A Guide to Shenandoah National Park
By Victoria Godwin, Girls Who Hike Tennessee Ambassador
Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935 as desire for an Eastern national park grew. In its dedication ceremony, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park "for the recreation and for the re-creation which we shall find here,” a nod to the fact that this land, once inhabited, would be returned to nature. Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is perhaps best known for its 105-mile long Skyline Drive, a spectacular scenic drive that showcases the surrounding mountains and valleys as it winds along the ridgeline. But to really explore the park’s diverse features, one must step out of the car. SNP has a plethora of things that will delight any visitor, ranging from hikes with vistas and waterfalls, to interesting natural and cultural history, to wildlife sightings. In this guide, I have compiled a list of some of Shenandoah’s top features based on area of interest to help you enjoy the park as much as I do!
If you’re a history buff:
1. Visit Rapidan Camp.
Rapidan Camp, formerly Camp Hoover, was a mountain retreat used by President Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover. Visit President Hoover’s favorite trout fishing spots and learn about Lou Henry Hoover’s involvement with the Girl Scouts as you tour three of the old buildings. You can take a $10 shuttle down to the camp with a ranger, or you can take a 4-mile RT hike via the Mill Prong Trail (MP 52.8). Volunteer guides are often available in the summer.
2. Tour Addie Hunter Pollack’s Massanutten Lodge.
Addie was the spunky wife of George Pollack, the original owner of Skyland Resort, who had her own mountain retreat in the early 1900s. The lodge was quite advanced for the time with running hot water and eventually electricity. The lodge now features an exhibit on some of the women who, like Addie, were drawn to the area. Park interpreters are on hand during certain hours.
3. Hike the “Dickey Ridge Loop.”
This hike across from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center combines the Fox Hollow and Snead Farm Loop Trails for a 5.3-mile hike that gives you a glimpse of what life was like for the original residents of the area. Pay your respects at the Fox family cemetery, see the Snead family barn, and catch glimpses of the surrounding mountains.
4. Hike to the old Pocosin Mission site.
Visit the ruins of an old Episcopal mission via a 1.9-mile RT trail from a small parking area between MP 59 and 60. Leave artifacts as you find them!
If you love geology:
1. See columnar jointing at Compton’s Peak.
Have you ever seen photos of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and thought, “Wow, I wish I could see that!” Well Virginia has its own little version at Compton Peak! Columnar jointing is formed from lava flows that contract as they cool. Cracks begin to form that grow vertically, forming columns with typically 5 or 6 sides. This amazing formation can be accessed via a 2.4-mile RT hike starting at MP 10.4. Head south on the AT until the intersection and take the left trail. Be sure to visit the western viewpoint on the right as well for a glimpse of the Shenandoah River.
2. Find Stony Man’s profile in the mountains.
From the Stony Man Overlook parking area at MP 38.5, you can see what looks to be the profile of a man’s face carved into the side of a mountain. This unique feature was formed by several lava flows that have eroded over time. After checking out the profile, go stand on his forehead by taking an easy 1.6-mile RT hike from the Skyland Resort parking area. Extend your hike by continuing to “Little Stony Man” and adding the Passamaquoddy Trail.
3. Stand on top of ancient ocean at Blackrock Summit (MP 84.8).
An easy 1-mile circuit takes you to a spot with outstanding views as you hike through a boulder field. This talus slope was formed during the last Ice Age as the freezing and thawing of the ice caused the rocks to crack. If you look carefully you may find Skolithos, or the trace fossils of ancient Cambrian worms in the rocks. Guided hikes here are led by rangers during the summer.
If you love wildflowers:
The Limberlost Trail (MP 43 – ADA accessible), Turk Mountain (MP 94), and the Sugarloaf Loop (MP 22) are all prime spots for viewing the mountain laurel as it blooms throughout June. Exploring Big Meadows in the center of the park is also great for discovering various wildflowers such as Turk’s Gap Lily, milkweed, and meadow rose, along with several other national- and state-rare plant species. Shenandoah hosts a Wildflower Weekend in early May which is a great time to go see what’s blooming in the park.
If you love wildlife:
Simply get outside! Shenandoah is an excellent place for seeing wildlife ranging from white-tailed deer, to black bears, to owls, to the elusive bobcat. My personal favorite spot for birding is the Story of the Forest Trail next to the Byrd Visitor Center as the trail is fairly flat and not too full of roots. Big Meadows is also great for seeing deer, birds, and butterflies. Be sure to check out one of the wildlife-themed ranger programs at the visitor centers!
If you love waterfalls:
1. Dark Hollow Falls (MP 50.5).
One of the most popular hikes in the park, and for good reason. This short but steep 1.4-mile RT hike takes you to one of the most scenic waterfalls in the park. As you follow along the creek, see if you can spot any brook trout swimming in the pools.
2. Rose River Loop (MP 49.5).
Starting from the parking area next to Fishers Gap Overlook, this 4-mile moderate circuit has you walking alongside water for most of the hike, with numerous small falls and cascades in addition to the 67’ Rose River Falls. This is one of my favorite hikes to do on a cloudy, drizzly day. You can add an extra ¼ mile to your hike and visit Dark Hollow Falls as well! Be sure to stop and visit the Cave Cemetery on your way up the Rose River Fire Road.
