Campground Review: Shenandoah National Park, Big Meadows Campground – Virginia

Posted October 20, 2021 – Narrated by Carmen
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bambi-4
See our 5-Bambi rating legend at the end of this review.

My throat swelled as the ferry pulled away from my beloved Okracoke Island, but Jim pumped his arm in triumph,

“Cha-ching! We’re going to Shenandoah National Park.”

Snagging a one-week reservation for a prime spot at a highly coveted National Park during peak season, a month in advance, as the pandemic plods on is Classic Jim The Superlative Admin.

Though covid put the kibosh on our laid-back no-reservations travel style, the nationwide run for them thar’ hills didn’t even muss up Jim’s ponytail.

“Cool.” I said, trying to sound appreciative.

He kept trying to pull me out of island withdrawal.

“New Jersey is only three-hundred miles from the park,” he said, “We’ll make it a two day trip and spend Memorial Day night at a Harvest Host spot in Mt. Airy.”

I perked up.

“And visit Bill and Julia?”

“That’s the plan.”

Zoom Happy Hours with Julia and Bill are the best thing about the pandemic. The thought of spending the holiday on their porch was good medicine.

We’d never been to Shenandoah, but I imagined woodland vistas framed in wildflowers and cloud draped mountains.

And what is it about that song, O’ Shenandoah, that wrests my heart with existential longing for, I don’t know … a river, a valley, a lover, a home, a past? As the watery distance grew between me and my favorite island I launched, full-throated, into this beloved leaving song.

Where’d that come from? Jim said.

“Middle school choir. Famous Films concert. We were rehearsing that song from How The West Was Won.” The boys sang too fast, so the choir director told the soprano section to show them how it’s done. With no collaboration, we all piped up in the key of Tennessee Ernie Ford. Still cracks me up.”

As the ferry moved closer to Hattaras we listened to the ballad performed by choirs and groups and solos. Fascinated by the gorgeous and mysterious lyrics we surrendered to the song’s spell. The soaring beauty of the melody made the vagueness of the lyrics matter little …

until we hit on a bawdy version from the early colonial period. Racial stereotypes about Indians and the celebration of woman-theft informed the modern sanitized versions. Our unsuspecting brainpans took a good ol’ three-cornered colonial hat whoopin.’

I grabbed my iPhone. “Siri, explain Shenandoah etymology’ (and, I thought, please don’t tell me it’s like Idaho and nobody has a clue). And Siri kinda responded, “Sorry, nobody really has a clue.”

Only seventy-five miles from Washington D.C. Shenandoah National Park in the Virginia Commonwealth is a long, narrow 105-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains rising to levels of 4,000 feet with the Virginia Piedmont to the east and the Shenandoah River Valley to the west, and the Appalachian Trail runs through it.

After months of barrier island sand, maybe some solid rock under my feet would feel good. And I do love a deep mountain forest with winding paths which seem to promise an outcome but no absolutes, no guarantees other than the freedom to roam.

Shenandoah, here we come!

After pulling out of New Jersey, we drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to Shenandoah National Park.

Though the park was dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, the park’s creation spans at least two administrations. President Herbert Hoover, accomplished much of the ground work. His private camp, still preserved within the boundaries of the park, served as his presidential retreat.

Shenandoah has five campgrounds: Mathews Arm with 165 sites, Big Meadows with 221 sites, Lewis Mountain with 30 sites, Dundo Group (3 sites, 7-20 people), and Loft Mountain with 207 sites.

Also within the park boundaries are three lodging facilities with a total of 285 rooms. Skyland Lodge with 178 rooms, Big Meadows Lodge offers 97 rooms, and Lewis Mountain Cabins has 10 rooms. Six primitive cabins, located in places throughout Shenandoah, are available through the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

Our campground, Big Meadows, is located at Mile 51.2 on Skyline Drive, the scenic mountain road which is the backbone of the entire park.

