Where the Rhinos Are (Not)

Today we left before sunrise to hike Overall Run in Shenandoah National Park. The main falls can be accessed by hiking down from Skyline Drive, but we opted for a longer loop hike that started from the park perimeter and connected with the Beecher Ridge trail to bring us back down. Apart from the rushing waters of the run; the waterfall (one of the longest continuous falls in Virginia); and the beautiful mountain views, we hoped the hike might result in a bear sighting, as the Beecher Ridge trail reportedly goes through some of their favorite territory and bears are often spotted there. We have seen bears on multiple occasions in the more remote, southern section of the park, but never this far north.

A few years ago while visiting Maymont, a Richmond park that houses a wildlife sanctuary, I observed two small children run up to the bear enclosure and shout, “Look Mom, look at the rhinos!” The children were immediately set straight by Mom, but from that day forward we began using “rhinos” as a code word for “bears” whenever we went hiking. You might very well wonder why two mature adults need a code word for bears. I couldn’t possibly comment.

The first leg of this hike is an exquisite and gentle climb alongside Overall Run, which the trail crosses several times.

ImageAfter several crossings, the trail veers away from the run and becomes a lot less gentle. For a while we switchbacked steeply up the mountain, reminding ourselves how much fun we were having, although we were encouraged by a rare bear corn sighting. This non-photosynthesizing plant, which appears only in spring, is beloved by bears:

ImageShortly after spotting the bear corn, we arrived at the main overlook. First comes a sumptuous view of the Massanutten range to the west:


Just past this viewpoint, a large rock outcropping affords a view of the Overall Run falls. The more daring you are, the better a photo you can get:

ImageAfter the falls, a few connector trails took us to the Beecher Ridge trail, which is a peaceful but mostly unremarkable forest trail where we remained on high alert for rhinos. Especially without my glasses, every tree stump ahead looked like a bear cub to me for a while. Alas, it was a classic case of too many people, too few rhinos. Although the Beecher Ridge trail had far less traffic than the Overall Run trail, there clearly had been others through the woods before us this morning, and the rhinos had retreated. We were nonetheless rewarded for our efforts by the first mountain laurel sighting of the season:


To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, we are kindest to bears when we are not too close to them. While it is always a thrill to see one in the wild, I am also quite happy to imagine them curled up beneath a white pine tree for a springtime nap, tummies full of bear corn, far from the madding crowd.


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