Shenandoah National Park
By Douglas M. Kish, M.A.
Located near the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Commonwealth of Virginia, lies 196,000 acres of land known as Shenandoah National Park. The park is best known for Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs along the ridge of the mountains the length of the park and designated a National Scenic Byway, offering spectacular views of the area.
If you want to bring your furry companion, Shenandoah National Park is one of the most dog-friendly parks in the National Park System. Campgrounds allow dogs and they are permitted on nearly all of the trails if kept on a leash of 6 feet or less in length. While in the park, there are several species of wildlife that can be identified. More than 200 species of birds call Shenandoah National Park home and there are 32 documented species of fish in the park.
Numerous waterfalls of all sizes and shapes lie within park boundaries. The park encompasses various peaks, the highest of which is Hawksbill Mountain at 4,051 feet. From spring through fall, park rangers organize ranger-led hikes, as well as presentations regarding the history of the area.
Shenandoah National Park has two permanent visitor centers. The Visitor Centers enable the public to familiarize themselves with the trails, interactive exhibits and ranger programs. Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is located near Front Royal, Virginia, in the northern portion of the park.
Across Skyline Drive from this Visitor Center is the popular Fox Hollow Trail trailhead. Located across from Big Meadows in the center of the park is the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center, which is a good place to start your trip.
Three of the most popular areas to hike in the Shenandoah National Park are Big Meadows, Stony Man and Old Rag Mountain. Located on top of a mountain, Big Meadows is a high-elevation area that provides habitats for many plants and animals, as well as opportunities to view wildlife, stargaze or simply wander the many paths that weave throughout this unique ecosystem.
Located near the center of the park, Big Meadows provides a convenient base for your park adventure. There are many services a short walk or drive away, such as the Byrd Visitor Center, Big Meadows Wayside and Lodge, Big Meadows Campground, Big Meadows Picnic Ground and numerous hiking trails.
The Stony Man hike brings you to an outstanding view of the Shenandoah Valley, Massanutten Mountain and beyond. This is the easiest hike in the park, a 1.6-mile round trip loop which takes approximately 1 hour with an elevation gain of 340 feet.
Old Rag Mountain, which is home to the Saddle, Ridge and Ridge Access Trails, is open from March 1 to November 30, 2022. This area requires a day-use ticket in advance, in addition to an entrance pass, and you will not be permitted to hike Old Rag without that specific ticket. These trails feature adventurous rock scrambles and 360-degree views that will make you feel like you’re on top of the world.
While highly rewarding, hiking to the summit of Old Rag is very physically demanding and can be dangerous if you have not planned properly. To ensure your safety and to get the most from your hike, be sure that you understand the basics of hiking safety before you set out on this adventure. Hikes in this area are long and have a significant elevation change with a strenuous rock scramble that requires good upper body strength. There are several different ways to hike Old Rag so it is advisable to compare the different options and pick the best route for you. It is also good to take the Old Rag trail map with you.
Bring plenty of food and water, although most hikers prefer fanny packs rather than backpacks in order to be able to get through the rocks. Hiking on a weekday will alleviate overcrowded weekends. Pets are prohibited on the Ridge, Saddle, Old Rag Access and Ridge Access trails. Legal overnight camping sites are limited in the Old Rag area. Take note of numbers listed on Old Rag Trail Blazes, as they are reference numbers for search and rescue personnel should you need to report an incident.
Old Rag is host to many rare and endangered plants that live in the area, so you are advised to stay on the trail to avoid trampling the plant life. Even though the lower elevations of Old Rag are clear in the winter, trails can be icy and snow-covered in the winter. Traction devices for your boots are recommended for a winter hike. Although Old Rag is within the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park, most people approach it from the east rather than from Skyline Drive. There are parking areas at private landowner properties, but that parking fee does not exempt you from the regular park entrance fee.
Located at mile 32.2 on the Skyline Drive is Mary’s Rock Tunnel. Turn on those headlights and make sure your vehicle has enough clearance before traveling through. The height of this tunnel is 12’8”. Skyland is located along mile 41.7 and 42.5 at Skyline Drive’s highest elevation of 3,680 feet. Lodging accommodations in this area range from premium rooms to small cabins, preferred and traditional rooms, suites, and pet-friendly rooms located in 28 separate buildings along the ridge and in the wooded areas on over 27 acres of the park.
Shenandoah National Park offers backcountry and wilderness camping. Backcountry campers are required to follow the “Leave No Trace” policy, which does not allow campfires. They are also cautioned to be aware of wildlife and to store food in park-approved bear canisters to prevent unintentionally feeding the bears. Most of the campgrounds are open from April to October-November.
For more information regarding directions, weather conditions, COVID restrictions, parking areas and entrance fees, see the Shenandoah National Park website www.nps.gov/shen.
Shenandoah National Park