Home to extraordinary wildlife, historic sites, beautiful views and unique hiking trails – there’s simply no wrong way to experience Shenandoah National Park. You can drive through the park, hike a trail – even explore sections of the famous Appalachian Trail. And there’s options to camp inside the park, or reserve a room at one of the lodges along the route. Whether you have just a day, a whole weekend or even longer, there’s so much to do and enjoy in Shenandoah.
The most popular activity in Shenandoah National Park is to drive the famous Skyline Drive as it navigates its way along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It will feel like just about around every bend there’s a terrific view for us. Along the 105 miles (169 kilometers) there’s an almost countless number of pullouts and overlooks – well, actually there’s 75 official ones. It’s easy to fill a day by simply driving and enjoying those panoramic views, including those that only require a short walk to reach the best vantage points.
Hikers have a huge range of trails to explore; peaceful forest wanders, scrambles to rocky peaks like Old Rag or Hawksbill, and relaxing waterfalls walks await. We absolutely encourage you to make sure to take a walk, even if it’s only short. And because it’s one of the few national parks that allows dogs on most trails, you actually can bring your furry friend along (on a leash).
Chances of spotting wildlife are very good in the park, but as always, not guaranteed. The most sought-after sighting is to see a bear. Some visitors will be lucky and spot multiple bears, but sometimes you can come to the park many times without seeing one. Just keep trying! It’s almost certain you’ll see deer. And don’t forget to also watch for small animals like wild turkeys.
Have fun exploring Shenandoah National Park!
Now let’s be clear: there are no buses or shuttles to Shenandoah National Park. Your only options are to drive to the park or hike to it on the Appalachian Trail!
Shenandoah Valley Airport (SHD) is a small regional airport, servicing flights from Washington, D.C., and Chicago. It’s 27 miles (43 kilometers) west of the park’s Swift Run Gap Entrance.
Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (CHO) is 31 miles from Shenandoah National Park’s Rockfish Gap Entrance. This airport is served by Delta, United and American Airlines, flying from New York, Charlotte, Atlanta, Washington and beyond.
The Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) (64 miles/103 kilometers) and Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) (81 miles/130 kilometers) are served by most major airlines. Located near Baltimore, the Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) is 108 miles (174 kilometers) away and also served by most major carriers.
The Richmond International Airport (RIC) is near downtown Richmond in Sandston, and is 92 miles (148 kilometers) from the park. It is served by eight major air carriers including Delta, United and American Airlines.
There are four entrances to choose from when you visit the park. Front Royal Entrance is the northern option, and is easily accessible from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Rockfish Gap Entrance is the southern entrance, convenient for those coming from West Virginia, southern parts of Virginia or North Carolina. And then Swift Run Gap Entrance and Thornton Gap Entrance offer two options to join, or exit, Skyline Drive along the route.
Special note: GPS navigation systems and navigation apps have been known to give travelers incorrect directions to get to the park. It’s recommended to not simply enter “Shenandoah National Park” into these systems – it’s better to add a specific location, like one of the entrance towns or entrance station names for more accurate directions. But rest assured, our tour is not affected by these strange anomalies and will play commentary throughout Skyline Drive.
The park’s entrances offer different experiences, and some are less crowded than others. The Front Royal and Thornton Gap entrances get the most traffic because of their proximity to the Washington, D.C., metro area. From May through August, you may have to wait in line 10 to 15 minutes to get in, if you pick either of these.
Before you enter the park, it’s really important that you do one thing: fill up your gas tank. There is only one gas station in the entire park and if you run out, it could be hours before help shows up. You’ll find the Big Meadows Gas Station next to the Big Meadows Wayside.
After you enter the park, you’ll want to drive slowly and follow the speed limit. On Skyline Drive, the limit is only 35 mph. Why? Here are a couple of reasons. White-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys and other animals frequently cross the road and have been known to dart in front of vehicles. But wildlife is not your only hazard on the road. It’s not uncommon to drive around a curve, only to find another driver stopped in the middle of the road, taking pictures. To avoid an accident, follow the park’s posted speed limit and be aware that other visitors may be distracted as they drive through Shenandoah.
