Although it attracts more than a million visitors each year, Shenandoah National Park’s nearly 200,000-plus acres of wilderness is one of our most underestimated national parks. On a map, it doesn’t look like much—a skinny green squiggle sloped on a tilted north-south axis in northwest Virginia, its north entrance just 70 miles from the nation’s capital—but it has so much to offer. You can cruise along the spectacular 105-mile Skyline Drive, which arches across the humped vertebrae of peaks along a stretch of the Blue Ridge range. Folks arriving from the south end of the park, through the Rockfish Gap entrance near Waynesboro, Virginia, can travel along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway that links Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Not surprisingly, folks flock to Shenandoah in fall for the visual smorgasbord of autumn colors, from the dark-purple dogwoods to the fiery-orange sassafras, and an entire color wheel of foliage in between, as the park’s deciduous trees shuck off their summer greens. The best time for leaf-peeping is typically in mid-October, with the peak of colors usually hitting around late October, sometimes earlier at higher elevations.
There are 516 miles of trails, nearly all of which, by the way, are dog-friendly, unlike most national parks, which limit dogs to paved roads and campgrounds. For 101 miles, the Appalachian Trail (AT) runs through the park, parallel to Skyline Drive, so at virtually any pull-off along the road, you can hop out of your car, jump on the AT, head north or south for however long you feel like hiking, and then turn around and trek back to your car. (This means you can casually boast to people back home that you hiked the Appalachian Trail. They don’t have to know you only hiked part of it.)
Days blur in a blissful mishmash on Shenandoah time. Your daily itinerary will likely be a repeat of what you did the day before: get up with the sun, embark on a cool hike, picnic at a shady or sunny site for lunch, hike down (and back up) a mountainside again in the afternoon or take a short jaunt along the AT, eat dinner at one of the lodges or cook your own supper on the grill outside your cabin or over the fire at your campsite, and then head to a perfect perch along Skyline Drive to watch the sun sink behind the blue humps of mountains. Next day: Lather, rinse, repeat.
In a mere 90 or so minutes of earnest hiking, you can reach the summit of the park’s highest peak, Hawksbill Mountain (4,051 feet) on a steep but doable two-mile hike (cheating a bit by starting from the upper parking lot trailhead; there’s a much longer route up from a lower trailhead if you want a bigger challenge). Sometimes your only company on hikes will be birds chirping along the park’s forested trails or along the out-in-the-open paths through Big Meadows area near the midway point on Skyline Drive. More than 190 bird species have been identified in the park, and in the fall, visitors can often spot birds of prey migrating south for the winter, as Shenandoah is a major migratory corridor for eagles, hawks, and raptors. If birds aren’t exciting enough, you might even get to see some black bears. By fall, the latest crop of cubs will be around eight months old, and you might spot them rambling along at their mothers’ sides, digging up grubs, or darting up trees at the first sign of trouble.
But best of all, your nightcap to top off a great day in Shenandoah will be catching a view of the sunset from any vantage point along Skyline Drive or lying on your back in the middle of Big Meadow and gazing up at a zillion stars. You’ll find a favorite spot and you’ll feel that rejuvenating mountain vibe, no doubt. Then you’ll be hooked, too.
WHERE TO STAY
After just a few nights of mountain-air-sleep in a comfy bed in the rustic Lewis Mountain Cabins (Skyline Dr. Mile 57.5, Elkton, Virginia, (877) 847-1919, goshenandoah.com/lodging/lewis-mountain-cabins), you’ll feel rejuvenated. If you don’t want to “rough it,” check out the hotel-quality amenities of Big Meadows Lodge (Skyline Dr. Mile 51, Stanley, Virginia, (877) 847-1919) or Skyland Resort (Skyland Upper Loop Mile 41, Luray, Virginia, (877) 847-1919).
Snag a good bottle of Shenandoah Valley wine from one of the nearby wineries on the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail to enjoy during your stay.
The area is known for producing juicy blackberries, so don’t forget to grab a blackberry-laden treat from one of the eateries or general stores within the park, such as Big Meadows Wayside (Skyline Dr. Mile 51, Stanley, Virginia, (540) 999-2211).
ONE STOP SHOP
Shenandoah has the standard park bookstores in visitor centers and a few shops, like Skyland Gift Shop (Skyline Dr. Miles 41.7 & 42.5, Luray, Virginia, (540) 999-2212), where you can find national-park-themed knickknacks.