A warm, dense fog encapsulated us, clouding every lookout point and at times rendering our view no further than 10 feet in front of our car. Though disappointed to be visiting a park chock full of vistas on such a damp, foggy day, my best friend Jamie and I continued the twisting climb up Skyline Drive, surrounded by the lush green rolling foothills of the Shenandoah mountains.
Shenandoah National Park is about two hours south of Washington D.C., in the town of Luray, VA. Having spent ample time in Virginia over the past couple of years, Jamie has explored much of the state. From wineries to cider breweries, mountain ranges, rivers, and gorges, quaint hillside towns and progressive cities of DC and Richmond, I realized quickly that my trip would be barely scratching the surface of all that Virginia has to offer.
Black bears roam Shenandoah with a frequency that almost guarantees a sighting. The unofficial park motto seems to be “Keep Bears Wild” and bear warnings appear throughout the park, urging visitors to dispose of their trash properly. Almost every souvenir at the Visitor's Center has a bear on it. Jamie, who formerly lived in Sperryville, VA on a year-long farming venture, has had numerous bear encounters in Shenandoah. On the drive down she recounted a sighting in a parking lot near a populated picnic area. The bear, unafraid, ambled around the parking lot as several visitors began inching far too close to snap photos. The bear began gnashing its teeth and appearing alarmed at the intrusion so Jamie took refuge in her car. Another time, she was hiking solo only to look uphill at a large black bear, unmoving and gazing down at her from a ledge. Bear sighting protocol dictates that one remains facing the bear at all costs, taking large, slow steps backward away from the bear, and speaking firmly and slowly. (She remembers a one-sided conversation of "Hi Mr. Bear, I'm leaving now. No worries, Mr. Bear!")
Once out of sight, she (as most would) turned and ran.
Black bear encounters are most often survivable as they can be docile and are not generally territorial. In May, however, newborn cubs and mother bears are a common sighting and one that requires extra caution.
To make up for the fog-cloaked views, I wanted nothing more than to spot a bear. We had two hikes planned for the morning, as torrential downpour was imminent. The first was Stony Man Overlook, a short, semi-steep hike to a rock ledge overlook. The wet ground crunched under our feet, as we loudly gabbed away as long-lost friends do. Not very many people, and no bears. The lookout point provided a panorama of miles of deep forest green. Our second hike, Rose Rock Trail, descended to the base of a waterfall, full and flowing in late May. Tour buses, young children, visitors crowding the trails are all not conducive to bear sightings — I was beginning to get discouraged.
After our second hike, the impending rain forced us to head into Luray for lunch. Just as I had given up, two tiny brown puppy-like figures bounded across the road. I braked hard, rolling down my window and peering into the woods beyond. The hulking figure of a mama bear made its way slowly through the trees with three just-born cubs playfully loping behind her. Jamie and I peered into the woods, watching the little family mosey along undisturbed.
Our day was complete, and I left the park in a rush of excitement from our last minute stroke of luck. Having been hiking in Colorado countless times, through Alaska by train, and up and down central California, my first ever, in-the-flesh bear spotting occurred in none other than Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.