Last Updated on February 10, 2023 by Maggie McKneely
Here is everything you need to know about Shenandoah National Park if you’re a first-time visitor!
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Shenandoah National Park for First-Time Visitors
Exciting travel adventures don’t have to happen in exotic, overseas locations – sometimes, the best stories come from your own backyard. For those of us on the east coast, our backyard has a national park. Just a little more than an hour from Washington, DC, Shenandoah National Park provides a respite from the hustle and bustle of Beltway life. With over 200,000 acres of protected wilderness throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s the perfect weekend getaway for families, couples, and solo travelers and is one of the best national parks on the east coast. And yet, a surprising number of locals have never been! It’s time to fix that.
Since before I was born, my family has made the short trek to the park for a weekend every fall. My dad and I have done literally every hike that doesn’t involve camping. Shenandoah National Park is a gem of a place that holds a particularly special spot in my heart.
Related: The top gifts to get the hiker in your life
My goal with this guide is to make the park as accessible as possible to those who have never been before so that everyone can get the chance to fall in with the East Coast’s oldest national park. If you’re a park regular, you might still learn something from this. Or, if you think I’ve left out something critical, you can help me help others by letting me know!
Let’s get started!
Important park lingo and insider info
- “Shenandoah National Park” is a lot to write. I, and others who write about it, are too lazy or busy to type that out every time. Instead, you will see the easier, more efficient “SNP” abbreviation in this guide.
- Skyline Drive is the main road that runs the entire length of the park, from Front Royal in the north until it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway in the south. It is often referred to as just “the Drive.” So if you hear someone say that, or if I call it that in this article, that is what it is referring to.
- The park is split into 3 sections: North Section (from Front Royal to Luray), Central Section (Luray to Elkton), and the South Section (Elkton to Waynesboro).
- Locations in the park are designated by mile marker on Skyline Drive. So if you see this – (mile 52.1) – that means that something is located at mile marker 52.1 on the Drive. The north end near Front Royal is mile 1, and the south end at Rockfish Gap is mile 105.
- The Appalachian Trail runs through the park. Like “Shenandoah,” no one likes to spell out Appalachian. Instead, you will see the abbreviation “AT” used to refer to it.
- When hiking: “blazes” are rectangular patches of paint on trees to designate where trails are. Blue blazes are used to mark park trails, white blazes are used to mark the AT, and yellow blazes are for horse trails.
Best time to go to Shenandoah
Shenandoah National Park is famous for its fall foliage, and the peak time is usually mid-to-late October. It’s a must-see, but know that everyone else wants to see the color-changing leaves too. I’ve been on Skyline Drive on a fall weekend when it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. If you can swing it, try and go on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
Alternatively, winter provides a unique SNP experience. It’s usually too cold for comfortable hiking, but you’ll have the Drive to yourself and many of the rocks are transformed into beautiful ice formations.
- One vehicle for 7 days: $30
- Motorcycle: $25
- Annual Pass: $55
- If you’re 62+ years old, you qualify for a Senior Pass. A one-time $80 fee gets you lifetime access to every national park in the country. (My parents were really excited when they qualified for this)
- If you’re military, or in 4th grade, you qualify for free park access. Go here for more details
- There are several fee-free days throughout the year. Go here for the full calendar.
The park itself is always open, though the Drive sometimes closes for a variety of reasons (read on for more). The visitor’s centers, lodges, gift shops, and waysides are mostly closed between late November and mid-March. Go here for a detailed list of opening dates.
How to get into Shenandoah National Park
There are four entrance stations into Shenandoah National Park:
- North Entrance: near Front Royal, off of Rt. 340
- Thornton Gap: between Luray and Sperryville off of Hwy. 211
- Swift Run Gap: between Elkton and Stanardsville
- Rockfish Gap: between Waynesboro and Charlottesville, off of Hwy 250 (is also the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway)
Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park
Take a drive
Skyline Drive is 105 miles worth of incredible vistas from Front Royal south to Rockfish Gap, where it connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Allow yourself at least three hours to do the entire drive, as the speed limit is only 35mph and the road is a series of narrow curves and windy turns. Enjoy it and be sure to stop at several of the 75 overlooks along the way! The drive does close for inclement weather and at night during deer season (mid-November to January), so be sure to check the park’s website for road closures.
