The Complete Guide to Shenandoah National Park

Cruise scenic Skyline Drive, explore mountain trails, and find serenity at this Virginia treasure
Gushing waterfalls. Rolling mountains. Granite peaks. Lush valleys. Ninety-plus streams. Fog oceans that tumble over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Animals and wildflowers aplenty.

With such an abundance of natural beauty Shenandoah National Park ranks as one of Virginia’s wildest yet most serene destinations. Author Bill Bryson calls it “possibly the most wonderful national park I have ever been in.”

Native Americans wandered this area for millennia to hunt, gather food, and collect materials for stone tools. Shenandoah is a Native American word that some historians believe means daughter of the stars.

European hunters and trappers arrived in the 1700s followed by settlers and entrepreneurs who launched farming, logging, milling, and mining operations.

In the early 1900s inspired by the popularity of Western national parks, Virginia politicians and businessmen pushed for a park in the East and President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation authorizing Shenandoah National Park in 1926. Roughly 465 families had to leave their homes after the state of Virginia acquired the land but a few stubborn mountaineers refused to go, living the rest of their lives in the thick woods.

In 1931, the federal highway department began building Shenandoah National Park’s signature attraction, 105-mile Skyline Drive which runs north to south through the length of the park. Two years later, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pet New Deal programs—started constructing its infrastructure from overlooks to picnic areas and FDR dedicated the 197,438 acre park in 1936. Fast forward to 2022 and this Old Dominion beauty now attracts 1.5 million visitors annually.

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Plan your trip

From Washington, D.C., Shenendoah National Park is an easy 71-mile drive southwest. It’s also a doable drive from Philadelphia (210 miles northwest of the park) and Raleigh, North Carolina (218 miles south).

In the park, mileposts along Skyline Drive will help you locate significant sites from lodges to trailheads. The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is at mile 4.6, for example; the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center, mile 51. The numbering system starts in the north at the Front Royal entrance (mile 0) and ends at the southern Rockfish Gap entrance (mile 105). Two middle entrances are Thornton Gap (mile 31.5) and Swift Run Gap (mile 65.7). The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle (annual Senior Pass, $20).

In October, the most-visited month throngs of leaf lovers arrive for fall foliage but autumn’s reds and golds are worth the extra traffic and overflowing parking lots on Skyline Drive. Come on a weekday for smaller crowds. The leaves change sooner at higher elevations so explore the park’s lower points between the Front Royal and Thornton Gap entrances if you go later in October.

The park website posts a frequently updated report on when the leaves will hit their peak colors. Don’t count on posting foliage photos on social media while in the park. Cellphone service is spotty at best though the two lodges and visitors centers offer Wi-Fi.

You’ll see stunning sights any season you visit. May brings woodland flowers such as trillium, which grows near streambanks and other wet areas. Columbine, milkweed, and other wildflowers take the floral stage in June; black-eyed Susans and goldenrods often bloom into fall.

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Other seasonal draws

Waterfalls are typically fullest in spring and fall and some park visitors favor the quiet of winter. Sure, it’s cold—average high temperatures in the mid to upper 30s—but you’ll experience the park in a completely different way.

You’ll see deeper into the woods in winter because there’s nothing obstructing your view. You’ll see more of the rock outcrops and you might see more deer because they’re not blocked by the vegetation. And the lighting in the wintertime is beautiful.

December through March are the least-visited months—the facilities are closed then so bring food and plenty of water—and May and September tend to be quieter as well. Summer can be hot and humid (this is Virginia) but July’s average high temperature is a comfy 75—and Shenandoah is typically up to 10 degrees cooler than muggy D.C.

Restrooms are available at the park’s picnic grounds (some are pit toilets), visitor’s centers, lodges, waysides, and camp stores. You’ll find portable toilets at the Panorama Comfort Station (mile 31.6) and at the Beagle Gap parking area (mile 99.5).

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Where to stay and eat

Some national parks have iconic hotels worth seeing even if you’re not a guest but Shenandoah National Park’s two lodges are pleasant places to stay, not must-see attractions, each offering a mix of rooms, cabins, multiunit lodges, and suites. Their advantage over gateway-town hotels: The lodges and the park’s cabins and campgrounds are within easy walking distance of trails and you can revel in Shenandoah’s quiet, woodsy seclusion.

Big Meadows Lodge (mile 51) near the Byrd Visitor Center was built in 1939 using local chestnut trees and stones from nearby Massanutten Mountain. From the lodge’s wood-paneled lobby enjoy the sweeping view of 30-mile-wide Page Valley. Walk just a mile at sunset to Big Meadows the park’s largest meadow and you’ll see whitetail deer grazing; in August, you might spot bears dining on blueberries. The lodge is open from early May through early November.

If you book the Skyland lodge (mile 41.7), request a room with a balcony overlooking Massanutten Mountain and Page Valley. With Skyland’s elevation at 3,680 feet, Skyline Drive’s highest point you’ll get jaw-dropping views. The property is open April through November.

For something only slightly more rustic, settle into a cabin in the dense woods at Lewis Mountain Cabins (mile 57.5)—no Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, or kitchen but you’ll have a bathroom, electricity, and an outdoor grill. Rentals available from April through November.

Whichever option you choose book at least three to four weeks in advance for spring and summer and 10 to 12 months ahead for fall-foliage season.

Shenandoah National Park’s five campgrounds—spread out along Skyline Drive in secluded, tree-filled locales—open at different times between March and May and then close in fall. Driving an RV? Stay at Mathews Arm (mile 22.2), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), or Loft Mountain (mile 79.5). For showers and washing machines choose Big Meadows or Loft Mountain. Dundo (mile 83.7) is for groups of seven to 15 people.

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Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5) is exclusively first come, first served; the other campgrounds accept reservations while also offering limited spots on a first-come, first-served basis. Nightly permits range from $15 to $50. Book up to six months in advance at recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.

Ready for some Virginia cuisine? At Big Meadows Lodge, the Spottswood Dining Room serves Southern favorites such as fried chicken along with wow-inducing views of Page Valley on the pet-friendly terrace. Skyland’s Pollock Dining Room also mixes regional dishes with valley views. The must-try dessert at both restaurants: blackberry ice cream pie.

Seven shady picnic grounds lie between miles 4.6 and 83.7 tucked away from Skyline Drive noise. Overlooks make appealing picnic spots, too. Or walk to easy-to-reach summits such as the 1.6-mile round-trip Stony Man trail (mile 41.7). Sit on a rock, eat your PB&J and gaze out at the mountains and valley. If you didn’t pack a lunch the wayside food stops located every 25 miles on Skyline Drive sell carryout meals, groceries, and camping supplies. Or stop by Addie’s Corner at Skyland for sandwiches, pastries, beverages and snacks.

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Things to do

Driving

Cruising Skyline Drive to see the sights—that is Shenandoah National Park’s must-do activity. The speed limit is only 35 mph but you won’t want to zoom past the gorgeous scenery. Whether you drive all 105 miles or just one lovely, leafy portion, stop for the panoramic views at some of the 75 overlooks. Two recommended by park staffers: the Big Run (mile 81.2) and Range View (mile 17.1).

On a clear day you see ridge after ridge after bluish ridge and you don’t see a lot of development when you look down into the lowlands below. The same thing with Big Run—it’s all wilderness.

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Hiking

For all of Skyline Drive’s two-laned delights, hiking is the best way to experience Shenandoah National Park’s sights, sounds, and smells—take your pick from 335 trails (including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail). Since park elevation peaks at about 4,000 feet, even the steepest hikes aren’t as daunting as their Western counterparts.

The 2.4-mile round-trip Compton Gap trail (mile 10.4) takes you on the Appalachian Trail to a T-like intersection. Go right and walk 0.2 miles for splendid views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Go left 0.2 miles to a unique geologic formation: clumps of polygonal columns formed by ancient lava flows. The path is steep but worth the walk.

