When I turned 62 years old, I bought myself the Senior Lifetime National Park Pass at Virginia’s Skyline Drive. It is my ticket to drive into any U.S. National Park for free the rest of my life and it only costs $80.
I love deals. And this opportunity to buy what in my mind is a lifetime adventure pass, a magic carpet ride, a travel trek bound for infinite beauty, seems incredible. I even held off this entire six months when our country (and world) was plunged into a global pandemic from visiting the Skyline Drive—gateway to the Shenandoah Mountains—because I wanted to acquire my lifetime Senior Pass before I visited in 2020.
Birthday Gift to Myself
So when my son asked what I wanted for my birthday, I said no gifts, just come with me on a day trip to see Skyline Drive … oh and please bring Calvin (his golden retriever). And so by 9 am yesterday, we are headed down Route 66 in Virginia with a half-dozen donuts covered with hot chocolate (gooey) icing, no napkins and chocolate smeared all over our faces and hands. Calvin bravely sits in his crate in the back, eagerly accepting pieces of a plain donut that I push through an opening in the crate.
One of the things I am slowly learning through this pandemic is that near is dear and that you don’t have to cross an ocean in a jet to be a female solo trekker. While my world is limited to as far as I can travel in my BMW, I have managed to safely travel as far as Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire in the north and the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina in the last six months. So this birthday I celebrated by buying myself the Lifetime Pass.
My Dream Pass
The National Park System encompasses 421 national park sites in the United States. They span across more than 84 million acres in each state and extend into the territories, including parks in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam, according to the National Park Foundation.
I can’t begin to tell you the excitement I feel as I hold the card in my hand to gaze at it. I honestly felt like I am looking in a crystal ball that shows me images that quickly slide across the surface—Acadia, Glacier, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion. These constitute the 10 most visited national parks in 2018 as measured by attendance.
Now I don’t know if I will get to see more than two of these 10 parks—Acadia and Great Smoky Mountains—in 2021. But the other Top 10 national parks are on my list to explore as soon as I can safely travel by train and plane AV (after vaccine). I understand even more dearly now how much my freedom to travel and explore have been severely limited by the coronavirus. But I also know that nature is the balm that soothes the anxious mind and hurt heart.
The slogan for the National Park Foundation is “Wonder Calls.” Truer words could not be stamped on your memories of a trip to a national park. It is one of America’s lasting legacies to future generations. As President Theodore Roosevelt, our Conservationist President explained:
“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”
So on a chilly October morning, my son and I drive down Skyline Drive. Around each curve of the road appears another overlook to mountains and majesty. I feel such joy spread in my heart and head as I scan the panoramic view before me. Through the windshield, I view cascading mountains, rolling green fields, verdant forests and that immense cornflower blue sky that rolls out like a bolt of silk fabric.
Shenandoah National Park
This gift of Shenandoah National Park—the nearest national park for me to visit—lies just 75 miles from Washington DC. It will now be my haven for a day visit or the occasional longer weekend stay, I want to tramp through hollows and forests and explore cascading waterfalls and trickling streams.
“When mentioning Shenandoah National Park, visitors often get that faraway look in their eye, fondly recalling adventures at this scenic mountain jewel rising high atop Virginia’s Appalachians.”
It was designated a national park in 1935. Shenandoah offers “200,000 acres of protected lands that are haven to deers, songbirds, and black bear,” according to the NPS.
Dickey Ridge Visitor Center
Since it is a 3.5-hour round trip from Washington D.C. to Front Royal, we only have about an hour to hike with Calvin. He is anxious to get out of his crate and roam. You are allowed to bring your dog to hike in Shenandoah National Park as long as you keep your dog on a leash. Pets are prohibited on some routes so research in advance.
First we stop at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center so I can purchase Shenandoah National Park: 50 Must-Do Hikes for Everyone by Johnny Molloy. (I also can’t resist the Shenandoah Park travel mug.)
Then we must “mug” for our family photo with the Shenandoah Valley as an overlook. I pull my mask below my nose for the photo. Another visitor offers to take our photo. His Mom calls Calvin by name so he will look directly at the camera. Then Byron and I take a selfie.
Hopping back in the car (and crate), we head south. Today, we will only drive to Elkwallow (which is located before Thornton Gap Entrance Station). Since the maximum speed is 35 miles per hour, it takes us over two hours.
According to the NPS, it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the Park on a clear day. The Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park.
Unfortunately, we can only drive a small portion.We stop at Signal Knob Overlook, Gooney Run Overlook and Hogback Overlook. Byron is also able to drive in at an overlook so I can take photos from the window of our car. Our goal is to let Calvin romp out-and-back at Compton Peak.
But we must be distracted by the views because we miss the parking area at mile 10.4. (There are wooden post mile markers blazed with the mile “number” on the Skyline Drive.) Rather than circle back, we decide to tackle Big Devils Stairs Vista. It is a moderate hike although the Bluff Trail does get hilly. Calvin sets a good pace.
Seeing signs to “Beware Bears,” my son reminds me not to run from a bear if we see one but rather slowly back away. If the bear starts to charge, we must shout at him because most charges are bluffs. Then Byron stops talking. “Is that a bear ahead?”
Yikes. It definitely looks like one.
We halt in our tracks. Byron pulls Calvin close to his side. We wait. Its rump is dark brown and the bear seems to be burrowing in the foliage. We wait a few minutes, fearing the worst. But when we decide it is not a bear, we continue our hike. Our bear turns out to be a tree stump. Ahh the imagination of the hiker, but I would rather be safe, then sorry.
Although we won’t reach the canyon rim and its panoramic view of the mountains and valley below, we do have fun. To quote Calvin, “Our hike today is pretty pawfect” and “Don’t stop retrievin’.” I pledge to return soon for a longer day hike.
Rather than head back to DC, we decided to continue driving down Skyline Drive. We pass Matthew Arm campground. The sign reads full. It is October and all the Shenandoah camp grounds often sell out every weekend in the month. I must try to return later in October on a Friday or Monday for my fall foliage trek. I want to drive the complete route from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap (South) Entrance Station. We turn around at Jeremys Run Overlook (2,410 ft. summit). On the way back toward the entrance station, we stop at Big Devils Stairs overlook.
The mountains are calling. And so with my newly purchased Senior Pass, I will pursue a lifetime of wonder to explore America’s National Parks. I couldn’t be more thrilled to commune with nature and cleave to optimism for a better tomorrow.
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”—John Muir
My heart yearns for the sanctuary of the forest wilderness, the soliloquy of the songbird, the solitary refuge of Nature. The open road is calling me.
Senior Lifetime Pass
A Senior Life Pass costs $80 for U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over.
- May be obtained in person at a federal recreation site or through the mail using the application form.
- Provides entrance or access to pass owner and accompanying passengers in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle at Federal operated recreation sites across the country.
- Photo identification may be required to verify ownership.
- Passes are NON-REFUNDABLE, NON-TRANSFERABLE, and cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.
An annual America the Beautiful NPS pass (under 62 years old) costs $80. There is a free annual pass for U.S. military and free access pass for U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities.
If you have a child in the 4th grade, the park pass is free (valid for the duration of the 4th grade school year though the following summer (September-August).