Shenandoah National Park: The Complete Guide

Shenandoah National Park
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Shenandoah National Park

Address
Virginia, USA
Phone +1 540-999-3500

Shenandoah National Park is an ideal getaway destination from the Washington, D.C. area: It's just a 75-minute drive west of the nation's capital. Visitors to this park enjoy a wide range of recreational activities amid breathtaking scenery in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Unlike most national parks, Shenandoah has been inhabited by settlers for over a century.

In order to create the park, Virginia state officials had to acquire 1,088 privately-owned tracts and donated land. Much of Shenandoah consisted of farmlands and growth forests used for logging. Today, it is sometimes hard to tell where farming, lumbering, and grazing occurred as much of the forests have grown back over time. The region is most known for its spectacular panoramic views along Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds through the entire length of the park. Shenandoah National Park covers 200,000 acres of scenic countryside traversed by more than 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Things to Do

Shenandoah National Park offers a bounty of things to do outdoors in one of the most scenic areas of the United States. The most popular thing to do is to take Skyline Drive through the park, but more ambitious travelers should try getting out on a trail. If you prefer a guided hike, you can visit the Dickey Ridge or Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Centers to register for a ranger-led hike. Alternatively, you can take your bike along Skyline Drive or, if you have your own horse, explore the 150 miles of horse trails. If you don't have your own horse, the Skyland Resort offers guided rides.

Shenandoah National Park's spectacular scenery has inspired photographers for decades, Forests, waterfalls, birds, and white-tailed deer make dramatic subjects throughout the seasons and a fall visit is extra opportune for photography with the vibrant foliage lighting up every landscape. Birdwatching is also popular in Shenandoah which is home to over 190 species of resident and transient birds including the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird species in the world.

Rock climbers can explore the many classic climbing spots on Old Rag Mountain like Strawberry Fields and Pure Fun and anglers can find some great mountain streams with over 40 different species of fish. You may swim in any river at your own risk. Canoeing, kayaking, tubing, and rafting trips can be arranged through private outfitters.

Best Hikes & Trails

There are many great hikes of all different lengths and difficulties in this nearly 200,000 acre-large national park. Most famously, the Appalachian Trail runs for 101 miles through the park and can be accessed by day hikers.

  • Lewis Falls Trail: This 3.3-mile moderate waterfall hike starts from the Big Meadows amphitheater parking area.
  • Traces Trail: Easily accessible at Matthews Arm Campground, this 1.7-mile trail takes visitors into an oak forest that feels like a step back in time. You'll see traces of early settlers such as stone walls and old roads.
  • Old Rag Mountain Loop: This 9.4-mile circuit that goes to the summit of Old Rag Mountain and is considered very strenuous, so is best suited for experienced hikers.
  • Stony Man Trail: After 1.6 miles, you will reach the cliffs of Stony Man’s summit – the second highest peak in the park.
  • Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail: This steep 3-mile round-trip trail takes visitors to view a typical mountain residence still used by members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
  • Hawksbill Gap Loop: This 2.9-mile trail is considered moderate and has some great vistas, but can only be accessed by first getting on the Appalachian and Salamander Trails.
  • Dark Hollow Falls Trail: If you want to see a waterfall in the shortest amount of time, take this 1.4-mile trail, which is one of the busiest in the park, but also steep and rocky.
  • Bearfence Mountain Trail: The 1.4-mile round-trip hike to this mountain takes visitors scrambling over rocks but the reward is a 360-degree view that is truly amazing.

Where to Camp

You can fully experience the beautiful natural surroundings sleeping in a cabin or under the stars at a campground. Reservations are suggested, and backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.

  • Mathews Arm Campground: Its 165 campsites are near the trail to Overall Run Falls, the tallest waterfall in the park.
  • Big Meadows Campground: Three waterfalls are within walking distance of its 221 campsites.
  • Lewis Mountain Campground: This is the smallest campground in the park and a good choice for those who prefer privacy. However, it is only about seven miles away from the park's most popular destinations.
  • Loft Mountain Campground: These 207 campsites offer spectacular views and have two waterfalls nearby, plus the Big Run Wilderness Area.
  • Dundo Group Campground: This campground with three campsites is specifically for groups of eight to 20 people.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are many beautiful lodges within the park where you can stay, but if you like your lodging to have a bit more in the way of civilization and luxury accouterments, nearby resorts and hotels can provide a more upscale experience.

