I had no choice but to move my windshield wiper selector switch to rampage level. The rain was coming down in king-sized sheets and as much as I hate the crazed swish of wiper blades moving at top speed, I was driving on unfamiliar back roads and needed all the help I could get. I was going camping and as my phone pinged with increasingly dramatic weather alerts, I cursed, felt the whisper of anxiety catch in my chest and started laughing. It was going to rain for as long as it was going to rain and no amount of angsty nail-biting was going to change that.
I felt my shoulders loosen on the drive down. When I got out of the car at the tiny house I’d rented for the weekend, I tilted my head back, looked up at the trees and exhaled, long and slow.
“It’s worth it,” I said when I voluntarily heaved myself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday. I’d spent a week deliberating, talking myself in and out of hiking Old Rag and then, finally, in a fit of decisiveness, I stopped making excuses and decided to just fucking do it.
Old Rag is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia. It’s 9ish miles, depending on how you hike it, there’s a 1.5 mile rock scramble I’d been repeatedly warned about and it’s listed as hard or very strenuous, depending on your reference. I was, to be completely honest, a little afraid of Old Rag. The National Park Service says it’s the most dangerous hike in Shenandoah National Park and that was enough to give me pause, enough for me to question whether hiking it by myself was the right choice.
I spent the last four minutes of the Shamrock Half Marathon telling myself not to cry. I’d done the math. I knew I’d made it, knew I was about to set a new personal record and so, when we turned right at the Atlantic Ocean, hit the boardwalk and pushed toward the finish line, my chest tightened, my eyes watered and I felt a lot of things.
The last trail I hiked in 2018 was also the first trail I hiked in 2019, the South River Falls Trail at Shenandoah National Park.
I went the first time with this bitch a day before the government shutdown. It was her very first visit to the park, despite being born and raised in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It wasn’t the trail I planned to take her on, but a winter storm closed the southern part of the park and I couldn’t get her out to this waterfall-filled trail, so I improvised, opting for the southern-most trail with a waterfall that I could still get us to.
My boss asked, “Do you want to go Bedford for D-Day on Wednesday?”
In mostly one breath I said, “Yes, yes, of course I want to go to Bedford because the Booker T. Washington National Monument is there, or at least near to there and if I go down earlier on Tuesday and use it as a travel day then maybe I can swing by and spend a few hours there, so, yes, I’ll go.”
It was a lot of words all at once and I went full nerd about the chance to visit the site, one of the last national parks in Virginia I haven’t visited. It’s three hours away so popping down for a day didn’t seem like a great use of my time when I have a job that sends me all over the state and I knew if I waited it out, sooner or later, I’d get myself down there.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 in southwest Virginia, a little southeast of Roanoke, on a plantation owned by James Burroughs. When he was nine, in 1865, Booker and his family gained their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to Washington, a stranger, presumably an U.S. Army officer, came to the plantation, made a speech, read the Emancipation Proclamation and told the slaves gathered there that they were free. Washington said his mother, Jane, leaned down and kissed her children as tears of joy ran down her face.
Now free, Washington and his family went to West Virginia where he started school. He continued his education and eventually made his way to the Hampton Institute, and, in 1881, the president of that institution recommended that Washington head the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, which later became the Tuskegee Institute and is today Tuskegee University. He led the school for the rest of his life, adding to the curriculum and the campus and, along the way, becoming a national leader.
Today, the Booker T. Washington National Monument preserves the birthplace and boyhood home of Booker T. Washington, while also serving as a place to reflect upon and learn about this part of our collective American history.
I started my visit in the visitor center, like I usually do. I wandered through the displays, talked briefly with the volunteer manning the front desk – himself a graduate of Tuskegee – and set out down the hill on the Plantation Trail, a quarter-mile loop that goes past the garden, a few reconstructed 19th century farm buildings, the footprint of some of the original buildings and a farm area.
I visited a reconstructed tobacco barn, walked a little of the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Heritage Trail and then headed toward the farm area of the park, just in time to be let inside the turkey pen where I met Turkules (sounds like Hercules) and Xena.
Turkules is a very proud turkey and he had a lot of things to say to me about being a turkey and about how beautiful his feathers looked. It was all very impressive and he’s definitely a ham. Apparently, this is a show he puts on whenever there are guests around.
There are ducks too, some fat sheep, a few pigs and some very sweet horses. As with other national parks that include a farm, attempts have been made to include the same breeds that would have been on the farm when Washington lived there.
