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Shenandoah National Park, VA
From Skyline Drive to the Appalachian Trail, we've rounded up the top family attractions at this historic mountain park.
Best of the Blue Ridge
Copyright Shenandoah National Park
Mother Nature must have had outdoor adventure in mind, when she created the Blue Ridge Mountains 300 million years ago. Long before spandex shorts and high-tech walking shoes, she orchestrated the collision of two tectonic plates, forming a terrain that's perfect for today's nature sports lovers.
Now, two million enthusiasts come to this slice of wilderness, better known as Shenandoah National Park, to tour famous Skyline Drive, a scenic byway snaking along the range's spine, or trek renowned Appalachian Trail.
Although the park looks small, don't expect to cover its 300 square miles in one weekend. And make time for the underground scene; this neck of Virginia is dotted with caverns sure to wow the kids.
Grandaddy of Scenic Drives
Built in the 1930s, the 105-mile Skyline Drive runs the length of the park, connecting to the famous Blue Ridge Parkway in the south. It's the ultimate car tour, dotted with pullouts, hikes, picnic spots, and photo ops.
Our recommended route begins north, at the junction of U.S. 340 near Front Royal, Virginia. Plan on three hours to do the whole drive, including stretch breaks for the kids.
White-tailed deer, copyright
Shenandoah National Park
- Shenandoah Valley Overlook. At this first stop, you'll get a sweeping view across the valley to Signal Knob, a Civil War communications post.
- Skyland. About 40 minutes into the trip, you'll hit Skyland, the highest point on the Drive (elevation 3,680 feet). Naturalist George Freeman Pollock built this resort in the 1890s. You can stop for lodging, food, crafts, and souvenirs, take a hike on Stony Man Nature Trail, or go horseback riding.
- Cedar Run/Whiteoak Canyon. If you love waterfalls, this spot has six of them! But you'll have to work a little to see them; it's a strenuous 4-mile hike to the base of the canyon, where you'll encounter your first waterfall. Most hikers stop here. Or you can continue for an easy 1.2-mile trail to Limberlost, an area of ancient hemlocks. Take a good, long look. Scientists predict that this endangered species will be dead within 5 years!
- Jones Run. Towards the end of your drive, there's another opportunity to see falls. The 3.6-mile hike to Jones Run Falls has a great payoff: moss and flowering plants growing on the 42-foot, water-sprayed cliff -- simply breathtaking!
Best of the Blue Ridge, copyright
Shenandoah National Park.
Beyond "Windshield" Touring
It's tempting see the sights of Skyline Drive from the inside of your car. But you'll miss the best stuff this region has to offer. So get out the hiking boots -- and get ready for some great scenery.
By far the most popular path is the 2,159-mile Appalachian Trail, 100 miles of which runs inside the park, parallel to Skyline Drive. A weekend backpack trip is the best way to experience this trail. And there are cabins all along the way, for those who don't dig sleeping on the ground.
Day-trippers also get their money's worth. Check out Mary's Rock (with some of the best views in the park), Hawksbill Mountain (site of a peregrine falcon release program), and Hazeltop Mountain (the Appalachian Trail's highest point in the park).
Besides the AT, Shenandoah has three main "districts" with plenty of hiking trails. Here are our favorites:
- Fox Hollow Nature Trail. This easy 1.2-mile circuit leads to two old homesites and an old family cemetery.
- Big Devil's Stairs. At 5.4 miles roundtrip, Big Devils is an easy, but long trail with an exceptional view of the mountains and valleys from the canyon rim.
- Overall Run Falls. This moderate, 6.4-mile round-trip hike leads to a view of the park's highest falls.
- Stony Man Nature Trail. This 1.6-mile trail features a self-guided tour. Pick up the free brochure at the visitor center for explanations of each designated point of interest.
- Hawksbill Summit Trail. Climb to the highest peak in the park on this popular 2.9-mile circuit that can be accessed via the Appalachian Trail. At the Byrd's Nest summit, you'll get a 360-degree view of the surrounding region.
- Big Meadows. More than 270 species of plants live here, making it a great place to see wildlife... so have cameras ready!
Looking for short and easy trails? This is the place. Some popular paths include: Ivy Creek Spring (1 mile), Jones Run Falls (3.4 miles), and Doyles River Falls (3.2 miles). A word of advice: Even though Shenandoah is a great place to watch wildlife, avoid surprising animals at close range and do not approach bears.
Nestled within the Shenandoah Valley are several historic gateway cities worth exploring before entering the park:
- Winchester. At the park's northeast entrance (Front Royal), you'll find this historic burg. A backdrop for the Civil War, Winchester is filled with various monuments, architecture, and points of interest. Walk the same streets as George Washington and other famous heroes.
- Staunton. Continue south to the historic town of Staunton, better known as the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson. Make sure to see Wilson's home, as well as the Frontier Culture Museum, a living history museum consisting of four farms (German, English, Scottish-Irish, and American).
- Roanoke. At the terminus of the Shenandoah Valley lies this city, the largest on the Blue Ridge. Check out the local wildlife at Mill Mountain Zoo. Or enjoy art, history, theater, dance, and more at Center in the Square, in the Historic Farmers' Market downtown.
