View at the top of the summit of Hawksbill Mountain as taken from my iPhone
Shenandoah National Park is a beautiful National Park on the East Coast in Virginia, a couple hours drive west of Washington D.C. One of the most iconic parts of the park is the 105 mile Skyline Drive with 75 overlooks that showcase incredible views of the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia Piedmont. Moreover, the park is a hiker’s playground with 500 miles of trails. There are a diverse set of hikes that include mountain summits, canyons, waterfalls, and forests. A lot of the hikes start on Skyline Drive. You will clearly see the signs for the hikes as you drive down the road. Although you will get a lot of incredible views from Skyline Drive, you cannot fully experience the beauty of the park without hiking. Of course, the views in the park are great on a clear day. From personal experience, they are even better on a partly cloudy day. The clouds splinter the sunlight and the rays majestically grace the valley. It is as if a door from heaven opened up and God touched the valley with his hands.
Shenandoah National Park is also home to black bears. I spotted one from my car on Skyline Drive. I tried to snap a photo of it but it quickly ducked and ran away when it saw cars. Obviously, do not approach a bear if you spot one. Admire them from a safe distance. If you are in a group or around other people, they generally know not to approach you. As such, talking loudly is a tip to keep them away. When I was hiking alone and did not see people around, I turned on a Podcast to make some noise.
In terms of other National Parks I have visited, it is below the top tier. Nevertheless, I had a very fun time exploring the park in 3 days before I attended a wedding at a vineyard by nearby Harrisonburg. After 23 miles of hiking with over 6,200 of elevation gain, I was exhausted. Of course, there is no way to complete the 500 miles of trails in one trip. Accordingly, you will have to pick some great ones based on the views you want to see and how much you can handle. I highlight the four I did below but the following link was a great resource for me when I was planning my trip: 10 Must Do Hikes In Shenandoah National Park. Admission into the park is $25 for one vehicle. It is good for 7 days. Information for other fees are here: Plan-Your-Visit/Fees
- Skyline Drive
The 105 mile drive runs along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. Accordingly, it is one of the more unique scenic drives in the country because you usually cannot drive along the crest of mountains. Naturally, it provides amazing views of the valley through the 75 lookout points along the road. The Skyline Drive is definitely one of the things you need to do to experience the beauty of the park. Although I highly recommend hiking to fully take in the magnificence of the valley, driving the Skyline Drive obviously provides an opportunity to see the park in the comfort of your car without the physical strain of a hike. The north entrance starts at Front Royal near Routes 66 and 340. It is the official beginning of the Drive as the mile markers go from 0 to 105 from north to south. There are additional entrance points along the road at Thornton Gap at Rt. 211 and Swift Run Gap at Rt. 33. The south entrance is at Rockfish Gap at Routes 64 and 250. It is also the north entrance for the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Shenandoah National Park and 469 miles if you really want an extended scenic drive. The speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35 miles per hour. Consequently, it will take approximately 3 hours to drive if you do not stop. Obviously, you will want to stop at the lookout points. However, not all of the lookout points are created equal. I categorize them as ones you definitely want to get out of your car to photograph and take in the landscape to enjoy, others that you want to drive into and roll down your windows to take a photograph, and ones that are not great but you can drive in and take a quick look while you keep on driving to immediately rejoin the road. In my opinion, there are approximately ten lookout points you need to get out of your car for. It is fun at first to stop at all of them but you eventually get tired and just want to view the lookout points quicker to efficiently drive through Skyline Drive. Outside of the lookout points, the drive is curvy but can be boring because there are a lot of trees that cover up the views of the valley below. Accordingly, the drive is probably much prettier in the fall when the leaves change colors. Even the less exciting parts of the drive with trees will be picturesque with the portrait of colors.
I began the drive at 1 PM. I decided to do a couple of short hikes so I ultimately chose to split the drive into two days. On the first day, I exited the park at the mile 65 marker, which is at the Swift Run Gap at Rt. 33. On the second day, I connected back at the Drive at Thornton Gap at Rt. 211 after a hike to drive south and eventually see the remaining road from the mile 65 marker to the 105 mile marker. In my opinion, the first 65 miles in the north part of the Drive is more scenic. My favorite lookout post is at the 49 mile marker: Franklin Cliffs. A lot of great hikes are also close to the Skyland Resort, around the 42 mile marker. If you do not have time to complete the total drive, I would definitely focus on the first 65 miles in the north. While the remaining drive from mile 65 to 105 in the south is not as scenic, there are still beautiful lookout points. In addition, completing the full drive is part of the to-do list for Shenandoah National Park.
