It might be easy to overlook this 200,000-acre slice of the southern Appalachians in Virginia. At first glance, Shenandoah National Park doesn’t have the obvious cachet of some other units in the park system. But if you know where to look, there is an abundance of adventure within its green ridges and pastoral valleys. The mountains that lie within the park boundaries rise dramatically from the valley floor, some gaining 3,000 feet of elevation. From a distance, they may appear deceptively mellow, but they’re filled with craggy granite peaks, waterfalls, and tight gorges, so hikes are often full of rock scrambles and river crossings.
Given its proximity to major cities like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, 90 minutes to two hours east, Shenandoah sees its fair share of crowds during the high seasons of summer and fall. Thanks to the convenience of the Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that bisects the park from north to south, most of these visitors treat Shenandoah as a drive-through park, ogling from roadside overlooks and stretching their legs on short nature walks. But with roughly 40 percent of its land protected as wilderness, 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and world-class trout streams, you’d be missing out if you didn’t go beyond the main stretch.
Most important of all, Shenandoah is one of the most user-friendly parks. Skyline Drive’s milepost system makes finding trailheads a cinch, while a pair of lodges in the middle of the park, Big Meadows and Skyland, serve as ideal base camps. It’s also one of the few dog-friendly national parks, with the majority of trails open to pets on leashes. And unlike many units, including the nearby Great Smoky Mountains, which doesn’t allow climbing and has limited cycling opportunities, Shenandoah is a multisport heaven, with rock climbing, fly-fishing, and road biking built into the management plan.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting Shenandoah
Prepare to see a lot of the park in just a few days. At just 200,000 acres with a single road delivering you directly to trailheads and campgrounds, it’s easy to see the highlights in little time. Set up at one of the lodges or campgrounds in the middle of Skyline Drive, and you can branch out to all corners of the park without much drive time. This also means you might experience a bit of traffic along Skyline Drive, especially during summer and fall weekends.
Expect to work for the best hikes. Unlike some parks, where easy nature trails will deliver you to iconic landscapes, Shenandoah’s most popular hike is also one of its toughest. The nine-mile loop to 3,200-foot Old Rag promises a prominent rocky summit with banger views. But it’s also one of the park’s most isolated peaks, requiring a four-mile approach complete with a rock scramble to get to the top. Arrive at the parking lot before 7 a.m. to avoid the heaviest crowds (the trail sees roughly 100,000 hikers every year), and be on your A-game—Old Rag is a hot spot for search and rescue teams, with several people airlifted or carried off the peak every year. Don’t be a statistic.
Bring a fly rod. Shenandoah has some of the best backcountry angling on the East Coast, with a thriving native fishery that supports the crown jewel of southern Appalachian streams: the native brook trout. The rivers are tight, boulder-choked, and packed with waterfalls and cascades, so be prepared to work for each strike.
How to Get There
Most visitors who aren’t in driving vicinity typically fly into Washington, D.C., where two major airports (Reagan and nearby Dulles) serve as a hub for incoming traffic outside of the mid-Atlantic region. From D.C., it’s a straight shot west on Interstate 66 for 62 miles until you reach the northern entrance in Front Royal, making Shenandoah one of the more accessible national parks from a major U.S. city. Single vehicle entrance fees are $30 a day. There’s no public shuttle system inside the park, but Skyland Lodge offers the occasional wine and whiskey shuttle from its lodge into the surrounding communities, where a number of wineries, breweries, and distilleries have popped up in recent years.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit?
The South and mid-Atlantic can be sweltering in the summer, but Shenandoah stays relatively cool, with temperatures in the mountains roughly ten degrees lower than the valley below. You can expect highs hovering in the low to mid-80s, and countless waterfalls and swimming holes scattered throughout the park help you beat the heat in July and August. The hardwood canopy is at its most lush, and while spring might be peak wildflower season, June has its own floral display as mountain laurel blooms white. But expect crowds. If you’re planning to backpack on the Appalachian Trail and stay in shelters, consider a late-July or August trip, when the majority of thru-hikers are farther north.
If Shenandoah is famous for one thing, it’s fall foliage. The park has a thick and lush hardwood canopy that goes full Technicolor in October, attracting thousands of leaf peepers looking for Instagram gold. Given the short drive from D.C. and Baltimore, Shenandoah is especially busy on weekends, so expect traffic on Skyline Drive and fully packed campgrounds and lodges. That’s not to say you should avoid the park during the fall. The natural show of color is spectacular, and the temperatures are mild (highs in the mid-60s, lows in the 40s), but skip a crowded driving tour and get into the backcountry. Check out the RipRap Trail, a nine-mile loop past waterfalls and rocky outcroppings that gets you deep into that vibrant canopy. And check the park’s fall color alerts before you go, so you know when peak foliage hits.
