Karl Rand, Park Ranger, Interpretation
Shenandoah National Park
Location: Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia
National Park Number: 22nd
Park established: December 26, 1935
President in office: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Park size: 198,000 acres
Highest elevation: 4,050 feet – Hawksbill Mountain
Lowest elevation: 550 feet
Visitors: 1,449,300 in 2022
- Utilized the Civilian Conservation Corps when it was created
- 516 miles of hiking trails, 101 of those is along the Appalachian Trail
- 12+ waterfalls
- Common animals include black bear, coyote, skunk, raccoon, and foxes
- 196 species of birds
- 41 species of fish
When it was created, Shenandoah National Park was only the second National Park in the eastern part of the United States. The other was Acadia in Maine.
Correct. There was this big push starting in the early to mid 1920s to bring more big National Parks to the east. Shenandoah was kind of one of the prominent ones. Predating that in terms of big National Parks, not including battlefields, monuments, it really was just Acadia in Maine.
Why was that so important to the state of Virginia as well as to the U. S. Park Service?
When they were starting this big push, the saying was they wanted Eastern parks in Western tradition.
Back in those days, if you were going to a park, largely in the early 1900s, you were gonna be spending a lot of time and even more money heading out several weeks to the Western parks while most of the people, millions of people, were living on the Eastern seaboard.
It was important to bring that accessibility to National Parks, that big wilderness, western style landscape, to where the people were. So it was important to the nation at the time, because it was bringing the accessibility of the wilderness to the cities. Especially here in Virginia and even still to this day with Shenandoah National Park, we are an hour drive out of Washington D. C. So, we get visited by government officials fairly regularly, being so close to the White House, and being so close to headquarters for the Department of Interior.
I’ve actually heard stories, and maybe it’s folklore, that there was a time when certain senators and congressmen would come out and do hikes to have a conversation and negotiate, which I always thought was so fascinating. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that rumor.
Well, you know, this landscape was so beloved at the time that when Herbert Hoover became 31st President of the United States, he made his summer vacation home, what he called the Brown House, right here in Shenandoah.
It was a favorite stomping ground of his and we’ve regularly been visited by presidents since and other officials ever since. It is a great space.
I mentioned the Civilian Conservation Corps and how they were part of the development of the park. Can you explain a little bit about the Civilian Conservation Corps and why it was so important to the creation of the park?
We [Shenandoah National Park] started in 1935, but there had already been a lot of human activity in this area. Due to human causes, cattle grazing, timbering, copper mining, along with natural causes, such as the loss of the American chestnut tree back in the early 1900s, the landscape was drastically affected. The park that you see now, about 94% of the park is currently woodland is all forest.
But back in those days, there were big open areas of standing dead groves of trees. So when the Civilian Conservation Corps started in 1933 under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this was the very first National Park to have Civilian Conservation Corps camps. In total, we had about 10 camps.
At any given time, there were 200 young men, or CCC boys as we refer to them. And largely, what they were going to be doing was rebuilding a lot of the landscape. They were installing hiking trails, constructing buildings, putting in the infrastructure for the National Park that was just about to open a few years later, but also they were planting thousands and thousands and thousands of trees.
I get comments about how the trees don’t seem as big as they should be. Well, that’s because they’re only 70 to 80 years old. A lot of the forest that we now see is fairly new, or secondary growth from those CCC planted trees. A lot of our wilderness is thanks to the works and efforts of that CCC program.
The CCC program was created in part to help during the depression. Is that right?
The story began in 1929 when the stock market crashed, we went into the Great Depression. The next few years under President Hoover, a lot of the American public didn’t think he did quite enough to help with the depression.
So in comes FDR, he started rolling out his new deal, which was full of these big, work programs, largely to provide employment. When the CCC began, the entire intention was to have young man, physically fit, healthy family, unmarried who can go spend six to nine months out in wilderness areas of either a National Parks, National Forests or state parks. They were going to be doing hard, heavy labor, but for that effort, they were paid $30 a month. At the time was the equivalent of about $550 a month, which was not terrible, especially during the depression when people can’t keep jobs. Only five of those dollars went into their own pockets. The other $25 were mailed home to mom to help supplement the economy back where they were coming from.
In the creation, this park was not created without controversy. I appreciate how the National Park Service embraces that history. No federal dollars could be used to purchase the land.
So the Commonwealth of Virginia had to find ways to secure the money. Questionable tactics were used during that time. Like many other parks, you had strong supporters and then you have strong opponents. How did the park overcome that controversy of, in some ways, just taking people’s land from them?
So the history, and not just here at Shenandoah, but this occurred in various respects throughout all of Appalachia, the removal of people or displacement of people that lived here formerly. Prior to us becoming a National Park in the 30s, there were about 500 families of mountain community residents living on what is now Shenandoah Mountain.
During those days, we knew that a National Park was going to be built. We already had resorts, such as Skyland Resort, which still stands to this day in Shenandoah. Tourism was already in the area, but when we started looking towards this to become the National Park, you’re absolutely right.
It was the Commonwealth of Virginia that was accumulating that land in many instances. So there were about 3, 000 tracts of land that were sort of piecemealed together to make what is now Shenandoah. But during that time, the people that were living here, some were landowners that had the deed, they and the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased that land from them. Many of them were provided housing in many of the surrounding communities.
The earliest documented European American people living here was the 1740s. Unfortunately, that means a lot of people might not have officially owned the deed to their home or their land in the eyes of the state. A lot of them were largely tenant farmers. They lived up here on land that was owned by the cattle ranchers down in the valley. They were just here tending to the farms, tending to the cattle.
So when that land was purchased off or claimed by the state, those people had no other option but to move.
Moving people to make way for public land is a very controversial topic. But on top of that, and where the major part of that controversy comes from is that back in those days, leading up to us becoming a National Park, there was a private group of sociologists and a private teacher that came out under the banner of researching the people. They wanted to live amongst the mountain residents, or as they called them, the hollow folk, and they were going to live alongside, get to know them, and really let the world know what these people were like.
This was not an isolated incident. That is the story for Shenandoah, but it’s also the story all throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains and Appalachia. And a lot of what these sociologists wrote about and published later on was unfounded.
They shared stories of uncivilized people. They were impoverished. They were uneducated. They didn’t have churches, didn’t have markets, didn’t have technology. And most of that was completely unfounded and completely untrue, but it still sticks to this day. Kind of the stigma that we know as, you hear people talk about hillbillies or hollow folks. That’s where it all began and that started to turn public perception at the time against the people that lived here. I don’t want to say it made the transition easier, but it made it more accepted among the general public of what was going on for these public landscapes.
One of the elements that is in the park is Skyline Drive. It is the most visited unit in the National Park Service. People come from all over to drive Skyline Drive, particularly in the fall.
Yes. So the drive stretches 105 miles north to south, all along the length of the backbone of Shenandoah. Once it leaves the park in our south district, it turns into the Blue Ridge Highway. Skyline Drive is completely within Shenandoah. It is busy any given day of the year. But if you were to come late September – early October, that is when we are at our absolute busiest because all of the leaves are starting to change and people are coming out to the mountaintop to be in the corridors of reds, oranges and yellows experiencing all of that fall foliage.
I was recently going from south to north, and I just didn’t want to be on the highway anymore. And I thought, “Oh, I’m just going to go hop into the park.” I probably went 20 miles before the next exit. And I was like, Oh no, this is so busy. You can’t efficiently get up to the north through the park, but it is really stunning.
Well, one thing to always keep in mind is it’s going to be slower going anyways, even outside of the business, because the speed limit in the park is 35 miles per hour max due to the windiness and due to the wildlife. But even still, you wouldn’t want to drive any faster than that, even if it was allowed, because there’s so much to take in.
Another program that you all host is an artist-in-residence program. I love when art plays a role in different aspects of life. Can you tell me a little bit about the importance of art in the Shenandoah National Park?
Art has been a staple of the National Park Service since its creation, stretching back to the very first National Park, Yellowstone. The Artist-in-Residence program is vital throughout the park system, especially at Shenandoah because it is another way to tell our story.
Ever since the program began at Shenandoah, we bring in five different artists each year. They could be musicians, painters, we had a quilter, we had one last year that was into paper making. They give public programs and use their art to express the other side of Shenandoah.
These parks were made to be accessible. The art that is displayed and created here is just another way to bring that accessibility to the masses, both as they visit the park in person or visit online from home.
It’s an incredible way to share every aspect of the park, even if you’re not able to get here.
How would you tell a visitor the best way to determine where to even enter the park?
First, know where you are coming from. There are always going to be local communities and towns at each of our entrance points. Knowing what town you’re passing through is a great way to begin. We have four entrance points, but it’s 105 miles north to south. Don’t always trust a GPS just by plugging in the Visitor Center. We have a lot of roadways that show up on GPS that are not actually roads.
On our website, one of the first links on the page includes all four GPS addresses for our entrance stations. That’s what you want to plug in because that’s gonna get you to the right place.
Once you get to the park, you have very structured programs and lodging. Things you can make a reservation for – a room, horseback riding session, etc. Or you can go to exhibits or participate in ranger programs. All of those things can be found on the calendar on the website.
You also have a lot of other ways to play in the park, whether you’re into backcountry experiences, hiking, camping, canoeing, everything. I mean, skiing, isn’t there skiing somewhere in the park?
