During our two week road trip down the East Coast of the US we took a detour to see Skyline Drive. Upon leaving Washington DC and heading towards Georgia, we saw a sign and decided to take the detour that would bring us to the best views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Shenandoah National Park is best known for Skyline Drive which runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are over 500 miles of trails in the park— 101 of them are part of the Appalachian Trail. Skyline Drive is listed as a National Historic Landmark, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is designated a National Scenic Byway!
The park was officially established on December 26, 1935. The Civilian Conservation Corps played a huge part in its construction as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan to boost the economy out of the Great Depression. (Another must-see park built by the CCC is Watkins Glen State Park.) Shenandoah National Park is part of the Blue Ridge Parkway that connects it to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Did you know that the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited unit of the National Park System since 1946 (with a 3 yr exception)? Another great park to keep in mind if you decide to take this road trip is Grandfather Mountain State Park. The Blue Ridge Parkway passes right by the south side of the mountain.
Shenandoah National Park boasts 75 overlooks, 14 waterfalls, and exposed rocks that date to over one billion years in age (the oldest in Virginia!). The overlooks are accessible by car and foot, but the waterfalls can only be seen by hiking further into the park. There are a bevy of waterfalls to choose from in multiple settings—gorges, canyons, and hollows.
Visitors to the park can enjoy hiking, camping, back country camping, horseback riding, fishing, rock climbing and bicycling. The park also offers ranger programs, wildlife viewing and photography, special events, and EarthCaching.
Our impromptu visit brought us to Skyline Drive on a cloudy day that eventually gave way to a downpour. The stellar views were slightly obscured with wisps of clouds, but we could still see the endless rolls of the mountains fading into the distance. We enjoyed the leisurely drive through the park and had to refrain from stopping at every single overlook. The park has so much to offer; but we had a schedule to keep so we didn’t veer off the main road. As you can see from our photos, we had quite an adventure without straying too far from the car.
We tried to not make too many stops, but we lingered for awhile at the following areas:
- Shenandoah Valley Overlook
- Dickey Ridge Visitor Center
- Signal Knob Overlook
- Hazel Mountain Overlook
- Snag at Little Devil’s Stairs Overlook
- Mary’s Rock Tunnel
- Hawksbill Gap Parking
We enjoyed some highlights that enhanced our trip; purchasing a travel sticker for our Subaru at the first visitor center, having lunch at an overlook with views for days, and driving through a rock tunnel. Of course, everything was overshadowed when we came across some bears on the roadside. A momma bear and her two cubs were munching within the forest along the road. Everyone passing by parked to enjoy a glimpse of them. We didn’t dare get close to the black bear family, but we did get just enough zoom to have a photo for the album.
The views of the Blue Ridge Mountains is something to be seen in person. It’s fascinating to see them on a long road trip as they follow you through various states in the distance. The Adirondacks have the same wonderful enormity, but the Blue Ridge seems to be an endless string along the horizon. Photos can not capture the endless panoramic view of this mountainous range.
One we passed Hawksbill it started to downpour and our roadside photoshoots came to an end. We only planned to ride Skyline Drive for a quick section, but we were swayed by it’s majestic beauty and couldn’t tear ourselves away. We drove 65 miles into the park and would’ve finished the entire 105 if we hadn’t been stuck in a thunderous downpour for several miles. This was the Universe’ s way of saying we had taken enough of a detour and needed to get back on the highway for Georgia.
Popular travel reviews state that it takes about three hours to travel the entire length of the park on a clear day. That is definitely inaccurate. You can technically cover 105 miles in three hours at 35 mph, but that means not stopping to enjoy anything. We spent 3.5 hours just up to mile 65. The rain slowed us down significantly the last 11 miles, but I’m certain we would’ve just stopped for more photos if it had been clear and we would’ve spent the same amount of time (or longer!).
Shenandoah National Park hosts 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,190 mile-long route that crosses 14 states. The trail was the dream of Benton MacKaye, founder of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy formed in 1925. A “super trail” was proposed that was described as a continuous foot path across the wilderness mountain range of the East Coast stretching from Georgia to Maine. It took nearly 100 years to complete, but many will agree it was worth the wait. The trail is open for day hiking, multi-day hiking, and thru hiking. (Almost 20,000 people to date have completed the entire thru hike becoming “2,000 milers,” a hard-earned honor. The total number of people who choose to thru hike has doubled every decade since the 1970’s making this an increasingly popular experience; but make no mistake, this is a six month commitment of becoming one with nature.)
Check out the history of the trail: http://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/about-us/history
- All entrance fees at Shenandoah National Park are valid for unlimited entry for seven consecutive days, beginning on the day of purchase.
- Mileposts help you navigate the park. They are located on the West side of the road. The mile begins at “0” at Front Royal and continues to 105 at the south end of the park. For reference, Big Meadows (the largest developed area) is at the center of the park at mile 51. All park maps and information use these mileposts for reference. Wikipedia has a great breakdown of the mileposts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skyline_Drive
- The park has five beautiful campgrounds each with unique features and close to 200,000 acres of backcountry to explore. *Camping fees are separate from your entrance to the Park.
