Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is your escape to rest, relaxation and recreation. Meander along Skyline Drive — a 105-mile road that runs the entire length of the park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, generally along the ridge of the mountains. Hike to cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas and quiet wooded hollows. Or picnic with the family and enjoy the 200,000 acres of protected lands are haven to deer, songbirds, and an incredible night sky.
The park is long and narrow, with the broad Shenandoah River and Valley to the west side, and the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont to the east. Although the scenic Skyline Drive is the most prominent feature of the park, almost 40% of the land area has been designated as wilderness and is protected as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s National Parks! I’ve been to 50 of our 61 National Parks — and I have explored many areas of the park — so I’m here to offer some suggestions! If this is your first time to the park, or you’re returning after many years, check out some of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park!
Experience Skyline Drive
As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side of the road (right side if you are traveling south, left if you are heading north). These posts help you find your way through the park and help you locate areas of interest. The miles begin at 0 at Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the park. The largest developed area, Big Meadows, is near the center of the park, at mile 51. All park maps and information use these mileposts as a reference.
The speed limit is 35 mph, so you can roll down your windows, feel the breeze and experience every curve and turn of this beautiful drive. There are nearly 70 overlooks that offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east. Black bear, wild turkey, and a host of other woodland animals call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels. Watch carefully for these animals who may dart across your path without warning.
Who Doesn’t Love a waterfall?
Besides small cascades along streams, there are large and lovely waterfalls in each section of Shenandoah National Park. All are accessible from a parking place along Skyline Drive. But they all involve a hike downhill—and, of course, the harder hike back up! Check out the waterfalls — each with its own beauty and personality. Here are some of the more popular falls…
- Overall Run Falls at mile 21.1
- Whiteoak Canyon Falls at mile 42.6
- Cedar Run Falls at mile 45.6
- Rose River Falls at mile 49.4
- Dark Hollow Falls at mile 50.7
- Lewis Falls at mile 51.4
- South River Falls at mile 62.8
- Jones Run Falls at mile 84.1
Get Out and Hike!
There’s so much more to see than just waterfalls, and hiking is the best way to get out an explore the park. There are over 500 miles of hiking trails in Shenandoah ranging from easy to very strenuous. You can even hike part of the Appalachian Trail! When you are out on the trails, look for the concrete trail markers with directional information at trailheads and intersections. Here are some suggestions for hiking the North, Central and Southern Districts of the park.
North District Hikes in Shenandoah
From the tallest waterfall in the park, to the quiet historical Fox Hollow Trail, the North District of Shenandoah has something for everyone. Hikes in the North District of Shenandoah National Park include the quiet, historical Fox Hollow Trail, the scenic Overall Run Falls, and Compton Peak, with impressive columnar jointing geological features. While in the North District be sure to talk to a ranger at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.
Central District Hikes in Shenandoah
Whether you are looking for a short hike through the forest or a destination hike leading to peaks or waterfalls, the Central District of Shenandoah National Park offers many options for recreation and relaxation. Hiking options in the Central District include scenic waterfalls like Dark Hollow Falls and Whiteoak Canyon, sweeping summits like Stony Man Mountain and Marys Rock. The Central District also includes Big Meadows and Skyland, areas rich with history that currently are home to lodging, dining, and shopping options.
South District Hikes In Shenandoah
The South District is the most remote area of Shenandoah National Park. Whether you are looking to take a shorter hike to rugged talus slopes or a longer trip into the Wilderness, your adventure starts here. The South District offers plenty of hiking opportunities from the easier Blackrock Summit — featuring a rocky talus slope and majestic views — to the very strenuous Riprap Trail featuring cascades, and views of Shenandoah’s Wilderness. While there is no visitor center in the South District, the Loft Mountain Wayside and Campground can offer some services.
Bicycling Through the Park
Another great way to see the park is on two wheels! Bicycling is permitted along Skyline Drive and on paved areas in the park. Bicycles (road and mountain bikes) are not permitted on trails, unpaved roads or in grassy areas. Because Skyline Drive is a two-lane road with steep hills and numerous blind curves, cyclists are urged to use extreme caution.
Cyclists should be prepared to operate their bicycles during periods of low visibility, or while traveling through a tunnel, or between sunset and sunrise. During periods of fog, reflectors will not provide the necessary safety for bicyclists. Lights on both the front and rear of the bicycle are required. Mountain areas can experience dramatically different weather than what is being experienced in the lowlands, so be prepared!
Camping & Sleeping Under the Stars
There’s no better place to do it than Shenandoah! Beautiful campgrounds, each with unique features and access to nearly 200,000 acres of backcountry to explore are perfect for your next camping adventure!
Mathews Arm Campground
Mathews Arm, at mile 22.1 of Skyline Drive, is the nearest campground for those entering the park from the north. It is next to a nature trail and the trail to Overall Run Falls, the tallest waterfall in the park. Elkwallow Wayside, with camping supplies and food service, is two miles away.
Big Meadows Campground
Located at mile 51.2 of Skyline Drive, Big Meadows Campground is near many of the major facilities and popular hiking trails in the park. Three waterfalls are within walking distance; the Meadow, with its abundant plant growth and wildlife, is close by.
Lewis Mountain Campground
Lewis Mountain Campground is located off mile 57.5 of Skyline Drive and is the smallest campground in the park.
Loft Mountain Campground
Located at mile 79.5 of Skyline Drive, Loft Mountain Campground is the largest campground in the park. The campground sits atop Big Flat Mountain with outstanding views to east and west. Two waterfalls and the trails into the Big Run Wilderness area are nearby.
Fishing in Mountain Streams
Shenandoah National Park contains over 70 mountain streams that support diverse aquatic resources including brook trout populations. Fishing opportunities are abundant but are also regulated in order to preserve and protect fish resources. For current rules, license requirements, guidelines on ethical fishing techniques, and planning a fishing trip, make sure to review the park’s fishing regulations.
Rock climbing is a popular activity in Shenandoah National Park. Opportunities for all levels of climbers abound. Providing these opportunities are part of Shenandoah’s mission as is protecting the resources. Responsible rock climbing practices will ensure that these opportunities will be enjoyed by future generations.
Ranger-guided programs give visitors the opportunity to explore the wonders of the park with a Ranger. Programs are offered in spring, summer, and fall. Discover the many stories of Shenandoah’s past, take a walk through the splendor of a unique mountain meadow, or learn about the many animals and plants that thrive in Shenandoah National Park.
I’ve created a poster for Shenandoah National Park that features Dark Hollow Falls.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist with a single passion for our National Parks! Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph each of our national parks and to create WPA-style posters to celebrate the amazing landscapes, vibrant culture and rich history that embody America’s Best Idea!