Shenandoah National Park: A Hiker’s Paradise

Shenandoah National Park

With dense forests, rolling hills, and cascading waterfalls, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is one of the most scenic areas on the East Coast. The park stretches for around a hundred miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains within the larger Appalachian range. Shenandoah attracts more than a million visitors every year and is among America’s most popular national parks.

If this national park is on your bucket list, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll cover all the essential details to help you organize your trip. From weather and climate information to the best hikes, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to plan an incredible adventure in Shenandoah National Park.

History

Human presence in Shenandoah National Park dates to around 9,000 years ago when the glaciers began retreating northward. Native Americans passed through the area seasonally to gather food, hunt animals, and find stones for tools and weapons. Around 6,500 years ago, they began to establish semi-permanent villages. The adoption of agriculture after 900 AD allowed village communities to flourish. Tribes believed to have been active in the area include the Piedmont Siouans, Shawnee, Catawbas, Cherokees, Susquehannocks, Delaware, and the Iroquois.

By the time European explorers arrived, many of these tribes had left the area but still used the mountain paths for travel. A series of violent conflicts and issues with control over the routes emerged in the 1700s, prompting the Lancaster Treaty of June 1744. The treaty recognized the rights of the Six Nations to use the Warrior’s Path, which passed through the area. The Six Nations also agreed to give up their claims to the lands west of the Blue Ridge in exchange for a payment, allowing for additional settlement by colonists in Virginia.

Settlers moved into the foothills in the area that is now Shenandoah National Park by 1750 and farmed the land. The region was a strategic location for both Union and Confederate troops during the American Civil War (1861-1865), and it saw a significant amount of military action. By the late 1800s, the region was home to burgeoning industries focused on the extraction of resources, including copper, lumber, water for powering mills, and bark for leather tanning. Resorts also sprang up as investors saw potential in developing the area for tourism.

Efforts to make Shenandoah a national park began around 1900. Virginia congressman Henry D. Flood introduced legislation to create a national park in the Appalachian region in 1901, but it failed to pass. The United States saw the creation of numerous national parks throughout the early 1900s. Most of these were in the west and followed the model of Yellowstone National Park. When Acadia became the first eastern national park in 1919, interest grew to add a park in the southern states.

In May of 1925, Congress authorized the National Park Service to form Shenandoah National Park. However, the act required Virginia to raise private funds or use the power of eminent domain to acquire the land. Virginia gradually acquired the lands, but many families living there did not want to sell. As more people began to see the benefits and jobs that tourism could bring to the region, many of them eventually gave in. However, other residents were forcibly evicted, causing negative publicity for the park.

Despite the conflict and controversy, Shenandoah National Park was formally established on December 26, 1935. Since then, it has become one of America’s most popular national parks.

Shenandoah National Park

Key Facts about Shenandoah National Park

Size: 311 square miles (806 km2)

Number of visitors: 1.4 million per year

Established on: December 26, 1935

Length of hiking trails: 516 miles (830 km)

Highest point: Hawksbill Summit at 4,051 feet (1,235 m)

Lowest point: 535 feet (163 m) near the park’s north end

Other interesting facts about Shenandoah:

