A view on the Shenandoah Valley from one of the lookouts. Shenandoah National Park
Mountains,  roadtrip,  Shenandoah National Park,  USA

Shenandoah National Park: bears and endless views

Back in 2015 we did a road trip through the USA, we drove from New York to San Francisco in 6 weeks. On that road trip we stopped at Shenandoah National Park. It was our first acquaintance with the Blue Ridge Mountains. They’re so beautiful!

One of our first views on the BLue Ridge Mountains. A few clouds in the sky, green mountains below with some shadows.
One of our first views on the Blue Ridge Mountains

Where is Shenandoah National Park?

Shenandoah National Park is in the Northwestern Part of the state of Virginia. Its located on a mountain ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park starts in the Northeast at the town of Front Royal and runs all the way to Waynesboro in the Southwest.

Pic nic with pizza at Shenandoah National Park
Pic nic with pizza

Some facts about Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park covers over 200.000 acres and it’s under management of the National Park Service. The park was established on 26 December 1935. The native inhabitants called the region Shenandoah, which means daughter of the stars.

The park seems to be pristine, but appearances can be deceptive. Pioneers cut down the trees where they needed the space, clearing the area of forests. This got turned around with the New Deal in the 1930’s. The forest got replanted and that’s what we enjoy today. A large population had lived and settled in Shenandoah National Park before the area got turned into a national park, which makes Shenandoah unique.

The park has forests, mountains, hiking paths, waterfalls and the Skyline Drive on offer. Shenandoah National Park gets about 1.600.000 visitors each year and the largest chunk, about 400.000, go in October to admire the Fall foliage. We have to return for this ourselves someday.

Animals

Butterflies at Shenandoah National Park
Butterflies

There are so many animals to be found in Shenandoah National Park. Butterflies and beetles are among the small creatures. White tailed deer and racoons among the larger ones. Birds abound,  among them the wild turkey, hawks, falcons, red-headed vultures, woodpeckers and partridges. Black bears and foxes live mostly retreated.

A black bear in the bushes in Shenandoah National Park, the bear is visible almost completely.
A black bear in the bushes

We were so lucky to see a black bear on the end of the Skyline Drive. It was in the bushes on the side of the road when I saw it out of the corner of my eye. We turned around and watched it from inside our car. It eventually crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the bushes. The next morning, talking to locals, we found out just how lucky we were, since they hadn’t seen a bear living there all those years.

Black bear crossing the road
Black bear crossing the road

Skyline Drive

The Skyline Drive crosses the park from North to South, along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, for 169 kilometers (105 miles). The park is long and narrow. Along the road are many overlooks, they’re worth a stop for the magnificent views. You can see the Shenandoah Valley and the peaks above it. From Crescent Rock Overlook the highest peak in the park, Hawksbill Mountain is visible. It’s 1235 meter (4.051 feet) high. At most of the overlooks trails start, which are well marked.

A perfect view on the valley. Clouds in the sky which cast shadows on the mountains below.
A perfect view

On the drive are 2 visitor centers; Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at mile point 4.6 and the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center at mile point 51. Both visitor centers have exhibitions about the park and its facilities. We drove the Skyline Drive from Thornton GAP entrance to the South. We loved the views and I think I made us stop at every overlook, it was that beautiful.

Hiking in Shenandoah National Park

There’s over 800 kilometers (500 miles) of marked trails for hikers. The hikes vary from a few hundred meters – Pass Mountain Overlook – to 24 kilometers (15 miles) – Browns Gap/ Rocktop /Big Run Portal, which takes about 12 hours. The hiking trails are marked with blue paint. The Appalachian trail runs through the park and is marked with white paint. One of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park is the one to Old Rag Mountain. There are nearly 20 hikes to waterfalls and these are quite popular.

Yuri on a hiking trail. A path through the forest.
Yuri on a hiking trail

Examples of trails are:

  • Fox Hollow Trail 1.2 mile.
  • Traces Trail 1.7 mile.
  • Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail 1.5 mile each way.
  • Stony Man Nature Trail 1.6 mile. This is one of the hikes we did with our then 5 year old son and that went well. The trail reaches the cliffs of Stony Man’s Summit, which is 4.011 feet and the second highest point in the park. It has a sweeping view over the valley, which we loved.
  • Limberlost Trail 1.3 mile.
  • Dark Hollow Falls Trail 1.4 mile.
  • Bearfence Mountain Trail 0.8 mile.
  • Pocosin Mission Trail 2 mile.
  • Hightop Summit Trail 3 mile.
  • Frazier Discovery Trail 1.3 mile.
Yuri on the Stony Man Trailhead in Shenandoah National Park
Yuri on the Stony Man Trailhead

These trails sound small in miles, but not all are easy hikes, check before embarking on them. Some involve climbing or high elevation gains in a short period. Trails can also be combined into longer hikes. Next to self-guided hiking, there’re also guided walks with a park ranger on offer.

What else is there?

Besides driving the Skyline Drive and hiking, there’s more to do in Shenandoah National Park. There are free ranger-led activities like interpretive walks, talks and evening programs.

There are 305 kilometers (190 miles) of horse trails, marked with yellow paint. Hiking is allowed on the horse trails. Biking is allowed on the paved roads, such as the Skyline Drive. Watch out, cross country biking or on hiking trails is not allowed. There are over 70 streams in the park and fishing is allowed in most of them, foremost on trout.

The entrance to the park, at Thornton Gap
The entrance to the park

Earthcaching is possible in Shenandoah National Park, a variation on geocaching. You search for a “virtual” geocache, like earth’s natural and geological features. These are the “treasures” you hunt for, hiding boxes is not allowed in the park. Night Sky watching and stargazing is possible in the park. The Big Meadows area and the Amphitheater in the Skyland area are well suited places for this. Rock climbing, biking and fly fishing is being organized in the park.

Address:

Park Head quarters

3655 US Hwy 211 E,

Luray,

Shenandoah Valley,

VA 22835

(540) 999-3500

Opening hours of the head quarters are daily from 8.30 am till 5 pm. The facilities close during winter time.

Entrance fee is $15 a car in Summer and $10 a car in Winter. This allows 7 days of access. With the National Parks Pass entrance is free of charge. 

Conclusion

We loved our approximately 6 hours in Shenandoah National Park and could have easily spent more days with all the hikes. It was a perfect introduction to the Blue Ridge Mountains, which we continued with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Seeing the black bear at the end was simply the cherry on top of our visit.

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