The 160 mile long Shenandoah Valley is located in northwestern Virginia and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Ten counties are located in this famous valley. They are (south to north) Rockbridge, Augusta, Rockingham, Page, Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick and Clarke Counties in Virginia, plus Berkeley and Jefferson Counties in West Virginia.
The main Shenandoah River is formed by the North Fork of the Shenandoah and South Fork of the Shenandoah that join in Front Royal, VA. They are created by tributaries in the central mountains of Virginia. The Shenandoah River and all its tributaries flow northeastward through the Great Appalachian Valley to join the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, WV. Most creeks, feeding these rivers flow from west to east or east to west. Throughout its entire path, the Shenandoah is clear and relatively shallow.
In between the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River is the Massanutten Mountain Range and Fort Valley. This football shaped valley is surrounded on all sides by steep slopes. George Washington planned to make his last stand here, if the British Army conquered most of the colonies. Fort Valley has few permanent residents other than retirees, because it is so difficult for children to attend public schools. Very few tourists are even aware that isolated window into the past even exists.
The entire river system flows through sedimentary rocks. Dolomitic limestone predominates. Under the soil surface the rock strata look like Swiss cheese. There are many caves under the surface. The soil surface will rise and fall as much as six inches in response to the water levels in underground caverns.
The aboriginal landscape of the Shenandoah Valley contained large expansions of grassland. Hardwoods were concentrated along the streams and rivers, while the Southern Longleaf Pine dominated woodsy islands in the uplands.
The long leaf pines became extinct within a generation or so after farmers settled the Shenandoah Valley in the mid-1700s. Southern Longleaf Pines have evolved to dependent on fire to sprout seeds and clear out undergrowth. Natives in the Lower Southeast annually burned undergrowth in forests to create grazing lands for deer, bison and elk. Apparently, the Shenandoah Valley Natives also did this. When their grasslands were replaced by cultivated fields and enclosed pastures for cattle and sheep, the Longleaf Pines faced greater difficulty in reproducing. Simultaneously, the exceptionally straight tree trunks were harvested in great numbers to build houses or barns, and fabricate ship’s masts. The Southern Longleaf Pine apparently was extinct in the Shenandoah Valley after around 1840. It was no longer utilized in building construction.
No botanist has proposed an explanation of how the Southern Longleaf Pine became established 800 miles north of its current habitat. There is another isolated stand of Longleaf Pines at the southern end of the Great Appalachian Valley near Rome, GA.
Since 1970 the population of the Shenandoah Valley has approximately doubled. However, away from the cities and towns, it still maintains its historical landscape. Large hardwoods such as sycamores, yellow poplars, maples, elms, white ash, dogwoods, redbuds and oaks line the streams and populate the forests. There is very little difference between the woodlands of the Shenandoah Valley and those of the mountainous areas of eastern Tennessee or northern Georgia. Flat bottomlands are cultivated or else used for intensive production of hay and alfalfa.
Rolling tracts of fertile land are in pasture, while rocky hills are maintained as forests. Like in the Southern Highlands and Piedmont, abandoned fields and pastures are first taken over by shortleaf pines before several stages of hardwoods dominate. Historic pastures are typically defined by hedgerows of black locust. It is quiet common to see dolomitic limestone outcrops in pastures. These rocky pastures are particularly esteemed by farmers because of the high nutrition of grasses and legumes that grow around the limestone. In earlier times they produced deer, elk and bison of exceptional size.