Doesn’t it seem like the West got all the really iconic national parks — the ones everyone knows, even if they’ve never been?
While that’s partially true (we offer up Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Arches, and Yellowstone as proof), the Eastern Seaboard does have its fair share of national park gems. And many of them, we’d argue, are highly underrated.
A Shenandoah National Park day trip quickly proves that. This 200,000-acre park contains sections of the Appalachian Mountains (and yes, the Appalachian Trail) and Blue Ridge Mountains, plus deeply-rooted American history and endless adventure.
Hiking, fly fishing, waterfall chasing, scenic drives, and epic sunsets — the gang’s all here!
Oh, we almost forgot: one of the very best things to do in Shenandoah National Park is simply watch the wildlife. The park has one of the highest concentrations of black bears in the country!
Another unique thing about Shenandoah is its accessibility. Unlike many rather remote national parks, Shenandoah is just 90 miles from Washington, D.C. Whether you’re a local or flying in, the park is easily accessible from many major east coast cities including D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond.
It’s also close to New River Gorge and the Great Smoky Mountains, in case you’re considering an east coast national parks road trip.
Maybe you’re planning a quick Shenandoah National Park day trip, or perhaps you have a few days to spend in the park. Either way, we’re covering all the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park. Let’s get into it!
Shenandoah National Park Facts
Shenandoah National Park is open year-round. However, Skyline Drive often closes if the road gets icy. Conditions vary dramatically between the city and mountains, so call the hotline at (540) 999-3500, option 1 for updates to be safe. Campgrounds, lodges, and visitor centers close in winter.
Shenandoah has four entrances: Front Royal, Rockfish Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Thornton Gap.
It costs $30 to enter Shenandoah National Park. If you’re planning to visit even 2-3 parks a year, consider an $80 annual America the Beautiful Pass.
101 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through Shenandoah.
The park is home to black bears, wild turkeys, deer, rattlesnakes, and copperheads. Be aware of wildlife (and where you step!), particularly in the summer!
Some of the rocks in the park are over one billion years old.
Best Things to do in Shenandoah National Park
It can be overwhelming prioritizing what to do first and deciding what to skip when you visit any national park. This is true whether you have just a single day to explore or you have a bit more time.
Think of this like your very own, real-life choose your own adventure….adventure!
Try not to cram in too many of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park, as you’ll spend all your time simply trying to get to the next spot. Use this guide as your starting point and of course, mix and match as you please!
Take the literal scenic route
Often referred to as “The Drive,” Skyline Drive spans 105 miles and intersects the park almost perfectly from north to south. It begins at Shenandoah’s northern entrance in Front Royal and ends at the Rockfish Gap entrance, where it connects to the famed Blue Ridge Parkway.
Driving along Skyline Drive and taking in the scenery is one of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park. There are a whopping 75 scenic overlooks along The Drive, many with views of waterfalls or the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Bring picnic supplies or stop in either Skyland or Big Meadows, where you’ll find plenty of restaurants. Note that Skyline Drive has a 35 MPH speed limit — for a reason. There are several S curves and it’s not uncommon to encounter deer on the roadway. Drive slowly!
Shenandoah has over 500 miles of hiking trails, including a large stretch of the AT. Whether you prefer to check a few shorter trails off your national park bucket list or you want to go for the full send, hiking is one of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park.
Blackrock Summit: One of the shortest hikes in the park also leads to one of the best views. The one-mile round-trip hike takes you to a rocky summit (hence the name), but you can continue on to Lewis Spring Falls, which creates a 3.2-mile loop along the AT.
The Pinnacle/Mary’s Rock: Like Blackrock Summit and Lewis Spring Falls, these trails can be combined or done individually. Mary’s Rock is a moderate 7 miles out and back, but The Pinnacle is just one mile in. If you want to do the shorter trail, turn around at the first viewpoint.
Hawksbill: Take in 360-degree views from the highest point in the park. Hawksbill is only two miles roundtrip, but very steep.
Dark Hollow Falls: This 1.4-mile out-and-back hike is one of the most accessible waterfalls in Shenandoah. For something a bit more challenging, combine it with four-mile Rose River Loop, just a quarter-mile detour.