Type of trip: Scenic drive, hiking, walking
Best ages: All ages
Ideal trip length: 2-3 days
Distance: Washington, DC (92 miles), Richmond, VA (129 miles), Baltimore (130 miles)
Best time to go: Spring and fall
Weather: 84/58 degrees in summer; 75/38 in spring. The mountains in Shenandoah are usually 10 degrees cooler than the valley below, so dress in layers.
Squirm factor: None, unless you choose difficult trails to hike.
If You Go...
Shenandoah National Park
3655 U.S. Hwy 211 East, Luray, VA
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail Office
For reservations, contact ARAMARK, 800-778-2851.
- Skyland Resort
Mile marker 41.7 off Skyline Dr.
George Freeman Pollock, Jr., who helped establish Shenandoah as a national park, began Skyland Resort in 1886. Today the resort offers 177 lodging units, ranging from rustic cabins to suites with spectacular vistas.
- Big Meadows Lodge
Mile mark 51.2 off Skyline Dr.
Accommodations include 25 rooms in the main lodge and 72 additional units outside the lodge.
- Corbin Cabin
Phone: Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 703-242-0693
If you'd like to recreate the life of those hardy mountain folk, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintains the Corbin Cabin, build in 1909 of hand-hewn logs, and rents it out to non-members. Know that it's a steep 1.5-mile trek up into the hills from the parking area at Milepost 37, there's no electricity or indoor plumbing, and you have to purify your own water. (Five other rustic cabins in the park's backcountry are also available for rental.)
Woodrow Wilson Birthplace
18-24 North Coalter St., Staunton, VA
Frontier Culture Museum
Route 240 West, Exit 222 off I-81, Staunton, VA
Stonyman Mountain from Skyline
Drive, copyright Shenandoah
Mill Mountain Zoo
Exit 143 off I-581, Roanoke, VA
This is the park's newspaper. Pick up a copy at the visitors center for a complete schedule of ranger hikes, talks and evening programs.
Center in the Square
One Market Square, SE, Roanoke, VA
- Art Museum of Western Virginia
- History Museum & Historical Society of Western Virginia
- Science Museum of Western Virginia and Hopkins Planetarium
The Inside Scoop
Favorite local spots:
Historic Farmers Market
310 First St., Roanoke, VA
Grab some fresh delicious fruits, vegetables, and delicacies at Virginia's oldest continuous market.
Rowe's Family Restaurant
Route 4 Box 88, Staunton, VA
For real home cooking, join local families at this popular eatery, established and operated by the Rowe family since 1947. Specialties include homemade soups, breads, gravy, grits, and more!
Local foods: Country/southern cooking includes grits, country ham, red-eye gravy, and fried chicken.
Best souvenirs: Make hiking Shenandoah even more enjoyable for the kids by renting an Explorer Backpack at the Visitor Center. It contains binoculars, field guides, hand lenses, paper, and pencils.
- Fourth of July Celebration in Old Town
July 4, Winchester, VA
Enjoy a parade, bike-decorating contest, entertainment, walking tours, patriotic ceremony, and free birthday cake!
- Summer on the Farms
Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton, VA
Programs for ages 4-10 include a variety of crafts, farm visits, amusements, and games that bring history alive. Advance reservations required.
- Breakfast with the Animals
Mill Mountain Zoo, Roanoke, VA
Learn more about your favorite animals.
Traffic alert: Mid-May through November, traffic may be heavy, especially on weekends. Sections of Skyline Drive may be closed in winter due to hazardous driving conditions. Skyline Drive is also closed from dusk to early morning during hunting season.
Health alert: This is tick country! Hikers should wear light, breathable cotton pants and closed shoes (no sandals).
Luray and Shenandoah Caverns
Need a place to chill out? Go underground. Two of the most famous caverns in the U.S. are just a 10-minute drive from Shenandoah National Park.
- Luray Caverns. Cathedral-sized rooms with towering columns and crystal clear pools make this National Landmark one of the most popular caverns in America. Listen to the Luray Singing Tower. The 117-foot stone tower contains a carillon of 47 bells and spans 6 feet in diameter! Make a wish at the Wishing Well. Since 1954, 16.5 million coins have been tossed into this 6-foot deep subterranean pool. Or weave your way through the Garden Maze, a one-acre ornamental garden maze, where more than 1,500 8-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide walls of plantlife and trees create a pathway of puzzlement. Visitors have to solve 40 different riddles in order to complete the maze successfully. (Don't worry...an elevated platform provides relief for those lost!)
- Shenandoah Caverns. Not to be upstaged by Luray, Shenandoah puts on an equally spectacular show. Diamond Cascade, for instance, is not your average stalagmite. Studded with one million "gems," this 20-foot-tall translucent spire looks like a channel of flowing diamonds. Best yet, Shenandoah is the only cavern in Virginia with elevator service!
970 Hwy 211 West, Luray
261 Caverns Rd., Shenandoah Caverns
-- Additional material by Catherine Fredman
Reviewed April 2004.
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