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BIG MEADOWS CAMPGROUND
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Big Meadows is Shenandoah National Park's largest treeless area, encompassing a barren plateau that is approximately 640 acres. It's believed that Native Americans cleared the area to create favorable grazing conditions. European settlers overgrazed this site with beef cattle, especially during the Civil War. Park officials have waged an ongoing battle against the growth of black locust and blackberry that would, if left unchecked, take over the meadow. In the past, Park Service officials used combinations of burning and mowing to hold back the growth of invasive vegetation, but eventually realized that the burning actually helped the black locust and blackberry spread. New strategies have aided in the establishment of meadow grasses. Today the dominant shrub growth in the meadow is blueberry with swamp varieties such as marsh marigold, swamp fern, and Canadian burnet growing in wetter areas with some 270 species of vascular plants. In addition to the white-tailed deer taht wander seemingly carefree through the meadow, you're also likely to see song sparrows, meadowlarks, grouse, foxes, and skunks.
The park's dedication was held at Big Meadows, the spiritual center of Skyline Drive, on July 3, 1936. President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself was on hand to formally open the facilities at Shenandoah National Park. The meadow is located across from Skyline Drive from the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, which houses informative exhibits, a library, an auditorium, interpretive programs, and an array of literature pertaining to Shenandoah National Park that is on sale in the small gift shop.
Big Meadows, with its visitor center, lodge, restaurant, and campground, is located in the central section of the park at mile 51.2. After pulling off Skyline Drive near the Byrd Visitor Center, follow the signs to the registration station for Big Meadows Campground. Its 217 sites are situated on two large loops, the front one comprising loops P through T and the rear section containing U through Y, which are designated as RV sites despite the lack of hookups.
Of the 178 non-RV sites, 144 are traditional drive-in campsites and 35 are walk-in tent sites. The drive-in sites are spacious and separated by considerable foliage. Park officials did a good job of placing a large number of sites close to each other without sacrificing seclusion. This is, of course, relative; those fo you who relish your oslitude will accept the slight inconvenience of walking 10-20 yards and opt for one of the walk-in sites.
The walk-in sites are set off in the wooded edge of Big Meadows Campground and are very private. Sites P4-P10 are set between the main entrance road and the camp road and tend to be noisier than the others, but appealing sites P29-34 and P44-53 are set off by themselves in the woods. P12-21 and P24-34 are in grassy and less-heavily wooded areas but are still highly desirable if you don't mind carrying your gear a short distance to your site. Big Meadows Campground is a popular stopover for campers in Shenandoah National Park, especially in the fall; and it is the only one that accepts reservations. If you can plan your stay during the week, you'll find considerably fewer neighbors, but calling ahead is a good idea any time.
As in the rest of this nearly 300-square-mile park through which 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail passes, there is no shortage of hiking trails. However, the Big Meadows area is especially blessed with trails for hikers of varied age and ability levels. The 1.8-mile Story of the Forest Nature Trail is a relatively easy walk starting from the Byrd Visitor Center. Interpretive signs explain various aspects of the surrounding forest. The 3.3-mile Lewis Falls Trail provides more of a challenge in terms of length and change in elevation after it exits from the amphitheater parking lot. The hike to the 81-foot falls is worth the effort.
Camp Hoover (aka Rapidian Camp), located across from Big Meadows 6.3 miles down the Rapidan Fire Road, was a favorite getaway for President Herbert Hoover. The walk to Camp Hoover can be shortened to a 4-mile out-and-back by taking the Mill Prong Trail. Camp Hoover is a beautiful spot where 3 of the original 13 cabins remain at the confluence of Mill Prong, Laurel Prong, and the Rapidan River. In the summer, three-hour van tours are available several days a week. Sign up in advance at the Byrd Visitor Center.