This post is in partnership with Moon Guides. All opinions are my own.
For months, my husband and I had been talking about going on a camping trip. We’ve already been staying in a pretty, rural, nature-rich area during the pandemic, but there is something about the camping experience that seems to heal and bond our family. And with all the stressors of virtual work and virtual school we felt this was something we needed more than ever.
Coincidently, I got an opportunity to partner with Moon Guides and check out their travel guides, specifically the Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip guide. This perfectly worked with the planning we were already doing to revisit Shenandoah National Park.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long running from Virginia all the way to North Carolina and spanning the southern and central Appalachians. In our travels we’ve done some of the parkway, but not all and never in one massive trip. The Moon Guide for The Blue Ridge Parkway is a road trip wish list of all the incredible stops to explore along this majestic and often visually stunning road way.
We chose Shenandoah National Park as our camping retreat because we could drive to it, but also because it is one of the least busiest parks, especially when compared to the next closest park to us, Acadia.
Shenandoah National Park is a hiker’s paradise. There are over 500 miles of hiking trails in the park—101 of them make up the Appalachian trail, an exciting endeavor for any hiking lover. Some trails offer easy access to those with disabilities or who don’t want to take on a strenuous experience just to enjoy the woods. But there are also plenty of other trails that help challenge you.
There are breathtaking views and waterfalls, but you won’t experience them without first taking on a hike or two, some which require a varying degree of intensity. It doesn’t have the proximity to a ton of wildlife as say, Yellowstone, though that is not to say you won’t see it (protecting our food from bears was a huge priority and a racoon and I had to battle it out one night for his insistence on joining us around the campfire for dinner). People who visit the park are very much prepared to venture out into the woods and if you time it just right, do so in mostly isolation.
Planning Your Trip To Avoid Crowds
We planned our visit right at the beginning of fall, after school started but before leaf peeping season. We also went during the week. This not only secured us a beautiful and fairly isolated camping site, it also meant that we weren’t going to be surrounded by crowds anywhere else.
We packed a massive cooler with all sorts of food to minimize the need to eat in the restaurants – which at the moment have limited service, limited menu items, and are so, so expensive. In addition, the restaurants are using disposable plates, utensils, and cups to serve every meal and much of that stuff is not recyclable.
The Moon Guide was really great in helping us determine which trail we would take on our days there. Distance, estimated duration, elevation, and difficulty were clearly described, as were specific highlights around the trail. The only thing it didn’t have was an indication on whether the trails welcomed dogs, information you can get at the Visitor’s Center or at the trailhead before entry. Luckily for us, our dogs are small enough to carry in a backpack if necessary.
The guide also gives information about food, and activities in and around the park, all of which we earmarked for another time. There was a lot of specific information around highlights to check out in the Shenandoah Valley as well, which also emcompases a part of Virginia’s wine country.
Finding Hidden Gems
We didn’t venture much outside of the park, except for firewood (our hikes kept making us miss when the in-park store was open), but we did find two treasures: a little country store that also sold Amish quilts which we immediately purchased for added warmth on what were windy, cold nights during our stay, and the sweet village of Little Washington, VA, which we came across after making a wrong turn.
This National Historic Landmark has been called Little Washington since the 1800s (Washington, DC is about 70 miles away). When I say small, I mean teeny, really only a few blocks long and I read that it has a population of less than 150. It is however, wealthy and posh requiring us to dust off our hiking clothes and shoes so that we could explore it by foot.
Its most prominent landmarks are The Inn at Little Washington which covers a lot of territory in the very small area. It was founded in 1769 and surveyed by George Washington. Since the grounds were open to the public, we walked around in awe of how pretty and serene it is. There was no one really around, so it felt completely safe and comfortable to tour. This historic town is not in the guidebook, but I highly recommend it for a romantic stay and high-end vacation experience.
On our way home, we did stop into Front Royal which we read about in our guide, and this did feel a bit more like being back into civilization, so we didn’t stay long. We dined at Element in town, took a few photos and left.
Overall, our getaway to Shenandoah delivered in everything we had hoped, because our main goal was escapism and no crowds. That is not, however, what every national park is looking like right now so it is important to do your research carefully before traveling. Road tripping is by far our form of travel of choice, and the use of guide books is essential not only in planning but in reducing the need for human contact. We came back from that trip more rested, more connected, and happier. Here are some other considerations to keep in mind when wanting to take a nature vacation.
Considerations when escaping to nature
Planning is a must. Especially during the pandemic. The use of a guide book is not only extremely helpful, but smart. The truth is that there is a lot more planning that we needed to do for a trip like this one. Not only are we a large group (2 teens, 2 small dogs, and 2 adults on this trip), we wanted to avoid as much human contact as possible. Being able to access a lot of the information from the book instead of visiting the visitor’s center, where inevitably there would be more people was a great option.
It’s also important to keep in mind and research the quarantine guidelines and rules for not only the states you are visiting, but also the state you live in. In some cases, a proof of health is required by some AirBnB hosts, and some states require you quarantine 14 days upon arrival depending on where you are coming from. It is also important to research testing options should you need one.
Camping off season and/or on weekdays is the best chance to avoid crowds, keeping in mind of course, that you will also have to deal with inclement weather as we did. It’s important to note that while the national parks are open, many roads are often close in different seasons. For example, Shenandoah’s only public road, Skyland Drive, has portions that are periodically closed during inclement weather. In those cases, you have to enter the park on foot and hike. We did spend one night in the Skyland Resort due to the extremely low temperatures in the park. This is one of the two resorts inside the park which we got a room in, something that was only possible because of the extremely low visitors to the park. In normal times park lodgings are booked solidly in advance. We also did dine in the resort’s dining hall when not on the campsite, which wasn’t crowded, but in general eating at our campsite was more fun, and less expensive!
Some parks are operating on phased opening. Shenandoah is one of those parks. This meant a lot of the activities, even if we wanted to do them, were not available. But, bonus was it also helped to reduce the crowds. So, it’s important to research before venturing out. All parks require that you social distance while in and around building premises, as well as wear masks.
Be mindful of impact on nature. Even as I share how we made the best of an escape to nature during this pandemic, I also feel a responsibility to share that the surge in travelers wanting to escape to nature threatens to negatively impact local wildlife. Researchers around the world have found that the higher the number of visitors to natural areas, the more the wildlife that lives there have to change their behaviors, relocate, or expend energy to avoid human contact.
In addition to visiting during off season, and on weekend days, experts encourage visitors to stay on the marked trails, keep noise to a minimum, and always keep dogs leashed. So, as we seek this escape, we have to also consider how our actions have a reaction, and think about how we can reduce any negative contribution to the places we visit, whether it is a national park or a city.
Be a responsible traveler, even when the trip is over. On the day of this writing, Virginia saw 966 new coronavirus cases, bringing its total of COVID cases to 149,687 statewide with 3,250 deaths. VA remains on New York State’s travel quarantine list. And that is exactly what my family and I commited to when we made the decision to travel there and when we returned.. Though we didn’t interact with many people or were hanging out with groups outside of our own, we have a responsibility as members of society, as citizens of the world, and as travel ambassadors to do the right thing and to not take on actions that could further endanger our community – even when we think we might not be a threat. Quarantining is boring, and there’s so much happening while you’re in it – life moving on without you. But it is the right thing to do, regardless of how you traveled before and in the grand scheme of things, it is the least any of us could do.
This post is in partnership with Moon Guides. All opinions are my own. All photographs are property of GirlGoneTravel.com and may not be used without direct consent from the publisher.
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