These months are relatively mild, with temperatures ranging from the low 20s to high 30s in January and February. The park will see the occasional snowstorm, particularly at higher elevations, and you’ll even find Nordic skiers doing laps at Big Meadows after deep storms. Keep in mind that portions of Skyline Drive are closed during bad weather, and all of the park’s lodging and campgrounds are shuttered between November and March. Services are limited, but you could argue that winter is the best time to visit Shenandoah if you like solitude. The lack of tree cover reveals long-range views that are hidden during summer, waterfalls can be frozen, and you have a better chance of seeing wildlife, like foxes and bobcats, which are more active during the colder months. Meanwhile, the Appalachian Trail, which can be a zoo in the summer, is empty between November and March.
The park is surprisingly sleepy during spring. The campgrounds open at the end of March, but April can still be chilly and even snowy in the higher elevations, which keeps the crowds at bay. The park has 850 different species of wildflowers that put on a spring show rivaling the more popular—and crowded—fall foliage season. The wildflowers start popping in late March, but things really get going in April, when trillium and pink lady’s slippers bloom. When May rolls around, the park is covered in pink azaleas. Check out the Park Service’s wildflower calendar, which lists when popular species are blooming, but keep in mind that Skyland and Big Meadows Lodges don’t start accepting guests until May.
Where to Stay in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah’s two lodges are both located roughly in the middle of Skyline Drive, in the center of all the action. Big Meadows (from $115), a stone-and-chestnut lodge built in the late 1930s, is the signature property. It’s is a mix of 29 traditional hotel rooms and 72 rustic cabins and multiroom units, all of which surround a main lodge building with a dining room and a taproom. The rooms are clean, and the local beers on tap are a nice touch, but you stay here mostly for the location; Big Meadows sits at milepost 51, a mile from the big meadow itself, which is the prime stargazing location in the park—rangers lead occasional night-sky watch parties here.
Skyland (from $103), at milepost 41.7, is a former mountain retreat from the late 1800s that’s been transformed into a series of cabins and lodges scattered over 27 acres. While more upscale than Big Meadows thanks to a recent renovation, Skyland also offers small one-bedroom cabins that are more rustic. You’ll also find family-friendly events like live bluegrass and clogging at the Pollock Dining Room, plus the Mountain Taproom. Both lodges close in November and typically reopen at the end of May.
The park also has four frontcountry campgrounds located along Skyline Drive that are a mix of first-come, first-serve and reservable sites. The 200-site Loft Mountain ($15), the biggest in the park, is located at mile 79.5, at the southern end of Skyline Drive, on top of Big Flat Mountain with big views into Shenandoah Valley. It’s a good base camp if you want to explore Big Run Wilderness and has a few tent-only sections that sit just off the Appalachian Trail. Lewis Mountain Campground ($15), at milepost 57.5, has 31 first-come, first-serve sites and 15 reservable primitive cabins that provide good access to the Appalachian Trail and Dark Hollow Falls.
Finally, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club operates a series of cabins along the Appalachian Trail through the mid-Atlantic, six of which are located inside Shenandoah. All the cabins inside the park are primitive structures with wood stoves that were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps or local moonshiners. They’re all hike-to-only and offer a one-of-a-kind backcountry experience. Be sure to make your reservations early (60 days in advance) via the club’s website.
What to Do While You’re There
There are a few different ways to reach the top of Hawksbill Mountain, the tallest mountain inside the park, at 4,050 feet, but the easiest is via the Upper Hawksbill Trail, a two-mile round-trip that starts at milepost 46.7 on Skyline Drive and avoids most of the elevation gain that Lower Hawksbill Trail requires. The short trail also packs a punch, passing through a high-alpine Frasier fir and red spruce forest that’s more common in northern climates and climbing rocky outcroppings before hitting the summit proper, where an observation platform and long-range views of the park await.
The Cedar Run and Whiteoak Canyon Circuit is a 7.3-mile loop that has 2,794 feet of climbing and passes five waterfalls. Start at the Whiteoak Canyon Trailhead, at milepost 42.6, taking the trail of the same name across a series of steel footbridges before climbing switchbacks to an overlook of the 85-foot Whiteoak Canyon Falls. After 2.5 miles, use the WOC Fire Road to connect to Cedar Run Trail, where you’ll hit a natural waterslide with smooth rock sloping into a pool, called “The Slide,” and another falls that forms a pool inside a narrow rock gorge. Tackle this loop in summer and you’ll have countless opportunities to swim in mountain streams.
Backpackers looking for a bucket-list trek can hike the entire 120 miles of the Appalachian Trail through the park (plan for seven to ten days) or spend a few days hiking a 33-mile section that runs through the northern section. Start at Jenkins Gap, at mile marker 12.3, and head south on the Appalachian Trail for a romp along the park’s ridgetops. The trail culminates with Marys Rock, a 3,514-foot mountain with large granite fins jutting out from the peak that offers long-range views of Shenandoah Valley.