Take a hike
Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails, ranging from the completely flat, anyone-can-do-it (Limberlost Trail), to the more strenuous.
For first-time visitors, I recommend Stony Man. It’s a short (1.6 miles roundtrip), moderately easy hike that offers one of the best views in the park. This walk gives a great introduction to hiking in SNP. If you like it, you can check out my full list of best hikes in Shenandoah National Park.
There are great waterfall hikes, but just remember that when hiking to falls, what goes down (i.e. you) must go back up. I’ve seen many people do one of these hikes, fooled by how easy the first completely downhill part of the trail is.
“Do I need hiking shoes?” – If it’s your first time hiking and you are only doing the more popular and moderate trails, then no. Good, sturdy tennis shoes will be just fine. But do NOT make the mistake of wearing: ballet flats, flip-flops, high heels, Sperry’s, slippers, anything that isn’t an athletic shoe. I have seen all of those (yes, even high heels), and I have also seen the look of pain and agony on the face of the person who chose those shoes for their hike. DO NOT BE THAT PERSON.
Learn from the Park Rangers
If you’re interested in having a guide during your first visit, the park’s Ranger Program offers a range of activities for every age. From wildlife walks, geological history talks, junior ranger programs for the kids, and ranger-led hikes, there’s something for everybody.
Where to eat and get gas
Big Meadows Wayside (mile 51.2) is the only gas station in Shenandoah National Park. And gas is much more expensive along the Drive, so I suggest filling up before entering the Park. In addition to Big Meadows, Elkwallow Wayside (mile 24.1) and Loft Mountain Wayside (mile 79.5) also offer a variety of snacks and sandwiches for purchase, as well as outdoor seating areas to enjoy a picnic.
Both Skyland and Big Meadows Lodges have full-service restaurants offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
You can also just bring your own food! Just remember the “leave no trace” rule – whatever you bring into the park, make sure to take it back out if it isn’t biodegradable. Nothing ruins a hike in our beautiful places like litter along the trail.
Where to Stay in Shenandoah National Park
If you want to make your visit into a whole weekend (or longer), there are two options if you want to stay overnight in the park – using the campgrounds or staying at one of the lodges.
The lodges: There are two main resort areas, Skyland (mile 41.7 and 42.5) and Big Meadows (51.2). Both of them offer hotel-style rooms and full cabins that you can rent. They also both have full-service restaurants. If you prefer to enjoy the mountains with all of your creature comforts, stay at one of these two places. My mom is not a camper, so we always stay at one of the cabins at Skyland, but it is completely up to your budget and personal preferences! If you want to stay at one of the lodges during peak season, you must make reservations 13 months in advance on the first of the month you want to go in.
There are also a few rustic cabins for rent at Lewis Mountain. They’re a middle step between camping and staying at the lodges.
The campgrounds: There are four campgrounds spread out along the Drive: Mathews Arm (mile 22.1), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), Lewis Mountain (57.5), and Loft Mountain (79.5). Three of them are RV-friendly. Reservations can be made here.
Outside the park: Luray, Waynesboro, and Front Royal are the closest towns near the park entrances with accommodations.
The temperature is always about 20 degrees cooler up on the Drive than it is down below. So if you’re thinking “oh, what a lovely 70-degree spring day it is! Let’s go hiking in SNP!” – take a jacket, because it won’t be 70 degrees up on a mountain.
The weather also changes very quickly (even by Virginia standards). It can be snowing and 20 degrees in the morning and hit 80 by the afternoon. I’ve seen it happen. The best way to be prepared is to dress in layers.