Big Meadows Campground, the center of park activities, provides easy access to many of the most popular destinations including Dark Hollow Falls, and Byrd Visitor Center.

There’s a large parking lane at the entrance where RV’s can pull up for registration.

A friendly ranger in the office will answer all of your park related questions.

The sites are all dry camping: no water, electricity or sewer hookups.

Water sources, located throughout the campground, are small, heavy and theft-proof.

A more useful potable water source is located at the dump station near the entrance.

Like most National Parks, all of the streets are paved …

as well as the sites. Most spaces have large, shaded and well groomed yards.

Some sites can only accommodate a car or van.

Other sites are deep enough for a fifth-wheel.

Some sites are back-in and some are pull-through.

The tent sites have the best views with 51 walk-in, tent-only sites.

There are designated no-generator zones and two group sites which accommodate up to 15 people.

The thickly shaded campground combined with mostly cloudy skies limited our solar usage so we had to rely on our Honda generator to keep our RV batteries charged.

Hiking

The park features 101 miles of the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail, and a total of more than 500 miles of beautifully maintained trails.

We took a few hikes between thunder storms:

Views from the trails were amazing.

The park trails often merge with the Appalachian Trail. So this is a good place to achieve your AT cred.

The signs and fragrances of Spring enhanced our hikes …

… along with the occasional timber rattler.

Leashed pets are allowed on most hiking trails, but after the snake encounter we decided to walk Pico only in the paved campground.

Waterfalls

Waterfall destination hikes are definitely worth the trip and the effort.

Horseback riding

We often encountered folks on horseback. Shenandoah is an ideal place to bring your own horse or participate in a guided horseback tour.

Wild life

Deer are everywhere along the road and in the campsites, so we avoided driving in the dark.

The Lodge

A lovely restaurant and a lively taproom – about a ten-minute walk from our site – gave us a place to escape stormy weather and also enriched those long summer evenings providing …

a fun place to relax and unwind after a long hike…

… a place to meet friends.

Cell service was far from ideal.

Our weBoost Cell Signal booster didn’t help since there was zero service at our campsite. The Lodge was our sole connection to the internet with free limited speed WiFi. If not for the cozy lodge – given the wet weather and poor connectivity at our campsite – we’d have probably left before the week was over.

Some of the overlooks had limited Verizon cell service and some fellow campers had no trouble with their T-Mobile service.

Groceries

The nearest grocery store is an hour away. The Camp Store is stocked with snacks souvenirs and bare essentials.

Bathroom and showers

The bathrooms with showers are located near the entrance of the campground. This facility is clean and updated.

The coin operated showers required $1.75 in quarters for 5 minutes of hot water.

The toilet-and-sink only bathrooms located in the campground loops were outdated but clean.

The small centrally located laundry facility is clean and equipped.

The amphitheater was closed due to COVID.

“Share the road” biking is allowed on all paved roads, but these days we only cycle on designated bike paths.

Bugs

The bug infestations were biblical in proportion to almost anywhere we’ve ever been. Mosquitoes, gnats, no-seeums, flies, wasps, bees, spiders, grasshoppers, cicadas, moths, butterflies, and something very special …

millions of caterpillars rappelling from the trees. We found them in our hair and shoes, and even in our pockets. But the birds were delighted. For them, this creepy spectacle was a miracle. Caterpillar sushi from heaven!

The nights were too cloudy for viewing the stars, but Shenandoah’s Dark Sky preserve is a major attraction. Park visitors often gather at Big Meadow on Friday nights with chairs and binoculars to encounter the universe. It’s startling that 98% of Americans will never see the Milky Way, our galaxy, our home. Could that be why the gorgeous melody with problematic lyrics makes so many hearts long for “away”? So close and, yet, so far.

O’ Shenandoah! A beautiful place. A land that is emotionally scarred by institutional sins such as the displacement of its earliest inhabitants through paper genocide, and the forced relocation of settlers during the depression.

