Virginia’s two senators have proposed that 92,562 acres in the George Washington National Forest in Augusta, Rockingham and Highland counties be designated as the Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area. We asked weather columnist Kevin Myatt, an avid hiker, to vist the area and tell us about it.
Seeing the largest bear I’ve ever encountered on a trail in 30 years of avid hiking was not nearly as nerve-wracking as negotiating the two-way but one-lane drive up Reddish Knob.
The black bear encounter was fun, not fearful, as it glanced at me twice and then lumbered off in the other direction, as bears usually do when seeing humans. The vehicles driven by other humans, however, kept coming, with barely enough room to pull over. But we were all here to enjoy stunning mountain scenery and were willing to accommodate one another’s summit ascent and descent safely.
The bear, the view from Reddish Knob earned by that white-knuckle drive, and other experiences hiking, driving and touring on two recent Saturdays all underscored the reasons there is a longstanding and ambitious effort to protect what would be one of the largest contiguous patches of mostly unspoiled wildland not only in the commonwealth of Virginia but in the Eastern U.S, hugging the border of West Virginia in parts of Highland, Augusta and Rockingham counties.
This summer, U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both D-Virginia, reintroduced the Shenandoah Mountain Act, which would establish the 92,562-acre Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area in the George Washington National Forest in western Virginia between U.S. 250 and U.S. 33 west of Staunton and Harrisonburg. The act would also expand the existing Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness Area and create three new wilderness areas — Lynn Hollow, Little River and Skidmore Fork — within the bounds of the proposed national scenic area, plus another wilderness area on Beech Lick Knob 10 miles to the north.
“The Shenandoah Mountain area is home to critical watersheds, flourishing wildlife, and some of our commonwealth’s most beautiful landscapes,” Kaine said in a statement. “Last year, I was so excited to hike Ramsey’s Draft to see the beauty of the area firsthand. Creating a national scenic area would help protect the mountain and the George Washington National Forest, spur economic growth in the [Shenandoah] Valley, and help ensure Virginians and visitors can enjoy the region for generations to come.”
The main difference in a national scenic area and a wilderness area is that motorized vehicles, bicycles and powered equipment like chainsaws and bulldozers are not allowed to be used inside wilderness areas except in extraordinary circumstances, whereas these are allowed with restrictions inside national scenic areas. No roads open to vehicular traffic would be closed if the Shenandoah Mountain Act is passed, as there are already no such roads within the proposed wilderness areas, and vehicular traffic and roads are allowed inside a national scenic area.
Hunting, regulated and in season, is allowed in both national scenic areas and wilderness areas but timber harvest is not allowed in either. No timber harvest is ongoing nor presently allowed in the management plan for the area covered in the Shenandoah Mountain Act. Wilderness and national scenic area designations would also close the area to commercial development, exploration for fossil fuels and construction of generation and transmission infrastructure even for renewable energy, particularly wind turbines.
An example of a national scenic area in Virginia is the 7,580-acre Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area in western Amherst County, established in 1994. The scenic area is named after 4,071-foot Mount Pleasant but may be best known for the open, grassy Appalachian Trail stretch on Cold/Cole Mountain (labeled each alternately by various sources) with sweeping vistas both eastward into the Piedmont and westward into the southern Shenandoah Valley. (Coincidentally, considering my recent big bear sighting in what might become the Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area, the Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area is where I almost stepped on the largest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen in August 2020.)
The Shenandoah Mountain Act probably won’t move too quickly through a gridlocked Congress, but it is already a concept that has been advocated by the Friends of Shenandoah Mountain and other organizations following collaborative meetings between a wide range of stakeholders, including timber interests, in 2010 and 2011.
With limited time windows and a drive of over two hours to the Shenandoah Mountain area, this writer sampled vigorous day hikes on the north and south edges of the proposed national scenic area, plus the drive to Reddish Knob toward the central portion of the area, to get a feel for an area I had only visited a few times previously in almost a quarter-century of Roanoke Valley residency. These visits already have me planning others there, whether or not it becomes a designated national scenic area.
