Shenandoah National Park is a United States National Park in the state of Virginia. The park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the eastern part of the USA, visited by well over 1 million people a year. Although hundreds of thousands drive along Skyline Drive in mid-late October to admire vibrant fall foliage, the park is no less spectacular (and a lot less crowded) in spring when the wildflowers and trees are in full bloom.
The oldest rocks in the Blue Ridge Mountains were created over a billion years ago as magma deep within the earth's crust moved upward. Over eons it cooled, fractured, and was joined by younger metamorphic rocks formed from sedimentary deposits. All were altered and eroded to shape today's granite peaks and sylvan hollows.
Around 8,000-9,000 years ago, but seconds in geologic time, the first traces of humans were recorded on the land that would become the park. Native Americans seasonally visited the area to hunt, to gather nuts and berries, and to find sources for and to make their stone tools.
Europeans first experienced the beauty of these mountains less than 300 years ago. First came hunters and trappers, and soon after 1750 the first settlers moved into the lower hollows near springs and streams. Over the next 150 years many hundreds of families built homesteads, mills and stores and planted orchards and crops. The mountains were logged and minerals were mined. Vacation resorts were established to allow guests to experience the mountain views, healthy water, and cool breezes. American society became urban, industrial, and yearned for special places for recreation and refuge.
In the early 20th century the first calls for national parks in the east were heard in the United States Congress. It would be two decades before Shenandoah National Park was authorized and another ten years before it was established. During that time President Herbert Hoover and his wife Louise Henry Hoover established their Summer White House on the Rapidan River, the construction of Skyline Drive began, the Civilian Conservation Corps was established and moved into the park area, and over 450 families of mountain residents were relocated from the Blue Ridge; many of these families were vehemently opposed to losing their homes and communities.
With the establishment of the park in December 1935, the CCC began to build visitor facilities throughout the mountain, areas that were initially racially segregated. The core of the park's development was completed by the beginning of World War II and, to a great extent, the mountains were released to nature.
Shenandoah National Park includes 300 sq mi (780 km2) of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the central Appalachians. The park rises above the Virginia Piedmont to its east and the Shenandoah Valley to its west. Two peaks exceed 4,000 ft (1,200 m). The range of elevation, slopes and aspects of mountain and hillsides, rock and soil types, precipitation conditions, and latitude interact to create a mix of habitats.
The park’s biota and natural features include: well-exposed strata of the Appalachians, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world; diverse animal and plant populations and habitats; migratory bird stop-over points; and forested watersheds that perpetuate numerous streams flowing from uplands to lowlands.
Shenandoah is the largest fully protected area in the mid-Appalachian region.
Flora and fauna
Shenandoah serves as a refuge for many species of animals otherwise pressured by human activities, development and other land uses. There are over 200 resident and transient bird species, over 50 species of mammals, 51 reptile and amphibian species, and 30 fish species found in the park.
The Atlantic Ocean, and in particular the Gulf Stream, plays an important role in Virginia’s precipitation regime. Winter storms generally track from the west to the east and in the vicinity of the east coast move to the northeast paralleling the coast and the Gulf Stream. This shift to northeast results partly from the tendency of storms to follow the boundary between the cold land and the warm Gulf Stream. When sufficiently cold air comes into Virginia from the west and northwest, frontal storms can bring heavy snowfall. Thunderstorms occur in all months of the year, with a maximum in September and minimum in February. Storms and high runoff conditions can occur year-round in Shenandoah. Most locations receive 100-150 cm of precipitation per year. The average annual precipitation at Big Meadows is 132 cm, which includes about 94 cm of snow. South to southwest winds predominate, with secondary maximum frequency from the north. Lower elevation areas of the park experience modified continental climate, with mild winters and warm, humid summers. The mean annual temperature in the lowland area at Luray averages 12 degrees C, and average annual precipitation is 91 cm, with about 43 cm of snow.
Higher elevation areas of the park experience winters that are moderately cold and summers that are relatively cool. The mean annual temperature at Big Meadows averages about 9 °C. Mean maximum daily temperatures in July average about 6 °C cooler at Big Meadows than in the lowland areas of the park. Temperatures in January range from about –7 °C to 4 °C and in July from about 14-24 °C. Snow and ice are common in the winter, but they usually melt quickly, leaving the ground bare. Occasional major snow or ice storms can cause considerable damage to the trees within the park.
There are several ways to get into the park:
- Route 522 - the North (Front Royal)
- Route 211 - crosses the park in the northern part at Thornton Gap.
