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Surprises of Spring Hiking in Shenandoah

HikeCoronavirus Update

NOTE:  Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive is now open with some restrictions.  Visit the park’s official website for full details.

by Patressa Kearns

You could say that, really, only one condition is required to hike in Shenandoah National Park in the springtime: flexibility. And we’re not just talking about the limberness of muscles and joints and schedules. We’re talking about the willingness and ability to adapt to just about any condition nature can – and will – throw at you like spring-training curveballs – frigid cold and wind and gray; soothing, warm sunshine; under your feet, mud, ice, slush; falling from above, sudden downpours of rain, snow, sleet. Even fog could creep in on its little (bob)cat feet.

Hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains at any time of year is a bit of a gamble, yes, but in the spring, what a lovely gamble it is, because in spring, along with all the different kinds of weather you might run up against, there also exists the marvelous surprise of wildflowers!

The first wildflower to poke through the dun-colored soil is coltsfoot, a happy jolt of dime-sized bright yellow fringed blossoms that arrives in March like an unexpected gift in the mail from a favorite aunt. Pretty pale purple hepatica – a.k.a. liverwort, for the shape of its leaves – ensues, as does comely bloodroot, whose root, when cut or scraped, oozes a startlingly hemoglobin-like juice. (Remember, that Shenandoah’s wildflowers, like all things you find in the Park, are protected; please, no picking them or digging them up.) Serviceberry trees bloom early, too, their white flowers showing up against the otherwise charcoal-hued forest like popcorn on a movie theater floor. As spring creeps up the mountains and settles into April and then into May, other wildflowers come out to play: dappled gold-on-gold trout lilies; glamorous magenta redbud trees (mostly in the Park’s northern reaches); demure yellow and purple violets; white-fading-to-dark-pink trillium; tiny sky-colored bluets; bubblegum pink azaleas; and almost incandescent purple-pink wild geraniums among them. Shenandoah’s spring wildflowers are some of the surest and best payoffs for the spring hiker. (Track Shenandoah’s wildflowers with the wildflower calendar. If you can, plan to be here in May for Wildflower Weekend.)

It’s good to be flexible, even intrepid, in Shenandoah. But even the most plucky hiker needs to be prepared. There are several things you can do before you head out onto Park trails in spring to help ensure that wildflowers are the most dramatic surprises you encounter:

  • Bring a map – Pick up various area trail maps at a visitor center or from the Hiking in Shenandoah page of the Park’s website. For longer hikes or backcountry camping trips, it’s best to have a detailed topographical map. You can get one, or a set of them, from the Shenandoah National Park Association.
  • Let someone know where you’re going – Unless you’re taking a short trek (four miles or shorter), it’s a good idea to let a friend or family member know your hiking itinerary.
  • Keep an eye on the forecast – Visitor centers and weather apps can keep you apprised of always-changing mountain weather conditions.
  • Bring along plenty of water and some snacks – And your cell phone, which will get a signal in a surprising number of spots (although not everywhere), especially on the Park’s west side. And a rain poncho, even if it’s sunny when you set out.
  • Wear traction coils – Or at least bring a pair along. Traction coils on your hiking boots are the single best way to keep yourself from slipping and falling.