Again, you cannot experience the full magnificence and beauty of the park without doing some hikes. Since there are over 500 miles of trails, you will only have time to hike a fraction of them. Here are the ones I would recommend:
- Lower Hawksbill Trail (1.7 miles round trip to and back) – 45.6 mile marker on Skyline Drive
The parking lot for the start of the trailhead is at the 45.6 mile marker on Skyline Drive. There are limited parking spots so you may have to wait a little bit on a busy day or try to park on the side of the road. The hike to the summit involves a modest 690 feet elevation change and takes 20-25 minutes. It is an easy hike but it is also just enough of a workout to make me sweat. Nevertheless, there is shade from the trees throughout the hike to the top to mitigate any heat. The quick trek to the summit is totally worth it. You know you have arrived when you spot a cabin. The top of Hawksbill Mountain features some of the most breathtaking views of the park with some rocks and cliffs overhanging and overlooking the valley underneath. Since it was partly cloudy when I got to the summit, the clouds split the sun rays up so it looked like a door from heaven opened up and God touched the valley with his hands.
There is also an Upper Hawksbill Trail, which starts a little south of the Lower Hawksbill Trail. It is slightly longer at 2.2 miles round trip but ends at the same summit.
- Stony Man Trail (1.6 miles round trip to and back)/ Little Stony Man Trail (3.5 miles loop) – 41 mile marker on Skyline Drive
At the 41 mile marker on Skyline Drive, you will see a sign to turn into Skyland. After you turn, the parking lot for the trails to the Stony Man and Little Stony Man summits is immediately to your right. I did the Passamaquoddy Loop, which is the Little Stony Man hike, but made a detour to the Stony Man Summit. I would recommend starting the hike in a counterclockwise direction. About ten minutes on the trail, it splits in two. One way is straight and the other way veers to the right. Go straight to get to the Stony Man summit. I highly recommend the Stony Man summit. Similar to the top of Hawksbill, the views are absolutely spectacular and include the Shenandoah Valley, the town of Luray, and the Massanutten and Alleghany Mountains. I give views on the top of Stony Man a slight edge over the views at the top of Hawksbill. I also think the rock formations at the clearing on top of Stony Man are prettier. It takes about 20 minutes to get to the top from the parking lot and the elevation change is only 340 feet. Accordingly, it is an easier hike than Hawksbill too. Of course, both are easy hikes and definitely worth the time. You can definitely do both on the same day since they are so close to each other.
From the summit of Stony Man, I walked back toward the same direction I came from and took a sharp turn to where the road split and veered right in order to hike to Little Stony Man. To be honest, the views at Little Stony Man are good but do not match Stony Man. Consequently, hiking the loop to see Little Stony Man is more for exercise as it is 3.5 miles with a 770 feet elevation change. It is a decent workout but not strenuous. I definitely recommend completing the counterclockwise loop rather than going to Little Stony Man then going back up from where you came from because it is much steeper. The second half of the loop has a lot more rocks. Although parts of it are a little bit narrow and you can see the steep hill to your right, you can hug the inside of the trail if you are afraid of heights. You are not in danger of slipping off the path unless you are extremely careless. There is also a sharp turn near the end of the Passamaquoddy Trail to link to the Furnace Spring Horse Trail that heads back to the parking lot instead of connecting to a trail that heads to Skyland. As a hint, you will see a door for a shack built into rocks and an electrical line above that are landmarks for the sharp turn left.
