Explore the weathered rolling hills and knolls of the Piedmont of Virginia at 75 viewpoints and along 500 miles of trails in Shenandoah National Park. The park spans a 300-square-mile area that straddles the Blue Ridge Mountains and is part of the larger Appalachian Mountains that stretch from Maine to Georgia. This area reaches elevations of 3,500 feet. One of the densest populations of black bears in the United States reside in the park. Other abundant animals include white-tailed deer, bobcats, brown bats, bald eagles, reptiles and rare salamanders.
The park is home to 1,300 species of plants, among them bellwort, toothwort, orchids, ginger, violets and many more. See mountain laurel bloom in spring and early summer. Trees cover 95% of the park: there is no shortage of oak, hickory, pine, maple, chestnut and birch. Check out budding spring blossoms, leafy summer canopies and polychromatic fall foliage.
Piedmont region, forests, mountains, black bear and white-tailed deer, waterfalls, watering holes
The park sees a range of weather from snowy winters to wet springs and summer/fall thunderstorms. Temperatures tend to be 10 degrees cooler on the ridge than in the valley, with averages of 60 to 80 F in summer and 10 to 40 F in winter. Fall is peak season due to the foliage, but summer is a glorious time to soak in all the flora and rolling hills the park has to offer.
6 Must-Do’s in Shenandoah National Park
Watering Holes: Big Rock Falls, Moormans River, Whiteoak Canyon, Hughes River
Scenic Drive:105-mile Skyline Drive along the ridge
Wildlife: Dense populations of black bears
Fall Foliage: Visit during September and October to see vibrant prismatic foliage
Appalachian Trail (AT): 101 miles of this 2,200-mile trail transect the park
Family Stops: Picnic areas, waterfalls, family hikes aplenty
Shenandoah National Park Campgrounds
There are four campgrounds in the park, ranging from $15 to $20 a night. All campgrounds are seasonal, running from spring through fall; check the website for updates as opening dates can vary each year. Some have availability in winter. All four campgrounds are first-come, first-served, but three also take reservations at recreation.gov.
Dundo is a group-only campground and is by reservation only. Reservations are highly recommended (and can be made up to six months in advance) for campgrounds, especially during fall or on weekends/holidays.
Familiarize yourself with campground regulations. Showers and laundry facilities are coin-operated. Stays are capped at 14 consecutive days in peak season (summer) and 30 days in early spring/later fall. Campgrounds and trails are noted by the mile number on the 105-mile Skyline Drive.
Mathews Arm Campground (Mile 22.1)
Amenities: flush toilets, fire pit, grill, table and potable water. Nearest showers/laundry area is at Big Meadows Campground.
Why this campground? Explore some of the geologic trails in the northern part of the park. Elkwallow Wayside is located two miles away and has camping supplies and food service.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Take the Traces Trail in a 1.7-mile loop around the campground that passes old homesteads. Go for a more strenuous 6.5-mile hike to Overall Run Falls (93-foot tall waterfall, great views and a swimming hole).
Three easier trails start at Mile 4.6: Fox Hollow Nature (2 miles, old cemetery and homestead), Dickey Ridge (2.7 miles, small stream and fields), and Snead Farm (1.4 miles, gravel fire road to old farm and orchard). Hike up Fort Windham Rocks Trail (easy, 0.8 mile) to the AT and observe 700 million-year-old rocks (lava formations).
Hidden Treasure: There are a dozen overlooks to pull over and bask in serene views from the Front Royal Entrance (northern most) southward en route to this campground; be sure to drive a bit more to Mile 35.5 for Pinnacles Overlook to view Old Rag Mountain. At Gravel Springs Gap, Big Devil Stairs is a lesser known trail (moderate, 5.5 miles), to two overlooks of the gorge and valley.
Big Meadows Campground (Mile 51.2)
What you need to know: This campground has 217 sites (including RV, no hookups) and is available by reservation and as first-come, first-served.
Amenities: flush toilets, fire pit, grill, showers, laundry, store, potable water, firewood and ice and group sites. Generator use is limited to certain areas. Group sites can be booked a year in advance (see map with red reservable spots).
Why this campground? Big Meadows is close to centrally located trails, three waterfalls and the largest meadow in the park. The campground has full amenities and is near a lodge and dining room.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Easier hikes: at Mile 39, hike 2-mile (1000-foot climb) Stony Man or 0.9-mile Little Man Cliffs for expansive views of forests. Check out the highest point in the park (Mile 41.7) near Skyland Resort (3,680 feet) via an easy 1.6-mile Stony Man Nature Trail. Hike the highest peak in the park at Miles 45.6 and 46.7 (Hawksbill Mountain, 4,050 feet, a moderate 2.1-mile hike).