Yes, there are bears in Shenandoah National Park. But if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Don’t be frightened of them, but admire them from a distance. I’ve seen tourists try to feed them snacks; those are the same people who wear high heels to hike in. Again, DON’T BE THAT PERSON.
White-tailed deer are also extremely common, so keep your eyes alert when driving.
Bobcats live in the park as well, but they are elusive. I’ve only seen one once in 27 years, but maybe you’ll be luckier than me.
I hope this guide was helpful for you as you plan you’re first-ever trip to Shenandoah National Park! If you have any questions, contact me or leave it in the comments!
For more awesome National Parks, be sure to check out this list of the top 20!
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Great guide to one of my favorite parks.
I enjoyed reading your article. It is very informative with tons of useful tips, but also entertaining. I like your observation of hikers wearing high heels and feeding bears. : )
Awesome guide! Definitely interested in a road trip to Shenandoah National Park now!
I never made it down to Shenandoah while I was living in DC but it’s on the top of my list of places to visit if I ever make it back! Also lol, who wears high heels to hike? That’s pretty funny and I’m glad I’m not that person!
Just FYI, the Loft Mtn wayside no longer has a gas station (as of Fall 2017).
Oh good to know! Thank you! I will add an update
Great info on SNP know it will be helpful to visitors, visiting the park. Thank you for information. Notice on TRAIL Markers ( Blazes), you left out the Yellow marker for horse trails.
Thank you! I’ll add those in!
Such a lovely area! We have been many times! Thanks for sharing! Have a great week!
Shenandoah is one of my favorite national parks! I’ve been more than a few times. Can’t wait to visit again sometime. Thanks for sharing!
I’ve read about Shenandoah a few times since I love reading about the Appalachian Trail, although I had no real idea of what the National Park was like itself. I think it’s such a lovely tradition that you and your family have of going out there in Autumn. It must be much less busy than peak season and you get to see it differently to everyone else.
I’ve never visited the National Parks on the east coast but this makes me want to! And ugh to the tourists trying to feed the bears – how can people not know better?! Thanks for all the detailed tips!
Staying in the lodges sounds really neat. Sounds like we’ll have to plan ahead with the reservation system. We are going to Ronoake in a couple of months to check out some of what SNP has instore.
Great article! I love the lingo breakdown at the start, that’s really useful for people who aren’t familiar with, or from, that area. I love how NP’s do discount lifetime membership for OAP’s over there! It must have been amazing to see a wild bobcat too!
Very detailed and well laid out guide to SNP! I love that you “define the terms” in the beginning because you’re right, no one wants to type all that out every time, but not everyone knows the lingo! I haven’t visited SNP yet, but lately, I’ve just fallen in love with NPs in the US and so it’s on my list. The lodges sound awesome and I love Charlottesville so this all sounds perfect!
Wow ! This post is so awesome. I have never heard of this place before but looks like its a “must-visit” place for sure. This is definitely gets added in my “Queue” list. THanks for sharing.
Wow ! This post is so awesome. I have never heard of this place before but looks like its a “must-visit” place for sure. This is definitely gets added in my “Queue” list. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.
I never knew that there’s a national park that close to Washington DC. I must recommend this to my cousin who visits Washington often. She would love it.
You know, I lived in West Virginia for 40 years and never did this drive. I could kick myself! Thanks for the very informative guide and helpful hints for driving “the drive”. 😉 I would love to do this sometime.
I’m such a fan of visiting national parks and Shenandoah National Park looks amazing. Thanks for all the great tips! I’d love to go in fall, but I’m not sure I could deal with the crowds.
I love visiting national parks and Shenandoah looks perfect for me. You have listed all valid points to take care off for first timers. Thanks for sharing!
This place seems like an excellent one to spend one day. I never been to Washington but it´s something i will remember to go!