Among the final things to know before heading to Shenandoah is that your cell phone probably won’t work very well. There is very little cell signal in the park, but there are landline phones at different waysides and visitors centers in Shenandoah in case of an emergency. Once again, it’s good to know that our tour does not require any cell phone signal to work in the park – just be sure to download your tour before you enter and you’re all set.
It’s not free to enter Shenandoah National Park. The park’s entrance fee is the same, no matter which entrance you drive through. Your entrance pass is good for the next seven days and covers your vehicle and all of the passengers in it. You can buy your entrance pass when you enter the park, or purchase it online through recreation.gov.
Purchasing the 12 month America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is the best deal. Not only does the annual pass cover year-round entrance fees to Shenandoah National Park, but it also covers the entrance fees for all other U.S. national parks, national monuments and most national wildlife refuges and national historic sites.
When is the best time to vacation in Shenandoah National Park? Well, each season offers its own advantages.
In spring, the park comes alive in so many ways. Newly born deer, elk and bears are trying to keep up with their mothers, flowers are blooming, and people are visiting to see it all. Even local residents have been known to take their lunch break at Big Meadows or one of the more popular mountains during spring time. Because this is such a special time in the park, weekend traffic can be busy.
As summer arrives, so do the hikers. You’ll find fewer cars but more people out on the trails. Because of the heat, the park’s wildlife tends to lay low during the hottest times of the day. This means you’ll want to plan on being in the park at dawn and dusk for the best wildlife viewing opportunities.
In fall, it’s all about the leaves. Once September rolls around, you’ll start seeing the foliage change from green to brilliant oranges, reds and yellows. Plan on visiting the park in late September or early October for the most vibrant display. The National Park Service (NPS) and other social media and resources offer calculated predictions of when “Peak Foliage” will occur each fall. You can also check the park’s webcam for real-time visuals of the trees. Fall also offers cooler conditions which hikers appreciate – especially for longer trails.
Yes, visitor numbers drop off in winter between November and February. The NPS aims to keep Skyline Drive open year-round, but expect intermittent closures during winter if conditions become too snowy or icy. But visiting in winter is very worthwhile, especially if you’re looking for a little more solitude.
In Shenandoah National Park, you can book a hotel room, cabin or campsite, all of which make it really convenient to explore the park. You can also stay outside the park since there are a number of towns with accommodations just beyond the park’s borders. Here’s an overview of the accommodations both inside and outside the park.
If you want to rough it in a tent, there are five campgrounds in the park: Mathews Arm Campground, Big Meadows Campground, Lewis Mountain Campground, Loft Mountain Campground and Dundo Group Campground. Camping in Shenandoah requires a paying a fee, and you’ll want to book your campsite up to six months in advance on recreation.gov. Every campground is RV friendly, except Dundo Group Campground. Dundo only offers groups sites, and no RVs are allowed.
But if you’re feeling adventurous, there’s another option. How about some backcountry camping? You’ll need to fill out an online backcountry camping permit or stop at a self-registration station when you arrive in the park. The permit is free – but you must complete one.
There is a 120-mile (193-kilometer) stretch of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the park and it’s dotted with shelters you can spend the night in. The shelters are simple wooden lean-to structures and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. But you’ll need to plan your route in advance to make sure you know where you are going and when you can count on spending the night in a shelter. Park officials ask casual backpackers not to stay in the shelters between mid-May through mid-July since Appalachian Trail thru-hikers are heading north during these months and they use the shelters.
If sleeping in shelters or on the ground isn’t your style, don’t worry. You can also stay in cabins or a hotel room. In the park, there are six rustic cabins built by rangers, the Civilian Conservation Corps and inhabitants of the area. They are maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and offer a varying degree of amenities. You’ll have to hike to the cabins, and each must be reserved ahead of time.
You can also stay in one-room, two-room, pet-friendly cabins or hiker’s cabins as part of the Lewis Mountain Cabins properties. These cabins are each furnished with beds, towels and linens, with the exception of the Hiker’s Cabin that doesn’t have linens, a bathroom or running water.
