Shenandoah: Virginia’s Most Beautiful Park  

An easy hike to take in a beautiful Shenandoah sunse
An easy hike to take in a beautiful Shenandoah sunse

Shenandoah National Park for Scenic Drives, Hiking, History and Nature

By Tab Hauser
GoNOMAD Senior Writer and Photographer

Shenandoah National Park and the Skyland  make a perfect few days for a nature escape. The park, just 75 miles south of Washington D.C. was established in 1935.

Shenandoah Ranger Dani Goodman
Ranger Dani Goodman discusses butterflies at the Shenandoah National Park.

It has 197,411 acres of which 80,000 acres are designated a wilderness area. Given the size of the park, it is quite manageable for the average visitor.

Centered in the middle of the park is Skyline Drive. This in itself is a main attraction of the park. The two-lane road goes 105 miles north to south following the mountain ridges in Shenandoah National Park.

Skyline Drive

The south end of Skyline Drive is where the Blue Ridge Parkway begins. You can spend half a day just cruising Skyline Drive and stopping at many of the 75 scenic overviews.

Skyline Drive is a leisurely ride having a 35mph speed limit. The going is unhurried due to its hundreds of curves in the road and wildlife on or near the road. The scenery is spectacular and you would miss much if you were going fast. The rangers do give out speeding tickets!

The park’s highest peak, Hawksbill Mountain, at 4015 feet, can be accessed with a 1.7-mile hike off Skyline Drive. There are two visitor centers on the drive where rangers can help you plan your visit. Entrance on the road is $30 per vehicle for a seven day pass. For $80 (a true bargain) you can buy an annual pass good for any national park.

Shenandoah National Park Activities

Visiting the park can please anyone from the fit, rugged backcountry camper to those who want to take it slow and easy. Before getting here, click to learn about the different activities in the park so you are prepared.

These include hiking, camping, driving Skyline Drive, free ranger programs, and a kids section to name a few. When you arrive at the park, go to the Harry F Byrd Sr. Visitor Center. Here you will find a small museum and a film about Shenandoah. The Rangers at the desk can recommend things to do.

Mild Hikes in the Park

Dark Hollow Falls Shenandoah
Dark Hollow Falls

The hiking in Shenandoah National Park can go from mild to wild. Before taking to the trails, stop at the visitor center to speak to the rangers.

There we told them we wanted to keep our hikes between two and three hours with nothing too steep. The rangers gave us different maps and pointed out one trail for its sunset view, another for waterfalls, and a third loop to enjoy the forest surroundings.

The Dark Hollow Falls Trail takes you to waterfalls. The ranger’s tip was not to tackle the trail from the official marked sign. Doing this would be shorter but a steep hike.

The easy way to see Dark Hollow Falls is to park a mile up the road at the Rose River Trail Head and cross the street to the gravel path.Taking this route adds a mile round trip but keeps the walking flat and easy.

Once at the bridge, go five minutes up the short steep trail to the right. This will take you to a short waterfall and a longer cascade above it. This is not the tallest or most majestic waterfall in the park, but it is easy to get to.

The Stony Man Mountain Summit hike is the place to catch a glorious Shenandoah sunset. It takes 30 minutes to reach the rocky outcrop viewing area. While the trail is uphill most of the way, it is easy.

I don’t recommend lingering more than several minutes once the sun sets as you don’t want to be on the trail at night. Make sure you have your cell phone charged for its light if needed.

My other recommended hikes include the Limber Lost Trail (ADA accessible) for a nice wooded loop, the Hawksbill Loop for the view, and the Story of the Forest Trail for a mix of woods and waterfalls.

1929 Presidential Cabin

 Rapidan in Shenandoah Park
Basic accomodations at Rapidan for President Hoover (coutesy NPS)

I signed up for a ranger-guided tour of Rapidan Camp. Rapidan Camp was established by President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover as a retreat between 1929 and 1933.

The camp features three original buildings, including the President’s Cabin, the Prime Ministers Cabin, and the Creel.

At the camp, you will see how basic President Hoover’s cabin was. It has been restored to its 1929 appearance. Near it is the Prime Minister’s cabin used by the PM of England. It is now a museum about the camp and the Hoover’s.

Visiting the camp costs $10 and requires reservations. The tour takes 2.5 hours. During the 30-minute, seven-mile ride on a gravel road through the woods, the ranger told us all about the Hoover’s and their modest charitable lifestyle. For those into hiking, it is a 4-mile round trip to get to Rapidan and free. Once at the cabin, a volunteer guide walks you through the house and its history.

Free Shenandoah Ranger Activities

When at the visitor’s center or lodge, look for information on park ranger lead programs. We took part in the amphitheater on two programs at Skyline  and at Big Meadows 10 miles south.

One evening we learned about the fascinating history of the making of the park. The other program was all about the night sky. Other programs focus on nature and guided trail hikes.

