The bears of Shenandoah

Big Meadows Lodge
Big Meadows Lodge

Our first holiday to Virginia / West Virginia was in 2008. At that time, we said we could easily come back and travel a completely different route which is exactly what we have done this year. However, there are certain points of overlap and one we couldn’t possibly miss out was Shenandoah National Park which sits atop the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (cue another ear-worm). The Skyline Drive extends for 105 miles along the ridge and was visionary when it was created in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, though I’m not sure it would be acceptable to build now. That’s me at lookouts along the drive in 2008 (left) and 2014.

In 2008 we stayed for two nights and saw a bear every day! The first was at the side of the road the day we drove in, but it ran off into the undergrowth while we fumbled for cameras. We encountered the second as it foraged by a trail the next day, but this bear did not behave as expected – they are supposed to be keen to avoid human contact and making a reasonable amount of noise as you walk should scare them away. This one just kept coming towards us – obviously we were between it and the tastiest food. As it was quite large we decided the best course of action was to go back the way we came and choose a different route. Finally, on the day we left, we heard a lot of crashing in the undergrowth and a small bear shot across the path in front of us and up the other side. It obviously knew the rules.

So would we maintain our bear-a-day record in 2014? This time, we were there for three nights so it was more of a challenge. Read on to find out!

Day 1. We came down Skyline from the North to the Lodge at Big Meadows, about half way along, where we stayed both times. We went for a pre-dinner stroll along part of the Appalachian Trail which runs behind the Lodge where we encountered a large brown object – yes, a bear!

Day 2. We tackled the trail which we had abandoned last time, Dark Hollow Falls and Upper Rose River, and, would you believe, saw a bear in almost exactly the same place, once again foraging for food. The pickings must be really good there and this bear seemed totally undiverted by our presence so we carried on to complete the trail. John is standing in front of the Falls this year, and the photo of me in the same spot is from 2008.

Day 3. We took the Lewis Falls trail in the morning and were disappointed not to see a bear. Was this our record broken? No! In the afternoon, we drove down from Skyline to Luray Caverns (which were spectacular, probably the best we’ve seen – they also have a small motor museum) and saw a bear by the roadside on three separate occasions. Then when we came back, there was actually a bear right behind our accommodation block! We watched it for several minutes and actually got some reasonable pictures. It was really close.

Shenandoah butterfly
Shenandoah butterfly

Day 4. We left the Park, travelling South along the rest of the Skyline Drive. No bear! We had lost our bear-a-day status. However, with 6 in 4 days, we averaged 1.5 which is better than last time, so I call that a result.

In 2008, we turned east at the end of the Skyline. This time, we continued along it as it morphed into the Blue Ridge Parkway. This was an old friend which we’d travelled in North Carolina a few years ago. However, we didn’t know the Virginian section so we were setting off on new adventures.

Coming soon – Peaks of Otter.


  1. Thrilling encounter to see so many. Enjoyed reading Bill Bryson’s book on the A.T. which crosses the same area. I’ve wild camped in a couple of countries that have bears, when backpacking, and it certainly adds an extra dimension knowing they could be out there, not that far away. Never got used to that feeling of being so vulnerable outdoors and didn’t like it much.


  2. Unbelievable! I can’t believe you saw so many bears. I have been to Shenandoah National Park too many times to count and I have yet to see one. I’m sure they’re more prevalent in the summer, when so many campers have food about. And since I’m not a summer hiker, I’ve never yet encountered one. I think I would have been quite scared of the one who kept approaching!


  3. Those caverns are beautiful. I have yet to see a wild bear. The closest I’ve gotten was a sign warning of the existence of wild bears in the are. I had to be content with taking a picture of the sign.


  4. I have yet to see a wild bear. My dad encountered them many times as a lumberman out west and in Algonquin park(he worked there in the 1930’s so if you are ever there and take the lumberman trail, you will see what my dad did at that time). he had many tales about bears and he respected and liked them. It looks so beautiful where you went


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