Shenandoah National Park tips, travel log, photography and trail suggestions

January 08, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Shenandoah National Park Guide 

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Hello there! Welcome to my Shenandoah National Park Guide. I live only a few hours from the entrance at Front Royal, so I've traveled there to hike/camp it many times over the last decade.   

As a side note, I'd suggest you print this out or screen capture to save to images on your phone, because you may not have cell reception in a lot of areas once you are there - one of the best parts about being there :) the lodge has reception/wifi, but on the trails and many areas on skyline drive you wont. (no problem getting 3g/4g access at the pull off lookout points though to send texts!)

The park itself runs north to south, a tall skinny vertical piece of land that is 100 miles long.  Its literally along the ridge of the tops of the mountains. The famous Appalachain Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine goes straight through the park. You'll often see hikers along your trails that are doing the AT (Appalachain Trail) and you'll know to see them, they're on a several month long hike! very cool to experience chatting with any of them to see what they're up to and how long they've been "out there".  The AT runs pretty much straight along Skyline Drive, and the trails through the park that I'll explain below are off of Skyline Drive, and usually go in and out, or in a small few mile loop.  

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Skyline Drive - it starts at the entrance of the park at the northernmost point (Front Royal, Virginia is the town) at MILE 1 and ends at the exit of the park in southernmost point at MILE 105.  there are a few other exit/entrance points about a quarter of the way, halfway  and near the end.  There is 4 total.  So in general, the park is laid out REALLY simple.  There are NO other public roads except Skyline which goes from top to bottom.  As you drive it, there is a mile marker on small wooden posts at EVERY MILE.  So the guide below is really easy to find the trails, you'll just go to the mile markers.   If you're on mile 40, and the trail you want is at mile 35, you'll just turn onto Skyline north for five miles and you'll find it with signs.  There is also a pull-over lookout point every 5 or so miles, through the entire park. Its pretty amazing to see, and a lot of people will enter the park just to drive Skyline for the day, stop at the lookouts and have picnics, and exit the park later and go home.  We have spent hours just driving skyline many times with stopping points.  So once you enter the park, the experience truly begins pretty quickly. You'll climb to the tops of the mountains and swivel the park along this road, and find yourself enjoying the view that the drive doesnt even seem long anymore. Skyline Drive is about 45 mph so it takes a while to get from mile 1 to mile 50, its not like highway driving for sure. So thats why you may want to go into the park at the second entrance, and save a few skyline miles to get to your cabin quicker (see below) if staying at Big Meadow.

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Getting there... From Greensburg(my home town) to the entrance of the park at Front Royal, VA is 3.5 hrs.  However from Pittsburgh, add a half hour on turnpike, and then maybe another half hour to the second park entrance at Thornton gap.   For us - We take the turnpike to Breezewood, then from there follow GPS to Front Royal. We like to enter the park at Front Royal and take the "long route" along skyline to Skyland/Big Meadow (we have stayed at both).  But if you're more interested in getting to the lodge/camping quicker, then you can go down around the outside of the park on either the east or west side. You can put into your gps either Luray, Virginia or Sperryville, Virginia (I pasted below the info and GPS coordinates, also link to directions page, but its pretty straight forward).... and enter the park there at the Thornton Gap entrance.  That entrance is only around 10 miles or so along Skyline Drive to get to Skyland Resort. It would get you the majority of the way there on highways, then you can take your time on skyline drive for less mileage. 

 

Thornton Gap

East of Luray, Virginia and west of Sperryville, Virginia, off Highway 211 (also called Lee Highway) 

GPS Coordinates: 38.660959, -78.320761

https://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/directions.htm  (THIS LINK HAS GOOGLE MAP LINK TO THIS ENTRANCE)

**This link above also shows the four entrance/exit points of the park. 

 

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Skyland Resort - (at Skyline Drive mile 41.7) - this is a really cool historic place.  It is in the CENTER of the park, which is great because its closest to Big Meadow (see more below) as well as close to the best hikes. It is at the highest point on skyline drive I believe, around 4000 feet.  There is an amazing view right from the deck alongside the restaurant.  When you arrive, follow the signs to the office to check in.  Next to check in, is that deck with view points, and restaurant, shop, coffee shop, and lots of areas to just relax and chill out.  Cabins are all around the resort and they'll direct you where.  There are two restaurants, one is more the bar food side, one is the more fine dining side... but regardless everything is 100% casual clothing.  People will hike all day and then go there to eat, even the "fine" side. Any clothing is acceptable, so just dress comfy and don't overpack.  

