Sometimes all you have to give a destination is 24 hours, so how do you make the most of it? The following is a guide on how to create the most fulfilling 24 hours inside Shenandoah National Park. Each season will provide different highlights and we cover them all. Get ready for one of the great all-American drives chock full of beautiful overlooks and surrounded by small town charm.
How to get to Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is located in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia approximately 80 miles west of Washington D.C. The park runs north to south for 105 miles with 4 entrances for access. If you are arriving from afar via airplane you will likely fly into Washington Dulles airport and rent a car. If you do that, a 24 hour time slot inside the park will be the perfect addition to a Washington D.C. vacation.
From the South you will traverse through Charlottesville, VA. From the North you will arrive through Front Royal, VA. Both are charming towns worth exploring outside of your time in the park or as a place to start/end your journey. The entire Shenandoah Valley region is lovely, known for Civil War history, wineries, and natural beauty.
When to Go to Shenandoah National Park
There is something for everyone in each season inside this east coast national park located in Virginia. Consider the activities you want to pursue while there and then choose the season best for you. Fall foliage brings the most visitors, winter will give you uninhibited views, spring brings wildflowers, and summer provides full reign of the park and hiking trails.
Shenandoah in Winter
Although Skyline Drive is open all year long, it does close down due to snowy or icy conditions from time to time. Enter with a full tank of gas and extra blankets and warm clothes should your vehicle become disabled. The two biggest perks of Shenandoah in winter are the minimal crowds and the even more wide open views. If you plan to hike, consider bringing along cramp-on spikes to keep you upright. Cell service is spotty inside the park during the best of conditions. Make a list of mile marker locations that offer restrooms, phones, gas, food and more.
Shenandoah in Spring
Spring is the best time to see wildflowers and active wildlife. You can find over 800 species of wildflowers inside Shenandoah. Birdwatching is most rewarding before the leaves cover the trees, so spring is your season if you are a bird lover. More services become available as the temperatures warm up, including ranger programs and lodging options. The weather will be incredibly unpredictable, so go prepared for anything.
Shenandoah in Summer
Summer will be busy inside the park, but you will get the most full days to experience the hiking, the overlooks, the camping and the lodging. From sunrise to sunset you will see the glory of the Shenandoah valley. Get to your trailheads and parking lots early to ensure you get to do all you want to do.
Shenandoah in Fall
The park’s busiest season due to the unbelievable fall foliage colors that sweep the park of its feet. And you, too. Be prepared for slow traffic and slow crowds. The temperatures will keep you lingering and for good reason.
Shenandoah National Park Lodging & Camping
There are a variety of places to stay inside Shenandoah National Park. There are two lodges available with traditional rooms as well as detached cabins. Skyland Lodge is located at mile marker 41.7 and Big Meadows Lodge is located at mile marker 51. If you are looking for a more rustic experience, check out Lewis Mountain Cabins at mile marker 57.7. Other Shenandoah National Park cabins are maintained and operated by The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. There are multiple campgrounds inside the park with seasonal potable water and some with coin operated showers. Thousands of acres are available for backcountry camping, but a backcountry permit is required. In order to acquire a backcountry permit you will need to provide a full itinerary prior to registration.
Visitor Centers in Shenandoah
It’s always a good idea to stop off at one or two visitors centers even if it’s just to use the facilities, but you also have an opportunity to talk to rangers and get real time information about wildlife sightings and trail conditions as well. Educational programs and gift shops can add to your 24 hours inside the park.
Dickey Ridge Visitor Center
Located in the Northern most area of the park at mile marker 4.6 this visitor center is a great first stop if you are entering from Front Royal, VA. The orientation video gives you a great overview of the park and helps you get your bearings. Pick up a map, talk to a ranger and make a plan for your 24 hours inside the park. Although closed on several holidays, the visitor center is open daily from 9am-6pm. This location is closed from November 30-March 18 due to winter weather.
Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center
In the middle of the park just off Skyline Drive near the Big Meadows area is the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Again, if you need a stop off to use the bathroom, this is a good mid-way point to do so. Another excellent aspect of this spot are the ranger programs offered. You will want to stop here for a bit of time, especially if you are looking to gain some education about the park. Operating hours are from 8:30am-6:00pm daily, with just a few holiday closings. This location is closed from January 1-March 18 due to winter weather.
The structure of Shenandoah National Park is served incredibly well by driving North to South or South to North via Skyline Drive. Nearly everything you want to experience inside the park can be easily accessed off of Skyline. Utilize the mile posts to keep your bearings as you drive along. Mile 0 begins at Front Royal on the northern end of the park and ends at mile 105 at the south. There are 70 overlooks along Skyline Drive with incredible views, picnic spots, trailheads and more. *note that Marys Rock Tunnel has a maximum clearance of 12’8″ located at mile marker 32.2 along Skyline Drive. The full drive is totally doable in 24 hours, even with stops and activities.
Hiking in Shenandoah National Park
With over 500 miles of trails to choose from, you’ll have your pick of a simple walk in the woods to a multi-day backpacking adventure. Either way, you will be blessed with peaceful nature and wilderness joy. If you have 24 hours inside the park you can choose an all day hike like Old Rag or you could choose two shorter hikes to see two different areas of the park.
Rose River Falls 4 mile circuit, moderate
Doyles River Falls 3.3 round trip, moderate
Hawksbill Loop 3 mile circuit, moderate
Bearfence Viewpoint, 1+ mile roundtrip, easy
Cedar Run-Whiteoak Circuit, 7+ miles, strenuous (all day)
Old Rag Circuit, 9 miles, strenuous (all day)
Sample Itinerary 1
The Northern District
Begin your day at the North entrance at Front Royal, VA. Make sure you start your day with breakfast at L’Dees Pancake House before you enter the park. First, take about 15-30 minutes at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at mile market 4.6. Look at the exhibits, talk to a ranger about what to expect that day. Grab a map or two for specific hikes you may want to try. Stamp that NP passport book if that’s important to you and don’t forget to use the bathrooms here. To get your Skyline Drive day started off with a bang, pull off at mile marker 5.5 Signal Knob Overlook to get your first west facing views. Thornton Hollow is located at mile marker 27.5 and it’s east facing. If you didn’t stop for breakfast and you got an early start, consider this spot for a sunrise picnic.
One of the best hikes on this northern end of the park are Compton Peak, which traverses part of the Appalachian Trail. The trailhead is located at mile market 10. Expect a 2.5 mile moderate hike that should take less than 2 hours. Get your morning exercise in and enjoy the wilderness.
The Central District
The central district has the most to offer and is a great area to spend the bulk of the middle of your day. The central district starts at mile post 31.5 at the Thornton Gap entrance station and goes to the Swift Run Gap entrance at mile marker 65.7. This area has incredible overlooks, Skyland Resort lodging, Big Meadows lodging, and the Byrd visitor center. Most of the popular hikes are located in this area.
First, stop off at Hazel Mountain Overlook to stretch your legs again and breath in the beautiful fresh air. Next, check out Skyland around mile marker 42 (it’s very well marked with signage) and swing by the Grab ‘n Go for takeaway sandwiches for your next overlook stop. Share a picnic while taking in the views at mile marker 48 Spitler Knoll. Although this is one of the best overlooks for sunset, the views midday will not disappoint.
Hopefully some of the parking lots will have some rotation after lunch, but you may need to pack some patience. There are a bunch of hikes to choose from so be flexible. Try the Hawksbill Loop, trailhead found at mile marker 45.5 for a 3 mile circuit that should take about 2 hours. Rose River Falls is a 4 mile circuit that will take at least 4 hours with a moderate rating. Park at the Fishers Gap parking lot, mile market 49.4 where the trailhead starts on a fire road. Another popular hike is Dark Hollow Falls at mile marker 50.7 is a short 1.5 miles down and back up. The climb back up will challenge you, but it’s almost all shade and is beautiful. We love to combine Rose River Falls and Dark Hollow Falls for about a 5.5 mile circuit that will take about 5 -6 hours.