  • Skyland Resort: Shenandoah National Park's largest lodge is located at the highest point on Skyline Drive at 3,680 feet. Accommodations range from historic cabins to modern hotel rooms and suites. The resort includes a dining room, family-friendly entertainment, ranger-guided programs, horseback riding, and a conference hall.
  • Big Meadows Lodge: Big Meadows Lodge is a smaller lodge in Shenandoah National Park with just cabins, suites, and traditional rooms. The lodge has a dining room, family-friendly entertainment, guided ranger programs, and a visitor center nearby.
  • Lewis Mountain Cabins: Enjoy the fun of camping in Shenandoah National Park with private bathrooms, heat, electric lights, towels, and linens in one of the historic cabins with an outdoor cooking and recreation area and a camp store.
  • Bryce Resort: This four-season family-friendly resort, about two hours from Washington in Basye, Virginia, is a destination in itself, with a wide range of activities such as skiing, golf, swimming, and hiking.
  • The Omni Homestead: This luxury resort is located in Virginia's Allegheny Mountains in Hot Springs is ranked among the world's finest golf and spa resorts. Activities include hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, and canoeing.
  • Massanutten Resort: This is a huge four-season resort, also located about two hours from Washington in Massanutten, Virginia, has several lodging choices and a wide selection of activities.

For more ideas on where to find accommodation near the park, read more about the best towns in the Shenandoah Valley.

How to Get There

Convenient airports are located at Dulles International, near Washington D.C., and Charlottesville. If you are driving from Washington, D.C., take I-66 west to US 340, and then head south to the park’s Front Royal entrance. The trip is about 70 miles. If you are traveling from the west, take US 211 through Lurray to the Thornton Gap Entrance or you can head east on US 33 to the Swift Run Gap Entrance. There are four entrances to the park:

If you are planning a trip to Shenandoah National Park from the Washington area, you should keep in mind that the park stretches over 200 miles in distance, so it will take you longer than 75 minutes to get to some of the popular attractions. The towns of Winchester and Front Royal are on the northern end of the park and are closest to Washington. Luray, Skyland, and Big Meadows are in the center, and Waynesboro is at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park.

Accessibility

Shenandoah National Park can be conveniently enjoyed simply by cruising along Skyline Drive, where you'll find many accessible viewpoints and overlooks with accessible parking spots. Wheelchair users may the Limberlost Trail, which is paved and fully accessible. The Rose River Trail is another accessible option, but it is rockier and has steeper gradients that might not work for all wheelchair users. Service dogs are allowed in the park, provided they meet the criteria. There are accessible lodging options at Lewis Mountain, Skyland Resort, and big Meadows, as well as accessible showers and areas at all park campgrounds. Most restrooms and buildings are accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Check the schedule for evening campfire programs, which are typically available from June through October.
  • Junior Ranger programs are special educational programs available for kids ages 7 through 12 during the summer months. 
  • In the fall, the majestic scenery is well worth the crowds, so try to get there early and preferably plan your trip on a weekday. Also enjoyable is a visit to Shenandoah during spring, when the wildflowers bloom, or during the warmer summer months.
  • At the park's southern end, you will find this National park Service highway that connects Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
  • Wine lovers should take a trip to Shenandoah Vineyards, the oldest winery in the Shenandoah Valley. Here, you can tour the 26-acre vineyard and sample a variety between March and November.
  • Although they are not a part of the park, the incredible Luray and Shenandoah Caverns are worth a visit. At the Luray Caverns, you can explore this natural wonder with towering stone columns, mudflows, stalactites, stalagmites, and crystal-clear pools while Shenandoah Caverns are easier to get to, located just a few minutes off of I-81.
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What to See and Do at Shenandoah National Park