Know Before You Go: Shenandoah NP

Visiting Shenandoah National Park: What to Know Before You Go

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Shenandoah National Park is one of the best east coast national parks featuring a wide variety of stunning views, challenging hikes, scenic drives, and more. With extensive distances and hiking opportunities throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains, knowing how to plan your trip and what you need to know before visiting Shenandoah National Park is critical.

Set your trip to Shenandoah up for success with these helpful information and tips.

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How to Get to Shenandoah National Park

Nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah is one of the most accessible national parks. Located just 70 miles west of Washington DC, you’ll find it easy to get to the park with a plethora of airports to fly into and then just an easy car rental and drive to visit Shenandoah National Park.

Additionally, upon arrival you’ll notice there is no bus or shuttle service in Shenandoah National Park. This makes having a car to explore the park indispensable. To make the most of your time there, it’s worth getting some pointers on how to best navigate the park.

Entrances to Shenandoah NP

There are four entrances to Shenandoah National Park with each collecting the required entrance fees.

  • Front Royal is accessible via Highway 340 and is the northernmost entrance at mile 0.6.
  • Thornton Gap is accessible via Highway 211 at mile 31.5.
  • Swift Run Gap is accessible via Highway 33 at mile 65.7.
  • Rockfish Gap is accessible via Highway 250 and I-64 and is the southernmost entrance at mile 105.4.

It’s worth noting that the northern entrances, Front Royal and Thornton Gap, tend to be the busiest and can see long waits during peak season at Shenandoah National Park.

Entrance Fees for Shenandoah NP

The entrance fee for Shenandoah National Park is $30 for a single vehicle and this gets all passengers in the vehicle into the park for seven consecutive days.

You can also use your America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) to enter Shenandoah or other similar annual passes. These passes are also available for purchase at all four entrances to Shenandoah.

Mileposts in Shenandoah NP

Shenandoah is a long, thin national park all based off of the 105 mile long scenic Skyline Drive. As you drive through Shenandoah National Park, you’ll find most things are labeled with a mile number to help you understand where in the park you are.

For reference, the northern entrance at Front Royal is at milepost 0.6, the central point of the park is at Big Meadows at milepost 51, and the southern entrance of Rockfish Gap is at milepost 105.4.

As a general rule of thumb, plan to travel no faster than the 35 mph speed limit between destinations. This will help you plan your travel time within the park.

The Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park

When to Visit Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is open year round and has four distinct seasons, each offering a completely different experience. This can make it difficult to choose the best time of year to visit Shenandoah National Park, but in some ways, you can’t really go wrong. You may just need to visit four times to witness the incredible differences of each season!

Spring in Shenandoah NP

Spring is a popular time to visit Shenandoah National Park as the wildflowers and trees will be in bloom. However, be aware that the weather can be a bit unpredictable from spring rains to winter storms that may bring snowfall. Check the forecast and pack layers and a raincoat, just in case!

Summer in Shenandoah NP

Visiting Shenandoah in summer can be a bit warm and crowded, but you’ll also find the mountains tend to be 10 degrees (F) cooler than the Shenandoah Valley below offering a welcome break from the heat. Beyond that, summer brings longer days, which allows you to see more of the park in fewer days, and the wildlife in Shenandoah is much more active in the warmer weather.

Fall in Shenandoah NP

The most popular time of year to visit Shenandoah National Park is fall. This is when visitors flock to the park to admire the vibrant fall colors, which typically peak between mid and late October. Unfortunately, it also comes with large crowds. This makes hiking in Shenandoah in fall a bit more challenging as the parking areas fill up early.

Winter in Shenandoah NP

While the park is open through winter, you will find many of the park facilities close from December to March. Additionally if the weather takes a turn for the worse the Skyline Drive can close. However, winter is a great time to visit Shenandoah to avoid the crowds and to witness the wildlife through the bare trees!

Sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains

Where to Stay in Shenandoah National Park

Determining the best place to stay for Shenandoah National Park is difficult. With 105 miles to cover, there are plenty of great accommodation options, but they will all come with a bit of driving.

If you are planning to spend multiple days in the park, you may wish to stay near the middle of the park or switch locations partially through your trip to minimize driving the same part of the Skyline Drive daily.

Lodging in Shenandoah National Park

The best place to stay for Shenandoah National Park is of course in the park. This will get you closest to all of the activities in Shenandoah National Park and really immerse you in the mountains.

There are just a few lodging choices inside Shenandoah NP, including:

  • Skyland at mile 41.7
  • Big Meadows Lodge at mile 51
  • Lewis Mountain Cabins at mile 57.5
  • 6 Public Use Cabins spread throughout the park

Learn more about Shenandoah National Park lodging.

