Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is 200,000 acres of protected lands in Virginia. Parts of the park can be found in eight counties in the state: Warren, Page, Rockingham, Augusta, Rappahannock, Madison, Green, and Albemarle. The city of Waynesboro is near the southwest tip of the park making the Iris Inn a great place to start your adventure. Rockfish Gap, the south entrance to the park, is only a few miles east of the city and it tends to be less busy than the northern entrances.

When is the best time to visit Shenandoah National Park?

The short answer is – it depends. The long answer is – it depends on what type of visit you are looking for.

  • If you want to take stunning photographs, the two most beautiful times are spring and fall. Spring brings new life and wildflowers. Autumn brings the beauty of the fall foliage.
  • If you want a relaxing drive through the park, schedule a trip for spring, summer, or fall when inclement weather is least likely to close roads. While the park is always open, Skyline Drive is the only public road through the park and it is subject to inclement weather closings.
  • If you want relief from the summer heat, the high elevation of the park makes for cooler temperatures from the surrounding valleys.
  • If you want a quieter time and you are physically able, consider a hike in the park in the winter. Most of the park facilities are closed from late November until March which means fewer people choose to visit. There are some picnic grounds open year-round and you do not have to worry about the cheese on your sandwich melting in the colder months.
  • If you like special events, consider National Park Week (April), Wildflower Weekend (early May), Kids to Park Day (third Saturday of May), National Trails Day (June), Night Sky Festival (mid-August), or Wilderness Weekend (early September).
  • If you do not want to pay park fees visit on a Fee Free Day: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., First Day of National Park Week, Great American Outdoors Act Day, National Public Lands Day, or Veteran’s Day.

Can I see the entire park in one day?

It depends on your definition of “seeing” the park. The Skyline Drive runs the entire length of the park. At 105 miles long, it takes three hours to drive the entire road without stopping. When you factor in the return trip, you will spend six hours driving through the park getting quick glimpses of the sites at 35 miles an hour (the speed limit through most of the park). Factor in pit stops and the potential for traffic and your driving time gets a bit longer. So, yes, you can see the entire park in one day if that is your goal.

A better goal is to schedule a few days to see the park. Stop at the overlooks, take a hike, and linger over a picnic. Make note of the mile marker where you turn around and head back to Waynesboro around mid to late-afternoon. The next day, you can drive straight through to your stopping point from the day before and begin your adventure again. Over the course of two or three days you may or may not get to Mile Marker 0. However, you will have experienced many parts of the park.

What activities are available in the park?

Shenandoah National Park has a wealth of outdoor activities available for visitors.

  • Go for a hike. The park boasts 500 miles of hiking trails. The Day Hike website features short (0-2 miles), medium (3-6 miles), and long (7+ miles) hikes as well as trails that are good for kids and trails for avoiding crowds. The Turk Mountain trail (Mile 94.1 on the Skyline Drive) is an easy hike on the south end of the park. It is a 2.2-mile round-trip hike to the summit of the mountain. On the other end of the difficulty scale is the Riprap-Wildcat Ridge trail (Mile 90 or 92.1 on the Skyline Drive). The 9.8 mile very strenuous hike can take 8 hours or more to complete.
  • See a waterfall. There are many hikes to waterfalls in the park. If you want to see two unique waterfalls on one hike, try the Doyles River Falls trail. The trailhead is located at Mile 81.1 on the Skyline Drive. The moderate difficulty trail is 3.3 miles round trip and includes stream crossings. Wear shoes that you do not mind getting wet.
  • Explore the trails on horseback. Skyland Stables (Mile 42.5 on the Skyline Drive) offers one-hour guided rides from May through October. Riders are also welcome to bring their own horse and use the 180 miles of trails open to horse use; look for the yellow blazes.
  • Look for wildlife. Shenandoah National Park is a great place for birdwatching. Bring your camera and follow the tips on the park’s Viewing and Photographing Wildlife page to take memorable shots. Remember to keep a safe distance from all wildlife. Stay approximately two bus lengths from any animal, double that distance for bears.
  • Go fishing. More than 70 streams within the park borders contain native brook trout. Find a popular spot where there are a bunch of anglers or try your luck at your own secluded spot. All the streams are open to catch and release fishing. Make sure to get a Virginia fishing license and follow all park fishing rules, especially if you plan to keep any of your fish.
  • Go rock climbing. This sport requires skill, accuracy, and respect for the rock face. For some, it is a way to build a relationship with the wilderness around them. The park provides guidelines for anyone who wishes to rock climb in the area.
  • Ride your bike. Bicycling is allowed on all paved areas inside the park and a portion of the Rapidan Fire Road. Keep in mind that Skyline Drive is a two-lane road that can have heavy traffic. However, exploring the park on a bicycle is a great way to get some exercise. There are bike repair stations if you run into any issues.
  • Go star gazing. The Skyline Drive is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Visitors are allowed in the park after dark. The elevation and distance from urban areas make the park a great East Coast star gazing area. Many people visit the Big Meadows area (Mile 51, across from the Byrd Visitor Center) for their nighttime excursions.
  • Take a guided tour. There are numerous companies that offer guided bicycles tours, fly fishing, hiking, rock climbing, and photography tours. Let them handle the logistics while you enjoy your vacation.

Are there dining options in the park?

Yes! There are places to stop for food approximately every 25 miles in the park. The option closest to Waynesboro is Loft Mountain Wayside. When you enter the park at Rockfish Gap, you will be at Mile 105. Loft Mountain is located at Mile 79.5. It has groceries, camping and hiking supplies, and a full-service restaurant complete with vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free options.

If you only have one day to explore the park, consider entering the park in the morning and taking a slow drive to Loft Mountain. You will have time to linger at overlooks along the way. Stop for lunch at Loft Mountain Wayside before meandering back towards Waynesboro. If you had a favorite stop on the drive north, add a hike to your afternoon before returning to the Iris Inn for the night.

What kind of wildlife is in the park?

Shenandoah National Park is home to white-tailed deer, black bears, squirrels, foxes, snakes, and more. Thirty species of birds live in the park year-round while another 160 species migrate through or breed in the park at various times. You can increase your chances of spotting animals by watching for them at dawn and dusk. The animals tend to be most active then so if you sit quietly and watch carefully there is a good chance you will spot something.

Of course, there are times when the animals make a surprise appearance right along Skyline Drive. The park has a webpage devoted to keeping safe in these situations. A general rule of thumb is that distance is your friend as it will help protect you and the animals. Following the speed limit will also help protect the animals as well as increase your chances of seeing them. Keep your eyes open and your camera ready.

Is there cell phone service in the park?

Like many wilderness areas, cell phone service can be unreliable in the park. Scroll to the bottom of the Driving Skyline Drive page to see a list of locations for emergency phones.