The park also has two great lodges on Skyline Drive, which offer a host of amenities from hotel rooms, suites, and private cabins, to restaurants, gift shops and a number of guided activities. At Skyland you’ll find an array of lodging options spread across 28 buildings including hotel rooms, suites, pet-friendly rooms and private cabins. The Pollock Dining Room serves hearty meals, and the Mountain Taproom is a great place to grab a drink at the end of the day. And make sure to stop by the Grab N’ Go to get a takeaway lunch before heading out on your park adventure.
Big Meadows Lodge is the other lodge in the park, and it offers lodge rooms, suites, pet-friendly rooms and five cabins. You can dine at the Spottswood Dining Room on-site, as well as enjoy a cool beverage in the New Market Taproom while reflecting on your day on the trails.
If you have missed the opportunity to stay inside the park, there’s a number of places to stay just beyond the park’s four entrances. Here’s a look at the best cities and towns near each entrance, no matter if you’re exploring the northern, middle or southern areas of the park.
The northern entrance to Shenandoah National Park is at the edge of Front Royal. Front Royal offers a number of activities, so if your crew is hiked out, this may be a good place to spend some time. At Dinosaur Land, a roadside attraction that’s been open for more than 50 years, you’ll encounter 50 dinosaur statues. There’s also Skyline Caverns and opportunities for paddling, mountain biking and rock climbing. But if you just want to relax, the town has a dozen breweries and wineries, along with locally owned restaurants. The Apple House is a local mainstay established in 1963 with several unique menu items you won’t find anywhere else.
If you’re exiting the park near Big Meadows, Luray is a good place to spend the night. It’s known for its many cabin rentals, but there are also locally owned motels, hotels and bed and breakfasts. Luray is home to several attractions worth seeing. You can see the insides of the earth on a tour of Luray Caverns, where you can also discover how the automobile evolved from the early 1900s through the mid-1990s at the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum. Or, stop by the River Hill Wine & Spirits, a family-owned winery and distillery.
Dubbed the gateway to both Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian Trail, Waynesboro is just a short five minute drive from the park’s southern entrance. If you enjoy wine, take time to do a tasting at one of the wineries in the area. You’ll also find a number of local restaurants and no shortage of motel and hotel accommodations. And if you’re looking for entertainment, the Wayne Theatre, a restored 1920s vaudeville venue, brings Off-Broadway shows to the area throughout the year.
How much time should you spend in Shenandoah? The non-stop, no-traffic driving time for Skyline Drive is about three hours, but you’ll want to take more time to stop and see the sights along the way. As a minimum, give yourself a full day if trying to experience the drive in a single day.
If you’re planning to enjoy several hikes, or including a longer one, or if you’re joining a guided activity like Rapidan Camp, then try to extend your time to include an overnight stay within the park, or at one of the nearby off-route towns.
And to really explore the park, break it into sections and return for multiple visits.
Shenandoah is a popular national park, and unsurprisingly, it’s particularly busy on weekends during peak season. Rangers recommend arriving at the park as early in the morning as possible to try and avoid some of the crowds. As you can imagine, weekdays are often less crowded than weekends. And if you plan your Shenandoah getaway on a non-holiday week, it will increase your chances of finding parking spots more easily and there will be fewer cars at the park’s entrances.
Here’s another tip: most visitors focus on hiking the park’s popular trails like Old Rag Mountain. But with more than 500 miles of trails, the park offers a ton of opportunities for you to hike to summits and waterfalls away from the crowds. You’ll find just as much beauty and more solitude on the park’s less-busy hikes.
Also, fall can be the park’s busiest time of year, even busier than summer. Leaf-peeping is popular! Head to the park during the week to experience a less busy park. Moreover, check the park’s social media channels for the most up-to-date predictions on when the leaves will peak in color, or look at the park’s mountain view webcam to see what the colors look like in real time.
It might seem a little obvious, but the most popular thing to do is to simply enjoy the beautifully scenic Skyline Drive, from end to end. As the only road in the park and therefore the only way to access most locations (other than hiking in!) this is a truly enjoyable, compulsory journey. Be prepared to stop frequently and enjoy the vistas along the way. And make sure to scan for wildlife, and take hundreds of stunning photos!
