Having driven many times over the passes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California with high points between 8,000 – 9,500 feet elevation, the Skyline Drive over the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains seems so much lower. But when we rode this narrow spine above the Shenandoah Valley below, it seemed like we were higher up than 3,500 feet. I was looking forward to this drive and exploration for several reasons – seeing the awesome views I had been hearing so much about, visiting Shenandoah National Park and finally seeing part of the Appalachian Trail. Pictured above is a map showing the length of the drive at 105 miles. Shenandoah National Park which encompasses this drive is a long and narrow park.
While staying in the Charlottesville Virginia area I waited until toward the end of our two week stay to visit Skyline Drive, hoping we would find some spring green on the trees. When we took to this road on April 26, the trees had still not leafed out. In fact, it looked like winter up there, as if spring was reluctant to come forth. I enjoyed the drive, the views and learning about this famous road, but I was also disappointed to see so many bare trees at every turn of the road and as I looked out over the viewpoints. The East Coast has had a cold winter this year which probably explains the lack of leaves. When I asked a park ranger at one of the Visitor Centers when the trees normally leafed out, he noted the timing really varied and that Spring was late this year with even no wildflowers for the upcoming wildflower festival that weekend.
Skyline Drive has 75 overlooks, more overlooks than I have ever seen in any National or State Park I have visited. It is too difficult to stop at every one on a day trip. Plus some of the overlooks have similar expansive views. There are stops on either side of the Drive, so we got to see the hills and valleys on both sides. A few stops are at trailheads or picnic areas. Besides overlooks, there are two visitor centers and several lodges with Skyland Resort one of the places we stopped. Besides rooms, it has a dining area with wonderful views and a gift shop worth checking out.
We also stopped at a large picnic area for lunch and to see the famous Appalachian Trail which follows along the crest of the Blue Ridge and passes near Skyline Drive at a number of points. We even walked a bit of the rocky trail to get a taste of it. The trail is marked on the trees with white rectangles and there are concrete posts at certain points with the Appalachian Trail symbol as pictured below.
Construction started for Skyline Drive in 1931, before Shenandoah National Park was established. It was opened in 1934 and finished in 1939. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt built most of the facilities including picnic grounds, bathrooms, overlooks, roads and walls. Between the years 1933 and 1942, more than 10,000 young men worked and lived here in camps. They were recruited from poor families and paid $30.00 per month with $25.00 sent directly to their families. They were provided with meals, uniforms and housing. The statue below symbolizes the work of the CCC.
There are many stone “guardrails” all along the road way that were built by the CCC. It is a wonder to think about all the manpower that went into creating this drive and park for others to enjoy. Below a picture of a stone guardrail at one of our overlook stops.
Shenandoah National Park was formed due to a desire for a National Park in the Eastern United States like the parks in the West. In the early 1920’s when the search was on, cars were mass produced and affordable, people had leisure time and wanted to hit the road. When the park opened in 1935 it was a huge success with more than a half million visitors the first year and the number doubling to over a million in 1937. The Visitor Center we stopped in was very informative on historical information and displays. The photograph below shows the popularity of the park with an overlook crowded with classic cars.
You can access Skyline Drive at four different entrance stations. Since it is a slow and winding route, we decided to not drive the entire way. We started close to the top at Thornton Gap Entrance after driving through the Shenandoah Valley west of the Blue Ridge. Since we stopped multiple times at overlooks, it took us the whole afternoon and was dusk when we reached the bottom entrance.
This wasn’t one of the more scenic drives I have taken, but I enjoyed seeing the Blue Ridge mountains and learning about all the history in the area. I bet the scenery would be spectacular here during fall color season. During stops I liked looking down at the green “hollows” where people live amongst the foothills of the Blue Ridge, as in the picture below.
Thanks for stopping in! In the next post we explore more of the beautiful state of Virginia.