Explore Geology
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National Park


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
hikers at Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

The Park Beyond the Drive
Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge, which forms the eastern rampart of the Appalachian Mountains between Pennsylvania and Georgia. In the valley to the west is the Shenandoah River, from which the park gets its name, and between the north and south forks of the river is Massanutten, a 40-mile-long mountain. To the east is the rolling Piedmont country. Providing vistas of the spectacular landscape is Skyline Drive, a winding road that runs along the Blue Ridge through the length of the park.

Most of the rocks that form the Blue Ridge are ancient granitic and metamorphosed volcanic formations, some exceeding one billion years in age. By comparison, humans have been associated with this land only about 9,000 years. Primitive food gatherers and, later, Indian hunters used the land for centuries but left little evidence of their presence. Settlement of the Shenandoah Valley began soon after the first expedition crossed the Blue Ridge in 1716. Many of the settlers came "up river", north to south, from Pennsylvania. By 1800, the lowlands had been settled by farmers, while the rugged mountains were still relatively untouched. Later, as valley farmland became scarce, settlement spread into the mountains. The mountain farmers cleared land, hunted wildlife, and grazed sheep and cattle. By the 20th century, these people had developed a culture of their own, born from the harshness and isolation of mountain living. However, the forests were shrinking, game animals were disappearing, the thin mountain soil was wearing out, and people were beginning to leave.

In 1926 Congress authorized the establishment of Shenandoah National Park. The Commonwealth of Virginia then purchased nearly 280 square miles of land to be donated to the Federal Government. More than half of the population had left the mountain area, and the remaining residents sold their land or were relocated with government assistance. In dedicating the park in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a novel experiment in returning an overused area to its original natural beauty. Recreational facilities were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and in 1939 Skyline Drive was completed. Croplands and pastures soon became overgrown with shrubs, locusts, and pine; these in turn were replaced by oak, hickory, and other trees that make up a mature deciduous forest. Now, more than 95 percent of the park is covered by forests with about 100 species of trees. The vegetative regeneration has been so complete that in 1976 Congress designated two-fifths of the park as wilderness. The largest remaining open area is Big Meadows, which is being kept in its historically open condition by management fires. Here, the abundance of wildflowers, strawberries, and blueberries attract both wildlife and humans.

Deer, bear, bobcat, turkey, and other animals that were formerly rare or absent have now returned. Deer and such smaller animals as chipmunk, raccoon, skunk, opossum, and gray squirrel are frequently seen. Bear are found mostly in backcountry areas but are occasionally spotted elsewhere. About 200 species of birds have been recorded. A few, such as ruffed grouse, barred owl, raven, woodpeckers, and junco, are permanent residents. Many more are seen during the warmer months. These include flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, and 35 species of warblers. The park is home to several species of salamanders, and two poisonous snakes, the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead, are occasionally reported, as are several harmless species.

The park is a place of changing scenes, changing moods, changing opportunities. The differences are especially dramatic as the seasons change. Spring begins in March with the blooming of red maple, serviceberry, and hepatica. Chipmunks and groundhogs appear. The weather may change quickly. The green of leafing trees moves up the ridge at the rate of about 100 feet a day and does not reach the peaks until late May. Many wildflowers come into bloom during April and May, when the large-flowered trillium carpets the forest floor. Pink azalea blooms in late May followed by mountain laurel in June. Migrating birds in their breeding plumage are numerous. The park visitor encounters new sights, colors, sound—everywhere. Summer brings a mantle of deep green to the ridges and hollows.Many birds are nesting, and the catbird, chestnut-sided warbler, indigo bunting, and towhee abound. Fawns are often seen. The variety of wildflowers increases as the summer progresses, and by late summer many species cover the roadsides and open areas. Fall is the season of brilliant colors and clear, crisp days. Many people come to the park to see the fall color, which usually is at its best between October 10 and 25. The southward migration of birds is highlighted by large numbers of hawks moving along the ridge. Most facilities close about November 1, but Skyline Drive remains open. Winter, with its many clear days and lack of leaves, offers the best opportunities for distant views and finding evidence of the people who once lived here. Skyline Drive is closed during and after periods of bad weather, because of the buildup of ice and snow on the road.

Whatever time of year you are here, many new sights and discoveries await you. Between Skyline Drive and the park boundaries are ridges and valleys, hills and hollows, laced with sparkling streams and waterfalls. Trails take you into the forest of Shenandoah where you can see plants and animals and experience the beauty and peace of this vast recycled land. This is your park, please take time to enjoy it and to discover some of its many secrets beyond the Drive.

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A geology photo album has for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

Parks are ideal locations for research to be conducted because resource conditions are generally good or pristine and land use is not changing rapidly. Significant numbers of scientists approach the park each year with interests in conducting research in the park. Thus, the National Park Service supports an active research program.

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/Geology/parks/shen/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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