If you have accessibility issues, set out on the flat-and-mild, 1.3-mile Limberlost (mile 43), the park’s only wheelchair-friendly trail. Rest on its benches and enjoy mountain laurels and bird calls. (Listen for towhees—the distinctive call sounds like, “Drink your teeee. Drink your teeee.”) Nearby streams and plentiful food such as apple trees attract black bears, too. Shenandoah National Park rangers advise making noise so bears know you’re nearby—they’ll usually run from humans—and staying at least 150 feet away if you see any. The bears are not aggressive but do not approach a mama with her cubs.

Waterfalls are among the park’s most soul-soothing sites. Winding streams, hovering trees, crashing water—what’s not to like? The moderate Whiteoak Canyon Trail (mile 42.6) features two falls but to reduce fatigue hike 4.6 miles round trip to the spectacular first falls—the Upper Whiteoak Falls—rather than walking to both. The reason: The trail descends (as do all the park’s waterfall trails), so you endure the steep part on the way back. Before reaching the falls, side trails lead to a stream where you can walk on flat rocks, hear the thunderous rapids and feel cool air emanating from the water.

Hard-core hikers favor Old Rag, a strenuous 9.2-mile round-trip hike up Old Rag Mountain. Its multiple heart-pumping highlights include a rock scramble (you’ll be clambering over rock faces, often using your hands for balance) and a summit.

Tackle it on a weekday; this popular hike gets crowded on weekends when you may even experience lines at narrow passages which can feel more like a day at the DMV than a national park. You can’t access Old Rag from Skyline Drive; rather, you’ll need to take route 600. For directions to the trailhead, type in the address of Old Rag’s newest parking lot—2923 Nethers Road—into a mapping app.

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Stargazing

Amateur astronomers often host night sky presentations discussing celestial wonders and pointing out notable planets and stars. They typically set up telescopes on Rapidan Fire Road leading into Big Meadows, near the lodge.

You can also attend a free outdoor “Under the Stars at Shenandoah National Park” presentation held monthly at the Big Meadows or Skyland lodges (time varies based on sunset). Talk topics range from meteorites to star life cycles.

Each August, the park hosts Night Sky Festival, a weekend with presentations from rangers, astronauts, and guest speakers on interstellar subjects.

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Bird-watching, horseback riding, fishing

Prefer animals over Alpha Centauri? If you’re a bird lover, meet an owl, raptor, and a red-tailed hawk in the ranger-led Birds of Prey program held four times a week at the amphitheater in the Big Meadows picnic ground (mile 51.2). Equestrians clip-clop across 200 miles of horse trails. Skyland Stables (mile 42.5) offers guided horseback and pony rides throughout the day.

Anglers can cast in more than 70 streams with 38 species of fish, from brook trout to fantail darters.

Touring

Thanks to fishing, Shenandoah National Park can claim Herbert Hoover slept here. Frequently. In 1929, the then-president bought 164 acres for Rapidan Camp near Skyline Drive’s midpoint, as his personal fishing hideaway welcoming big-shot guests such as Thomas Edison and Charles Lindbergh. The camp sits near two streams that merge to form the Rapidan River surrounded by hemlocks.

Make reservations online for a 2.5-hour ranger-led tour of the property and Hoover’s wood cabin named the Brown House to distinguish it from the White House. The simple-but-pretty interior has been restored to its 1929 appearance with much of the furniture original although replica handmade Navajo rugs are most striking. Ride a minibus from the Byrd Visitor Center to get there or hike 4 miles round trip from the Milam Gap parking area (mile 52.4).

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Gateway towns

Front Royal

Download a walking tour from the local visitor’s center to take in the must-see sites in this town 1 mile from Shenandoah National Park’s north gate. Its charming historic district teems with antique shops, restaurants, and attractions such as Belle Boyd Cottage (a tour reveals sizzling stories about Belle, one of the Confederacy’s most infamous spies).

Drop into Spelunker’s for its frozen custard and burger which a Washington Post food writer declared a culinary masterpiece.

Stay at the nearby L’Auberge Provençale, named one of the world’s 50 best romantic getaways in 2020 by Travel + Leisure. Rooms at the 270-year-old home in White Post (13 miles northeast of Front Royal) start at $180 a night, but the fresh croissants, French antiques, and Provençale designs make the inn worth the splurge.

Waynesboro

Here, just 5 miles from the southern Rockfish Gap entrance, you’ll find some of Virginia’s best trout fishing as well as canoeing and kayaking on the 4-mile Waynesboro Water Trail.

At the town’s annual Virginia Street Arts Festival, artists paint large murals on buildings.

From the patio at the Basic City Beer Co. take in a back-wall mural titled Isabelle—a gripping black-and-white closeup of a woman with a yellow flower in her mouth—while drinking a honey-hued malt lager.

The Fishin’ Pig’s T-shirt worthy name might lure you in for a bite but locals come for the fried catfish.

Luray

Luray Caverns, one of the East Coast’s largest caverns draws visitors to this town, 10 miles west of the Thornton Gap entrance.

But also make time to view regional artists’ work at the Warehouse Art Gallery and sip a latte at chill coffee joint Gathering Grounds.

Check into the stately Mimslyn Inn or the wooded Shadow Mountain Escape where four timber-frame cabins feature European decor and exposed oak-beam ceilings.

Sperryville

Tiny Sperryville sits near a gushing stream 7 miles east of the Thornton Gap entrance. At Headmaster’s Pub, replenish those calories you burned hiking with the pub’s juicy burgers made from grass-fed beef. Also have some fun in its game room with air hockey, pool tables, and old-school pinball machines (some not even digital).

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En route

If you drive through Charlottesville, take time to explore this charming college town 25 miles east of the park’s Rockfish Gap entrance. Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia at age 76 as “the hobby of my old age.”

A must-see: The Lawn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the social centerpiece of campus since the university opened in 1819. Academic buildings border the long, grassy courtyard at both ends with student and faculty housing along the sides. Also tour Jefferson’s exquisite home, Monticello, 2 miles outside the city.

Back in town, stroll the pedestrian mall for the people watching, window-shopping (book lovers should browse the New Dominion Bookshop) and dining. Duck into the Whiskey Jar for top-notch Southern cuisine, but save room for peanut butter pie at the Pie Chest.

Virginia has nearly 300 wineries, many clustered outside of Charlottesville. Jam-band rocker and former Charlottesville resident Dave Matthews owns Blenheim Vineyards, about 20 minutes southeast from town. Enjoy a bottle of the house white out on the patio for views of rolling, vineyard-covered hills. If you prefer a pilsner, the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail guides you to 15 breweries.

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Driving to the park via Interstate 81, stop by Staunton, 17 miles west of the Rockfish Gap entrance. The city escaped the Civil War unscathed and publications such as Architectural Digest and Smithsonian have raved about its well-preserved Main Street where quaint 18th- and 19th-century buildings thrive as restaurants, shops, theaters, and more.

For a local history lesson, take the Historic Staunton Foundation’s walking tour, offered every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, May through October. Afterward do lunch at LUNdCH from owner/chef Mike Lund, former chef de cuisine at the world-renowned Inn at Little Washington.

Coming from Washington, D.C., don’t miss the massive Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum near Dulles airport. The museum’s collection includes the Concorde, Enola Gay, the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aircraft ever flown.

Shenandoah National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

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Fact box

Location: Virginia, about 75 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Size: 197,438 acres

Highest peak: Hawksbill, at 4,051 feet

Miles/number of trails: 518 miles along 335 trails

Main attraction: Skyline Drive

Entry fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days; annual Senior Pass $20

Best way to see the park: By car and by foot

When to go to avoid the crowds: December through March

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman

2024 National Park Free Entrance Days: Top 10 States to Visit

NPS has announced its free entrance days for 2024 so here are the states with the highest number of national parks and the highest concentration of national park sites

The National Park Service (NPS) sites which include national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, national historic sites, and other protected areas are incredible public spaces to enjoy and learn about nature. Some national park sites charge entrance fees but NPS has announced six fee-free entrance days in 2024:

  • January 15: Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr
  • April 20: First day of National Park Week
  • June 19: Juneteenth National Independence Day
  • August 4: Great American Outdoors Act anniversary
  • September 28: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

A great way to take full advantage of these free entrance days is to visit multiple national park sites in one day. While that may be difficult or even impossible in many areas there are several states with a high concentration of national park sites.

