5 Places to Visit in Shenandoah National Park
"Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees Younger than the mountains, blowin' like a breeze"
These lyrics from the popular John Denver song call to mind the stunning images of this magnificent National Park. Plus, it's impossible to resist the urge to play this song while you're cruising along Skyline Drive. However, the best of Shenandoah National Park can be seen from the nearly 500 miles of trails which lead to cascading waterfalls and picturesque vistas. So make sure you get out of your car and check out all that this park has to offer.
I've traveled the highways through Virginia to visit our Nation's capital, but, in my opinion, nothing in D.C. compares to the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah National Park, which became a national park in 1936, boasts nearly 200,000 acres of breathtaking forests. The iconic Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains and allows easy access to the numerous areas of interest. In addition,101 miles of the popular Appalachian Trail run through Shenandoah National Park.
Take into consideration that wildlife is abundant in Shenandoah and can be exciting to witness, however, it is advisable to be vigilant with some animals that call this park home, such as black bears, snakes and ticks. Read my blog post about what to bring to a National Park here.
Where to Stay
Shenandoah National Park is located in the state of Virginia and is only a 2 hour drive from Washington D.C. We live in central Indiana, which is a doable 8 hour drive away. We made the city of Harrisonburg, VA our home base for two nights to visit the park for 1 1/2 days. Harrisonburg, VA is a 30 minute drive away from the Swift Run Gap entrance (located on the East side of the park) and is about a 55 minute drive to the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center. However, if you aren't staying on the east side of the park, there are three other entrances that may suit you better.
The four entrances to the park are:
Front Royal (North Entrance) Near Front Royal, Virginia, off of Route 340 (also called Stonewall Jackson Highway).
Thornton Gap. East of Luray, Virginia and west of Sperryville, Virginia.
Swift Run Gap. East of Elkton, Virginia off of US 33.
Rockfish Gap (South Entrance)
We visited the park in the middle of June with the high temperature in the low 70's. The average temperature this time of year is a pleasant 65°.
Where to Go
Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center - The first place I always visit in a national park is the visitor center. I always like to go over my itinerary with a park ranger and get some advice from him/her on what I should add or delete. Shenandoah National Park has two visitor centers. Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (mile 4.6), which is located in the northern end of the park near Front Royal, Virginia and the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, located near Big Meadows near the center of Shenandoah NP (mile 51).
The Point Overlook - We rolled into Shenandoah around dusk and wanted a great view of the sunset, so after going to the visitor center, we drove to The Point Overlook. This viewpoint is at about 3,200 feet high in elevation and has commanding views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. It is named The Point Overlook because at the break in the middle of the retaining wall is a slightly steep trail that leads to an even more magnificent viewpoint.
Darkness was upon us, therefore, we headed north to Skyland in Shenandoah NP. Skyland has lodging, restaurants, and horseback riding. We had dinner at the Mountain Taproom, which did not even come close to meeting our expectations. However, the evening entertainment was enjoyable.
After dinner we drove Skyline Drive to our hotel in Harrisonburg. If you plan on being in the park at night, beware of wildlife. We witnessed a bear and nearly 20 deer crossing Skyline Drive within a 30 minute period .
Dark Hollow Falls -
After a great night's sleep we made our way to Dark Hollow Falls parking lot, which is located at mile 50.7. From the parking area, this moderate, 1.4 mile trail took us about an hour and a half to explore. This popular trail is steep and rocky at certain points, but it descends toward a beautiful and scenic waterfall. Once at the waterfall, there are many areas to sit and enjoy the views around you before you make your ascent back to the parking area. Although steep and challenging, the views were well worth it.
After our energetic hike we decided to stop for a picnic lunch at Big Meadows Picnic Grounds, which is located next to the Big Meadows Campground at mile 51.2. There were numerous picnic tables, grills and restrooms in this area.
After our respite we headed to Bearfence Mountain to hike the Bearfence Rock Scramble without the rock scramble. Yes, it is possible to avoid the rock scramble by hiking a short alternate trail which is actually on the Appalachian Trail. This trail is a moderate, 1.4 mile roundtrip hike. The trail begins at the stairs across the street from the Bearfence parking area located at mile 56.4. Once you begin the trail you will notice the blue blazed trail markers. This denotes trails within the park. The white-blazed trail markers denote the Appalachian Trail. At .1 mile you will come upon a four way intersection. To hike the trail WITH the rock scramble continue going straight. To hike the trail WITHOUT the rock scramble turn right onto the white blazed Appalachian trail. Upon the first junction turn left onto the connector trail. Shortly after, you will come to a T, in which you will turn right onto Bearfence Loop Trail. The viewpoint will be about 100 yards from this point on your right. Here you will see gorgeous 180° views of the Shenandoah Valley. Once done, turn around and retrace your steps back to the parking lot. I'd have to say this hike was somewhat challenging. This section of the Appalachian trail was very rocky and required a lot of looking down at each step.
Above: Bearfence Trailhead
Stony Man Trail
After completing two moderate trails, we wanted to hike an easy trail, therefore we chose to hike Stony Man Trail. This trail, located at mile 41.7, is a 1.6 mile roundtrip hike and begins at the Stony Man parking lot. At the beginning of this trail was a stunning fern meadow. Watch for deer prancing through these giant ferns. I thoroughly enjoyed this unchallenging and beautiful trail.
The trail begins with the white blazed Appalachian trail and then at .4 miles you will come to a junction with signs that direct you to the blue blazed Stony Man loop trail. Follow the signs to reach Stony Man Summit for commanding views of the Shenandoah Valley. To return, retrace your steps back toward the parking lot.
Shenandoah National Park was a joy to visit. The panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains were breathtaking and beautiful. I look forward to revisiting this park in the fall some year when the foliage is at its peak while singing another round of "Country Roads".
History of the Park
Once home to many groups of nomadic Native American Indians, eventually the Iroquois wholly took control of this land and utilized what is known as the Great Warrior Path to attack other tribes that came into their territory. Shenandoah National Park slowly became colonized by European colonists, therefore, the Shenandoah valley was at one time divided down the Blue Ridge Mountains to maintain a dividing line between the new colonists and the Iroquois. However, many colonists continued to push the Iroquois further west and eventually the Iroquois sold their land.