There are only a few places that I know of that inspire people to write songs. Shenandoah is one of these places. Shenandoah is at the north end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Unlike most of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah River flows lazily along the valley parallel to the ridgeline. The Shenandoah River is a major waterway on the east coast flowing into the Potomac River.
We have been following the Blue Ridge Mountains north along the Great Appalachian Valley since we were in the Great Smoky Mountian National Park in May. When the Shenandoah Valley finally gave way to farmland on the coastal plain, we turned east towards the coastline.
In my mind, everything east of the Shenandoah is one big (grimy) city. I know that it isn’t true but that is just the way my mind thinks. I am awaiting culture shock. The Shenandoah River’s north and south forks combine at Front Royal. Then it joins the Potomac River at the corner of West Virginia at Harpers Ferry. Front Royal is the place where we turned east.
Here is a link to our post in May when we started exploring the south end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Smoky Mountain Vistas
Two forks of the Shenandoah River
Our last campsite was along the south fork of the Shenandoah River. The Shenandoah River was the inspiration for the songs. Both forks of the Shenandoah River flow northeast separated by an impressive mountain. Between the two river forks and the mountain ridges is a picture-perfect valley.
A valley surrounded by mountains inside a valley
The valley hidden between two mountain ridges is called Fort Valley and includes the tiny town of Fort Valley. The “fort” part of Fort Valley is the natural mountain ridges on all sides. There is only one way into Fort Valley without crossing the mountains. On the east side of the Fort Valley is Massanutten Mountain. On the west side of Fort Valley is another ridge including Three Top Mountain. Fort Valley is often called a “valley within a valley” because it is between the two forks and valleys of the Shenandoah River.
Passage Creek flows through Fort Valley northbound into the north fork of the Shenandoah River. Following Passage Creek is the only way into Fort Valley without crossing over the mountains. The town Fort Valley is a tiny town about halfway up Passage Creek. The town is four miles from our campsite at Shenandoah River State Park. It takes nearly an hour to drive to Fort Valley from Shenandoah River State Park. Of course, we did drive there and I really liked it. Fort Valley is a (tiny-town) surrounded on all sides by the George Washington National Forest and beautiful farms. In Fort Valley, if you want to shop for groceries you drive somewhere else.
From Clifton Forge, we traveled northeast to Harrisonburg. We departed the north fork of the Shenandoah River at Harrisonburg. In Harrisonburg, the Shenandoah River is a collection of tributaries. We then entered the Shenandoah River Valley (south fork) from the south end.
Our camp is at the Shenandoah River State Park right along the river. To the east of us is Shenandoah National Park. To the west of us is Massanutten Mountain and Fort Valley. Further west of that is the north fork of the Shenandoah River. A slightly shorter route to Shenandoah River State Park (from the north fork) would have taken us across the New Market gap. The route from the south was far easier to drive in our motorhome than via the New Market gap.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is to the east of the river and really has almost nothing to do with the river except that from the National park you can see the river. This park is an extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway that extends all the Great Smoky Mountains. I call it an extension because even though it was built before the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is shorter. The other common name for the Shenandoah National Park is Skyline Drive. Just like Blue Ridge Parkway to the south, Skyline drive is along the crest of a mountain ridge. Skyline drive is extremely popular during the fall color change. We were a little early for the autumn season by about three weeks. A few leaves are falling but most are still green.
From Skyline Drive you can occasionally see the river in the valley twisting through the farmland. The river is very slow-moving and wanders back and forth through the valley. Depending on the day you can see three mountain ridges in the distance. The very best views are probably in the morning before the mid-day haze sets in. Both sunrises and sunsets are probably beautiful but we were tucked into the valley under the cloud cover well before sunset.
A close retreat
The Shenandoah River Valley shares the same summer heat as does the rest of the eastern seaboard. Skyline Drive is the closest place to Washington D.C. and Arlington to serve as a day trip destination. Skyline Drive is much higher in elevation so the summer temperatures are much cooler. In the winter, it can include snow.
The Shenandoah River Valley and mountains were used by the native Americans mostly as hunting grounds. European settlers started arriving in about 1750 first with trappers and traders leading the way followed quickly by farmers. Most of the immigrants came south from Pennsylvania and many were indentured Ulster Irish indentured servants who moved south after their debts were paid.
By the time of the Civil War, the valley was known as a major food source for the southern states, and control of the valley was a key objective for the Union. The Confederates used the Shenandoah area as a staging point for raids to the north and east. Stonewall Jackson (fighting for the south) defended the river valley three in three different battles. Eventually, the Union overran the valley and burned everything. After that, the valley was destroyed, not necessary, and uncontested. The Shenandoah Valley has six different major battlefields.
After the Civil War, the Shenandoah River Valley served as part of the train corridor between the northeast and places like Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta.
Battlefields range throughout the Shenandoah Valley from where Stonewall Jackson intercepted the Fort Royal Garrison that was trying to retreat north to Winchester to the southern end of the valley near Luray and New Market. Fighting was both in the Skyline Drive area of Shenandoah National Park through the south fork valley and across to the north fork of the Shenandoah River.
In thirty days, Jackson defeated three Union commands each having a larger force than he did. For the Union, Jackson was a real pain because he kept nearly 60,000 Federal soldiers occupied that could have assisted in the Richmond Campaign. Only after Jackson moved south to link up with Lee in Richmond was the Union able to destroy the agriculture burning everything.
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