10 best states for national park sites

The following states are great places to travel to visit national parks at any time of the year whether or not you make it for the free entrance days.

1. Alaska

The Last Frontier has eight national parks and a total of 23 NPS sites including national monuments and other federally preserved areas. While Alaska is the largest state, three of the national parks are fairly close together—you can visit Kenai Fjords, Katmai, and Lake Clark National Parks within one day.

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2. California

The Golden State has nine national parks, the most of any state. The most popular national park in California is Yosemite but even the park with the smallest number of annual visitors, Pinnacles, is incredible and worth a visit. With a total of 28 national park sites, there is no shortage of beautiful locations to visit.

Here are a few great articles to help you do just that:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Utah

The Beehive State has five national parks (The Big Five) and they are much closer together than those found in Alaska and California—in fact, it takes about seven hours to drive from Zion to Canyonlands and stop at the three other national parks in between. However, it’s worth it to slow down and spend more time at each park so consider sticking to one park each day.

Here are some articles to help:

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Arizona

Arizona and Colorado, the next state on the list, both have four national parks. However, Arizona has a higher total of NPS sites at 22 making it a great place to take a national parks road trip. Grand Canyon National Park is the best known in Arizona but Saguaro National Park and the lesser known Petrified Forest National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area also offers incredible vistas and outdoor opportunities.

Here are a few great articles to help you do just that:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Colorado

With four national parks and a total of 13 NPS sites, Colorado is another great option for national park enthusiasts. Mesa Verde National Park is remarkable because apart from its national park status it is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it preserves the rich cultural history of many indigenous tribes.

Here are some articles to help:

6. Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands have two national parks and a total of eight national park sites which is especially impressive when you remember that’s within an area of 10,392 square miles per the United States Census Bureau. One of the parks, Haleakalā, is located on the island of Maui which was recently devastated by fires so make sure to avoid the areas closed to tourism.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Washington

The crown of the Pacific Northwest is home to three national parks and a total of 15 NPS sites. Mount Rainier is perhaps the best known of the three but North Cascades and Olympic both protect a huge array of diverse wildlife. Washington is also home to a former plutonium factory that makes up one-third of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Read more:

8. Florida

This state is home to three national parks including Dry Tortugas which can only be reached via plane, ferry, or boat. The other two, Biscayne and Everglades are within about an hour’s distance of each other meaning you can visit both in one day.

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9. Virginia

Although Virginia only has one national park, it is home to a total of 22 NPS sites. Given its area of 42,775 square miles that means there is a fairly high concentration of NPS sites within the state making it an excellent area to explore for national park lovers.

Here’s an article to help you do just that: The Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park

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10. New Mexico

Set in the Southwest, New Mexico boasts many breathtaking landscapes that are often overlooked by visitors. Besides all its desolate yet dramatic desert scenery, the state is home to the rearing Rocky Mountains, the roaring Rio Grande, and plenty of colorful canyons, cliffs, and caves. New Mexico has two national parks (Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands), three national historical parks (Chaco Culture, Pecos, Manhattan Project), one national heritage area (Northern Rio Grande)m, and 11 national monuments including four administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

That’s why I wrote these seven articles:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus: Tennessee

Tennessee is home to part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which welcomes the most annual visitors of any national park site in the United States. It also has a total of 13 NPS sites meaning there are a plethora of exploration opportunities.

By the way, I have a series of posts on the Great Smokies:

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Ahh, the Blue Ridge Parkway in October

How to plan a fall adventure to Blue Ridge Parkway

Tracing the spine of the southern Appalachian Mountains from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an epic East Coast road trip.

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The first motorway in the country designed purely for recreational purposes, the parkway weaves through six different mountain ranges and four massive national forests first following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and then snaking through the Black Mountains, the Great Craggy Mountains, the Pisgahs, and the Balsam Mountains before arriving at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains.

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Stringing together some of the wildest spaces in the East, the 469-mile motorway also showcases some of the most spectacular fall colors in the country as the richly biodiverse forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains blush with autumn color.

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How to catch peak fall color

In terms of flora and fauna, the southern Appalachian Mountains are incredibly rich. More than 100 different species of trees can be found in the forested peaks flanking the parkway meaning the fall colors are guaranteed to be spectacular. The seasonal transition typically begins in October but several factors can delay or extend the autumn display. And with elevations topping out above 6,000 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway seasonal color varies by location with the transition beginning at higher elevations and spreading downslope.

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

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Accommodation options

For road-trippers, the parkway has eight developed campgrounds offering both tent sites and RV sites with fire rings and picnic tables. For campers, amenities include potable water and bathroom facilities at the Julian Price Campground and the Mount Pisgah Campground also offers hot showers. All eight of the parkway’s campgrounds are open seasonally from early May through the end of October. For backpackers, there are also three hike-in backcountry campgrounds scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway—Rock Castle Gorge, Basin Cove, and Johns River Road.

Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are also two year-round lodges situated along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In Virginia, the Peaks of Otter Lodge is situated along the parkway in southwest Virginia (MP 86). Named for the trio of peaks overlooking the town of Bedford all of the lodge’s rooms have views of Abbott Lake and Sharp Top (and dog-friendly rooms are available, too). The lakeside lodge also offers an attached restaurant and bar along with a gift shop stocked with trail snacks, guidebooks, and locally sourced artisanal products.

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In North Carolina, the Pisgah Inn (MP 408) is open from the beginning of April through the end of October. Perched on the flanks of Mount Pisgah at an elevation of 5,000 feet the alpine inn presides over the massive Pisgah National Forest. To help guests savor the sweeping vista each room features attached porches complete with lounge-worthy rocking chairs. The inn also offers a formal dining room (open to the public for lunch) and a café with easy-to-grab meals and snacks.

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For late fall and winter travelers, the parkway also provides access to a handful of state parks with year-round accommodation options. In Virginia, just west of Buena Vista, Douthat State Park has cabins for rent and a campground open year-round along with more than 40 miles of hiking trails. Further south in North Carolina, the campground at Stone Mountain State Park is open year-round and offers sites for both tents and RVs. And for hardy backpackers, North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain State Park has 13 hike-in backcountry campsites.

Related article: Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Appalachian Trail Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spectacular fall hikes

For hikers, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 360 miles of trails offering everything from leisurely nature walks to lengthy rambles through parcels of roadless wilderness. And for leaf-peepers, there are several superb foliage hikes. In Virginia, the 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail traces the path of the parkway for just over 100 miles beginning at Rockfish Gap (MP 0). In North Carolina, the state’s 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail also crisscrosses the parkway between the Folk Art Center (MP 382) and Mount Pisgah (MP 408).

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At the northern end of the parkway in Virginia, Humpback Rocks (MP 5.8) is among the scenic highlights. Perched at 3,080 feet, the craggy outcrop presides over the northern section of the parkway providing expansive views encompassing the Rockfish and Shenandoah Valleys to the west and the pastoral Virginia Piedmont to the east—although the mile climb to the craggy pinnacle includes 700 feet of elevation gain.

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Further south, the three-mile out-and-back hike to the 3,875-foot summit of Sharp Top (MP 85.9) serves up 360-degree views of the Peaks of Otter portion of the parkway with the Shenandoah Valley to the east and the Allegheny Mountains silhouetted against the horizon to the west.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In North Carolina, Mount Pisgah is supremely positioned for fall foliage views. After the 1.3-mile climb to Mount Pisgah’s 5,721-foot summit, hikers are rewarded with an eyeful of the Black Mountains to the north and the rugged Shining Rock Wilderness to the west.