I walked back up the hill after visiting all the animals and taking one last look at the park’s buildings. I talked to the ranger and volunteer in the visitor center for a while, like I always do when there’s time and things are busy. I tried to think of good questions, but we talked mostly about the other parks we’d visited, about the different sorts of people who come through the park, about how beautiful New Mexico and Arizona are and I left smiling, like I usually do, thankful to have visited another important part of American history and to have spent time in the company of a few fellow park nerds.
Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company. – Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington National Monument is in southwest Virginia, near Roanoke, and admission to the park is free. The park is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The park is also sometimes closed due to inclement weather and visitors can call 540-721-2094 to make sure the park is open and for more information.
Knowing mostly nothing about this park, I turned to googled, asked a few pointed questions and set out early one Saturday in April. I stopped at the visitor center, got a stamp in my passport, asked the volunteer staff and rangers on duty for some hiking advice and then set out, opting to combine a few trails to get in some decent mileage and see a good chunk of the park.
I headed up the scenic drive to the parking lot at the Turkey Run Education Center, parked, wandered around a little bit to get my bearings, and headed out on the Black Top Road.
There are few things that feel as good as setting out on a new adventure in a new national park. It doesn’t matter where I am, whether it’s a battlefield in North Carolina, the Grand Canyon in Arizona or a little park on the outskirts of northern Virginia; the excitement still feels pretty much the same.
I followed the Black Top Road to the High Meadow Trail (left turn, orange blaze), scampered my way across the Taylor Farm Road and a small, trailside cemetery before crossing the Scenic Drive and finally hitting the South Valley Trail (white blaze), which follows the South Fork Quantico Creek.
About half of this 7-mile hike follows the creek. I didn’t see a ton of other hikers, which is always my favorite, and I found myself slipping into deep thoughts about being a lady in the woods alone, about the strength that comes from that, the peace and the power.
But then, I felt like someone was watching me. It was a spooky sort of feeling, of course.
I ran into a few of these creepers on the trail. They were always a little ways away and they were not very pleased with my descent into their neighborhood, but they were pretty entertaining. One hid behind a tree as I walked by and then suddenly stuck her head around the tree to get a better look at me, just as all her friends were scampering away in fright. She stared me down pretty seriously, but she didn’t leave. I like to think we’re friends now.
After following the South Valley Trail for approximately three miles, weaving over and under the scenic drive and past a few smalls waterfalls, I hit the Turkey Run Ridge Trail (blue blaze) and followed it for just under a mile and a half until I made it back up to the Turkey Run Education Center.
Leaving the park, I promised myself I’d come back. There’s still 30 more miles of trails for me to explore.
HISTORY OF THE PRINCE WILLIAM FOREST PARK
Prince William Forest Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as the Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area. The CCC played a part in the founding of a lot of America’s state and national parks and, in the most basic of terms, it was a federal work relief program included in President Theodore Roosevelt’s relief efforts in the midst of the Great Depression.
More than 2,000 CCC enrollees worked to create the Chopawamsic RDA, which aimed to provide a place for low-income, inner-city kids and their families to experience the outdoors. Camps housing up to 200 people were built by the CCC and inner-city kids were welcomed to the camps for the first time during the summer of 1936. The camps were segregated by sex and race – black and white, male and female – but more than 2,000 kids spent two to three weeks at Chopawamsic that first summer experiencing nature.
The history of the park of course reaches back before 1936 and the work done by the CCC. American Indians inhabited the area, Civil War troops tramped their way through the same streams I crossed and there are still remnants of the farms that date back to the early 1900s. During WWII, the camp even served as a top secret training facility where spies learned how to handle explosives and gather intelligence.
Prince William Forest Park is open sunrise to sunset year-round. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March – October and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. November – February. Admission to the park is $10 per vehicle and is valid for seven days from the date of purchase. Annual passes to the park are available for $30 and an America the Beautiful pass can also be purchased for $80 at the park and allows free entry into thousands of federal recreation areas, including all 417 of america’s national parks.
Shenandoah is, in a way, my home park. I was born in the mountains that it protects and I grew up driving up and down the Skyline Drive, but I think I took it for granted and, as a kid, I was restricted to whatever the adults wanted to do, which mostly wasn’t hiking. Plus, I’m a very different sort of explorer than I was growing up, and so, I’ve promised myself I’ll be better about visiting Shenandoah this year, that I’ll hike more and explore and just do more.
