Shenandoah National Park On a BudgetOne of the most visited destinations in the eastern part of the United States, Shenandoah National Park attracts over a million people each year for its beautiful mountain scenery, abundant wildlife, and vibrant colors in the autumn months. Established in 1935, it is the largest fully protected area in the mid-Appalachian region.
SightsShenandoah National Park encompasses 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Central Appalachians. The mountains of the park rise above Virginia Piedmont to its east and the Shenandoah Valley to its west, serving several habitats of highlands and lowlands for the wildlife of the region. The Appalachian Mountains are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, abundant in woodland and natural streams flowing from the mountains down.
The park has also long served as a refuge for wildlife with over 200 bird species both resident and migratory, more than 50 species of mammals, over 50 reptile and amphibian species, and about 35 species of fish. Some of the more commonly spotted animals in the park include bobcat, raccoon, striped skunk, grey squirrel, groundhog, deer, bear, and cottontail rabbit.
As far as scenery goes, Shenandoah is especially vibrant during the fall foliage months, though equally beautiful in spring when the wildflowers and trees are in full bloom.
NeighborhoodsThroughout the park, there are three centers for visitors. Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is located at mile 4.6 on Skyline Drive, Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center is located at mile 51 on Skyline Drive, and Loft Mountain Information Center is located at mile 79.5 on Skyline Drive. The first two have facilities with restrooms, an information desk, exhibits, videos, sales, publications, maps, backcountry permits, and first aid. Additionally, there are three lodges in the park-Skyland Resort, Big Meadows Lodge, and Lewis Mountain Cabins. It is necessary to have reservations for these as they can be booked for months, especially in high season. There are also a handful of campgrounds available by reservation and first-come first-served basis. These include Matthews Arm, Big Meadows, Lewis Mountain, and Loft Mountain. Most sites include flush toilets and a camp store; some also feature coin showers, coin laundry, and a dump station. Six primitive cabins are available in the park as well, maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Then there is the option for backcountry camping, for which you need a free permit, attainable on the park website or at one of the visitor centers.
ActivitiesJust taking the ride along Skyline Drive, which has been designated a National Scenic Byway, has become a popular activity for people visiting the park. Running 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a max speed limit of 35 mph, Skyline Drive can take about 3 hours to travel the length of the park. You can enter the drive at Front Royal near Rt. 66 and 340, Thornton Gap at Rt. 211, Swift Run Gap at Rt. 33, and Rockfish Gap at Rt. 64 which continues south as the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Hiking is another popular activity, with over 500 miles of hiking trails, including 100 miles of the well-known Appalachian Trail. Some of the more popular hikes include:
Old Rag: a 7.2-mile loop that covers forests, hollows, and a rocky peak with breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.
Stony Man: a gentler, 1.6-mile scenic trail that ends in a beautiful overlook (mile 41.7 on Skyline Drive)
Little Stony Man: a 0.9-mile hike with gorgeous views (mile 39.1 on Skyline Drive)
Dark Hollow Falls: a 1.4 mile trail descending to a waterfall. The hike can be turned into a loop that reaches the Rose River Falls for a 3-hour hike through woods and along several streams with cascades and waterfalls (mile 50.7 on Skyline Drive)
Food and DiningFor the most part, it is best to bring your own food into the park. There are six official picnic spots and other areas where visitors can eat their own food, as well as designated places with grates for building cooking fires. It is important to be well-stocked on food and water if you plan on being in the park for a few days, though there are camp stores located at or near all of the authorized camp ground areas if you do need to restock. As to places inside the park serving food, Elkwallow (mile 24.1) serves a small selection of sandwiches and grilled food, Skyland (mile 41.7) offers dining with a view in its own complex, Big Meadows Wayside (mile 51.2) offers eat-in and take-away with country food and cakes, Big Meadows Lodge (mile 51.2) has a rustic dining room, and Loft Mountain (mile 79.5) has dining with inside and outside seating.
TransportationThe nearest major airport to the park is Washington Dulles International Airport.
The best way to get into the park and explore its sights is by car. Route 522 brings visitors to the northern entrance at Front Royal, Route 211 crosses the park in the northern part at Thornton Gap, Route 33 crosses in the southern part, and then the southern entrance can be accessed by both I-64 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
There are fees to enter the park, costing $10 per vehicle Dec-Feb and $15 per vehicle Mar-Nov. It is $10 per motorcycle, and if you are arriving on foot, bicycle, or bus, the charge per person is $5 Dec-Feb and $8 Mar-Nov. These passes are valid for up to 7 days in the park. You can also purchase an annual pass for $30, or an Interagency Pass valid good for several parks costing $80. Once inside the park, Skyline Drive is the only road running from the northern entrance to the one on the south end.
Since roads are limited to Skyline Drive, it is best to leave your car at a trail head and enjoy the sights and trails of the park on foot.