Shenandoah 52: Family-Friendly Hiking

The Shenandoah 52 Explorer Series is 23 trail loops, 52 trail segments, and at just over 150 miles the most achievable hiking challenge in Shenandoah National Park. A dog, and then a baby, inspired Kevin Morgan to create this family-friendly hiking series.

German Shorthaired Pointers (GSP) are not for the faint at heart. They walk into your life, take hold, and wear you down—unless you wear them down first. Daily hikes, early morning walks, and lengthy weekend journeys. Addison had our number from day one. And Addison turned out to be the muse for a family-friendly hiking challenge and an adventure of a lifetime.

Addison, a German Shorthaired Pointer, in Shenandoah National Park (Photo by Kevin Morgan)

Do you live near Shenandoah National Park? Take the SNP52 Hiking Challenge: 23 trail loops, 52 trail segments and just over 150 miles.

A Pixels and Pointers partnership with the Shenandoah National Park Trust.

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When my wife, Tobey, and I found out she was pregnant, we were determined to maintain an active lifestyle for our family. Throughout her pregnancy, we found a rhythm in being outside. By the time Lucy joined us in the world, we were determined to maintain that pace. Mission accomplished—Tobey went into labor the same day we went hiking.

And after that bundle of energy—who I flippantly referred to as the human version of a GSP—arrived on the scene, we really needed a plan. Through trial and error (maybe more like trial by fire) we embarked on all the same journeys.

Within her first month of joining us, Lucy was riding shotgun with Tobey (aka in a baby carrier) at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. Each week and month that followed, we continued to venture into the wilderness. That same fortitude is what brought everything to life.

And by the holiday season of Lucy’s first year with us, we were looking at what the following year had in store for our outdoor adventures. Maybe a little more organized for the new year. Anything to avoid the blow out.

Tobey and Lucy Morgan (Photo by Kevin Morgan)
Kevin and Tobey Morgan (and Addison)

By December we had started to formulate a plan. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a cold December morning that would put into motion a sequence of events that led to the hiking project. The kind of morning that is written about in a Frost poem. The crystalized ice on the windows, the smell of wood fireplaces, the crackling of the leaves from the dry air.

It was over a cup of coffee that my father and I were discussing the outdoors, and our plan for showing our 4-month-old the things that were important to us. We talked about how important it was that we continue to expose Lucy to the natural world. We felt teaching our child about nature and seeing her big sister (the GSP) enjoy the world around her would be important to her development.

In that same conversation with my father, we discussed one of the Shenandoah National Park hiking challenges that’s been around for a few years. We tinkered with the idea of trying the Shenandoah 500—a long-standing challenge to hike on every trail in the park. We both agreed it would be a hefty adventure to embark on. Mostly because the Shenandoah 500 is not 500 miles, it’s more like 700 or 800 miles because many of the trails require doubling back, and a handful are overnight treks. Pre-parent life, it would have been completely doable, for sure. Post, not so much.

We decided perhaps there was an alternative. My father suggested I utilize my skills with mapping and my understanding of Shenandoah National Park to find trails and treks that would be reasonable to complete. Over the years we had spent quite a bit of time in the park, and had hiked hundreds of miles up and down the North, Central, and Southern Districts that year. Why not formalize our knowledge and approach this with a similar format to the Shenandoah 500?

Crafting an adventure with our 4-month-old addition to the family would require looking at the National Park in a new way, using topographic maps and understanding lengths, elevations, and reasonable treks for hiking in the park.

That evening, I sat down in front of my laptop and started to tag the loops I believed worthy of a family-friendly adventure, what the lengths would be, and how we’d approach them. This was the birth of the SNP52. By the end of the evening, I had tagged about 25 trail loops through the three districts of the park, each less than 10 miles long.

By the turn of the clock to 2023, we had launched The Shenandoah 52 (SNP52)—23 hiking loops in Shenandoah National Park—covering 52 trail segments and approximately 150 miles in the South, Central, and North Districts.

We published all the trails on the website, complemented with hiking resources, all on a digital platform with mobile and GPS resources to take on the trails. As the project continued, we decided to start filming each of the trails.

See all of Kevin’s videos of the Shenandoah 52 here.

The Blue Ridge Heritage Project was founded to memorialize displaced families of Shenandoah National Park. (Photo from Blue Ridge Heritage Project)

By that time, I had purchased a few books on the park. I thought I would throw some history into my videos. Why not? Seemed harmless to blend park history with footage of its trails, creating a narrative for the viewers. I almost need a narrator to enter your head right now to say, “that was not the case” for dramatic effect. Because … that was not the case.

You see, the history of Shenandoah National Park is not straightforward. While some national parks may have interesting stories and colorful folklore, that was not Shenandoah. The hiking challenge together with the trail videos morphed into the filming of experts, historians, and the community to tell the park’s story. Few have attempted to tell a complete story of Shenandoah through the voice of the people, including many of the families who were displaced during the formation of the park. We felt, what better way than coupled with a hiking project?

Fast forward to today, we have 3 components to the SNP 52 Hiking Project:

  • Shenandoah 52, Explorer Series: Full 150 miles of hiking trails in loop format as the anchor challenge. Designed for those who seek an aspirational expedition outside.
  • Shenandoah 25, Adventure Series: Reduced trail lengths in out-and-back formats on all trails for families, children, and beginners to start their journey through the park.
  • Documentary Film: Docuseries in partnership with the Shenandoah National Park Trust focused on the elements of the park including history, the community, and the park’s evolution.

It’s a worthy challenge and even better way to bring the family closer to one another, one step at a time. Especially since Tobey insists on being able to tell Lucy that she carried her on each of the 52 trail segments. You can learn more about the SNP52 Hiking Project at