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Beginner’s Guide to Exploring the Shenandoah National Park

  • Post last modified:October 15, 2023
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Looking for a fabulous east coast spot to enjoy the fall colors? Only 70-miles outside of Washington D.C., the alluring Shenandoah National Park of Virginia makes a perfect drive and hike destination.

The park encompasses roughly 300 square miles of the Appalachians. The main road, Skyline Drive, runs 105 miles, north to south, along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Four entrances, roughly 30-40 miles apart, divide the North, Central, and South Districts of the National Park.

Along the road, mile markers 0 through 105 help identify facilities along Skyline Drive. We use the mile markers in this guide to find attractions and overlooks we discuss.

If you’re a first time visitor, this beginner’s guide will help you get to know the Shenandoah National Park. We address where to stay, where to eat, what to do, and provide tips on when to go, where to view wildlife, and the best section of the park.

However, we also have two other guides on the park to help with your planning.

Explore the Shenandoah National Park

Entry fees include up to 7 days unlimited entry. It is not possible to buy less than the 7 days. Prices valid as of June 2021.

  • Single vehicle – $30
  • Single motorcycle – $25
  • Individual person (i.e., walk up, biking) – $15

The park issues paper receipts. Do not lose this receipt, or you will need to pay again if you leave and want to re-enter.

Lines can be long when entering and re-entering the park. Unfortunately, there is not a designated line for those who have already paid.

Parking is free throughout the park.

Dead tree in foreground at Little Devil Stairs Overlook off Skyline Drive at Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

When does the Shenandoah National Park Open?

Technically, the park is always open; however, the road occasionally closes to vehicles during inclement weather, like heavy snow or ice.

From November to May, many facilities close. This includes the visitor centers, lodging, dining, camping and some picnic grounds. Though limited, there are a few frost-proof restrooms which stay open, such as the ones at Elkwallow and the Pinnacles picnic grounds. Winter can be a stunning time to visit the park, but additional planning is necessary. 

When is the Best Time to Visit the Shenandoah National Park?

Sunset from behind a tree in the Shenandoah National Park at Spitler Knoll Overlook

Fall is by far everyone’s favorite time to visit the park, and we mean EVERYONE. As the leaves change, weekends in October get very busy. This is especially true for the second and third week in October, when fall colors are typically the most vibrant. If you get the chance, go during the weekdays.

Late spring to early summer is another fantastic time to visit the Shenandoah National Park. The park comes alive with a colorful variety of wildflowers. For example, dark pink azaleas typically bloom from late May to early June. While the lighter pink mountain laurels often show up throughout June.

What To Do at the Shenandoah National Park?

View from Big Run Overlook at the Shenandoah National Park

Driving and Overlooks

The Shenandoah National Park makes an amazing road trip destination. Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park. The road runs along the Blue Ridge Mountains providing 75 stunning overlooks of the Shenandoah Valley to the west, and the Virginia Piedmont to the east.

The drive starts in Front Royal and runs for 105 miles to Afton.

If you drove Skyline Drive without stopping, it would take about three hours. The speed limit is 35 miles an hour. However, what would be the point of not stopping? With so many beautiful overlooks, stopping to take a look is a must.

Here is our list of the Top 10 Best Overlooks in the Shenandoah National Park.


In addition to the roadside overlooks, there are over 500 miles of hiking trails. This includes 101 miles of the infamous Appalachian Trail, which follows and crisscrosses Skyline Drive.

It’s easy to get lazy since there are so many great views from the road. However, there are a variety of hikes for all fitness levels that make it worth getting out of the car.

We’ve put together key information on our pick of the 7 Best Short Hikes in the Shenandoah.

Wooden bridge on the Limberlost hiking trail at Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Wildlife Viewing

Over 300 species of animals call the park home, making it a great place for wildlife viewing. On a typical visit you are likely to see deer, squirrels, and groundhogs.

You may even see black bears. The Shenandoah National Park has one of the largest concentrations of black bears in the United States. Though they roam throughout the park, the North District seems to be the best place to spot them.

