Write-up assembled by Andy Hiltz
About the ParkEvening sunset looking west from Skyline Drive in the Central District.
Shenandoah National Park, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia between Front Royal and Waynesboro, is world-renowned for scenic views from its Skyline Drive and for regeneration of the primeval flora and fauna characteristic of the Appalachian Mountains. Its 306 square miles are rich in forest and wildlife and in crystal streams with cascades and waterfalls. The park rises from 600 feet above sea level beside Shenandoah River near Front Royal to 4,050 feet at the summit of Hawksbill mountain. More than fifty peaks, many with hiking trails, rise above 3,000 feet.
The park has three contiguous sections. The Northern Section extends from Front Royal south to US 211 in Thornton Gap and the Central Section from Thornton Gap to US 33 in Swift Run Gap. The Southern Section, that originally reached from Swift Run Gap to Jarman Gap, has been extended as a narrow strip to Rockfish Gap where, in crossing over US 250 and Interstate 64, the Shenandoah park's Skyline Drive becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Fall view looking north from the rock rib of the Pinnacle in the Central District of the park. Mary's Rock, just south of where US 211 crosses the park at Thornton Gap, is shown in the center of the picture offering 360 degree views of the Central and North districts.
The 105.4-mile Skyline Drive, with parking overlooks at 75 viewpoints, extends the full length of the park, with entrance stations at Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap. A single-entry fee is charged for those not carrying a Golden Eagle or Golden Age pass. The Appalachian Trail comes into the park from the north about five miles southeast of Front Royal and continues inside all the way southward to Jarman Gap, after which it is mostly outside but near the park strip as far as Rockfish Gap.
There are over 600 miles of trails within the park boundary, including 94.9 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail is marked with white blazes, foot trails not part of the Appalachian Trail are marked with blue blazes, and horse trails are marked with yellow blazes.
Individuals interested in learning about ALL aspects of Shenandoah National Park resources (and there are many) are strongly encouraged to purchase the Appalachian Trail Guide to Shenandoah National Park, with Side Trails, which contains the most extensive information on park trails and facilities in print. Trail maps are also available for ordering from this site. An ASCII order form can be printed directly from the PATC guidebook or map pages.
Weather and SnowWeather varies dramatically depending on elevation. The average low temperature during the month of January at Big Meadows (elevation 3,530') is 17 degrees fahrenheit, while at Park Headquarters (1,100') the average is 21 degrees. The record low over the past eight years was -20 degrees fahrenheit. The average snow depth during the winter months at Big Meadows is 6.3 inches.
During summer months, temperatures remain mild at Big Meadows with an average of 72 degrees during the warmest months. In the valley at Park Headquarters, they average 92 degrees. The record high at Park Headquarters over the past eight years was 105 degrees in July 1988.
About the area......Clearly, Shenandoah National Park is the jewel of the Blue Ridge mountain range. The area is steeped in history, and many old homesites and woods roads can be discovered throughout the park. (PATC sells a number of historical books written by club members that might be of great interest to the visitor.) The scenery in the park varies depending on whether the high ridges or lush stream valleys are hiked. These are real mountains, and trails can drop and climb steeply depending on the route taken.
Administratively, the park is divided into three sections: North, Central, and South. The Central district is the most visited by the public and offers the greatest variety to the visitor. It has the highest peak in the park (Hawksbill), the most imposing waterfalls (Whiteoak Canyon), the oldest trees (Limberlost Trail), and the most impressive single peak in the Mid-Atlantic region, Old Rag.
The South district offers backpackers many opportunities. The peaks in this region are more rugged, and the west-facing valleys are cut deeper by streams. The south district is home to the largest watershed encompassed in the park, Big Run. Big Run was also the site of the park's largest fire in recent memory started by a careless backpacker in 1986. The fire scarred 4,300 acres of parkland. (Today, it can be hard to locate where some of the damage occurred.)