Old Rag Mountain Loop: The most popular — and challenging — hike Shenandoah, a 9.8-mile trek across rocky, difficult terrain.
Take advantage of ranger-led programs
One of the best things to do in Shenandoah (or any national park, for that matter!) is learn from a park ranger.
Rangers have vast firsthand knowledge and experience, and they love nothing more than sharing it with visitors! Whether it’s your first visit to the park or your 10th, you’ll benefit from taking a ranger-guided program.
At Shenandoah, programs are offered spring through fall and vary by season. In summer 2021, Shenandoah’s ranger-led programs include stargazing parties, birds of prey demonstrations, and bear talks. Visitors can also tour Rapidan Camp, America’s first official presidential retreat, established in 1929.
Insider tip: even if a guided program doesn’t fit into your schedule, find a park ranger and simply chat for a few minutes. They love to recommend hikes or other activities, and they know the best “secret” spots!
Catch sunrise or sunset
Even if you only have enough time for a Shenandoah National Park day trip, watching the sun rise or set is a must.
For sunrise, head to Mary’s Rock Tunnel, near the Thornton Gap entrance.
There are three overlooks here Tunnel Parking Overlook at MP 32.5, Buck Hollow Overlook at MP 32.8, and Hazel Mountain Overlook at MP 33. All three face east off Skyline Drive, making them perfect for watching the sun illuminate those layered blue mountains.
At sunset, you have several options. We love a good sunset hike (with or without beverages to toast at the summit, up to you!), but recommend keeping them short so you’re not hiking much in the dark.
Stony Man, which is just 1.6 miles roundtrip and easily accessible from Skyland Resort, is our top choice. Bonus: the views of Skyline Drive are also incredible, so this is one of the best photo ops in the park.
Another amazing sunset spot in Shenandoah is The Point Overlook, near MP 55.5. This spot doesn’t require any hiking, but gets very busy because of that.
Even with some crowds though, this is by far one of the best sunset spots in Shenandoah National Park. To get an even better view, walk through the gap in the wall and down the short slope.
Best Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park
Overall, the best times to visit Shenandoah National Park are mid-autumn and late spring.
Autumn in Shenandoah is absolutely stunning with its brilliant fall foliage, particularly from mid-October to early November. However, crowds and traffic during this season are often heavy.
April and May are considered shoulder season, just before the busy summer begins, so this can be an excellent time to visit Shenandoah — and the waterfalls are at their peak in spring, too.
Getting to Shenandoah National Park
If you’re not an east coast local or otherwise driving your own vehicle, you’ll likely fly into one of the two D.C. airports, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) or Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).
The park is just 90 miles from Washington, D.C. It's also within easy driving distance of other major cities, including Richmond, Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Where to Stay Near Shenandoah National Park
Should you decide to extend your Shenandoah National Park day trip into an overnight or weekend, you’ll need a place to stay.
If you want to stay inside the park, you have a few options.
Lodges: Shenandoah has two lodges, Skyland and Big Meadows Lodge. These are traditional hotels and cabins with full-service restaurants. Note that you need to make reservations for the peak summer and fall seasons 13 months in advance.
Rustic cabins: The historic Lewis Mountain Cabins have heat, electricity, and grills. You need to provide firewood and all cooking supplies and note, there is no refrigeration.
Campgrounds: There are four campgrounds in the park plus one group-only site. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance.
If you prefer to stay near Shenandoah National Park but not necessarily inside, consider one of the nearby mountain towns. True, you’ll have a bit more of a drive to and from the park, but A) if you’re doing a Shenandoah National Park day trip, that’s not much of a concern anyway and B) the drive is scenic as heck!
Stay in Charlottesville (home of the University of Virginia) for a vibrant craft brewery scene. If top-quality farm-to-table food is your jam, Staunton should be your top choice.
We hope this guide is helpful as you map out the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park!
As you iron out your trip details, don’t forget a memorable souvenir! Either before or after your trip, a Shenandoah National Park Token from The Wander Club is the perfect way to commemorate it. Psst — we have tokens for every other U.S. national park, too!
Safe travels, friends! Be sure to connect with us on social media and tag us in your adventures!