Shenandoah Valley, Shenandoah Mountain
The word “Shenandoah” likely conjures genteel and bucolic images, more about the wide valley stretching either side of Interstate 81 from Lexington to Winchester than the ridge that carries the name. If mountains do come to mind, it may be more about the narrow but lengthy Blue Ridge-riding national park that bears the same name east of the valley.
As one drives west of Interstate 81 away from Staunton and Harrisonburg toward West Virginia, the scenery starts as cornfields, silos, neat farmhouses and even an occasional Mennonite buggy. But taking a drive up Briery Branch Road west of Harrisonburg toward Reddish Knob quickly reveals the rugged nature of the area around Shenandoah Mountain, a 73-mile-long ridge along and just east of the Virginia-West Virginia line.
The road rises from that Midwest-like pastoral tapestry through thick mixed hardwood and evergreen forests split by rocky streams (some barely trickling during recent drought), then steadily angles upward, the drainage valley that shelters a tumbling brook widening into a yawning canyon to the left of the road. Then comes the spiral to the top of Reddish Knob, requiring creative pull-off solutions for vehicles moving in opposite directions.
At 4,397 feet above sea level, Reddish Knob is one of just a few places in Virginia one can reach the tip-top of a 4,000-plus prominence entirely by vehicle. And while a postage stamp of paradise has been paved over for a parking lot here — prominent graffiti speaking to its high visitation — the view from this summit reveals some of Virginia’s most ruggedly mountainous landscape, with sharp forested ridges gouged by deep drainage gullies, further knobs of Shenandoah Mountain undulating north and south with many parallel Appalachian ridges east and west. Much of the view south and east of the mountain is the proposed 12,500-acre Little River Wilderness Area.
A more adventurous way to experience the climb to the Shenandoah Mountain ridge is via an 18-mile loop that starts at the Mountain House access point off U.S. 250 west of Staunton. The loop begins with the Ramsey’s Draft Trail, which crisscrosses its namesake stream (labeled a “draft,” a curious local language quirk) nine times in the wilderness area also of the same name. Passing near colorfully named Freezeland Flats and Hardscrabble Knob (also accessible by a 7-mile round trip from Camp Todd, now on my day-hiking “to-do” list), where overnight backpackers can find stunning campsites, the loop returns on the Shenandoah Mountain or Great Eastern Trail, following the lengthy Shenandoah Mountain ridge.
The Ramsey’s Draft Trail was once known for its stalwart stands of virgin Canadian hemlock, but the invasive woody adelgid has been decimating those groves over the past few decades. While the hemlocks have floundered, the Shenandoah Mountain area is considered a biodiversity hotspot by The Nature Conservancy, including many rare species of flora and fauna, such as the Cow Knob salamander found nowhere else on Earth.
There is an eastern loop of similar length that follows Bald Ridge before returning on the Ramsey’s Draft Trail. It was a part of this route, following the 2-mile Bridge Hollow Trail and part of the Bald Ridge Trail, that I turned into a 6-mile in-and-back day hike on a clear, cool early September morning.
I brought wading shoes but didn’t need them for the crossing of Ramsey’s Draft, turned into a pile of rocks by ongoing moderate to severe drought that has hampered the Shenandoah Valley and westward this summer into fall. The climb away from the creek toward Bald Ridge was determined but steady, the highway noise of U.S. 250 slowly fading behind birdsong and late-summer bug calls as green ridges lit by the morning sun poked through the heavily leafed trees. I thought about how nice this trail would look with fall colors and how much wider the views would be through leafless trees in winter.
Once on the Bald Ridge Trail, a sweeping view toward the Shenandoah Valley and other mountain ridges to the south and east opens up, a fire ring revealing its common use as a campsite. This view was worth the uphill climb and a 20-minute stop to get a snack and soak it in.
