Washington D.C. sees over 15 million visitors per year, while Shenandoah National Park, only 70 miles away, sees just over a million. With over 200,000 acres of protected lands and over 500 miles of hiking trails, Shenandoah makes for the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Three days is the perfect amount of time to experience all that Shenandoah has to offer. If you are feeling extra adventurous and want to enjoy longer day hikes or rock climbing, I recommend allowing more time.
Top 10 Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park
1) Drive Skyline Drive.
Skyline Drive is the one and only road that goes through Shenandoah National Park. The 105-mile road runs north and south with 4 entrances and over 70 viewpoints overlooking the Shenandoah valley to the west and Piedmont to the east. The road has mile markers, which are used to help visitors find points of interest in the park. Wildlife, such as deer and black bears, frequent the area, so be sure not to go above the speed limit, which is 35 miles per hour. If you do nothing else in Shenandoah National Park, drive at least part of Skyline Drive.
2) Visit Luray Caverns.
Technically, Luray Caverns are not inside the park, but a visit to the Shenandoah Valley is not complete without a visit to the largest caverns in the eastern U.S. In order to see the cavern, you need to go on a tour. Tickets are $28 for adults, and $15 for children 6-12 years old. Children under 6 are free. The tickets include access to the Car and Carriage Museum, the Luray Valley Museum, and Toy Town Junction. For an additional price, you can do rope courses or a garden maze. Tours depart every 20 minutes and last about 1 hour. Perhaps stop for lunch in Luray before heading back into the park.
3) Hike to a waterfall.
Shenandoah is home to several beautiful waterfalls! Dark Hollow Falls is a great, short hike to a beautiful waterfall. It’s 1.4 miles round trip and rated as moderate. Start this hike from mile 50.7 on Skyline Drive. Another great waterfall wroth trekking to is Whiteoak Canyon Falls. There are several options that you can choose from to see at least part of the falls. The easiest is to go from the eastern park boundary to the Lower Whiteoak Falls, which is a 2-mile round trip hike with 500 ft elevation gain. If doing this route, you will need to exit the park and find the trailhead on the eastern boundary of the park in Syria, VA. This might be a good option if you are already on the outskirts of the park visiting a vineyard or hiking Old Rag. You can also hike to the Upper Whiteoak Falls from the Whiteoak Canyon Parking Area at mile 42.6 on Skyline Drive. This is a moderate, 4.6-mile out-and-back hike. However, if you’re feeling up to it, the strenuous 7.3-mile Whiteoak – Cedar Run Circuit Hike will take you past eight waterfalls in this area, with an elevation gain of 2,794 feet. If doing this route, you can start from the Hawksbill Gap Parking area at mile 45.6 on Skyline Drive. You’ll need 6-7 hours to complete this one, but the views are definitely worth the trek!
4) Hike to a summit.
Shenandoah’s summits offer some of the best views in the park. Old Rag is the most famous hike in Shenandoah National Park and for good reason, but, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a strenuous, 9.2-mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 2,415 feet. The hike includes some intense rock scrambling but rewards you with 360 degree views. You’ll need almost a full day for this one and you’ll have to get there from the eastern boundary of the park, on Nether’s Road in Sperryville, VA, so plan accordingly. This hike gets very crowded, especially on weekends, so it’s best to go on a weekday or get an early start. Plus, then you’ll have more time left in the day after the hike for some more exploring. Make sure you have sturdy shoes, lunch, snacks and plenty of water! Hawksbill Mountain Summit is another, shorter option, but still a strenuous hike. Start at the Hawksbill Gap Parking area at mile 45.6. If you’re doing the Whiteoak – Cedar Run circuit, and are up for even more of a challenge, this is the perfect add-on to the end of that hike! Hawksbill Summit is the highest peak in the park and offers spectacular views. The hike is short, 1.7 miles round trip, but it’s definitely strenuous, especially if you’re doing it after the Whiteoak Canyon hike!
5) Watch the sunrise and/or sunset.
There are so many great options for watching and photographing the sunrise or sunset in the park. For sunrise, consider some of these east facing overlooks: Tunnel Parking Overlook (32.5), Hazel Mountain Overlook (33), Hemlock Springs Overlook (40), Thorofare Overlook (40.5). For sunset, try either the Point Overlook (55.5) or Hazel Top Ridge (54.5). Bearfence Summit is a great option for either sunrise or sunset, but it’s a short hike or scramble to get there. At mile 56.4 on Skyline Drive, you can either do the easy trail along the Appalachian Trail (AT) or a more strenuous hike and rock scramble to the Bearfence Mountain viewpoint. Both options are about 1-mile round trip. Another option is Stonyman. This is a classic hike in Shenandoah, and the easiest way to see one of the best views in the park and great for sunset. If you’re a beginner hiker, this is the perfect trail for you! Start the hike at mile 41.7 on Skyline Drive and it’s an easy 1.6-mile round trip hike.