  • Around 100 miles (161 km) of the famous Appalachian Trail run through Shenandoah National Park.
  • Skyline Drive is one of the park’s most popular attractions. More than one million people drive the route each year.
  • Shenandoah National Park is long and narrow. At its widest point, the park is only 13 miles across.
  • More than 300 animal species inhabit the national park, including black bears, hawks, white-tailed deer, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons.
  • Shenandoah provides a habitat for 53 species of mammals, 38 species of fish, 26 species of reptiles, 24 species of amphibians, and 200+ species of birds.
  • There are 236 miles (380 km) of roads in the park and 70 different overlooks.
  • The average precipitation in Shenandoah National Park is 40-60 inches (101-152 cm) annually.
  • The park is home to over 1000 native plant species, including eight that are considered globally rare.
  • Within the park, 69 peaks have an elevation of over 3,000 feet (914 m).
  • In addition to its natural beauty, the park is also full of cultural and historical sites. There are two national historic landmarks, more than 100 cemeteries, and 600+ archeological sites (11 of which appear on the National Register of Historic Places).
  • Nearly 80,000 acres (125 square miles / 325 square km) of the park’s territory is designated wilderness, amounting to around 40% of the total area.
  • The Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the park’s main features, get their name from the blue tint given off by trees covering the mountainsides. The trees release an organic compound called isoprene into the atmosphere, which gives the mountains their signature blue haze. The effect is similar to that occurring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.
  • Shenandoah National Park is one of the most dog-friendly parks in the United States. Many trails are open to pets as long as they are on leashes.
  • Much of the infrastructure in the park today was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1942. Around 10,000 young men lived and worked in the park during this period, building picnic areas, trails, and visitor centers.

Climate and Weather

The climate in Shenandoah National Park is considered humid continental. The park has four distinct seasons, with warm summers and cool winters. On a given day, the mountains are typically around 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius) cooler than low-lying valleys.

Most locations in the park receive around 100-150 cm of precipitation per year. There is no dry season, but summers tend to be slightly wetter, on average. Below is more information about what kinds of weather conditions you can expect to encounter in each season.

Summer (June to early September)

Summers in Shenandoah National Park are warm and humid, with an average daily high temperature of 72°F (22°C) or higher between late May and mid-September. July is the warmest month, with an average low of 57°F (14°C) and an average high of 75°F (24°C). Although the temperatures don’t soar here as they do in many of the national parks out west, the humidity can make it feel much hotter than the thermometer suggests.

Fall (mid-September to November)

Temperatures are mild for most of the fall, with generally clear skies. September usually sees high temperatures in the upper 60s Fahrenheit (20°C) and lows around 50°F (10°C). High temperatures hover in the upper 40s Fahrenheit in November, while low temperatures usually drop to about freezing.

Winter (December to February)

Some winter days can be quite mild, while others are cold and snowy. January is the coldest month of the year, with average temperatures ranging from 27°F (-3°C) and 44°F (7°C). Winter storms can occasionally bring heavy snowfall and ice, resulting in road closures, especially in higher elevation areas. Lower elevations typically experience mild winters with less snowfall. Overall, the park receives 19 inches (48 cm) of snowfall a year, but it tends to melt quickly rather than accumulate.

Spring (March to May)

Spring sees variable temperatures, with occasional showers and possible snowstorms through March. As a result, visitors in the spring should prepare for a wide range of conditions. Temperatures gradually warm up throughout the spring. Average highs range from the mid-40s (7°C) to the mid-60s (18°C), with warmer days rising to the mid-70s (24°C) on occasion.

When to Visit

There’s no bad time of year to visit Shenandoah National Park. The park is open year-round, so when you decide to plan your trip will depend on your availability, budget, and personal preferences. Weather-wise, spring, summer, and fall are fantastic times to visit. These seasons generally have pleasant conditions suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities. Spring and fall are milder, with less heat and humidity than the peak summer months of July and August.

Skies are often clear in the fall, making it an excellent time to visit the park and enjoy views of the beautiful foliage. However, you should expect crowds on popular trails and potential traffic jams on Skyline Drive. Fall weekends are packed with leaf peepers, so visit during the week if you’re hoping for a less busy experience. Fall colors typically peak in October.

Winters are generally quiet in the park. Although many services and some roads and trails close during the winter, the Byrd Visitor Center near Big Meadows remains open, albeit with limited hours. Even if Skyline Drive is closed due to inclement weather, you can hike in from the park’s boundaries and enjoy the winter solitude.

Spring ushers in the crowds as the weather improves and wildflower blooms explode throughout the park. Visitors in the spring can enjoy ranger-led wildflower walks to spot species like large-flowered trilliums, pink lady’s slippers, and wild geraniums.

