Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive are a great natural retreat to get away from the suburban sprawl of the greater DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) metro area. Only two hours west of Washington, DC, it hosts spectacular views, great hiking, and the blessed peace that can only be found these day in areas of limited cellphone reception. Wherever your ultimate destination, Shenandoah National Park should be one of your first stops along the way. We will continually update this post as we gather more info and recommendations through personal experience.
How to Get There
There are four stations for vehicle entry into the park. From north to south, they are:
- Front Royal (North Entrance) via Route 340
- Thornton Gap Entrance, east of Luray on Hwy 211
- Swift Run Gap Entrance, east of Elkton on US 33
- Rockfish Gap (South Entrance), east of Waynesboro, Virginia off of Hwy 250.
From Washington, DC, it is quick and easy to get to the Front Royal northern entrance I-66 West, depending on time of day and traffic it, but in general should take about 2 hours. Entrance to the park is $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass, $55 for an annual park pass. However, active duty military and veterans are eligible to receive a lifetime entrance pass to ALL national parks for free with proper documentation.
Things to Do
Sightseeing. The Skyline Drive provides a pleasant and leisurely trip on a picturesque two-lane road along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Built as a Civilian Conservation Corps project during the 1930s, the Skyline Drive stretches 105 miles from the north entrance to Waynesboro, where it links up with the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Along the way, there are 75 scenic overlooks with pull-off and parking areas, as well as low stone walls for both safety and visual appeal. Some of the overlook areas also serve as parking for trailheads.
Leaf-peeping. This very specialized and seasonal form of sightseeing attracts throngs of visitors, known as "leaf-peepers," to the park during the the second and third weeks of October, when the leaves turn beautiful shades of red, orange, and yellow at peak foliage. Refer to this interactive peak map for Fall 2023 foliage predictions: https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/: TL/DR: Expect to see peak color in Shenandoah around 16 October through 23 October. That said, do not write off the weeks leading up to peak or the post-peak time... the colors of the changing leaves will continue to impress.
Hiking. The Appalachian Trail runs the length of the park, so this is a great place to do some day-hiking on the AT without having to commit the five months to a through-hike. In addition to the AT, Shenandoah is home to many other great hikes with scenic overlooks, rocky waterfalls, and burbling streams.
Old Rag. One of the most famous hikes in the park, Old Rag is a good, challenging hike featuring a proper rock scramble. Due to high demand, the National Park Service has limited the a nominal use fee of $1 for an access pass, so it is best to plan ahead and reserve a pass ahead of time, especially during the summer months.
Hawksbill Summit. A relatively easy 2 mile trail takes you to the highest point in the park at 3,600 feet above sea-level.
Rapidan Camp. This hike is a great day excursion from a campsite in the Big Meadows campground (behind the Byrd Visitors Center). The Appalachian Trail runs right behind the outer sites on Loop E, so just hop on the AT and take a left (south) past the old cemetary and fire road until crossing over the Skyline Drive. Follow the Mill Prong trail out 2 miles along the stream and past the Big Rock Falls until you get to Rapidan Camp, a cozy, rustic compound built for Herbert Hoover's presidential retreat. There are three well-preserved cabins with information and historical displays, tended by volunteer guides during the warm months. On the way back, take the horse trail to the right to come back to the campgrounds via the Big Meadow.
Camping. Shenandoah National Park has four designated campgrounds appropriate for campervan camping:
Mathews Arm (mile 22.1) is the campground closest to the northern entrance and Front Royal.
Big Meadows (mile 52.1) is the largest campground in the park and convenient to the Byrd Visitor Center. Campsites must be reserved on recreation.gov.
Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5) is a small, cozy campground, first come, first served.
Loft Mountain (mile 79.1) offers access to the Big Run Wilderness, and has both first-come, first-served sites and reservable campsites.
When making reservations, always be sure to double check that the site you are selecting has vehicle access and is not a walk-in tent camping spot. d+Do NOT bring your own firewood due to concerns about spread of the emerald ash borer! Most of the campgrounds have firewood to buy at the camp store.
We hope that this information has stoked your interest in visiting one of America's most popular and beautiful national parks! We hope to see you out on the Skyline Drive and the trails in a Vander campervan rental!