Planning a Visit to Shenandoah National Park

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Shenandoah National Park lies less than 100 miles from Washington, DC, offering a natural retreat from the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital city. Cooler temperatures, seemingly endless vistas and a bounty of flora and fauna create a worthy destination for outdoor enthusiasts and those just looking to escape the big city for a day or two. Whatever you’re looking to do, we’re here to help you plan your visit to Shenandoah National Park.

The north end of Shenandoah National Park is located in Front Royal, VA. From there, the park stretches roughly 100 miles south, through the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Waynesboro. Of course, the mountains themselves pose some travel difficulties. Add in the fact that there are only four entrances to the park and careful planning becomes necessary.

Sunset at Shenandoah National Park
Sunset light on Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park.

We first visited Shenandoah National Park in May 2021. Unfortunately, the weather was horrible and all we could see from the overlooks was fog/clouds. We managed to get in one short hike but decided to cut our visit short since we knew we were not able to fully appreciate what the park offers. Thankfully, our second visit, in June 2023 yielded a much better experience!

What we liked most about Shenandoah National Park is that your visit really can be as relaxed or as active as you want it to be. The highlight of the park is the scenic Skyline Drive (hence, our short visit when there were no scenic views). But there are also more than 500 miles of hiking trails. You’ll also find a variety of ranger-led programs, especially in the summer. 

Fog in Shenandoah National Park
Driving through clouds on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

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Layout of Shenandoah National Park

As mentioned previously, Shenandoah National Park stretches 105 miles from north to south. Mileposts (MP) along Skyline Drive provide points of reference for your location and various services, starting with Mile 0 on the north end.

There are four entrances to the park, two at end each and two in the middle. Entrance stations are found at Front Royal (MP 0.6), Thornton Gap (MP 31.5) just east of Luray, Swift Run Gap (MP 65.5) just east of Elkton and Rockfish Gap (MP 104.9) in Waynesboro. 

Shenandoah National Park Entrance Sign at Rockfish Gap
The entrance sign for Shenandoah National Park

If visiting for the first time, I recommend entering either on the north or south end. You might choose to use one of the middle entrances if you are visiting for more than one day or, perhaps, if that is more convenient to where you are staying. 

In some areas, the park is not much wider than the road. In other areas, the park boundary stretches a bit to the east or west. Basically, think of Skyline Drive as the heart of the park, though you can do some hiking to explore the outer edges if you want. 

Along Skyline Drive, you’ll find two visitor centers, 76 overlooks, a few picnic areas, trailhead parking lots and five developed areas offering food, lodging and/or camping. The mileposts start their numbering at the north end and increase as the road winds south.

Visitor Centers

There are two visitor centers at Shenandoah National Park: Dickey Ridge (MP 4.6) and Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (MP 51.2). Since neither visitor center is right at an entrance, be sure to pick up a park brochure/map when you pass through the entrance station. You’ll also need to pay the entrance fee ($30 per vehicle, good for 7 consecutive days) or show your park pass. 

The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, on the north end of the park, is smaller but does have a few good exhibits on the flora and fauna of the park. You can also find a nice 3-D park map on display. Additionally, there are great views of the Shenandoah Valley below.

Byrd Visitor Center is the larger of the two and is located at the Big Meadows area, the most developed area in the entire park. The exhibits here are much more modern and focus on how the park was created, the infrastructure work by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Rapidan Camp, which was President Hoover’s retreat that is nestled in the woods of the park. Across the street, the aptly named Big Meadows opens to a large grassy meadow, a stark contrast to the forest and valley views that are found elsewhere in the park.

Both visitor centers also show a park film, have a small souvenir shop and, of course, passport stamps if you collect them. 

Waysides and Lodges

You’ll find a variety of services offered at a few different stops along Skyline Drive. There are two lodges, both with a full-service restaurant and a more casual bar. There also are four campgrounds and three waysides, offering quick, grab-and-go meals, souvenirs and basic camping supplies.

During our first visit, we stopped at Elkwallow Wayside (MP 24.1), which is pretty basic. There is a fairly well-stocked camp store and a small snack counter, where we picked up some chicken tenders for lunch. There is no indoor seating, though there are a few picnic tables outside. 

Big Meadows (MP 51.2) offers just about anything you might need. In addition to the Visitor Center, there is also a Wayside with a gas station just off Skyline Drive. Farther back, you’ll find a lodge, the Spottswood Dining Room, New Market Taproom and a large campground. 