The Point Overlook at mile marker 55.5 may not seem like much, but there is a secret narrow path you can check out. Although steep and a bit rocky, after 5 minutes you will be rewarded with amazing west facing views that make it all worth it.
The Southern District
South of the Swift Run Gap entrance station you will be on the longest and last leg of your Skyline Drive. You will want to make stops at Bacon Hollow overlook at mile marker 69, Rockytop overlook at mile marker 78, and Turk Mountain overlook at mile marker 93.5.
A quick one hour hike that is a lot of fun is Bearfence Rock Scramble. The parking area is at mile marker 56.4 and is a moderate 1.4 mile round trip hike. Doyles River Falls is a beautiful 3.3 mile moderate hike located at mile marker 81.1 that will keep you cool for the just over two hours it will take to complete. Take in the sunset at Crimora Lake overlook at mile marker 92.5 and finish your day with dinner in Charlottesville, VA outside of the park.
Sample Itinerary 2
Another way to experience all that Shenandoah National Park has to offer is to use two half days with an in park stay overnight. After spending the night in Charlottesville, VA and getting a nice and easy start to your day and packing a picnic lunch, make your way to the Southern most entrance at Rockfish Gap Entrance Station. Drive North on Skyline Drive, taking your time to stop off at several of the overlooks. Choose one for a lunch with a view.
After lunch pick a hike like Doyles River Falls or Rose River Falls. Both provide shade and incredible rambling river paths to cool you off for the afternoon. They are moderate hikes that will take several hours to complete, but will leave you feeling accomplished…and hungry. I suggest staying in the Central District at either Big Meadows or Skyland if you are looking for lodging. If you want to camp, check out Big Meadows or Lewis Mountain campgrounds.
Get to your resting spot early and relax a bit before you have dinner. After your belly is full, take off for a sunset chase. There are a bunch of west facing overlooks right off Skyline Drive just north of the main lodging areas. Move from overlook to overlook as golden hour turns to blue hour and the sun sets. Take a million pictures so you can tell all your friends the pictures don’t do it justice. And soak it all in. One fabulous spot to see the last bits of the sunset is at an overlook found just pass the cabins at Big Meadows Lodge; a short hike up to an amazing spot to sit and absorb. If the skies are clear, find the huge grassy meadow on the east side of Skyland Drive across from the Big Meadows Wayside and set up for your night sky viewing.
The next morning, rise early and bring your breakfast along. Start making your way further North for a morning hike. Many of the parking lots will fill up by 9:00 am so you want to arrive in time for a good spot. Consider the Hawksbill Loop or the Stony Man, which is an easy 1.6 miles located at mile marker 41.7 in the central district. Overall Run Falls is a great spring option, which shows off the highest waterfall inside the park. Located at Matthews Arm Campground registration parking area, the hike is a moderately strenuous 5.1 miles.
Finish up your 24 hours inside the park as you complete the remainder of Skyline Drive and exit from the Northern entrance station at Front Royal. From there you can head East to Washington D.C. or Annapolis for more fun.
Gear to Take to Shenandoah
As with any mountain trip you will want to pack layers, no matter the season. One of our all-time favorite brands is Kuhl, a reliable and innovative brand that is great for the outdoors. We keep bug spray, sunscreen, and a simple first aid kit with us at all times. Hydration is essential as you explore the outdoors and we each have our favorite brands. Holland lives by her Hydroflask and I have been a loyal Nalgene user for over 2 decades. Sturdy shoes or hiking boots are recommended so you can avoid injury and sore feet and joints the next day. Find a daypack that fits well and can hold your extraneous gear as you adventure.