From the views along Skyline Drive to waterfall and mountain chasing, Shenandoah National Park offers fantastic Virginia excursions.
There is truly a ton to conquer in Shenandoah. So much so, in fact, that we’ve had to choose a lane to narrow down a Top 10 recommendations for the park. Shenandoah offers excellent ranger seminars, dining, lodging, museum exhibits, fishing, biking, and a whole lot more. But these perks aren’t what make the national park so exceptional. To experience what does, you’ve got to get out there and explore the heart of this Virginia gem.
Our Top 10 for Shenandoah National Park focuses on the best exploration-based excursions as a result. And if you didn’t want to visit this cousin of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before, you will after this. Let’s get to it!
10. Shenandoah’s Scenic Road: Skyline Drive
If there’s any drive to make in Virginia, it’s Skyline Drive. This phenomenal 105-mile road runs the length of the park, offering stunning Appalachian vistas throughout. To get to this scenic route, the following entry points are available:
- Front Royal Entrance Station (mile 0) by Rt. 66 and 340 in Front Royal, Virginia
- Thornton Gap Entrance Station (mile 31.5) by Rt. 211 near Luray, Virginia
- Swift Run Gap Entrance Station (mile 65.5) by Rt. 33 near Elkton, Virginia
- Rockfish Gap Entrance Station (mile 104.6) by Rt. 64 and Rt. 250
Once on Skyline, you’ll drive the ridge of the mountains, and the pull offs and viewpoints are plentiful and breathtaking. Here, the ancient beauty of the Appalachian Mountains is on full display; especially in autumn.
Skyline Drive is the only public road through the park, so it’s hard to miss if you’re heading to Shenandoah via GPS. But plan for a good 3 hours if you’d like to tackle the entirety of the drive. It’s also open 24/7.
9. Skyland Resort: Historic Heart of Shenandoah National Park
Looking for fantastic views of Shenandoah Valley while steeped in the park’s history? Skyland is it! This unique mountain resort is of the oldest and most historic in any U.S. national park. It’s here that you’ll find most of Shenandoah’s lodging, ranger programs, and dining, all of which are worth partaking in outside exploration. Here, you’ll find:
- Massanutten Lodge’s rustic history
- Skyland Amphitheater’s top-notch ranger programs
- Skyland Taproom and Gift Shop
- Skyland Stables: Guided Horseback Rides
It’s Skyland’s history – alongside gorgeous views and surrounding trails – that make it unmissable. Established in the 1890s, the historic resort actually predates Shenandoah National Park by half a century. It’s managed by the park today, and integrates perfectly into any trip.
8. Big Meadows: Shenandoah’s Secret World
A sort of mixture of Great Smoky Mountain National Park‘s Cades Cove and nearby Max Patch, Shenandoah’s Big Meadows is a high-elevation wonderland that often surprises first-time visitors.
Miles of lush, green forests cover the majority of Shenandoah, and you’ve got to travel through them to reach Big Meadows. Once you do, this beautiful secret meadow – and essential habitat for the park’s flora and fauna – provides an invigorating change of scenery.
Here, visitor centers, lodging, camping, and picnic areas are all abundant. The numerous trailheads, however, are what bring most to Big Meadows. For more on the best hikes, check out our Shenandoah National Park Hiking: Best Views and Trails in the National Park.
And if you’re looking to stargaze in Shenandoah National Park, Big Meadows is by far the best place to do so.
7. Hike the Shenandoah Section of the Appalachian Trail
Looking to tackle a portion of the Appalachian Trail? Shenandoah houses one of the most-traveled sections of the famous hike. Around 101 miles of the AT run through Shenandoah National Park, tracing the ridgeline of the Appalachian’s Blue Ridge mountains.
The 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail is a public path that travels some of America’s most beloved and resonant lands, with the Shenandoah section being an excellent example. If you plan to hike the national park’s portion alone, we recommend spring or fall, as summer is when the most “thru traffic” hits the trail.
In the park, you’ll soon notice thee trail follows the same route as Skyline Drive, too, and crosses the scenic road at numerous points, which makes it easy to find.
6. Waterfall Chasing: Whiteoak Falls, Upper & Lower
Looking for a bit more challenging and rewarding exploration in Shenandoah? The national park offers some of the best waterfalls chasing in Appalachia, with well over a dozen falls available.
The first we’ll highly recommend is the gorgeous Upper White Oak Falls. The trail leading up to them is moderate, and has been popular since before Shenandoah was a national park.
Distance: 4.6-mile round trip hike
Difficulty: Moderate (See NPS hiking difficulty scale here)
Hiking Time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Elevation Gain: 1,040 feet
Take to the trailhead at Whiteoak Canyon Parking Area (mile 42.6), then look for the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. From there, it’s 2.3 miles up to Upper Falls, then you’ll travel the same path back down.
