Shenandoah National Park, which contains seemingly endless acres of dark forests, rocky ravines, and surging waterfalls, is one of America’s most popular national parks. However, far from being untouched, this landscape was created when hundreds of small family farms were bought by the state and federal governments during the Depression, and the land was left to revert to its natural state.
The park has one of the most scenic byways in the US, the Skyline Drive, a thin pavement curving along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The views are especially fine, and the crowds especially large, in the fall. However, you can get the best of what the park has to offer at any time of the year. One of the most popular hiking trails leaves from the parking area in the southern part of the park up to Dark Hollow Falls; another, leaving Skyline Drive, climbs to the top of Old Rag Mountain for spectacular views around Virginia and the Allegheny Mountains.
More ambitious hikers, or those who want to spend a night out in the backcountry, head for the Appalachian Trail. Details on any of these hikes and free overnight camping permits can be picked up at the visitor centers, located along Skyline Drive and at mile marker 51. Three rustic lodges, near the center of the park, offer beds and food. One of these, the Lewis Mountain, has cabins and a first-come, first-served campground.
Fog frequently blankets both mountains and valleys, creating interesting views. The famous Shenandoah Valley is rich in human history, and signs can be seen everywhere. Numerous memorials line the black roads, surrounded by horse farms and apple orchards.
Shenandoah was authorized in 1926 and fully established on December 26, 1935. Prior to being a park, much of the area was farmland and there are still remnants of old farms in several places.
The state of Virginia slowly acquired the land through eminent domain and then gave it to the U.S. Federal Government provided it would be designated a National Park.
In the creation of the park and Skyline Drive, a number of families and entire communities were required to vacate portions of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many residents in the 500 homes in eight affected counties of Virginia were vehemently opposed to losing their homes and communities. The lost communities and homes were a price paid for one of the country’s most beautiful National Parks and scenic roadways.
Shenandoah Must-See Places
Gazing across the horizon from the peaks of Shenandoah National Park it’s hard to believe you are just 75 miles from the bustle of our nation’s capital. Take Skyline Drive along the crest of the mountains through the woods and past spectacular vistas. Hike in the shade of oak trees along the Appalachian Trail, discover the stories from Shenandoah’s past, or just relax in the wonder of wilderness.
Unlike many parks, which are full of difficult hikes that are safe only for seasoned outdoors veterans, almost anyone can meander across the valley floor of Shenandoah National Park. During the months of April, May and June, the valley is bathed in color from the wildflowers and flowering trees, and wildlife enthusiasts can see a variety of migrating birds and newborn animals.
Nature walks, biking and fishing are just a few of the activities offered in the park and surrounding areas, although it might be a bit chilly at night still for the more casual campers. Never fear, though, because the opportunity to soak up the unspoiled atmosphere from a small cabin in the woods more than makes up for it.
Shenandoah has over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Some trails lead to a waterfall or viewpoint; others penetrate deep into the forest and wilderness.
With such an abundance of trail options, you will certainly be able to find something to fit your interest and ability. Whenever you hike be sure to wear sturdy shoes and take plenty of water.
Most trailheads are located along Skyline Drive. A few, like Old Rag Mountain, are best accessed from the boundary. Old Rag Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in the park. It is also the most challenging.
Limberlost Trail (milepost 43), is often enjoyed by persons with mobility challenges. The trail was originally constructed to meet ADA accessibility standards; however, the requirements have recently been revised. Shenandoah has plans to upgrade Limberlost to meet the new standards. This circuit hike of 1.3 miles is for people of all ages and has a 5′ wide crushed greenstone walkway on a gentle grade with frequent benches, a boardwalk, and a bridge. The trail passes through forest and a stand of mountain laurel – stunningly beautiful when it blooms in June.
Several commercial businesses are permitted to offer guided hiking and hiker support services in Shenandoah.
Although Shenandoah National Park doesn’t have a campground that is just for RVs, it does have three campgrounds that will accommodate large RVs. Mathews Arm, Big Meadows, and Loft Mountain campgrounds all have pull-through and deep back-in sites which most of the time can even handle an RV with a tow vehicle. Although they do not offer hookups, the campgrounds do have potable water and dump stations.
Shenandoah National Park has 196,000 acres of backcountry and wilderness and over 500 miles of trails to explore. Backcountry and wilderness camping allows you to immerse yourself in the beauty and challenge of Shenandoah’s wild side. By carrying everything you need to survive on your back, up over rocky peaks and down through lush stream hollows, you have an opportunity to discover a world beyond where the pavement ends.
There are four campgrounds in Shenandoah: Mathews Arm (mile 22.1); Big Meadows (mile 51.2); Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5); Loft Mountain (mile 79.5)
Lodges, restaurants, waysides, gift shops, camp stores, stables, and showers are operated by Aramark, the official park concessioner. Some lodging and RV destinations located near the park include Skyland Resort, Big Meadows Lodge, and Lewis Mountain Cabins.
Big Meadows (milepost 51) has 25 rooms in the main lodge, 72 additional rooms in rustic cabins, multi-unit lodges, and modern suites. American Express, MasterCard, VISA, and Discover cards are accepted. A limited number of pet-friendly rooms available. All rooms and public areas are smoke-free environments. No extra fee is charged for cribs or children under 16 years old. To make reservations at Big Meadows, or for additional information, visit ARAMARK online or write to ARAMARK Parks and Destinations (an authorized park concessioner), P.O. Box 727, Luray, VA 22835; or call (800) 999-4714 or (540) 843-2100.