Skyline Drive, August

Early on the morning of August 14, we headed out Route 66 for the 80 miles to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, to celebrate Chris’s recent birthday.  We were hoping to spot a bear or two, but that was not to be.  Notwithstanding that this park supposedly has the highest concentration of black bears in the US, we have only seen one in all our trips there!

We had not visited this park since July 2011, and what a different a year and a month make.  It was a month later in the season, so virtually all breeding had ceased, and it has been an exceptionally hot and dry summer.  Birds were in short supply and the wildflower scene was much changed, with different species coming into bloom.  The roadsides were covered with yellow composites, mostly Woodland Sunflowers, but a few Black-eyed Susans and Grey-headed Coneflowers.

We stopped briefly at the  Dicky Ridge Visitors Center.  There were plenty of butterflies here, but the gnats were also abundant, so photographing was rather unpleasant.  The butterflies were mostly on thistle, as the milkweed that is usually common here, were done blooming.

We continued on, stopping periodically to check things out, but stopped for lunch at the Pinnicles Picnic area.  Near Pinnicles, right a MP 37, is a big patch of Purple Coneflowers, the only place in all of Shenandoah NP that I have seen this flower.  I suspect that they were planted by a visitor some time in the past, as they are well established now.  They are quite attractive to butterflies and I was able to make a very nice image of a Painted Lady on one bloom.

Following lunch we stopped at Skyland Lodge, where we had reservations for the night.  Unfortunately, Skyland will not allow one to make reservations at specific rooms or lodges (there are something like a dozen buildings, some with great views; others with essentailly no views).  We negotiated with the desk people, telling them we wanted a room with a nice view of the Shenandoah Valley far below, and were able to obtain one.

After getting our suitcases into the room and enjoying an hour on the balcony, we drove further south to Big Meadows.  This is my favorite location in the park.  Chris took a quick look at the gift shop while I spotted a few juncos.  Then we drove back to the camping and picnic area to the west.  Here there are almost always deer and we were not to be disappointed.

At far end of  the picnic area were two fawns of the year without their mother.  They were about half grown, but still had their spots and were grazing voraciously.  Two young Asians with a golden retriever were watching one that was right next to the pavement.  Normally when a dog sees a deer it gives chase immediately.  Normally when a deer sees a dog it takes off.  Neither happened!  The dog just observed nonchalantly (it was on a leash) and the deer paid no attention whatsoever to the dog. 

I followed the one fawn into the woods where it joined the other fawn.  I made many images as the thunder began and lightning struck.  I thought we were in for a huge storm, but the rain never materialized.  I decided that I had enough photos as the fawns wandered further away.  We drove a bit further south, but saw nothing of importance so drove back to the lodge.

We cleaned up and went to the dining room for dinner.  It was not full, fortunately, as I can imagine it is overwhelmed during color season.  We had a tastey dinner, but the best part of this experience was watching the low clouds and fog roll up the mountain from the valley and engulf the lodge buildings.  They completely obscured the setting sun for a few minutes, but over dessert, the sun again appeared, and there were patches of open sky.  It was a very unusual skyscape which we enjoyed.  Of course, I did not have my camera along!

We returned to the lodge and sat out on our balcony as the darkness gathered.  We both made some nice images of the colorful sky and the twinkling lights of the Shenandoah Valley, far below.

The following morning we again drove south to Big Meadows and poked around a bit before eating breakfast at the dining room there.  Chris also visited the gift shop.  After breakfast we slowly drove north, stopping briefly to check out of the lodge. 

We hit paydirt at the Jewell Hollow Overlook parking lot.  On the east side of the road was an abundance of Purple Bergamot and a few late blooming Milkweeds.  The butterflies were everywhere, mostly Tiger Swallowtails, but also a few Monarchs.  We spent some time here working these Swallowtails.  It was interesting that almost all the female Tigers were the black form, a form that evolved to mimic the bad tasting Pipevine Swallowtail.

Back in the car we noticed that Joe Pye Weed was still blooming in a few locations.  This butterfly favorite was doing well just south of the tunnel and we stopped here.  There were dozens of swallowtails, sometimes six on one plant.  Strangely, only a few miles north of the previous location, almost all the female Tigers were now the traditional yellow. There were also a few Spicebush Swallowtails.  I was able to make the best butterfly images of the trip here. 

Amidst the Joe Pye Weed were lots of Purple-flowered Raspberries, a large plant that is almost a bush.  They not only had some gorgeous blooms, but also a few ripe berries that I tasted.  Not much flavor!

We drove on out of the park and ate lunch in Front Royal.  Chris wanted to check out the antique shops along Main Street here, so I parked the car and myself in a little community park and snoozed.  The other clientele of the park were not very conducsive to my sleeping however, doing a lot of shouting.  I suspect some non-prescription pharmacuticals were involved, so I was happy when Chris was finished and we could drive on home!