Best Driving Vacations 2023: A Scenic Route Through Shenandoah National Park
Explore 100 miles of mountain crest at this stunning oasis in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Shenandoah National Park in northwestern Virginia hugs the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains like a lovely morning sunrise. About 350 miles from Columbus, the park’s 200,000 acres are stretched out along more than 100 miles of mountain crest from north to south, resulting in a long but narrow park bisected by Skyline Drive, one of America’s great scenic routes.
The road swings around curves both broad and sharp, cut to fit the undulations of the northern Blue Ridge Mountains. The 35-mph speed limit should be strictly heeded, if not for the S-curves and panoramic views, then for the abundant wildlife that’s liable to spring out from adjacent glades and woodlands, like the black bear cub I once encountered on the road as it scampered across the asphalt 30 yards ahead of me.
Skyline Drive is the only public road in the park, so it’s difficult to get lost, although I have done it. Just remember that the mileposts increase as you drive south, from 0 at the northern entrance in Front Royal near I-66 to 105 at the southern gate near Waynesboro at I-64. The park has two other entrances, off U.S. Route 33 near Elkton and off U.S. Route 211 near Luray.
Motoring nonstop from end to end takes about three hours, but even day-trippers will want to set aside plenty of time to pull off at some of the 75 scenic overlooks and many other points of interest. (A single vehicle pass to enter the park, good for seven consecutive days, is $30.)
The overlooks provide unforgettable panoramic views of the Shenandoah River and its broad valley to the west, or the rolling hills and fertile farmland of the Virginia piedmont to the east.
(And for those who want to continue on the scenic route, Skyline Drive connects at its southern end with the Blue Ridge Parkway, continuing another 469 miles south to and through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.)
Many visitors stop at Big Meadows, the largest developed area within Shenandoah, conveniently located near the center of the park at milepost 51. Big Meadows includes a lodge with a restaurant, serving, among other treats, a memorable blackberry pie. Visitors will also find a gas station and gift shop, picnic and campgrounds, and several trailheads at Big Meadows.
Across from the lodge is the Byrd Visitors Center, one of two park visitors centers.
The Byrd center features restrooms, a bookstore, information desk and theater with an introductory movie. Visitors will also find exhibits about the history of the park and those who called the area home before the park’s establishment. Included are stories of some of the hundreds who were forced off their land, often unwillingly, by the government to make way for the park, created in 1935 in part because the Washington, D.C., crowd coveted a national park like those that had been established in America’s West.
President Herbert Hoover was well-acquainted with the area that was to become Shenandoah National Park. Rapidan Camp, Hoover’s summer presidential retreat, was located at the headwaters of the Rapidan River, just a few miles from Big Meadows. Guided tours of the camp and Brown House, Hoover’s summer White House, reconstructed to appear as it did when Hoover used it from 1929 to 1932, begin at the Byrd center.
The Appalachian Trail also passes through Big Meadows just behind the lodge, giving visitors a great opportunity to hike the iconic trail, even if just for a few hundred yards and bragging rights. Hikers of all skill levels will find plenty of opportunities to explore Shenandoah, which is crisscrossed by more than 500 miles of well-marked trails.
During prime hiking weather, some of the more popular trails can become crowded. The park instituted limits on hiking Old Rag Mountain near Sperryville last year. Visitors who wanted to use the ridge trail needed to obtain a day-use ticket in advance. The park has not yet announced if the program will continue in 2023.
Although the Old Rag area trails are noted for their scenic beauty—and physical difficulty—many other less crowded and less rugged trails offer plenty of natural splendor within Shenandoah.
Where to Stay
Shenandoah features a variety of lodging options near the center of the park. Skyland, near milepost 42, and Big Meadows, at milepost 51, each offer rooms, suites, detached cabins and pet-friendly accommodations from $129 per night. Lewis Mountain Cabins, at mile 57.5, has rustic, furnished cabins with private bathrooms and outdoor grilling areas from $48 per night. Visitors can also choose from four different campgrounds, and backcountry camping is allowed with a park permit. goshenandoah.com/lodging
Suggested Side Trip
Shenandoah stretches more than 100 miles from north to south, so there are plenty of options for other things to see or do nearby. Consider stopping at historic Front Royal at the park’s northern entrance for dining, antique shops, several wineries and the Virginia Beer Museum. Charlottesville, about 25 miles east of the park’s southern entrance, is a must-visit destination, with historic homes like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Highland, as well as the campus of the lovely University of Virginia with buildings designed by Jefferson. discoverfrontroyal.com, visitcharlottesville.org
This story is from the Best Driving Vacations package in the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.