Shady forests, the occasional bear, waterfalls, wandering deer and views to write home are just a few of the reasons over two million visitors flock to Shenandoah National Park each year. Counted amongst its 300 square mile spread of the Blue Ridge Mountains are upwards of 79,000 wilderness acres, most of which is accessible by meandering trails and scenic Skyline Drive, which winds along the backbone of this very attractive stretch of western Virginia.
Park statistics are staggering. There are more than 860 species of wildflowers in bloom here come spring sunshine, over 200 species of birds fly share air space and at least 50 species of mammals roam the park confines. Shenandoah National Park, dedicated in 1936, has the highest density of black bears of any park in the U.S. although you're more likely to see white-tail deer or raccoons.
Skyline Drive is the best place to enjoy a positively picturesque road-trip; winding along the length of the park this road (35 miles per hour the entire way) cuts around forested mountain flanks and rims deep blue valleys as it covers several thousand feet of elevation change. Punctuated regularly with paved overlooks and trail head pull-outs, the drive is the main artery for visitors offering easy access to campgrounds and long sections of the Appalachian Trail.
Over 500 miles of trails cover the park, some easy and stroller-friendly, others more strenuous expeditions down to dangling waterfalls and back again. Limberlost Trail, rated easy, is the only fully accessible trail in the park via stone walkway past ancient trees. White Oak Canyon trail, rated moderate, drops down a steep gorge past six waterfalls. One strenuous trail begins with a steep path from Hawksbill Gap and leads to the highest point in the park, Hawksbill Mountain (4,049 feet). Be sure you're in shape though?the trail rises 1,557 feet in less than a mile but the view of hawks circling above is worth the climb.
The park has three sections (Northern, Central and Southern) and four entrance stations with information booths. Lodges and cabins are available as are four campgrounds (open spring-fall) and a number of primitive campsites (though be forewarned - during peak season all area accommodation fills ups quickly). Park recreation includes biking, horseback riding and fishing.
Only a short jaunt from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is especially crowded on weekends and holidays. The best time to visit is in spring or weekdays in summer and autumn. In winter, most facilities are closed; Skyline Drive is open but parts may be blocked off due to inclement weather.
Shenandoah National Park is located in north central Virginia and runs from Front Royal southwest to Waynesboro. The northern end is about 72 miles west of Washington, D.C.; the southern end is about 95 miles northwest of Richmond, VA.