Shenandoah National Park Hiking: Best Views and Trails in the National Park

by Amy Myers
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With over 500 miles of hiking trails, Shenandoah National Park has some of the best vistas in Appalachia, where lush forested areas meet rocky cliffs and mesmerizing waterfalls. Shenandoah is a popular destination for backpackers and hikers, especially since the Appalachian Trail winds through the park. With plenty of campsites and picnic areas, it’s easy to spend a day or a weekend in Virginia’s wildest parts.

Encompassing part of the Blue Ridge mountains and much of this hiker’s own heart, Shenandoah National Park is the perfect destination for first-time adventures, families and pros alike. During the spring and summer, you’re almost guaranteed to see some wildlife. In the fall, you get some spectacularly colorful views of the mountains, covered in vibrant auburn and gold. And in the winter, you can experience the stillness and tranquility of a slumbering world.

As an East Coaster and frequent Shenandoah National Park visitor, I may be biased about the views, but between summits, waters and wildlife, the oasis will find its way into your heart, too.

Of course, like all of our national parks, there are dozens of prime hiking trails at Shenandoah, but some views are just too good to miss. So, to help you plan the best hiking or backpacking trip, here are a few handpicked trails that put you front and center of Shenandoah’s most picturesque regions.

Shenandoah Trails with Picture-Perfect Views

  • South River Falls to South River Fire Road
  • Dark Hollow Falls Trail
  • Calf Mountain Trail
  • Limberlost Trail
  • Old Rag Mountain Loop
  • Hawksbill Loop

Waterfront Hiking Trails at Shenandoah National Park

South River Falls to South River Fire Road

  • Length: 4.6-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
  • Elevation: 1,272 ft

Located near Elkton, Virginia, the South River Falls trail is typically for the more experienced hikers. With an impressive change in elevation, it’s crucial to have a trusty pair of boots strapped to your feet, but the cardio is worth the effort. Through the jagged rock structures appears a larger-than-life waterfall that during the summer can provide the perfect spot to cool down. The trail takes about two hours to complete if you don’t end up stopping at the falls. But once you’re there, you won’t be able to resist dipping your toes in the cool waters.

Once you take a moment at the waterfall, be sure to hydrate before continuing on your merry way. As steep as the decline felt coming down the trail, it’s even more taxing on the way back up.

Dark Hollow Falls Trail

  • Length: 1.4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation: 564 ft

Dark Hollows is a fairly quick trail that will take you to more magical waterfalls without breaking too much of a sweat. This might be the ideal trail for hikers that aren’t as familiar with the rocky trails of Shenandoah National Park. There are still plenty of opportunities for photos, but you won’t have to worry about a massive uphill on the way back like you would with South River Falls. Although, if this is the only trail you’re taking through Shenandoah, your trip might only be a half-hour to an hour long.

As when visiting all waterfront trails, be sure to watch your step around the rocks. The area gets especially slippery once you add a bit of summer moss to the mix.

Summit-Central Shenandoah Hiking Trails

Old Rag Mountain Loop

  • Length: 9.5-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation: 2,683 ft

The Old Rag Mountain Trail is easily one of the top three hardest hiking trails in all of Shenandoah National Park. Before you read the trail length and freak out, though, remember that the trail is a loop. So, you’ll actually reach the summit before you hit mile four. The rest of the way is all downhill.

Now, about that incline.

Yes, Old Rag Mountain Loop has a serious elevation change, but let me paint you a picture:

You’ve woken up before the sun and parked at the trailhead just before the sky begins to lighten. With your headlamp on, you trek through the trees and sip from your Camelbak, thighs burning and heart pumping. As you climb, you can start to see more of the sky, turning a more vibrant pink with each step you take. Then, finally, you round the final bend of the trail to see the sign marking the summit. And as you reach the overlook, you take in the vast expanse of Shenandoah National Park, the sun casting a glow on the peaks.

All that effort was that glorious view.

Before you make your trip up Old Rag Mountain, be sure you get the day-use ticket.

Hawksbill Loop

  • Length: 2.7-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation: 748 ft

While Old Rag Mountain has one of the hardest trails in the park, at 4,051 feet, Hawksbill Mountain is the tallest mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Thankfully, Hawksbill Loop isn’t nearly as strenuous as Old Rag Mountain Loop. In fact, if you’ve already completed the former hike, Hawksbill Loop seems like a leisurely stroll.

Hawksbill still has those amazing summit views with an added bonus. Some conveniently placed, flat-top boulders make the perfect benches for gazing at the horizon or sharing a picnic. It’s almost as if the mountains are inviting you to share in their beauty.

Family-Friendly Hiking Trails at Shenandoah National Park

Calf Mountain Trail

  • Length: 2.7-mile out-and-back trail
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation: 610 feet

If you have some especially high-energy tots in your group, you might want to check out Calf Mountain Trail. Located near Greenwood, Va., the Calf Mountain trail has a lazy incline that ebbs and flows like a gentle wave. The highest point is at the trail’s end where you’ll find a sign that marks the summit of Calf Mountain. It’s a great accomplishment for young ones, and with surrounding meadows, there are great opportunities for your next family Christmas card photo. There are also a couple of picnic tables nearby for snack time.

The whole trip will take you about an hour and a half to complete without stopping at the summit. That means you’ll have plenty of time to take breaks, enjoy the view and maybe even frolic around the meadow before heading back home for a well-deserved nap.

Limberlost Trail

  • Length: 1.3-mile loop
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation: 98 feet

Limberlost Trail is the ideal route in Shenandoah National Park for families hiking with a stroller. The majority of the path is paved or packed down and flat. It’s easy on your feet and suitable for a quick run or stroll if you’re looking for a short visit to the national park. Only 1.3 miles long, the trail is extremely easy to complete, no matter what your experience or ability level.

But, be warned, this is one of the most popular trails for families to travel, especially when the weather’s nice. If you plan on venturing on this path, try to pick a time early in the morning or towards sunset so that you don’t feel overcrowded on the bridges. There are also quite a few remarkable rock formations along the way, so if you have any little climbers in your crew, they’ll have a blast on this trail.

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