Shenandoah National Park is probably my favorite place in the Mid-Atlantic to camp and hike. The first time I went to “the Shenandoahs” I was just passing through. I was on my way to Memphis from my hometown of Lancaster, PA. We were in no hurry and the hand-me-down car I had wasn’t going to set any land speed records, so we decided to take the scenic route. I didn’t know anything about the Skyline Drive, the main road through the park, except that on the map it was a curvy line over the highest points of the Shenandoah Mountains. Squiggly lines and mountains always make for a nice drive, so we thought we’d check it out.
We entered the park via the north entrance at Front Royal, Virginia. Front Royal is a small town at the foot of the Shenandoah Mountains where you can find diners, motels, and places to get gas and groceries before heading up the Skyline Drive. It’s also where the Skyline Caverns can be found.
The Skyline Drive is the main road that navigates the middle of the park running north and south along the highest points of the Shenandoah Mountains. The speed limit is thirty-five mph in most places. It’s windy and a little steep in some spots. There are seventy-five overlooks with some great views along the 105 mile drive. That first time I visited Shenandoah National Park I think we stopped at all of them. The park brochure says that the trip from Front Royal at the north entrance to route sixty-four at the southern entrance takes about three hours. If you’re on any kind of schedule I’d allow more time than that. All along the Skyline Drive there are mile markers to let you know where you are in the park. Many of the points of interset, including trail heads and overlooks, can be located on the park map using these mile markers.
The first time I went to the Shenandoahs we took our packs and did some backcountry camping. You are allowed to backcountry camp, but you’re required to get a free permit from one of the park offices before you start your hike. To get the permit the ranger had us show him on a map where we would be, in case of an emergency. He also explained some bear safety tips to us and had us sign a paper stating that we understood. Some of the safety precautions the ranger suggested were hanging any food in trees and to definitely not keep any food in the tent. He even told us not to burn food scented candles near our camping area. Most of the tips seemed common sense, but I probably wouldn’t have thought about burning a scented candle as being a potential safety risk. Before we were on our way, just to make sure we got the point, the ranger told us a story of a girl who got badly hurt when a bear tried to get into her tent for some licorice that was in her pocket.
Besides Black Bear, Shenandoah National Park also has a huge population of white-tailed deer. They’re not shy and can be seen by the roadside and in the campgrounds frequently. The park is also home to Wild Turkeys, Squirrels, Bobcats, and lots of other woodland animals.
Since that first backcountry camping trip, I’ve returned to the Shenandoah mountains at least twenty times. It’s only a few hours from where I live so it’s an easy weekend trip for me. A few times I’ve even just gone for a night. I usually stay at Big Meadows Campground, located at mile marker fifty-one. It has the most amenities of all the campgrounds including bathrooms, hot showers, laundry facilities, a camp store, and firewood for sale. the Big Meadows Campground is also close to the Byrd Visitors Center that has a store and restaurant. If camping out isn’t your thing you can rent a room at the Big Meadows Lodge or rent a cabin.
Shenandoah National Park has over five hundred miles of trails to explore. Over one hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail runs through the park. Lots of trails head to waterfalls and overlooks. the tallest waetrfalls being Overall Run Falls at 93 ft. and South River Falls at 83 ft.. Most trails are accessible from the Skyline Drive and are of varying degrees of difficulty. After all my trips to the park I still haven’t come close to seeing all of it. One of my favorite hikes in the park is the Lewis Falls Trail. You can hike the 3.3 mile loop right from the Big Meadows Campground to an 81 ft. waterfall. The most popular hike in the Mid-Atlantic is the 8.8 mile Old Rag Trail. It’s a rock scramble rewarded with great views.
If you’re headed to the Shenandoahs you can get park info and trail maps at the official NPS website.
See also – Shenandoah NP Part 1: Meteors and Overall Run Falls