America is an excessively beautiful land, but beauty is fleeting.

Each generation leaves tree rings, a layer of sediment, evidence of foundations, fishing weirs, artifacts.

Digging brings us closer to the truth, and truth is beauty.

But beauty is paradox because it defies all logic to survive.

Beauty persists for the sake of Creation, and the world is in awe of this perfection in process.

That is why we call her America, The Beautiful.

The river is all about going forward. It may shift, move stones out of the way and alter course but it will proceed. Since pre-history Shenandoah Valley has witnessed the human story, baptized human progress, watched legacies rise and fall, and ultimately, she will guide us home.

That is my Shenandoah.

The Details

The physical address for the campground is 304 Big Meadows Access Road, Robertson, VA 22851

Regular sites are $20 per night , $10 for seniors, and $45 a night for a group site.

Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and through reservations. Make reservations up to six months in advance online at http://www.recreation.gov, or by calling 1-877-444-6777. Camping fees are not refundable. Check out time is noon. Stays are limited to 30 nights in a calendar year.

Contact Rangers at the registration station or the campground hosts at sites A57 or I218. You may also use the emergency phone at the registration station or call 1-800- 732-0911. The nearest hospital is in Harrisonburg, 15 miles south on Skyline Drive, then 22 miles west on U.S. 33

Shenandoah National Park has four very distinct seasons. Spring typically brings mild temperatures, rain, and wildflowers. Summer brings lush green forests, but can be hot and very humid. Fall follows with cooler temperatures and spectacular fall foliage. Winter can bring snow and ice. The mountain is usually 10°F cooler than the valley below.

All the campgrounds are open seasonally, from early spring, March, until late fall, November (actual day of the month varies each year). They recommend reservations for weekends and holidays. Many sites can be reserved 6 months ahead of time.

The campground phone number is 540-999-3231. The campground does not accept mail or packages, so plan ahead and bring what you need.

Quiet hours are from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Generators may be used from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. From opening until April 14, and October 15 through the end of the season, generator hours are extended to 9 p.m. for the purpose of generating heat.

If you want to see our exact route, click here.

*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.


Our “BAMBI” rating system explained:

bambi-1 – One Bambi: Should’a boondocked.

bambi-2Two Bambi’s: Better than a Cracker Barrel or Walmart.

bambi-3Three Bambi’s: Adequate for a short stay.

bambi-4Four Bambi’s: Great place! Met our expectations for an extended stay. Needs minor improvements or is not ideally situated for all our preferred recreation (hiking, cycling, swimming, kayaking) without driving.

Five Bambi’s: Destination Camping at it’s best! Critical as we are, there’s nothing we’d improve, and you can bet your sweet Bambi we’re going back!

Click here to see some of our other campground reviews

28 thoughts on “Campground Review: Shenandoah National Park, Big Meadows Campground – Virginia

  1. My Friends have a Mountain Home just off of the Shenandoah Parkway in Fancy Gap, VA, not far from Mt. Airy, NC – Home of Andy Griffith. Beautiful area! Enjoy and safe travels!

    1. Hey Joan,

      We wish we could have stayed longer. It was a very wet Spring up there, but we enjoyed the Green!

      Thanks so much for being with us!

      Safe and Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

    1. Hey Kim!

      Thank you so much. Always great to hear from you. It’s been a long time since the Airstream lobby days but we plan to keep on rollin!

      Safe and Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

  2. We were at Big Meadows a few years ago, and one of those rattlers was crossing the road from the woods to the tent area! YIKES We sure were glad we were in an Airstream and not in a tent! haha

    1. Hey Beth!

      Yikes!!!

      Ours was a huge snake on a very narrow path. There was a 15-minute standoff before the snake slithered away into the underbrush. With all the rain, bugs and snakes it was a bad week for tent campers. The Airstream makes all the difference.