Do you believe in ghosts? Rumors have it that one of the most haunted places in Shenandoah sits just 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) off the road. It’s a place where you may hear footsteps outside when no one else is around, and possibly glimpse a white figure in the woods who is said to vanish if approached. This is Corbin Cabin and even if you don’t believe in ghosts, it’s a unique site with a story behind it that dates back to before the creation of the park. The cabin can be rented for the night and is maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
When you think of Shenandoah, a large vacation lodging complex probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And yet, there is one here operating, hidden in the middle of the woods. Built in 1906, Skyland has played host to elaborate balls, musicals, tournaments and pageants over the years. Today, you can stay in a hotel room, cabin, participate in Skyland’s events, enjoy a meal in the dining hall, or simply walk through and learn about its history.
This is the park’s halfway point and there’s a good chance to see a wide variety of wildlife here. Big Meadows is a feeding ground for everyone from black bears to bobcats, with deer and the occasional elk wandering by. Burned by multiple wildfires in recent times, Big Meadows gives a unique visual as you can quite literally see the land regenerating.
Across the road from Big Meadows is another place worth stopping at. The Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center is equal parts museum and travel guide. Here you can find exhibits on everything from the park’s history to its wildlife, as well as plot out which trails you’d like to explore. Kids will enjoy the ranger programs and the exhibits, with artifacts from both humans and animals on display.
You’ve probably heard about Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. But before that country retreat was built in 1942, President Herbert Hoover built Rapidan Camp in what would eventually become Shenandoah National Park. Today, the camp and surviving cabins are a museum, both of Hoover’s presidency and of Shenandoah itself. Just remember that the road to Rapidan Camp is closed to private vehicles, so the only way to gain access is to hike in or make an advanced reservation on a ranger-led tour.
One of the most visually stunning (and somewhat dangerous) aspects of the park is white-tailed deer and their frequent jaunts across the road. In the Big Meadows area, you’ll see multiple herds of deer grazing in fields next to the road. It’s a great place to take pictures, as the deer are accustomed to humans. The only problem is that people have a habit of stopping in the middle of the road here to take photos, even if it’s right after a turn. So make sure to drive slowly and be alert for both people and deer on the road.
There is a huge choice of trails in Shenandoah, varying from gentle to very challenging – and too many to list here. So we’ve just suggested three of our favorites; one mountain-top, one waterfall, and one forest and gorge. We’ll talk about many more on the tour. If you are not a frequent hiker and concerned you may be getting in beyond your abilities, it’s recommended to take advantage of the expertise of rangers and counsellors at the visitor centers for suggestions that match your time and confidence.
Before you head out on a hike, did you know that dogs are welcome on over 400 miles (643 kilometers) of trails in the park? Shenandoah is one of the few national parks that allows pets on its trails. Of course, they must be on a leash no longer than six feet, but there’s only a handful of trails where they aren’t permitted.
Little Devils Stairs is one of the Northern District’s most unique features. The stairs are a series of natural formations found throughout a narrow, seemingly hand carved gorge. While they may look almost human-made, no one has laid claim to shaping them. It’s one of the park’s more popular attractions, so you can expect a crowded parking lot. The 7.4-mile (11.9-kilometer) circuit trail leads you through an impressive gorge with many cascades, but requires a full day with an elevation gain of 1,897 feet (578 meters).
One of just a few hikes where pets aren’t permitted, the Dark Follow Falls hike follows a stream to a beautiful waterfall and is one of the park’s most traveled trails. The short 1.4-mile (2.3-kilometer) circuit trail trail is very steep and rocky, and the return hike is challenging, especially when wet and slippery so take your time.
Old Rag is the most popular attraction in the park, to the point you need a reserve a place in advance to take the hike under the pilot reservation program introduced by NPS to help control hikers from over-loving this location. There’s a choice of routes to take, though the Circuit is most popular and usually a 6-ish hour commitment. You’ll scramble over rocks along the hike, taking in 360-degree views of Shenandoah.