Camping in Shenandoah National Park

Another popular option is to go camping in Shenandoah National Park. There are five campgrounds along Skyline Drive starting as low as $15 per night – perfect for visiting Shenandoah on a budget. Just make sure to book in advance for weekends and holidays as they do fill up.

  • Mathews Arm Campground at mile 22.1
  • Big Meadows Campground at mile 51.2
  • Lewis Mountain Campground at mile 57.5
  • Loft Mountain Campground at mile 79.5
  • Dundo Group Campground at mile 83.7

Learn more about Shenandoah National Park camping.

Hotels Close to Shenandoah National Park

Another awesome option of where to stay for Shenandoah National Park is in the nearby towns. There are a lot of hotel options, plenty of restaurants around, grocery stores, and more if you go this route. Of course, you will have more driving to get into the park each day, but with so many towns to choose from, you can choose your location wisely!

Here are some of the top cities close to Shenandoah National Park and their best hotel options.

Front Royal, VA

Located at the north end of the park, you’ll be just minutes from the Front Royal Entrance. This makes hotels in Front Royal perfect for your Shenandoah adventure! Check out Mountain Home Bed & Breakfast or the TownePlace Suites by Marriott Front Royal.

Check all hotels in Front Royal, VA.

Luray, VA

Located just 15 minutes from the Thornton Gap Entrance, you’ll be able to commute from your hotel to Shenandoah National Park in no time! Check out Hotel Laurance, South Court Inn or Hawksbill House.

Check all hotels in Luray, VA.

Harrisonburg, VA

Located a bit further at 30 minutes from the Swift Run Gap Entrance of Shenandoah National Park, Harrisonburg is home of James Madison University and offers a number of awesome hotels. Start your search at the Hotel Madison & Shenandoah Conference Center or the Village Inn.

Check out all hotels in Harrisonburg, VA.

Charlottesville, VA

Located about 30 minutes from Rockfish Gap, the southernmost entrance of Shenandoah National Park, is Charlottesville. Home to the University of Virginia, Charlottesville is a bit of a larger city which offers some amazing hotels for Shenandoah National Park. Take a look at the Inn at Court Square, 200 South Street Inn, or the Draftsman, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection.

Check out all hotels in Charlottesville, VA.

Dark Hollows Falls in Shenandoah National Park

Top Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park

There are a lot of activities in Shenandoah National Park to keep you busy. Whether you’re outdoorsy and want to go backcountry hiking in Shenandoah or simply see the views from the road, you’ll find the park is quite rewarding! Here are some of the best activities to pack into your trip to Shenandoah NP.

  • Drive or Bike Skyline Drive: One of the best ways to see Shenandoah National Park is to cruise Skyline Drive. This road takes you through the full park and offers 75 overlooks into the surrounding mountains and valleys.
  • Get Hiking: With over 500 miles of trails, you’ll find endless opportunities to explore Shenandoah National Park on foot. And, many of the trails follow part of the famous Appalachian Trail!
  • Admire the Wildlife: The wildlife in Shenandoah National Park is plentiful and active, particularly at dawn and dusk!
  • Go Fishing: Shenandoah National Park offers a lot of opportunities for fishing, but it comes with some rules. Find everything you need to know about fishing in Shenandoah here!
  • Learn about the Park: Attend a Ranger Program or take in the exhibits at the visitor centers to learn about Shenandoah National Park
  • View the Stars: As with many national parks, Shenandoah gets pitch black at night making it perfect for star gazing. Not to mention its dozens of overlooks and Big Meadow make great places to enjoy the night sky.

Read about the top 28 things to do in Shenandoah National Park

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the top of Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park

How Many Days to Spend in Shenandoah National Park

One of the most popular questions is always how much time do you need in Shenandoah National Park. Of course, this will vary on what your interests are. You can spend just one day or a week or more if you want to hike as many of the 500 miles of trails as possible!

One Day in Shenandoah NP

If you only have one day in Shenandoah National Park, you’ll want to spend it driving the famous Skyline Drive and stopping at all of the overlooks. You’ll also have time to take in a short hike or two along the way. Try the Dark Hollow Falls trail for waterfalls or Mary’s Rock for scenic views.

Two Days in Shenandoah NP

Adding another day to your Shenandoah National Park itinerary means you have more time to explore! Try out a longer hike with the famous Old Rag trail, or add a few more short hikes to your itinerary like Hawksbill Mountain, Bearfence Mountain, Stony Man Mountain, or Rose River Falls.