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

Closer to the parkway’s southern terminus at the eastern edge of the Great Balsam Range, the grassy summit of Black Balsam Knob also treats trekkers to a jaw-dropping panorama. The 6,214-foot peak is a prototypical southern Appalachian bald meaning Black Balsam Knob’s treeless summit dishes up 360-degree views extending to the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Wildlife Watching

Fall is also an ideal time to spot wildlife along the parkway. Along the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina resident, elk are particularly active. Once prevalent throughout the Appalachian Mountains elk disappeared from the southeastern United States in the mid-1800s after populations dwindled due to overhunting and loss of habitat.

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Elk were reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between 2001 and 2002 and now the brawny ungulates roam the southernmost section of the parkway in Western North Carolina typically gathering in the Cataloochee Valley. And during the fall, the region’s resident elk begin their mating season also called the rut with males bugling, sparring, and strutting ostentatiously to attract females.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black bears are also active along the parkway during the fall. While the bruins do hunker down for portions of the winter in the Southeast they don’t entirely hibernate and if seasonal temperatures are mild the black bears will remain active year-round. However, fall is a strategic time to spot the opportunistic eaters gorging on calorie-dense nuts and berries along the parkway in preparation for the leaner days of winter.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Autumn is also a spectacular time for birders along the Blue Ridge Parkway. From early September through the end of November the lofty ridgelines of the southern Appalachian Mountains become a superhighway for birds migrating south to warmer climes for the winter especially birds of prey including a diversity of hawks, eagles, kestrels, and falcons.

Related article: 10 Most Beautiful Places to See Fall Foliage in 2022

There are a number of hawk-watching spots scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway designated by the Hawk Migration Association of America including Rockfish Gap (milepost 0) and Harvey’s Knob (MP 95.3) in Virginia and Grandfather Mountain (MP 305) in North Carolina.

Worth Pondering…

I loved autumn, the one season of the year that God seemed to have put there just for the beauty of it.

—Lee Maynard, writer

Discover Blue Ridge Beauty at Shenandoah River State Park

The Park encompasses more than 1,600 acres of Blue Ridge beauty

Virginia Route 340 between Front Royal and Luray is perhaps one of the more underrated scenic drives in the state. And as more and more RVers and outdoor adventurers are discovering one of the best places to get out of the car and adventure in that scenery is Shenandoah River State Park (also known as Andy Guest State Park).

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As many great outdoor spots are, it can be a bit easy to miss. Driving south on 340 from Front Royal, go about eight miles and the park entrance is on your right. Admission for a vehicle is $10.

The Park is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and has more than 1,600 acres along 5.2 miles of shoreline. The park opened in June 1999. In addition to the meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic views of Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east.

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A large riverside picnic area, picnic shelters, trails, river access, and a car-top boat launch make this a popular destination for families, anglers, and canoeists. Twelve riverfront tent campsites, a campground with water and electric sites, cabins, camping cabins, and a group campground are available. With more than 24 miles of trails, the park has plenty of options for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and adventure. Expansive views of the river and valley can be seen from high points along the trails.

The visitor center features native wildlife and has touch-screens on display to educate about park history and local birds. There is also an aquarium. Outside the visitor center, there are several picnic tables, an overlook, a koi pond, and a nature garden. The center’s gift shop sells snacks and souvenirs.

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Wildlife watching opportunities in the park are diverse and range from the herons, waterfowl, and otter on the river to the white-tailed deer, black bear, scarlet tanager, and other neotropical migrants of the forest. Overhead, almost anything might appear from osprey and bald eagle fishing the river to broad-winged hawk and American kestrel. While moving from the river into the forest, search blooming wildflowers for butterflies such as eastern tiger and spicebush swallowtails, hackberry emperor, and a variety of skippers, sulfurs, and whites.

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The park offers car-top access in the day-use area located 3.2 miles downstream from the Bentonville access area. The “fish trap” access area near Shelter 3 is suitable for wade fishing. Freshwater fishing is available for those with a Virginia freshwater fishing license. The park does not rent boats. There are three car-top launches and two outfitters within five minutes of the park.

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Smallmouth bass fishing especially in spring will give anglers all the action they want. While popular tales of catching “100 fish in a day” are probably a thing of the past, the Shenandoah River is still a very good bass fishery.

Some of the trails lead into deep woods and sightings of wildlife such as deer, turkeys, and the occasional black bear are not at all uncommon. Ask for the trail map where you pay your entry fee to choose from various trail lengths and degrees of difficulty.

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Adventure races—such as the Shenandoah Strong where competitors have 12 hours to traverse 50 miles of terrain by foot, bike, and kayak/canoe—lie partially within the park as well as George Washington National Forest.

There are over 24 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails that criss-cross Shenandoah River State Park. You can enjoy both river and mountain views. The trail network offers a wide range of fun, easy and family-friendly trails as well as more moderately difficult routes.

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Nearly 20 named hiking trails allow visitors to traipse all across the park. At 5.4 miles, the teal-blazed Bear Bottom Loop Trail is the longest park trail.

It’s a cinch to cobble together a few trails to create a fantastic day hike. It’s also easy to return again and again and not complete the same hike twice.

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Camping is available year-round. Shenandoah River’s developed campground has 31 sites with water and 20/30/50-amp electric hookups suitable for tents, popups, and RVs up to 60 feet in length. More than half of the sites have shade. The shaded camp sites are 1-18 while sites 19-31 are in full sun. The campground has centrally located restrooms with hot showers and a coin-operated laundry. Sites have steel fire-rings for cooking and campfires, picnic tables, and lantern holders. Twenty-six sites are back-in, and five are pull-through. Firewood can be purchased on-site for $6 per bundle. The family campground is a short walk from two river access points (for fishing, not for swimming or paddling), as well as the Campground Trail.

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In addition to the family campground, there is a primitive campground for tents-only on the north side of the park that has 12 canoe-in or walk-in sites. All camp sites offer shade and require a walk on gravel path from the parking lot. There are wagons at the entrance to help transport gear to your site.

At the back of the Right, River Campground is a group campground that can accommodate up to 30 people.

Reservations can be made on line or by calling 1-800-933-PARK (7275). All sites are specifically reserved.

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Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, numerous ranger-led interpretive programs are offered for park visitors. Topics vary widely but include outdoor photography, fishing, butterflies, astronomy, birding, and wetland walks. Shenandoah River State Park also offers a variety of kid-friendly programs including Feeding Time, as well as Skulls, Tracks and Scats. Both ranger-led programs educate about animals found in the park. Most programs are offered on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

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Shenandoah River State Park is a good central location for the area’s many activities. Caverns and caves such as Shenandoah Caverns and Luray Caverns make good activities for rainy days. Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive are a short distance away making for a great day trip. The area is also famous for its many vineyards.

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Details

Elevation: 547 feet

Park size: 1,619 acres

Trails: 24 miles

Park admission fee: $10/vehicle

Shenandoah River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping fee: $40 + $5 transaction fee (Virginia resident); $46 + $5 transaction fee (non-Virginia resident)

Location: The Park is in Warren County, 8 miles south of Front Royal and 15 miles north of Luray. It’s off State Route 340 in Bentonville

Address: 350 Daughter of Stars Drive, Bentonville, VA 22610

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman

Live in Colonial Times: Experience the Revolution in a Revolutionary Way

Colonial Williamsburg is the restored 18th-century capital of Britain’s largest, wealthiest, and most populous settlement in the New World

The restored 18th-century capital of Britain’s dominant outpost in the New World, Colonial Williamsburg interprets the cultural establishment of America in the years before and during the American Revolution. The story of Colonial Williamsburg’s revolutionary city tells how diverse peoples evolved into a society that valued liberty and equality.

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The world’s largest living history museum—with more than 40 sites and trades and two world-class art museums—is full of participatory experiences. Stop by Raleigh Tavern and see the “Revealing the Priceless” exhibition highlighting efforts to tell the story of Williamsburg’s 18th-century enslaved children, women, and men. Take part in a dig into the past. Tour the laboratories in The Wallace Collections and Conservation Building that examine and restore colonial artifacts. For the adventurous, sign up for axe throwing or learn how to fire a flintlock musket.

