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Best Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park

By Nancy Raven Kirk on May 02, 2024
13 min read

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers an idyllic escape into vast nature. With over 200,000 acres of protected land, the park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, adventure seekers, laidback vacationers, and beyond.

Whether you're eager to explore the park’s scenic vistas, meandering trails, or diverse wildlife, Shenandoah’s unique landscapes and seasonal changes make it a must-visit destination. There’s a reason this park is on our list of top 10 East Coast national parks. Let’s explore the top things to do in Shenandoah National Park to help ease your planning and ensure your trip is memorable and breathtaking. 

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A soft Summer evening looking towards Old Rag Mountain, Shenandoah National Park by: Nick.

Key Takeaways

  • Explore Skyline Drive: The iconic drive boasts 105 miles of breathtaking views, 75 lookout points, and endless hiking trails. The park itself is very long and skinny, so the drive’s lookouts and surrounding trails allow you to see its landscapes in near entirety. Because of this, Skyline Drive is a Shenandoah National Park must-see! 
  • Enjoy Sweeping Views of the Blue Ridge Mountains: Trails like Mary’s Rock and Old Rag Mountain will offer breathtaking views of the iconic Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, perhaps the best part of Shenandoah National Park.
  • Stay Overnight in Various Accommodations: Inside the park, you’ll find everything from rustic campgrounds to quaint cabins to comfortable lodges that cater to different preferences and budgets.
  • Spot Wildlife in Big Meadows: This large, grassy meadow is the essential habitat for many animals that call Shenandoah home. There are more than 50 mammal species and 200 bird species. Be aware it’s recommended you stay 75 feet away from wildlife and 150 feet away from black bears. 

Things to Consider Before Visiting Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park offers a vast expanse of varied terrain and trails, from gentle slopes to rugged rocks and scenic mountains. The weather can be just as variable at the park, changing swiftly from clear skies to dense fog. You’ll also want to consider seasonal conditions, with many road closures during winter due to snow. Depending on your preferences, you may need permits for certain activities like overnight camping.

How Many Days Do You Need to Spend in Shenandoah National Park?

We recommend spending at least three to four days in the park to appreciate all that Shenandoah has to offer. This allows ample time to explore the park’s various hiking trails, take in the panoramic views along Skyline Drive, and possibly encounter some wildlife. 

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Marys Rock Tunnel, Shenandoah National Park by: Bram.

What’s the Best Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park? 

Shenandoah National Park is best known for its vibrant fall foliage with fiery hues of red, orange, and yellow spanning its landscapes. Because of this, fall brings in the most visitors, resulting in more crowded trails. Spring in the mountains offers trails lined with blankets of fresh wildflowers like buttercups and trillium. Summer in Shenandoah National Park provides beautiful blooms and lush green trails with highs rarely exceeding the 70s. During the winter, you’ll find the fewest park visitors and cold temperatures with frequent snow-related road closures. Without leaves on the trees, you discover more vast and unique trail views than in other seasons. 

Where to Stay in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park offers a variety of accommodations, from rustic to more luxurious. Visitors may choose to backpack in the wilderness for a total nature immersion, following leave-no-trace guidelines. There are also five campgrounds within Shenandoah National Park, including group sites and first-come, first-served sites. If you prefer solid walls and a cozy bed, Big Meadows Lodge or Skyland Resort on Skyline Drive provide the most comfortable rooms within the park.

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Shenandoah National Park's Big Meadows. Photo by: Paul.

Shenandoah’s Campgrounds 

If you want to camp, choose one of Shenandoah National Park’s five campgrounds. Most can be reserved online at Many campgrounds have fire pits, picnic areas, flushable toilets, and nearby trails. This camping checklist ensures you have everything you need for your park stay. 

