Driving out of Washington, DC turned out to take more time than anticipated, and when I finally reached the entrance gate of Shenandoah National Park at Front Royal, it was much later than I had hoped. I got several leaflets from the useful information centre, and started driving south on the Skyline Drive, the spine of the national park. It leads directly over the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains, and I soon found out that there are viewpoints at short intervals, sometimes within a few hundred metres, on both sides of the ridge. They offer views over the plains on the west and east of the mountain range, making you realize how close you are to villages and towns down there, while in the park itself, you sometimes get a feel of being far away of everything. I quickly realized that my initial plan of climbing up Old Rag Mountain was not a good idea for this time, and decided to concentrate on three other trails instead. The first one took me down to the Overall Run Falls. While I had seen quite some traffic on the Skyline Drive, I did not come across anyone on my hike through the forest that was so dense, it did not allow me any view of the surroundings. It was only when I approached the bottom of the trail, that I came across a couple, who told me they had seen a rattlesnake further down. I descended on the rocky trail, watching the right-hand side where they had told me they had seen the snake, until I almost forgot about it when I saw a few people nailed to the ground twenty metres ahead of me, behind a few fallen trees. They gestured I should stop, and I quickly understood the rattlesnake was between them and me. I could not see it, so I moved cautiously over the ground which was covered in dead leaves, wondering if there would not be other animals hidden right there.
Suddenly, there it was: a curled up rattlesnake, closer than I had thought. When I looked a little better, I could see its head raised and tongue sliding out and in its mouth like only snakes can do, and its rattle tail; it seemed on the alert with onlookers on both sides. There was a struggle inside of me: I wanted to get closer to get an even better view, while prudence told me to back off. I made sure not to make any abrupt movements, and when the other people had walked past through the woods, quietly backed off. I was a little more alert now: without the others warning me, I would not have spotted the snake until the last moment. I got close to the stream, a cascade, and reached the top of the Overall Run Falls. Walking around it, the landscape opened up, and I could look into the valley below the falls, when I reached some big boulders which offered an unobstructed view of the tallest falls of the park. I could hear the pleasant sound of water tumbling down and falling on rocks, and stayed a while to soak up the view. On my way up, I noticed the rattle snake had gone, and was accompanied mostly by the chirping of birds all around me on my way back to the parking. There were several good viewpoints on the way south, and while clouds had been moving in before, the sky was clearing now. I saw several big birds sailing through the air; the mountain range provides them with good conditions to fly. I parked at the Limberlost Trailhead next, which offered access to the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. The going was easy: the trail was leading downhill, with a small river running next to it. I stopped to refresh my face in the cold water, when I spotted a deer just behind me. It did not even seem to be scared.
I reached the Upper Whiteoak Falls, hiked down a little more, until I reached a boulder from which I could see the falls face-on. But the trail does not end here: I continued my way down on, where the trail becomes steeper, and at times, a little more slippery, too. I hiked under giant boulders, over rocky stairs, and saw all the other five falls on the way down to the Lower Whiteoak Falls. Some more impressive than others, I loved the hike: I could hear the falls before I could see them, and at most falls, I found a way to get closer for the best views. When the valley opened up, I knew I had reached the last falls, and I had a short break before hiking up again. It had been more than an hour since I had last seen someone, and it felt like I had the forest to myself. Just above the upper falls, I heard a strange scream on my right; when I looked, I saw a fairly big black shadow climb up a tree. With the camera in my hand, I got closer as quietly as possible, until I could confirm I was looking at a black bear pup with cute ears, stuck to the trunk of a tree. While trying to take pictures, my mind urged me to scan the surroundings: where there is a pup, there must be a mother, too. When I found here, my heart jumped: what would she do with me? I quickly took pictures of her, too, while examining her behaviour. She did not seem nervous, and did not come my way. Needless to say, I was very excited about this encounter, and when I continued the trail upstream, I was actively scanning the forest for more signs of wildlife. All I saw, however, was another deer, before I reached my car. Daylight was disappearing, and I headed straight to a parking a litte further north, and hiked up to the Little Stony Man. Unfortunately, by now the clouds had won the battle against the sun, and I realized that the sunset I had hoped to see, would not materialize. Still, the views over the Blue Ridge mountains with the grey clouds just overhead were more than good enough to make me sit down on a rock, and just look around. I returned down just before darkness fell, and on my way back to Washington, decided I would be back to climb Old Rag Mountain, and explore the southern part of Shenandoah.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Shenandoah National Park (U.S.A.). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Shenandoah National Park.
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