- Old Rag Mountain Loop (9.1 miles loop) – Nethers Road, Etlan, Viriginia
It is the most difficult, fun, and popular hike in Shenandoah National Park. It is legitimately strenuous. In addition to the 9.1 miles and 2,380 feet elevation change, there is intermittent rock scrambling for an hour as you approach the summit. I have done shorter rock scrambling, in terms of time, for 25 minutes that was more strenuous because it was continuous. There are natural breaks (e.g. short, flat stretches in between rock scrambling) to catch your breath. The parking lot for the trailhead is on Nethers Road. It is a 0.8 mile walk from the parking lot to the start of the trailhead. Most people do the trail in a clockwise direction on the Ridge Trail. It takes about 90 minutes of hiking on switchbacks before you get to the beginning of the rock scrambling. The switchbacks are covered by trees and shade. It feels like walking through a forest. At first, I foolishly thought the rock scrambling was going to be really easy and exaggerated. I quickly faced reality when I got to the sections with the real rock scrambling. I can only describe it as nature’s obstacle course. At different sections of the rock scrambling, I had to sit down and “lead with my butt” whenever I felt the ground below a rock was a little too high because I did not really know how stable some of the rocks were, go under or squeeze between rocks, and throw my book bag ahead because I could not afford to have the bag pull me backwards as I needed the full momentum and force of my body pushing up to the path or rock above. Despite the challenging rock scrambling, I never felt like I was in danger. None of it was near an edge or steep slope. I could have definitely hurt myself if I was reckless but nothing would have been life threatening. In addition to the fun of rock scrambling and completing the natural obstacle course, you are also rewarded with stunning views of the valley at the summit. There is a large clearing and big rocks to sit on to relax, rest a bit, and soak in the gorgeous views of the valley, mountains, and the rock path you hiked up. Of course, it is a great spot to enjoy a snack or lunch.
From the summit, you take the Saddle trail to start the descent back towards the beginning of the trail head. It is a gradual decline. On the Ridge Trail, you follow blue markers. Obviously, you want to ensure you are following those markers so you do not go off trail and encounter a rock scramble that actually is dangerous or near an edge. Similarly, follow the blue markers when you descend on the Saddle Trail. I went off trail once because I was following someone who looked like they knew where they were going. If you are walking somewhere where there has not been a lot of wear and tear from others walking and hitting a lot of branches, it is a good indication you went the wrong way. The path on the Saddle Ridge is pretty wide and have a lot of footprints. The Saddle Trail eventually connects to the Fire Trail. It is relatively flat. You will continually ask yourself when that trail will end because there is nothing exciting to see and you will be tired at that point. The full loop of the hike, including from and back to the parking lot, is 9.1 miles.
Of course, definitely have enough water for the hike. You will absolutely need it. I had 2 liters of water on me but it was not overly hot or humid. It is heavy to carry on the way up but you will feel as light as a feather on the way down. I drank about half a liter in the first 90 minutes to hydrate and lighten the load on my back a little. I consumed a liter during the rock scramble. The last half liter was more than enough on the hike down. Again, the rock scramble is legitimately difficult. In my opinion, it is manageable for someone relatively physical fit. If you have serious concerns whether you can make it but still want to see the summit, you can do the hike from the counterclockwise direction. Walk up the Fire Trail to the Saddle Trail then turn around and return the same way. It is an extra mile of hiking but you skip out on the strenuous rock scrambling. Of course, I totally recommend the rock scrambling if you are capable. Old Rag is one of the most fun hikes I have ever done. I only spent about 10 minutes to enjoy the summit so it only took me 5 hours to complete the hike.
As another recommendation, have written, physical instructions or a screenshot on how to get to the Old Rag Parking Lot with you. I had terrible cell service at the parking lot and the surrounding area. As such, Google Maps did not work for me. Per the National Park Service website, below are the instructions to the parking lot:
- From Sperryville, Route 211: Take Route 522 south for .8 mile. Turn right onto Route 231 and go 8 miles. Turn right onto Route 601 and follow the signs to the parking area (approximately 3 miles).
- From Madison, Route 29 Business: TakeRoute 231 for 12.8 miles. Turn left onto Route 602 and follow the signs to the parking area (approximately 3 miles).
Before and After (31 Main St, Sperryville, VA 22740)
I stopped by this small café in the morning because the cell service in the area was poor for me and I needed Wi-Fi to look up instructions on how to get to the Old Rag trailhead. As such, I got some breakfast: a croissant and some green tea. The croissant did not taste too fresh but was ok. After I hiked Old Rag, I was hungry and returned because it was the only food spot I knew was close by in the area. Lunch at Before and After was amazing. The chicken pesto panini was excellent. One of the reasons I enjoyed it must have been because I was starving after a long hike. Nevertheless, it was definitely delicious. The chicken was tender and not dry. The pesto flavor was very good. The panini was very hot. The bread was toasted perfectly.