6) Go horseback riding.
Over 180 trails in the park are open to horses. In spring through fall, you can go on a 1-hour or 2.5-hour guided trail ride from Skyland Stables, near mile 42.7 on Skyline Drive.
7) Go rock climbing.
Shenandoah National Park offers some of the best climbing in the eastern U.S. This is a great way to step out of your comfort zone. Hire a guide to teach you all about rock climbing, from tying knots, to belaying and movement techniques. You can also customize a trip if you’re not new to climbing but just want to hire a guide for the day.
8) Have a picnic.
There are several areas in the park that have scenic picnic grounds with grills and restrooms. These areas provide the perfect place to stop for lunch, relax and enjoy the views. You can find these picnic grounds at Dickey Ridge (mile 4.6), Elkwallow (mile 24.1), Pinnacles (mile 36.7), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5), South River (mile 62.8), and Dundo (mile 83.7).
9) Go to a vineyard.
Virginia is known for having incredible, award-winning wineries and vineyards. Surrounding the park, you’ll find some of the best produced wines in the eastern U.S. so it’s definitely worth a visit. There are so many to choose from that it can be overwhelming, but Stone Mountain Vineyards is close by with great views.
10) Get out on the Shenandoah River.
Rent a kayak, canoe, raft or tube and float along the Shenandoah River. You can find self-guided trips that range from 1.5 hours to 2 days.
Essential Visitor Information:
Operating Hours: The park is open year round, but some facilities close in the winter (late Nov to March). Check conditions before embarking, as sometimes portions of Skyline Drive will close due to inclement weather. You can find more info on facilities and services here.
Best Time to Visit: Spring, summer, and fall are all great times to visit the park. Even winter has its perks – no crowds, and beautiful snowy valleys! But, fall is by far the most popular time to visit due to the fall foliage.
Entrance Fees: There is a $30 entrance fee per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, or $15 per individual if entering via bike or on foot, which is good for 7 consecutive days. You can find more information on entrance fees and annual passes here.
Gas Stations: There is a gas station at Big Meadows Wayside at mile 51.2, but I definitely recommend entering the park on a full tank.
Hiking Safety: If you’re planning on doing a lot of hiking, make sure you have sturdy, supportive hiking boots, bring plenty of snacks and water, and carry a map! Blue blazes (paint marks on the trees) mean hiking trails, yellow means horse trails, and white is for the Appalachian Trail. Make sure to check for ticks after completing a hike.
Wildlife: Know that there are poisonous snakes (copperheads and rattlesnakes) in the area and lots of ticks. I suggest wearing long pants to protect yourself from ticks and poison ivy. You will talk to some people who have been going to Shenandoah their entire life and have never seen a bear. Then there’s me, who has seen a bear almost every time I’ve visited, and often times, multiple bears in one visit. Make noise on the trails so that bears know that you’re there and you don’t startle them, especially when you’re going around a bend. If you see a bear, talk quietly and back away slowly. It will probably go away. Make sure you leave no trace and if you’re camping, definitely have a bear canister to keep you and your food safe.
Where to Stay in Shenandoah National Park
There are 2 lodges in the park: Big Meadow Lodge at mile 51 and Skyland Lodge at mile 41.7. These lodges can book up quickly during peak season, so I recommend making reservations as early as possible (up to a year in advance). At mile 57.5, there are several rustic cabins at Lewis Mountain. There are 5 campgrounds in the park: Mathews Arm, Big Meadows, Lewis Mountain, Loft Mountain, and Dundo Group. The campgrounds begin opening in late March and start closing in late November. Opening dates and fees vary. You can get more information on campgrounds here. There are also plenty of Airbnb options in the surrounding areas, which is the route I usually go when visiting Shenandoah.
What to Eat at Shenandoah National Park
There are two gas stations in the park that have snacks. The two lodges in the park, Big Meadow Lodge and Skyland Lodge, have full service restaurants. However, I recommend bringing in your food and having a picnic at one of the overlooks or outside the lodge with great views. Unless you’re making a specific stop outside the park, it will waste a lot of time and unnecessary driving to leave the park to go get food and come back. The restaurants in the park will also be overpriced for mediocre food. Pack in a sandwich and some snacks, just make sure to leave no trace!
This is a guest post contribution from Cait of Postcards from Cait. Cait is on a mission to visit all 60 U.S. National Parks. When she is not planning vacations or road trips, you can find her rock climbing or writing about her experiences on her blog. You can also connect with her via facebook, instagram, or twitter.
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Very detailed guide. I am pinning this for future reference. We have been near Shenandoah and never visited.
I love the guide! I have to save this for the next time I go to Virginia, I would love to take the kids to some of these outdoor activities.
Yess I’ve been dying to get down there and drive Skyline drive for a year or two now! This is exactly the guide I need!