The first thing you should know about Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is that if you think you’re going to take in the entire 104.6 miles of Skyline Drive—the park’s curvaceous scenic byway—in one day, you’re wrong.
It’s not the traffic or even the 75 pull-off overlooks along the way. What will consume your time in this rugged finger of public land is the frequent need to park the car and explore these ancient Appalachian hills, starting with the 500 miles of trails that amble across streams, beneath pulsing waterfalls and up rocky pitches to vistas of stacked mountain ridges that flow down to pastoral valleys.
On one recent trip, my wife, two kids and I stopped for a “brief” hike on the Dickey Ridge trail, intending to kill an hour before checking into our weekend rental house just west of the park. Four hours later, after an up-and-down meander that opened to a stirring view of wooded mountains unmarred by development, we returned to the car, dusted with trail dirt and happily weary.
We had just sampled a morsel from an expansive buffet, according to Marie Style who works at the Mountain Trails outdoors store in Winchester, Virginia, and has run—yes, run—almost every trail in Shenandoah, from the technical Old Rag, which gains—and then gives back—2,415 feet of elevation in a nine-mile circuit, to the smooth and gentle Fox Hollow, where you can still see vestiges of a 19th-century family farm, including its tiny cemetery.
Style calls the park “comfortable,” due to the embrace of the expansive tree canopy, and an easy place to see a variety of wildlife.
“It’s pretty common to come across bears, which I see as a positive,” said Style. And sure enough, during our last visit, we spotted a burly ursus americanus, eyeing us back from 50 feet up a tree.
Animal sightings are a bonus but not among the main reasons people visit the park, which spokesperson Sally Hurlbert says are: waterfalls, vistas, historical sites and the Appalachian Trail. The AT, which transects Shenandoah on its run from Maine to Georgia, crosses Skyline Drive “around 30 times,” said Hurlbert, leaving you with little excuse to avoid hiking at least part of it.
Among historical sites President Herbert Hoover’s camp, Rapidan, is the most popular. Tours reveal the modest log cabin with a supersized stone chimney and an exhibit on the 31st president’s life. (Make the required reservations via recreation.gov or 877-444-6777.)
Shenandoah’s 199,173 acres rise from the Piedmont in some of the oldest mountains on earth—the Blue Ridge—formed 1.1 billion to 250 million years ago. The human footprint here dates back around 12,000 years, when Native Americans started hunting and fishing in the region.
Lush pastures drew Scotch-Irish and German immigrants in the 1730s and—according to the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association—famous Americans from presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe to Daniel Boone passed through the area at one point or another.
The valley also saw 14 Civil War battles, and although none of the fighting occurred within park boundaries, troops from both sides marched through these hills. Confederate generals in particular, most notably Stonewall Jackson, used the Blue Ridge as a natural screen to conceal their movements.
For a taste of more-recent history, stop in Skyland Resort, which opened in the late 1800s—the park was established in 1935—as a vacation spot for the broader region’s urban middle class. Even if you don’t stay in one of the rustic cabins, some of which date to 1906, you should tour the Massanutten Lodge. Built in 1911 and recently refurbished, it offers live entertainment, from bluegrass and Americana to clogging and country.
You can find a similar bygone charm in the small towns fringing the park, where varnished historic buildings abut sketchy motels and 100-year-old homes in various states of repair. But the 21st century is advancing. Among my favorite newcomers is the Blue Wing Frog Picnic Market and Brew, in Front Royal, which entices locals and travelers alike with scratch-made baked goods, sandwiches, salads and soups.
Recently my family and I settled in here for a late Sunday lunch as we delayed our return to reality and savored a chicken pomegranate salad, catfish tacos, a pepperoni grilled cheese sandwich and wildflower honey lemonade.
Robert Hall, an Arlington transplant who owns Blue Wing with his wife, Kelly Sprague, credits the community for keeping him afloat. Three months after opening, the restaurant ran out of funds.
“The locals rallied with a ‘cash mob,’ which meant we didn’t have to pay any credit card processing fees, and a GoFundMe site,” said Hall. “I walked in—and we didn’t even have tables at the time—and there were 80 people in here. It brought tears to my eyes.”
So will Shenandoah National Park, as long as you get out of the car and let the spirit of the mountains carry you away.
Getting There: From D.C., head to the park’s North Entrance. Take I-66 West to Front Royal, Virginia, exit onto Route 340 South and follow the signs to Skyline Drive.