- The speed limit is 35 mph, so this detour is not meant to “cut” time off your travels. Enjoy the views and the serenity of the area.
- Be prepared to stop—frequently. There are numerous overlooks that offer spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley and the rolling Piedmont.
- Many wild animals call this park home-deer, black bears, wild turkeys and more. Drive carefully. They can dart across the road without warning. If you do encounter a wild animal and want to take a look be sure to pull over to the side of the road and stay in your car. It is unlawful to feed the wildlife.
- Shenandoah National Park is one of the few national parks that allow pets on trails. “The regulations covering pets and their owners are developed to allow you to share your park experience with your pet while protecting the native animals and other park resources, as well as other visitors. If you choose to bring your pet to Shenandoah you must be prepared to follow the regulations.”
- Your pet must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times.
- Pets are allowed in campgrounds and pet-friendly lodging is available.
- Pets are allowed, if leashed, on most trails.
- Pets are NOT allowed on Ranger Programs
- Website: https://www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm
- Park Entrances (You can only enter Shenandoah at four places):
- Front Royal Entrance Station near Rt. 66 and 340
- Thornton Gap Entrance Station at Rt. 211
- Swift Run Gap Entrance Station at Rt. 33
- Rockfish Gap Entrance Station at Rt. 64 and Rt. 250 (also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway).
- Entry Fee
- Single Vehicle – $30.00
- Single Motorcycle – $25.00
- Walk-up or Bicycling visitors- Free
- Children under 16 are admitted for free
- ”This fee covers unlimited entry for one vehicle and passengers for seven consecutive days, beginning on the day of purchase. Vehicles must be private, noncommercial, and with a seating capacity of 15 or less.“-park website
- Mote: Camping fees are additional.
- Fee Free Days:
- Monday, January 20 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- Saturday, April 18 – First Day of National Park Week/National Junior Ranger Day
- Saturday, June 20 — Neighbor Appreciation Day
- Tuesday, August 25 – National Park Service Birthday
- Saturday, September 26 – National Public Lands Day
- Wednesday, November 11 – Veterans Day
- View or download maps of Shenandoah National Park.
- Special Notes:
- If there’s no one to collect your fee at the entrance, you are permitted to enter the park and pay your fee when you exit.
- Large vehicles (ie; RVs, camping trailers, horse trailers, etc) are welcome in the park, but need to be prepared to shift into low gears and must be able to clear Mary’s Rock Tunnel (just south of Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211) at 12’8”.
- Most of the park facilities (ie; visitor’s centers, lodging, dining, campgrounds, picnic areas, etc) begin opening in March and close by late November.
- The Park is always open, but portions of Skyline Dr are periodically closed during inclement weather. This is the only public road through the park. You may enter by foot and hike even when the drive is closed. The website posts closures and alerts.
Family Adventure Rating ❤️❤️
Cost– This is a low cost adventure if you’re within driving distance. The park entry fee of $30 per car covers everyone in the vehicle. As a double bonus, your entry fee is good for seven days. If you’re planning a road trip you could enjoy Skyline Drive to and from your destination if it’s within those seven days. Factor in the cost of gas, any tolls you may encounter if coming from a long distance, and some well planned food for a picnic lunch at an overlook. There are a few eateries in the park as well as gift shops so a few extra dollars might come in handy.
Parking & Transportation– This scenic drive requires some wheels unless you plan on trekking the Appalachian trail. There is parking at several areas for the visitor’s center, restrooms, and scenic overlooks. This is a single lane road (one for each direction) so on a busy day the drive could move slowly, especially at points of interest. If you don’t have your own wheels or prefer a tour group experience visit: https://www.goshenandoah.com/meet/group-tours
Location– Skyline Drive could only be what it is (including the name) because of its location at the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This unspoiled landscape is a refreshing break from the daily grind and will have you forget urban civilization for as long as you are there.
Day Trip or Overnight– You could easily make this either. Camping availability adds an easy overnight alternative to allow you to stay and take advantage of more of what the park has to offer. The park also offers lodging accommodations if you’d prefer four walls and a bed. If you’re tight on time you can also easily make this a day trip or even a quick detour for a couple of hours.
Experience– We like to keep our family trips flexible with time, locations, and activities or attractions. This is a great example of being able to detour and improvise for a new experience. The four entry/exit points make it very easy to visit at least a section of Skyline Drive if you’re traveling through the area. Showing my children (imagine grandpa singing…)“the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia…” was one of the many reasons we have chosen to take road trips. This natural and rare beauty is an experience I hope they remember and possibly sing to their children.
Combination-The Blue Ridge Parkway will take you to some fantastic places and Virginia is full of tourism. We drove from Washington DC and passed through on our way to Georgia with some stops in North Carolina.
- Washington DC is about 1.5 hours away. There’s so much to do and see here. Check out Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
- Grandfather Mountain , NC is about 5 hours away (but not far off the Blue Ridge Parkway)
- Pisgah National Forest , NC is not far from Grandfather Mtn. or Great Smoky Mtn.
- Great Smoky Mountains is about 6 hours away (but along the Blue Ridge Parkway). Visit: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm
- Virginia has just about anything you could want from theme parks and zoos to historical sites, golf, and beaches. Visit: https://www.virginia.org/