Shenandoah’s hiking trails offer you a chance to really experience the best of the park, and many hikers love “chasing” stunning waterfalls. Park at the Fishers Gap parking lot and head out on the 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) Rose River Loop to reach a 67-foot (20-meter) high waterfall. If you want to add an extra quarter of a mile on to the hike, you can follow the trail towards the end of your hike to Dark Hollow Falls. Or for a slightly shorter hike, head to Lewis Falls Trail which starts from the Big Meadows Amphitheater parking lot. It’s 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers) round-trip, but you’ll gain almost 1,000 feet (305 meters) during the hike.
Scale some of the rock faces the park is famous for when you sign up for a rock climbing class with Shenandoah Mountain Guides. Classes include a box lunch, and advance reservations are required.
Don’t miss all the fun activities happening at the two lodges in the park: Skyland and Big Meadows. Choose between listening to live music, doing outdoor yoga, joining a night skies program or even touring vineyards and distilleries on a wine and whiskey tour. Check out what’s being offered during the dates you’ll be in the park at GoShenandoah.com.
The Appalachian Trail cuts through the park, and there are a number of trails that enable you to reach this iconic trail and experience a section of it. Why hike it? The world-famous Appalachian Trail extends more than 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) between Georgia and Maine. At Shenandoah, you can get a taste of what it’s like to be on this storied trail without having to hike through 14 states.
The Hawksbill Loop is 2.9 miles (4.7 kilometers), of which a portion is on the “AT”, as it is known by the hiking community. You’ll gain 860 feet (262 meters) on your way up to the park’s highest peak, but all that sweat is worth it. From the viewing platform, which sits at 4,051 feet (1,235 meters), you can see the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Or, for a short, flat 2.1-mile (3.4-kilometer) hike that allows you to walk the AT, take the (out and back) Appalachian Trail – Tanners Ridge Road Trail. If you want to tick AT off your bucket list (okay – maybe just a portion of it), Shenandoah makes it possible.
See the park while sitting in a saddle, and you’ll cover a lot of ground without having to lift a foot – which the kids may find extremely appealing. Head to Skyland Stables to go on a guided horseback ride or for the little ones, a pony ride. Horseback rides are an hour long and take you past apple orchards in the Limberlost area of the park. Just note that reservations are required.
Shenandoah National Park’s dark skies lend themselves to spectacular views at night, so it’s a great idea to join a stargazing program while you’re in the park. Skyland and Big Meadows Lodge offer weekly programming that’s free to all park visitors, so check the lodges’ website for details.
This family-friendly, 1.2-mile (1.9-kilometer) hike leaves from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center near Front Royal, VA. You’ll pass by the historic Fox family cemetery, providing a window into the people who lived here before it became a park, as well as other historic sights. This hike is part of the TRACK Trail program, which means there is a special kids-oriented, self-guided brochure that accompanies this adventure.
A great way to discover Shenandoah as a family is to attend one of the park’s many ranger programs. The programs range from lively talks about the park’s bears, to group hikes, to cultural sights and beautiful spots in the park. Check out the ranger program schedule on the Shenandoah National Park website for up-to-date programs and schedules.
Layers: Temperatures can change drastically, so be prepared for anything. Dressing in layers can help keep you comfortable, no matter what the weather brings.
Sturdy Footwear: If you plan on hiking or traveling on any of the paths, make sure to bring sturdy hiking shoes or boots.
Water: Pack plenty of water. Especially in summer, it’s easy to get dehydrated while out walking.
Sun Protection: Sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat are essentials when spending any extended amount of time outdoors.
Daypack: Don’t forget to bring along a comfortable daypack if you plan on doing any hiking or just want to keep everything you need organized in the car. Place all your gear such as extra layers, snacks, water bottles and trail maps in here so you have everything you need close at hand.
First Aid Kit: You’ll want to make sure you have a first aid kit with you. This is a case of “better safe than sorry”, as a slip on some of these rocky trails could cause an injury. While park officials can be reached in an emergency, it never hurts to be prepared.
Binoculars: It’s not a good idea to get up close with most of the park’s animals, so bring binoculars to safely see them in their natural habitat.
Portable Phone Charger and Cable: If you’re taking pictures with your phone, running out of batteries may result in missed opportunities. A DC car charger is best, so that you can charge your phone while driving.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike, so we can do our part and help keep the trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the parks beautiful for everyone who visits.