9 Best Hiking Trails in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is a beautiful area of mountains and valleys, known for inspiring lookouts and high waterfalls. Many of the trails in the park are relatively short, although often steep and intense, and lead to astounding views or impressive natural features. The most famous trail is the Appalachian Trail that runs through the park, extending from Maine to Georgia in its entirety. Hikers will inevitably cross this trail or spend time on it as they complete many of the hikes in the park. The Appalachian Trail is like a hiking highway through the park, with scenic trails sprouting out to the overlooks and waterfalls.
The main road through the park is Skyline Drive, and almost all the hikes can be accessed from this route. The park map indicates the location of overlooks and parking areas by mileposts along this road. Unlike many mountain roads that run along the valley floor, Skyline Drive runs high along the ridge, with numerous scenic lookout areas. As a result, many of the hikes begin in a downward direction and end with a serious hike back up to the parking lot. With limited time or only a single day for hiking, it's best to either choose two or three short hikes, making sure at least one is to an overlook and another to a waterfall, or tackle one of the full-day hikes.
1 Upper Hawksbill Trail
The view from Hawksbill Mountain is one of the best in the park, with two lookout areas near the summit. This is the highest point in Shenandoah National Park, and the rocky lookout area at the top clears the way for scenic views, with no vegetation to block the vista. If it's a busy day with many hikers, there is still plenty of room at the top for everyone to spread out, relax for a while, and enjoy the moment. Near the summit is a day-use stone hut with a picnic table that looks out over the valley.
The trail begins at the Upper Hawksbill parking area at milepost 46.7 and leads up to the summit, covering 2.1 miles round-trip. The ground is even and follows a fire road part of the way, making it suitable for most hikers. This is a great late afternoon hike that typically takes about 1.5 hours to complete. If you are traveling with two cars, it's possible to combine Upper Hawksbill Trail with the Lower Hawksbill Trail by parking a vehicle at each trailhead.
2 Bearfence Mountain Trail
The Bearfence Mountain Trail is a short but challenging hike that offers the best views in the park. From the bare, rocky summit, a 360-degree view extends over the surrounding mountains and valleys, giving a complete look at the entire area. However, this involves a scramble over rock sections, making it unsuitable for some hikers. These more difficult sections involve climbing with hands and feet up and over rock ledges. For the average fit hiker, this is not a problem and well worth the effort, especially considering the loop is only 1.2 miles long.
While the typical direction of this hike is clockwise, some people start out in a counterclockwise direction, using the Appalachian Trail to take them to a lookout just short of the peak, with a 180-degree view, and then return the same way they came in. This is an easier alternative that does not require doing the rock scramble. A better option, for people who have time to do only one hike to a lookout, is to hike the Upper Hawksbill trail or the Stony Man trail.
The parking area for the Bearfence Mountain trail is at approximately milepost 56.5. Pets are not allowed on this trail.
3 Dark Hollow Falls Trail
This is the most popular hiking trail in Shenandoah National Park and it is always recommended by park staff. This is a short 1.4-mile return hike that is suitable for almost everyone and very popular with families. The trail leads down from the parking area following a good path on mainly even ground, with a few rocky patches. At the bottom, Dark Hollow Falls tumbles 70 feet over ledges and into shallow pools right at the trail's edge, making it one of the most accessible waterfalls in the park. Although most people turn around at this point, it's also possible to continue down the trail to where it connects with the Rose River Trail. Where the trails intersect is another cascading falls, although it is actually just a lower section of Dark Hollow Falls.
Regardless of whether you turn around at the main lookout point or continue to the second falls, the return trip is a steep, uphill walk and will likely take almost twice as long to go up as it did to go down. Fortunately, the trail is shaded most of the way, so it's not terribly hot in the midday sun. Total time for this hike varies considerably, but most hikers should allow 1.5 hours.
The parking area for this trail is just north of the Byrd Visitor Center. Despite being quite large, the parking lot can fill up quickly on weekends, particularly Saturdays. Fortunately, this is a short trail and people are always coming and going. Pets are not allowed.
4 Stony Man Trail
The second highest point in the park is Stony Man peak, and like Hawksbill Mountain, it offers a rewarding view from the summit. From the lookout, the view extends over the Shenandoah Valley, the town of Luray, and the Massanutten and Allegheny Mountains. This popular trail is quite easy and suitable for all levels of hikers. It is also frequently busy, but there is a large parking area. The trail rises gradually from the parking area at milepost 41.7 until it reaches the small, rock-covered lookout area. With the exception of the viewing area at the summit, the ground is level. The total distance of this lollipop-shaped hike is 1.6 miles, with 340 feet of elevation gain. Total time for this hike is about one hour. Pets are not allowed.
5 Lewis Falls Trail
Lewis Falls plunges 81 feet over a rock ledge and is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park. How much water is flowing over it depends on the time of year and amount of recent rainfall, but it's a nice hike to do at any time. This is a 3.3-mile loop trail that follows the Appalachian Trail for a large portion of the hike. The main feature is Lewis Falls, but there are also nice views along the trail in some sections. Portions of the trail are rocky, uneven, and steep in some areas.
Near the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows, the hike can be started at the Big Meadows campground amphitheater or at the Tanners Ridge Overlook, just south of the visitor center on Skyline Drive. If you start at the Tanners Ridge overlook, you have the option of stopping off for lunch at the Big Meadows Lodge for a mid-hike break. If you are not interested in doing the full loop and simply want to see the falls, begin at the Tanners Ridge overlook and do an out and back hike to the falls. From here it is a 0.9 mile downhill hike to the falls, and returns following the same route, for a 1.8-mile round-trip.