When I first planned this adventure, way back in February, my aim was to see waterfalls. After some brief internet investigating, I decided to follow the advice of Hiking Upward and hike a 6.6 mile loop that started from the Brown’s Gap parking area and included part of the Appalachian Trail, the Jones Run Trail and the Doyles River Trail, which is also listed here as the Browns Gap Hike.
the APPALACHIAN TRAIL
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile public footpath that follows the Appalachian Mountains from Maine all the way to Georgia. Finished in 1937, it was built by private citizens and today is managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a bunch of state agencies and thousands of volunteers. It’s a National Scenic Trail and, along it’s many miles, it winds through a total of nine states.
More than 500 miles of the A.T. goes through Virginia, including 104 miles that cuts through Shenandoah National Park. Secretly, I want to hike all of those miles, but on this particular adventure, I settled for starting my hike with 1.4 miles of the A.T, which I picked up on the other side of the Skyline Drive from the parking lot at Brown’s Gap.
The A.T. is white-blazed and easy to follow and I spent the mile and a half of my hike along the A.T. thinking that yes, this whole hiking thing is a thing I want to do more of and maybe I might even be convinced to carry a bunch of shit on my back across many, many miles just for the chance to go further and deeper into the wild.
the JONES RUN TRAIL
From the A.T., I turned left to head downhill on the blue-blazed Jones Run Trail and, after following Jones Run for a while, I hit the first set of falls after 1.6 miles, followed by the main falls in another tenth of a mile.
I can’t explain the magic of waterfalls. There’s a draw there, obviously, or people wouldn’t trek miles and miles just to catch a glimpse of one.
After the waterfalls, I followed the trail for just over half a mile as it ran alongside and then crossed Jones Run. Shortly after the crossing, I turned left and headed up-hill and away from Jones Run onto blue-blazed Doyles River Trail.
the DOYLES RIVER TRAIL
The park is only about an hour and half west of Richmond and the drive there was foggy, but easy. I filled it with my favorite songs and an occasional podcast. I was excited, vibrating with that familiar National Park-related joy I’ve come to know so well.
When I got there, before 10 a.m., access to the Skyline Drive was blocked. I needed the Skyline Drive. There’s no way to drive into the park without driving on the Skyline Drive, which runs through Shenandoah, climbing some of the park’s highest peaks and rolling alongside the Appalachian Trail, a 2,181 mile trail that runs from Maine all the way to Georgia.
Confused, I parked and pulled out my phone. I checked Facebook, Twitter. And there it was. All of Skyline Drive was closed due to snow and ice.
It was nearing 50° F at the park entrance but on top of Virginia’s mountains, which peak at about 4,000 feet above sea level, it was still cold as fuck and well below freezing.
LESSON #1: CHECK FOR PARK CLOSURES BEFORE VISITING THE PARK.
I really did know better. I should have checked. I should have made sure it was all ok, but on such a lovely late winter day, the thought of a park closure didn’t even occur to me.
I decided to wait, to see what happened. I needed to charge my phone anyway, I’d brought a book and I figured I could give it an hour and see if anything changed before heading home.
But an hour went by and the park was still closed. The number of cars waiting in the parking lot outside the park had nearly tripled when a woman came up and asked if I could pull forward a little bit so she and her friend could park their truck behind me.
“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”
Except that I’d sat there for an hour with my engine off, my lights on and my electronics charging and so when I tried to start my car it did not start because I had, in that hour, almost completely drained my battery.
LESSON #2: ACTUALLY TURN THE CAR OFF, DUMMY.
I got out of the car, walked to the truck behind me, smiled.
“It won’t start,” I said.
“Do you think you need a jump?”
“I hope so,” I said. “Also, thank you and I’m sorry.”
They maneuvered their truck around, gave me a jump and I pointed my car back toward Richmond, grumpy and sad. The drive home was significantly less gleeful and I spent it debating my options.
There’s always Richmond, I said to myself. You love Richmond.
LESSON #3: YOU CAN ADVENTURE LOCALLY.
I decided to head downtown, to wander along the Pipeline Walkway and take in some street art along the way. Street art in Richmond is a whole thing and Richmond is the only American city with Class IV rapids that run through the city limits. The Pipeline overlooks a Class III section of the rapids and allows for an up close and personal view of the James River.
