Assuming jars of honey are not acceptable...
July 16, 2009 12:36 PM   Subscribe

How can we maximize our bear sighting opportunities when we visit Shenandoah National Park?

My girlfriend and I are going to be staying at Skyland Resort when we visit Shenandoah from September 17-20 this year. The last time we visited (last Halloween), we stayed in a cabin outside the park, and despite hinking multiple times within the park we were disappointed to depart after not having seen a bear.

We have read this page on bear safety and have every intention of being as safe as possible. That being said, we really would like to see some bears! We aren't going to go leaving trash (or honey jars) around, so what should we do? There is only one road through the park, so other than the chance encounter along the main road, is there somewhere we should hike to? (We don't necessarily want to meet one in person! Just see one/a few in the wild) Are dawn/dusk hours better for seeing them? Should we just hang out on our porch and keep watch? Hang out in the car in a parking lot up the road after sunset? Are we pre-defeated by the season in which we are visiting? I figured fall is better than winter.

Any hints or tips would be appreciated, and of course personal anecdotes are welcome.

Also, if you have any favorite half day hikes in the park, we would love to hear about them.
posted by kenbennedy to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I do not know about that park but when I saw bears in Sequoia national park it was when I got up early and either just sat near a camp or drove quietly in the early dawn.
posted by Iron Rat at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2009

As an anecdotal tip, I was just in North Shenendoah not a month ago camping, and saw a huge bear (for a black bear) cross the main road on our way home very very close to us. It was fairly early in the morning and we were not near any marked hiking trails or campsites in the park- it was a pretty isolated part of the road. There was a road biker in front of our car who was significantly less excited than we were from the safety of our car.
posted by whodatninja at 1:01 PM on July 16, 2009

Ask the park rangers were they've spotted bears most recently, because you want to avoid those locations. Then go to those locations.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:22 PM on July 16, 2009

Your chances of seeing black bear would likely be exponentially greater about 40 miles further south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, around the Peaks of Otter Lodge. There is simply more space and less population pressure on bears there, whereas the Shenandoah Park section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is among the heaviest traveled and hiked area of the Blue Ridge, especially in fall.

While there are bear in the Shenandoah Park, those that frequently come around lodges, trails or other areas where people are generally to be found, are frequently reported, and moved by wildlife officials. If you are insistent on finding such animals, be aware that you probably won't be the first humans to contact them, in a Shenandoah Park setting, and act with appropriate care.

All that said, I suggest if you are looking for bear encounters, go fishing, early of a morning. Bear, like humans, need a fair amount of water, and like fish. You fish enough in bear country, you'll see bear.
posted by paulsc at 1:30 PM on July 16, 2009

On a backpacking trip in Shenandoah many years ago a bobcat visited us in our camp. pretty cool, but like most truly wild animal encounters they are hard to plan for. good luck.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:31 PM on July 16, 2009

I saw a bear near Old Rag around dusk several years ago. Some quick googling indicates they are crespuscular (active at twilight).
posted by exogenous at 1:34 PM on July 16, 2009

Bears are sadly not predictable, and pretty shy around here. They're also not big fans of humans. You will almost certainly have to rely on luck, but it wouldn't hurt to ask locals at Skyland if there have been any recent sightings. You'll get a lecture about Bear Safety, but you might learn this year's Bear paths. Your best chance is the hour around dawn and the one around sunset (particularly up at Big Meadows), but a lot of the recent sightings have been of bears hiding in the leafy foliage on the sides of roads trying not to be seen or bothered in the middle of the day.

My guess is that the bears will cut a wide berth around the resort area, which I remember as being well-lit and not-bear-friendly. They prefer wooded areas and try not to be seen, and most trash cans along the route (at overlooks and parkinglots) have been bear-proofed, so that's not necessarily going to up your chances. Bear in mind (hah), that there are supposedly only 750-900 black bears along the Blue Ridge in Virginia, and that includes a big section further south of where you will be.

Drive the 35 MPH speed limit on the Drive, and look in meadows for mothers teaching cubs how to find food, and look in the trees. If you see a traffic clog (cars parked on both sides of the road), chances are good that there's a bear nearby AND that some people have no sense while pursuing a great photograph.
posted by julen at 1:39 PM on July 16, 2009

From here:
By current estimates, more than 600,000 are living today on the continent with 5,000 to 6,000 of those in Virginia.We believe that the bear population within the park ranges from the low to high hundreds depending on the availability and distribution of natural forage, particularly mast crops, the degree of annual recruitment and mortality within the population and, seasonal influences such as breeding cycles, juvenile dispersal and hunting pressure from adjacent lands.

and from here:
198,081 Acres or 800.6 square kilometers

Lets make some assumptions of a maximum of 900 bears in 198,081 acres, or roughly 220 acres per bear.

Not knowing what visibility impairments full foliage in the woods would actually cause, lets assume that our visibility is roughly the same as fog, which by wiki indicates 1km. (We're not talking a dense fog, just a rough guess better than the 2km estimate that answers gave to how far people could see).