Loft Mountain Wayside (MP 79.5) is a bit more developed than Elkwallow, with a bigger souvenir shop along with both indoor and outdoor seating. The grill also offers a slightly different menu, which you can find online.

Skyland (MP 41.7 and 42.5) is another developed area. In fact, this historic resort is older than the park. Here, you’ll find another lodge, dining room and taproom. There is also a stable, offering horseback rides.

What to Do at Shenandoah National Park

The focus of your visit to Shenandoah National Park should definitely be the scenic Skyline Drive. Honestly, though, you can’t help but drive it as it is the only road through the park! To explore other areas of the park, you’ll need to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail or join a ranger-led tour. 

Skyline Drive
Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

Other activities at Shenandoah include biking, fishing, birdwatching, night sky viewing and other special events. Check the park website if you are interested in any of these activities. 

How many days will you need to visit Shenandoah National Park? That really depends on how active you want to be. With a speed limit of no more than 35 miles per hour, you’ll need a minimum of three hours just to drive the full length of Skyline Drive. That doesn’t account for stopping at overlooks or visitor centers, though.

Rose River Loop Trail
On the Rose River Loop Trail

So, realistically, you’ll need at least a half-day to visit the park. With a full day, you’ll have time to add on at least one short hike or enjoy a ranger-led tour. We recently spent two days at Shenandoah National Park, which was a good amount of time for us. That said, we probably would have enjoyed another day or two to do some more hiking. 

With more than 500 miles of trails, hiking enthusiasts could easily spend a week or more in the park. For the average visitor, though, 2-3 days is probably enough. 

Skyline Drive 

Shenandoah National Park was built around Skyline Drive and it is considered the park’s “single greatest feature.” So, you should definitely take your time and just enjoy the drive!

While you’ll have some great views from the car, you should definitely stop at as many of the overlooks as you want. That said, you don’t really need to stop at every single one – just make sure you get views off to both the east and west, in various areas of the park. 

The good news is that most of the overlooks are quite large, with a good amount of parking. So, unless you are there on a particularly crowded day, you shouldn’t have too much trouble parking at most of the overlooks. That also means that anyone driving an RV or towing a trailer should be able to enjoy most of the overlooks as well.

Some notable overlooks include: 

  • Signal Knob Overlook (MP 5.5) offers views of the Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain Range, off to the west. 
  • Hogback Mountain Overlook (MP 20.8) is the longest overlook in the park. Just north of the overlook, Hogback Mountain is the highest peak in the northern section of the park. 
  • Pinnacles Overlook (MP 35.1) offers views of Old Rag, the most popular summit hike in the park. 
  • Bacon Hollow Overlook (MP 69.0) faces southeast, providing views of the Piedmont region of Virginia, between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Coastal Plains. 
  • Rockytop Overlook (MP 78.0) provides close-up views of the surrounding mountains off to the west. 
  • Moormans River Overlook (MP 92.0) looks out over the Charlottesville Reservoir, which is fed by the river. 
  • McCormick Gap Overlook (MP 102.4) offers views of the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley.

Some overlooks also have exhibit signs, providing information about the views or the history of the park. Stop as often as you wish to enjoy the view, snap a few pictures or just stretch your legs.

Note: there is a tunnel at MP 32.2 (just south of Thornton Gap Entrance Station) with a clearance of 12’8”. 

Hiking at Shenandoah National Park

With more than 500 miles of hiking trails, the biggest problem you’ll have at Shenandoah National Park is simply choosing which hikes you should enjoy during your visit. Thankfully, the park’s website does a great job of helping you out. 

Online, you will find several categories of hiking trails – including short, medium and long, hikes to waterfalls, hikes to avoid crowds and hikes for kids. You can also find trails sorted by location if you know you want to hike in a certain area of the park. Pets are allowed on many trails in the park but there are some restrictions. Be sure to check those out if traveling with a pet. 

Rose River Falls
Rose River Falls selfie

Additionally, the Appalachian Trail runs for 101 miles through Shenandoah National Park. If desired, you can hike as much or as little of this 2,175-mile trail that is itself a unit of the National Park Service.

We’ve only had time to do a couple of relatively short hikes at Shenandoah. On our first visit, we hiked to Fort Windham Rocks. More recently, we completed the Rose River Loop with a side trip to Dark Hollow Falls.

Note: If you are interested in hiking Old Rag from March 1 – November 30, you’ll need to get a day-use ticket in advance. Check the park’s website for details. Old Rag is a strenuous climb involving some rock scrambling. The reward at the top is stunning 360-degree views.

