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