Mountain intervals

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Ace, I’m leaf-peeping along 64W, and I’m presented with a difficult choice. I can turn left, and head south along the Blue Ridge Parkway for free. So why is it that, if I turn right, I have to shell out $15 to enter the Shenandoah National Park, for basically the same scenery? What exactly am I paying for?—Bobby Frost

History, of course. As far as leaf-peeping goes, sure, taking the road less tolled might not make all that much difference. But Shenandoah National Park’s advantage over the 469-mile, five-state-spanning Blue Ridge Parkway is that it offers a richly cultural, distinctly Virginian experience.

According to nps.gov, Shenandoah National Park is “one of about 150 park service units that charge an entry fee,” roughly 80 percent of which return to the park for specific projects. Charges vary, depending on the season and your mode of transportation. Bicyclists, for example, can schlep on through for a measly $8. Additionally, annual passes are available, as well as special use permits for campers and backpackers. But no matter how you get in, or for what reason, Ace ventures to guess that some part of your contributing dollar will fund SNP’s goals in relation to the Centennial Initiative 2016, an ongoing federal park restoration program leading up to the apocalyptic return of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec creator god. Well, that or the 100-year anniversary of the National Park System. (Ace tends to get his twenty-teens crossed.)

The park’s specific objectives are a little hard to parse. Their plan overview cites general goals like “improve the condition of park assets,” including the celebrated Skyline Drive’s 75 overlook points along the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia Piedmont. More interesting are the park’s plans to launch projects that reveal the area’s “untold stories.” One such project, currently under development, will detail the contributions of the New Deal-sponsored Civilian Conservation Corps to the park’s development between 1933 and 1935. Another project will unearth an uglier legacy: that of racial segregation at the Lewis Mountain camp and picnic grounds, where accommodations for blacks and whites were not integrated until 1950.

And since we’re on the topic of untold stories, Ace ought to mention the approximately 500 households in the area whose inhabitants—individuals, families, and entire communities—were displaced, sometimes by force, to allow the construction of Skyline Drive in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Few traces of these people’s lives remain. Keep that in mind the next time you’re coasting along through the park, peeping at leaves and enjoying the scenery. If nothing else, it’ll take the venom out of that entry fee.

You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 20 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to ace@c-ville.com.