Being from the Northeastern state of Connecticut, my mind naturally thinks that the closest national park is Acadia National Park. However, Shenandoah National Park is about an hour shorter of a drive for me. While I haven’t had as much time to spend in Shenandoah as I’ve had in Acadia, i just got back from my second trip to the beautiful park. What makes Shenandoah so great is that it gives you mountain hiking with a feel of southern rural life without being too far from city life (Washington D.C. is only a ninety minute drive away).
Most people will begin their journey into Shenandoah through the gateway town of Front Royal (a small town that doesn’t really seem to have been impacted much by the amount of tourism in the area although you will want to check out the Front Royal Brewing Company if you are into beer tasting), which leads right to the park’s main feature, Skyline Drive. Skyline Drive is a scenic road in the vein of the Blue Ridge Parkway (in fact the two connect at the southern end of the park) as it takes a ridge line path through the mountains of the area. The views are gorgeous all over and the park has numerous overlooks that you can pull your car into to admire the views. Don’t get too crazy with the overlooks upon first entering the park because the views get even better as you head towards the center of the park.
There are numerous opportunities for hiking along the Skyline Drive, but there isn’t a single hike that really stands out. The Stony Man trail offers some of the best views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Skyline Drive in the park, but it’s way too short of a hike and its easy accessibility from the road means it will be a crowded journey. The Rapidan Camp area offers some longer and more secluded hikes and a lot of opportunities to see wildlife, but the waterfall that many seem to think is the centerpiece of the area is rather small.
The aspect that really stands out on the Skyline Drive, though, are the facilities. A few miles into the drive is the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, which provides a lot of information about the park in a very scenic area of the park. Fifty miles down the Drive in the Big Meadows region is the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, which features a couple of top notch exhibits about the history of the park, as well as a viewing area for the Big Meadows. The park also features two restaurants and bars (one each at the Skyland Resort area and Big Meadows area). These honestly feature the best food I’ve had in the national park system. The alcoholic mixed drinks are unique, the use of local foods like blackberries is well done, and the southern fried chicken I had on my most recent visit to the Skyland Resort Restaurant is one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It seems weird to say, but you might want to go to Shenandoah just for the food.
Oddly enough, the park’s best feature, Old Rag Mountain, is nowhere near the Skyline Drive. If you travel a little bit off the beaten path, though, you will get to experience one of the best hiking opportunities on the Atlantic Coast. Once again wildlife viewing opportunities are numerous (we saw a black bear when we went) on this 8+ mile hike, and the rock scrambling in the upper portions of the hike make this fun but not overly exerting. Once again the views at the top of the mountain are hard to forget.
If you’re looking for some peaceful driving, numerous hiking opportunities, and some of the best food around please take the shorter than expected trip to Shenandoah National Park.