- Route 33 - crosses in the southern part
- Blue Ridge Parkway & I-64 - the South (not far from Waynesboro)
Fees and permits
Entrances fees are valid for seven days, allowing unlimited re-entry for the week. Fees as of 2020 are:
- $15 - Individual Person on foot or bike
- $25 - Single Motorcycle
- $30 - Private Vehicle
- $55 - Shenandoah Annual Pass
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to Shenandoah National Park and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 18, 2021
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 17, 2021
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 25, 2021
- Veterans Day (November 11)
The best way to enjoy the area is by taking any of the numerous hiking trails along the road. There is no public transportation in the area and the only way to get to the trails is by vehicle or by bicycle.
- 1 Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Milepost 4.6 on Skyline Drive). Dickey Ridge Visitor Center offers restrooms, an information desk, exhibits, an orientation movie, a bookstore, publications, maps, backcountry permits, and first aid. Right across Skyline Drive from the visitor center you will find the popular Fox Hollow Trail trailhead.
- 2 Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center (Milepost 51 on Skyline Drive, across from Big Meadows). The Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center offers restrooms, information desks, exhibits, ranger programs, video screenings, a book store, maps, backcountry permits, and first aid. The visitor center is located close to Big Meadows lodge, campgrounds, and dining facilities.
- 3 Loft Mountain Information Center (mile 79.5 on Skyline Drive).
- 4 Rapidan Camp (Camp Hoover), ☏ . Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, bought land in Virigina for his summer weekend retreat in 1929, during the first peaceful days of his administration. Rapidan Camp provided President and Mrs. Hoover much needed rest and recreation during the later difficult years of his presidency. The Brown House is historically refurnished to the 1929 era with a ranger-guided tour in high season.
- 5 Thornton Gap. Thornton Gap was one many mountain passes used to access the Shenandoah Valley by both Confederate and Union troops during the American Civil War. Neither side controlled it for very long and its scattered inhabitants were left largely undisturbed by the conflict raging in the valleys below.
Driving the Skyline Drive
The Skyline Drive, which is designated a National Scenic Byway, runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is the only public road through the park. You can enter the drive at four places: Front Royal near Rt. 66 and 340, Thornton Gap at Rt. 211 near Luray, Swift Run Gap at Rt. 33 near Elkton, and Rockfish Gap at Rt. 64 near Waynesboro (where the drive continues south as the Blue Ridge Parkway). The maximum speed limit on the drive is 35 mph and it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the park. To help drivers locate points of interest in the park, the drive features concrete mileposts on the west side of the road. The mileposts begin with 0 at Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the park. All park maps and information use these mileposts as a reference. For example, Big Meadows, the largest developed area in the park is located near the center of the park, at milepost 51. The drive features seventy-five overlooks with stunning views. The drive also leads through Marys Rock Tunnel (just south of Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211, near milepost 33).
With over 500 miles (800 km) of hiking trails, including over 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the park is a premier destination for hikers.
- 1 Bearfence Trail (parking area is at mile 56.4 of Skyline Drive. The beginning of the trail is across the street from the parking area.). Though only 1 mile, Bearfence offers a short but challenging rock scramble and a viewpoint. Bearfence requires that you maneuver up and around boulders, using your hands, feet, and whole body. Once at the top, you will be greeted with a 360-degree view of Shenandoah National Park and the surrounding valleys and mountains.
- 2 Blackrock Summit Trail (parking area for Blackrock Summit is at mile 84.4 of Skyline Drive.). See a spectacular view to distant valley and mountains and examine up close geology at Blackrock Summit. This easy 1 mile loop leads to a rocky talus slope and scenic view.
- Compton Peak Trail (start at the Compton Gap parking area at mile 10.4 of Skyline Drive. Cross the drive to find the trailhead.). The 2.4 mile hike to Compton Peak includes two viewpoints, Compton Peak West and Compton Peak East as well as a unique columnar jointing geological feature.
- 3 Dark Hollow Falls Trail (trailhead is located at mile 50.7 of Skyline Drive, just north of the Big Meadows). (1.5 hours, 1.4 miles, pets not allowed; elevation gain: 440 feet) The most popular waterfall trail leads to the Dark Hollow Falls. The trail descends steeply to the head of the falls and then to the foot. The return trip to the parking may be exhausting to some. This moderate out-and-back trail has some steep sections, but is rewarding once you look upon the falls. For an alternate route, follow the 4 mile Rose River Loop from Fishers Gap Overlook. Always be careful and use caution when hiking around waterfalls.
- 4 Fox Hollow Trail (across Skyline Drive from Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at mile 4.6.). Fox Hollow is a 1.2 mile loop near Dickey Ridge Visitor Center rated easiest. This trail features a variety of forest life, as well as evidence of the Fox family who once called this plot of land their home before the establishment of Shenandoah National Park.
