Not long after we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley more than two years ago, I sought a nature spot. I wanted a place where I could practice my photography, quietly watch birds, or do some walking.
I had many such places within an hour of our home in Holmes County, Ohio. They all had their unique features that attracted many folks in addition to fulfilling my photography, birding, and hiking desires. I had hoped to find one location close to our Virginia home that met those needs, too.
I have plenty of choices when it comes to getting out into nature for walks, birding, and photography in the Shenandoah Valley. I hit the trifecta if I can incorporate all three into one trip.
When you have a national park within the boundaries of your county, the answer seems obvious. It’s a 40 minutes drive to the park’s closest entrance. Parts of eight Virginia counties were used to form Shenandoah National. Rockingham Co. was one of them.
The park offers a host of options for visitors, though I have only explored a few thoroughly. Big Meadows is one of those, and so far it has been my go-to spot.
Big Meadows is a wide-open space on the summit of Skyline Drive at mile marker 51. Its simplistic name perfectly describes its main feature. It’s a big meadow.
What’s it doing there, and why? With the park’s dense forests, fast-running streams that often lead to crashing waterfalls, Big Meadows is an anomaly to the park. No one seems to know how or why Big Meadows formed. It’s certainly a fish out of water given the diverse geology, geography, and biology in Shenandoah National Park.
Big Meadows is and always has been lush with wildflowers, grasses, and low shrubs. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans camped in Big Meadows.
Evidence shows they used controlled burns to flush out the abundant wildlife of the area. The park service still uses controlled burns to keep Big Meadows Big Meadows.
The area is more than a big meadow, however. The Byrd Visitors Center offers an informative display on the formation of the park, along with a gift store, and restrooms. Big Meadows is a hub to reach a way station for hikers, an amphitheater, a lodge, restaurant, campgrounds, picnic areas, and multiple hiking trails.
Of course, the Appalachian Trial runs on the west slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the edge of Big Meadows. Waterfalls are not far away along with some incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley.
On a hot summer’s day, Big Meadows is a pleasant escape from the valley’s heat and humidity. The temperature on the mountain can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler.
Even for those who aren’t able to hike very far, Big Meadows offers a lot. Visitors can sit in their cars while butterflies flit from one group of flowers to another. I’ve even seen dark-eyed juncos pecking for food around the Byrd Visitors Center in the summer.
The winter weather gets so wicked, however, that I tend to visit in spring, summer, and fall. Besides, the park often closes the Skyline Drive in the winter anyhow.
Everyone needs a place to get away, a place to relax, to take a load off, retreat from the hectic, pounding pace that we’ve come to know in the early 21st century. Big Meadows is such a place for me. Where is yours?