- White Oak Canyon Trail (7.3 miles trip to and back) – 42.6 mile marker on Skyline Drive
If you are looking for a hike with some waterfalls, the White Oak Canyon trail is a solid and enjoyable hike. The parking lot is off of Skyline Drive. If you only want to hike to the upper falls, it is 4.6 miles to and back with a 1,040 feet elevation change. If you want to continue down, the total hike from the parking lot is 7.3 miles to hike down the canyon to the lower falls with a 2,150 feet elevation change. If you want to hike to the other parking lot at the bottom of the canyon, the round trip is 10 miles. However, a group of hikers that came from that direction told me there was not much to see past the lower falls so I did not add miles on to the hike just to add additional miles for exercise. Parts of the trail have a lot of rocks. As such, be cognizant and watch your step at those parts. There are many falls along the hike. Some falls (e.g. the upper and lower falls) are more obvious than others. You will need to veer slightly off trail to see some of the other ones. The lower falls are definitely the most beautiful of the falls. Without a doubt, I thought they were prettier than the upper falls. In addition, there is a beautiful lookout of the canyon that is about 10 minutes above the lower falls when you are hiking down. I did the hike at the end of August. Unfortunately, the falls can dry up by the end of the summer. From what I read, the falls are at their full glory during the spring or winter. This hike is also good for a fully cloudy or rainy day because there are a lot of trees that provide cover on the trail. Of course, the view of the waterfalls are not impeded without the sun because the trees provide shade of the falls on a sunny day anyway.
I also read a lot of warnings about the difficulty of the hike. There is also a sign shortly after the upper falls that warn hikers not to exceed their skill level because there is no shuttle back up to the parking lot. In my opinion, the difficulty of the trail is exaggerated for anyone with a decent amount of hiking experience or in fairly good physical condition. Obviously, you know your own hiking skills. If you do not hike or exercise much, definitely heed those warnings. Nevertheless, I have a couple of alternate routes if you still want to try but are unsure if you can do the main hikes. The steepest parts of the hike are between lower falls and upper falls. If you start from Skyline drive and hike down, you may lose a sense of how steep the hike is. However, you can always start at the bottom and park at the White Oak Canyon Lower Parking Lot at Chad Berry Lane in Syria. You can try to hike up to the upper falls but turn back if the hike becomes too difficult. Obviously, going downhill when you are tired is drastically easier than going up when you are exhausted. If you want to see the lower and upper falls and avoid the steepest parts of the hike altogether, hike to the lower falls from the White Oak Canyon Lower Parking Lot then drive up to parking lot at Skyline Drive and hike to the upper falls.
Skyalnd is one of the resorts you can stay at in the park. There are two entrances near the 41 and 43 mile markers. It is close to the parking lots to the trailheads for Stony Man, White Oak Canyon, and Hawksbill. Even if you do not stay there [which I did not], it is a good point to stop by to go to the bathroom or grab a snack or drink. Its bathrooms are available to the public and relatively clean. The food is marked up but a Gatorade is reasonably priced.
I had to attend a wedding in Harrisonburg anyway so it was the default place for me to stay. Nevertheless, I definitely recommend this college town [home to James Madison University] if you are visiting Shenandoah National Park. It is approximately half an hour drive from the Swift Gap Entrance on Route 33. I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott (1890 Evelyn Byrd Ave, Harrisonburg, VA 22801). It was a decent Marriott hotel. I had a few technical difficulties with my reservation that were frustrating, especially when the staff made additional errors when trying to correct a previous one. Nevertheless, the general manager and his team eventually handled it. They did it in an effective and professional manner. Since mistakes can happen, I let them go but they did occur. If you are not a Marriott member, there are plenty of other hotels (e.g. Hilton) in the same general area of town. The hotels are next to a Wal-Mart, shopping plazas, and restaurants. You can also drive 10 minutes to downtown Harrisonburg, which is a fast growing and developing downtown area. While there are definitely formal sit-down restaurants to choose from, I stuck with casual quick eats and I was thoroughly impressed.
