Chris and I started out the driveway at 6:15 in what was predicted to be the most glorious weather day one is likely to encounter in June in this area. It proved to be so! Things started off well, as we managed to avoid the godawful morning rush hour traffic on the outer loop of the Beltway. We got on to I66 without any delay, and made our way to the entrance station by 8:30, with two stops, one for breakfast, the other for gas.
We then drove pretty slowly up the hills and around the curves, stopping at a couple of overlooks to gaze into the Shenandoah Valley. Shortly, I spied a very pink Mountain Laurel just starting to bloom right next to the road. Although there was no good place to stop, this plant was just too pretty to let go. So we parked and both of us made some photos. Fortunately, it was early enough that there was not much traffic on Skyline Drive.
At 10 we came across a couple of deer alongside the road, one of which was one of only two bucks we saw in the two days. He posed nicely for a minute or two and then bounded off. Shortly thereafter, we came across a doe with a very small fawn back in the woods, but there was no place to pull off, so we drove on. We believed that we would see many more, but saw none that day.
We stopped briefly at Dickey Ridge and then drove on south. Very shortly thereafter, a young Black Bear scampered across the road in front of us. No time for even one shot. It was probably with its mother, who had gone ahead. It was the only bear that we saw, notwithstanding that others saw bears, Bobcats, Grey Fox and turkeys. They must have heard us coming, because we missed all those!
When we got to Skyland, we decided to try to check in even though it was early. We were served by a very pleasant woman who not only let us check in, but moved us to an upper level room with a balcony. We determined that we had made reservations with the National Park Reservations, which, it turns out, is not the only way to make such reservations. NPR acts like a travel agent, taking a fee. We also were not told about senior rates. These issues cost us $40 extra for one night. We were not pleased.
After dropping off our luggage, we drove up the road to a picnic area at Big Meadows and ate lunch that Chris had prepared at home. We had the place largely to ourselves and it was a most pleasing situation on a terrific day of low humidity and bright sunshine. Then we went looking for wildlife or other natural history subjects. Mostly what we discovered were some wildlfowers like this Wild Geranium. The flowers were about three weeks behind blooming down where we live and far less profuse than later in the season. Birds present were mostly common, like robins and catbirds, but we did hear many Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
After rest time in the lodge, we ventured out for late afternoon wildlife watching. I was convinced that we would see many more animals than we had so far, and probably a bear or two. As we headed south, we found a couple of small patches of Cinnamon Ferns. These are not common anywhere in the park, so far as I have seen, but are particularly attractive. Once again there was nowhere to park safely, but we pulled off the road as best we could and I raced out and made a few photos.
We decided to forego dinner at the lodge and eat another picnic to maximize our time searching in the late afternoon/evening, so stopped at the store at Big Meadows and picked up some cheese and crackers.
We traveled south from Big Meadows about five miles and found almost nothing there. This has been the pattern in the past too. For whatever reason, most of the desired natural history subjects are at and to the north of Big Meadows. We ate our picnic at Lewis Mountain picnic area, watching Bluebirds, Robins and a few other birds, before heading back north.
By this time the light was getting low and very nicely colored. At Big Meadows, I hiked out into the grasses and worked a photogenic snag that has been there for years. It would have been nice to have had a bird or animal posing in this dead tree, but it was bare.
There were five does out in the meadow, widely spaced, and seemingly without their fawns. My guess is that the fawns had been left back in the woods, but it is possible that they were just hunkered down in the vegetation. One of the does came close to the road and I eased out and photographed her with my 600mm lens. She was quite habituated to people, tolerated me like I was just another shrub and at one point seemed to be talking to me. Perhaps complainign that I had not paid the fee to photograph her!
Before returning to the lodge we drove further north to an overlook and parked. Across the road was a Rose Azalea, a beautiful blooming shrub, that is nowhere common. There is a bush here, a bush there, but never two together for some reason. The blossoms look like pink honeysuckle blooms.
At this point, the light was about gone, so we returned to our room and
watched the sun set over the ridges of West Virginia from our balcony. It was a very nice end to a perfect day. The temp was moderate, the humidity low, and there was absolutely no sound other than a few birds making their last songs of the day. It was magical! Sleep was not a problem that night!
