Blue Ridge beauty in the Mid-Atlantic
There are more than six million people living in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Traffic is incessant; trendy, new bars are standing room only even on weeknights—and there are trendy, new bars everywhere; politics somehow seeps into all conversation, innocuous at first but injurious to your mental health once you realize you’ve been debating fiscal policy all day. The reasons you love the city can soon become the reasons you resent the city. Escapes are essential. Nature is necessary.
Shenandoah National Park lies a mere 75 miles west of our nation’s capital, a narrow strip of undulating mountains which extends from north to south for over 100 miles. Skyline Drive runs the length of the park, bisected by the Appalachian Trail as it snakes its way back and forth over the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the fall, birch, ash, and oak trees flaunt their autumnal colors. This lasts for a few weeks, then the blacktop becomes a carpet of red, orange, and yellow leaves that flutter skyward as car wheels roll over them. It is during this ephemeral window of time—after the hills are set aglow and before leaves coat the ground—that I try to make my much-needed pilgrimage to the Blue Ridge.
At first sign that peak fall foliage season had commenced this year, I threw my backpack in the backseat, appeased my adventure-loving dog, Romulus, with a treat and assurances of a fun weekend ahead, and picked up a friend before pointing the car west. “So, where exactly are we going?” she asked. I told her I wasn’t sure. I’d been mulling over potential destinations in Shenandoah for days but had not been able to commit. And the best thing is, I didn’t have to: Shenandoah provides day-of backcountry permits to any destination within its boundaries. There’s no first come, first serve here; you just need to show up.
So we showed up, along with selfie stick-toting high school students and foreign tour groups and ubiquitous leaf peepers. On one hand, I welcomed the masses. I fully support initiatives to attract a wide array of people to our national parks. On the other hand, I wanted my peace and quiet and deafening solace. I told the backcountry ranger as much, and he pointed at the map. “Here’s where you’ll want to go. You won’t see many people here.” Our destination: Neighbor Mountain, a short and sweet, seven-mile roundtrip hike that traverses a ridge to a prominent knob (what constitutes a “mountain” in these parts) in the northern section of Shenandoah.
If you’re coming to Shenandoah to bag peaks or do something which you believe warrants the adjective “gnarly,” you’re visiting the wrong part of the country. The Blue Ridge Mountains are not grandiose, nor is this national park excessively extravagant. Beauty is understated here, and nature is non-threatening. I liken it to visiting your hometown over the holidays where you spend time with family and eat your grandmother’s cooking—everything is familiar and relatively easy and resoundingly comfortable.
And, like visiting grandma, Neighbor Mountain proved to be a salve for my soul. As with most of the Blue Ridge, following the trail—to borrow Bill Bryson’s phrase—was really just a walk in the woods, and trees obscured our view from the summit where we decided to camp for the night. But the weather was warm enough to forgo putting the rain fly on our tent, so we watched weary leaves fall to earth and picked out constellations through the thinning canopy overhead. When the sun rose the following morning, I remained ensconced in my sleeping bag with Romulus at my feet—warm, cozy, and ineffably content—watching the deep shade of blue from which the mountain range derives its name morph from midnight to cobalt to cornflower. As the ranger had promised, I found my silence and solace here.
On the hike out, my friend and I discussed the restorative power of nature. Japanese researchers recently conducted a study in which 84 subjects spent 15-minutes walking through the woods. Their findings are remarkable: A 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. We East Coasters do not need wilderness any less than our brethren out west; nature just feels a little more removed from our daily lives out here, a little more distant than it really is. The bright lights and big cities, amazing though they can be, often blind us to the beauty in our own backyards, which makes it critical that we remind ourselves to get outside and go explore. Shenandoah offers Mid-Atlantic residents an inarguable reason to do so.