You only have to travel 75 miles outside of our nation’s bustling capital to find a tranquil and quiet national park, fully equipped with massive mountains, majestic woods, and stunning vistas. It seems like a little slice of wilderness heaven, full of wildflowers in the spring, unbelievable foliage in the fall, and opportunities to spot wildlife.
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. It is now full of rugged trails, 500 miles to be exact, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and serves as a refuge for many wild animals. There are over 200 resident and transient bird species, over 50 species of mammals, 51 reptile and amphibian species, and 30 fish species that can be found in the park.
Many visitors choose to drive Skyline Drive, which runs for 105 miles along the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains for a stunning view of the park. But step outside and gain a whole new perspective to this rich national park.
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. This was a landmark move; never before has such a large area of private land been converted into a national park.
In the early 20th century the first calls for national parks in the east were heard in Congress. However, it would be two decades before Shenandoah National Park was authorized and another 10 years before it was established. During that time, President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover established their Summer White House on the Rapidan River while the construction of Skyline Drive began. The Civilian Conservation Corps was established and moved into the area, and over 450 families of mountain residents were relocated from the Blue Ridge.
Shenandoah National Park was authorized on May 22, 1926, and fully established on December 26, 1935. Wilderness areas were later designated on October 20, 1976, and September 1, 1978.
When to Visit
The fall. Simply put, when fall foliage bursts into Virginia, so do the tourists. 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.
Convenient airports are located at Dulles International, near Washington D.C., (Find Flights) and Charlottesville, VA. 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 Cap Entrance or you can head east on US 33 to the Swift Run Gap Entrance.
An entrance fee will be charged upon arrival. For a 1-7 day vehicle pass, the fee is $30. A motorcycle fee of $25 will be charged for a 1-7 day pass. Also, individuals walking or biking in will be charged $15 for the 1-7 day pass.
A Shenandoah Annual Pass may also be purchased allowing for a full year of unlimited visits for $55. All other national park passes will be honored upon entrance as well.
There are two distinct ways to approach this national park: a scenic drive or a hike through numerous trails. Both highlight some top attractions so if you can, try to mix up your time behind the wheel and on foot.
Also, keep in mind that Shenandoah is one of the few national parks that is dog-friendly so check out the trails you want to hit with your furry friend.
Skyline Drive: A suggested route is to travel from Front Royal to Big Meadows which can take a full day. Before you even begin the drive, take the self-guided 1.2-mile Fox Hollow Trail to see houses named for the family that first settled there. Once behind the wheel, be on the lookout for various overlooks to stop at view Shenandoah Valley. When the weather accommodates, the views are spectacular.
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. View traces of early settlers such as stone walls and old roads.
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.
Stony Man Nature Trail: After 1.6 miles, you will reach the cliffs of Stony Man’s summit – the second highest peak in the park.
Dark Hollow Falls Trail: If you want to see a waterfall in the shortest amount of time, take this 1.4-mile trail.
Rapidan Camp: A national historic landmark which President Herbert Hoover and his wife used as their summer camp.
Bearfence Mountain: The 0.8-mile hike to this mountain takes visitors scrambling over rocks but the reward is a 360-degree view that is truly amazing.
Hightop Summit Trail: If you are looking to spot wildflowers, this 3-mile (round-trip) hike is your best bet.
Loft Mountain: Located at the southern end of the park, this area is great for exploration. Trees are being repopulated, birds are chirping, and two summit viewpoints showcase the Shenandoah Valley.
Blue Ridge Parkway: At the parks southern end you will find this National park Service highway that connects Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There are five campgrounds located within the park, all with a 14-day limit. Matthews Arm, Lewis Mountain, and Loft Mountain all open mid-May through October and are available on a first come, first served basis. Big Meadows is open late March through November and is also a first come, first served basis. Dundo Group Campground is open April through November. Reservations are required.
Also located within the park are three affordable accommodations:
Big Meadows Lodge offers rooms, cabins, and suites and is open from April through October.
Some cabins at Lewis Mountain Cabin offer outdoor grills.
Skyland Lodge is open April through November and offers lodge units, suites, and cabins.