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Big Meadow - A few miles from Skyland (around mile marker 51) is the other resort/lodge in the park.  We love Big Meadows and have found the prices cheaper at that lodge, however we mostly use the campground there. Here's what Big Meadows has to offer: 

- Gas station (see more below) 

- Small diner 

- Camp store with groceries (if you need basics like gallon of water, snacks, anything "camping related" from rope to batteries, its in this little store) 

- Visitors center with rangers present to talk to (great place to ask about trails or things to see/do, and learn about wildlife etc)

- An actual "big meadow" which is ALWAYS full of deer, sometimes lots of babies with their parents, and large roadway through the middle of it that you can walk through the meadow. Its kind of unique that there is a meadow on top of a mountain, so there's always wildlife here (lots of birds too). 

- campground (we've tent camped here many times, they have showers etc) 

- Lodge with both rooms to rent as well as cabins - there is a cool gift shop, restaurant, rooms to stay, and great big public "porch" you can go out and view the mountains from 

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What to pack -

- If you have small children (under age 2) consider a hiking pack for your back because they would definitely struggle to do some of the full hikes by themselves

- hiking shoes/boots or decent  running shoe or sneaker, pair of flip flops for hanging around cabin, layers like windbreaker type jacket, sweatshirt, a pair of pants, pair of shorts. just prepare for it to be 90 degrees or 45 degrees cuz the temps shift from morning to night a lot.  

- Water bottles and bring your own gallon jugs of water so you're not buying water bottles there for hiking, we usually pack a cooler from the house with ice packs and bring our own small snacks and drinks, that gets us through the day  and we'll do two meals typically at restaurant (big breakfast, and big dinner). 

- Bug spray is a good idea, but I honestly never ever come home with bites from there. And I rarely put a lot of sunscreen on, since you're in the woods more than in full sun. But I definitely pack/bring it, however won't use as much as when I'm at the beach for example. 
 

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***HOW BIG MEADOW BUILDINGS ARE LAID OUT: 

Right along Skyline drive, across from the "actual" big meadow, is the visitors center, camp store/diner, and gas station.  Then from there, continue back "away" from skyline drive about half mile and you'll come to the campground and Big Meadow Lodge.  there are signs for everything. When you get to that area, the campground is to the right of the fork in the road, and the lodge is to the left.  A LOT OF deer including lots and lots of baby deer hang out all through the campground :) they're really tame and you can get pretty close to them! 

 

phone/WIFI - you can get a signal on phone and wifi at either big meadows or skyland, and usually at any pull off point along skyland drive I can get a text to send because there is a break from the mountain blocking signal :) 

 

Gas - the only place to fill up gas tank inside the park is at Big Meadow.  We usually make sure we enter the park with half tank, then refill once inside the park (its usually cheaper gas $ there!)  before we leave to head home.  luckily big meadow is only a few miles from skyland.  

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Black Bears - shenandoah is bear city! they are everywhere.  Keep in mind, they are safe and calm, just give them their space and they won't charge you. We have seen at least 50 bears in the trips we have been there, but then again we do a LOT of deep woods hiking. however, sometimes the most we see are closer to the roads and around the resorts.  There has never ever been an attack on record in shenandoah, and in general black bears do not bother people.  Especially in this region.  We have even been between a mom and her two cubs and she didn't bother us. They are busy eating berries and bugs, they do not hunt any large animals, and they've never BEEN hunted in this national park. So they aren't violent, and do not get spooked by humans since they dont have the instinct that we will hurt them.  I always preface this trip that anyone goes on by saying this because theres just no reason at all to be scared if you see one.  Just be smart - keep your distance, and try not to spook them.  In very rare circumstances, they might bluff charge at someone. meaning stomp their feet towards you, or clack their teeth loudly. this is ONLY been when people try to approach them. So If you do, just stop and observe, we've watched them so many times and they could care less about us.  Keep talking loudly, let them know you are there. We usually say "Hi Bear! how are you! we're just passing through and going to walk slowly, we dont want to spook you". haha. it feels a little funny but its kind of cool, just seeing how they really just ignore you and go on with their day.  They move along quickly and if you just wait it out, they'll be gone before you know it.  Its honestly no different than seeing a deer.  We have seen cubs climb into the trees (they will do that for safety if they are scared seeing people), and have even seen this from the car on skyline dr.  Very cool thing to witness! :) 

