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Sky Meadow’s Sensory Explorers’ Trail

In 2017, at a meeting of the Shenandoah Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists, the idea to create a “sensory trail” at Sky Meadows State Park was embraced.

The popular 1,862-acre park already offers beautiful trails for hikers, bikers and horseback riders as well as other recreational activities. This sensory trail, however, would be specifically designed for everyone, for people of all ages and abilities, including the blind and visually impaired, to explore the serenity and beauty of nature in multiple ways.

Partnering with the Park staff and the Friends of Sky Meadows State Park, an excellent site was identified and a plan outlined for what was to be officially and aptly named, The Sensory Explorers’ Trail. Over the last year and a half, the Master Naturalist team mapped out in detail and raised funds for this exciting project. In March, with the research and plans filling two enormous notebooks, construction of benches, signs and an entry kiosk got underway. On June 10th, construction began on the 3/10ths of a mile loop trail that begins and ends next to the Park’s picnic area. The chosen site includes a forested hillside, a seasonal wetland, a diverse community of trees, billion-year-old rocks, dead but life-giving black locust trees and a secluded vernal pool.

During the first week of actual trail construction, the path was laid out and locations for seven Stops were marked. The second week, the trail was graded, gravel laid and the vernal pool excavated. Throughout June and July, volunteers built bridges and boardwalks and a viewing deck overlooking the vernal pool, while The Park staff cleared miscellaneous problematic obstructions. The Park also provided signage, dedicated disability parking and overall guidance. And finally, The State’s Youth Conservation Corps did the heavy lifting of setting the kiosk, placing signs and benches and putting in concrete pavers at each stop.

An important feature of the trail for the visually impaired is this change from gravel to concrete pavers so that they know they have arrived at a Stop. Signs at each Stop also have the number of that Stop in Braille on the lower right-hand corner to link the user to an audio tour.

Another charming feature is on the deck at the vernal pool, Stop 7, where with your fingers, you can explore the actual sizes and shapes of replicas of 3 mole salamanders and a wood frog that have been attached to the railing.

This unique Sensory Explorer’s Trail can be experienced on several levels. A leisurely walk around the loop while opening the senses and tuning in to the natural world is the simplest. Or, take a few minutes to sit and relax on one or more of the benches. With eyes closed, feel the air on your skin. Breathe deeply and inhale the woodsy aromas. Listen to nature’s voices in the songs of birds, the chirps, hums and buzzings of amphibians and insects, and perhaps gurgling water in the spring or the wind rustling leaves in the fall.

For those who want the full experience the trail has to offer, an audio app with detailed narratives describing each Stop can be downloaded onto a cell phone using the izi tour app. Find out how the movement of water and gravity shaped, and continues to shape, the land and how human settlements influenced and changed the course of its natural geology. Learn about the underground fungal network in a tree community. Listen to recordings of nature’s voices in the songs of birds and frogs and cicadas. Discover how a fallen tree supports an abundance of new life and be aware that the whole time you are on the trail, you are in the Life Zone of a vernal pool, so critical to the life cycles of amphibians. Put it all together to understand how everything is connected.

The Sensory Explorer’s Trail officially opened on August 10, 2019, but the work is not done. Plans are already underway for future adaptations to make the trail ever more accessible to everyone: for children with autism, for the hearing impaired and other special groups. Also in development is a contemplative tour for those needing inspiration or for those who are inclined to meditate and muse.

It is well established that the benefits of time spent in nature are profound. The creators of the Sensory Explorer’s Trail and all those who contributed, “believe that this is an important project for the park, our community, and for the thousands who journey here to experience the open skies, meadows and forests of the Sky Meadows State Park.”

by Posie Beam

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