The North district offers visitors a series of beautiful stream valleys at Jeremy's Run and Piney Branch, as well as the impressive Big Overall Run falls. There are some excellent circuit hiking opportunities available in the North district. (Note that PATC also sells an excellent circuit hikes guide also available on the guidebook web page.)
Trails worth hiking?A very tough call. There are few trail NOT worth hiking. However, two trails are mentioned over and over when Shenandoah is discussed.
The first is the Whiteoak Canyon Trail, which leads to an impressive series of high waterfalls. The trail starts at the Skyline Drive near Skyland, passes through the virgin hemlocks at the headwaters of Whiteoak, and then plunges steeply to the east past sizeable falls and tumbling cascades. (Visitors should note that the virgin hemlocks that park champion George Freeman Pollock fought so valiantly to save are dying rapidly due to an infestation of the Woolly Adelgid. Within the next two years or so, they will all be dead.) More energetic hikers may attempt a circuit hike with a return up the Cedar Run Trail and return via the Appalachian Trail.
The second trail is the Ridge Trail/Saddle Trail over Old Rag Mountain. This impressive monolith stands apart from the main range and offers hiker a challenging hike (from the north) and 360 degree views from the summit. It is the far and away the most impressive mountain in the Mid-Atlantic region, and hikers can be found traversing its summit every day of the year, and in ALL weather conditions. It is an amazing mountain, and it is VERY heavily visited during good weather weekends and on holidays. A "must do" for any visitor to the park. (Read the trip report at the bottom of this page for more information and pictures.)
Both of these "crowned jewels" are located in the Central district of the park.
Other trails which I consider very special are as follows:
Why are these trails special? You'll just have to hike them and find out for yourself. No descriptions have been included because the PATC Guidebook does a much better job of describing these trails than I could do here. The guidebook also contains information that is essential to the enjoyment and safety of your travels. It's a wise purchase. (Not trying to boost guidebook sales folks, it's just a fact.)
Though PATC maps and guidebooks may be occasionally out of stock at your local outdoor shop, you should know that it's because they place map and publication orders at the bottom of their list of purchasing priorities. If you can't find a map or guidebook at your local outfitter, you can always, ALWAYS find them at PATC Headquarters. We never run out of stock. Fortunately, through the magic of the World Wide Web, you can securely order SNP maps, guides, and publications from PATC's online store, and have your order sent directly to your home, saving you time, gas, and a great deal of frustration.
Would you like to see some early pictures of Shenandoah National Park and read some early history? There are some excellent articles and pictures on PATC's History web page.
PermitsPermits are required for backcountry camping - no exceptions. Permits are free and available at all park Entrance Stations, as well as a variety of locations outlined in the PATC Guidebook. Backcountry campers without permits can be cited and fined by the Park.
HuntingStrictly prohibited. Poachers are aggressively prosecuted.
Mountain BikingStrictly prohibited in ALL trails and fire roads in the park, except for a 1/2 mile stretch of road on the southern edge of Big Meadows.
Cross-country SkiingSuitable for semi-experienced skiers. The trails can drop steeply in areas.
CampfiresLegal only in established campgrounds and in the fireplaces at three-sided shelters (called "huts" in the park). Violators are aggressively punished.
Backcountry CabinsSee the PATC Cabins Web page for more information.
AccessThe park can be accessed from four locations. Take I-66 west to Front Royal and follow the brown NPS signs to the north entrance. The north-central entrance can be reached by taking the Gainsville (Rt. 29) exit off I-66 and heading south to Warrenton. At Warrenton, take Rt. 211 west to the entrance. The south-central entrance can be reached by staying on Rt. 29 to Stanardsville, then taking Rt. 33 west to the entrance. The south entrance can be reached by staying on Rt. 29 to Charlottesville, and taking I-64 west to the entrance.
MapsMaps, guidebooks and special interest publications for Shenandoah National Park can be securely ordered from PATC's online store. The map numbers are PATC Map #9 (North district), Map #10 (Central district), and #11 (South district). All the trails in the park are covered in PATC Guidebook #7.
You can download a color JPEG version of the official NPS map as follows: