to carve their way through the mountains, creating many of the steep passes that hikers toil up and down each year. Or maybe I should focus on the ebb and flow of glaciation that shaped the landscape of today’s Shenandoah National Park by impacting forest migration and creating new forest communities and ecosystems with each glacial advance.

Then again, perhaps my readers and fellow hikers are more interested in the human elements of the park’s history. Even here, though, the choices are nearly limitless. Should I begin with the early Native American inhabitants of the region whose origins and activities are still shrouded in some mystery? Or should I focus on a later period, perhaps when the Appalachian Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley played an important role in the westward expansion of the newly formed United States of America?

The U.S. Civil War brings a whole new dimension to the history of the region. The mountain passes took on strategic importance to the contending armies as did the Shenandoah Valley itself, the breadbasket of the Confederacy and the site of much action and troop movements during the conflict. As a thru-hiker journeys along the AT in the park, traversing ridges and summits and pausing to appreciate the many spectacular views across the valley that the route provides, it will not be hard for them to imagine long columns of troops, tiny as ants from such a distance, winding their way along the road networks of the valley, kicking up clouds of dust in their wake as they marched to battle.

Or maybe I should limit my ambitions for this post to a straightforward history of the park itself: how it was first envisioned in the 1920s to serve as an escape for the harried and overstressed denizens of nearby urban centers such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md.; or how the park’s controversial creation involved the forcible relocation of hundreds of families that called the mountains home; or how the successful establishment of the park required a remarkable degree of cooperation among a wide variety of entities to include the National Park Service, the United States Forest Service, and many local landowners and organizations.

Since many of my readers are presumably hikers, perhaps I would be better served by limiting my coverage to the unique relationship between Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian Trail itself, the spine of the park’s impressive network of hiking trails. In this case, I should probably begin with a brief history of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), a pivotal organization in this country’s hiking history that, not long after its founding in 1927, began scouting possible routes for the Appalachian Trail through the Blue Ridge Mountains. In my coverage, I should also somewhere make mention of the fact that the original route envisioned for the AT was subsequently co-opted by the planners and builders of Skyline Drive, thus necessitating the plotting of a new route for the AT through the now-established park. The actual physical construction of the trail itself would also be a story worth telling, involving as it did the work of thousands of men from the Civilian Conservation Corps and close cooperation between park authorities and the PATC.

Maybe the most important lesson to be learned from this already overly lengthy exercise in trying to decide how to approach a post about the history of Shenandoah National Park is that there is simply too much history to fit into a single post. Perhaps I’ll need to rethink my approach but, in the meantime, I hope readers find this post to be an interesting and useful introduction to  the rich and varied history of Shenandoah National Park.

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