Our first stop on our cross-country road trip was Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Though best known as one of America’s best fall foliage spots, the park has plenty to offer in early summer. On this visit, we planned to tour the park from south to north over two days. Specifically, this post follows our path along Skyline Drive, which winds its way along the Blue Ridge through the park.
Note: this post is part of my trip report series about our summer road trip to New York. Click here for the introductory post and trip report index.
Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive Basics
Shenandoah is one of America’s most accessible National Parks, with the northern entrance just 72 miles from Washington, DC. It’s also a reasonably short drive from both Baltimore and Richmond.
Of course, easy accessibility is both a blessing and a curse. It makes the park easy to get to, but also leads to overcrowding at times. We visited in the first week of June, and crowds weren’t too bad. There were people out and about, but we had no issues finding parking spaces, empty picnic tables, etc. From what I hear, fall foliage season (usually early-mid October) gets pretty rough. Though based on previous trips down the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall, the views might make it worth it.
Speaking of which, the park’s crown jewel is Skyline Drive, which runs north-south through the length of the park. The byway winds its way 105 miles from I-64 in Waynesboro on the south, to Front Royal on the north. Click here for a full map of the road, but basically, it runs between I-64 on the south and I-66 on the north.
As Google suggests, you can complete the drive in about 3 hours if you drive straight through. But don’t do that; there’s tons to see along the way. I suggest two days to explore at a leisurely pace and do some hiking. There are four entrances to Skyline Drive: Rockfish Gap on the south end; Swift Run Gap at US 33; Thornton Gap at US 211; and Front Royal at the north end. Since the road lies within a National Park, users do need to pay an entrance fee – $30 per vehicle. The fee allows unlimited in/out access for 7 days, and provides access to all park facilities.
If you plan to split the drive into two days, Swift Run Gap Gap makes a good break point. You can head 20 miles west to Harrisonburg for a full suite of services and accommodations. Or, try Thornton Gap and spend the night in the historic town of Luray. There are three lodges inside the park, including the historic Skyland Resort. Park lodging fills up quickly, however, and prices are usually much lower outside the park.
Besides Skyline Drive, the park features more than 500 miles of trails, including a large stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The park also features two visitor centers. The Byrd Visitor Center, featuring historical exhibits about the park, is roughly midway through the park, at milepost 51. Meanwhile, for a general overview of the park, the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is on the far north end of the park, at milepost 4.6.
With the basics out of the way, on to the tour…
Day 1 – Rockfish Gap to Swift Run Gap
Since we planned to drive up from Raleigh, we figured the first 40-ish miles was a reasonable goal for the first day. So, we drove to the first exit at Swift Run Gap and spent the night in Harrisonburg. You don’t have to go far to find the good stuff. Just a bit over 5 miles from the south entrance is Calf Mountain Overlook. From here is a pretty good view to the east of the Shenandoah Valley and the spine of the Appalachians beyond.
One thing to be mindful of when stepping outside – it’s noticeably cooler up on the Blue Ridge than in the valleys below. Mid 70s down below translated to mid 60s on the ridgetops, with some pretty gusty winds for good measure. Something to keep in mind, especially in the spring and fall.
Though Shenandoah Valley views get most of the press, the road also features several overlooks facing east. Here, visitors can enjoy sweeping vistas of the rolling Blue Ridge as it transitions to the Virginia coastal plain. We made an extended stop at Doyles River Overlook to give Ashok time to stretch his legs. There is a large, wide parking lot at the bottom, with a large wooded area separating it from the main parkway. So, it’s a good spot if the little ones are getting antsy, but are short on time. And enjoy a sweeping view of the Doyles River valley below.
We tried to convince Ashok to pose for a picture, but he seemed more interested in grandma’s phone…
From here, we hit the road again to continue to Swift Run Gap, and then on to Harrisonburg for the night.
Day 2 – Swift Run Gap to Thornton Gap
Originally, we planned to tour the entire remaining 65 miles of the road on the second day. Unfortunately, those plans hit a snag. After a quick Starbucks stop in the morning, a loose battery cable stopped us in our tracks. Luckily, we were at a mall in a large city, thus an easy call to AAA to fix it, but it still put us about 2 hours behind schedule. We had to get to a little past Wilmington, Delaware by nightfall, so we had to cut our park time short.
As you head east on US 33 out of Harrisonburg, you soon enjoy a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge as you approach the park.
By the time we reached Skyline Drive, it was almost 12:30, and time for lunch. We soon stopped at the Lewis Mountain picnic grounds (milepost 58) for a picnic and fun time in the woods. Despite the mosquitoes, it’s a good, easy area to run around and enjoy the woods. Ashok especially enjoyed running around and getting his hands dirty.
Later, we made another longer stop at the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows (milepost 51). The visitor center hosts excellent exhibits chronicling the history of Shenandoah National Park. The present-day center also served as the site where President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Shenandoah National Park in 1935. It’s definitely worth your time. Before you leave, enjoy a view of the actual “Big Meadows” across the road from out back. Apparently you can pick blackberries and blueberries in the meadow during season, but watch for black bears.
We didn’t see any wildlife, but Big Meadows is a popular spot for wildlife encounters, especially deer.
Just pas Big Meadows is perhaps the most well-known viewpoint in the park, the Franklin Cliffs Overlook. A series of stone outcroppings juts out from the road here, providing a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley. You’ve likely seen photos of people standing at the edge of the rocks while looking out over the valley.
Later, as we passed the Skyland Resort, the road reached its highest point, at 3,608 feet above sea level. This is a relatively straight section that feels more like a rain forest canopy here in late spring.
Later, just before reaching Thornton Gap, we stopped at the Pinnacles Overlook. This overlook faces east, and features a view of Old Rag Peak behind a lush mountain valley.
One last item we saw before departing was the Marys Rock Tunnel, just before Thornton Gap. It’s the only tunnel on Skyline Drive, and provides a picturesque backdrop, similar to the tunnel in Yosemite National Park.
From here, it’s a short drive to the exit at Thornton Gap. I’ll have to come back and finish the final 33 miles some other time.
Other Things to Do
Besides driving, what else can you do in Shenandoah? As mentioned earlier, the park features more than 500 miles of trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail. If you’ve thought about hiking part of the trail, the park provides an “easy button” opportunity to try small sections. Most overlooks include an access point to the trail, so you can easily hike a short section and take a break at an overlook. Or have your companion pick you up at the next one. Look for these markers throughout the park to join the trail.
The park is also home to many spectacular waterfalls, some only a short hike from Skyline Drive.
There are also several historic structures within the park, many of which date to the Civil War or even earlier. Many of these give you a taste of life in Appalachia from a long bygone era.
Finally, I really do recommend carrying a cooler and picnic basket with you, and enjoying lunch at a picnic area. Not only does it save money, it also gives you a good (easy) excuse to enjoy a short hike afterwards. The park does have food available at Loft Mountain, Big Meadows, Skyland, and Elkwallow if you prefer.
I highly recommend a detour to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park if you find yourself road tripping out east. Even a short visit provides a great (family friendly) break en route to your next stop.