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Historic church

As someone who grew up attending services with my family every Sunday, I’ve always enjoyed visiting historic churches—especially when they represent a piece of history. The Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg is one of the country’s earliest African American congregations. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke here in 1962 inspiring the congregation’s participation in the civil rights movement.

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Quench your thirst

Greater Williamsburg is home to a tasty mix of breweries, distilleries, and a winery. It offers a journey through the old and the new—and the exciting—ways of making beer, wine, and spirits. Check out the fun at relative newcomers like The Virginia Beer Co. or the Precarious Beer Project and old standards like The Williamsburg Winery and Alewerks Brewing Company. Leave the driving to others by taking a Drink Williamsburg tour. Cheers!

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Find your outlet

You can’t return home empty-handed. Go shopping. Browse the more than 120 stores of Williamsburg Premium Outlets. Pick up bargains at Burberry, Calvin Klein, Nike, the Coach Outlet, Oakley, Ralph Lauren, L’Occitane, Swarovski, Waterford, and many others.

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Nature abounds

Williamsburg may be known for its colonial history but it’s also a fabulous spot for nature lovers. There are quiet waterways to explore, large parks to wander about in, and pastoral beauty all around.

If you’re interested in getting outside to experience the wildlife, Waller Mill Park is where birders can find everything from warblers to woodpeckers and osprey. It’s only $2 to park and several wonderful trails take you through stands of pine and hardwood including one that takes you to a fine lookout spot.

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The park also features two closed-in dog runs, a disc golf course, a children’s playground, a playing field, and several types of boats to rent including pedal boats, canoes, kayaks, and row boats. Fishing fans can toss a line for largemouth bass, blue gill, white perch, catfish, and other species.

A trip along Island Loop Drive on Jamestown Island provides numerous opportunities to get up close and personal with nature. It’s a short drive (there are two loops; the longest is about 20 minutes) that takes you over pretty marshes and lovely, curving, wooden bridges.

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Take a leisurely drive or bike ride along the scenic 23-mile Colonial Parkway that provides a physical and metaphorical link between Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Scenic driving, interpretive pull-offs, biking, and fishing are available along this National Scenic Byway. You’ll pass plenty of quiet ponds and skirt along both the James and York Rivers giving you a great chance to spot hawks, herons, and other big birds.

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Take a tour standing in place

Head to Yorktown and hop on a Segway with Patriot Tours for a one- or two-hour tour covering the waterfront and historic Main Street. Riding a Segway is easier than you think. Lean forward, imagine you are moving, and—presto—you are.

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America’s Historic Triangle

Of course, a visit to the area isn’t complete without visiting all the historic sites it’s known for.  Must-sees include the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Yorktown Battlefield (where the American Revolution was won), Jamestown Settlement (where America’s first permanent English colony comes to life), and Colonial Williamsburg (the world’s largest living history museum depicting life in the 18th century).

Historic Jamestowne © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three places in Virginia can lay claim to where America was born. The first permanent English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607. At Williamsburg, the ideas of independence and revolution took form. The siege of Yorktown in 1781 was the last major battle of the American Revolution. In this Historic Triangle, discover the history of the diverse people whose lives form the earliest chapters of America’s story. Experience the past and discover commemorative events, educational programming, and entertainment all in one place. Colonial Williamsburg has a Historic Triangle ticket so that you can save when you explore all three places.

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Jamestown

Discover the world of the settlers who established the first permanent British settlement in the New World at Historic Jamestowne, a National Park Service and Preservation Virginia site. There you can talk with archaeologists about their excavations on the exact site of the first permanent colony in America, experience the first democratic assembly, and visit the Archaearium, a museum that houses some of the two million artifacts uncovered since the Jamestown Rediscovery Project began in 1994.

Historic Jamestowne © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For another view of the time, visit Jamestown Settlement and watch 1607: A Nation Takes Root, explore artifact-filled exhibit galleries, climb aboard replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, visit re-creations of a Powhatan Indian village, and walk through a re-creation of the original fort interacting with interpreters.

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Yorktown

Explore Yorktown Battlefield, a National Park Service site. Then stroll through the 18th-century village of Yorktown. The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown tells the story of the nation’s founding through immersive indoor exhibition galleries and films and outdoor living-history experiences. It offers unique looks at the lives of everyday people overtaken by revolutionary events. Inside, nearly every attraction is interactive. Outside, there are old-fashioned interactive options. Drill in an Army encampment. Help fire artillery. Pick up a recipe from colonial cookbooks at the bakehouse. Tend to the crops at a 1780s colonial-era farm.

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Colonial Parkway

The Colonial Parkway is a 23-mile scenic roadway stretching from the York River at Yorktown to the James River at Jamestown connecting Virginia’s Historic Triangle—Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.

Worth Pondering…

The truth is, I love history and studied it in college, with a particular focus on early American history. My love is so deep, in fact, I went to school at The College of William & Mary in Colonial Williamsburg.

—Alexandra Bracken

The Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park

All you need to know about trails, campgrounds, and mountain adventure

When mentioning Shenandoah National Park, visitors often get that faraway look in their eye fondly recalling adventures at this scenic mountain jewel rising high atop Virginia’s Appalachians.

What makes Shenandoah so special? First, consider panoramic views from overlooks scattered on lofty Skyline Drive which 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 creates the unforgettable Shenandoah experience.

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Shenandoah—the first of Virginia’s national parks—was dedicated on July 3, 1936. Cobbled together along the Blue Ridge from Front Royal to Waynesboro, the long narrow preserve divides the beautiful 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. The park clocks in at 200,000 acres with over 500 miles of trails offering plenty of room to spread out and enjoy any type of outdoor adventure you can think up.

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Located on the traditional lands of the Manahoac, Shenandoah’s mountains and valleys have long called to humans in some way or another. European colonizers arrived in the 1750s and throughout the rest of the 18th and 19th centuries, the area was farmed, logged, and mined. Some recognized the touristic value of the area, however, and conversation about building a nature reserve began in the early 20th century. Eventually, the land was seized via eminent domain (a move that displaced hundreds of families that lived there), and the park was established in 1935 built and maintained by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). 

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When the park first opened, nearly a third of it had been cleared by logging, farming, and tree blight. Today, mature forests have grown atop of these scars and a profusion of wildlife make their homes in and beneath the canopy: black bears, bobcats, migratory birds, amphibians such as the endangered Shenandoah Salamander, and more. 

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

Scenic Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive is a National Scenic Byway that runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains starting in the north at Front Royal to Waynesboro where it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway. Skyline Drive is Shenandoah National Park’s linear conduit with 75 overlooks connecting travelers to all the major visitor centers, campgrounds, lodges, picnic areas, and most trailheads. Concrete posts numbered every mile keep you apprised of your whereabouts.

Related article: Escape to the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah National Park

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 laurels.

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Front Royal to Thornton Gap

Driving Distance: 31.5 miles

This most northerly section winding through the park’s North District rises from the town of Front Royal. Climb to the historic Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Milepost 4.6). Next, stop at Hogback Overlook (Milepost 20.8), the longest overlook in the park. At Mathews Arm Campground (Milepost 22.2) numerous hikes are available from your campsite. Grab some ice cream during the warm season from Elkwallow Wayside (Milepost 24.0). Don’t miss the view from Thornton Hollow Overlook (Milepost 27.6) before rolling into Thornton Gap.

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Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap

Driving distance: 34 miles

The Central District from Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap is the land of superlatives—the highest park elevation, the highest point on Skyline Drive, two lodges, two campgrounds, historic cabins, trails galore, and two visitor centers. Some would argue the best views, too.

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Hike to Mary’s Rock from Meadow Spring parking area (Milepost 33.5). Pinnacles Overlook (Milepost 35.1) presents auto-accessible views and a nearby picnic area. Hike to Hawksbill, the park’s highest peak from Milepost 46.7. The next must-stop is Big Meadows (Milepost 51.0) which includes a lodge, campground, visitor center, dining, and picnicking. Big Meadows Campground is the park’s highest at 3,500 feet. Nearby waterfall walks include Dark Hollow Falls, Rose River Falls, and Lewis Spring Falls.

Related article: Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Consider camping at smallish Lewis Mountain Campground (Milepost 57.5). The pull-through and back-in sites can handle most RVs and tow vehicles. It offers a more serene experience than Big Meadows Campground. Finally, visit the 83-foot South River Falls from the South River Picnic Area (Milepost 62.8).

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Swift Run Gap to Rockfish Gap

Driving Distance: 40 miles

The South District holds claim to the longest and most quiet section of Skyline Drive. It is also long on wilderness and less on developed facilities. Known for its extensive rock formations, talus slopes, and outcrops, the South District reveals the most untamed side of the park highlighted by the trails of the Big Run area.

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The primary developed area is at Loft Mountain with a camp store and the largest campground in the park. Dundo Picnic Area and group camp is the only other developed facility in the South District. Overlooks are plentiful from this segment of Skyline Drive. Heading south from Swift Run Gap, you can see the geologically revealing peaks from the Rocky Mount Overlook (Milepost 71.2) where boulder fields known as talus slopes are exposed. The Loft Mountain area is found at Milepost 79.5. A side road takes you to appealing Loft Mountain Campground which also offers showers. 

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Entrances to Skyline Drive:

  • Front Royal at US-340
  • Thornton Gap at US-211
  • Swift Run Gap at US-33
  • Rockfish Gap at I- 64 (also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway)
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Hiking Trails

Shenandoah is a hiker’s paradise—trails lined with wildflowers, mushrooms, and berry bushes weave and dip through valleys and across peaks delivering full-sensory journeys through lush forests of red oak, chestnut, maple, and yellow poplar trees.

The wild and less seen side of Shenandoah awaits those who leave Skyline Drive behind and take to their feet. The rewards increase with every footfall beneath the stately oaks to rocky vista points and into deep canyons where waterfalls roar among old-growth trees spared by the logger’s axe. In other places, your footsteps lead to Shenandoah’s pioneer past. Discover both the human and natural history of Shenandoah.

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Check out the staircase of cascades that run along Dark Hollow Falls Trail (1.4-mile loop), take in the views from Shenandoah’s tallest peak on the Hawksbill Loop (3-mile loop), or find Lewis Falls tucked away on the side of the mountain behind Big Meadows (3.3-mile loop). 

Long-distance hikers won’t be bored here either because 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) runs through Shenandoah—follow the famous trail for maximum mileage gains and access to many shorter trails along the way. Besides the AT, perhaps the most well-known long hike is the Old Rag Circuit, a 9.4-mile loop that takes you up to the rocky peak of its namesake mountain via a steep climb and some rock scrambling; you’ll need a day pass ticket.

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Camping and Campgrounds

Skyline Driver runs 105 miles along the crest of Shenandoah’s the Blue Ridge Mountains and given the slow speed limit on Skyline Drive (35 mph) plus the 70+ scenic stop-offs it can take you hours to get from one end of the park to the other. Pick your campground strategically—you’ll want to stay relatively close to the trails you plan to hike if you don’t fancy a lengthy drive to get there.

Related article: Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

When it comes to developed campgrounds, Mathews Arm Campground is your best bet in the north end of Shenandoah. Big Meadows and Lewis Mountain are the most centrally located campgrounds and they give you quick access to some of the most popular sites in the park like Dark Hollows Trail and the Byrd Visitor Center and camp store. Loft Mountain, the largest campground in the park is the only one south of US 33. Book your campsite several months in advance via the NPS system—things fill up quickly in peak summer and fall seasons.

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Mathews Arm

  • Location: Milepost 22.2
  • Elevation: 2,920 feet

The hilly campground has first come, first served and reserved sites most of which are shaded. The pull-through and deep back-in sites can handle most RVs and a tow vehicle. No electric or water hookups. Campground has potable water spigots and a dump station. The higher elevation keeps it a good 10 degrees cooler than the Shenandoah Valley below.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Meadows

  • Milepost 51.0
  • Elevation 3,480 feet

Big Meadows Campground is near many of the major facilities and popular hiking trails in the Park with three waterfalls and Big Meadows within walking distance. The pull-through and deep back-in sites can handle most RVs and tow vehicles. No electric or water hookups. The campground has potable water spigots and a dump station.

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Lewis Mountain

  • Milepost 57.5
  • Elevation 3,390 feet

This is the most centrally located of all Shenandoah’s campgrounds and the smallest. The 30-site locale offers first come, first served sites only. The pull-through and deep back-in sites can handle most RVs and tow vehicles. No electric or water hookups or dump station. The campground has potable water spigots.

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Loft Mountain

  • Milepost 79.5
  • Elevation 3,320 feet

Loft Mountain Campground is the largest campground in the Park. The campground sits atop Big Flat Mountain with outstanding views to the east and west. Two waterfalls and numerous trails into the Big Run Wilderness area are nearby. The Appalachian Trail circles around the campground highlighting the richness of hikes nearby. The hilly campground has first come, first served, and reserved sites. The pull-through and deep back-in sites can handle most RVs and tow vehicles. Note, however, that the low canopy and trees on some turns can present challenges for taller RVs. No electric or water hookups. The campground has potable water spigots and a dump station.

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Top tips for planning the perfect trip to Shenandoah

From keeping safe to packing the right clothes here’s what you need to know before you go:

  • Respect the wildlife and be prepared for bears: Shenandoah is known for its above-average population of black bears so hike smart—make noise, bring bear spray, and use bear-resistant containers if you’re backpacking.
  • There are ways to avoid crowds: Shenandoah’s proximity to the nation’s capital means that crowds can get dense, particularly in the warmer months. Visit during the week for more solitude and hit the trails early to score parking and a quiet trail.
  • Pack for all weather and dress appropriately: Due to Shenandoah’s relatively high elevation in comparison to the surrounding areas, it’s not unusual for weather conditions to quickly change, be it fog, rain, or snow. Check the weather before you go out and bring layers to ward off moisture and chill from the cool mountain air.
  • It’s not free to visit Shenandoah: Like in most US national parks, you’ll either have to pay the $30 single car entry or opt for an annual pass. The entry fee does not include camping fees, which have recently been upped to $30/night in all developed campgrounds.
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Fact Box

Size: 199,000 acres, 40 percent designated as wilderness

Established: May 22, 1926

Location: Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

Park Elevation: 550 feet-4,049 feet

Park entrance fee: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Speed Limit: 35 mph

Recreational visits (2021): 1,592,312

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: 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 many other things so the origin of the National Park name is unclear.

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Iconic site in the park: A climb to the top of Old Rag Mountain is undoubtedly the most popular and the most difficult hike in the park. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But for those of you ready to take on the challenge, you will find yourself in the clouds. The circuit hike is about 9 miles with significant elevation change and strenuous rock scrambles. This hike takes 7-8 hours and sometimes longer depending on how many people are out there—waiting in line to pass through scrambles is par for the course. Hitting Old Rag on a weekday and/or during off-season is a much more pleasing experience. As of March 1, 2022, those wishing to hike Old Rag are required to purchase a day-use ticket.

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: The Skyline Drive scenic byway is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States at any time of the year. The picturesque 105-mile road travels through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.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. 

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Did you know? 

Skyline Drive rides the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park and joins the Blue Ridge Parkway which connects Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina. As an aside, this is the same ridge that was walked by American Indians and early settlers of Virginia. 

Shenandoah is without a doubt one of the coolest leaf-peeping spots in the United States when fall foliage changes color each year. 

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

Shenandoah National Park is Hosting a Night Sky Festival This Weekend—and It’s Free

The annual festival takes place from July 19 to July 21

When you come home at night and flip on the lamp switch, do you ever stop to think about what you might be missing?