- 5 Frazier Discovery Trail (trailhead is at mile 79.5 of Skyline Drive. Park at the north end of the Loft Mountain Wayside and cross Skyline Drive to start the trail.). Hike to a viewpoint over the South District of Shenandoah National Park on the Frazier Discovery Trail. This loop hike is 1.2 miles and includes a short, but steep, climb to the viewpoint.
- 6 Limberlost Trail (trailhead is at mile 43 of Skyline Drive.). Limberlost Trail is a fully accessible trail in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park. Walk this 1.3 mile loop through a covered forest. See a columnar jointing geological feature and in the spring see the blooming mountain laurel that surrounds the trail.
- 7 Little Stony Man Trail (trailhead begins at mile 41.7 of Skyline Drive). A hike near Stony Man is Little Stony Man (1 hour, 0.9 miles), a climb with breathtaking views. Alternatively you can reach Little Stony Man from Stony Man by using part of the Appalachian Trail, then walk down Little Stony Man, and return to the beginning of the Stony Man walk via the Passamaquody Trail.
- Marys Rock Trail (mile 31.6 of Skyline Drive, just south of Thornton Gap Entrance Station. Meadow Spring is located at mile 33.5 of Skyline Drive with the trail leaving from across the road.). This rocky summit hike makes for a wonderful sunset or day hike. The ascent to Marys Rock can be either a 2.9 or 3.7 mile trek through the forest and a portion of the Appalachian Trail with many viewpoints at the higher elevations leading to the summit.
- 8 Old Rag Trail. Old Rag (6 hours, 7.2 miles; elevation gain: 2,510 feet) is an especially popular loop trail that covers forests, hollows, and rocky top. The peak, at 3,291 feet, has great views of the park and the surrounding countryside. The trail is typically traversed by ascending along the Ridge Trail, which is a strenuous trail of approximately 3 miles that includes a rope climb and rock scramble, and then descending along the Saddle Trail and Weakley Hollow Fire Road. Some hikers opt to hike in the opposite direction, which has a longer ascent but may be easier when descending the rock scramble. To reach the trailhead, travel north from Madison about 13 miles on Route 231, and turn left on Nethers Road. The small parking area at the trailhead is now closed, but a much larger parking area is available 0.8 miles from the trailhead.
- Overall Run Trail (Mathews Arm Campground registration parking area off of mile 22.2 of Skyline Drive to hike to Overall Run Falls. If the campground is closed, leave from Skyline Drive mile 21 and take the Appalachian Trail south to connect to Tuscarora-Overall Run Falls Trail.). At 93 feet, Overall Run Falls is the tallest waterfall in Shenandoah National Park. Hike a 5.1 mile, moderately strenuous trail to a sweeping view of the falls and surrounding mountains. Unless rainfall is plentiful, Overall Run Falls may have minimal to no water flow.
- 9 Riprap Trail (The loop can begin from either Riprap Parking at mile 90 of Skyline Drive or from Wildcat Ridge parking at mile 92.1 of Skyline Drive. Leave from Riprap Parking at mile 90 for the Chimney Rock hike.). The Riprap-Wildcat Ridge Loop is a very strenuous 9.8 mile trip that features scenic views, geology, small cascades, and a swimming hole. For an alternate, shorter hike, take the 3.4 mile hike to Chimney Rock.
- Stony Man Trail (trailhead is near the north entrance of Skyland at mile 41.7 of Skyline Drive. Turning into the north Skyland entrance from Skyline Drive the parking area will be immediately on the right.). (1.5 hours, 1.6 miles, pets not allowed) A popular and gentler hike that is one of the most scenic trails in the skyline drive that ends in a cliff with a beautiful overlook. The walk passes over the summit of Stony Man Mountain, at 4,010 feet. Once at the view, you will to look out over the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Shenandoah Valley below.
- 10 Whiteoak Canyon Trail (Whitoak Canyon can be reached from mile 42.6 of Skyline Drive, from the park boundary at Rt. 600, or from mile 45.6 of Skyline Drive for the Cedar Run - Whiteoak Circuit hike.). Whiteoak Canyon has six waterfalls ranging from 35 to 86 feet making this trail one of the most popular places to hike in Shenandoah National Park. With swimming holes, many smaller cascades along the way, and surrounded by the forest canopy, Whiteoak Canyon can be a great place for a 2 mile hike to the lower falls or a longer full day hike to all six falls.
There are maps and books for sale at the visitor centers. There you can also buy bundles of T-shirts and baseball caps with the Park logo and a range of souvenirs of the area.