In the morning we were out early again, hoping for a bear or a fawn. The latter was easy when we got to Big Meadow. There were at least four does out in the fields with small fawns. One ear-tagged doe was very close to the road, so I parked on the roadside as close as possible. We watched as the fawn nursed a little, but the doe had other ideas. She was ready to cross the road and go back into the woods for the day. She moved slowly but steadily towards the road. The fawn dawdled and appeared befuddled. The doe went out on the road and hesitated; the fawn followed slowly. She moved up on the grass on the far side. The fawn came out in the road. Then it got frightened for whatever reason. The different texture of the road on its feet? There was no one anywhere near the fawn, but now intimidated, it retreated to the field and stood for a moment in the plants just staring ahead. Then it lay down, flattened out, and stuck its head into the the plants, becoming almost invisible. The doe stayed on the far side of the road, stomping her feet and making some low noises, but the fawn stayed down. The doe finally had had enough of the drama and wandered up the lawn and back into the woods. People regularly find fawns like this seemingly abandoned, but they never are. The does know exactly where they have left the fawn and come back for them later. In this case, probably in the late afternoon.
By 8 AM, the show was over. Each of the five does had left the fields and taken their fawns with them, when the latter cooperated. It was time for breakfast at the lodge restaurant.
A ” free” breakfast was included for each of us in our room charge, so we did not want to miss this opportunity. It turned out that this included a regular entree, juice and coffee. When the meal arrived on the table, both Chris and I realized we could not eat it all. We normally share restaurant meals and this one was no exception. We ate what we could of the 3 egg omelet, English muffin and fried potatos. Then we asked for a box to take the remains home for our fox. The waiter showed some skepticism when we requested a “box for the fox. ” (It turned out that the omelet remains were plenty for my breakfast at home the following morning!)
Following breakfast, we returned to our room and checked out. At the parking lot was a rather tame chipmunk that finally allowed me to photograph it. The first successful image of this species in the park!
Then we went a-lookin again. It was getting late in the morning, so we didn’t really expect to find any critters walking around and birds in the park are typically difficult to photograph because they are mostly tree birds that hang out amongst the leaves. We found some Wild Columbine that I was able to photograph in the shade and also some other unrecognizable flowers. Both turned out to be domestic cultivars that someone had planted. We confirmed this at the Big Meadows Visitors Center. Someone had been allowed to spread “1000 seeds” and some were clearly not wildflowers as promised.
After munching on a few crackers for lunch (neither of us were hungry after that big breakfast), we debated on what to do. The next three or four hours would be dead for wildlife, so we would have to wait that time somewhere and then expect to get home really late. Arrival at the Beltway after 4 would mean nasty rush hour traffic that neither of us wanted to get into. So we decided to head on home.
We stopped briefly at Dickey Ridge Visitor’s Center where I had a couple of questions. While chatting with a ranger I heard him mention Yellow Lady Slippers to another tourist. That got my attention. I asked about where they could be found and the ranger, Larry Morgan, said he thought they were done blooming, but went to a back office and asked a botanist. He came back and said that Pink Lady Slippers could be found near Matthews Arm Camping area.
Sounded great, except this campground was 17 miles south, back in the direction we had just come. So a big dilemma: do we backtrack and use up 1.5 hours before heading home, or just forget abut the lady slippers? Chris didn’t feel very well, so I thought maybe the best thing would be to just go home.
But Chris is a “trooper.” Without hesitation she said, “lets go get the lady slippers.” and off we went south. Larry had given us excellent directions for the trail location and we found it with no problem. We headed down a rather steep trail, with switchbacks and a lot of rocks. It was hard for Chris with her progressive glasses. I kept looking to the left for the flowers, not knowing how far off the trail they were supposed to be. I had just about given up hope when there, right by the trail, were the lady slippers. Some on the left, three or four on the right.
This flower used to be rather common in decidious woods in the east, but has grown quite rare. Probably because deer love them and deer have multiplied all over the northeast to the point that they are a nuisance. But also because people have tried to transplant this gorgeous and unusual wildflower. Lady slippers are notoriously difficult to successfully transplant and almost impossible to raise from seed.
In any case, we both made nice photos of the lady slippers and then climbed the trail up to the parking lot and headed north. We were to Front Royal by 2:40, stopped long enough for a special McDonalds hot fudge sundae to celebrate a great two days and especially the last flowers, and cleared the town by 2:55. We made the Beltway before 4 and took the special pay lane, expecting heavy traffic. It did not appear until those lanes ended. We had two or three miles of very heavy traffic until we turned off at the Clara Barton Parkway and made our way home.