Most animals are active at dawn and dusk. Drive cautiously if you are in the park during these hours. We had several suicidal deer try and ruin our evening.

Staying at the Big Meadows Lodge? A ton of deer congregate in the meadow across from the visitor center at dawn and dusk.

Young Buck

Visitor Centers

There are two visitor centers in the Shenandoah National Park. At the very least we recommend making a trip to the Byrd Visitor Center for their fantastic displays.

Byrd Visitor Center (milepost 51) – Next door to the Big Meadows Wayside rest stop where gas and food are available. This visitor center is a must stop. Its informative, museum quality displays document how the park formed and the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It really is very well done.

Don’t miss the backside viewing platform of the visitor center which provides a fantastic view over Big Meadows.

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (milepost 4.6) – Little gift shop and a store to grab snacks. Fantastic informational displays on the park. Great panoramic view from the back field. Start of the Fox Hollow Trail.

Ranger Programs

Throughout the year, excluding winter, the rangers put on a variety of programs to give guests an in-depth view of the park. Many of the programs are guided hikes on one of the park’s many trails. However, there are also programs to learn the history of the Shenandoah, and about the animals of the park. There’s even a tour to Rapidan Camp, President Hoover’s summer retreat.

Check the Shenandoah’s National Park website for the Ranger Program schedule.

Horseback Riding

As we pulled into the Skyland (milepost 41.7) resort area for lunch, we were surprised to see a horse stable. Skyland Stables offer guided horseback tours through a woodland trail. For schedules, pricing, and reservations use the website.   

Alternatively, there are over 180 miles of riding trails if you would like to bring your own horse.

Gravel path surrounded by young wood on the Limberlost trail in the Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

What is the Best Section of Skyline Drive?

There are three “Districts” or sections of the Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive: North, Central, and South. All are beautiful and well worth visiting.

However, in our opinion, if we only had time for one section of the park, we would spend it in the Central District.

The overlooks in the Central area are fantastic. Plus, this is where the Byrd Visitor Center, Skyland Resort area, and a some of the park’s best hikes are located.

What is the Highest Point on Skyline Drive?

You’ll find the highest point on Skyline Drive at the northern entrance to the Skyland Resort. There’s actually a sign at mile 41.7 marking its 3,680 feet elevation.

However, if you’re looking for the highest point in the Shenandoah National Park, you’ll have to do a moderate hike to the Hawksbill Mountain summit (4,050 feet).

The Stony Man Mountain summit is an easier hike and sits at 4,010 feet.

Where are the Best Places to Eat?

Leaving the park to grab food is not worth it. There is very little close by, and it can take a while to re-enter. Luckily, if you didn’t bring something with you, there are several options for grabbing something to eat in the park.

Wayside Stations and Restaurants

“Wayside” is the local term for rest-stop. These facilities typically have little gift shops with souvenirs and snacks. Some even have small grocery stores and a hot meals counter.

In addition to the waysides, there are two larger full-service dining rooms at Skyland and Big Meadows.

Most facilities offer take away food and/or boxed lunches for picnicking.

Note that these facilities close for winter.

From north to south:

  • Elkwallow Wayside (mile 24.1) – The smallest of the stores. It is more like a convenience store with sandwiches and grilled items. All the seating is outside. There is also a cute gift shop here.​
  • Skyland (mile 41.7 and 42.5) – Full-service restaurant, a taproom with nightly entertainment, a coffee counter with takeaway items, and a gift shop. ​
  • Big Meadows Wayside and Lodge (mile 51.2) – Offers a full-service dining room, boxed picnic lunches, gift shop, camping store, and gas station. ​​
  • Loft Mountain Wayside (mile 79.5) – Offers hot food counter service with indoor and outdoor seating. Attached to a gift shop with lots of take away snacks. ​​

Picnic Grounds

Seven official picnic grounds are dotted along Skyline Drive. Each official picnic ground has restrooms, firepits with grills, and bear-proof trash receptacles.

The South District only has one picnic area, Dundo. However, there are four in the Central District and two in the North District, including the Dickey Ridge and Byrd visitor centers.