For an easier hike with unique scenery, take to the beautiful cascades of Lower falls in Whiteoak Canyon:
Distance: 2-mile round trip hike
Difficulty: Easiest (hiking difficulty scale)
Hiking Time: 1 hours 30 minutes
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
For this trail, also head to the Whiteoak Canyon Parking Area at the park boundary, then begin on Whiteoak Canyon Trail and keep right at the intersection with Cedar Run Trail. In about half a mile, you’ll cross a small stream and continue to the base of Lower Whiteoak Falls. This trail also returns by the same route.
5. Waterfall Chasing: Dark Hollow Falls
- Length: 1.4-mile out-and-back
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation: 564 ft
- Hiking time: 1+ hour
Dark Hollows Falls is as unique as its name, and offers one of the most stunning waterfalls in the region. The Dark Hollows Falls Trail is, by comparison to our other picks, a fairly quick hike that takes you to several ethereal waterfalls without having to hike out of a steep ravine.
We highly recommend hitting this trail in the same day trip as one of the falls above, as it’s an easy tag-on that brings phenomenal Appalachian ambiance without using up your energy for the day.
4. Waterfall Chasing: South River Falls
- Length: 4.6-mile out-and-back
- Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
- Elevation: 1,272 ft
- Hiking time: 2+ hours
Another spectacular Shenandoah waterfall, South River Falls is located near Elkton, Virginia. The South River Falls Trail is your route to this gorgeous falls, but keep in mind that the park considers it to be for more experienced hikers.
Here, an impressive change in elevation makes for most of the challenge. Jagged geology and fascinating rock features abound on your way to South River Falls, which flows with larger-than-life mass in summer.
Please note that you will travel deep down into a Shenandoah canyon to see this waterfall – which means a steep climb back out. But it is beyond worth it.
3. Summit Shenandoah’s Best Mountains: Bearfence Mountain
Pets are allowed on some hikes in Shenandoah, but not here. And once you tackle it, you’ll see why. Bearfence is a truly exhilarating rock scramble, one that has you climbing magnificent ancient Appalachian rocks that used to be the heart of a mountain older than our continent itself.
Distance: 1.4-mile round trip hike
Hiking Time: 1 hour
Elevation Gain: 311 feet
Once at the top, a magnificent 360-degree view of the Virginia Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley greets you. So if you have even a minor fear of heights, Shenandoah’s open mountaintops may not be for you. But if you love a birds-eye view, definitely hit up this underrated trail.
To get to the relatively short trail, head for the Bearfence parking area (mile 56.4), then cross Skyline Drive and climb the stairs up the bank. This will take you to Bearfence Loop Trail, where you’ll begin rock scrambling straight away to the top.
2. Shenandoah National Park’s Old Rag Mountain
Firstly, a ticket is now required to hike the famous Old Rag, but don’t let that stop you. This is, without a doubt, one of the finest excursion Shenandoah has to offer, and while it produces amazing photos – they never do it justice.
Here, adventurous rock scrambles and 360-degree views make this one of the best Appalachian hikes, and you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world by the end of it.
But please keep in mind that Old Rag is physically demanding. It can be especially dangerous for the underprepared,too. “In order to ensure your safety and make the most out of your hike, be sure that you understand the basics of hiking safety,” Shenandoah asks.
And remember, if you’re visiting from March 1 – November 30, 2022, you’ll need to purchase that pass to hike Old Rag Mountain in addition to a park pass. For more, check out our Shenandoah National Park: Why Old Rag Mountain Hikers Will Now Need a Permit.
1. Shenandoah National Park’s Highest Peak: Hawksbill Summit
Old Rag is certainly the most famous destination in Shenandoah. But if you’re looking for the ultimate Shenandoah excursion, the lesser-traveled Hawksbill Summit is it. There are two options available, but both lead to the national park’s highest peak and offer magnificent 360-degree view of the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Virginia Piedmont.
Distance: 2.9-mile circuit hike
Hiking Time: 2 hour
Elevation Gain: 860 feet
To tackle the full Hawksbill Summit Circuit Trail, head for the north end of the Hawksbill Gap Parking Area (mile 45.5), then take the short connector trail to the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). At the marked trail post, turn left onto the A.T. south.
Then, continue on the A.T. south to the trail post indicating the Salamander Trail. Go left onto the blue-blazed Salamander Trail. At the next trail junction, turn left onto the Upper Hawksbill Trail. Be sure to take the short trail past the shelter to the viewing platform.
There is also a shorter, more direct – but far steeper – route to Shenandoah’s towering peak.
Distance: 1.7-mile round trip hike
Difficulty: Moderate (hiking difficulty scale)
Hiking Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Elevation Gain: 690 feet
To tackle it (which is far less strenuous than Old Rag), take to the Hawksbill Gap Parking Area (mile 45.5), then take the Lower Hawksbill Trail to the Byrds Nest 2 Shelter. Follow the trail to the viewing platform, then retrace your steps to return to your starting point.
For more on this incredible Virginia park ahead of your excursion, see our Top 10 Things to Know About Shenandoah National Park: PHOTOS next.