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Shenandoah (The Park, Not the River)

My ninth park was Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We went there a few weeks ago, right before school started back. This park, while small (as most of the parks on the east coast are), has the highest concentration of black bears in the country. The ranger we spoke to said that at any given time there are between 400

This park has 4 entrances. We took this on the only sunny day, when we left through the southern entrance.

and 600 bears inside the boundaries of Shenandoah. Unfortunately, we made the trek up there during a rainy weekend. Bears don’t like to get wet, so they were all under things to keep dry. My only goal on this trip was to see a bear, but that didn’t happen.

Shenandoah was one of the parks that came around in the 1930s. Much of the road that runs through it as well as the retaining walls was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which gave young men jobs during the Depression so they could help their families. All of these original walls are still there. as strong and beautiful as ever. Shenandoah is also home to Rapidan Camp, which was the presidential retreat prior to the building of Camp David in Maryland. Visitors to the park can walk through Rapidan Camp and even go in some of the buildings; others are accessible only by ranger-led tour. We didn’t visit Rapidan–it was a long walk and as I mentioned, most of the weekend was rainy.

The second most spectacular sunset I’ve seen, right behind the one in Zion.

We did hike despite the rain. I have to say that the hikes in this park were not my favorites. One of them was up a very long trail to what was supposed to be the best view in the park. It was raining the entire hike, but we were too hot in our raincoats, so we just got wet. We got to the top to see the view to find a very thick fog. I just sat down on a rock and laid my head on my knees. It was the most disappointing thing.

The second big hike we did was to a waterfall. I will never again make the mistake again of going on a trail where you hike down before you hike up. I’m pretty out-of-shape, and at one point on the way back up by heart rate was 140 beats per minute. The hike was nice and the waterfall was beautiful, but if I ever hiked it again I would need to some serious exercising beforehand. I would absolutely rather go up to a view then down to one. It was pretty steep, to the point that we would stop every 300 feet or so because we couldn’t breathe.

Shenandoah is #8. Not because I disliked it, but I spend a lot of time in the mountains already, so I think it just didn’t feel like a unique place to me. It has way more bears, but in general the views are similar and the types of hikes are as well. My next stop is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I’ll be interested to see if I feel like it’s just more of the same as well!

Mammoth Cave Doesn’t Have Mammoths?

My eighth national park was Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. We picked this one to visit over spring break because we could drive there instead of fly. The drive up there was beautiful–lots of rolling hills and horse pastures. It was so rustic and calm that it made me relax a little bit in the middle of a tough semester!

Another park sign picture? Hopefully someday I’ll have 59 of these!

Mammoth Cave is a national park because it is the longest cave system in the world. Yes, you read that right: the longest cave system on Earth is in Kentucky. Not only is it the largest one, but it’s still growing. The rangers there told us that they think it’s so big that the end of it won’t be found by the end of my grandchildren’s lifetime. Right now, they have found over 400 miles of tunnels and caverns within the system.

An example of the living part of the cave. These are dripstone formations!

Obviously the rangers are not going to let visitors wander the caves by themselves; there would be so many people who would get lost and never find their way out. We chose two tours, the first of which was the Domes and Dripstones tour. This tour starts off with a few hundred steps to get you down into the cave. As someone who hates heights, this journey down was scary. They were the kinds of stairs where you could see in between them, which made me super nervous. I made it down though, and the rest of the tour was spectacular. The cave has various parts that are living, dormant, or dead. Living caves are what I usually imagine when I hear the word “cave” because this is the part where stalagmites and stalactites are forming.

One of my favorite parts of visiting Mammoth Cave was experiencing total darkness. It’s really terrifying, but it’s amazing to sit there and try to see things even though you know you can’t. I’ve been to caverns before–we like to take my little cousins to Linville Caverns sometimes–but the size of Mammoth Cave is just incredible. The rooms are massive, and there are even parts where water is pouring through the ceiling like a waterfall.

Any time you leave the caves, you are required to walk across these squishy black mats that were soaked with chemicals. This is to prevent White Nose Syndrome from leaving the caves. White Nose is a disease that kills bats. It’s wiped out a lot of them across North America, and the National Park Service takes these precautions so that, if you go in a cave where White Nose is, you don’t track it out with you. We saw three little bats in the cave who were hibernating together, and from a distance they looked really cute and cuddly. I can safely say that if they’d flown at me, I would’ve felt differently about them.

These are just a few of the autographs and messages written on the walls of Mammoth Cave.

The other tour we did is geared towards handicapped people and has an elevator that goes into the cave. This tour shows you the cafeteria. Yes, a full-blown cafeteria with serving lines and everything. It’s no longer in use, but a long time ago people would take day trips into the cave. The owners would serve them lunch in the cafeteria. It was extremely creepy (it felt like a horror movie because it was so dark and quiet!). We also got to see the signatures of people who had been there long before we had. Back in the 1800s, slaves were the guides in the caves. People would write down their names and the year they visited, and some even wrote thank-you messages to their guides.

Mammoth Cave is very different from the other parks I’ve visited. It is very cool, but it ranks lower on my list at #7.