  • Big Meadows: Tucked away in lush forest and rolling hills, this expansive campground boasts more than 200 sites, including those for larger groups. It offers picnic areas, flush toilets, showers, WiFi, and Big Meadows Lodge nearby.
  • Mathews Arm: The 166 available sites offer a spot for a tent or RV, fire ring, and picnic area. There are flushing toilets and drinking water, but no showers.
  • Lewis Mountain: This first-come, first-serve mountain campground is ideal for unplanned travelers. There are 30 campsites with picnic tables and fire rings. You must be physically present to claim your site.
  • Loft Mountain: This Shenandoah campground offers beautiful mountain views on either side and trails to two different waterfalls. It provides 207 sites, a mix of both reserved and first-come, first-served.
  • Dundo Group: This campground is at the southern end of the park’s Skyline Drive and offers sites for groups of seven to 20 people. Two vault toilets are available, but guests can find showers and other necessities at the Loft Mountain Camp Store a few miles down the road.
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Loft Mountain Amphitheater in Shenandoah. Photo by: Kellyvandellen.

Backpacking at Shenandoah National Park 

Want to fully immerse yourself into the Shenandoah wilderness overnight? Visitors with a valid permit are free to backpack throughout the park. Make sure to review our essential backpacking checklist before you go! 

Old Rag Mountain is one of the most popular backpacking areas, but you’ll need to grab a backpacking permit and a day-use ticket for this trail. You can also backpack along the Appalachian Trail, a famous trail that stretches over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and also runs through Shenandoah National Park. Within the park, the Appalachian Trail covers about 101 miles, following along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This section is renowned for its rolling terrain, well-maintained paths, and captivating panoramic views. You’ll find numerous backcountry campsites and shelters along the trail, making it ideal for multi-day hikes.

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Massanutten Lodge at Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park. Photo by: EWY Media.

In-Park Hotel Options

From more luxurious suites to rustic cabins, these accommodation options allow you to escape into the wilderness while immersing yourself in the park’s lush nature.

Skyland Resort:
Skyland Resort is the highest elevation on Skyline Drive at 3,680 feet, in the middle of the Shenandoah National Park. The resort offers premium hotel suites, traditional and premium rooms, quaint detached cabins, and ADA-accessible and pet-friendly accommodations. Grab food and drinks at the Pollock Dining Room, Mountain Taproom, Starbucks, or Skyland Gift Shop, each with a unique menu. 

Big Meadows Lodge: Located just one mile from the scenic Big Meadow at mile 51 on Skyline Drive, Big Meadows Lodge provides a delightful mix of quaint charm and comfort in a national park setting. The lodge offers breathtaking views during the day, and at night, guests can enjoy stargazing under magical night skies. Choose from a spacious suite, traditional room, and secluded cabins. Pet-friendly rooms are available. Spottswood Dining Room will be your go-to option for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with terrace seating when weather allows. 

Lewis Mountain Cabins: These charming historic cabins sit at mile marker 57 and are highly sought after for affordable overnight stays. Each room has private bathrooms, heating, lighting, and linens, creating a homey yet adventurous camp-like setting. Guests can cook outdoors on a charcoal grill, picnic in the forest, and walk through neighboring woods. Rooms are pet-friendly, and a gift shop is nearby. 

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Big Meadows Lodge. Photo by: EWY Media.

Staying Outside of Shenandoah National Park

For those interested in exploring the surrounding areas, local towns such as Luray, Front Royal, and Charlottesville offer more accommodations and attractions. These towns provide a charming glimpse into Virginia’s rich history and culture with local shops, restaurants, and vineyards that are well worth a visit. Whether you prefer the rustic appeal of a Bed & Breakfast or the amenities of a modern hotel, the region around Shenandoah National Park caters to all preferences. Nearby, you’ll also find both paid and dispersed camping, plus Shenandoah National Park cabins outside the park’s border.

What to Wear When Visiting Shenandoah National Park

The weather can change quickly and drastically, so bring extra layers like a rain jacket and a fleece. Temperatures in the mountains are often 10 to 20 degrees cooler than in the below valley. Check the weather forecast before you head out, but be prepared for anything because it can often change, especially throughout the varying regions. Sturdy, comfortable hiking boots are a must, as are hats and sunscreen for sun protection. Before your trip, grab some gear from KÜHL to feel relaxed, athletic, and sleek. Browse our women’s hiking clothing and men’s outdoor wear.

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Plenty of pockets and a hint of stretch, the easy-care Splash™ is your go-to for everyday adventure.