Fort Windham Rocks

Fort Windham Rocks is an easy 0.8-mile trail that starts at the Compton Gap Parking Area (MP 10.4). Your destination is a deeply split boulder of Catoctin lava that area 600-800 million years old. This is a great option for those who are short on time or otherwise don’t have the capacity for a long, difficult hike. Kids (and kids at heart) can have fun climbing on the rocks. 

As an added bonus, the first part of the hike is on the Appalachian Trail. 

Rose River Falls and Dark Hollow Falls 

For something longer and more strenuous, hike to Rose River Falls, Dark Hollow Falls or both. We chose to do a loop with a side jaunt to see both. Honestly, though, there are a few different ways that you can complete this hike. Check the trail map, talk to a ranger or even consult a hiking app such as AllTrails to make the decision that is right for you.

We parked at the Fisher’s Gap Overlook/Parking Area (MP 49.4), then crossed Skyline Drive to get on the trail. From there, we took the Rose River Fire Road, which is a gentle downhill. You’ll reach the lower part of Dark Hollow Falls after just about a mile. Take a short (0.2-mile one-way) but steep (150 feet) uphill to see the top part of the waterfall, then return.

Next, we turned onto the Rose River Loop, which follows the river downhill and is fairly steep with a lot of rocks and roots to maneuver over. Eventually, you’ll cross the river and begin your uphill return, passing Rose River Falls along the way. 

Any way you complete this, there will be a decent amount of elevation change. The way we did it, yielded about 2.5 miles of downhill and 1.8 miles of uphill, for a 4.3-mile loop with a total of 1,063 feet of elevation gain. 

We thought this was a good way to tackle the loop and also add on Dark Hollow Falls. That steep side trip was much easier being sandwiched between downhill sections!

For a shorter hike, you could go straight to Rose River Falls, then return. You can also reach Dark Hollow Falls from its trailhead at MP 50.7. Personally, we felt the loop combining the two was just about perfect with just the right challenge for us. 

Ranger Programs

I have to admit, I was a little surprised at just how many ranger programs Shenandoah National Park offered during our summer 2023 visit. Unfortunately, in recent years, it seems that many ranger-led programs have been canceled or limited due to staffing issues. 

Rapidan Camp at Shenandoah National Park
Ranger Dani talking about how Herbert Hoover would get up early to fix breakfast at this oven for his guests at Rapidan Camp.

I’m sure the availability of the tours varies throughout the year. Still, ranger programs are typically offered in the spring, summer and fall.

Sadly, we only had time for one program. But, it was the one we were most interested it – a tour of Historic Rapidan Camp. If we were to return I’d love to join a ranger-led hike, sit in on a talk about bears or even join an evening Star Party. 

Historic Rapidan Camp

Rapidan Camp was the summer retreat of President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. While you can hike to this area, signing up for a ranger-guided tour will provide you with the most information and guarantee you a house tour. Plus, it’s always fun to talk to a ranger.

Rapidan Camp at Shenandoah National Park
View from the deck of the Brown House

The tour starts at the Byrd Visitor Center. From there, we hopped into a van and made the 30-minute drive to the camp. Along the way, Ranger Dani provided a little history about the Hoovers and why they chose to build a retreat in what would later become Shenandoah National Park.

Originally, this area consisted of 13 buildings. Today, only three remain. The Prime Minister’s Cabin (named for its highest-profile guest) houses a self-guided exhibit on the Hoovers and life at the camp. Visitors can only tour the Brown House (a nod to the Hoovers’ other residence, the White House) with a ranger or a volunteer. It has been refurnished with historical pieces to reflect the Hoovers’ time here. (Please excuse the lack of house photos, as photography is not allowed inside.)

The third remaining building houses the volunteers who care for this area and is not available to tour. 

After the tour of the Brown House, you’ll have a little time to wander around the camp on your own. 

Tours are available by reservation only, which can be made at recreation.gov. If you are unable to get a reservation, you can hike to the camp (a moderate 4-mile roundtrip from the Milam Gap parking area). Volunteers open The Prime Minister’s cabin when they are on duty. Additionally, you can join a ranger-guided tour of the Brown House, if you time it right. Or, volunteers will provide house tours when they can. 

While we would love to hike out to the cabin, we enjoyed having the extra time with the ranger. And, there was no guesswork regarding whether we would get to do a tour or not. Still, if you can time it right, meeting the ranger there would be better than missing out altogether.

Wildlife at Shenandoah National Park

One of our favorite things about visiting national parks is the opportunity to see wildlife that you don’t see every day. At Shenandoah, black bears are what most people hope to see.

