Boasting Skyline Drive, gorgeous scenery, abundant wildlife, hundreds of miles of trails, and many other attractions, Virginia's Shenandoah National Park is one of America's most popular national parks. Here are some suggestions for maximizing the pleasure of your visit.
* Take the Skyline Drive parkway and enjoy the 75 scenic overlooks, the profusion of wildflowers in the unmowed roadside, and the abundant wildlife. Well, it's not like you've got a choice. The 105-mile long, two lane parkway is not only the centerpiece attraction of Shenandoah National Park, it's also the park's only public road. You can get on the parkway at only four places -- Front Royal near Rt. 66 and 340, Thornton Gap at Rt. 211, Swift Run Gap at Rt. 33, and Rockfish Gap at Rt. 64 and Rt. 250 (also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway). Don't be in a hurry. The speed limit is 35 miles per hour, there are numerous steep hills and blind curves, passing zones are nonexistent, weather conditions can be troublesome, the road is often crowded, and stops for deer-, bear-, and turkey-gawking are common.
You can purchase an audiotape or CD narrated tour of Skyline Drive at the Front Royal Entrance Station, the visitor centers, or most ARAMARK-operated facilities in the park. The narration runs north to south, beginning at Front Royal and ending at Rockfish Gap.
Caveat: Inclement weather can necessitate closure of Skyline Drive at any time, especially in the winter. When in doubt, check for the current Skyline Drive status by calling the park’s recorded information line at (540) 999-3500, 1, 1 or by visiting this site.
* Appreciate the flowers. There are nearly 900 species of flowering vascular plants in Shenandoah, and some are rare beauties. Growing along Skyline Drive are lots of flowers, including some of the biggest Queen Anne's lace you will ever see. In early summer, the blooming azaleas and mountain laurels are the main attraction. Try the Limberlost area if you want to see plenty of gorgeous laurels. Big Meadows is hard to beat for summer and fall flowers, including some rare plant species.
The park is always looking for volunteers to help battle invasive plants at Big Meadows.
* Enjoy the fall colors. In late October, and continuing into November, the Shenandoah landscape explodes with gorgeous fall foliage and the scenery along Skyline Drive approaches the sublime. Be forewarned that anybody partaking of this beauty needs to exercise due patience and make lodging reservations well in advance. The legions of leaf peepers that converge on the park clog the roadways and fill regional lodging to capacity.
* For maximum wildlife viewing pleasure, bring your binoculars and your camera. Birds and small mammals are plentiful in Shenandoah. Most visitors, however, are especially eager to see white-tailed deer and black bears. The chances are quite good, since the park has some thousands of the former and several hundred of the latter. These animals are accustomed to people and cars, so they can be seen up close and just about anywhere. Remember to watch out for them on the roads, especially at night. Anywhere you see them, be sure to give them their space and enjoy them at a distance.
* Stop at Big Meadows (milepost 51) and tour the historical exhibit at the Byrd Visitor Center. The exhibit, one of the best of its type that the National Park Service has ever developed, tells the story of the park's origin and evolution, emphasizing themes such as private resort development in the pre-park era, the transition to federal land management, the forced removal of over 300 area families, Civilian Conservation Corps construction projects, and ending racial segregation in the park.
* Stroll some gentle paths. Shenandoah has 518 miles of hiking trails. Some are lengthy, rugged, and even dangerous (the popular Old Rag Mountain Trail being a prime example), but visitors typically like the short and easy ones like Limberlost and Big Meadows. Limberlost Trail (milepost 43) is a wheelchair-accessible,1.3-mile trail of crushed greenstone with gentle grades, numerous benches, a boardwalk, and a bridge. It passes through a forest that is breathtakingly beautiful in June when the laurels are in bloom. At Big Meadows, the Rapidan Fire Road, a gravel road across from the Byrd Visitor Center, offers pleasant strolling and good wildlife watching (deer, the occasional bear), especially at dawn and dusk.
* Watch the sunset from the Stony Man Trail overlook. The view from the cliff at the end of the fairly easy, 1.6-mile Stony Man Trail loop (accessible from Skyland Resort) is pretty at any time, but especially at sunset.
* Hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. If you want to treat your feet to the renowned Appalachian Trail, this is a great place for an AT day hike. The AT winds 101 miles through the park. If you're looking for a section that's easy to get to and easy to walk, have somebody drop you off at the Milam Gap parking lot and pick you up at Big Meadows (or vice versa).
* Visit Dark Hollow Falls. Being closest to Skyline Drive, this scenic 70-footer is the most popular of the park's nine large waterfalls. The trailhead for Dark Hollow Falls Trail is near the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows (milepost 50.7). Be warned that the 1.4-mile roundtrip hike isn't for everybody. It's steep and rocky in places (the return trip is arduous), and there are no restrooms or emergency shelters. No pets or horses are allowed on this trail. Don't go if there's rain the forecast.
* Tour Rapidan Camp, the restored fishing retreat that President Herbert Hoover built on Rapidan River in 1929 and donated to the federal government after he left office. Rapidan Camp can be accessed in two ways. One is to do the 4.1-mile roundtrip hike on Mill Prong Trail, which begins on Skyline Drive at Milam Gap (Mile 52.8). The other is to take a ranger-guided van tour that leaves from the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows. The guided tours are by reservation only and are limited to 12 people. You're not likely to get a seat on that van unless you make a reservation well in advance.
* Wet a line. There are about 90 small, rocky, very cold streams in the park. All of them are open to catch-and-release fishing, and a few designated ones are open to catch-and-cook too. Brook trout, which are found in more than 50 of the park's streams, are the prize catch. You'll need to hike to reach the better fishing streams, and you'll need a Virginia state fishing license too.
* Take a horseback ride. Shenandoah has nearly 200 miles of horse trails. If you don't have your own horse, Skyland Stables (near milepost 42.5) offers one-hour guided horseback rides from April through late November.
* Indulge your taste buds with a gourmet meal. In addition to three Wayside restaurants, park concessionaire ARAMARK operates upscale dining facilities at Big Meadows and Skyland Resort. The menu features not only traditional favorites like the New Deal Chicken Platter and Rapidan Camp Trout, but also gourmet entrees personally selected by Executive Chef Peter Bizon. Land a window table for the best mountain views.