A Complete Guide to Visiting Shenandoah National Park
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National Parks

A Complete Guide to Visiting Shenandoah National Park

From the blackberry ice cream pie you don’t want to miss, to the park’s crown jewel that’s on many a day hikers’ bucket list.

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.

Getting there

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.

A hiker in Shenandoah National Park's 

Amanda Klamrowski/Unsplash

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. 

For first timers, visitor centers are in the north district (Dickey Ridge Visitor Center) and the central district (Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center). And, if you wondering how many days you need to see Shenandoah National Park, the answer depends on how many sections—and activities—you're trying to pack in. Some visitors spend just a day driving Skyline Drive and hitting a trail or two, but most allow a few days for exploration.

Hiking in Shenandoah

Most travelers come for the hiking in Shenandoah National Park, which is the main activity thanks to more than 500 miles of trails, a fifth of which are part of the iconic Appalachian Trail. Most hikes start from trailheads up and down Skyline Drive, however a few, including the popular Old Rag, begin from the park’s boundary access points.

Old Rag is the park’s crown jewel. It’s become so popular, though, that the park implemented a day-hike permit program in 2022. From March through October, a $1 permit is required of all hikers that can be purchased at Recreation.gov. Pro tip: cell service at the trailhead is near non-existent and park rangers don’t sell permits on-site, so buy your pass before you arrive.

Along Skyline Drive, there are hiking trails for all fitness levels, abilities, and interests. The easy 1.2-mile Fox Hollow Trail guides visitors across one-time farm land owned by the Fox family, one of more than 300 homesteading broods that lived on the land before the park was established. It’s across from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and makes a great starter hike. 

Many visitors hike to the top of Hawksbill Summit, the highest point in Shenandoah National Park at an elevation of 4,051 feet. The out-and-back hike is just 1.6 miles, but it’s fairly steep with an elevation gain of nearly 700 feet. The Limberlost Trail, the park’s only fully accessible trail, is also a top pick, guiding hikers on a crushed gravel loop through low-growth forest and mountain laurel. 

Rapidan Camp

Shenandoah National Park is home to Rapidan Camp, the one-time retreat of 31st President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression. Also called Camp Hoover, you’ll find three historic cabins along the Rapidan River that have been restored, including Creel Cabin, Brown House, and Prime Minister’s Cabin. Hike to Rapidan Camp by way of the Mill Prong Trail or book a guided tour with the national park ($10/person). 

Guided excursions

The park offers ranger-led programs, as well as guided horseback riding and rock climbing. More than 190 miles of park trails are open to equestrians and are marked with yellow blazes. Visitors can bring their own horses or book a guided trail ride from May through October with Skyland Stables. Rock climbing and rappelling at Little Stony Man Cliffs are available from April through October with Shenandoah Mountain Guides.

Glen Goron Manor

Jumping Rocks Inc/Glen Gordon Manor

Where to stay in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park has four family campgrounds which operate from spring to fall, including Mathews Arm, Lewis Mountain, Loft Mountain, and Big Meadows, which is the largest campground in the park and has 221 camp sites. In 2023, Big Meadows introduced an online reservation system for all campsites. If you want something cushier, Lewis Mountain has climate-controlled one-and two-bedroom cabins, as well as rustic options with no running water. Primitive backcountry camping is allowed with a permit available online (at the time of writing, you can find the permit form on the NPS site, though the park has plans to transition to a system on Recreation.gov). 

There are also two in-park lodges in the central district, including Skyland and Big Meadows Lodge. The latter was built from stone cut from Massanutten Mountain in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Both offer mountain lodge-style rooms and stand-alone cabins. 

Outside the park, Front Royal (north end) and Waynesboro (south end) have budget-friendly hotels with swimming pools and free parking. In Huntly, 10 miles southeast of Front Royal, book a stay at Glen Gordon Manor, a bed-and-breakfast with 10 luxury rooms and suites. Near Luray, which is dubbed the “Cabin Capital of Virginia," you’ll find cabins and cottages, including more than a half dozen that sleep from two to eight people at Luray Mountain Cabins.

Before & After Cafe sells fresh-made breakfast sandwiches for a to-go option.

Kimberly Nicole/Before & After

Where to eat in and near Shenandoah National Park

Skyland has two sit-down restaurants. Pollock Dining Room has a wall of windows with views across the Shenandoah Valley and elevated entrees, like braised beef short ribs and venison stroganoff. For little ones, the restaurant has a “Junior Ranger” menu. A no-frills bar and grill called Mountain Taproom hosts family-friendly activities, like trivia and live music. Both are open from early-April to late-November. 

At Big Meadows Lodge, Spottswood Dining Room serves up hearty comfort foods, like a meatloaf dinner and mushroom ravioli. A canine menu features pup-friendly dishes, including roasted chicken and carrots. The lodge also has a casual bar with local beers and wines called New Market Taproom. Be sure to order a slice of the park’s Signature Blackberry Ice Cream Pie. Both restaurants are open from late-April to mid-November. 

The park’s gateway towns all have a selection of restaurants, as well as wineries and breweries. In Sperryville, near the Thornton Gap entrance, stroll Main Street for stops at Before & After, which sells fresh-made breakfast sandwiches and paninis, or pop into Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen, which makes artisan pizzas and is open Friday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. 

Nearby attractions 

There are no paddling opportunities within Shenandoah National Park, but there are plenty outside the park. In Front Royal, which is known as the “Canoe Capital of Virginia,” Front Royal Outdoors offers self-guided paddles and floats along the Shenandoah River. Front Royal is also a stone’s throw from Shenandoah River State Park in Bentonville, which has more than 24 miles of multi-use trails for hikers and bikers. The state park has a campground with cabin and yurt rentals. In Luray, take a guided tour of Luray Caverns, the largest underground caverns on the east coast.