Shenandoah National Park is the scenic mountain haven of the Mid-Atlantic, the glittering jewel in the crown of the Virginia Appalachians. The main spine of the park stretches for 70 miles end-to-end, dividing bucolic Shenandoah Valley from the Piedmont to the east. Elevations vary from 4,050 feet atop Hawksbill down to less than 550 feet near Front Royal. This vertical variation is one of the reasons for the incredible diversity of life found within its boundaries. The rich vegetation and large wild land helps support an impressive array of mammals – over 50 species – including the black bear.
And did I mention it has over 500 miles of trails to explore?
So why should you hike at Shenandoah National Park? Because it is an easily accessible preserve delivering national park level scenery. Shenandoah National Park’s comprehensive trail network allows hikers to craft adventures exploring all Shenandoah has to offer. In addition, a wealth of attractions lies outside the park to enhance your Shenandoah National Park experience.
And yes, there are hikes you must do here. At Shenandoah National Park, you can discover classic destinations like Old Rag and Whiteoak Canyon, where cataracts roar down trout-filled streams while rock outcrops jut above the diverse forest, allowing far-flung views of the Blue Ridge and surrounding Shenandoah Valley. Or you can engage other hikes, to Stony Man and Hawksbill, where lofty heights reveal more views, biodiversity, and park history with every footfall among these stately highlands.
Furthermore, you can discover lesser-visited yet equally scenic sights at places like Jones Run and Furnace Mountain where cataracts roar among old-growth trees spared by the logger’s axe and lonely lookouts beg to be visited. Elsewhere, your footsteps can lead past what once were pioneer farms, places like Dickey Ridge. These home sites reveal another era of Shenandoah, rich in cultural history that once found settlers squeezed into the narrow valleys in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.
Undertake the following 10 must-do hikes at Shenandoah and you will go away with a montage of experiences reflecting the true nature of Virginia’s largest and wildest national park.
—DICKEY RIDGE LOOP—
Length: 5.0-mile double loop
Why You Must Hike This Hike: The cool, historic visitor center at the trailhead, pioneer homesteads and cemetery, trailside interpretive information, and a view!
Easy access, old farmsteads and a rewarding vista sum up much of what Shenandoah National Park offers on this one hike. Leave Dickey Ridge Visitor Center to first visit the old Fox Farm. Discover pioneer vestiges there, including a cemetery. Walk south on Dickey Ridge to Snead Farm site and check out more human history. Catch a great view of the Shenandoah Valley on your way back, then enjoy more attractive ridgeline woodland.
The Trailhead: The hike starts at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, milepost 4.6 on Skyline Drive. From the Front Royal park entrance, head south on Skyline Drive for 4.6 miles the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.
—MARY’S ROCK VIA THE PINNACLE—
Length: 7.2-mile there-and-back
Why You Must Hike This Hike: The hike over The Pinnacle to Marys Rock traverses the most spectacular section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) through Shenandoah National Park. Views are expansive and frequent.
Leave pretty Pinnacles Picnic Area then visit “The Pinnacle” with an outstanding panorama. Still more views await along the way to arguably the best vista in the entire park — Mary’s Rock with its 360 degree views. The rewards for this hike far outstrip the effort needed. Elevation changes only amount to climbs and drops of 450 feet each – not bad for this park, not bad at all.
The Trailhead: The Pinnacles Picnic Area is located at milepost 36.7 on Skyline Drive. From Thornton Gap entrance, take Skyline Drive south for 5.2 miles to the Pinnacles Picnic Area entrance. Pick up the Appalachian Trail on your right as you top out in the picnic area, before the road starts looping around. If the picnic area is closed (winter) simply start at Jewell Hollow Overlook, milepost 36.4. Go to the south end of the overlook and pick up the Appalachian Trail there.
Why You Must Hike This Hike: Old Rag is Shenandoah National Park’s contribution to the great mountains of America. The granite-topped peak delivers incredible views and a rock scramble along the way.
This well-loved Shenandoah classic is a difficult, yet doable trek. Strike up the north slope of Old Rag, emerging onto a massive granite slab, revealing far fetched panoramas. Enter a maze of boulders, with some bona fide rock scrambling to reach the summit with eye-popping views. Leave the rugged mountaintop and reenter the lowlands via the pretty valley of Brokenback Run on a foot-relieving gravel fire road.
The Trailhead: From the intersection of US 211 and US 522 in Sperryville, take US 522 south for .8 mile to VA 231. Turn right on VA 231 and follow it 8 miles to VA 601, Peola Mills Road. Turn right on VA 601 and follow it .3 mile cross the Hughes River, then veer right, staying with VA 601. Stay with the blacktop as it becomes Nethers Road and leads up the Hughes River valley to the lower Old Rag parking lot at 3.3 miles. Park here.
—WHITEOAK CANYON FALLS—
Length: 5.2-mile there-and-back
Why You Must Hike This Hike: Explore six sequentially numbered falls ranging from 45 to 86 feet while ascending a rugged, rocky gorge recalling the West. Top out on a rock promontory with a view of the uppermost falls.
Since there are no fords, you can hike this in winter and spring without worry — when the falls will be their boldest. It’s hard to keep track of all the falls at Whiteoak Canyon tumbling through a chasm of geological wonderment, a place where the rocky base of Shenandoah protrudes above the rich forest. Be prepared for crowds when the weather is nice and views from the uppermost outcrops.
The Trailhead: From the town of Madison, on US 29 north of Charlottesville and south of Culpepper, drive north on VA 231 for 5 miles to VA 670. Turn left on VA 670 and follow it for 5 miles to VA 643. Turn right on VA 643 and follow it for less than a mile to VA 600. Turn left on VA 600 and follow it for 3.7 miles to Berry Hollow. The trailhead is in the back of the far parking area, which will be on your right.
