September 3 - 7, 2020
Written By: Kayla
Labor Day weekend in 2020 was our first attempt to head to Walt Disney World with Colin’s sister and Dad. However, due to COVID regulations, we postponed the Disney trip until the following year (for now). With a 3-day weekend at our disposal, we took advantage and planned a trip to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
Welcome to Pennsylvania!
Visiting Shenandoah was our 21st National Park together. While on this trip, we did what we do best, and took advantage of any other nearby National Park sites. We were able to explore 4 additional National Park Sites and a few National Forests as well.
Click here to skip straight to the Shenandoah National Park portion.
And we're off!
Day one started with an early rise to account for our 6.5-hour drive to Johnstown Flood National Memorial. The memorial is located in South Fork, Pennsylvania. Now, a fair warning for the history lessons included in this recap - the sites we visited during this long weekend were full of devastation, strength, and some sad circumstances from America’s past. While it would be great if all National Park sites were full of hope and optimism, it wouldn’t be our true history if we didn’t have sites exploring some of these tragedies. So with that being said, our adventure started with Johnstown Flood National Memorial.
Johnstown Flood NM
We started at Lake View Visitor Center. Here, there are two floors of exhibits and a movie called “Black Friday” to help learn about the flood, events leading up to, and the aftermath. The Johnstown Flood was due to a dam break in South Fork. The South Fork Dam was an incredible structure holding back over 20,000,000 tons of water. A series of events led to the failure of the dam, which we will get to shortly, and the damage from the water unleashed, killed over 2,000 people of Johnstown, PA.
Lake View Visitor Center
The failure of the dam would likely not come as a surprise to any present person reading the timeline of events leading up to its’ compromise. Construction on the dam began in 1840 after legislature was passed and studies were complete on the best location for a canal feeder. In 1842, work was halted on the dam with only 50% of the work completed, until 1851. Between the years of 1842 and 1851, when there was no work being completed on the dam, the dam failed for the first, but not last, time. Finally, work was completed in 1852 and ready for use in 1853. Between the years of first operation and 1879, the dam was purchased, sold, and repurchased a number of times. By 1862, the dam failed a second time and increased water levels in Johnstown by a few feet. There was a lack of maintenance on the dam leading up to 1889, and five slice pipes at the base of the dam were also removed in 1875. In 1879 the dam was purchased by South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club of Pittsburgh. Between this purchase and the failure of the dam, the group tried to patch the holes from previous breaks. However, it was not done properly, and no action was taken to replace the slice pipes. Additionally, the group lowered the top of the dam and created screens for fishing. The combination of all of this led to the breaking of the dam in May of 1889.
Standing on the edge of where the dam once stood
It's a very picturesque area
Looking back at the history of the flood can make one wonder if any action to mend or fix the dam would have prevented such devastation. The catastrophe from the flood did likely create initiatives for adding more care, more concern, and increased budgets for safety precautions. Additionally, the aftermath of the flood led to people coming together to assist and care for a city in need. This disaster was one of the first major relief efforts by the American Red Cross. Clara Barton led this mission from Washington D.C. to help the people of Johnstown and provide food, shelter, and medical care.
Little Conemaugh River
Day 1 continued to a site just 35 minutes away from Johnstown. Located in Stoystown, Pennsylvania is Flight 93 National Monument. The history of this site is much more recent compared to many of the National Park Sites we have visited in the past. This site of course commemorates a day we all remember, September 11th, 2001.
"A common field one day. A field of honor forever."
Flight 93 National Monument recognizes the 40 passengers and crew members who lost their lives fighting against the attack on the United States on that morning in 2001. Of the four aircrafts hijacked on 9/11, only one, Flight 93, did not reach the intended target. The passengers and crew members on the plane worked together to overcome the terrorists on the flight. Due to the flight being delayed, many passengers were able to hear of the attack on the World Trade Center’s Twins Towers and to the Pentagon. This knowledge led to the brave decision to fight back and try to take control of the plane. It was later discovered the aircraft was headed toward Washington, D.C., but never made it to the destination due to the fight for power on the plane. Flight 93 crashed in a remote area of Pennsylvania, killing all people on board.
The rock marks the site of impact
We have to say, this site is not for the faint of heart. It so happened to be a rainy, dreary day while we visited, and it really helped set the mood for what we were about to experience. Inside the visitor center, there are exhibits showcasing the story of Flight 93 in context with the larger terrorist attacks. However, there are also stories and quotes from individuals on the flight. There are calls showcasing the last words to loved ones, stories about why passengers ended up on this particular flight and the names of all 40 crew members and passengers who lost their lives.
Wall of Names
Within the memorial, there is the Memorial Plaza which contains the Forecourt, Wall of Names, Hemlock Grove and Impact Site, and the Plaza Walkway. These all come together outside the visitor center to lay tribute to all those who lost their lives. The Forecourt is a gateway to the Memorial Plaza and marks the approach of the crash site. You then enter the Plaza Walkway, a ¼ mile walk along the crash site, protecting the resting place of the passengers and crew. On this walk, you have the opportunity to see the impact site and trees damaged during impact. Finally, you come across the Wall of Names. This wall is made from white marble and showcases each of the 40 names who lost their lives.
