Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park hugs the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering panoramic views and ample wildlife sightings

Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. 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

Shenandoah—Virginia’s first national park—was dedicated July 3, 1936. Cobbled together along the Blue Ridge from Front Royal to Waynesboro, the long narrow preserve divides the proud Shenandoah Valley from the rolling Piedmont to the east. The park contains a wide array of flora and fauna as it rises from a mere 550 feet at its lowest elevation to over 4,049 feet at its highest atop Hawksbill.

Related: Finding Fall Color along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Beyond

The Park has three districts, each with its own characteristics—North, Central, and South. Explore each district. Try new places and discover new wonders! Shenandoah is without a doubt one of the coolest leaf-peeping spots in the United States when fall foliage changes color each year.

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.

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

  • Front Royal, accessible via I-66 and U.S. 340
  • Thornton Gap, accessible via U.S. 211
  • Swift Run Gap, accessible via U.S. 33
  • Rockfish Gap, accessible via I-64 and U.S. 250

Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road rides the rest of the Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness. And we drove this scenic byway all the way to the southern entrance, stopping by the numerous lookouts for different and unique views. Skyline Drive joins the Blue Ridge Parkway which connects Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Drive is a worthy destination in its own right.  As an aside, this is the same ridge that was walked by American Indians and early settlers of Virginia. 

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel along Skyline Drive you will notice mileposts on the west side of the road (right side if you are traveling south, left if you are heading north). These posts help you find your way through the Park and help you locate areas of interest. The miles begin at 0 in Front Royal and continue to 105 at the southern end of the Park. The largest developed area, Big Meadows, is near the center of the Park, at mile 51.

Related: The Other Shenandoah Valley

The speed limit is 35 mph, so feel free to roll down your windows, feel the breeze, and experience every curve and turn of this beautiful drive that offers stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east. Be sure you will clear Marys Rock Tunnel (mile 32.2), with a maximum clearance of 12 feet 8 inches.RVs, camping trailers, and horse trailers are welcome, but prepare to shift into low gear.

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.

Related: Discover the Spirit of Adventure in National Parks of Eastern U.S.

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