I turned around when the Bald Knob Trail started turning into a barely discernible path overrun by stinging nettles near a mountain top called simply “The Peak.” One thing about designated wilderness (this portion re-entered the existing Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness Area) is that not every trail is a wide beaten path, or even a narrow one without briars, especially in late summer. You experience nature on its terms.
High Knob Tower
Another September Saturday with cool, brilliant weather a couple of weeks later took me farther north, through Harrisonburg and westward to an overlook and trailhead on U.S. 33 just barely across the West Virginia line. From this parking area, a steep drop down some rocks starts a 3-mile in-and-back hike with a moderate climb to a historic structure with an amazing vista.
The stone masonry High Knob Tower was constructed in 1939 and 1940 as the U.S. Forest Service utilized lookout towers to spot wildfires. By the 1970s the Forest Service had moved to aerial fire spotting, and the High Knob Tower was marked for disassembly and removal. Local interest in preserving the structure — believed to be the only stone fire tower on Forest Service land east of the Mississippi — spurred an effort that got it off the federal chopping block and led to a restoration effort that concluded in 2003. (You can read more about the history of High Knob Tower at this link.)
The 360-degree view is quite stunning from the top, not only looking south and east into what would become the Skidmore Fork Wilderness Area under the Shenandoah Mountain Act, but farther east across the Shenandoah Valley toward Massanutten and the Blue Ridge, and westward toward West Virginia’s highest point, Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet.
There is an enclosed room with large windows and a surrounding wooden catwalk at the top of the tower, all accessible to hikers. The handrail did shake with me a couple of times climbing and descending the stairs to the top, so do use some caution, and please don’t add new damage or graffiti, something the Forest Service struggles to contain and repair at the tower each year.
My return from the tower proved most memorable because of the aforementioned bear, which plopped off a hillside about 100 feet ahead of me on a short section of trail that follows an old roadbed, providing an atypically wide and open view just when I needed it on a trail that is mostly narrow and forest-enclosed.
I stopped and slowly stepped back a bit, awed by this gorgeous ink-black creature but also pondering what to do in the unlikely event the bear charged me. I did not get my smartphone out in time for any great photos of what appeared to be about a 500-pound bear, seeming to fill the road as it stood sideways in my view. He pivoted his head once my way, then again, and made a decisive turn down the road, rumbling away from me onto private land just beyond where the trail veers back off the road. I walked gingerly forward, still hoping to get another glimpse of this marvelous beast without alarming it.
I was only able to photograph a fuzzy rear-end moving away, which is just about all I’ve seen of a dozen or so bears I’ve previously encountered on hiking trails. Black bears in the wild generally don’t dig being around humans.
The Shenandoah Mountain Act is about far more than protecting a playground for hikers and hunters.
“In addition to providing world class trails, the area includes headwaters for the Potomac and James Rivers and watersheds that provide municipal drinking water sources for Harrisonburg, Staunton, and communities farther downstream,” stated a press release from Kaine’s office. “Cold mountain streams in the area are also a stronghold for native brook trout. Today’s legislation would permanently protect those rivers and streams from industrial development, and also help safeguard populations of at-risk species, such as the Cow Knob and Shenandoah Mountain Salamander, that are natural to the area.”
Tourism employed more than 6,500 people and generated nearly $730 million in money spent in Augusta, Rockingham, Bath and Highland counties, plus the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro, according to Kaine’s office in the release. Researchers at James Madison University in Harrisonburg estimate that the land within the proposal already generates $13.7 million per year, even without national scenic area or wilderness designation.
“The Shenandoah Mountain area provides so much for the valley — a thriving tourism attraction, an essential source of drinking water, and a beloved locale for idyllic hiking and fishing,” Warner said in the press release. “I’m fighting to establish a Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area to protect the region for the many families, businesses, and species that rely on it.”
My visits were examples of the economic benefit to nearby communities, as they included dropping some cash with personally mandatory stops at Kline’s Dairy Bar in Harrisonburg and Wright’s Dairy-Rite in Staunton. Nothing like malted milkshakes to toast glorious days of hiking.