Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park presents the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and the heart of the Appalachian Trail

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes underpinned by stories from more than 300 years of history. Located between the Shenandoah Valley in the west and the Piedmont region in the east, the park is an expanse of wooden hollows and breezy summits, waterfalls and mountain streams, more than 500 miles of hiking trails, and nearly 80,000 acres of designated wilderness.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name “Shenandoah” is an American Indian word meaning “Daughter of the Stars.” Natives used the area for hunting and shelter. Miners and loggers used it to harvest valuable resources. Soldiers used it as a fighting ground. Shenandoah is the name of a river, mountain, valley, county, and much more, so, the origin of the National Park name is unclear. Daughter of the Stars! That’s beautiful!

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Five hundred miles of trails consisting of 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, lead visitors to waterfalls, panoramic views, protected wilderness, and preserved human history in the Shenandoah Valley. A park full of recreational opportunities for the entire family, Shenandoah is worth repeat visits.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes Shenandoah so special? First, consider panoramic views from overlooks scattered on lofty Skyline Drive, a National Scenic Byway that runs 105 miles down the length of the 300-square-mile sanctuary. Additionally, beyond Skyline Drive lies another Shenandoah where bears roam the hollows and brook trout ply the tumbling streams. Trail side flowers color the woods. Quartz, granite, and greenstone outcrops jut above the diverse forest allowing far-flung views of the Blue Ridge and surrounding Shenandoah Valley. It is this beauty near and far that create the unforgettable Shenandoah experience.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Scenic Byway rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive draws over 1.2 million visitors every year and is famous for bursting into a landscape of rainbow-colored foliage every autumn.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall is the most popular time to travel along Skyline Drive with its colorful foliage from late September to mid-November. But spring offers the most colorful wildflowers along the drive, as well as blooming azaleas and mountain laurel.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are four entrances to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, located at:

  1. Front Royal, accessible via I-66 and U.S. 340
  2. Thornton Gap, accessible via U.S. 211
  3. Swift Run Gap, accessible via U.S. 33
  4. Rockfish Gap, accessible via I-64 and U.S. 250
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stops along the way bring you to trailheads where you can explore the forests, waterfalls, rocky areas, and hopefully have a wildlife sighting. It’s a pretty amazing place in terms of wildlife—there are black bears, deer, woodpeckers, owls, raccoons, skunk, fox, coyotes and wild turkeys, just to name a few of the types of animals you might run into out there. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A climb to the top of Old Rag Mountain is Shenandoah’s most popular and most dangerous hike. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But those who are ready to take on the challenge will find themselves in the clouds. Be sure that you are physically able to complete this hike. The circuit hike is about 9 miles. There is a significant elevation change (2,415 feet) and a strenuous rock scramble that requires good upper body strength. Allow 7-8 hours and sometimes longer depending on how many people are out there—a line up to pass through scrambles is par for the course. The best time to enjoy Old Rag is during the week when there are significantly fewer people. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park has an entrance fee of $30, payable at one of the four major entrance stations. The fee is good for 7 consecutive days, even if you leave the park.

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson