If you’re planning a trip to Shenandoah National Park for the first time, then you’re in the right place! Below you’ll find 5 things to do in Shenandoah National Park on your first visit!
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia lies the stunning Shenandoah National Park. At over 70 miles long and brimming with natural beauty, this East Coast destination is abundant with views to see and experiences to enjoy. The national park is approximately 75 miles west of Washington D.C., and hours away from other major cities like Philadelphia and New York. It’s perfect for a long weekend trip or part of a longer trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
This past spring, I made my first trip to Shenandoah National Park and was astonished by what I saw. As an avid national park traveler, I admittedly didn’t have the highest expectations going into this trip compared to parks like Zion NP, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. There are endless hikes, overlooks, and waterfalls to experience in Shenandoah. I easily could have spent a week exploring the park. Deciding which attractions to see can be overwhelming, so these are the top 5 things to do in Shenandoah National Park for a first-time visit.
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Things to Know Before Visiting Shenandoah National Park
- Skyline Drive, the road that runs through Shenandoah National Park, is 105 miles long and takes approximately three hours to drive the full length of it. Each point of interest will include a milepost to show what mile it sits on Skyline Drive.
- There are four entrances into the national park on Skyline Drive: Front Royal at mile 0, Thornton Gap at mile 31.5, Swift Run Gap at mile 65.5, and Rockfish Gap at mile 104.6.
- Shuttle buses don’t run through the national park. You will need to have your own vehicle to get to each location. Trailhead parking is limited and fills up quickly, so if a lot is full try to return later.
- Shenandoah National Park gets extremely crowded from late spring through fall, especially on weekends and holidays. October is the park's busiest month when the leaves begin to change colors. Plan to arrive before 10 am or after 3 pm to avoid the worst of the crowds.
- As of 2023, reservations aren’t required to enter the park. You will need an entrance pass which is $30 for a week, or an America the Beautiful Pass ($80) that grants entrance to all the national parks for a year. However, if you plan on visiting Old Rag Mountain, you will need to purchase a single-use day-use ticket before visiting, here.
- Reception is limited throughout most of Shenandoah National Park. Be prepared. Check trail conditions and weather before visiting. Also, remember to download offline maps.
5 Things to Do in Shenandoah National Park on Your First Visit
1. Hike Stony Man Trail
If there’s only time for one activity on a trip to Shenandoah NP, it should be hiking the Stony Man Trail. This is one of the best bang-for-your-buck hikes I’ve ever done and a crowd favorite at the national park. It’s quick, not too challenging, and has the most rewarding views at the summit. The trail is rated as moderate difficulty, but after hiking it twice I would consider it more easy/moderate.
Stony Man is a 1.5-mile loop that begins with a slight uphill trek through a lush forest before reaching the summit. Here you’ll find a rock outcrop with unparalleled views of the Shenandoah Valley. There’s ample space at the summit for plenty of visitors to enjoy, and the opportunity for some rock scrambling, depending on how close to the edge you dare to get. Looping back down the trail is pleasant, and it’s easy to see why this hike is a favorite in the park.
Hiking the Stony Man Trail is one of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park. It’s family-friendly, and the views will stay with you long after you leave.
Tip: Get to this one early or late to avoid a crowded trail and aim to hike on a clear day. On my first go, I had haze that obscured much of the view, but had clearer skies during the second attempt, and could not have been happier that I went again.
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Distance: 1.5-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 321 feet
Mile marker on Skyline Drive: 41.7
2. Experience Dark Hollow Falls
The 70-foot Dark Hollow Falls is one of Shenandoah’s most popular trails and a sight no one should miss on their first visit to Shenandoah National Park. Hike through a beautiful emerald forest with the relaxing sound of the stream next to you while making your way down to the cascading falls. The trail is mostly shaded and cool, offering a reprieve from the sun and heat during the spring and summer.
