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We have a tendency to take our national parks for granted. We don't realize that they are among our country's best vacation bargains. Or that the "ooh-ah" wonder of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser, the surprise of seeing a bison block traffic, or the magic of a misty October morning in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains can make family memories as resonant as a trip to Disney World.
The concept of a national park is a uniquely American idea, introduced by the early 19th-century landscape artist George Catlin. Worried about the impact of settlement on wildlife and wilderness, Catlin proposed, "a nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty." His idea caught the imagination of a young country eager to match the cultural treasures of the Old World with its own natural wonders. And so Congress donated Yosemite Valley to California in 1864 for preservation as a state park, and in 1872 designated two million acres that straddle Wyoming and Montana as Yellowstone National Park, the first area to receive such protection.
Today, nearly 60 million visitors flock to 384 national parks every year. You won't have to wander far from home to enjoy one of these national treasures with Virginia's Shenandoah National Park nearby.
For many of the nearly 2 million annual visitors to this park, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, the highlight is the Skyline Drive. The 105-mile mountainous road stretches from the town of Front Royal all the way down to Rockfish Gap. The drive provides a panoramic view of mountains, forests, secret valleys and far-reaching vistas. Beyond the paved road, you'll find more than five hundred miles in additional hiking trails. Hop out of the car and stroll up a trail and you'll see the same landscape our ancestors first gazed upon when entering the New World.
Especially astonishing is the fact that this wilderness is barely an hour from Washington, D.C. and other major cities on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. That proximity can lead to traffic jams, especially during October when thousands of visitors come out to see the changing foliage. So try to arrive early in the day, preferably on a weekday. And be sure to stop at the visitor's center to pick up a copy of the park's newspaper, Shenandoah Overlook, for a complete schedule of ranger hikes, talks and evening programs.
Getting up early is worth it: You'll enjoy range upon range of mountains, the morning mist rising and beckoning you into their depths; trails leading through tunnels of trees past sparkling streams to hidden waterfalls; tangles of starry mountain laurel, wild azalea and rhododendron glimmering in the deep hollows; meadows spangled with wildflowers and fluttering with butterflies; and occasional apple trees reminding you that some family once farmed here and called it home.
If you'd like to recreate the life of those hardy mountain folk, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (703-242-0693) maintains the Corbin Cabin, built in 1909 of hand-hewn logs, and rents it out to non-members for between $15 and $25 per person per night. Know that it's a steep 1.5-mile trek up into the hills from the parking area at milepost 37, there's no electricity or indoor plumbing, and you have to purify your water. (Five other rustic cabins in the park's backcountry are also available for rental.)
If you'd prefer modern conveniences, other park accommodations include the Skyland Lodge and the Big Meadows Lodge. Both are located about halfway down Skyline Drive (room rates from $68; call 540-743-5108). Many motels and inns are available in towns outside the park.
The park is open year-round, but the Skyline Drive may close temporarily during the winter when roads become icy. For more information about Shenandoah National Park, contact the headquarters in Luray, Virginia, at 540-999-3500 or visit the National Park Service's Shenandoah National Park web site.