The park has 6 picnic grounds and an uncountable number of spots where people can eat their own food, but build fires only in designated areas with grates. There are camp stores at or near all designated camp grounds, and only a few places where food is being served:
- 1 Elkwallow, Mile 24.1, Skyline Dr. Limited range of sandwiches and grilled food. No seating spaces indoors but there are picnic tables outside.
- 2 Skyland, Mile 41.7, Skyline Dr. This is part of the Skyland complex and offers dining with a view.
- 3 Big Meadows Wayside, Mile 51.2, Skyline Dr. Offers eat-in and take-away food. Country food and cakes.
- 4 Big Meadows Lodge, Follow signs from Skyline Drive mile 51.2. Dining room service in a rustic setting.
- Loft Mountain, Mile 79.5, Skyline Dr. Seating inside and outside.
There are no bars in the area and only a few dining spots (see the Eat section).
There are three lodges in the park located at Skyland, Big Meadows and Lewis Mountain. These lodges are about the only accommodation in the park and they can be fully booked for months, especially during high season. Be careful about making reservations. There is a company called National Parks Reservation Service that charges a 10% booking fee and a cancellation fee of $15. Reservations should be made with Aramark which runs the park hotels.
- 1 Skyland Resort, Mile 41.7, Skyline Dr, toll-free: . $74-$269.
- 2 Big Meadows Lodge, Mile 51.2, Skyline Dr, toll-free: . $84-$159.
- Lewis Mountain Cabins, Mile 57.5, Skyline Dr, toll-free: . $30-$119.
There are four campgrounds that offer sites on a first-come, first-serve basis and by reservation at phone number +1-877-444-6777:
- 3 Mathews Arm Campground (=Mile 22.1, Skyline Dr). 166 sites, 3 group sites. All sites are first-come, first-served. Mathews Arm is a family-oriented campground, offering plenty of open spaces. All sites include a place for a tent or RV, a fire ring and picnic area. The campground also offers modern amenities like flush toilets, drinking water and dump stations. Elkwallow Wayside is located just two miles away, offering camping supplies, restaurants and more. $15 per night, $50 Group Site (2020 rates).
- 4 Big Meadows Campground (Mile 51.2, Skyline Drive). 178 sites, 2 group sites. All sites can be reserved in advance in the summer. Secluded in the thick trees and rolling hills of Shenandoah National Park, the scenery at Meadows Campground never disappoints, with a stunning array of colors in the fall and a blanket of bright wildflowers in the spring. This green and shady campground offers amenities including flush toilets, coin showers, coin laundry, dump station, camp store. $17 Early Spring/Late Fall, $20 Peak Season Fees, $45 Group Site (2020 rates).
- 5 Lewis Mountain (Mile 57.5, Skyline Drive). 31 sites. All sites are first-come, first-served. Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5), the smallest campground in the park, appeals to those who want a little more privacy without venturing deep into the backcountry, yet it is within seven miles of the popular Big Meadows area. Flush toilets, coin showers, coin laundry, campstore. $15 per night (2020 rates).
- 6 Loft Mountain Campground (Mile 79.5, Skyline Dr). 200 sites, 3 group sites. 66 sites can be reserved in advance, 134 sites are first-come, first-served. Loft Mountain, the largest campground in the park, 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. Generator-free and group sites available. Flush toilets, coin laundry, dump station, campstore. $15 per night (2020 rates).
There are also cabins:
- PATC Cabins, ☏ . Locked primitive cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). There are six of them in the park.
A free permit is required for backcountry camping. You can get the permit at the visitor contact stations during business hours. Alternatively you can download a permit application from the park website .
- Bears. The park has a resident colony of black bears. It is important not to feed the bears. A wild bear will run away as soon as it notices there are humans nearby, unless it associates people with food by being fed previously. If you encounter a bear and it approaches you, make loud noises by yelling and clapping your hands so that the bear notices that you are a human. If you see one while you are in a vehicle, remain in the vehicle.
- Snakes. If you see a snake, leave it alone! All wild animals are protected. There are poisonous snakes including copperheads and rattlesnakes so use ordinary precautions, wear shoes and carry a flashlight after dusk.
- Ticks. Several species of ticks are common in the park and there is a risk of tick-borne diseases if one bites you. Take precautions like using tick repellents, wear light colored clothing, long sleeves, and long pants with pant's legs tucked into socks if you are in tick habitat. Always check for ticks afterwards. You may not notice a small tick, so if you feel sick after visiting an area where ticks are common tell your doctor of the possibility of a tick-borne disease.
Luray Caverns are a short drive from the Thornton Gap Entrance Station. To reach the caverns, drive past Luray and turn right at the sign. The caves are the most extensive of the East Coast and feature large columns of white and pink stalactites, reflection pools, and the Great Stalacpipe Organ that operates by gently striking selected stalactites.