A site unlike any other
Before leaving the monument, make sure you stop by the Tower of Voices. This project was created to represent both a visual and audible reminder of the 40 passengers and crew. The Tower is 93 feet tall, with forty wind chimes, to remember the voices of those 40 individuals. Sadly, we visited one week too soon for this exhibit and were not able to hear the windchimes. The Tower was dedicated on September 10th, 2020.
A site unlike any other
The monuments for Flight 93 and Johnstown were moving, and we appreciated the ability to gain the knowledge that we did, regarding these less-than-ideal moments in history. At his point, our day one was coming to an end, and we were excited to head to dinner and setup camp. We made our way to Jean Bonnet’s Tavern for dinner and a quick drink. To be honest, we did not enjoy our experience here and would not go back if given the opportunity. Sometimes you just get that vibe, but at least we had full stomachs before heading to our first night of camping. We pitched our tent at McCoy’s Ferry Campground across the border in Maryland. To reach these campsites, you follow an unpaved road and then continue through a small and somewhat eerie looking (particularly at night), tunnel. We had no issues finding our reserved site here, but it was already dark when setting up, which always makes it a little more difficult. The area and time of year also led to some humidity and a lot of bugs. But overall, this was a great spot to stop for the night and rest up before day 2 for just $20!
The tunnel as we arrived after sunset
Site 7 at this NPS campground
We had a packed schedule on day 2 before making it to the main event. As we continued our way to the Shenandoah, we stopped at two more sites, Antietam National Battlefield and Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park.
A monument to Clara Barton
Antietam National Battlefield, located in Sharpsburg, Maryland, teaches of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The battle occurred on September 17th, 1862 and played an important role for the Union, as it ended the Confederate Army’s first invasion attempts in the North. Additionally, this battle is what would lead Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
Bloody Lane Trail
The battlefield has a great Auto Tour with 11 stops, taking you through the events leading up to the battle. We really enjoyed driving through the different sites and reading the signs and history at each one. Starting at the Dunker Church, we would highly recommend both this tour and the park film at the visitor center. Watching the video before the tour will give you a much better visual while driving through. There are even a few hikes located at some of the stops. Cornfield Trail starts at stop 4 and shows where the actions during the morning of the battle occurred. There is also a trail at stop 9, showing the Final Attack route for the Union soldiers. The 8.5-mile Auto Tour is a definite must do when visiting, to get a full understanding of the site.
After exploring Antietam, we made our way to our next site, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park. This site has some beautiful landscapes and views, despite being home to another bloody battle in the Civil War. This area was another major key that led to a Union victory in 1864. The Battle of Cedar Creek is thought to be a turning point in the war and a huge reason for Abraham Lincoln’s re-election. This site also has an Auto Tour, with 9 stops spread out around the area. This tour is 17.5-miles and along public roads. We did run into the issue of traffic and had to be extra cautious at a few stops.
Park sign along a busy road
The second part of the site, Belle Grove, is a Manor House built in 1797. The home had many occupants from Isaac and Nelly Hite, to Union General Philip Sheridan. Belle Grove is a historical mansion showing history through its architecture and early occupants. Today, the property of Belle Grove continues to be used for farming and gardening.
The Manor in the distance
This was one of the more quick sites, but definitely worth the visit. Before heading to Shenandoah, it was time for lunch and a beer. We had to stop at Box Office Brewery for Colin and had a nice lunch break before heading to our final stop for the day.
Box Office Brewery
Movie reel flight tray and awesome stickers!
After a couple quick sites, we were excited to finally head to Shenandoah National Park. As always, we started at the visitor center, entering at Dickey Ridge. Here you can learn about some of Shenandoah’s history and, of course, receive your park map. Shenandoah was established in December of 1935. The park was one of the only parks established while there were people still living and working on the land. The park is held within the Blue Ridge Mountains, with amazing views and over 500 miles of trails. A large portion of the trails are also within the Appalachian Trail.
We FINALLY made it!
The main attraction of Shenandoah is Skyline Drive. This 105-mile route would show any visitor some of the best views and aspects of the park. The drive is only 35 MPH, so note if you want to complete the entire 105-mile route, you will want to account for around 3 hours of time. If you weren’t able to hike throughout the park, this is a great way to still take-in the park and its beauty. It’s a great park for a half-day to just drive through and stop at the pull-offs for views and photographs.
Pictures certainly don't do it justice
Beautiful as far as the eye can see
We were able to complete a few hikes while visiting. As mentioned above, this park was established when there were still people living on the land. Therefore, this park has a lot of human history found within. Fox Hollow hike is a loop showcasing some of that human history, including flowers planted by previous residents and a cemetery. Traces Trail also has a show of previous residents and takes you through the forest around Mathews Arm Campground.
Former, permanent? residents
Our plan for the night had been to actually stay at Mathews Arm. However, soon after entering the park, we realized this might not be possible. The further we traveled down Skyline Drive, all the signs were saying that campgrounds were full. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an easy time finding a place to stay for the night. We didn’t even account for camping being full due to the holiday weekend. So, we ended up having to find a cheap hotel for the night in Luray. The thing with Skyline Drive is, it’s a straight shot. There are only a couple chances to exit the drive, and we didn’t want to do a bunch of backtracking. Thankfully we came to the conclusion and made our decision before getting too far along and were able to dip out at the Thorton Gap Entrance on Highway 211.
Mountain selfies never get old
The positive of being forced to a hotel was that we woke up with fresh showers and a good night’s rest. We were really excited to get some hiking in and arrived at the park before 8:00am. We started by checking out Stony Man Overlook at mile 38. A nice thing about Skyline Drive is that everything is labeled by the mile marker. The view here was absolutely beautiful. I can’t imagine the fall colors while looking over the Shenandoah Valley. There is a 1.6-mile round trip hike to Stony Man as well, but since there was an overlook, we decided to save some time and move on to our next hike, Hawksbill Summit.
The amazing hikes do not end with Hawksbill Summit. We traveled another 5 miles down Skyline to arrive at the Dark Hollow Falls trailhead. This is 1.4 miles round trip and also listed as moderately difficult. To reach the end of the trail at the falls, you walk .75 miles from the parking area. Once you arrive at the falls, there are multiple levels of falling water to capture different angels and photographs. Given that this was a holiday weekend, the trail and the water area were both slightly busy, but we still had an amazing time grabbing pictures here and even playing with the sunlight to grab some of our favorite portraits. I would highly recommend this hike for anyone visiting the park who has the time. The waterfalls are breathtaking, and the hike and surrounding area is beautiful and peaceful.
Dark Hollow Falls
Dark Hollow Falls
Now comes another twist to our Labor Day weekend plans. As we discovered the day prior, the campgrounds were really full because of the holiday. With that, we made a few adjustments to our plan. Originally, we were going to stay at Loft Mountain Campground for night three. However, we knew that was not an option, and decided to head to what was initially going to be our fourth night of camping, Stonecoal Dispersed. Instead of breaking-up the park into another day, we finished off Skyline Drive and headed to our next destination. Coming to this decision was not easy, because we didn’t want to feel like we weren’t getting the full Shenandoah experience. So, we stopped at a few more pull-offs and one more visitor center to take it all in. In the end, we were very happy with our decision and felt accomplished with our time at the park.
The views don't end
Our end of Skyline Drive
So, we were off, and heading to Stonecoal Dispersed for two nights, excited to find a spot and just relax after a busy few days. The camping area is located in Monongahela National Forest on Route 250. As soon as we arrived, things were already not looking to be in our favor. All the sites seemed to be full and it had been miles since we had any sort of cell service. It was getting dark and at this point, it seemed better to keep going and hope, than to turn around and go who-knows-where. We ended up finding a “site” at the very end in the center median. It wasn’t technically marked as a site, but there were multiple firepits and we were desperate. We weren’t in anyone’s way and decided it was our last hope to not sleep in the car. Who would have thought that a random dispersed area in nowhere West Virginia would be bumping for the holiday weekend? We were worried we might be all alone!
We made it to West Virginia!
We did the best with what we had available, but things got even more interesting. We hadn't had dinner yet, because we planned on making a nice, relaxing fire to cook. LOL. We were able to get a little fire going, but we were slightly worried about wildlife once darkness was in full swing. As the fire got going though, we realized that there were burnt shoes and clothing remains inside this pit. This was a little creepy and we decided to call it an early night, playing games inside our tent.
Fast forward to the next day. We woke up to a beautiful morning and decided to go exploring around the area. We were right next to an awesome trailhead, that led to a stream that you had to walk over a wood board. It was all fine and dandy…for now.
A little boardwalk
If you thought the burnt shoes were weird, just wait until you hear the next part. After some exploring, we came upon another fire pit located in the middle of the forest. This pit contained animal remains and nails. We think it was a rabbit, but the whole situation was very weird. Between the weird vibes we had the night before, and our find during the morning hike, we decided we weren’t staying here a second night. We were anxious about our “site” and didn’t like the vibes. It’s unfortunate, because seeing it in the daylight, it was actually a very pretty area. The sites lined the river and we had a very peaceful morning walk, butterflies and all.
A beautiful morning walk
Crazy so far right!? We didn’t want to end our trip yet and especially didn’t want to make the full drive home. We packed up and headed toward Wayne National Forest in Ohio. Colin knew there was some free camping there and we drove toward cell service to start researching. We ended up at a horse trail called Kinderhook Trailhead. This overnight stay was much more relaxing. We got in early enough to setup and make a real fire. We had a few other campers with us and enjoyed dinner, reading, and playing games by the campfire. Thankfully, the next morning was much less eventful then our previous. We packed up and made the few hour trip back home!
Kinderhook Trailhead Camping
Finally have time for a campfire meal
And finally time to enjoy and relax
Sometimes our adventures, even the smaller ones, can create obstacles we have to work around. While our schedule for Shenandoah National Park did not go exactly to plan, we still had an amazing weekend. This trip was full of adjustments and stressful moments, but with many rewards. Plus, we have some interesting stories to tell our friends and family. Check-off National Park #21 for Dare to Everywhere!