Best Hiking Trails in Shenandoah National Park
If you travel nearby Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains without visiting (only 75 miles west of Washington D.C.), you will perpetually ask yourself, “Whyyy! Why didn't I stop!” Just search the internet for Shenandoah and peruse the gorgeous images of quintessential (yet very special) east coast wilderness to see what you're missing.
This is a very skinny and long park running north-south, and thus gets pretty congested. Even so, eat, lodge, camp — do it all at Shenandoah. Just try and make advance arrangements, especially during peak season. Or, pack your backpacking kit and head for the hills, with over 500 miles of trail to explore.
Check out the beautiful (and long) Skyline Drive to get a great sense of the park from the comforts of your vehicle, or hike up Old Rag Mountain for the more adventurous. And if you'd like to say you've “hiked” some of the famous Appalachian Trail running from Georgia to Maine, try out the very short Mary's Rock section.
When to Go
Visit year-round, but for a spectacular show of autumn colors, go in October. Just be prepared to jostle elbows with everyone else gawking at the incredible displays of reds and oranges amongst the chestnut, red oak, maple, birch, ash and other trees.
If you're up for summer adventure, Shenandoah features dozens of natural swimming holes located throughout the park. Many of these are fed by spectacular waterfalls and remain full of cool water even during the driest months of summer. You'll also most likely see bear out and about in summer, picking berries off bushes or heading towards streams for a drink. While exciting to see a bear in the wild, please be mindful that they are wild animals and should not be approached for any reason.
Featuring over 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), Shenandoah does get crowded when the thru-hikers reach Virginia. Most north-bound (NOBO) hikers start filtering into the park by May, which means trails and shelters along the AT will become crowded. Most thru-hikers never go off the AT, so spring is a great time to explore the trails away from Skyline Drive before summer crowds join you.
For the heartiest of adventurers, Shenandoah transforms into a wonderland every winter, with ice storms making trees glisten like glass and snow muffling footsteps on the trail. Beautiful frozen waterfalls are dotted throughout the park and with fewer visitors, it is a wonderfully solitary time to visit. However, Shenandoah National Park does not have the resources to keep Skyline Drive completely plowed and it is often closed down after snowfall. Due to the unpredictability of inclement weather, which can be much worse in the Park than in lower elevations, the status of the Skyline Drive can change frequently. For the current status in winter, call (540) 999-3500 (select option 1, then option 1).
Fees apply, and go towards maintaining and preserving our national park system.
Entrance fees are collected at every entrance to Skyline Drive. There are many trails that connect to the boundary of the park, and if you park and hike in you will not be required to pay an entrance fee. Many of these trails do pass through private land and while landowners allow hikers to walk through their property, it is important to treat these areas very respectfully.
Day hikers are not required to have permits for any hiking in Shenandoah National Park.
If you plan on camping at one of Shenandoah's public drive-in campgrounds, reservations are strongly recommended. Public campgrounds are accessible for cars and RVs and feature amenities including restrooms, shops, and concessions. Fires are permitted and you are able to purchase firewood. Reservations often go months in advance of peak season. While walk-ins are allowed, do not expect them to be available in summer or fall. Fees vary from $20 to $45 depending on campsite. To see which campsites are available and reserve a space for a later trip, visit <www.recreation.gov> and search for "Shenandoah National Park". </www.recreation.gov>
Backpackers hoping to stay overnight in the back country are required to have a permit for any dispersed camping. These permits are free, and are a record for rangers know how many groups are in the back country and approximately what area they plan to be in. These can be collected at any of the ranger stations or main entrances to Shenandoah National Park. You simply fill out the permit, tear off the pink portion and hand it to a ranger if there is one available (if not, there is a drop box for permits). The white portion you must keep with you at all times. While hiking, affix it to your backpack. While camping, it needs to be on the outside of your shelter and visible to passing rangers. If you get caught camping in the back country without a permit you may be fined.
Backcountry campsites are first-come first-serve. There are no 'official' campsites, you can camp at any appropriate site; the NPS has guidance on how to find an appropriate site here. There are many campsites in the park that have been used over time. Please try to use these existing sites rather than creating ones of your own. Please note that fires are strictly prohibited in dispersed campsites in the Shenandoah backcountry. Campfires are only permitted at NPS-constructed fireplaces at Appalachian Trail backcountry huts and day-use shelters. Consider staying in one of the developed campgrounds or at the nearby National Forest if you want a campfire.
If you'd like to sleep in the backcountry but would also like to have a roof over your head, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club manages six rustic cabins in Shenandoah National Park. All have basic amenities and require a reservation to use. For information on renting a cabin visit the PATC Cabin Introduction website.
Surprise! Unlike most national parks, Shenandoah is a very dog-friendly park! Dogs are allowed on most trails, and there's even pooch-friendly lodging options. Get the full scoop, here.
All dogs must remain on a six-foot or shorter leash during your visit to Shenandoah, and poop must be collected, carried out and disposed of in trash cans.