There is. Technically along skyline drive, if we close for any reason, particularly due to ice or snow, I’ve seen people cross country skiing right along skyline drive when it’s closed to traffic.
How do you suggest visitors approach planning their visit?
Another great resource is going to be the website. It’s going to have a drop-down tab for pretty much any type of recreation you’re looking for. If you want to know where to fly fish or how to get a permit.
That’s where you want to go for backcountry camping. It has a list of all of our hiking maps.
However, when you get to the park, if you have an idea of what you’d like to do, but the website wasn’t quite directing you exactly, or you get a little turned around stopping in at either one of our two visitor centers.
If you’re coming in from the north, we have our historic Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, which is just five miles into the park. If you’re coming further south in the park, the Bird Visitor Center, where I work out at Big Meadows, is almost dead center in the park, mile marker 51. So that tends to be the busier of the two.
We have 14 different trail guides for the entire length of the park showing dozens and dozens of those 516 miles of hiking trail. We can help you plan out a backcountry trip. We can help you figure out where you’re wanting to go next. Definitely get in and talk to a ranger.
There’s so much to do surrounding the park as well. We’re within a few short miles of a lot of big cities. So we do get a lot of weekend warriors, just coming out and doing a day hike or a simple backpacking trip for the weekend.
Or you get people that stay here two weeks long and they’re wanting to see and do everything.
I need to come back to the park. I never came to Shenandoah thinking about the animals. I’ve done hikes. I’ve gone for the foliage. I’ve gone for the overlooks. But I have never paid attention to the animals.
I forget exactly what our stats for mammals are. But we have countless animals, and they’re all active at different times of year. Right now, all of the babies are out. So a lot of spawns are out and active being born and in early June, the bear cubs are out and active right now.
Maybe to the chagrin of a lot of hikers, but the rattlesnakes are still in their breeding season, so a lot of snake activity out and about. I love reptiles, so I love being able to see them from a safe distance.
This is a popular park for birding. You mentioned just shy of 200 species. It’s a very, very popular place for songbirds.
When is the best time to come to the park?
Obviously fall is going to be our big, big draw for the trees. It’s an impossible question to answer because if you come here in springtime, April and May, not only are the waterfalls coming back to life, but you have the big bloom of all of our spring wildflowers.
Come in June and July, that’s when the wildlife is so active, either in their mating season or their calving season. When all the babies are active.
In August, that’s when goldenrods are in bloom. So another kind of a spring back to the wildflowers for their grand finale.
And then, you know, we never close our gates. The only reason Skyline Drive will close its doors is if there is a really severe ice or snowstorm over wintertime. But as you said, you can come here for winter activities. You can come here and hike carefully if it’s icy. It’s a completely different park in wintertime, seeing the ice growths on the trees, seeing the deer still out and active in the snow, and even the songbirds that are here in winter being active. There’s a very different solitude, fewer people, but with just the quiet on the mountain is completely astounding.
There is no bad time of year to come here.
What is your earliest park memory?
I grew up always visiting Yellowstone. It’s a very special place for me. My uncle was actually a law enforcement ranger there. And I remember going, probably my earliest visit, I was maybe five or six. We were spending Christmas there. And I remember riding in. Out at Yellowstone, to access the park’s interior in winter, you have to take either a snowmobile or a snow coach, a big bus on massive, almost like tank treads.
I rode in on a snowmobile riding behind Santa Claus himself. Oh my gosh. People won’t believe me, but it was the real Santa. I know it in my heart. And he took me down to Old Faithful, where my uncle and family lived. And my aunt made us make homemade chocolate ice cream. Being a five or six-year-old, I was ecstatic, until I found out it was just Hershey syrup dumped over churned snow. I will never trust my aunt again.
What made you love the parks?
Not the chocolate ice cream, I’ll tell you that much.
So that’s a really good question. I don’t know. I just kind of grew up with it. I always knew Uncle Les loved his career. The stories he shared were incredible. I watched my cousins grow up in and around the parks, they moved to several throughout their childhood, but I distinctly remember. I went to school for wildlife biology, zoology, and field biology were my majors.
And I went to school in Wichita, Kansas. And while I loved being down there, I love the wildlife. I worked at the zoo down there. I loved working with the animals, and teaching the public. Admittedly, I needed a little bit more topography in my life. And so when I wanted to kind of move away from the flatlands of the Midwest that I knew so well, I started thinking of Uncle Les and his park experience.
And I was like, “Why don’t I try applying?” Out of sheer luck, I did. My first job took me back to Yellowstone; the rest is history. I’ve been with the park service ever since and haven’t really looked back.
What do you like most about Shenandoah National Park?