Fall is generally considered the busiest time of year in Shenandoah, but crowds are common on weekends and holidays from April through October. If you’re looking for a quieter visit, plan your trip during the week or consider visiting between November and March.

Recommended Gear

Those planning a trip to Shenandoah National Park should plan to pack plenty of layers suitable for the season and standard hiking gear so that you can comfortably explore the park and its extensive trail systems. Day hikers can refer to our Day Hiking Checklist for more details and advice. If you’re planning a multi-day hike or backpacking trip in the park’s wilderness, take a look at our Backpacking Checklist to ensure you’re well-equipped for your adventure.

What to Do in Shenandoah National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Shenandoah National Park is a haven for hikers and backpackers. The park’s trail system covers more than 500 miles (800 km) and contains about 100 miles (161 km) of the Appalachian Trail, one of America’s most famous thru-hikes. You’ll need to obtain a free backcountry permit from the National Park Service if you want to overnight in the backcountry, but day hiking doesn’t require any permits.

March through October is considered the best time for hiking and backpacking, but these activities are possible year-round. Just make sure you have traction devices or crampons for your boots if you decide to go hiking in the winter. Trails in lower elevations might seem clear, but it’s not unusual to encounter snowy and icy conditions as you reach higher elevations.

Best Hikes in Shenandoah National Park

  • Old Rag Mountain Loop: This 9.5-mile (15.2-km) loop is one of the most popular trails among hikers looking for a longer route. Not only is it one of the top hikes in Shenandoah, but it is considered among the top day hikes in the mid-Atlantic region. The trail is rated difficult, has 2,683 feet (818 m) of elevation gain, and requires some rock scrambling. Hikers who are up for the challenge will be rewarded with expansive views of the park’s rolling hills and pastoral landscapes.
  • Hawksbill Loop Trail: The view from the summit of Hawksbill Mountain is one of the best in all of Shenandoah National Park. This moderate 2.7-mile (4.3-km) loop is a perfect way to reach the park’s highest point. There are two lookout areas near the summit – bring some snacks and enjoy a picnic lunch as you take in the scenery.
  • Rose River Loop: One of the top waterfall hikes in the park, the Rose River Loop features two waterfalls: 67-foot (20-meter) Rose River Falls and the lower section of Dark Hollow Falls. The 3.8-mile (6.1-km) loop winds through beautiful forests and is rated moderate.
  • Dark Hollow Falls Trail: This easy to moderate trail featuring Dark Hollow Falls is one of the park’s most popular hikes. At only 1.4 miles (2.3 km) long, it’s accessible for the whole family and makes a great hike for those with limited time in the park.
  • Cedar Run to Whiteoak Loop: If you want to experience numerous waterfalls in a single day, the Cedar Run and Whiteoak Canyon Loop is a fantastic choice. The challenging trail is 9 miles (14.5 km) long with 2,372 feet (723 m) of elevation gain. Hikers will pass nine different waterfalls as the trail winds through rocky gorges. Allow 6 to 8 hours for the trip.
  • Stony Man Trail: Stony Man Mountain is the park’s second-highest summit and usually sees less traffic than Hawksbill and Old Rag Mountain. This easy 1.5-mile (2.4-km) trail takes you to the summit, features a section of the Appalachian Trail, and offers stunning views of the hills and valleys stretching out into the distance.
  • Appalachian Trail: The 100-mile (161-km) stretch of the Appalachian Trail running through Shenandoah National Park is widely considered one of the best sections of the AT. Section hikers should allow around ten days to complete this point-to-point trail. The trail winds through Shenandoah’s forests and over its rolling hills, highlighting the best scenery the park has to offer. May, June, and September are peak months for thru-hikers passing through Shenandoah, so avoid doing your section hike during these months if possible.

 

Shenandoah National Park

Camping

The park has five campgrounds with more than 600 sites. The campgrounds are open from early spring until late fall, and campsites can be reserved up to six months ahead of your trip. We strongly recommend reserving your sites in advance, especially if you’re planning a weekend visit. As of January 2022, the camping fee is US$30 per night for all standard campsites and US$75 per night for all group sites.