By the end of my Richmond explorations, I was less cranky. It was a beautiful and warm February day, so I went home, grabbed a beer and the book I’d read while draining my car battery outside the entrance to Shenandoah, and sat on my back deck, soaking in the sun.
That was my one chance to visit a national park in February and it was foiled. I was bummed, for sure, but it was a good reminder that I live in a place I love and that there’s still so much of this city I have yet to explore and experience.
A few weeks ago I tried again with Shenandoah. I wrote it in my planner again and kept my fingers crossed real, real tight. The Friday before I planned to head out there I checked Twitter and, sure enough, snow and ice shuttered the Skyline Drive yet again. The good news is that I learned that from the comfort of my living room and not after driving across the state.
LESSON #4: THERE’S ALWAYS NEXT MONTH. OR THE MONTH AFTER THAT.
Wolf Trap, as it’s full name suggests, is a venue for the performing arts. It’s an outdoor venue, with its main season running April – October, and it hosts a variety of performers, from musicians to dancers, symphonies to comedians. Wolf Trap’s main stage, the Filene Center, is an amphitheater, with room for 3,800 in-house, including 88 pit seats, plus additional space on the lawn. In total, the Filene Center can accommodate 7,000.
A few times a year, during Wolf Trap’s off-season, the park offers guided tours of the Filene Center. Along the way, you get a glimpse into the dressing rooms and the musician’s lounge, the backstage area and finally, the curtain comes up and you get to stand on a stage that’s hosted performers including Ringo Starr, Ke$ha, Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, Billy Idol and a whole host of Grammy-award-winning performers.
WOLF TRAP’S HISTORY
In 1930, a woman named Catherine Filene Shouse, of the same Filene family who founded Filene’s Basement, started buying up land in an attempt to create for herself a refuge from Washington, D.C. She first purchased 53 acres at $100 an acre and by 1956, she’d acquired 168 acres. She used the property as a working farm where she bred horses and dogs, raised crops and other critters.
Years later, as Northern Virginia grew, development started to make her farm less of a refuge. Mrs. Shouse wanted to preserve her land, to turn it into a cultural landmark. She wanted something uniquely American, but also to create something new.
Mrs. Shouse first approached the National Symphony Orchestra to see if they might be interested in developing her land as a venue. They passed, so she went to the National Park Service, straight to the Secretary of the Interior, and in 1966, she donated 100 acres of her land to the federal government.
Wolf Trap was, essentially, an experiment by the National Park Service. They figured if the whole National Park for the Performing Arts thing worked, they’d build more. But that idea never materialized, despite the success of Wolf Trap over the past 50 years.
At the same time the park was created, a nonprofit, the Wolf Trap Foundation, was founded to assist in running the park. Together, the park and the foundation make Wolf Trap work, with federal dollars paying for grounds maintenance and park staff, and foundation money and support managing the performances.
A few years later, in 1971, the Filene Center hosted it’s inaugural performance, featuring Van Cliburn, Julius Rudel with the New York City Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the United States Marine Band and the Madison Madrigal Singers.
Then, on April 4, 1982, the Filene Center burned to the ground. It happened in the middle of the night, was likely started by an overheated piece of equipment, and wind gusts helped fuel the fire. Nearby residents reported that dinner plate-sized pieces of ash floated down into their backyards.
After the fire, millions of dollars came in from more than 16,000 donors from 47 states and five foreign countries, and included support from President Ronald Reagan and former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Despite the fire, the Wolf Trap Foundation said the season would go on, and it did, in a big-ass tent in a nearby meadow, called the Meadow Center.
The new Filene Center opened in 1984 and Mrs. Shouse herself was in attendance to witness the dedication of the new building.
Our tour lasted about an hour and a half and started at the Stage Door, where staff are responsible for getting an autograph from each and every performer who passes by. We learned about the history of the park, about Mrs. Shouse and the first and second Filene Centers. We explored a dressing room, complete with a private outdoor area, and the musician’s lounge, then headed backstage to learn about how the venue works. We learned about the fly system, about the way different parts of the stage are used and moved to accommodate different types of performances, then the park ranger raised the curtain and we headed out onto the stage.
From the stage, the seats feel impossibly close and the view is great. The Filene Center is beautiful, built from Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is open every day from 7 a.m. to dusk, except on New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition to the venues, the park includes several walking trails. For a schedule of upcoming events at Wolf Trap, visit wolftrap.org.