First-time visitors to Shenandoah National Park are usually somewhat prepared for its spectacular views: mountain vistas, cascading waterfalls, and endless miles of hardwood and evergreen forests. What they often don’t expect is the awe-inspiring view of the sky at night.
Located miles from big city lights and urban haze that obscure a view of the heavens, Shenandoah National Park offers an unblemished view of stars so bright and brilliantly clear it’s a bit shocking. Constellations are easily found; the moon appears somehow closer and the sharp mountain air makes you feel like you’ve stepped into another dimension.
Night sky viewing has become so popular there are now a number of astronomy events held at Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland, to enable visitors to learn about and enjoy the heavens after dark. These include: “Let’s Talk about Space,” “Night Skies,” Stargazing and Space Stories,” “Twilight Hiking,” and the “Annual Night Sky Festival.” See the full calendar here. The content of the events varies, but depending on the activity, you may hear a presentation from experts like astronaut Tom Jones and NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern, or get a chance to bring the stars up close with a telescope. These events are an ideal way to bring families together outside–your children will clamor for a turn at the telescope.
“We are thrilled to have Greg, Rich and the Shenandoah Mountain Guides return and provide these informative programs to our Shenandoah guests,” said Shenandoah/Delaware North General Manager Wayne Soard. “Beautiful views are what we are known for, whether it’s the expansive valley during the day or the star-studded universe in the evening. It is always some sort of spectacular show here at Shenandoah.”
To stay overnight in the park, three comfortable lodging options—Skyland (MP 41.7 and 42.5 on Skyline Drive), Big Meadows (MP 51) and Lewis Mountain Cabins (MP 57.5) await you. These, and all the concessions in the park, are managed by Delaware North, a hospitality management firm with operations all over the world, (Peaks of Otter among them) under authorization of the National Park Service.
A visit to Skyland, originally called Stony Man Camp, connects visitors to resort life before the area became a national park. The long and colorful story of George Pollock, who opened Skyland in the late 1800s, merges into the very establishment of Shenandoah National Park in 1935. (A formal opening ceremony led by Franklin Roosevelt was held in 1936.)
While some of its historic roots may still be seen, Skyland today is the modern traveler’s perfect blend of comfort, amenities, natural beauty and escape. Some rooms have suites and fireplaces, and recent renovations both interior and exterior have updated the lodge’s appearance. A full service restaurant (wheelchair-accessible) offers panoramic views of the Shenandoah Valley. Rent horses to explore nearby trails, hike to waterfalls or take part in a Culinary Event like a Vintner Dinner or a Wine Tasting. Or just relax in the Taproom. Cell service depends on your provider.
Big Meadows includes not only the lodge as well as rustic mountain cabins, but an amphitheater (for Park Ranger programs), camp store, Wayside and Restaurant, the Spottswood Dining Room, New Market Taproom, a Craft Shop, and the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center. The Visitor Center houses displays, photos and exhibits telling the story of the region, both before and after the establishment of the park. Directly across Skyline Drive from the Visitor Center is the “Big Meadow” for which the lodge complex is named. Once used by Native Americans for camping and hunting, the picturesque fields are often visited by whitetail deer, affording great opportunities for wildlife photography.
Both Skyland and Big Meadows host entertainment, which can include clogging, various types of live music and dancing. (See the calendar here. ) Both venues are becoming more and more popular for business meetings, wedding and receptions as well.
Down the Drive a bit are the Lewis Mountain Cabins, which provide the best opportunity to disconnect electronically. While the cabins have bathrooms, electric lighting, ceiling fans and heat, their no-frills authenticity honors the area’s Appalachian roots. Visitors should bring their own food, cooking utensils, ice and coolers, and plan to cook on the outdoor grill at each cabin.
Skyland, Big Meadows and Lewis Mountain Cabins are all in the heart of Shenandoah National Park’s most popular hiking trails and afford some of the best views along the entire 105-mile Skyline Drive.
Getting there: There are four highway entrances to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park: through Front Royal on U.S. Route 340; at Thornton Gap on U.S. Route 211; via Swift Run Gap on U.S. Route 33; and through Rockfish Gap and I-64 and U.S. Route 250 (also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.)
Banner photo courtesy NPS/Greg Redfern