Three Days in Shenandoah NP (or more!)

With three days in Shenandoah National Park, you can cover a lot of ground. Hike all of the above mentioned trails or fit in some of the other activities mentioned above.

Sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains

Wildlife in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park has a thriving ecosystem of animals present year round. White-tailed deer are among the most commonly spotted, but there are a lot of animals to keep an eye out for, particularly while driving Skyline Drive. These include:

  • 200 resident and transient bird speicies
  • 50 mammal species
  • 30 reptile and amphibian species
  • 30 fish species

Black Bears in Shenandoah NP

Shenandoah is also home to one of the densest populations of black bears in the United States. While the bears are fairly docile, you’ll want to know how to handle black bears whether you’re camping or hiking. Particularly, make sure to use food-storage lockers when camping and always dispose of your garbage in the bear-resistant trash cans provided.

What to Pack for Shenandoah National Park

While there are a few small towns nearby, you’ll be heading into the mountains and want to be prepared for visiting Shenandoah National Park. Here are a few key things to know when packing for Shenandoah NP.

Food & Drink in Shenandoah NP

There are a number of options for food in Shenandoah National Park. In fact, you’ll encounter stops about every 25 miles that offer restaurants or snacks. That being said, it’s worth being prepared with plenty of water for your days of hiking and some trail snacks.

As for meals, you can pack easy to eat car meals or snacks as well as plan your stops at these Shenandoah dining options:

  • Elkwallow Wayside at mile 24.1
  • Skyland at miles 41.7 and 42.5
  • Big Meadows Wayside & Big Meadows Lodge at mile 51.2
  • Loft Mountain Wayside at mile 79.5

Find more details about dining in Shenandoah National Park.

Hiking in Shenandoah NP

If you’re planning to hike in Shenandoah National Park, you’ll need to plan accordingly. With the park’s mountainous terrain, you’ll need to wear sturdy hiking shoes, bring sun protection, pack plenty of water, and take a first aid kit – just in case.

Additionally, as temperatures will vary in the mountains versus the valley, make sure to wear and bring layers, like a packable jacket. And carry it all in a convenient day pack so you’re always prepared!

See the complete guide to hiking Old Rag!

The Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park

Other Need to Know Details

Just a few more things worth noting about going to Shenandoah National Park.

Pet Friendly

Shenandoah is one of the few pet friendly national parks! However, it does come with a few precautions. For one, dogs need to be kept on a physical leash less than 6 feet long at all time. This is not just out of respect for other visitors but also for your dog’s protection from the wildlife in the park. Also, you’ll need to be prepared to take care of them on the trail, including enough food, water, and waste bags.

Lastly, while most of the park is dog friendly, there are some trails in Shenandoah National Park that are not. You can view the full list here.

Cell Reception

Cell phone reception in Shenandoah National Park can be very hit or miss. Plan to be without cell reception as to not be disappointed. If you need to try and find it, head uphill. At the summit of most of the hikes you’ll find some reception!

Directions & Maps

As there is limited cell reception, make sure to download an offline map before going to Shenandoah National Park. (I love!) This will help you find your way through the park and to your accommodations.

Don’t worry if you forget to do this as you’ll also be able to get a paper map at the park entrance to assist in your planning.

Speed Limit

The speed limit on Skyline Drive is just 35 mph. This means driving the full 105 miles will take 3 hours one direction – without stops! However, it will safely allow you to navigate the twists and turns, pull off to the 75 overlooks, and avoid the multitude of wildlife that dashes across the road.

Nearby Gas Stations

Shenandoah National Park is not nearly as remote as some of the parks out west, but you’ll still want to make sure you have plenty of gas in your car before entering the park. After all, driving the full Skyline Drive is 105 miles one-way! There is also gas available at the Big Meadows Wayside in Stanley.

Wheelchair Accessibility

Most facilities and services in the park are accessible or accessible with assistance. The only trail that is wheelchair accessible is the Limberlost Trail.

Find additional information on Shenandoah National Park on the official National Park Service website.


Visiting Shenandoah Summary

You’re in for a treat! Shenandoah National Park packs a serious scenery punch as you navigate the winding roads through the Blue Ridge Mountains. And, with all these helpful tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park, you’ll be all set to have a top-notch trip!

Plan more of your trip to Shenandoah NP with the Top 28 Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park and The Complete Guide to Hiking Old Rag.

Looking for other nearby adventures? Look no further.

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Know before you go to Shenandoah National Park
The Ultimate Travel Guide to Shenandoah National Park
Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park

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