Covering 197,439 acres, Shenandoah National Park is a long stretch of land within Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains—as wide as 13 miles at points and narrower than one mile at others. Throughout all of it, lush rolling hills, breathtaking hollows, high peaks, and cascading waterfalls welcome visitors as they have since 1935 when the park was established (Shenandoah was one of the first parks created east of the Mississippi).
Some 1.5 million visitors each year now enter Shenandoah National Park for its bucolic landscapes. In fall, leaf peepers from across the state and well beyond inch along 105-mile Skyline Drive, all jockeying for the best foliage views at more than 75 scenic overlooks and pull-offs. Expect to share this land with wildlife, too: Lumbering black bears are well-known within the boundaries of this national park, as are white-tailed deer, red foxes, raccoons, and the rare Shenandoah salamander, which can only be found on three mountain ridges within Shenandoah National Park. No wonder this area first served as hunting grounds for early Native Americans, as far back as 15,000 years ago. The park is also the ancestral home of the Massawomeck, Manahoac, and Monacan tribes; today, the Monacan Indian Nation sits just south of the park.
Here’s how to make the most of a trip to Shenandoah National Park, Virginia’s one and only.
The majority of visitors enter Shenandoah National Park through the Front Royal entrance at the north end of Skyline Drive. This entrance is 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., and the closest major airport is Washington-Dulles International Airport, just 55 miles east of the park. The Rockfish Gap entrance, at the south end of Skyline Drive, is 90 miles from Richmond.
When is the best time to visit Shenandoah National Park?
No wonder many consider Shenandoah among the best national parks in the US—it has something to offer park-goers in every season. In spring, wildflowers, like phlox, buttercups, and trillium, come into full bloom and line the hiking trails. Summer brings lush green foliage and relatively cool temps thanks to the elevation—the highs rarely exceed the mid-70s. It's a very popular national park to visit in the fall, when swaths of golden yellow and fiery amber leaves draw in visitors.
Winter is crisp and quiet, but it can also be an unpredictable time to visit the park. Skyline Drive frequently closes to motorists, whether due to snow or ice or the need to clear tree debris. From November to February, temperatures typically run in the 30s Fahrenheit.
The best things to do at Shenandoah National Park
Start by getting the lay of the land. Shenandoah National Park is broken up into three districts: north, central, and south. Each district is around 30 or so miles, with park entrances punctuating each. Moving from north to south: Front Royal is the northernmost entrance, at milepost 0.6 on Skyline Drive; the Thornton Gap entrance at milepost 31.5 is a short drive west of Sperryville and east of Luray on State Route 211; (it’s also a stone’s throw from the popular Mary’s Rock hike on Skyline Drive.); State Route 33 cuts across Skyline Drive at the Swift Run Gap entrance at milepost 65.7; and the Rockfish Gap entrance at milepost 105.4 is the southernmost point of entry, from where it’s a short drive to Waynesboro for restaurants, wineries, and hotels.