Skyline Drive was the product of the Civilian Conservation Corps, built originally with cars in mind but makes for a great cycling route. The 105-mile, two-lane blacktop follows the ridgeline through the center of the park, offering 75 scenic overlooks and a whopping 15,000 feet of climbing. It’s brutal—either all up or all down, with nary a flat stretch between, but the park’s two lodges situated in the center of the action make this an ideal two-day operation. And remember, for every miles-long climb, you’ll enjoy an equally long downhill, and there are plenty of opportunities for short side hikes. In other words, consider this a scenic cruise, not a Strava KOM.
Shenandoah is probably best known for its hiking and waterfalls, but there’s so much granite inside the park that it has become a hot spot for climbing, too. The 3,284-foot peak of Old Rag, in the southern portion of the park, has several sections of exposed granite that has made it one of Virginia’s classic climbing destinations. It offers everything from trailside bouldering to two-pitch trad lines. On the west-facing side of the peak, the Summit Area Crags have a long approach (at least five miles, depending on your route), the longest routes, and the most breathtaking views, but the area is also cooler in summer because of the elevation. Ascending the left side of the cliff, Pure Fun is a beautiful, 5.7 single-pitch trad route to the top of the mountain. It follows a crack into a small roof before topping out with summit views. Shenandoah Mountain Guides offers guided trips if you want to go with pros in the know. Just east of Old Rag’s Summit, the Skyline Wall has grippy routes in a variety of ranges with amazing views. You can even find beginner options in the 5.5 range, like Keyhole Left, a 65-foot corner-and-crack combo that’s way more fun than the grade suggests.
More than 70 mountain streams drop off the ridgeline that makes up Shenandoah National Park, and many of those rivers host healthy populations of native brook trout, as well as rainbow and brown trout. In other words, it’s a backcountry angler’s dream, especially if you like tight headwaters fishing. Head to Rapidan River, a waterway so storied it has a fly named after it: the Mr. Rapidan. You’ll find it in the central section of the park, where Mill Prong and Laurel Prong meet to form the larger Rapidan, a catch-and-release stream with brookies up to ten inches. Bonus: you’ll get to see President Hoover’s mountain retreat.
The Best Places to Eat and Drink Around the Park
The park’s proximity to Washington, D.C., means some of the big city spills over into the hills and meadows surrounding the park. The northern entrance of Front Royal is a gateway town with all the quaint historic charm you’d expect from a small village settled in colonial times, as well as one of the best cheeseburgers in the state at Spelunker’s. If you want a more farm-to-table experience, head to the small town of Staunton, west of the park. The Shack is the mountain town refuge of Ian Boden, a former Manhattan-based chef and two-time James Beard nominee who creates inventive but hearty meals that rely on the farms scattered through the Shenandoah Valley. Order the pork sausage and clam stew.
For some of the best beer and food in Virginia, head 25 miles south from the park’s Rockfish Gap entrance to Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s house, and one of the most vibrant craft beer scenes in the Old Dominion. Starr Hill Brewery was one of the state’s first craft breweries and still makes an excellent IPA. After saving some calories with a salad at Roots Natural Kitchen, head to Paradox Pastry for its Peanut Butter and Friends cookie, which includes salty pretzels and chocolate chips.
If You Have Time for a Detour
There are many country songs written about the Shenandoah River, and for good reason. The languid waterway, which divides and gives life to the pastoral Shenandoah Valley just west of the park, is a source of both beauty and life for the farming communities built on its banks. The South Fork has the best paddling, with more than 30 miles of easygoing Class I action and the occasional Class II thrown in to keep things interesting. There are popular tubing sections and afternoon paddles, and a bevy of public land and commercial campgrounds located throughout make this river the ideal multiday romp. Check out the 28-mile stretch from the town of Luray to Jefferson National Forest. Downriver Canoe Company, in the nearby town of Bentonville, has rentals and shuttles.
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway begins where Skyline Drive ends, meaning if you have a week to spare, you have an epic Southern road trip that carries you all the way down to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If not, just stick to the northern 100 miles of the parkway, dubbed the “Ridge” section, which is bookended by Humpback Rocks, a towering rock outcropping with great views at the beginning of the Parkway, and Peaks of Otter, a crest that once marked the northern boundary of the Cherokee Nation. The section is full of scenic overlooks and quick day hikes.
How to Be a Conscious Visitor
The park sees heavy foot traffic, so the proliferation of social trails is a problem, particularly around rock outcroppings, some of which have been closed to camping, hiking, and climbing. Do your part by sticking to the main path. The park has had issues with an invasive beetle that feeds on ash trees that are often transported via firewood from outside, so buy your wood inside the park—it’s USDA-certified to be beetle-free. If you plan to fish, check regulations before you set out, and know how to handle the fish you catch. All of the park’s streams are open to catch-and-release fishing, and a handful allow you to keep what you catch, but the park has a healthy wild brook trout population that needs to be handled with care.
Lead Photo: AppalachianViews/iStock