Luray Caverns: Compact, Beautiful, and Easy to Visit

Luray Cavern near Shenandoah Park
Inside a tall cavern

A 30-minute drive from Skyland Resort takes you to Luray Caverns.

This is the perfect stop if you like caves and you don’t have a lot of time or you are traveling with children.

The easy (ADA “like” complaint) underground path is about a mile long and takes an hour using a self-guided map.

Inside Luray Caverns you will see beautiful stalactites, stalagmites, mirrored pools, and flowstones that look like large mineral waterfalls.

Inside one of the caverns is the largest instrument in the world taking up 3.5 acres. It is called the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Music is made via a solenoid-fired striker that taps different-sized stalactites. A tune is played every 10 minutes.

The Luray Caverns admission includes their Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, Luray Valley Museum, and a small toy museum. The Luray Valley Museum is worth a look for its collection of regional Americana artifacts.

Perfect reflection inside Luray Caverns, Shenandoah area
Perfect reflection inside Luray Caverns

Wine About 

Shenadoah Wine
Stan Joynes of Valley Road Vineyards

At the end of Skyline Drive is Afton. Here we took a break from nature and visited three wineries not far from Skyline Drive.

There are another 40 wineries within an hour in this region that would make for a separate trip. (Tip: If you are visiting multiple vineyards I recommend you and your travel partner share wine flights).

Valley Road Vineyards offers a dozen wines. Wine flights can be purchased to your taste. According to Founder Stan Joynes, the winery produces about 3500 cases making them a moderate size vineyard for the area and the first winery on the Nelson 151 Valley as the region is called.

My favorites included Viognier, Petit Verdot, and a Bordeaux-style red called Meritage.

Veritas Vineyards was our lunch stop. They are one of the larger vineyards producing 20,000 cases per year. The pretty grounds and building here are quite “Napa” like. While lunch was nice, we were not impressed with the wines in their “Taste in Place” flight. website

Flying Fox has a tasting room with a fun vibe and a cheerful staff. Besides nine different wines produced, they make four flavored vermouths. Each flavor is named after a season and after tasting each, it made sense. The winner here was their excellent Cabernet Franc. website

Vineyards Shenendoah Mountains
Vineyards just south of the Shenandoah region

Skyland at Shenandoah National Park

The best way to see the park is to sleep in it. I recommend a few nights at the Skyland for its comfortable accommodations, perfect location, and good food. It is located at mile marker 41.7, or about halfway in the park. Skyland offers a good base to get to some easy hiking as well as the free ranger lead programs.

Shenadoah National Park Views
Shenadoah National Park Views

Our room at Skyland was spacious having a beautiful view. In front of the room were chairs on a shared terrace making it a perfect place for that first cup of coffee. We found the front desk staff friendly, offering good park tips. When there, ask for the area map with color-coded hiking trails and their ratings.

Food at Skyland

Shenandoah Sklyand Breakfast
A delicious Country breakfast option at Skyland 

Skyland  has a large dining room overlooking the valley serving three meals a day.

There is also a pub menu at the adjacent bar where a singer/guitar player entertained two hours each night during our stay.

The food was tasty and based on variety, service, and prices we did not see any reason to drive 30 minutes to Luray for dinner.

Lunch and dinner offerings ranged from salads to hearty mountain fare. Vegetarian dishes are offered. Do not miss their famous “Signature Blackberry Ice Cream Pie” or Blackberry Cobbler a la Mode that should be shared.

Shenandoah Blackberry Pie
Don’t miss Skyline’s famous blackberry pie with blackberry sauce drizzled on it

While the breakfast menu had all the standard items, we went “southern” one morning with a generous platter of country-fried steak & eggs covered with pepper gravy and breakfast potatoes (Note: Share this). For coffee drinkers, there is a Starbucks with prices less than in town. 





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4 thoughts on “Shenandoah: Virginia’s Most Beautiful Park  

  1. A really great review of such a beautiful part of the country. We wish we had more time to spend in the area when we were there. We did get to Luray Caverns with the family and grandkids, and I was a bit surprised as to how much they loved it. Some touristy stops, a couple of short strolls and a couple of bottles of local wine topped off our stay. Thanks for sharing this story and great pictures. It brought back nice memories and a wish to return.

  2. After reading this engaging and informative travelogue, I’d say it is time for us to revisit the Park! Many great destinations in the Park are described, along with many helpful ways’n’means! Thanks Tab for bringing us some of the highlights of this great Park, several of which we missed out on last time. And great photos! Fall is a great time to visit BTW with the beautiful foliage changing…(…And if your travels are bringing you thru the Park to Richmond per chance, and if your schedule permits and if seeking some American history, sojourn south an hour to visit Appomattox, where General Lee surrendered to General Ulysses Grant in April 1865. And visit nearby Thomas Jefferson’s plantation at Forest, Va. near Lynchburg!)

  3. Hoover to hikes to wine to southern pepper gravy, a wonderful guide to a great park. So much packed into one trip. Great advice.

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