6 Old Rag Trail
Old Rag Trail is a beautiful and challenging all-day hike, but it is not accessible from Skyline Drive. This 9.2-mile hike is a favorite trail with hikers looking for a longer and more strenuous trail. It contains a two- to three-mile rock scramble that runs through narrow rock corridors, over huge boulders and natural stairs, and across uneven, rocky ground. But for those who are up for the challenge, the trail offers some outstanding scenery, from balanced rocks and unique stone formations to outstanding vistas. This hike typically takes around six hours to complete and is rated as strenuous by the park.
One of the main problems with this hike is the access point, which lies on the east side of Shenandoah National Park. It cannot be reached from Skyline drive. Visitors staying in the park will have to drive either north or south of the park and loop around to the east side, to Route 600, near Nethers. Be sure to start early in the day. Pets are not allowed.
7 Whiteoak Canyon Hiking Area
The Whiteoak Canyon area offers a variety of hiking opportunities. The Cedar Run to Whiteoak circuit is a popular all-day hike that takes between five and six hours to complete. This scenic loop passes eight waterfalls, including the 86-foot-high Whiteoak Cascades, as well as a number of other unique features. At one point on the Cedar Run Trail, if there is enough water, you can swim and slide down rocks, which can be a refreshing treat on a hot day. Some sections of this hike are very steep, and the circuit is rated as strenuous. The parking area off Skyline Drive is between milepost 45 and 46. Alternatively, it is possible to access the Cedar Run Trail from outside the park on Route 600.
8 Rose River Loop Trail
The Rose River Loop Trail is a nice option for hot days, as it meanders through large trees and past waterfalls and streams. The two main highlights on the trail are the Rose River Falls and the lower portion of Dark Hollow Falls. If you are hiking in a clockwise direction, the trail passes Rose River Falls, and then enters an up-and-down section of trail that runs beside a stream with small waterfalls, until it reaches the connection with the Dark Hollow Falls hike. At this point, you can take a small detour up, for a look at the upper portion of Dark Hollow Falls, before returning back down and continuing on the Rose River Fire Road. This is a moderate, four-mile circuit, beginning at Fishers Gap Overlook.
9 South River Falls
The South River Falls Trail can be done as an in-and-out hike to the falls and back, or it can be hiked as a circuit, taking the fire road and Appalachian Trail back. The main observation point for the falls is quite a distance away from them, and the view here is not nearly as good as it is for other waterfalls in the park. There is an optional 1.4-mile round-trip spur that leads to the base of the falls, which is highly recommended. The main trail follows a meandering creek for a short distance. This is a good opportunity for photographers looking for easy access to small falls and moving water. It's possible to walk into the creek and across stones for close-up images.
The trail out and back to the South River Falls observation platform is 2.6 miles return. The full loop, including an additional hike to the lower falls, is 4.7 miles. Parking for this trail is at the South River Picnic Area, just north of milepost 63.
Tips for Hiking
- Save the hikes with the grand views looking out over the mountains and valley for the sunny days and do the waterfall hikes when it's overcast. Waterfalls are best photographed on cloudy days, when there is less contrast, and the vistas are much more rewarding when the views are not obstructed with cloud cover. If you have the option, leave the summit hikes for the late afternoon, rather than midday. Early morning is also good if you can make it to the top early enough.
- The trails are marked with colored paint, usually found on trees or rocks on the trails. White blazes indicate the Appalachian Trail, blue blazes are regular hiking trails, yellow blazes are fire roads or horse trails. Square concrete posts are found at most trail intersections. They have a metal band around them showing the direction and name of the trail, with distances to major points of interest or other intersections.
- For the latest trail conditions, check with the park before heading out. http://www.nps.gov/shen/index.htm
Where to Stay Near Shenandoah National Park
There are a few towns and cities outside of Shenandoah National Park where visitors can choose to base themselves. However, Harrisonburg is one of the best positioned cities for accessing the park. The Swift Run Gap Entrance Station at Skyline Drive is about a 30-minute drive from Harrisonburg. This is a very central point in the park, close to some of the best hiking trails and highlights. This small city is a university town, so there's a fun vibe and plenty of restaurants. Harrisonburg lacks true luxury hotels, and most of the accommodation options here are chain hotels. Below are some highly-rated hotels in Harrisonburg:
- Luxury Hotels: The Country Inn & Suites is at the south end of town and is easily accessible off Interstate 81. This hotel has large, modern rooms; an indoor pool and hot tub; and serves a free, hot breakfast. The Hampton Inn is next door, and rooms here include a fridge, microwave, and complimentary cookies in the afternoon. There's also a seasonal outdoor pool and many chain restaurants within walking distance. Ideal for large families or groups, the new Residence Inn offers rooms with full kitchens and separate living areas. An indoor pool and Sport Court are on site, perfect for basketball, tennis, and volleyball.
- Mid-Range Hotels: The Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham has standard rooms and a seasonal outdoor pool, and rates includes breakfast, with a doughnut-making machine that is available for guests' use. Rooms at the Sleep Inn & Suites include mini fridges and microwaves, and guest laundry facilities are on site. A well-priced, pet-friendly option is The Village Inn. Many rooms have whirlpools and decks, and the inn has a pool and playground area for children.
- Budget Hotels: The Motel 6 Harrisonburg is an excellent budget choice, with clean and low-priced, pet friendly rooms and an outdoor pool. Located on Linda Lane, this property is also well positioned for accessing the park.