The highly-underrated Shenandoah National Park, nestled into the Virginia valley of the same name, houses some of Appalachia’s best scenery and misunderstood history.
A short drive from Harrisonburg, VA, Shenandoah is bursting with picture-perfect Blue Ridge scenery, bustling waterfalls, woodlands, and the patchwork of Appalachian displacement, resurgence, and parkhood. Here, 200,000 acres of protected lands also house plentiful wildlife and over 500 miles of hiking trails.
There’s a lot to explore, so we’re breaking down the top 10 must-know facts to prepare you for a Shenandoah excursion. Let’s get to it!
Ask a local, and they’ll tell you: there is no true set origin for the name of Shenandoah. The majority of theories do, however, point to Indigenous American origin.
One theory points to an Algonquian name, schind-han-do-wi, of which the literal translation may mean “spruce stream,” “great plains,” or “beautiful daughter of the stars.” Native American etymologists also point to “Schin-han-dowi,” or “River Through the Spruces”; On-an-da-goa, the “River of High Mountains” and an Iroquois word for “Big Meadow” as possible origins.
One thing we do know for certain, though, is that history refers to the name Shenandoah most prominently via John Skenandoa, or Chief Shenandoah, a “hero of the War for Independence, wampum keeper of the Nation and the inaugurator of government-to-government agreements.”
Whether the Virginia valley and river of the same name were given the chief’s name, however, is unknown. But the park itself does derive its name from the valley in which it is based.
9. Shenandoah National Park is Great for Chasing Waterfalls
As the park asks, “Who doesn’t love a waterfall?” An avid waterfall chaser myself, I can confirm that Shenandoah is an excellent place to find falls of all kinds. Numerous small cascades along mountain streams, but the real prize of the park are the large waterfalls in every district of the national park.
Each holds unique features, beauty and personality. The best park? All are accessible from parking spots along the famous Skyline Drive. You will, however, have to hike downhill to reach them (then up & out), but this is par-for-the-course when it comes to waterfall chasing.
Popular waterfalls to experience in the park include Browns Gap, Dark Hollow Falls, Doyles River Falls, South River Falls, and Overall Run Falls – the highest in the park at 93-feet.
8. The Appalachian Trail Runs Through
If you know, you know. But if you didn’t, now you do! The Appalachian Trail runs for 101 miles through Shenandoah National Park. As it does, it traces the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge mountains. At many sections, the trail follows the same route as Skyline Drive, crossing the road at numerous points.
The 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail’s public path travels some of America’s most beloved and resonant lands, and the section in Shenandoah is no exception. 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.
7. Don’t Miss Big Meadows
Sitting like a mixture of Great Smoky Mountain National Park‘s Cades Cove and the TN/NC border’s Max Patch, this high-elevation meadow often surprises first-time visitors. Coming out of miles of lush, green forests that cover the majority of Shenandoah, Big Meadows is essential habitat for the park’s flora and fauna.
It’s also gorgeous, and the perfect hub for Shenandoah excursions. Visitor centers, lodging, camping, and picnic areas are all nearby. But it’s the numerous trailheads that 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.
At night, Big Meadows is also an excellent place to stargaze, as it’s far away from light pollution.
6. Don’t Miss Skyland, Either
Looking to relax for a nice dinner coupled with fantastic views of Shenandoah Valley? One of the oldest and most historic resorts in any national park, Skyline is the place for both alongside lodging, ranger programs, and more.
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. So come for the food and views, and stay for the Massanutten Lodge’s rustic history, Skyland Amphitheater’s top-notch ranger programs, the Skyland Taproom and Gift Shop, and the Skyland Stables: Guided Horseback Rides.
5. The Displaced: Shenandoah’s Checkered Appalachian History
Spend enough time in Shenandoah National Park, and you’ll certainly come across the remains of homesteads, villages, and towns of a bygone era.
In the early 20th century, the creation of the park required the removal of the descendants of Anglo-Saxon settlers; Blue Ridge residents that had made a life in the Shenandoah Valley for hundreds of years. Stereotypes of the time painted these residents as isolated, abhorrent “hill billies,” a stereotype that persists to this day.
But the history of these residents is far more fascinating and complex. If you’re interested in where and why certain historic cabins remain in the park, and others were stripped away, the National Park Service has a fascinating article on Shenandoah’s history here.
4. Shenandoah Requires an Entrance Pass
It comes as a shock to many, so we wanted to be sure to place this on our list. Unlike Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you must pay to enter Shenandoah.
Thankfully, you can buy your entrance pass online before visiting the park, and a basic pass isn’t too expensive at $15. This adds up real quickly, however, if you plan on bringing the family. Especially when you add in the $30 “Private vehicle fee.”
Individual passes are good for 7 days, at least. But if you plan on visiting a lot, we definitely recommend the $55 annual pass. And rest assured that all pass sales go directly toward park conservation and the people that make it happen.
3. Old Rag Mountain is a Shenandoah National Park Must
A ticket is now also required to hike the famous Old Rag, but don’t let that stop you if you’re wanting to embark on the finest excursion Shenandoah has to offer. 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, while rewarding, Old Rag is physically demanding – which is an understatement. And it is especially dangerous for the underprepared. “In order to ensure your safety and make the most out of your hike, be sure that you understand the basics of hiking safety,” the park asks.
And remember, if you’re visiting from March 1 – November 30, 2022, you’ll need to purchase a pass for Old Rag Mountain. This includes hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails, and is in addition to a park pass.
For more, check out our Shenandoah National Park: Why Old Rag Mountain Hikers Will Now Need a Permit.
2. Don’t Miss Skyline Drive
If there’s any drive to make in the Shenandoah area, it’s Skyline Drive. This absolutely stunning 105-mile (169 km) road runs the length of the park. While driving, you’ll take on the the ridge of the mountains, and the pull offs and viewpoints are absolutely astounding. Especially in autumn, which we’ll get to below.
The best part? Skyline Drive is unmissable, as it’s the only public road through the park. Plan for a good 3 hours if you’d like to drive it all. The drive is also open 24/7, weather permitting.
To drive to the scenic road, you can enter from the following points:
- 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
1. Fall in Shenandoah National Park is Perfection
And then there’s autumn. Fall is by far and away the best time to visit Shenandoah. Bursts of warm color is an understatement, as the park boasts some of the best fall foliage on the planet.
As the year cools back down, the local trees exchange green for vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows – attracting visitors from all around the world. Know that this means ample traffic – both foot and vehicle – so try to get to the park as early as possible.
Typically, fall begins in the Shenandoah Valley in late September, and shines brightest through October. November will still house some color, but most leaves will have fallen by this time. Average daytime temperatures range from 49°F to 60°F, so a light jacket with layers is perfect. This is Appalachia, however, so always check the weather to ensure it hasn’t swung drastically up or down.
Outsider will be back soon with more on this gorgeous Virginia staple. For now, check out our Shenandoah National Park Hiking: Best Views and Trails in the National Park next.