Want to see waterfalls? Try: the short but strenuous Dark Hollow Falls (Mile 50.7, 1.4 miles), moderate Rose River Falls (Mile 49.4, 4 miles, past four cascades) or near the Big Meadows picnic area, moderate Lewis Falls Trail (Mile 51.4, 2 to 3 miles) for a view of an 81-foot waterfall.
Hidden Treasure: Lose yourself among accessible and easy winding trails through hemlock forests, mountain laurel groves, homesteads, bird habitats and wetlands, to emerge over a canyon on the Limberlost Trail (Mile 43, 1.3 miles). Also, wander Big Meadows near the Byrd Visitor Center (Mile 51) at sunrise or sunset to experience the quietude: berries, salamanders, wetland, deer and black bear.
Lewis Mountain Campground (Mile 57.5)
What you need to know: This campground is first-come, first-served only and has 31 sites.
Amenities: flush toilets, fire/grill, table, showers, laundry, firewood, ice, store and potable water. Through-hikers from the AT tend to camp here.
Why this campground? A little over midway through the park, this campground is the smallest and quietest, offering more privacy, with reservable rustic cabin options.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Take a ranger-led tour to Rapidan Camp (Mile 62.8) or the moderate/strenuous trail down past Big Rock Falls to the river retreat of former President Hoover. Up for a scramble? Try Bearfence (Mile 56.4, 1 mile) for a hands-on climb to splendid views. If you want to take an easier route, hike along the AT in this area for similar views.
Hidden Treasure: View spectacular 83-foot South River Falls at Mile 62.8 via a moderate 2.6-mile hike.
Loft Mountain Campground (Mile 79.5)
What you need to know: This campground has 45 tent sites, 167 RV sites, and is available by reservation and as first-come, first-served.
Amenities: flush toilets, fire/grill, showers, laundry, firewood, store and potable water. See map with red reservable spots.
Why this campground? Loft Mountain is the largest campground in the park, sitting high on Big Flat Mountain with panoramic views west and east. Nearby sit trails to two waterfalls and the Big Run Wilderness.
Family-Friendly Hikes and Activities: Easier trails include Deadening Nature Trail (Mile 79.4, 1.3 miles) to a viewpoint on Loft Mountain or Blackrock Summit (Mile 84.8, 0.8 mile) for rock outcroppings and yet more stunning views.
Hidden Treasure: Another waterfall awaits you in the southern part of the park: 42-foot Jones Run Falls is a moderate 3.4-mile hike (Mile 84.1, 1,000-foot climb). Sit on a flat rock, surrounded by moss and thick green forest while mist kisses your face.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir
Shenandoah National Park Backcountry Camping
Shenandoah is home to 196,000 miles of backcountry, with over 500 miles of trails. Permits are free but required; know your itinerary before obtaining one at a visitor center. Permits can also be mailed ahead of time. Download suggested trips.
One of the more strenuous hikes in the park includes Old Rag (at park boundary, with granite scrambles, and 100-mile views on the 8-mile loop), but this trail can see thousands of visitors on a weekend and is wearing down. Try an alternative: Meadow School Trail or Powell Mountain Trail.
Hike Whiteoak Canyon to see six cascades or Riprap Hollow Trail (Mile 90), a long loop hike with views and a swimming hole—the first few miles of the trail are doable for families, with stops at the first and second waterfalls. And of course, 100 miles of the AT await you in Shenandoah.
Exciting Sites & Scenic Drives Near Shenandoah National Park
The southern part of the Blue Ridge Parkway meets the 105-mile Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap, VA and is marked with mileposts. In fall, the numerous picnic areas complete with grills and tables along the route host a spectrum of foliage colors. Be prepared for a leisurely 35 to 45 mph drive through the heart of the park without the distractions of highways: forests, waterfalls and viewpoints galore.
Insider Tips for Visiting Shenandoah National Park
There are four entrances along Skyline Drive. Nearest cities include Washington, D.C. (70 miles to Front Royal Entrance, 81 miles to Thornton Gap Entrance), and Richmond, VA (90 miles to Rockfish Gap Entrance and 95 miles to Swift Run Gap Entrance).
There are two visitor centers open year-round. Locations (trails, campgrounds, viewpoints, etc.) are conveniently noted in guides and on maps by the posted mile along Skyline Drive making them easier to spot (mile marker one starts in the northern part of the park).
The busiest season is fall, and some trailheads and campgrounds fill daily. Do not speed or stop on the road; wait for a pullout or viewpoint/parking area. Cell coverage is hit and miss. Always check on road conditions before setting out.
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK CAMPERS BEWARE:
Inclement weather (hail, thunderstorms, snow, fog) could pop up at any time and may result in road closures.
Shenandoah is bear country, home to between 300 to 500 bears, one of the densest populations in the United States. Come prepared, and store food properly.
Check for ticks.