      Great to hear from you! Safe and Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

  3. Thank you for the information! It looks beautiful. I live on the Outer Banks so all that lush mountain greenery looks like heaven.

    1. Hey Jenny!

      Yes, the two regions are extreme opposites but they’re not all that far apart. Another great reason to settle down in the OBX! And green and blue are my favorite color combination.

      Thanks so much for being with us.

      Safe and Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

  4. Our old stomping grounds – so glad you enjoyed that part of the East Coast. We can’t wait to get back that way in our AS.

    1. Hey Donna!

      We love the area and would like to see much more of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

      Safe and Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

    1. Hey Hank & Shirleen!

      How was the weather for you? Being from SoCal we sure didn’t mind the green and the rain. It was kind of lovely. I just wish there was better connectivity.

      Safe and Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

  5. I agree with you that virginia has some of the mot beautuiful sections of the Appalachian MOuntains, second only to North Carolina! If you are still in the vicinity I suggest you checkout the Virginia Creeper Trail. Start out in Damascus. Have one of the many bicycle shops there transport you to the top of the Creeper Trail. From there you peddle 17 miles DOWNHILL back to Damascus. About 2 miles before the end is a dinner on the left hand side (look rfor the throngs of people). They hae the BESt chocolate cake EVER. There is also nearby a restuarant owned by Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible. Small town, small restuarant, great regional food.

    1. Frank! Frank! Frank!!!!!

      How we’ve missed you!

      Grazie for this fabulous travel tip about the Virginia Creeper Trail! We LOVE downhill rides with a chocolate cake ending 😀 and we’ve got a hankerin’ for more North Carolina time with friends!

      Much love to you and Debbie!

      Safe & Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

  6. My husband grew up near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in northern Michigan. Many families had their lives changed when that park came in, with cabins and land being appropriated for the park. In addition, local traditions have been cut off because people can’t use the park area as they did in the past. It happens everywhere when a national park is formed. There’s good and bad in the system.

    1. Hey Melody!

      We visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore this summer!!! OMG is all I can say. Like Big Bend Bend in Texas, I was stunned by how few people were there. I was amused by how the locals were complaining about “the crowds” and we thought “where are all the people?”

      I would feel beyond blessed to grow up in such a spectacular place (I can’t wait to write that blog! I wish I could do it today, but I’d have to skip over some other spectacular places as well!) the scenery and the pristine lake took my breath away.

      Yes, we love our national parks. Citizens are dependent on these havens of rest. During the Industrial Revolution anyone with eyes could see that all would be lost if something was not quickly done to protect these delicate environments. So, the decisions made good government sense. But the history of the parks establishment – especially some of the earliest parks – and the way they went about it with relocation and displacement is not something to crow about. The history of Cade’s Cove in TN comes to mind, though it was handled with more respect for the population than Shenandoah where the mountain people were vilified in every way. Fortunately, most of the parks are allowing sunlight, education, reconciliation and healing by allowing access to indigenous people and giving the survivors access to cemeteries and permits to gather natural products to use for ceremonies and crafts.

      When people purchase a house, they want to know the history of the house, the builder, the former owners. I feel the same way when I move onto a piece of land – even if it is just for a couple of weeks. It’s as much about respect as it is curiosity. I’m a bit of a nerd that way, but it’s how I function. I need to know.

      Going into the future, I hope the US adds even more National Parks – and I think that will happen due to climate change as residents – especially in flood and fire prone zones – will be open to voluntarily relocation. People can still enjoy eco-sensitive lands and the gov would do well to open reclaimed areas to tourism.

      Thank you so much for being with us Melody!

      Safe and Happy Travels!