3. Browns Gap Loop (MP 83).
This moderately strenuous 6.5-mile circuit takes you along a creek to 3 waterfalls, the Upper and Lower Doyles River Falls, and the Jones Run Falls. Bring lots of water as this trail is deceptively tough!
4. Cedar Run/Whiteoak Canyon Loop (MP 45.5).
This strenuous 7.3-mile circuit is a park classic, combining multiple waterfalls and cascades for a long day of pure fun. Starting at the Hawksbill Gap Parking area, it combines the Cedar Run Trail, Cedar Run Link Trail, Whiteoak Canyon Trail, Whiteoak Fire Road, and a horse trail. It can also be accessed via the Whiteoak Canyon Parking area on VA 600 outside the park. Swim at your own risk.
If you love rock scrambling:
1. Climb Old Rag.
Old Rag is another Virginia classic, with huge boulders to scramble on and views for days. The best way to access this trail is via the entrance off VA 600, but make sure to get there early as this trail gets crowded fast. Hike the 9.2-mile circuit clockwise, starting with the Ridge Trail to the rock scramble, the Saddle Trail, and then the Weakley Hollow Fire Road back to the parking area. This trail is very strenuous, but a whole lot of fun!
2. Climb Bearfence Mountain (MP 57.5).
This 1.2-mile circuit hike is considered the “warm up” to Old Rag and is a blast for kids and adults alike. The scrambling is moderate and provides 360-degree views of the mountains, which makes for a great sunrise or sunset hike. When you complete the scramble, hike back via the AT North.
If you love shorter hikes with an expansive view:
1. Hawksbill Mountain (MP 45.5).
At 4,050’, Hawksbill Mountain is the tallest point in the park, and is an excellent place to hang out with a book and a picnic lunch. There are several ways to climb this peak, but my favorite way is a 2.9-mile circuit that starts at the Hawksbill Gap Parking area (not to be confused with the Upper Hawksbill Parking). Head South on the Appalachian Trail until you reach a junction, then turn left onto the Salamander Trail. Continue straight on this trail all the way to the summit, enjoying sneak peaks of the view along the way. The rocky summit provides incredible 360-degree views of the surrounding valley as well as Old Rag. Head back down via the steep Lower Hawksbill Trail.
2. Hightop Mountain (MP 66.5).
Right next to the Swift Run Entrance Station, it is a wonder that this hike isn’t more popular. The hike follows the AT South for 1.5 miles up to the summit of Hightop Mountain. There are two viewpoint areas on your right; the first one has some limited views but the second rocky viewpoint shows off numerous rolling ridges that seem to stretch on forever. This is another great sunset hike as the trail is fairly smooth coming back down.
3. Mary’s Rock (MP 33.5 and Panorama parking area).
There are two ways to get to this popular summit, either from the AT South from the Panoroma parking area (3.7 miles RT), or from the Meadow Spring Trail and AT North from the Meadow Springs parking area (2.8 miles RT). At the summit, you’ll find a rock outcropping with a 180-degree view, which is a great place to sit and eat a picnic lunch or enjoy the sunset.
4. Riprap Trail to Chimney Rock (MP 90).
This hike is 3.4-mile RT which takes you out to the scenic Chimney Rock with an additional viewpoint along the way. To extend your hike, continue on to the Wildcat Ridge Trail and the AT North for a 9.8-mile circuit.
If you crave solitude:
1. Bear Church Rock.
I almost didn’t write about this hike because it’s one of Shenandoah’s best kept secrets. This 9.4-mile RT trail is moderate and takes you down a quiet trail to an overlook that will make you feel like you’re truly in the wilderness. Many of the park’s viewpoints overlook the valley, with views of surrounding towns nestled in the mountains. But at Bear Church Rock, all you see is mountains. No houses. No towns. Just wilderness. From the Bootens Gap parking area (MP 55), head north on the AT, then turn right on the Laurel Prong Trail. Keep straight at the next junction onto the Cat Knob Trail, then turn right onto the Jones Mountain Trail. The trail will eventually take a steep downhill down part of the ridge. After this, keep an eye out for a side trail on your left that will take you to Bear Church Rock. This is a great spot for a picnic!
2. Big Run Loop (MP 81).
This 5.8-mile RT moderately difficult circuit isn’t known for its views or water features but is the perfect hike if you’re wanting to get out and enjoy being in the woods while challenging yourself a bit, as the trail climbs some 1000 feet in 1.5 miles. The trail does cross through the Doyles River Overlook, which provides some nice vistas, but for the most part it is just quality forest hiking.
3. Hop on the Appalachian Trail.
The 101 miles of AT that run through Shenandoah National Park provide ample opportunities to hike along a section of trail. While some sections run alongside Skyline Drive, other sections make you feel like you’re in a whole new world. My personal favorite section is heading south from the Milam Gap parking area up to Hazeltop Mountain, but you really can’t go wrong whatever section you pick. Fair warning, throngs of AT thru-hikers come through May-July, so the off-season is best if you want more solitude.
As you can see, Shenandoah National Park offers so much for all different types of visitors! Consider giving back by packing out trash you find on the trails and help keep Shenandoah beautiful. Enjoy your trip!