In 1880, less than 150 years ago, electric light first came to American cities.
In 2017, roughly 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way due to electric lights at night. In other words, our dark night skies often really aren’t all that dark. When was the last time you were able to experience the awe of seeing a sky full of stars? It can be easy to feel disconnected from or simply forget about the beauty and sheer vastness of the cosmos.

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National parks are some of the best places to appreciate night skies because the National Park Service works to protect these places from the increasingly prevalent effects of light pollution. The National Park Service recognizes dark night skies as a valuable resource that needs to be protected.

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National Parks are becoming a refuge for people from city light pollution. Dozens of national parks around the country have earned designations such as International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries. These distinctions recognize “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment,” according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

Many of these parks have astronomy programs where people of all ages can learn more about the wonders of the night sky—and all of them have places to lay out a blanket and simply enjoy the darkness. Grand Canyon National Parks hosts an annual Star Party in June.

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Under the stars at Shenandoah National Park

The crisp, clear Blue Ridge Mountains air in Shenandoah National Park makes everything brighter in the night sky. Stars sparkle with more intensity and constellations come into clearer view.

Related article: Where to Stargaze

While Shenandoah National Park may not get as dark as some of the Parks in the West, its high elevation combined with its relative remoteness from dense urban areas makes the Park a great place to engage in stargazing on the east coast.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On moonless and cloud-free nights it is a wonderful spot to view the Milky Way or some of the 2,500 stars visible to the unaided eye that make up one of the 88 official constellations. Finding and observing constellations, phases of the moon, meteor showers, and eclipses can provide a sense of wonder about our place in the universe.

Starting in 2016 Shenandoah National Park began a Night Sky Festival, full of ranger programs and activities to help celebrate our disappearing dark skies.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for Stargazing

A good place for stargazing in Shenandoah National Park is by the Big Meadows area near the Rapidan Fire Road. The amphitheater in the Skyland area is also appropriate.

Related article: The Grand Canyon Is Hosting a Star Party This Week—and It’s Totally Free

Most people are a bit uncomfortable in the dark. Try getting used to it by walking outside in a dark area while keeping your flashlight in your pocket.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Allow your eyes time to adjust; it takes about twenty minutes for your eyes to become accustomed to the nighttime darkness. You may be surprised how well you can see by starlight.

Make a red flashlight or use one with a red LED. To make your own, use red paper or cellophane to cover the white light of the flashlight. Red light allows your eyes to adapt better to the darkness than white light while still providing visibility for safety.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoying the night skies is for everyone, you don’t need expensive equipment. If you don’t have a telescope, grab your binoculars to get a better look at the fuzzy spots in the sky overhead. Also, use the binoculars to gaze upon the Milky Way.

Educate yourself on the constellations overhead with the use of a star chart or a star-finding app downloadable for your smartphone or tablet.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When venturing out to stargaze in the park make sure to bring a red flashlight to journey from your car to your destination. Be sure to dress in layers, as summer nights are often cool on the mountain ridge. Bring a blanket or a set of chairs to sit on.

Related article: Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive

Shenandoah National Park will conduct its sixth annual Night Sky Festival from August 19-21. Rangers and guest speakers will present a variety of programs at sites throughout the park focusing on space, celestial objects, nocturnal residents, and the importance of dark night skies. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guest speakers presenting will include NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern and amateur astronomer Rich Drumm. These programs are sponsored by Delaware North, the park concessioner.  

Other activities include special ranger-led talks, discussions, children’s activities, and telescope/night sky viewings. Programs will take place at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Milepost 4.6), Mathews Arm Campground (Milepost 22.1), Skyland Amphitheater (Milepost 42.5), Byrd Visitor Center (Milepost 51), Big Meadows (Milepost 51), and Loft Mountain Amphitheater (Milepost 79.5). 

Related article: Shenandoah National Park: Daughter of the Stars

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All programs are free. No reservations are needed. However, park entrance fees apply ($30/vehicle, valid for 7 days). Participants should be weather-prepared and bring a flashlight with a red filter. The complete program schedule can be found on the park’s website.  

Worth Pondering…

I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.

—Brian Greene

Colonial Williamsburg: World’s Largest Living History Museum

Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum with 301 acres featuring iconic sites, working trades people, historic taverns, and two world-class art museums

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation operates the world’s largest living history museum in Williamsburg, Virginia—the restored 18th-century capital of Britain’s largest, wealthiest, and most populous settlement in the New World.

Meet a Nation Builder like George Washington or Edith Cumbo and admire the craftsmanship of some of the best artisans in the world. Connect with your family over a horse-drawn carriage ride, world-class dining, and a Haunted Williamsburg ghost tour.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

History of Williamsburg

The city was founded as the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699 and it was here that the basic concepts of the United States of America were formed under the leadership of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and many others.

Named Williamsburg in honor of England’s reigning monarch at the time, King William III, the colonial mecca also became a center of learning. The College of William and Mary founded in 1693 counts political leaders such as Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler as graduates.

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During its time as the capital of Virginia, Williamsburg flourished as the hub of religious, economic, and social life in the state. A palatial Governor’s Palace was built as were markets, taverns, a theatre, a church (those living in the New World were required by law to worship in the Church of England), and countless homes. Market Square was the site of celebrations, festivals, fairs, contests, and even puppet shows; tradesmen, such as wig makers, tailors, blacksmiths, and cabinetmakers, practiced their craft along Duke of Gloucester Street. Restaurants and taverns offered onion soup, ham, carrot and chicken dishes, pudding, and pie.

Related article: Historic Triangle: 400 Years & Counting

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to see and do in Colonial Williamsburg

Here is an overview of the essentials for a visit to Williamsburg.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Governor’s Palace: Experience the grandeur of royal authority in Virginia just before its collapse in the Revolution. The Governor’s Palace, home to seven royal governors and the first two elected governors in Virginia was built to impress visitors with a display of authority and wealth. Tours every 7-15 minutes

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Raleigh Tavern: The Raleigh Tavern served as a critical stage for Virginia’s political ambitions amid intensifying debate about liberty, ultimately leading to our nation’s independence. Learn about different perspectives on the extraordinary events that took place here on tours offered every 20 minutes.

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Wetherburn’s Tavern: Merriment and conviviality were specialties of the house at Wetherburn’s Tavern. Get a glimpse into the private lives of Henry Wetherburn, his family, and his slaves who made the tavern one of the most successful of the 1750s. The tavern and the dairy out back are both original buildings.

Related article: 8 U.S. Towns Stuck in Time

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Everard House: Visit the home of Thomas Everard, a wealthy planter and civic leader. One of the oldest houses in Williamsburg, the Everard House is furnished with 18th-century antiques and was meticulously restored to its early appearance.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse: Step back into the time of the Stamp Act and learn about the fashionable world of the coffeehouse where Williamsburg’s citizens and visitors met to share news, transact business, and debate politics. Meet people of the past and converse over coffee, tea, or velvety chocolate prepared in the 18th-century style. Tours offered every 15-20 minutes.

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Anderson Blacksmith Shop: The Revolutionary War wasn’t won through battles alone. Virginia desperately needed a new armory to keep pace with the might of British industry. Watch blacksmiths take red-hot iron from the fires of their forges and hammer it into a variety of tools, hardware, and weapons.

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Brickyard: Discover the process of making bricks that will be used in building projects around town. During the summer, brickmakers mold and dry thousands of bricks. In the autumn, the bricks are baked in a giant wood-fired oven. Keep an eye out, too, for masons using these bricks in all sorts of projects around town.

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Foundry: The Geddy family included gunsmiths, cutlers, founders, and silversmiths. On the site of their home and shop, watch founders cast and finish buckles, knobs, bells, spoons, and other objects in bronze, brass, pewter, and silver.

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Guardhouse: The Magazine stands as a symbol of the Crown’s commitment to the common defense and the expansion of its empire. Visit the Guardhouse and discover how this military storehouse and Virginia’s diverse peoples shaped an empire and defined a new nation.

