A warm, dense fog encapsulated us, clouding every lookout point and, at times, limiting our view to just 10 feet in front of our car. Though disappointed to be visiting a park chock-full of vistas on such a damp, foggy day, my best friend Jamie and I continued the twisting climb up Skyline Drive, surrounded by the lush-green rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Shenandoah National Park lies about two hours south of Washington D.C., near the town of Luray, Virginia. Having spent ample time in Virginia over the past couple of years, Jamie has explored much of the state — from wineries to cider breweries, mountain ranges, rivers, gorges, quaint hillside towns, and progressive cities like D.C. and Richmond. Thus, I knew from the start that my trip would hardly scratch the surface of all that Virginia has to offer.
Black bears roam Shenandoah with a frequency that almost guarantees a sighting. The unofficial park motto is “Keep Bears Wild,” and bear warnings appear throughout the park, urging visitors to dispose of their trash properly. Almost every souvenir at the visitor’s center has an image of a bear on it. Jamie — who formerly lived on a farm in Sperryville, Virginia, — has had numerous bear encounters in the park. On the drive down, she recounted a sighting in a parking lot near a populated picnic area. The bear, unafraid, ambled around the lot as several visitors inched far too close to snap photos. The bear appeared alarmed at the intrusion and began gnashing its teeth, so Jamie took refuge in her car. Another time, she was hiking solo, only to look uphill at a large black bear, unmoving and gazing down at her from a ledge. Bear-sighting protocol dictates that one should remain facing the bear at all costs, taking large, slow steps backward away from it, and speak firmly and slowly. Remembering this, she had a one-sided conversation with it: “Hi, Mr. Bear. I’m leaving now. No worries, Mr. Bear!” Once out of sight, she (as most would) turned and ran.
Black bear encounters are most often survivable, as the creatures can be docile and are not generally territorial. During the springtime, however, newborn cubs and their mothers are a common sighting — and one that requires extra caution.
To make up for the fog-cloaked views, I wanted nothing more than to spot a bear. We had two hikes planned for the morning, as torrential downpour was imminent. The first was Stony Man Overlook, a short, semi-steep climb to a rock ledge overlook. The wet ground crunched under our feet as we loudly gabbed away as long-lost friends do. Along the way, we were not met by very many people, and no bears were to be seen. The lookout point, however, provided a misty panorama of deep forest green. Our second hike, Rose River Loop, descended to the base of a waterfall, full and flowing in late May. The area was crowded with tour buses, young children, and other visitors, all of which are not conducive to bear sightings. Needless to say, I was beginning to get discouraged.
After our second hike, the impending rain forced us to head into the neighboring town of Luray for lunch. Just as I had given up, two tiny, brown, puppy-like figures bounded across the road in front of us. I braked hard, rolled down my window, and peered into the woods beyond. The hulking figure of a mama bear made her way slowly through the trees with three just-born cubs playfully loping behind her. Jamie and I gazed into the wooded area, watching the little family mosey along undisturbed.
Our day was complete, and I left the park in a rush of excitement from our last-minute serendipitous encounter. Having hiked in Colorado, through Alaska, and up and down central California, my first ever, in-the-flesh bear spotting occurred in Virginia — a place I had always known to be rich in history, but not expansive wilderness.
One of my life goals is to have meaningful moments in every national park in the United States, whether it’s driving along Acadia’s rocky coast at dawn or wandering solo through towering redwoods in Sequoia. The abundance of bears in Shenandoah is part of what makes the park unique — to have spotted not one, but an entire family of bears gave me a somewhat irrational but exhilarating sense of accomplishment. Not only was I able to check another park off my list, but the most memorable experience — a glimpse at an animal woven into the very fabric of this protected land — came at the most unexpected moment.
Shenandoah National Park was just one stop on my journey through America’s public lands, but I’ll be chasing that same excitement everywhere I go.
Header image by Hans Veth