Visiting the mountains of Shenandoah National Park will never get old. They make up some of America's most beautiful scenery, and the quirky and historic attractions around the park somehow always feel fresh and exciting-- vineyards, boutique hotels, and classic tourist stops are all waiting to be discovered. It's simultaneously peaceful and exciting, just like the feeling you get after hiking to the top of a mountain and looking out over the valley (which you can and should do while visiting the park). Explore these hidden gems of Shenandoah, and find out why people always seem to come back time and time again:
Some tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park:
-For the most part, Shenandoah is pretty pet-friendly. The most popular trails allow dogs, as do some campgrounds and lodges. Just remember to keep your pooch on a 6-foot leash and to clean up after them! -Shenandoah National Park marks one end of the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The BRP is one of the most visited NPS sites, and the nearly-500-mile route is loaded with awesome views and tons of things to see and do. -Fall, specifically October, is the most crowded season in the park, thanks to the stunning foliage. If you're visiting in autumn, beat the crowds by arriving early, parking wherever you can, and hiking a trail or two. Most people will want to drive Skyline Drive, but the trails offer views that are just as stunning. -About 40% of the park is wilderness, with no roads or trails. Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit!
Stony Man Mountain is a great hike for those looking to hike up one of the park's famed peaks, but aren't quite ready for anything too wild. The loop is less than 2 miles, and the elevation gain is only a few hundred feet. Plus, the views of the valley and the town of Luray are breathtaking!
A good pre-hike breakfast or post-hike lunch can really make a difference when visiting a park. Fuel up at Gathering Grounds in Luray, the town's quirky little coffee shop. They bake their own pastries in-house each day, make fresh sandwiches, and brew up locally-roasted coffee, which they blend into delicious drinks. Plus, the vintage, shabby-chic decor feels so cozy, and they even have a nice patio.
If you're looking to get away from it all and spend some time in nature, then book a stay at one of the Brookside Cabins... you'll love relaxing on the porch or in the hot tub after a long day of exploring the park! The former 1940s motel has been updated and now features Colonial-style furnishings and rustic decor, making the cabins super cozy. Plus, this is as close to Shenandoah as you can get without staying inside the park!
For world-class dining and lodging, stay at The Inn at Little Washington. Set in the tiny and adorable town of Washington, VA, the historic boutique hotel features 18 rooms, all impeccably and uniquely furnished. Plus, the onsite restaurant is incredibly well-reviewed... people drive hours from Washington, D.C. to come have an unforgettable and incredibly opulent meal.
Everything about this place is whimsical, yet elegant (for example, they have an appointed "Cheese Wiz" who brings an insanely curated cheese cart around to every table... seriously, how do I get that job?) And if you're working with a generous budget, you have to stay in the Gamekeeper's Cottage. It's like something out of a fairytale.
For a dining experience that's a little more casual but still unforgettable, check out Flint Hill's Griffin Tavern. The 19th century home converted into a restaurant serves up modern takes on pub grub, including pizza, burgers, bangers and mash, shepherds pie, and more. Grab a drink and chat with the locals as you soak in the friendly vibes!
Another cool feature of the park is hidden below the ground: the area hides several caves below the surface! Just outside the park, you'll find Luray Caverns, which has something you won't find at any other cave-- the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The console may look like any other organ, but it actually makes noise by striking the ancient stalactites in the cave. They also have a Wishing Well, which, though it looks shallow, is actually 7 feet deep. It's tradition to toss coins into it for good luck... and even if you don't believe in the magical powers of the Wishing Well, you'll at least earn yourself a bit of good karma, since all the money tossed into the well is donated to charity.
Since you're in Virginia, you'll probably want to take advantage of the delicious Southern cookin' you'll find across the state. Southern Kitchen is a great little diner featuring home-cooked classics like fried chicken, country ham, peanut butter pie, and more in a retro setting. It's been feeding locals since the 1950s, so you know you're in for a solid meal.
There are quite a few wineries in the Shenandoah region, because grapes can be grown here. Located on a 19th century farm, Wisteria Farm and Vineyard is an adorable place to spend a relaxing afternoon. The tasting room is an addition to the Victorian farmhouse, and you can sample their delicious wines. They also have seating spread out across the farm and on the little patio, so you can enjoy your $8 for 8 wine sampler and the live music they often have in the bucolic setting!
Big Meadow Campground is one of the park's more popular camping spots. Set in a forest meadow, it's super scenic, and is within walking distance of a few waterfalls. It's also super close to many other attractions in the park. Plus, there's a gas station nearby, and this is a great place to watch the occasional oceans of fog that form above the mountains. Book in advance!
President Herbert Hoover used to vacation in Shenandoah (which, why don't more Presidents vacation here? It's gorgeous, and it's only 75 miles from DC!) He bought the land (knowing it would become a part of the National Park, which was being planned at the time) and had Rapidan Camp built as a summer home, where he and his wife could entertain politicians and foreign dignitaries, hold official White House meetings, or generally just chill out.
He donated it to Shenandoah National Park, although it was occasionally used by Presidents on and off for a few more years (Jimmy Carter was the last to stay there). President Franklng D. Roosevelt found the terrain to difficult to navigate, though, and had Camp David built in Maryland for his vacations, and it gradually became the Presidential retreat of choice. The NPS has maintained 3 of the 13 Rapidan Camp buildings, restoring them to their former glory and turning them into museums. You can visit them on ranger-led tours-- it's not hard to see why Hoover loved Shenandoah so much!
There are two main hikes around Hawksbill Mountain. One is easier, along Lower Hawksbill, while the other follows the Appalachian Trail for a ways before hitting the summit. They're both great workouts, and both offer panoramic views of the park!
The climb up Old Rag Mountain is one of Shenandoah National Park's most iconic hikes. It can take anywhere from 5-8 hours to complete, based on how many stops you make and how experienced you are. The upper portion of the trail features some mildly intense rock scrambling, but the sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley are utterly spellbinding and absolutely worth the effort.
Compared to Big Meadow Campground, Mathews Arm is a smaller, quieter campground. It's about two miles from a supply store, and is conveniently located near plenty of trails. The bathrooms are very well kept up, but don't have showers or hot water. But, you'll have a more peaceful experience here!
The only public road through Shenandoah National Park, Skyline drive runs 105 miles north and south through the park along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The drive is a relaxing one for the entire family, dotted with wildflowers and abundant in wildlife with plenty of opportunities to get out and do some exploring in the park. There are 75 scenic overlooks along the way with expansive views of the Shenandoah Valley and the rolling Virginia piedmont.
Pro tips: if you take the road all the way through without stopping, it can be done in about three hours... but take advantage of the pull-offs and scenic overlooks. The speed limit is 35MPH, and the drive can be done in RVs and campers as long as they can clear Mary's Rock Tunnel. Expect traffic jams in the fall that will make the drive take a little longer!
The best time to visit Shenandoah National Park is, without question, autumn. The trees light up in their fall colors, and sweeping views of the foliage can be seen from Skyline Drive and the park's many hikes and climbs. Plus, it's not as hot; summer is a popular time to visit, but the 90 degree weather and stifling humidity aren't ideal. The wildflowers and waterfalls are at their best in the spring, making it another lovely time to visit. A visit in winter isn't the worst idea either, since it'll be quiet and calm, but Skyline Drive closes when it covers up with snow.