Sadly, we did not see any bears. And, Ranger Dani (from the Rapidan Camp tour) said that she hasn’t seen one in the year that she has been at the park. So, I don’t know how realistic it is to think that you’ll see a bear. Still, they are in the area and you should definitely follow the park’s rules regarding bear safety, especially if you are camping!

What we did see a lot of is white-tailed deer. We saw them just about everywhere – along the road, near the overlooks, in Big Meadow and while we were hiking. So, if you’re looking for wildlife, hopefully, you’ll at least see a few deer.

Please remember that deer are prevalent when you are driving. That is just one reason the speed limit along Skyline Drive is 35 mph. And, regardless of how docile a deer looks, remember it is still wild. You should never approach or feed wildlife of any kind.

Where to Stay at Shenandoah National Park

If you want to stay inside the park, there are a couple of lodges and several campgrounds. It is worth noting, though, that none of the campgrounds offer hookups of any kind. For that reason, we chose to camp outside the park for this visit. We did drive through both Big Meadows and Matthews Arm campgrounds and both looked fantastic. If we return to Shenandoah, we’d love to camp inside the park. 

For this visit, though, we stayed at Spacious Skies Shenandoah Views in Luray. The folks here were nice enough to host us and we had an absolutely fantastic stay. In addition to RV and tent sites, they also have a few cabins and yurts.

Spacious Skies Shenandoah Views makes a great base camp for visiting Shenandoah National Park or just hanging out and enjoying the great outdoors. From the campground, you can reach either the Front Royal or Thornton Gap entrance station in about 20-30 minutes. Additionally, there are a number of different activities to keep you entertained without even leaving the campground. 

We personally enjoyed the jumping pillow, which is definitely a first for us at a campground. They also have a pool, playground, arcade, gem mining and volleyball. There is also tons of green space for kids to run around. We even saw one couple working on their fly-fishing casting!

Additionally, the campsites are laid out in a very interesting way to provide privacy and relaxation. The Deluxe Pergola sites were absolutely fantastic and well worth the additional cost. 

Read our full campground review on RV Life here.

We really appreciate Spacious Skies Shenandoah Views for hosting our stay. As always, all opinions expressed are our own.

Where to Eat and Drink at Shenandoah National Park

Sadly, we only had time for one meal out while visiting Shenandoah National Park. Since it was my birthday, we opted for dinner at Spottswood Dining Room at Big Meadows Lodge. 

We started with the Local VA Sweet Corn Hush Puppies, which were absolutely divine! Grant couldn’t pass up trying the Virginia Peanut Soup, something we’d never heard of before. Let’s just say that it was interesting but that we probably wouldn’t order it again.

For entrees, it was the Meatloaf Dinner for me and Shrimp & Grits for Grant. Both were ok. Can’t say that either was exceptionally great but they weren’t bad, either. Thankfully, we saved room for dessert and the Signature Blackberry Ice Cream Pie did not disappoint. Truly, it was the perfect end to our meal! 

Overall, our meal was good. But, if I had it to do over again, I’d probably just eat at the New Market Taproom. It’s a smaller and simpler menu but I think that would be just fine for us.

In addition to dinner inside the park, we also visited the Copper Fox Distillery which is just east of the park in Sperryville. In addition to some terrific whisky, the setting is absolutely phenomenal. We thoroughly enjoyed our whisky flights by the river, listening to the sounds of water and nature. 

We did both the classic and premium flights so that we could try a little of just about everything. While we enjoyed it all, we came home with a bottle of the Peachwood Single Malt Whisky. It seemed to be one of the most unique at a fairly affordable price point. 

Final Thoughts on Shenandoah National Park

Nestled atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park is a great park. Consider its proximity to Washington, DC and it truly is a fantastic getaway from the big city. 

No, it doesn’t quite have the grandeur of Rocky Mountain National Park or the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. There aren’t any truly unique features like caves, geysers, volcanoes or even a ton in the way of historic buildings. 

Big Meadow at Shenandoah National Park
Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park

Still, it is a wonderful place to just relax and enjoy nature. 

Even if all you do is drive Skyline Drive, you’ll enjoy Shenandoah National Park. And, it often doesn’t take a lot of hiking to escape the road and crowds to find some solitude. 

If you have extra time, you can easily add on a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, New River Gorge National Park or any number of smaller national park sites around the area. Additionally, Shenandoah National Park is included in the Blue Ridge Parkway itinerary of our book, USA RV Adventures.


Travel Resources
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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