Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.Anonymous
We went down to this National Park without any real expectations, but boy, did it blow our minds! I was reminded why some parks are given the name National Park. We were in Shenandoah for 2 full days, so we could only do a fraction of what the park actually has to offer, but here’s what we (partially) did.
Okay so, tiny introduction! Shenandoah NP is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, these begin a sharp, steady rise in north-central Virginia, part of the greater Appalachian Mountain chain. Stretching 70 miles north to south, Shenandoah National Park forms a long, narrow bulwark of the Blue Ridge between the Piedmont to the east and the Shenandoah Valley to the west.
I started from New York City, so it was quite a drive, it took us around 5-6 hours to get there, with a few coffee stops along the way (duh!). We saw the landscape changing as we were exiting the cities and the scenery became greener and more country-like.
We slept in the Big Meadows Campground, so we entered through the Thornton Gap entrance. We drove after dark, so we saw a lot of wildlife (but luckily no bears!). The campground is a well-equipped one, operated by the National Park Service, there were showers, flush toilets, you could do your laundry and there even was a store just before entering the campground.
What to do?
For many visitors, when they think about Shenandoah National Park, this road comes to their mind first, for them this is Shenandoah. It stays to the narrow rooftop of the park, from mile 0 at Front Royal, Virginia, to mile 105 at Rockfish Gap. Along the way, there are nearly 70 overlooks that look out on the Piedmont to the east and to the Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain to the west.
We drove back from the Big Meadows campground all the way to mile 0, Front Royal. The first few miles we stopped at every overlook, but after a while, we stopped wherever we felt like the vista was slightly different.
The drive is a perfect way to explore the park, it gives access to most trails and you keep on being amazed by the sweeping vistas.
Dark Hollow Falls
This trail is one of the most popular ones in the Shenandoah NP. It is a 1.4 mile out-and-back hike (2.2 km). There is a spacious parking at the trailhead at mile 50.7 of Skyline Drive. It is not a real strenuous hike, but it can become muddy at times, because you follow the stream down to the falls. The trail down has some steep sections and the hike up can be challenging. We visited on a weekday quite early in the morning, so we didn’t have a lot of other visitors around us. Which gave us a good time exploring and enjoying the falls.
When you go hiking, just don’t forget to bring water and your camera of course!
Stony Man Summit
Stony Man is the second highest peak of Shenandoah NP (4,011 feet high), the highest point is Hawksbill Mountain with 4,051 feet. Viewed from the north, Stony Man Mountain resembles the face of a bearded man. He appears to be reclining on the slope of the Blue Ridge, gazing out over the Shenandoah Valley to the west.
We started the trail (it was the shortest route btw) at the Skyland Resort. You start off on the Appalachian Trail and after a short 0.4 mile you come at an intersection. If you go straight ahead, you keep on following the Stony Man Trail, if you go left or right, you keep on following the AT. So just go straight ahead, the trail is located in a loop around the summit.
Once we summited there were strong winds, but the vistas made up for that! It is not a very long trail (1.5 mile round trip), but it was a very calming and green walk in nature.
The Appalachian Trail
The AT is a well-known hiking trail among thru-hikers or hike lovers. It is one of the famous trails of the United States (the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail are 2 other long-distance trails). It extends between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail is about 2,200 miles (3,500 km) long, though the exact length changes over time as parts are modified or rerouted.
Shenandoah claims 101 of those miles. The trail’s highest elevation in the park – 3,837 feet – is reached at an intersection with the Stony Man Trail near Skyland.
It first crosses the Skyline Drive at Compton Gap, Mile 10.4, and intersects the road 30 more times in the park. If you wish to hike parts of the Appalachian Trail or the whole trail you don’t need an actual permit. However, the trail passes through several national and state parks, forests and public lands, a few of which require a permit for overnight camping or staying in shelters.
Along cruising down Skyline Drive we crossed a thru-hiker, he was looking for a ride to the nearest place to get some food! We picked him up and drove him a few miles further! If you happen to come across a hitchhiker in the park, don’t hesitate, just pick ’em up, they’re just hungry!
So if you are ever in the neighborhood of this beautiful, lush green park, then do not hesitate to visit! Totally worth it! One word of advice: go and stay for 4-5 days so you have enough time to explore the whole Skyline Drive and several trails that lead to falls. Who knows, you’ll even spot some bears!
Sources: ‘Shenandoah National Park Road Guide’ by Rose Houk, ‘Stony Man Trail’ booklet