Visiting Shenandoah National Park during a Pandemic

My family and I recently visited Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. After being on lockdown and quarantine for months, we needed fresh air and to enjoy new sights far away from our home.

During this pandemic there aren’t many choices for safe, family-friendly activities this summer. Going to the beach is still not a safe choice for me and my family, especially with children. Theme parks are out of the question. And my favorite things to do -cultural festivals, wine festivals, and outdoor music concerts- were canceled in order to avoid large gatherings of people.

It is not until we go through something like this pandemic that we realize how much people rely on each other to make every day things happen. Outdoor activities, food establishments and other businesses that rely on a constant influx of customers to stay in business, fuel the economy at both the local and the national levels. Teachers and schools rely on students coming in to school so they can teach, otherwise they’re out of a job. On the one hand, you want to go out there and support local businesses, and on the other, you are concerned about staying safe and secure while the pandemic storm howls outside. This dichotomy has been on my mind over the last few months.

I understand that we need to take care of ourselves so we can, in turn, take care of others. I kept this in mind as I thought of what sort of activities, we could do this summer. The best place I could think of was the outdoors.

Wild columbine or Aquilegia canadensis is found at Shenandoah National Park.

I remembered that about seven years ago, I went on a hike in Shenandoah National Park with my extended family and, although we didn’t plan the trip very well, and didn’t realize how extraneous this activity was going to be, we did make some good memories in the end. At the time, we had discussed the possibility of getting to see the waterfalls. Secretly, I was determined to make it happen. So, after about two hours of hiking with my less than enthused family we made it to the waterfalls! At that time, my oldest child was three years old.

This month, we decided to visit Shenandoah National Park the weekend before Fourth of July, so we could avoid large crowds. At least, that’s what we thought. I was so surprised to see more people at the park than I did around the same time seven years ago. Back in 2013, during our now legendary hike to the waterfalls, there wasn’t a lot of people in the trails. At that time, we went hiking around Mathews Arm, which is one of the most popular trails at Shenandoah. At that time, there were just a few visitors and we ran into people on the trail only every twenty minutes or so. During our recent visit to Shenandoah National Park, the number of visitors was a lot higher and the visitors were very diverse. There were a lot of professional hikers at the park, but there were also small families like us, who took their kids hiking as well. There were even extended families visiting the park, which included grandparents and even dogs as part of their extensive entourage. The public restrooms were mostly empty when I went to use one, but by the time I got out there was already a line of people waiting outside the door. I couldn’t believe it; I didn’t know so many people were all of the sudden interested in the outdoors, especially at this park.

I realized that I wasn’t the only one feeling the stress of the pandemic and, just like me, everyone else also felt the need to get out of the house after being quarantined for so many days.

I figured that many of the visitors at the park were people who had never been there before. Perhaps they wouldn’t have come to Shenandoah if it wasn’t for the pandemic. But after not having many choices to go to this summer and after being quarantined for months, the parks and the outdoors are the only places that we have left to go to.

Shenandoah National Park extends along the Blue Ridge Mountains in the U.S. state of Virginia.
beautiful wildflowers found at Shenandoah National Park.
beautiful wildflowers at Shenandoah National Park
Swamp thistle or Cirsium muticum is found throughout Shenandoah National Park.
Swamp thistle or Cirsium muticum is found throughout Shenandoah National Park.
Erigeron annuus also known as daisy fleabane is found at Shenandoah National Park.
Wildflowers found at Shenadoah National Park.

During the hike, many people wore face coverings, masks, even plastic gloves, while a selected few still refused to wear anything at all. On most instances, these later folks wouldn’t even try to keep social distance when running into other people. This experience showed me how different our thinking is when it comes to this pandemic.

I wanted to take care of my family, so I modeled responsible social distance practices every time we ran into other hikers; whether they were wearing a face mask or not. Any time hikers approached on our trail we would move away from them as far as we could, always giving them the right of way. My entire family wore face masks and we only took them off when there was no one else around. It was annoying and unpleasant as most of the time we were the ones moving away from people and letting them pass. Plus, doing a very extraneous exercise such as hiking while wearing a face mask only made the exercise a lot harder.

We were not able to reach the waterfall at Mathews Arm; we only hiked about two miles and turned around and came back. I was being mindful that we had a three-year old with us who was not going to last the whole trip. So, this time around, I opted to keep the trip short.

Fly Poison or Amianthium muscitoxicum.
Mathews Arm Area at Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah is home to over 400 species of fungi such as this one.
another variety of mushroom found at Shenandoah National Park.
The Path – Shenandoah National Park

I love hiking and the outdoors and when I get the chance, I like to stay out all day and end up so tired that I just want to take a shower and go to bed. But one of the greatest lessons I learned during this whole pandemic is that we need to be mindful and considerate of others. I needed to be mindful of my kids and realize that they were not going to hike 6.5 miles round trip just to see a waterfall. I also had to be mindful of my husband, who would, inevitably, would end up carrying one or both kids on the way back had we walked all the way to the waterfalls. I had to be mindful and realize that other people disagree about how this new virus spreads or about how serious it is. I had to be mindful and accept that I might not get what I want all the time, especially while going through this pandemic. Instead, I was reminded to be grateful that at least I was able to at least do something I wanted. I had to be mindful and considerate of the fact that this new virus can put other people and families at risk when we choose not to do something as simple as keeping six feet away from others or wear my face mask, and that, even still, some people refused to do any or all of these things.

Even though hiking and the way we go about doing things today is different than what we were used to, we did manage to create nice memories during our trip. I’m glad to see that more people are getting out and visiting this beautiful park, and hopefully they will become aware about how important it is to take care of nature and our world. I am grateful that I live in a place where I can go visit wide open spaces and amazing outdoor locations such as Shenandoah National Park. I came back with a refreshed mind, ready to start my week, even in the middle of this stressful pandemic. There is no doubt that Nature can heal.

I love hiking and the outdoors.
I love hiking and the outdoors.
Visiting Shenandoah National Park during a Pandemic.