What to Bring Hiking in Shenandoah

  • Water: Always stay hydrated. As a general rule of thumb, bring one quart of water per hour while hiking on a hot day. 
  • Plenty of Food: Make sure you have plenty of healthy fuel to keep you going on hikes that last longer than an hour or two. 
  • First Aid Kit: Be prepared for the unexpected with a first aid kit. Bring items such as aspirin, band-aids, and cleansing wipes. Review our first aid checklist here.
  • Flashlight: Once the sun goes down, a flashlight is essential, so make sure to bring one along while backpacking and on any day hike in case your outing takes longer than expected.
  • Emergency Whistle: Always carry an emergency whistle when hiking. It's a lightweight, effective way to signal for help if you become lost or injured. The sound of a whistle carries further than the human voice and uses less energy. 
  • Sun Protection: Protect yourself from the sun's harmful rays by wearing sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, and reapply every two hours.
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Smooth and easy, Cashmerino™ and Urban Sailor Coffee.

What to Do And See in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is divided into three districts: the north, central, and south districts. The north entrance, Front Royal, is located at milepost 0.6 on Skyline Drive. The south entrance, Rockfish Gap, is located at milepost 105.4 of Skyline Drive, close to wineries, hotels, and dining options. Thornton Gap lies in the middle of the national park at milepost 31.5, close to the famous Mary’s Rock trail. There’s plenty to do in each of the three park sections, from hiking past waterfalls to enjoying scenic viewpoints.

Skyline Drive Trail: 

There’s a reason this is one of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park. This 105-mile drive is the only road that runs through the park, and it includes 75 overlooks with breathtaking views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Virginia Piedmont. Nearly endless trails branch into the wilderness, ranging from leisurely strolls to challenging climbs. 

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Upper Rose River Falls, Shenandoah National Park. Photo by: Vladimir Grablev.

Hiking Trails in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is a scenic mountain escape with more than 500 miles of trails for every type of wilderness explorer, from waterfalls to rocky lookouts. You’ll enjoy sweeping views of the iconic Blue Ridge mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. All these trails start near Skyline Drive, the only road in the park. 

Top Shenandoah Hiking Trails

Shenandoah National Park is a hiker's paradise, offering a range of trails that cater to every level of experience and adventure desire. From gentle walks through lush woods to steep climbs that reward hikers with breathtaking vistas, each trail promises a unique encounter with the natural beauty of Virginia. Here are some of the top trails to explore in this majestic park:

  • Rose River Trail: Nearly 4 miles long, this moderate trail winds alongside mossy cascades and waterfalls.
  • Stony Man: This family-friendly trail is 1.5 miles long and offers a leisurely hike to a stunning lookout point that’s well worth the walk.
  • Hawksbill Summit: This 1.6-mile trail offers a short but steep and rocky climb to the park's highest point, 4,051 feet above sea level.
  • Old Rag Mountain: This challenging 9.1-mile loop offers 2,595 feet of elevation gain and is one of the most popular trails in the national park. To monitor foot traffic, you’ll need to secure a day-use permit.
  • Mary’s Rock: This 3.7 out-and-back trail takes you through part of the Appalachian Trail to the top of a rocky 3,514-foot tall peak with panoramic wilderness views. 
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Stony Man Cliffs, Shenandoah National Park by: Chansak Joe A..

Wildlife Viewing

Shenandoah National Park is home to diverse Atlantic ecosystems teeming with a variety of more than 50 mammal species, 190 bird species, and 20 reptile and amphibian species. You can expect wildlife sightings such as white-tailed deer with their fawns in the meadows and a black bear walking through the forest. Animals in the park frequently cross Skyline Drive, which is important to be aware of. Drive carefully and adhere to the park's 35 mph speed limit. 

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Hawksbill Mountain, Shenandoah National Park by: Vladimir Grablev.

Shenandoah National Park Animal Species Include: 

  • White-tailed deer
  • Black bear
  • Bobcat
  • Coyote
  • Red fox
  • River otter
  • Raccoon
  • Striped Skunk
  • Virginia Opossum
  • Woodchuck
  • Eastern Cottontail
  • Northern Flying Squirrel
  • Eastern Chipmunk
  • Gray Squirrel

Guided Excursions 

There are a variety of guided excursions and activities in Shenandoah National Park that allow you to experience its natural beauty in unique and exciting ways. One popular option is horseback riding, which takes guests on scenic trails through the park's jaw-dropping hills and landscapes. These rides are suitable for all experience levels and provide a serene way to explore the park's remote areas.