1. Pulp Acai Smoothie Bar (135 S Main St, Harrisonburg, VA 22801)
It is a kiosk inside of a bike shop in downtown Harrisonburg. In general, I love acai bowls. I enjoy them even more before or after a hike. Pulp has one of the best acai bowls I have tasted anywhere. The acai was perfectly chilled so the texture and thickness was like a sorbet. The granola was top notch with a great crunch. From my experience, a delicious honey can really put an acai bowl over the top. For this reason, I ordered the “Braley’s” because it was the bowl with honey. It did not disappoint and the honey was amazing. As a note, all the fruit is blended into the acai. The only improvement point, which would only be for aesthetic purposes, is to also chop up and arrange fruit at the top of the bowl. However, the taste is perfect as is. The price is also great for the amount of food you are getting. I would not make it prettier if it meant increasing the price. Finally, I also enjoy the clear cups for takeout. I like seeing everything in the bowl through the cup. Of course, it also makes the acai bowl more photogenic.
2. Xenia Kebab Grille (219 Burgess Road, Harrisonburg, VA 22801)
Xenia is a hole in the wall type, Middle Eastern spot in the same shopping center but on the opposite side of Wal-Mart. I ordered the chicken shawarma. The pita was amazing. The chicken was marinated incredibly well. It had a similar taste to curry and the yellow color of curry. I also ordered the fries and they were good. Nevertheless, I mainly ordered them because I was embarrassed by how low my bill was going to be if I just ordered the chicken shawarma lunch entrée. I have tried a lot of Middle Eastern places and Xenia is definitely one of the most memorable. It is difficult to beat the prices too.
- South Fork BBQ (245 Burgess Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22801)
It is a hole in the wall type barbecue spot also in the same shopping center but on the opposite side of Wal-Mart. I ordered a two meat combo that included a side. The fatty brisket was excellent. It was very juicy. On the other hand, I was not a huge fan of the ribs. They were charred well on the outside but a little more dry on the inside than I like to eat. For my side, I ordered the mac and queso. There was only the bottom of the barrel left. However, I knew it must be great if it was almost gone but there were plenty of the other sides left. My intuition was correct. Even though it was the bottom of the barrel, it was amazing. It also had a bit of a kick to it but was not too spicy. I highly recommend the fatty brisket and the mac and queso at South Fork barbecue.
- Tacos el Primo (1110 Reservoir St, Harrisonburg, VA 22801)
I found this Mexican food truck because I wanted to try the Korean food truck next to it that was closed. The carnitas tacos and chicken burrito were great. In addition, the sauce has a kick to it. It was overpoweringly spicy for me at times. Nevertheless, the carnitas tacos and chicken burrito were among the best Mexican food I have had anywhere. For this reason, I decided I needed to try more and ordered the al pastor and steak tacos. They were ok but not as good as previous two items I had.
- Kline’s Dairy Bar (58 E Wolfe St, Harrisonburg, VA 22802)
It is a retro ice cream shop that has retained its feel and look from its beginnings during the 1940s. It also has some of the best ice cream I have eaten anywhere. The custard is absolutely amazing and maybe the best custard I have ever tasted. During my first visit, I ordered the flavor of the week: Brownie batter. Although the brownie chunks were good, they actually take away from the overall taste because the custard is so unbelievably good. On my second visit [because there definitely needed to be another one before I left Harrisonburg], I ordered the vanilla, without anything else in it, in a waffle cone. Of course, it was amazing. Kline’s also has its own parking lot so you do not need to find street parking.
- Shenandoah Joe Coffee (64 S Mason St, Harrisonburg, VA 22801)
It is a great specialty coffee shop in downtown Harrisonburg. I have tried a lot of coffee shops in New York and across the country. I would rank it on par with some of the best shops. I have my handful of shops above all others. Shenandoah Joe is in the tier right below those elite few. I ordered a latte and it was rich and smooth with beautiful latte art. I definitely recommend it for your coffee fix in Harrisonburg. It also has a parking lot but only a few designated spots for the coffee shop. However, there is plenty of street parking next to it and nearby.