Although the hike is short, only a mile and a half out and back, it is still quite challenging. The path down is a gentle descent and easy to follow, but the way back up is a steep incline and strenuous. You’ll want to pack plenty of water and consider hiking poles for the return. There are also continued views of the falls the further down the trail you go after reaching the main viewpoint.
Dark Hollow Falls might not be the highest falls in the park, but they are undoubtedly breathtaking and one of the best hikes in Shenandoah National Park.
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Distance: 1.6 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 583 feet
Mile marker on Skyline Drive: 50.7
3. Rock Scramble on Bearfence Mountain
One of the things I loved most about my time at Shenandoah was all the amazing short hikes to choose from. The Bearfence Mountain Trail is a 1-mile loop with not one but two panoramic viewpoints to soak up the stunning mountains and valleys of Shenandoah. While the loop trail is short, it’s also steep and has several difficult rock scrambles.
If you have a fear of heights, this might not be the hike for you. On the scramble to reach the first lookout, I had a full-blown panic attack mid-climb as I realized how close I was to the edge of a mountain. I did power through it utilizing breathing techniques and am so grateful to have witnessed the views from this epic trail. The rock scrambles on the way up are rough, but the return back is a gentle trail down through a forest.
So if heights don’t bother you, then the Bearfence Mountain Trail should be at the top of your list of things to do in Shenandoah National Park.
Tip: I strongly suggest doing this hike clockwise. The scramble is going up rather than down, and it’s an easy decent back after the second viewpoint.
Difficulty Rating: Moderate
Distance: 1-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 242 feet
Mile marker on Skyline Drive: 56.4
4. Stop at an Overlook (Or a Few) On Skyline Drive
There are a whopping 70 plus overlooks in Shenandoah National Park, so of course, stopping at one or likely several is something everyone must do when visiting. It’s unlikely you’ll have time to stop at all the overlooks on a first or even second visit to the park, but do try to see a few of them while there. Since Skyline Drive is such a long road, some overlooks are two to almost three hours apart from one another. Plan to see those near other activities you’ll be doing in the national park.
It can be hard to choose which of the park's numerous overlooks to visit because there are so many. As you cruise along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, you’ll naturally want to pull your car over to some of the overlooks you pass. But you might also want to have a few predetermined beforehand. They’re all beautiful, with sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley, but to make it easier, I’ve included a list below of a few favorites. These are close to the other listed things to do in this post.
My Favorite Shenandoah National Park Overlooks:
- Range View Overlook at mile marker 17.1
- Tunnel Parking Overlook at mile marker 32.2
- Hazel Mountain Overlook at mile marker 33
- Jewell Hollow Overlook at mile marker 36.5
- Crescent Rock Overlook at mile marker 44
5. Visit the Luray Caverns
The Luray Caverns technically aren’t part of Shenandoah National Park, but they are right next to it. They’re also a National Landmark and the largest caverns in the Eastern United States. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures to share from my visit since they turned out beyond blurry but believe me this is something everyone should do on their first trip to Shenandoah.
Stepping into the caverns is like being transported to another world. Wander through huge naturally made cave chambers filled with glittering limestone stalactites and stalagmites. Walkways are paved and lit for guests to take their time exploring every fascinating nook and cranny of this natural wonder. The tours are self-guided but plan to spend an hour at a minimum.
Afterward, there are still plenty of fun and quirky activities to fill your time with here. There's the Car and Carriage Museum that holds more than 75 historic vehicles. The Toy Town Junction has endless classic toys and trains on display. Plus there’s a half-mile Garden Maze and a Rope Adventure park to enjoy.
Tip: Reservations are not required, but tickets can be purchased online beforehand. The weather inside the caverns is cool but humid year-round.
