A Guide to Shenandoah National Park
Just an hour and a half from the bustling city of Washington, D.C. is Shenandoah National Park, a sprawling wonderland with a full 500 miles of trails that—sadly—most folks just drive past. Sally Hurlbert, a management specialist here, says that it’s “most famous for the Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road built to take you through the park.”
It’s worth stopping in, of course. There are gorgeous hikes appropriate for every skill level—distance hiking; viewpoint climbs like a popular one up Hawksbill mountain; even full-moon hikes under a spectacular, starry sky. “We’re pretty far away from D.C.,” says Hurlbert. “We don’t get a lot of light pollution. You’re able to see the constellations and stars beautifully.” Just remember to bring a flashlight, she suggests, because even when there’s a full moon, the tree-lined paths remain quite dark.
For those who love a challenge, there’s great rock climbing here. If you’re not quite an experienced mountaineer, but you love a good scramble, check out Bearfence. “Kids love it,” she says of the mile-long loop. “I took my son on it for the first time when he was five. I was a nervous wreck, but he was fine. Kids are just really natural rock climbers.”
Visitors can also check out the knockout waterfalls (the tallest of which is more than 93 feet tall) and historic spots like Camp Rapidan, President Hoover’s summer retreat in the late 20s and early 30s. The late President was a fisherman, Hurlbert explains, so he would come up to Shenandoah from the city to relax. Fishing is still legal here—although most streams are catch and release only—but “there are about a dozen streams where you can harvest the fish,” says Hurlbert, so long as you have a Virginia fishing license.
And if you’ve always wanted to hike a stretch of the Appalachian trail, it stretches right through Shenandoah. There are several campgrounds where you can kick back for a night before heading out to appreciate the route—or you can plan outings around the events that take place here. In August, there’s a Blackberry Delight festival, replete with live music, pony rides, and lots of tasty blackberry dishes. September is the Apple Butter Celebration, an homage to a treat that is well-liked in the region, says Hurlbert. You’ll see copper pots where apple butter is bubbling away, and you can purchase jars to take home.
The best campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park put visitors within striking distance of waterfalls, trails, mountain ridges, and outdoor activities like kayaking and rafting. Check out the rustic, wood-paneled rooms at Big Meadow Lodge, situated on 10 acres in the center of the park, or get more in touch with the wilderness at Lewis Mountain Campground.
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When looking at the calendar and planning a visit, keep in mind that this part of the world is a good 8 to 10 degrees cooler than surrounding areas, says Hurlbert. That makes it charming in July, but somewhat less so in November. No matter what time of year you visit this National Park, be sure to bring layers. Of course, come autumn, colorful sumacs and plum-hued dogwoods make Shenandoah one of the best parks for leaf peeping.
Wildlife is plentiful in Shenandoah, after all. Deer are ubiquitous, says Hurlbert, but black bears, coyotes, foxes, and bobcats are equally common. Give a bear a wide berth if you see one—at least 150 feet, advises Hurlbert—and keep any dogs on a 6-foot-leash (not a retractable one). But also keep in mind that deer, when they kick, “kick to break a bone,” she says. So although they may look cute, give them plenty of room.
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No matter what season you choose for your Shenandoah ramble, and regardless of the time of day, remember the meaning of this place, which is as impressive as the scenery itself. “Shenandoah” derives from a Native American word meaning “beautiful daughter of the stars.” Whether you come here in sunlight or starlight, it will ring true.