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Wildlife - we've seen a lot there.  every animal is friendly and keeps its distance.  bears, deer, woodpeckers, lots of rare birds, squirrels, etc.  Its fun to try to spot them :)  a LOT of wildlife appears on skyline drive, so keep your eyes peeled.  If you are early risers, get out early.  We've done hikes at sunrise and we often will see some cool wildlife eating along the trail in the middle of the woods and there are less people too. Bonus is that you're going mid-week so you probably wont have to worry about it being TOO busy, although summer there is busy no matter what. Its very popular. 

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TRAILS! .........

 

Ok here is my list of trails that I think you might like near Skyland and Big Meadow.  THERE ARE SO MANY MORE TRAILS NOT IN THIS GUIDE THAT RUN THE ENTIRE 100 MILES OF THE PARK! But if you stay in the center at either lodge or campground, this is a great guide for your first trip to the park.   I have a trail guide book I'm copying some of this info from, but I've done EVERY one of these hikes, some of them several times. There are a few hikes I am going to skip on this list that I would probably recommend if you wanted longer difficult hikes, so I'm keeping the list pretty tailored to what I think majority of people would be able to handle and really enjoy! These all have at least one the following ... #1 has a great summit, #2 is flat and really easy,  #3 has an amazing waterfall.  

 

Easy to get to them by following the mile marker :) 

 

1.  Stony Man Trail - Skyline Drive Mile 41.7 *THIS IS AT SKYLAND PARKING LOT*

-  total distance 1.4 miles, out and back (not a loop), approx hiking time 1 hr

-  this trail is fairly easy, an increase of 350 ft of elevation, so its not too vertical, should be easy to do with the baby on your back. 

-  to access the trail its really easy from Skyland, its walking distance from the resort, or you can drive over to the parking lot at the trailhead (you can ask at the front desk to point you to the correct lot).  From the Stony Man parking area, access the Appalachain Trail at the cement post, follow the trail right.  At 0.4 mile, the AT reaches the Stony Man Horse Trail, which branches off to the left from the AT at a cement post, go toward the left on the blue-blazed (marked on the trees) which is Stony Main Trail.  At 0.5 mile the trail forks, either way will take you to the summit, because that Y is a small loop. Follow signs on cement posts. 

- at the summit, take your time and really enjoy the view.  Its a rocky outcropped area and lots of people are usually there trying to get to the edge. its a really great view, and second highest mountain in the park. Look for falcons, they usually nest around there and you'll see them flying around just off the cliffs. 

- to return, just follow the way you came back up 

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2. Limberlost - Skyline Drive Mile 43, turn east at the Limberlost Trail sign and park in the parking lot 

- total distance 1.3 miles via a loop, approx hiking time 45 mins to 1 hr 

- EASIEST hike in the park because its actually completely FLAT the entire way through, they even have benches along the way. its a good one to bring a backpack and have a snack along the way. there's not a lot to see in terms of summit or waterfalls, its just a nice "stroll" hike. 

- I was told that the mountain laurel flowers bloom in june and are REALLY plentiful on this trail. apparently they really line this trail and are really a beautiful thing to see when all are in bloom.

-  it was once lined by ancient hemlock trees, 400 years old, but an exotic insect pest wreaked havoc on them and most died. you can see them laying on the forest ground as you walk this loop. this trail also has some of the oldest and largest red spruce trees, some as old as 250 years old. one of them stands alone by a small stream on the walk. 

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3. Dark Hollow Falls - Skyline Drive Mile 50.7 (right before you get to Big Meadow) 

- Total distance 1.4 miles, out and back (not a loop), total elevation gain/loss is 440 feet 

-  ALL DOWNHILL on the way in, and ALL UPHILL on the way back. So plan to take extra time coming back up. Bring snacks, rest along the way. 