Children (ages 6-12): $16
Children 5 and Under: Free
Bonus: Watch a Sunset in Shenandoah National Park
Whether it’s on a hike, pulled over at an overlook, or in the back of the Skyland Lodge, a sunset in Shenandoah is breathtaking. I chose to watch the sunset at Jewell Hollow Overlook. It provided plenty of space to watch the sky painted with hues of bright orange and gold as the sun slowly set on the horizon over the mountains. Shoot for a clear day to get the full sunset effect, but even with a bit of haze, it was my favorite thing to do on my first visit to Shenandoah NP.
Places to Stay Near Shenandoah National Park
Hotels in Shenandoah National Park:
Skyland Resort: Located at mile marker 41.7, this historic hotel is near some of the most popular attractions. Rooms have modern amenities with gorgeous views of the national park. There’s also a restaurant onsite.
Big Meadows Lodge: Located at mile marker 51, this charming lodge has a variety of rooms and cabins to suit guests' needs. Here you’ll find a cozy atmosphere close to popular Shenandoah trails. Restaurant onsite as well.
Lewis Mountain Cabins: Located at mile marker 57, these cabins are convenient and comfortable. The accommodations are quaint and sought after, but there’s no air conditioning in the rooms or dining onsite.
Hotels in Luray, Virginia:
Outside of the national park, Luray is the closest town to the five things included on this list. If you don’t mind the extra driving time each day you’ll also find accommodations in Front Royal, VA.
Hotel Laurance: A boutique hotel with lovely spacious rooms and private parking. This is where I stayed on my visit, and my room had a kitchen in addition to its modern amenities.
The Legacy Inn: This cozy bed and breakfast offers comfortable rooms with private bathrooms and a peaceful ambiance. Free continental breakfast is included in your stay, as is free parking.
The Mimslyn Inn: A comfortable historic hotel with modern amenities. Choose from a variety of suites or a cottage for a larger group. Breakfast is complimentary, and there’s a restaurant on site.
Tip: Accommodations in Shenandoah National Park hotels fill quickly and well in advance. Book your accommodations months before your visit. Campsites that are not on a first come first served system and require reservations like Big Meadows Campground must be booked on recreation.gov.
What to Pack for Shenandoah National Park
- Backpack: You’ll want to have a sturdy backpack to carry supplies for the steep hikes in Shenandoah. Plus it’s helpful to store layers as the temperatures can vary from morning to night. This bag, though on the smaller side, held everything I needed. For a waterproof option, I’ve used this bag in the past and it’s perfect for day hikes.
- Hiking Poles: Shenandoah NP has its fair share of challenging hikes on uneven terrain, and hiking poles greatly reduce the strain on your knees. They’re especially helpful on uphill hikes like Dark Hollow Falls.
- Hiking Boots: Most of the trails at this national park are on the moderate to hard side, and should be done with proper hiking shoes.
- Mosquito Wipes: I suggest this for any spring or summer hike, but it came in handy at Shenandoah. Plenty of trails are through a forest, and once the days get a little warm, the mosquitos are relentless. Luckily, I didn’t get one bite using these convenient wipes.
- Water/Snacks: Between steep hikes, changes in elevation, and overhead sun, you’ll want to carry plenty of water on you at all times to stay hydrated. You can keep a hydration pack or a refillable water bottle in your backpack. If you plan on hiking, you’ll also want enough snacks to keep your energy up.
- Sun Protection: The sun in a national park is no joke, especially during the summer. Some trails are shaded, but at overlooks or on summits, you’ll want protection from the sun's intense rays.
- Map: The service in the national park is spotty at best, but nonexistent often. The last thing you want on your trip is to get lost, so don't depend on cell coverage for directions. Download offline maps from Google and carry a paper Shenandoah National Park map with you as well, which is provided for free when you enter. You can also purchase an illustrated map here.
A first-time visit to Shenandoah will certainly be a memory you’ll never forget no matter what you do. The beautiful mountain views and incredible hikes will have you itching to return. Hopefully, these 5 things to do in Shenandoah National Park on your first visit have inspired you to plan a trip.
What would you want to do first in Shenandoah National Park? Let me know in the comments!