We need to know the amoung of daylight that you'll have at that point... From here
We also need to know that the lattitude of the park is between 38-39 degrees (from here), so we'll set as an average of 38.5 degrees or 0.67195176125 radians. Knowing that you're gone from September 17-20th that means you are gone from the 259th day to the 262 day of the year... meaning that (if I did my math right) you have 12.11 hours of daylight still at that lattitude (more than I thought). So roughly you have 48.44 hours of possible bear hunting.

Now, for simplicity, lets assume that the bears, while not in a uniform distrabution are stationary.... mostly becasue I don't want to model a game of Wumpus to guess the bear's movement... (I've been told I have to pick up some eggs, formula and bananas from the store)...

So You have to travel 219 kilometers, turn travel 3 kilometers, and then repeat that 73 more times to cover an entire 220 square kilometer square (if I just did quick math right - think of this like a game of snake). That's also assuming that you've got the 2K visibility (1kilometer radius from you) and you take the time to observe each kilometer that you move. In the worst case scenario, you have to travel all the way to the end, meaning be willing to travel a total of 16,060 kilometers. Now, knowing that you have 48.44 hours to travel the 16,060 kilometers you need to be going 331.5 km/hr or ~206 mph. roughly the speed the TGV travels at - unfortunately Shenandoah does not have one.

Now the good news is, you probably don't have to travel the entire distance... since the probability should improve over time, nonetheless... I can't calculate what that would be - you just have to be willing to travel that fast to guarantee you'll see one. Anyways... gotta leave work...
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:54 PM on July 16, 2009

Crap some bad math - fixing things... (I used 220km^2/bear instead of 220acre^2/bear) - updating...
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:30 PM on July 16, 2009

Seconding that you might have a better chance of seeing a bear the further south (less populated) you go. My boyfriend used to live at Wintergreen Resort in Nelson County, VA (near the southernmost end of Shenandoah Nat'l Park). We used to see bears outside of his house, usually at night around 9 or 10 pm, usually during autumn.

We once saw a mama and her cubs on the deck of the house, and mr. starfish decided it would be a good idea to go up to the all glass door and "get big" to try and scare it off. Mama charged the door a few times (thank goodness it didn't break!) while we sprinted upstairs and called the cops from a closet. Not that you would, but for the love of god, don't mess with a bear if you're already in a safe place/distance from it. Oh and if you do find yourself in a pickle, don't be afraid to call the cops! They're used to dealing with things of that nature and usually don't see it as an inconvenience, even if the bear is gone by the time they get there.

I know the area down there well, mefi mail me if you want some suggestions of other things to do outside the park. The roads around Wintergreen Resort are quite nice...curvy and varied and scenic if you wish to take your bear spotting to the street!
posted by Gonestarfishing at 2:44 PM on July 16, 2009

I've seen bears twice in the area. Once, there was a very little guy up in a tree just off the trail at Sugar Hollow reservoir, and the other time I saw a big momma bear and a few cubs while driving to a trail head (rip rap / wildcat ridge). This conjecture is based on an n of 2, but my guess is that there might be more bears at lower elevations.
posted by ripple at 3:15 PM on July 16, 2009

Get some really juicy, thick porterhouses on your way out. Hang them up off the ground so they'll catch the breeze but not so far that a bear won't be able to reach it. Wait.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:42 AM on July 17, 2009

Thank you everyone for the insight. I don't know if we will make it farther south past Shenandoah, but if we don't luck out this year, then perhaps we will change destinations next year.

Nanukthedog: That is without a doubt the best answer I have ever gotten to any question here, and is also precisely why we rented this .
posted by kenbennedy at 4:47 AM on July 17, 2009

I've been to SNP twice this summer for long weekends, and I saw 3 bears each time I was there. I'm actually surprised that people are saying they aren't as common in SNP--I guess I was lucky (?!?). It certainly seemed like they were all over the place, both alongside the parkway and by the trails.

In May, I was in the central/southern area of the park, and saw one ambling around a campsite on the Big Run Loop trail. That's probably a bit further south (mile marker 81) than you really want to go, though, if you're staying at Skyland. We had two more separate sightings that weekend when driving north on the parkway towards Front Royal, right around dusk.

Last weekend, I ran into two while hiking on the Jeremy's Run / Knob Mountain loop (starting at mile marker 24)--looked like a mama bear and not-too-small juvenile bear, hanging out on the hill right next to the trail. Saw another one while driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway around 5pm, around mile marker 30.

Good luck--I hope you see one while driving. Stumbling upon one (or two!) while hiking is significantly more pulse-raising.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:45 AM on July 17, 2009

I was at Shenandoah last week and saw several bears. We drove from the north end of the park (Front Royal) down to Big Meadows area and saw one eating about ten metres back from the road. We then parked at Dark Hollows and walked down the Dark Hollows path (only 1.4 miles, but that's a long way with 3 small children), and a bear came past us within a few metres, wandering slowly along eating, crossing the path behind us and then wandering off. Pulse raising alright! We then saw two more just off the road while driving back along Skyline.
posted by jacalata at 11:24 PM on July 17, 2009

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