-  The bottom of this trail is the base of an amazing waterfall

-  This is a really popular trail, I suggest doing it early in the morning before it gets really busy with people all over the trail and taking up the good view at the bottom of the falls haha 

-  To access the trail, just pull into the parking lot at mile 50.7 , you'll see a sign for dark hollow falls 

-  At mile 0.6 there is an overlook of the top of the falls looking down to the bottom, you have to go off the path a few feet but you'll see people stomped down a way through. be careful, no railings :)  the rocks can be wet and slippery so just use caution.  from there continue down switchbacks to the bottom. 

- take your shoes off and walk through the water at the base of the waterfall, its freezing but feels so good! :) get lots of pics here!!  

(some people even wear bathing suits!) 

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4.  Rapidan Camp 

This is really interesting, but its a far hike to get to the camp. However, I believe they run a bus back here through the fire road to bring tours, you could ask about it if you're interested. Rapidan camp was president Herbert Hoover's camp, he used to come there from washington DC for working vacations while he was president. one of the camps was restored and you can go in for a tour.  The hike from skyline to the camp is gorgeous with a waterfall halfway there, but might be long. Its a total of four miles and probably would take about 3-4 hours.  Maybe ask about the tour to the camp without hiking it.  If you are interested in hiking it, you'd go to mile 52.8 and pull into the Milam Gap parking lot, cross the street, go about 40 yards on the AT, turn left onto Mill Prong Trail, at mile 1.5 you'll come to Big Rock Falls (really cool), and continue another .5 miles from there to the camp.  Then return, retrace your steps back out (2 miles in, 2 miles out).   Its not extreme on the incline/decline though that I remember (we did this one a few yrs ago).  

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5.  Hawksbill Summit

Another great summit similar to Stony Man, if you want a little more challenge ,and an amazing view at the top with a lookout deck, is Hawksbill. Its the highest point in the park.  Its about double the distance of Stony Man Trail though. 

- to access, go to mile 45.6, hawksbill gap parking area (there is upper hawksbill and lower hawksbill) the upper lot is out and back, no loop, and shorter than the lower. 

- total distance 2.8 miles , approx 2-3 hrs 

- total elevation gain/loss 800 ft 

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BONUS TINY HIKE! 

- there is a great summit right from the big meadows parking lot, its barely a trail because it will take you about 5-10 mins to hike to the summit.  from the parking lot, go to the far end away from the lodge/lobby (if looking at the big meadows lobby door, walk to your left, past the playground and cabins).  After the cabins there, you'll see a small trail that goes upwards. Its a short climb and in 5 mins you'll be at the summit. this is a great place to watch the sunset quick and easily, faces west :) Or just a nice daytime stroll to another summit point. Good place for a picnic at the top (big rocky area you can sit and enjoy the view and have lunch/snacks) 

This is also a great place to stargaze at night because you could walk from Big Meadows lodge with a headlamp to the peak.

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THINGS TO DO OTHER THAN TRAILS.... 

- Stroll through Big Meadow (the actual meadow) - there's a parking lot there 

- Go check out the view from the porch at Big Meadow Lodge (walk THROUGH the lobby and restaurant, its open to public to sit on the chairs and lookout areas) 

- Restaurants inside Skyland and Big Meadow

- Live Music at night inside Skyland and Big Meadow 

- get coffee at the shop inside Skyland and hang out on the big patio at the tables, enjoy the view 

- shop in the gift shops (skyland has a great one) 

- go to the diner next to big meadow visitors center for breakfast 

- check out the visitors center and talk to rangers 

- talk to hikers on the trails! 


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IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS, THE PEOPLE WHO WORK AT SKYLAND,BIG MEADOWS OR VISITORS CENTER ARE SOOOO HELPFUL!!!! AND DON'T STRESS ABOUT BEING "OFF THE GRID" OR STUCK IN THE PARK WITHOUT EASY ACCESS TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD, THERE ARE FIRE ROADS TO EXIT THE PARK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, AS WELL AS FOUR MAIN EXITS YOU COULD GET TO THE MAIN RAODS WITHIN AN HOUR :) HAVE A GREAT TIME! GET AWAY AND FORGET ABOUT LIFE'S WORRIES & ENJOY EACH OTHERS COMPANY :) 


MORE PHOTOS TO SHARE! ENJOY!! 

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