Our road trip destination this week is Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia.
Shenandoah is all about the views for most people who visit this long, slender mountaintop park just 90 minutes from the Washington Beltway. For a few, it’s also a place for hiking, backpacking, bicycling, fishing or rock climbing.
The park extends over 100 miles atop the Blue Ridge – a mountainous spine extending from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Its biggest attraction is Skyline Drive – a 105-mile-long scenic drive that twists and turns its way from one end of the park to the other. With a speed limit of 35 mph, Skyline Drive demands a leisurely pace.
Shenandoah is a place that beckons you to slow down, decompress, and lose yourself in the beauty of nature. If you’re looking for a fast-paced experience, this isn’t the place for you.
A leisurely pace
You can drive the length of the road in about three hours, but nobody does. Along the way are 75 overlooks providing expansive views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the rolling Virginia piedmont to the east. Driving the road and stopping at overlooks is, by far, the most popular visitor activity.
Speaking of popularity, Shenandoah National Park’s annual visitation was just over 1.3 million in 2015 (the most recent year for which data are available). Frankly, I’m surprised it’s that low, given its proximity to Washington, Baltimore and other major East Coast metropolitan areas.
For the purpose of comparison, that’s fewer visitors than Arches, Bryce Canyon and Glacier National Parks, each of which is hundreds of miles from the nearest large city. Oh, sure, Shenandoah can get crowded on summer weekends and especially jammed on nice weekends in mid-October – height of the park’s spectacular foliage season.
For the most part, however, you won’t have any trouble getting around, scoring parking spots or finding solitude on the park’s 700-mile trail network. If you’re planning to spend the night, you’ll still need reservations at lodges and campgrounds.
The park is open year-round, although Skyline Drive may close when the weather gets really nasty. Lodges, campgrounds and visitor centers are seasonal. Exception: The Byrd Visitor Center is open weekends during the off-season.
This is one of my favorite spots in the eastern United States. The mountains are rounded and mellow — not towering and jagged like the Sierra Nevada or the Rockies. They’re densely forested, mostly with hardwoods that put on a dazzling display in fall. I enjoy stopping at the overlooks and meeting some of my fellow travelers.
Most people drive north to south
The photos you see in this post were taken during three separate visits – all in October. My most recent visit was October 2016.
The vast majority of visitors arrive from the east and enter the park at its northern entrance, just south of I-66 at Front Royal. There are three other access points: Thornton Gap (jct. US 211), Swift Run Gap (jct. US 33) and Rockfish Gap (jct. I-64/US 250). Each of those highways intersects I-81 if you drive west. Where Shenandoah National Park ends, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins its 469-mile journey to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.
If you’re taking a road trip along I-81, you can easily make a side trip to Shenandoah National Park. From southbound I-81, take Exit 313 at Winchester, then follow US 522 19 miles to Front Royal. If you’re northbound on I-81, turn east on I-64 at Staunton and go 12 miles to Exit 99.
Skyline Drive has mileposts. Milepost 0 is at the park’s northern entrance at Front Royal. At Milepost 5 is the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, open April 17 to November 26. The two biggest service stops are Skyland at Milepost 42 and Big Meadows at Milepost 51. Both have lodges, restaurants and other facilities; Big Meadows also features the Byrd Visitor Center. In addition, there are wayside stops at Mileposts 24, 51 and 80, offering limited supplies and food service.
The park has four campgrounds ($15-20/night). All are seasonal. You’ll also find picnic tables and restrooms at several points along the drive.
A very useful website
Start your visit to Shenandoah National Park at its website: www.nps.gov/shen. There, you’ll find just about everything you need to know, including maps, trail descriptions, facility opening/closing dates, the schedule of ranger programs, and links for making lodging and campsite reservations. Also worth checking out is the short video (8 min.) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N-lupQXw1A.
The entrance fee is $25 for private vehicles and $20 for motorcycles.
Thanks for visiting Road Trips with Tom. Please join us again on Sunday, February 12, when we head to historic Old Mesilla in New Mexico and eat carne adovada and sopapillas.