Uncovering secret paths in a park as popular as Shenandoah requires more than the usual bit of sleuthing. But like a backcountry Bob Woodward, our intrepid reporter turned up his very own Deep Throat–the ghosts of Shenandoah past. Plumbing local biographies, landowners’ deeds, and old maps, he found trails that haven’t seen human traffic in decades.
Millions of tourists know Shenandoah not for its great hiking and abundant wildlife, but as the shady western Virginia park traversed by Skyline Drive, one of North America’s great scenic roads. But few know that the twisty two-lane parkway, which was completed in 1934, displaced a long-distance hiking path known as the Super Trail, started 6 years earlier. To make way for the road, Civilian Conservation Corps workers rerouted the trail, which switchbacked continuously across Shenandoah’s 100-mile crest. The Super Trail also got a new name: the Appalachian Trail.
When it comes to wildfire, all eyes tend to focus on the West, where recent blazes have swept through national forests and torched trophy homes. But the danger is nearly as infernal in Shenandoah. In October 2000, three wildfires consumed more than 14 percent of the park and drew more than 700 firefighters into action. What the burns left behind is a spectacle worth seeing: a forest of charred toothpicks now blanketed with carpets of turkeybeard, a rare lily with brilliant white flowers.
The crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains that forms the backbone of Shenandoah is so steep and long it acts as a natural dam, trapping cold air in the east to build powerful snow and ice storms in the winter. Twice in the past decade, more than 4 inches of sleet have fallen in one storm, says John Bernier, chief meteorologist at Channel 8 in Richmond. In summer, rapid temperature changes along the ridgeline create dense fog and sometimes violent thunderstorms. In 1995, a monsoon dumped 111/2 inches of rain on the park in 2 hours, touching off more than 100 landslides. A wall of water raged down the North Fork Moormans River, bulldozing a stream bank up to 20 feet high and exposing coarse metamorphic rock left by volcanoes 700 million years ago.
The twang of bluegrass grew up in these rogue highlands, where Scotch-Irish and African traditions blended–by way of homemade fiddles, banjos, mouth harps, and a style of singing that gives bluegrass its distinctive high, lonesome sound. But the sweetest tunes come from the rare Appalachian dulcimer, an hourglass-shaped stringed instrument that is held across the knees and played by plucking or strumming. Some of the best Virginia bluegrass bands can be heard live at The Prism Coffeehouse in Charlottesville (434-977-7476; www.theprism.org).
“You could go to Jones Mountain and get apple brandy faster than you could get a glass of water,” mountain man Bob Smith told author Tom Floyd in Lost Trails and Forgotten People. At the height of Prohibition, Shenandoah was peppered with illegal stills, thanks to moonshiners like Harvey Nichols, who lived in the Jones Mountain region for nearly 50 years. A self-educated farmer and avid hiker, he smuggled out 2-quart mason jars of rye whiskey and apple brandy, reportedly the finest in the nation at the time. For a hard-hitting taste of authentic 100-proof local moonshine, buy a pint of Virginia Lightning ($6.15) at the ABC Store in Luray (540-743-3880).