Finding a personal sanctuary that others can enjoy too

Finding a personal sanctuary that others can enjoy too
                        

Not long after we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than two years ago, I sought a nature spot. I wanted a place where I could practice my photography, quietly watch birds or simply do some walking.

I had many such places within an hour of our home in Holmes County. They all had their unique features that attracted many folks in addition to fulfilling my photography, birding and hiking desires. I had hoped to find one location close to our Virginia home that met those needs too.

I have plenty of choices when it comes to getting out into nature for walks, birding and photography in the Shenandoah Valley. I hit the trifecta if I can incorporate all three into one trip.

When you have a national park within the boundaries of your county, the answer seems obvious. It’s a 40-minute drive to the park’s closest entrance. Shenandoah National Park was formed out of parts of eight Virginia counties, Rockingham among them.

The park offers a host of options for visitors, though I have only been able to thoroughly explore a few so far. Big Meadows is one of those, and so far it has been my go-to spot.

Big Meadows is a wide-open space on the summit of Skyline Drive at mile marker 51. Its simplistic name perfectly describes its main feature. It’s a big meadow.

What’s it doing there and why? With the park’s dense forests and fast-running streams that often lead to crashing waterfalls, Big Meadows is an anomaly to the park. No one seems to know how or why Big Meadows was formed. It’s certainly a fish out of water given the diverse geology, geography and biology in Shenandoah National Park.

Big Meadows is and always has been lush with wildflowers, grasses and low shrubs. Archaeological research reveals Native Americans camped in Big Meadows. Evidence shows they used controlled burns to flush out the abundant wildlife of the area. The park service still uses controlled burns to keep Big Meadows Big Meadows.

The area is more than a big meadow, however. The Byrd Visitors Center offers an informative display on the formation of the park, along with a gift store and restrooms. A way station for hikers, an amphitheater, a lodge, a restaurant, campgrounds and multiple hiking trails can all be reached from Big Meadows.

Of course the Appalachian Trail runs on the west slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the edge of Big Meadows. Waterfalls are not far away, along with some incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley.

On a hot summer’s day, Big Meadows is a pleasant escape from the valley’s heat and humidity. The temperature on the mountain can be 10-15 degrees cooler.

Even for those who aren’t able to hike very far, Big Meadows offers a lot. Visitors can sit in their cars while butterflies flit from one group of flowers to another. I’ve even seen dark-eyed juncos pecking for food around the Byrd Visitors Center in the summer.

The winter weather gets so wicked, however, that I tend to only visit in spring, summer and fall. Besides, the park often closes the Skyline Drive in the winter anyhow.

Everyone needs a place to get away, a place to relax, to take a load off, retreat from the hectic, pounding pace we’ve come to know in the early 21st century. Big Meadows is such a place for me. Where is yours?


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