I visited two of the country’s most underrated National Parks — here’s what it was like

As someone who indulged my driving anxiety by spending the last ten years in dense cities with great public transportation systems, I sometimes still catch myself feeling a child-like wonder at the freedom of the road and the expanded horizons that a car can offer.

While trains and buses will take you to many new cities and touristy small towns, most of the United States’ best natural wonders are not accessible except by car. This country has 63 designated National Parks and, despite loving nature, I have not been to any of them except for a trip to the Grand Canyon which was long before I ventured to New York from Canada for graduate school in 2015.

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And so this year was the Thanksgiving weekend that I took up an invitation to join some friends on a road trip to cross off two national parks: Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and West Virginia’s New River Gorge. The parks are a three-hour drive between each other and easily accessible from cities such as D.C., Pittsburgh and Richmond. For those willing to spend five hours in the car, it can also be a fun weekend trip from Philadelphia or New York.

The view from the cabin near Shenandoah National Park.

Veronika Bondarenko

An outsider look at the country’s National Parks system

Before going, people asked me questions ranging from: “Are you camping?” to: “But what are you going to do there?” I guess you either feel the pull of nature or you don’t.

I wanted to question my own choice as I felt the biting mountain chill on my face and watched my white boots sink deeper and deeper into mud. I wanted to ask: “Are you sure we took the right turn at that tree junction we passed fifteen minutes ago?” and just finish off the day with some greasy food at a diner at the foot of the mountain.

National Park Visitor Centers typically have rangers, a space to hang out with a view of the park and a space to stamp your passport.

Veronika Bondarenko

Visitors centers, passport-stamping and a well-loved national brand

My travel companions and colleagues with more National Park experience than me explained that the U.S. National Park Service is a strong and beloved brand. Each one has a visitors center with information about the trails and maps, a place to sit and buy souvenirs and, since 1986, a place where you can get a stamp for the parks you’ve visited. Some people go all the way by also purchasing tokens. Despite not having any other National Park visits lined up in my future, I couldn’t resist purchasing the $12.95 passport and putting my first stamps in it (they are officially called “Cancellations” to mirror the stamp one gets when entering and exiting countries).

Mining towns, a winding river and the New River Gorge Bridge

New River Gorge is a smaller, 70,000-acre National Park best known for the 3,030-foot arched bridge of the same name — the view of it peeking out from the mist over the winding whitewater river (you can raft through it in the summer) and surrounding hundred-year-old oaks was especially stunning.

A series of steep steps leads onto a viewpoint for the New River Gorge Bridge.

Veronika Bondarenko

The New River Gorge Bridge closes to traffic for a crossing festival one day a year.

Veronika Bondarenko

If you’re spending more time in the park, you can also drive around to several of the old mining towns. I quickly realized that the inconvenience of getting my boots muddy pales to what was experienced by those who worked the mines in search of profit.

North entrance to Shenandoah National Park. 

Veronika Bondarenko

Shenandoah National Park is a gem

Shenandoah National Park, meanwhile, spans 160,000 acres through both the Appalachian and the Blue Ridge Mountains. While we were past peak fall foliage, I still saw stunning panoramas of the sun streaming on the hardwood forest and the small white homes in the valley below. My traveling companions and I did the moderately challenging Dickey Ridge Trail from the visitors center and later drove out to several lookout points as the sun began to set.

Shenandoah National Park has captivated generations of travelers.

Veronika Bondarenko

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Despite spending two nights at a nearby cabin, I felt like I had only seen a small portion of the park so beloved by Franklin Roosevelt. I highly recommend driving the entire length of the 105-mile Skyline Drive and stopping at the many overlooks along the way. You cannot help but feel at one with Henry David Thoreau and all others who saw nature as a way to find something within yourself.

No matter how many people (and animals) passed through these trails before me, an isolated part of the hike made me feel like I was the first to feel this sense of wonder and marvel at my own small place in the greater world. Such is the power of nature, I guess. 

Moved by this wanderlust, I came back to the city with a new and very expensive dream of getting a stamp for my passport at the other 60 National Parks.

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