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.
“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.
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
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.
Meanwhile, the pigs were putting on a show, oinking about their feelings and rolling around in the mud and living their absolute best pig lives. The horses too were having great time, doing horse things and peeking their sweet faces out of the barn to peer at park visitors while occasionally sticking their tongues out at random passerby.
Still, sheep be damned, I had a really fantastic time at the park. It’s nestled in Westmoreland County in Virginia’s Northern Neck, where Pope’s Creek meets the Potomac River.
George Washington’s great-grandfather initially settled the plantation, way back in the 17th century. On Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was born on the property between 10 and 10:30 a.m., according to the historical record. He spent the first three years of his life calling the place home, visited often on his way to adulthood and later inherited the place when his older half-brothers died without a male heir.
The original house, probably built in the early 1700s, burned on Christmas Day in 1779, and today no one knows where the original site of the house is. There’s the Memorial House, built in 1931, that shows what the house could have looked like. It was built over what was once thought to be the foundation of the original home, but, turns out, it wasn’t.
Additional searching unearthed a nearby set of ruins that were again believed to be those of the original house; however, later research suggested the structure served as slave quarters, rather than the manse of George Washington and his family. Today, this site is outlined and denoted in the park as the original site of the house, but it’s a lie.
Fingers are crossed that the original home site is found by 2032, when the park will celebrate the 300th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Even if they don’t though, the surrounding scenery and the farm that’s been established there gives visitors a solid idea of what the first president’s formative years would have looked like, although I do hope the sheep were nicer to him than they were to me.
Through a fascinating chain of custody, the property passed from Robert E. Lee to the state of Virginia in the 1850s. The state then passed it on to the federal government in the 1880s and a bunch of years later it passed to the National Park Service, in 1930, when it became the nation’s first national historic site. Two years later, in 1932, on George Washington’s 200th birthday, the park opened to the public.
In addition to the Memorial House and the barn where the meanest sheep in America hide from visitors, there’s also a kitchen house, a few hiking trails that take you along the creek and out to the Potomac, some picnic areas, an herb garden and a really lovely visitor’s center with an epic view of the creek.
VISITING GEORGE WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Virginia is chockfull of National Park units, many of them sites deeply entrenched in the history of both the state and the nation. And yet, I haven’t been to most of them. Or, if I have, it’s been most of my life since my last visit. I was seven the last time I went to Williamsburg. I grew up on the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park, but I’ve never done the park the justice it deserves.
So, having a free Sunday given that aforementioned newly single state, I scampered.
Fort Monroe is on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula, at Old Point Comfort. It was an active military post until 2011 when it was decommissioned. Less than two months later, President Obama signed a proclamation designating parts of the fort as a National Monument. As such, Fort Monroe is one of the nation’s newest National Parks.
While there were native inhabitants at Fort Monroe long before it was ever named Fort Monroe, the first Europeans arrived in 1609, and included such notables as Christopher Newport and John Smith, who you might know as the dude saved by Pocahontas. They built Fort Algernourne, for coastal defense, which was destroyed by fire in 1612.
In 1619, the first Africans arrived, on a Dutch ship named the White Lion. Their arrival marks the beginning of slavery in America, but these first Africans were probably more indentured servants than slaves.
There were a few other forts built at Old Point Comfort over time, one in 1632 and in 1728, but they didn’t survive. Hurricanes and fire kicked the ass of the earliest structures built on the point.
In 1819, President Monroe designed a network of coastal defenses that included 42 new forts, including Fort Monroe. Built from granite, Fort Monroe became the largest stone fort ever built in the United States. It’s built to hold around 400 cannons, in casemates, which are basically fortified gun positions. It’s star-shaped, with six sides and a tidal moat. When I was there, the moat was full of jellyfish. Apparently, jellyfish really like warm, shallow waters. Today, the moat averages around 4-5 feet during high tide, which means it’s basically paradise for jellyfishes.
Fast forward to 1861, when Virginia decided to join the Confederate States of America. President Lincoln reinforced Fort Monroe to try to keep it from falling into Confederate hands, which worked. It was held by Union forces throughout the Civil War.
In May of 1861, slave owners lent their slaves to the Confederate Army to help build and fortify Confederate strongholds. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was in charge of Fort Monroe at the time, having taken command just before Virginia seceded from the Union. In the early days of his command, three slaves stole a rowboat and made their way to Fort Monroe, hoping the Union forces would take them in. This was an exceptional feat for these three men. The waters are rough and challenging to navigate and yet these men, who probably didn’t know how to swim, did it in a rowboat. They were worried they would be shipped away from Virginia in support of the war effort. They had families and connections at home and they didn’t want to lose them. So they went to Fort Monroe, Virginia’s Union stronghold.
Butler met with them the morning after their arrival to hear their story. When their owner sent for his property, Butler declined. The slave owner balked, saying Butler simply must return his slaves because the Fugitive Slave Act said so. That Act, from 1850, was a compromise between free and slave states and required escaped slaves to be returned to their masters, even in free states.
Bulter wasn’t buying it though. He was basically like, fuck you, no. You don’t get to wave U.S. policy around when you have left the U.S. and besides, he reasoned, the slaves were being used as part of the war effort on the Confederate side. They are contraband of war and so no, fuckers, you can’t have them back, the end.
As word spread, more and more slaves fled to Fort Monroe and it earned the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress,” since any slave who made it there would be free. In the months and years that followed, thousands of slaves made their way to Fort Monroe. Eventually, the Army built the Great Contraband Camp in Hampton, Virginia, just outside the walls of Fort Monroe. Locals freaked out, packed their bags, burned the city to the ground and fled.
I managed to get in on a ranger-led tour at Fort Monroe and I nerded out over this story. The audacity and bravery of these men and women, the risk they took to get to Fort Monroe – it just absolutely astounds me.
TIPS FOR VISITING FORT MONROE NATIONAL MONUMENT
+ One of the best places to start at Fort Monroe is the Casemate Museum. It takes you inside the walls of the fort, into the casemates, and covers the whole history of Fort Monroe. You can visit the casemate where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, was held as a prisoner of war for two years, until 1867.