For those seeking more adrenaline-fueled adventures, guided rock climbing trips are available. These excursions cater to novice and experienced rock climbers, offering the chance to ascend some of Shenandoah’s rugged rocky peaks. 

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Black Bear cubs, Shenandoah National Park. Photo by: Andrew.

What’s Near Shenandoah National Park? 

If you’re looking for fun beyond Shenandoah National Park and its many mountain trails along Skyline Drive, there are plenty of other worthwhile activities within a short drive. While these are outside the park's borders, you could still consider them part of Shenandoah National Park’s attractions. 

Luray Caverns: 

Take a guided tour through the largest and most popular caverns in the Eastern United States, known for their impressive stalactites, stalagmites, and mirror pools. Onsite, you’ll also find a lush green garden maze and ropes adventure park. 

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Luray Cavern, Shenandoah National Park by: oldmn.

Natural Bridge State Park: 

About an hour from Shenandoah National Park, this state park is filled with nature trails and a picturesque 215-foot-tall natural limestone arch once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Shenandoah Valley: 

This historic region offers southern towns, wine tasting, antique shopping, and hot air balloon rides. Enjoy the surrounding views of the mountains while enjoying a bit of charming comfort. 

History of Shenandoah National Park 

Shenandoah National Park holds a history as captivating as its scenic vistas. Up to 9,000 years ago, Native Americans visited the area seasonally to hunt and gather food and source stones for tools. When European pioneers arrived in the 1750s, they sought to develop the area into a homestead. They mined and milled resources, planted crops, and built communities. During the U.S. Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was home to battles with as many as 54,000 troupes. Decades later, during the Great Depression, the national park system was established. In 1935, Shenandoah became a formal national park and still today is a government-protected wilderness. 

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Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park by: Walt.

Enjoy Your Trip to Shenandoah National Park

We've ventured through the expansive Shenandoah National Park and uncovered the park's diverse attractions. From the serene beauty of Skyline Drive to the rugged trails of Old Rag Mountain to charming valley towns nearby, Shenandoah provides a haven for all adventurers.

If you’ve already been to Shenandoah National Park, do our highlighted spots align with your experiences? Are there lesser-known areas or trails within the park that you believe deserves recognition? Please let us know! We’d love to hear your stories and suggestions about Shenandoah National Park. Either way, we hope this guide has been helpful in your planning of this stunning national park.

Photo by: Demerzel21.


How long does it take to tour Shenandoah National Park?

Touring the entire Shenandoah National Park can take a few hours to several days, depending on how much you want to explore. For a thorough experience, plan for at least two to three days, including hiking some of its popular park rails and scenic drives. This allows ample time to appreciate its natural beauty and diverse ecosystems.

What time of year is Shenandoah National Park best?

Shenandoah National Park is best visited during the fall when the foliage turns into stunning shades of red, orange, and yellow, providing breathtaking views. Spring is also lovely as wildflowers bloom. Summers in the park are great for hiking, while winters, though colder, offer quiet and picturesque snowy landscapes.

Should I carry bear spray in Shenandoah National Park?

If you see a bear, wildlife experts recommend staying calm, making noise, and slowly backing away face forward. This will usually deter the bear. However, in the unlikely event a bear charges you, bear spray may be helpful as long as you know how to use it properly. Always fight back and focus your attention on their eyes and nose.

Can you sleep in your car in Shenandoah?

Sleeping in your car overnight in Shenandoah National Park is not permitted. Visitors must use designated campgrounds or lodging facilities within the national park. This regulation helps manage safety and environmental impact, ensuring all guests have a pleasant visit.

Do you need reservations to visit Shenandoah National Park?

Reservations are not required to enter Shenandoah National Park for the day, but lodging and some camping areas within the park do require reservations, especially during peak visiting seasons. Book park accommodations early to ensure you have a place to stay. 

Nancy Raven Kirk
Nancy Raven Kirk

Nancy is a writer, traveler, and outdoor enthusiast originally from Los Angeles. She's had work published in the L.A. Times, OC Weekly, and various other publications. Check out her website at


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