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Big Meadows in the Shenandoah National Park - Virginia

Oxeye Daisy

Oxeye Daisy, Big Meadows - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Lisel Shoffner Powell | E-Mail | Robert Kemmerlin | E-Mail | Updated 3-08-2010


The Shenandoah National Park is a narrow strip of land along the Shenandoah River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with an area of approximately 300 square miles. The park's main road, Skyline Drive, winds visitors along 105 miles of scenic views. Conceived and built nearly 80 years ago, the park has subsequently treated millions of visitors to its beauty. Nearly 80,000 of the 200,000 acres of the park are designated as wilderness, which is protected as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, making Shenandoah the largest fully protected area in the mid-Appalachian region.

While the park offers a multitude of beautiful and inspiring locations, Big Meadows is particularly special for those who are fond of wildlife. Located geographically near the center of the Shenandoah National Park, Big Meadows is situated over 3500 feet above sea level and offers picturesque views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. BIg Meadows has the most visible and studied wetlands within the park and contains two wetlands that support globally rare plant communities believed to be endemic to the park. These wetland areas also support eight plant species rare in the state of Virginia, a state listed snake species, and a rare insect species.

Nature Perspective

White-tailed Deer

Doe and fawn, Big Meadows - Robert Kemmerlin

The Shenandoah National Park provides a buffer to human activities allowing a diverse selection of wildlife to be available for future generations to observe. Early European settlers reported an abundant variety of animals that had disappeared by the mid-1800s including bison, elk, beaver, otters, timber wolf, white- tailed deer, cougars, turkey, black bear, and bobcats. Recently, most of these species have returned to the park due to reintroduction or natural population recovery. Further, the park offers a range of ecosystems including mountains, forests, streams, and wetlands. These ecosystems provide a multitude of habitats for the many species of wildlife that make their home in the park: over 50 species of mammals, 51 reptile and amphibian species, and 200 plus bird species. Big Meadows alone contains an abundance of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects, some of which are not found anywhere else in the park.

Seasonally, summer is high season for fawn viewing in the park. Big Meadows is one of the best locations on the East coast to find white-tailed deer that are acclimated to humans and will allow you to approach within reasonable distances. Fall can also be an excellent time to visit Big Meadows, as you witness the deer rut. With numerous black bear throughout the park, you are also likely to find them close to where you find the young deer.


Goatsbeard, Big Meadows - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Wilderness Experience Perspective

As you approach the Big Meadows on Skyline Drive you will find a sign directing you to the Big Meadows Lodge. Directly on the other side of the drive is the meadow itself. The road is slightly elevated so the entire expanse of the meadow is visible.

Locating deer at Big Meadows is as simple as looking out your car window. In fact the entire road up to the lodge is excellent for deer observation opportunites. They are simply everywhere. The meadow has a series of deer trails that make walking around easy and is surrounded by forest that can be penetrated via the deer trails. While walking into the meadow is not necessary for wildlife viewing, it provides a better opportunity for viewing wildflowers and for special interactions with the deer (no petting please, though the animals are fairly tame, they are still wild animals that can be unpredictable).

The location is fairly remote so you should plan on staying in the park. While there are several lodges and campgrounds available, the Big Meadows Lodge complex is the most convenient of the park's facilities. The complex is totally self-sufficient, with an excellent restaurant for your meals, an amphitheatre that offers ranger programs, and a bar with live entertainment.

Because the lodge is close to the shooting location, you waste no time returning to your room for that midday break to down-load images or take a nap. Despite the many advantages of Big Meadows Lodge, staying at one of the other facilities offers the opportunity to look for wildlife while driving up and down Skyline Drive. The Big Meadows Campground, located at Milepost 51 on Skyline Drive, has more than 200 campsites and is a family oriented campground with access to hiking trails, ranger led programs, and concession facilities. Campsites include a place for a tent or RV, a fire ring, and a picnic table.

Fawn running

Fawn running, Big Meadows - Robert Kemmerlin

Photography Perspective

Morning tends to be the best time to photograph deer in the meadow. Be at the meadow when the sun comes up and watch the edge of the woods for deer coming out to feed. Once you have identified which deer you would like to photograph, simply walk on one of the many trails through the meadow to the deer.

We had no problems approaching the moms with fawns (note you shouldn't approach close enough to alter behavior), in fact they usually worked their way toward us as they moved to the edges of the fields. We would advise not putting yourself between the moms and their fawns but sometimes that will just happen due to the playful nature of the fawns.

Deer are not the only animals easy to find in the park, at the bottom of the stairs to our room we found a luna moth. Actias luna ranks as one of the largest moths in North America.

From the room's back deck we could see a group of Peregrine Falcons that had been relocated to the park. Almost every time we sat on the deck, there were peregrines flying over the small field behind the lodge. We even watched as one of the peregrines took a small bird right out of a tree! Although we saw black bears daily, we had a little more trouble locating bears that were suitable for photography. The weather was a little warm for the bears to be out in the open.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth, Big Meadows - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Gear/equipment Suggestions

  • Field glasses/Binoculars - Field glasses are a good idea for spotting wildlife across fields and in trees.

  • Insect Repellent - This is particularly important if you plan to walk in the fields where ticks and mosquitos can be vicious.

Location and Points of Interest

There are four entrances into Shenandoah National Park and numerous gateway communities that offer services. The park's four entrances are located at:

  • Front Royal, accessible via I-66 and Route 340
  • Thornton Gap, accessible via Route 211
  • Swift Run Gap, accessible via Route 33
  • Rockfish Gap, accessible via I-64 and Route 250
White-tailed Deer Buck

Buck, Big Meadows - Robert Kemmerlin

From the Washington, D.C. Metro Area - Travel west on Interstate 66 to exit 43A (32 miles). Take US Highway 29 South to Warrenton, Virginia (11 miles). Take US Highway 211 west to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive Thornton Gap Entrance (28 miles). Take Skyline Drive south approximately 19 miles and turn right into the Big Meadows area. Follow the signs to the Big Meadows Campground.

From the Richmond, Virginia Area - Travel west on Interstate 64 to exit 136 for Zion Cross-Roads, Virginia (45 miles). Take exit to US Highway 15 north (11 miles). Turn onto US Highway 33 west and follow 28 miles to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive (Swift Run Gap Entrance). Take Skyline Drive north approximately 15 miles and turn left into the Big Meadows area. Follow the signs to the Big Meadows Campground.

From the Winchester ,Virginia Area - Follow I-81 South approximately 50 miles to Exit 264 for US Highway 211. Take US Highway 211 east and follow approximately 23 miles to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive (Thornton Gap Entrance). Take Skyline Drive south for approximately 19 miles and turn right into the Big Meadows area. Follow the signs to the Big Meadows Campground.

From the Staunton, Virginia Area -  Follow I-81 North approximately 25 miles to Exit 247 for US Highway 33 east. Take US Highway 33 east and follow approximately 21miles to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive (Swift Run Entrance). Take Skyline Drive north approximately 15 miles and turn left into the Big Meadows area. Follow the signs to the Big Meadows Campground.

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