Here is everything you need to know about Shenandoah National Park if you’re a first time visitor!
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 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: Go here for 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 north to 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 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: $25
- Motorcycle: $20
- Annual Pass: $50
- 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 2018 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, just outside of Charlottesville. 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.
Related: Check out Charlottesville after a trip to SNP
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:
- Elkwallow Wayside (24.1), Big Meadow Wayside (mile 51.2), and Loft Mountain Wayside (79.5) are the three gas stations in Shenandoah National Park. However, gas is much more expensive along the Drive, so I suggest filling up before entering the Park. These three stops also offer a variety of snacks and sandwiches for purchase, as well as outdoor seating areas to enjoy a picnic.
- Update (March 2018): Loft Mountain no longer has a gas station
- 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 in to 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.
- 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 25 years, but maybe you’ll be luckier than me.
For more awesome National Parks, be sure to check out this list of the top 20!
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