You can also picnic along the hiking trails and at the overlooks. Though, there are no tables, nor any trash bins. Be sure to clean up all your food and trash before you leave. It is illegal to feed the bears and other wildlife, even unintentionally.

Also note that many of the picnic facilities close between November and April.

Tunnel in the Shenandoah National Park, Virgina

Where Are The Best Places To Stay?

Lodging in the Shenandoah National Park

As there are some great places in the park to watch the sunrise/sunset, we recommend staying in the park if you can. The park also promotes its beautiful dark skies which makes stargazing easy. 

Big Meadows Lodge (mile 51) and Skyland (miles 41.7 and 42.5) offer traditional rooms and have a few detached cabins. Lewis Mountain Cabins (mile 57.5) is another option in the park. Visit to make reservations.   

Lodging Outside the Shenandoah National Park

In peak season it’s hard to find accommodation inside the park. Most accommodation outside the park is further away than we prefer. However, as we planned our recent trip during peak season and at last minute, we didn’t have any other option.

These are the main towns to consider when staying outside the park.


Our first night we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Waynesboro. Being only 10 minutes from the south entrance worked perfectly to start our journey into the Shenandoah National Park. However, as we wanted to spend more time in the Central District of the park, we knew we had to find something further north for our next night.

Harrisonburg and Elkton

The second night we stayed at the Hotel Madison in Harrisonburg. This worked out great for food options, but the 30-minute drive back to the park was further than we wanted.

For our third night we stumbled across the Country View Lodging Motel near Elkton. They don’t use a reservation service. Book through their website or show up in person. We took one of their small cabins and with only a 5-minute drive to the park, we were thrilled.

Celebrating a special occasion in Harrisonburg? We enjoyed the Joshua Wilton House. Set in a beautifully restored Victorian home, we savored every bite of our three-course meal. 

Luray and Sperryville

Less than 20 minutes from the Thornton Gap Entrance, Luray is in an ideal location for reaching the North and Central Districts of the Shenandoah National Park.

On the eastern side of the park is Sperryville. This small town is also in a convenient location, but neither town has too many decent hotels. However, there are several B&Bs set in traditional southern homes, like the Hopkins Ordinary Bed, Breakfast and Ale Works in Sperryville.

West Main Market is a sweet little deli and sandwich shop in the center of Luray.

Front Royal and Winchester

On our fourth and final night in the area, we wanted something near the North entrance. Unfortunately, Front Royal had few choices during this busy season, and honestly, the area did not give us a good vibe.

We opted for the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Winchester instead. Though 30 minutes away, there were a lot of food options, and to us it felt like a nicer area. The suite was comfortable and clean.

Camping in the Shenandoah National Park

The Shenandoah National Park has five campsites. Three of which have sites large enough to accommodate most RVs and a tow vehicle.

Wild camping is available but requires a free permit. Inquire at one of the park’s entrances or visitor centers.

The campgrounds are seasonal and open for the year on a staggered schedule. Schedules are based on the weather. In general, Big Meadows is the largest and usually opens around late March. All sites are usually open by mid-May.

Sites also close on a staggered schedule. They start closing in late October. By mid-November, all camping in the park closes.

Campgrounds fill up fast, especially in the peak October season. Some of the campgrounds accept reservations, but many are first-come, first-serve. It is best to check the boards at one of the park’s entrance gates for availability.   

Nicole and Jeremy sitting on wall at overlook in the Shenandoah National Park

We hope you have an amazing time in the Shenandoah National Park. If there is something we haven’t answered, leave us a comment down below and we will get back to you. 

Books and Maps on the Shenandoah National Park

If you plan to spending more time in the Shenandoah National Park you may want to consider picking up a book or map on the area.

Want to Know More About the Shenandoah?
Travel Resources

We recommend and use these companies to arrange our travel plans; they make travel planning easy and affordable. If you have questions on our experiences, feel free to ask us!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Josh

    Very nice post, this article is very informative for travel lovers.

    1. Nicole

      Thanks Josh. We loved the Shenandoah, such a beautiful place to visit.

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