      Carmen@LIB

  7. Thanks for the review and all the great pictures! This is our old stomping grounds. Sue and I used to tent camp at Mathews Arm even before we were married. We also camped at Big Meadows. Love the park. I’ll bet you enjoyed towing on the Skyline Drive! Hah hah. Those caterpillars you mentioned are Gypsy Moth caterpillars and are a scourge of the park. They have killed many, many trees. I think they periodically try spraying them, but how can you treat such a large forested area? I remember camping with Sue at Mathews Arm once, and we thought it was raining. What we heard was the caterpillar poop falling from the trees. We had to cover our drinking cups with paper towels to keep the poop out. Anyway, enjoyed the post. We’re in Ennis, Texas right now at The Range. We love this park! Expensive, but we’re enjoying being here. Safe travels!

    1. Hey Steve!

      OMG. Caterpillar poop. That explains it. We’re in Mesa cleaning the trailer after our summer in the north country. Everyday we’ve work on the rig for a couple of hours cleaning off this gray-black muck which we’ve been calling “primordial goop.” Now, thanks to you we now know it’s POOP! Worse than that, it’s BUG POOOOOOP!!!!

      Okay, good to know that bug poop doesn’t keep you from your happy place. Next time we will go in with a better big poop plan and clean the rig as soon as we are down the mountain.

      Thanks for the tip about The Range at Ennis, TX

      https://therangevtr.com

      We will pin it in.

      Enjoy glamping on the range!

      Safe and Happy Travels to you and Sue!

      Carmen@LIB

      1. We have really enjoyed The Range and I think you will too. It will be one of your Five Bambi Reviews. We are sad to leave tomorrow. During the week it is peaceful but if you come, make sure you are here on the weekend when their chef is in residence and all the magic happens. On Saturday they have a big breakfast and a group dinner. You get to meet everyone. We really enjoyed that last night. Everyone brought their dogs to dinner. It was fun. They have an outdoor bar built from a 1959 Globetrotter that I’d think you’ll enjoy. Patrick the bartender will take good care of you. Sue finally got a properly made Margarita. It is not an Airstream only park, it is a vintage trailer RV park. The only modern trailers allowed are Airstreams. All of the visitors had Airstreams. Unlike an Airstream only park, there aren’t people living here in their trailers (except for the owners), so you don’t have that element. Folks of all ages and from all over were here. We met some cool folks from Wyoming, California, Massachusetts, and other states. Local Texans come for the food on Saturday. Great Wi-Fi. Sites are spaced far apart so nice and private.

  8. Hi and thanks for the wonderful review.

    If you need a communication device for areas without cellular may I recommend the Garmin In-Reach device. Prices of models vary, as do subscriptions.
    Mine allows me to use my phone to text my contacts as I normally would. Or, I can save my phone battery and text direct from my Garmin-which doubles as a full function GPS which I use while hiking.
    Communication is via satellite so anywhere with a view of the sky-I can send and receive messenges.
    It’s helpful to let someone know where I am and that I’m ok. I have the option to provide regular location updates for friends to follow. And I can receive weather forecasts.
    If I have an emergency I can hit the SOS button and help is on the other end, ready for big or small assistance.
    Garmin’s webinar on rescue protocols were very instructive.
    I also have rescue insurance which is reasonably priced. I won’t try to tough it out if I get injured out there. I’ll contact them and together we’ll decide what the best course of action is.
    I’ve had it for 4 years and love the peace of mind I have while solo camping out in the no-cell zones.

    1. Hey Dean!

      Wow. Great comment. Thank you for the excellent advice and review of Garmin In-Reach. We use the Garmin GPS but we didn’t know about In Reach. The snake was a wake-up call to better equip ourselves. Over the last couple of years we’ve only had about two close ones – I almost twisted an ankle while bouldering in an area near dusk – another time we launched out on a trail without enough water … I know, stupid, but we made it back okay. We usually return with half our water but the amateurish tourist map made the trail appear half the length – still, no excuse. Things happen out there. Having the necessary technology could prevent a tragedy for us or for others on the trail who might need assistance.

      SAFE and Happy Travels, Dean!

      Carmen@LIB

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