I love wildlife because that’s my background. I get to see bears. I get to see snakes. I get to see this vibrant collection of animals. But one of the things I’ve fallen in love with the most is talking about the history of the park. That has never been in my comfort level, that has never been my background. I find it impossible to talk about the parks without talking about the people. And here at Shenandoah, there are so many aspects of our human history, dating not just to the CCC, not just to the mountain communities, but even back to the Native Americans. And there’s so much you can focus on, and being able to share those stories, it’s what I’ve fallen in love with the most.
I left to go to Alaska and then returned because I love living and working here and sharing this place with people. So probably bird watching, hiking, and spending time on the river are my three top activities.
What is your favorite thing to do at Shenandoah National Park?
Hiking. My wife and I are big, big hikers. We actually just celebrated her 30th birthday. She wanted to hike 30 miles for her 30th. So we pieced together a 30-mile day hike and went out and did it.
So definitely here in the park, there’s a lot of hiking to do and that’s where you’ll find me just about every weekend.
What park have you yet to visit but is on your bucket list and why?
Glacier National Park in northern Montana. I’m told it’s incredible. Looking at the photos that is some big, big wilderness, massive peaks, big glaciers, and a lot of grizzly bears and I’m a sucker for bears.
What are three must-haves you pack for a park visit?
Three must-haves. So I always bring extra water, depending on the hike I’m doing, whether it’s just twice the amount that I think I should need or an actual water filter to fill out of streams.
I pack a map. Usually, I’ll pick up a big fold-out topography map of the park or any of those handouts that I could get at the visitor center and I’ll know my route.
And I always leave, maybe this is a cop-out, but I always leave with a plan. What I mean by that is I let somebody else know my wife and I will usually text one of our nearby friends or co-workers or even our families back home and we’ll say expect us off the trail at this time or expect to hear back from us by this time. And if you don’t hear from me in this buffer, try reaching out, and then we might need need to get a search party. But so those are kind of my three things. I always make sure.
Oh, and if I could add on a fourth, a good appetite.
What is your favorite campfire activity?
Campfire activity. Well, speaking of good appetite, I would say, growing up, we always made, have you ever heard of a pie iron pizza?
So, a pie iron is gonna be a little cast iron, you know, rectangle on the end of these two poles, and you put sandwich bread in there, some pizza sauce. Cheese, any pizza topping you could dream of, heck, you could even use, you know, cherry pie filling if you want to make a dessert pie iron, put that over the campfire, roast it for a few minutes, it’ll come out nice and crispy brown and you have yourself a pizza sandwich.
Tent, camper, or cabin?
Tent. We are big into backpacking. We have a little two-person tent that we’ll take with us. But anytime we’re front country camping, we have a slightly larger one that we’ll be in. We love being in the tent.
Hiking with or without trekking poles?
I hike without, but I strongly encourage anybody with risky knees to take some trekking poles.
And what is your favorite trail snack?
What is the best animal sighting that you’ve had?
I would say in Shenandoah, I love seeing the bobcats. We have a lot of bobcats in the park. We describe them as ghosts of the forest because you don’t see them unless they let you.
Down in the South District, where it’s a little bit quieter, fewer people typically on average drive that part of the drive. If you’re there in the evening, you’ll have one pass in front of your car, and I love seeing them..
A fun story, maybe not fun at the time, but one of my favorite stories, going back out west was, we were hiking. This was while working at Yellowstone and we did a little bit of bushwhacking because my wife saw something shiny in the distance. She’s practically a raven, but what we found was actually interesting. It was a little cache of scientific equipment. Our fisheries team had been doing some stream sampling and left some of their equipment there for the time being.
And as we were making our way back onto the trail, we were kind of scrambling over all of these fallen logs. There had been a forest fire in years past, so a lot of fallen debris that we were climbing over. And just before we were getting back to the trail, my wife missteps off of one of those logs and twist her ankle.
She falls to the ground. She’s crying out. As I said, she was caterwauling. She doesn’t like when I tell this story. But, she’s yelling out in pain. Me and our friends, we run over. My friends are checking on her. And I see this big brown hump just about 10 feet away on the other side of the trees.
And I’m like, “okay, honey, I know you’re in pain, but there is something big just around the bend.” We all quiet down. A few moments later, the biggest bull moose I had ever seen stepped out. Turns his head towards this full Bullwinkle and, maybe 15 feet away, way too close for comfort, but he was just confused at this small creature caterwaul and on the ground.
And then he makes his way down the trail grazing as he went. And we watched him for probably half an hour. That was probably my favorite wildlife experience ever.
What is your favorite sound in the parks?
I love rushing water. We have approximately 90 different streams flowing off of the mountain. These are going to be feeding either into the Shenandoah River to the west or the James and Rappahannock to the east.
So a lot of water activity and a lot of waterfalls. It is hard to get out of earshot of rushing water. And that is where I’m at my most peaceful.