Photo: NPS/ Katy Cain

Shenandoah National Park Essentials

Find limitless adventure in this Eastern paradise.

From expansive mountaintop vistas to waterfall-laden hollows, Shenandoah National Park offers an awe-filled escape from the big cities of the mid-Atlantic. Located an easy drive from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore—and less than an hour from Charlottesville, Virginia—Shenandoah hugs the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The park consists of almost 200,000 acres, nearly half of which are designated wilderness. It’s also home to over 100 miles of the iconic Appalachian Trail, making the park a meca for hiking, backpacking, fishing, and leaf-peeping alike. 

From Forest to Summit

Shenandoah’s landscape features rich Eastern deciduous forests, dozens of streams (with plenty of hidden swimming holes), waterfalls, and wide-open ridgelines and summits. The park’s length and varying elevations support a wide variety of ecosystems and plant life, from oak-hickory woodlands to rocky outcrops that host rare vegetation and animal life. In spring, wildflowers decorate the forest floor, and summer brings a thick canopy of leaves and sunny hiking weather. In fall, the mix of hardwoods puts on one of the best foliage shows you’ll ever see, and come winter, snow turns the mountainous landscape into a winter postcard.

Animal Life

Everywhere in Shenandoah, keep your eyes peeled for the park’s stellar wildlife. Black bears, deer, and wild turkeys roam through the forests. Bobcats, spotted skunks, big brown bats, and coyotes make their homes here, too. Eighteen species of snakes can be found (only two are venomous—timber rattlesnakes and copperheads). The park also plays host to several kinds of turtles, salamanders, and nearly 200 types of birds, from barred owls to tufted titmice.

History

Long before Shenandoah became a national park, it was home to Indigenous people who formed lasting communities and farmed the valley areas. The Manahoac, Shawnee, Catawbas, and Cherokee peoples (among others) are thought to have lived in the region. White colonists came to the Shenandoah area in the late 1700s and stayed there until the creation of the park in 1935 displaced them. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked on a variety of significant projects in and around the park, many of which you can still see today. 

Visiting the National Park

Shenandoah is a long, skinny park, spanning 105 miles from Front Royal on the north end to Rockfish Gap on the south. The famously scenic Skyline Drive winds through the higher elevations from one end to the other, connecting the major highlights. Along the way, you’ll find two visitor centers, numerous trailheads, preserved historic buildings, and 70-plus scenic overlooks, plus lodging options, restaurants, and gift shops. There are no public transportation options within Shenandoah, so you’ll need a car to get around. 

Seasons

Shenandoah is open year-round, with each season offering a distinct reason to visit.  

Spring (March through May) brings a wide variety of wildflowers, starting with small spring ephemerals and progressing from tiny violets and other blooms on the forest floor to showy azaleas and rhododendron in May and into June.  

Summer (June through August) is the high season, so expect crowds as well as active wildlife and leafed-out trees. Temperatures tend to be relatively moderate, but bring layers and plenty of water.  

Fall (September through November) brings cooler temperatures and spectacular fall foliage, which typically peaks in the second half of October. 

Winter (December through February) can be cold and blustery, and many services shut down—but it’s also quiet, and the bare trees grant amazing mountain vistas.

Things to Do

With its stunning views, hikes, and away-from-it-all feel, Shenandoah will keep you busy. The options are limitless, but here are a few to get you started.

Top day hikes

There are 516 miles of hiking trails in the park. Here are some favorites. 

Riprap Trail: This strenuous 9.1-mile loop feels like a Shenandoah highlights reel. It links the Appalachian and Riprap Trails, tracing Wildcat Ridge, passing swimming holes and overlooks, and tracking under dramatic cliffs. Be prepared for several stream crossings.

Hazel Mountain Loop: Want both waterfalls and mountain views? Tackle this 9.2-miler. Connect the Hazel Mountain, Hazel River, and White Rocks Trails into a lollipop loop. You’ll hike through classic Shenandoah woodland, trace the banks of the Hazel River, and see four different waterfalls before hoofing it up a ridgeline. (Tip: For the best views, go before the trees fully leaf out.)

Old Rag Mountain: The route up this 3,268-foot peak is the park’s most popular—and for good reason. Its blocky summit affords sweeping vistas over the Blue Ridge Mountains in every season. There are a few ways to approach the peak: If you prefer loops to out-and-backs, try the 8.6-mile route that links Ridge Trail, Saddle Trail, and Weakley Hollow Fire Road. Note: The crowds may soon get more manageable, as Shenandoah is implementing a pilot ticket program to hike the peak starting in 2022. 

Backpacking

Shenandoah is also a fantastic place for backpacking, with many options for distances and destinations. Got a week and want to hike the whole park? The Appalachian Trail runs for about 100 miles through Shenandoah, and makes for an epic journey. For a weekend option, the 17-mile Mathews Arm Loop serves up waterfalls, dense forests, and excellent backcountry camping. Find more itineraries and learn about permit requirements at the national park website.

Camping

Shenandoah maintains five developed campgrounds throughout the park. The largest are Big Meadows Campground, located in the middle of the park, and Loft Mountain Campground, on Big Flat Mountain near the park’s southern end. Mathews Arm Campground is the northernmost option. Lewis Mountain Campground is quiet with just 30 sites, and Dundo Group Campground offers three group sites. Reservations are available (and highly recommended) starting six months before your trip. Get campground details and reservation info here

Scenic driving

Skyline Drive, the artery running north-south through Shenandoah National Park, is one of America’s best scenic cruises. You’ll follow the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, with vistas and highlights everywhere you look. To see the whole thing, budget at least three hours (more to account for stops or inclement weather). Mileposts mark your progress; you’ll find mile 0 on the northern end. Dozens of overlooks line the route, and many trails take off from the road.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.