Related article: 10 Towns Older Than America

Gunsmith Shop: See how gunsmiths made rifles, pistols, and fowling pieces using the tools and techniques of their 18th-century predecessors and uniting many skills from forging iron to working wood.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Presbyterian Meetinghouse: In a time when only the Anglican Church was Virginia’s official religion, what did everyone else do on Sunday? Although Catholics and other non-Protestants were denied religious freedom, the government allowed many dissenting Protestants to worship in meetinghouses like this one.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Public Gaol: Thieves, runaway slaves, debtors, and political prisoners once paced the cells of the Public Gaol as they waited to be tried—or hanged. Perhaps its most notorious inmates were several pirates who had served under Blackbeard and were captured with him in 1718. Self-guided exploration of the cells where prisoners were held as they awaited trial and punishment.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arboretum & Gardens: More than 30 maintained gardens dot the 301-acre living history museum. The collection features 25-period species of oak trees. The Arboretum is home to 20 Virginia state champion trees and two national champion trees—the jujube and the Paper Mulberry.

America’s Historic Triangle

A visit to Colonial Williamsburg isn’t complete without visiting all the historic sites the area is known for. Must-sees include the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Yorktown Battlefield (where the American Revolution was won), and Jamestown Settlement (where America’s first permanent English colony came to life).

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Details

Colonial Williamsburg is open 365 days a year. Most Historic Trades and Sites are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. After hours, check out Evening Programs which run well into the evening. The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Restaurant and store hours vary.

Admission tickets are required to enter buildings and experience programming in the Historic Area. With your ticket, enjoy interpreter-guided tours of the most iconic sites including the Capitol, Governor’s Palace, and Courthouse. Tradespeople work and share their craft in workspaces, gardens, yards, and at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your admission ticket also grants you access to multiple programs throughout the day on the Charlton and Play House stages as well as the newly expanded and updated Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg including stage programs and performances twice a day in the Hennage Auditorium. You’ll also be able to take advantage of a complimentary shuttle service and get seasonal discounts on carriage rides. Check the events calendar and seasonal activities pages to see what’s open and happening during your visit.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colonial Williamsburg offers several admission options and special offers to customize your visit. Tickets and passes currently available include:

  • Single-day ticket ($46.99)
  • Multiday ticket ($56.99)
  • Annual pass ($74.99)
  • Art museums single-day ticket ($14.99)
  • America’s Historic Triangle ticket ($109.90)

Worth Pondering…

The truth is, I love history and studied it in college with a particular focus on early American history. My love is so deep, in fact, I went to school at The College of William & Mary in Colonial Williamsburg.

—Alexandra Bracken

Best States for a Summer Road Trip

Summer is the perfect time to hit the open road: School’s out, the weather’s warm, and the possibilities are endless

Don’t you just love when you are driving and see those welcome signs into states? There’s nothing like a summer road trip to enjoy the outdoors with friends and family. Summer is the best time to hit the road and check some places off that bucket list. It’s your chance to feel that summer breeze, listen to good music, play fun road trip games, and watch road trip films. Sightsee across some of your favorite states both near and far!

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In their Summer Travel Survey 2022, The Vacationer determined that 42 percent plan to travel more than last summer with nearly 51 percent flying on a plane and 80 percent on road trips.

Deciding to take a trip is the easy part, though. Picking a destination and affording everything you want to pack into your itinerary is harder. Fuel prices might be one thing to worry about, for example. They’ve been increasing this year with the national gas average hovering around $5 per gallon now ($5.80 for diesel). On top of that, you’ll need to consider accommodations, activities, and dining. All of these certainly contribute to the more than $751 billion we spend on leisure travel each year.

Kemah Boardwalk, Kemah, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wallet Hub curated a list of the best and worst states to take a summer road trip this year. Of course, Texas made the list. I’m not surprised! Wallet Hub compared all 50 states and key factors to determine the most fun, scenic, and affordable states to visit on a road trip. After the pandemic and current inflation, road trips are still the best way to still experience an enjoyable vacation with your favorite people. So load up the RV and hit the road! It’s time to see what states fall into the top 15 best states for a summer road trip.

Whitehall, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To determine the best road-trip destinations for travel this summer, WalletHub compared the 50 states across three key dimensions: Costs, Safety, and Activities.

They evaluated those dimensions using 32 relevant metrics. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for summer road trips.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina

Metrics used to determine Costs include:

  • Average gas prices
  • Lowest price of camping
  • Cost of Living Index

Metrics used to determine Safety include:

  • Quality of roads
  • Quality of bridges
  • Traffic-related fatalities
  • Car thefts per 1,000 residents
  • Violent crimes per 1,000 residents

Metrics used to determine Activities include:

  • Share of the total area designated as parkland
  • National parks recreation visitors per capita
  • Zoos and botanical gardens per capita
  • Number of attractions
  • Access to scenic byways
  • Historic sites per capita
Rayne mural, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The financial website then determined each state’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order their sample.

Taking the average gas prices metric, for example, Georgia came in with the lowest average prices followed by Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi. At the high end, California and Nevada came in with the highest prices followed by Washington and Oregon.

When the points were tallied, New York came in No. 1 with a score of 58.01 and Minnesota followed with 57.56.

Vanderbilt Estate, Hyde Park, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. New York

Not only is there the city to enjoy but many places outside the Big Apple. Visit Niagara Falls, mountain views, The Catskills, historical spots, and more!

2. Minnesota

Hit the road to Minnesota. I know, maybe you did not know it would be No. 2! Take a scenic drive and view beautiful byways, waterfalls, and more.

Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Texas

Texas is absolutely it! One of my favorite to explore in an RV! Head to Texas and you could spend days driving through the entire state all you want. Stop in Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and more. From the beach, to the cities, to the country side you will never run out of things to do and places to eat.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Louisiana

Go to Louisiana and it’s time to have fun! Visit the swamp on a swamp tour, factory tours, historical tours, Cajun Country, and much more.

5. Maine

Now, maybe you would have never guessed it? I surely did not. But head to Maine and experience national parks, cool loop highways, beaches, and more.

Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Ohio

Oh, Ohio! Drive up North and visit Cedar Point Amusement Park, Put-In-Bay, Columbus Zoo, hiking trails, and more!

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. North Carolina

You read that right! NC is in the No. 7 spot for best summer road trips. If you’ve toured the Tar Heel State, I am sure you know why. Drive through the mountains, on the beach, through the cities, eat good, hike, shop, relax, this state has it all!

Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Idaho

Hit the road in Idaho! Visit hiking trails, national recreation areas, and scenic byways while you’re there.

Mount Dora, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Florida

Hit the road and head to Florida. You might want to drive through the entire state but trust me; it will take you a while so you might as well pit stop while you’re there. Drop into Pensacola, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa area, Miami, Key West, and more!

10. Wyoming

If you drive to Wyoming for Yellowstone and Grand Teton, take some time to visit the Union Pass Monument, National Museum of Military Vehicles, Wild Horses, and more!

St. Marys, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Georgia

This is a good one, and another personal favorite! Visit the mountains, the lake, amusement parks, amazing shopping centers, state parks, great food, and more all throughout Georgia!

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Washington

Drive across the country and visit Washington State this summer. You’ll see plenty of sites on the way, but once you are there enjoy views of Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, Mount St. Helens, the Cascade Loop, San Juan Islands, and more!

Altavista, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Virginia

You’re on your way to Virginia this summer! Visit national parks, beaches, Colonial National Parkway, and more!

14. Nebraska

Hit the road to Nebraska! Visit Sandhills Journey, Loup Rivers Byway, Lewis & Clark Byway, Heritage Highway, and more!

15. Iowa

Take a drive through or to Iowa and see some of your new favorite views. Visit Iowa Great Lakes, The Amana Colonies, and more!

Worth Pondering…

Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think.

—Lawrence Durrell

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

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

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.

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.

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
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © 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