Length: 2.2-mile there-and-back
Why You Must Hike This Hike: Conquer Shenandoah’s highest point on this easy hike. Along the way you will enter a “sky island” of Canadian-type spruce-fir forest. Outcrops below the summit are just warm-ups for the nearly 360-degree view atop Hawksbill.
This park favorite starts at a high elevation and gets to the top of things in Shenandoah. Get a jump on bagging this peak by starting out at over 3,600 feet, leaving under 500 feet of vertical gain to the nose of Hawksbill. Begin to look for Fraser fir and red spruce, the two northern climate species so rare in Shenandoah and the Old Dominion. A man-made observation platform showing the cardinal points enhance this highest of Virginia national park panoramas.
The Trailhead: The Upper Hawksbill trailhead is on the west side of Skyline Drive at milepost 46.7. From the Thornton Gap entrance, take Skyline Drive south for 15.2 miles to reach the parking area, on your right.
- Luray-Hawksbill Greenway
- Big Meadows Lodge
- New Market Battlefield State Historical Park
- Endless Caverns
—STONY MAN LOOP—
Length: 3.7-mile loop
Why You Must Hike This Hike: Stand atop cliffs rising 3,000 feet above Shenandoah Valley, soaking in views from breezy Stony Man. Walk the Passamaquoddy Trail, named for early park proponent George Pollock.
Hike to the summit of Stony Man Mountain, where you can capture the patchwork of Shenandoah Valley and superlative mountain montages. Take the Little Stony Man Trail to Little Stony Man, where more overlooks await. Return along the Passamaquoddy Trail, where still more views can be seen. Stop by Furnace Spring, once was used in a copper mining operation, before completing this highlight-laden loop, located near Skyland.
The Trailhead: This hike starts near the north entrance to Skyland Resort off Skyline Drive. At the turn you will see a sign indicating this is the highest point on Skyline Drive. This turn is at milepost 41.7. Immediately after turning toward the Skyland Resort turn right into the parking for the Stony Man Nature Trail.
Length: 3.8-mile there-and-back
Why You Must Hike This Hike: View Big Rock Falls on the way to Rapidan Camp, the preserved presidential retreat of Herbert Hoover. The camp has much to see; you can even embark on a self-guided tour. Interpretive Guides are on site during the warm season.
Take the Mill Prong Trail into the cool Rapidan River valley. Come along Mill Prong and see 15-foot Big Rock Falls, with its deep beckoning pool. Reach the confluence of Laurel Prong and Mill Creek, where Rapidan Camp lies in a lovely wooded setting. Walk around, check out the three buildings and interpretive information. There are short nature trails here, too. This place is engaging, so give it at least an hour.
The Trailhead: The Milam Gap trailhead is located at milepost 52.8, on the west side of Skyline Drive. It can be reached by driving north on Skyline Drive for 12.7 miles from Swift Run Gap entrance.
—LOFT MOUNTAIN LOOP—
Length: 2.9-mile loop
Why You Must Hike This Hike: This ideal family hike or afternoon stroll starts at the Loft Mountain Wayside. Walk to a massive rock outcrop with an extensive view, then stop at the Loft Mountain Campground store for ice cream as you complete the loop.
Take the Frazier Discovery Trail to the wide-open stony vista, then pick up the world’s most famous footpath, the Appalachian Trail, southward through a transitional forest to meet a paved path near the Loft Mountain Campground camp store. Gently descend back to Loft Mountain Wayside. The hike is do-able by most everyone.
The Trailhead: Loft Mountain Wayside is located at mile 79.5, on the west side of Skyline Drive. It is 26.1 miles north of Rockfish Gap entrance station. The Frazier Discovery Trail leaves from the wayside near the entrance to Loft Mountain Campground.
—FURNACE MOUNTAIN VIA BLACKROCK SUMMIT—
Length: 6.8-mile there-and-back, optional 1.1-mile loop
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Why You Must Hike This Hike: Capture up close Shenandoah’s scintillating geology — huge outcrops rising above the forest and open talus slopes where rocks by the thousands carpet the mountainsides.
Once you finish soaking in the outstanding views of Blackrock Summit with other hikers, enter one of the park’s more remote areas on the Trayfoot Mountain Trail then the Furnace Mountain Trail, availing maximum solitude. Be careful on the rocky track then enjoy the solitude and scenes from Furnace Mountain. A shorter family trek explores the easily reached talus slopes of Blackrock Mountain.
The Trailhead: Blackrock parking area is at milepost 84.8 on Skyline Drive, on the west side. From Rockfish Gap entrance station, it is a 19.9 mile drive to the trailhead.
—BROWNS GAP WATERFALL LOOP—
Length: 7.0-mile loop
Why You Must Hike This Hike: This hike visits three major cataracts while looping through two boulder-strewn canyons linked by the Appalachian Trail. View old-growth tulip trees with impressive girths along Jones Run.
The trail grades are generally moderate as you descend Browns Gap Fire Road, passing a Confederate grave to then follow Doyles River, crashing in a bouldery canyon with big falls and lesser cascades. Turn up Jones Run to find the ancient tulip trees. Your climb is rewarded by a stop at Jones Run Falls. Join the AT northbound. The hiking is easy from here out. Stop by Dundo Picnic Area, once the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp.
The Trailhead: The hike starts at the Browns Gap parking area, milepost 83.0 on Skyline Drive. From the Rockfish Gap entrance station take Skyline Drive north for 21.6 miles to trailhead, on your left.
Johnny Molloy, author of Top Trails: Shenandoah National Park, has been day hiking and backpacking at Shenandoah for over two decades, in addition to trekking destinations throughout the Old Dominion and beyond.