I visited so many times as a kid and now I love taking my own kids! Shenandoah is an amazing place <3
How wonderful!! It truly is special 🙂
Beautiful photos. The high heel wearing bear feeder comment made me laugh. NEVER be that person…it always amazes me just how many people like this you come across though! 🙂
I have never heard about this national park before, but it looks really lovely. I have visited some national parks in the US and always enjoyed those trips a lot. I already saved your advice for my next trip!
Great post, really informative, thank you 🙂 We want to visit some of the US national parks next year and want to include SNP. We aim to thru-hike the AT some day when our baby is just a little older so will definitely visit then!
What a great idea! I haven’t thru-hiked it, but have hiked most of the portion inside of Shenandoah! You’ll love it 🙂
Maggie, you know this area well and it shows, well done. I visited Skyline Drive as a child. Also, I used to call on accounts in Front Royal and I was lucky enough to pass through this scenic route a few times a year. Skyline Drive is worth the drive.
Definitely be alert for the deer while driving! Skyline Drive is pretty curvy and you never know when there is going to be one standing in the road. Thanks for sharing your guide – very good.
What a gorgeous park! And a fun place for a girls trip!
Hi! Stumbled across this and am considering a camping trip next summer. GSMNP is our go-to spot for a mountain getaway (we are there currently) and it’s my favorite spot in the world. Kids just asked if we can come back again this summer but I’ve been debating doing something new and heading to SNP. They love the hiking, tubing, and rafting that we do in this area. Are there water sports/ rivers that we could do similar activities?? It’s a 17 hour drive minimum for us from Louisiana so I’d be using all of my vacation time to do this if we did. It’s been a dream of mine for over 10 years but my kids are questioning me and I have no answers!!!
Yes, there are water activities! The Shenandoah River is great for tubing and kayaking and rafting. For tubing and kayaking, look around the Luray area. For rafting, there are good spots on the river near Harper’s Ferry/Front Royal. Shenandoah NP is an amazing place and you would absolutely not regret visiting!
This was so helpful! I am considering spontaneously going to visit this location tomorrow, but I’m one of those people who worry over the details of everything. This has definitely eased my mind. Thank you!
I’m so glad it was helpful!! I hope you enjoyed your day!!
Thank you for your write up about first time visitors to Shenandoah NP. This is very helpful as my wife and I are planning on visiting the Park this October.
I’m so glad it was helpful! You will love your trip, it’s beautiful in October 🙂
Planning a last minute trip tomorrow and this was extremely helpful, thank you!
great National park, I haven’t been to SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK but looks beautifuls, the background city view is beautiful.
hope one day I will be here,
thank you fo sharing such a great Articles about SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
Yes, there are some water activities! Tubing, kayaking, and rafting are all great activities on the Shenandoah River. Look around Luray for tubing and kayaking. Harper’s Ferry/Front Royal are good spots for rafting on the river.
Outstanding. Looks like a great place to chill out in summer in Shenandoah.
So beautifully crafted information.
What an amazing place to visit.
I have learned so much about the shenandoah National park, and what a beautiful picture
Shenandoah National Park is famous for Skyline Drive it’s amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your incredible blog. keep sharing, your positivity is infectious.
Amazing information, hope to visit the Shenandoah National Park one day.
thank you for the informative post, will definitely comeback for more.
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This has definitely eased my mind. Thank you!
Very helpful article. Thanks for sharing yours ideas in this great post.
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Beautiful place. Helpful and useful article for the first visitor. Thanks for sharing.
what a beautiful place, hope one day I will be here. thank you for sharing
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Amazing National park
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Shenandoah is one of our favorite parks in the southeast. We purchased an America the Beautiful pass this year and used that on a recent trip to the park.
We’re always fans of short hikes which intersect the AT and the overlooks, which Shanandoah has many.
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your backyard is one of the awesome view point so much attractive national park is compulsory for every place and this is blessing when national park on your backyard.
Great information for a trip to Shenandoah National Park. Hope to be there one day.
Can you please tell me if it is ok if a child aged 5 years go on this trek. as you said, slow and steady, we will use this approach
Quite Helpful. Thank you for posting this!
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