Scenic Driving

Skyline Drive is the main road through Shenandoah National Park and is one of the park’s most popular attractions. Driving the entire length of the 105-mile route takes around three hours in good conditions. Woodland animals like black bears, deer, and wild turkeys often cross Skyline Drive, so keep an eye out while you’re driving. The road may be closed in the winter, depending on the weather. We recommend calling the park ahead of your visit for the current road status.

Biking

Biking is a fantastic way to experience Skyline Drive and other parts of Shenandoah. Bikes and e-bikes are allowed on all paved roads in the park, giving cyclists plenty of options. Spring through fall are the best times of year to enjoy this outdoor activity, but biking is possible year-round when conditions allow.

Wildlife and Wildflower Viewing

Spring is one of the best times for bird watching in Shenandoah as migratory birds make their way through the park. It’s also an excellent time of year to enjoy Shenandoah’s famous wildflower blooms. The park is home to 862 species of wildflowers, and various ranger-led programs and celebrations highlight this beautiful display of nature. Winter is another fantastic time for wildlife viewing since the bare trees make it easier to spot animals like deer, foxes, and birds as they forage for food sources. We recommend reviewing our Wildlife Safety guide ahead of your trip to ensure you’re respecting the plant and animal life while also staying safe.

Rock Climbing

The exposed cliffs throughout Shenandoah make it an excellent place for rock climbing. Old Rag Mountain and Little Stony Man Cliff are two of the best spots. Old Rag tends to see more crowds, so head to Little Stony Man if you want a quieter outing. You can bring your own climbing gear or book a guided tour with various outdoor tour operators in the Shenandoah area.

Fishing

Shenandoah National Park has some of the best fly fishing on the East Coast. The park’s numerous waterways and mountain streams are home to species like brook trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout. These fantastic backcountry angling opportunities are open to all those with a Virginia State fishing license. More details about fishing regulations are available here from the National Park Service.

Where to Stay

The most convenient place to stay when visiting Shenandoah is inside the park’s borders. Within the park, there are three different lodging facilities (Skyland, Big Meadows Lodge, and Lewis Mountain Cabins), six primitive cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and five campgrounds. Lodging on the weekends is often fully booked months in advance between late spring and October, so plan accordingly.

There are many different lodging options outside the park’s borders in the Shenandoah Valley region. Luray, Virginia, is a small town just north of the park and is a convenient option for those who want to be as close to the national park as possible. Harrisonburg, VA, is around 30 minutes west of Shenandoah. It is the area’s largest city and a fantastic pick for travelers on a budget. Charlottesville, VA, is one of the region’s most popular destinations for tourists and is a wonderful spot for families, couples, and groups. There are tons of things to do in and around Charlottesville, making it an ideal place for visitors who want to enjoy the area’s restaurants, breweries, wineries, shops, and more.

Shenandoah National Park

How to Get There and Getting Around

Shenandoah National Park is only a few hours’ drive from the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. The best way to get to and around the park is by car, as there are no shuttle services or public transportation within Shenandoah.

If you’re flying into the area, the closest airports include:

  • Charlottesville Albemarle Airport (CHO) in Charlottesville, Virginia
  • Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (SHD) in Weyers Cave, Virginia
  • Dulles International Airport (IAD) in Washington, D.C.
  • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Virginia
  • Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) in Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Raleigh Durham International Airport (RDU) in Raleigh, North Carolina

You can rent a car at any of these airports and then drive to the national park.

Conclusion

From hiking and backpacking to rock climbing and fly fishing, Shenandoah National Park is a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Given its proximity to major metropolitan areas on the East Coast, the park sees its fair share of crowds. However, visiting during the week or any time during the winter should give you plenty of opportunities to find solitude and enjoy the stunning natural surroundings in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Did you find this guide to Shenandoah National Park helpful? Check out our other national park guides to start dreaming up your next adventure.

 


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