Only 75 miles from Washington D.C., Shenandoah is a long and narrow national park that protects part of the northern Blue Ridge Mountains. Visitors come for scenic driving tours, mountain-top hiking, gushing waterfalls, seasonal wildflowers, and fall colors. The best-known feature is the 105-mile Shenandoah Skyline Drive, which roughly follows the centerline of the park and is used to access all attractions. About 40% of the park has been designated as wilderness, with much of it accessible for day hikes.
Skyline Drive connects with the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway to the south. But unlike the parkway, which sees about 14 million visitors per year, Shenandoah sees less than 2 million people annually. Yet the park offers comparable rolling mountains and hilly scenery, with elevations topping out around 4,000 feet. Most visitors come from spring through summer, with visitation peaking during the month of October, when the forests put on a colorful show of changing colors.
Running roughly north to south through the heart of the park is a 105-mile two-lane highway. In Shenandoah, Skyline Drive is typically open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, but it may close in winter during periods of inclement weather. With a 35-mph speed limit, the park service recommends about three hours to drive the entire road. But you’ll want to budget additional time for stops at lookouts and any hikes you wish to complete.
There are four park entrance stations along Skyline Drive, two at each end and two in the middle. Along Skyline Drive, mileposts on the west side of the road help visitors locate areas of interest. Important to note is that Marys Rock Tunnel, at mile 32.2, has a maximum clearance of 12’8”. During your drive, you may encounter wildlife such as deer, wild turkeys, and black bears. To protect these animals, the park service asks visitors to respect the park speed limit and pull entirely off the road and stay in their vehicle if they wish to view wildlife.
Hiking at Shenandoah National Park
After driving tours, hiking at Shenandoah National Parks Virginia is the most popular pastime, and the NPS maintains a well-organized hiking webpage. The park offers over 500 miles of trails, with many hikes involving one or more short (but often steep) trails that start near Skyline Drive. Many favorite Shenandoah hikes lead either to park waterfalls, mountain tops, or scenic vistas of the Shenandoah Valley.
If you’re looking for a short, easy hike to a viewpoint, consider Bearfence Viewpoint. The trail is only 1.1 miles round trip on a dirt path with 305 feet of elevation gain. It starts from a trailhead parking lot at mile 56.4. If you’re looking for a moderate but short hike to a scenic waterfall, consider Dark Hollow Falls. This 1.4-mile loop trail has 440 feet of elevation gain and starts from a trailhead at mile 50.7.
Another short but moderately challenging hike is the Hawksbill Summit loop. It’s only 1.7 miles, roundtrip, but involves 690 feet of elevation gain. Hawksbill Summit is the highest point in the park at 4,051 feet, and the observation platform on top offers 360-degree views of the park.
An excellent medium-length hike is the Rose River Falls trail, a 4-mile round-trip loop hike with 910 feet of elevation gain. The reward is a beautiful trail passing through a wilderness area with many smaller waterfalls leading to the 67-foot Rose River Falls. The trailhead is at Fishers Gap parking area, which can be reached by a fire road at mile 49.4.
More challenging hikes typically lead to park mountain tops. The best hike in Shenandoah may be its most popular trail, the Old Rag Mountain Loop. This strenuous 9.4-mile loop to the Old Rag summit involves rock scrambling and 2,348 feet of elevation gain. Given the rigorous nature of this route, the park service recommends allowing up to 7.5 hours to complete the trail. The trailhead is at the Old Rag parking area at the park’s western boundary. Visit the park webpage, linked above, for driving directions. For other challenging day hikes over seven miles in length, visit this park webpage.
Backpacking is also a popular activity in the park. Shorter trips up to a few nights in duration take place on trails and in wilderness areas throughout the park. For more information, visit the park backpacking page. Longer backpacking trips tend to involve section-hiking or through-hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Just over 100 miles of the famous AT passes through the park, running south-to-north roughly parallel to Skyline Drive.
Shenandoah National Park Camping
Camping is another popular activity, offering visitors a chance to spend more time exploring the parks many trails and waterfalls. Many of these campgrounds in Shenandoah valley offer great mountain views and are located near lookouts and trailheads. There are five campgrounds in the park, offering over 600 sites, many of which can be reserved up to six months in advance.
The northernmost campground is Matthews Arm, located at mile 22.1, with about 165 nonelectric sites open to both RVs and tents. The campground is about two miles away from Elk Wallow Wayside, where visitors will find a store and restaurant.
Two campgrounds are located near the center of the park. At mile 51.2, Big Meadows Campground has 221 nonelectric sites. Also on-site is Big Meadows Wayside, with stores, restaurants, and fuel. Plus, nearby there’s the Big Meadows Lodge with hotel rooms or cabins and the Byrd Visitor Center, where you can pick up information about the park. The other centrally located campground is Lewis Mountain at mile 57.5. This small campground has only 30 non-electric sites for RVs or tents, and there are no services on site. Nearby are the Lewis Mountain Cabins, rustic furnished cabins with private bathrooms and outdoor grills.
The final campground in the park is Loft Mountain at mile 79.5. With 205 non-electric sites, this is the largest campground in the park. The Loft Mountain Wayside has a store and restaurant.
Fall Colors at Shenandoah National Park
By far, the most popular time of year at Shenandoah is fall color season. It’s impossible to predict peak fall colors, which happen earlier or later each year depending on fall weather and preceding conditions like summer temperatures and rainfall. During this time of year, the forests erupt in displays of yellow, orange, and red leaves. In general, fall colors begin to change in late September and peak around mid-October.
During fall color season, campgrounds and lodges are typically fully booked months in advance. Because of large crowds, lines of cars typically back up from the entrance stations, especially the two northernmost entrances, Front Royal and Thornton Gap. While many visitors will be content with driving tours, hiking during fall colors is very popular. Trailhead parking lots often fill up during the day. Weekends are the busiest time, and the park service strongly encourages weekday visits.
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Cover photo: Hikers on Old Rag. NPS/Katy Cain