Virginia’s sole national park encompasses a stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains as they range across the western edge of the state. Skyline Drive (105 miles), one of the state’s best-known scenic byways, links the southern end of the park to its northern terminus, with paved pull-outs located at regular intervals to accommodate slower traffic and travelers with an interest valley views. Trail-heads and parking areas also punctuate the route, providing access to waterfalls and lofty look-out points; the Appalachian Trail follows the road closely, and crosses over it at several points, so keep an eye out for hikers stumbling along and road bikers too, who often cycle the road end to end. Bear in mind that the speed limit for the length of Skyline Drive is 35 miles per hour, and each entrance station is roughly an hour apart.
Rockfish Entrance Station is the southernmost of the four entrance stations, located about 30 minutes west of Charlottesville off Interstate 64 and about 20 minutes north of Sherando Lake. There are a number of spots to enjoy a hike or primitive camping through this first stretch (be sure to register at the entrance if you are planning to primitive camp) but for supplies and more developed campsites continue on to Loft Mountain, about 25 miles north. Five miles farther up from Loft Mountain find a ranger station at Simmons Gap, and from here it’s only 10 miles on to the next entrance station at Swift Run Gap.
Swift Run Gap Entrance Station is off Highway 33, a rural route that stops in small country towns but ultimately runs all the way to Richmond to the southeast. Harrison, Virginia, and Interstate 81 can be reached by continuing on to the west. Though there’s a picnic area at South River, the closest campgrounds and cabins are at Lewis Mountain, which overlooks the eastern valley. Big Meadows, almost half-way between Swift Run Gap and the next entrance station, Thornton Gap, is one of the parks most popular camping areas, with sites located in a peaceful stand of forest set back from the west side of the road across from a sweeping meadow that enjoys a strong white-tail deer population. Bird Visitor Center is right off the road, but there is a further range of tourist amenities to be found beyond the campground with panoramic vistas of the western valley. Skyland is similarly set on the west side of the road near the highest point of the drive. Find here both a truly fine little restaurant (and bar with beer on tap) and lodging, all within skipping distance of some great waterfall hikes.
Thornton Gap Entrance Station is located near milepost 30, linked to cities east by Highway 211 and to popular tourist attraction, Luray Caverns, to the west. This is the most convenient access point for Matthews Arm, a campground off the west side of the road around milepost 20. From here it’s a good 40 minute drive to Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and Front Royal Entrance Station, the latter at the park’s northern end. This is the most frequently used entrance for visitors entering the national park from Washington D.C. and other northeastern cities.
Some Other Things To Know
Pet owners have the special responsibility of following park rules for pets. Pets must be on a leash at all times in the park. Pets are allowed in campgrounds, and pet-friendly lodging is available. Pets should not be left unattended at camp or in vehicles.
Your pet is allowed on most trails, if he/she is on a 6-foot lead. But a few trails are rocky, or designed for family groups; and one trail is ADA accessible. For the protection of the park and the safety of others, a few trails, listed here from north to south, are not open to pets:
- Fox Hollow Nature Trail (mile 4.6)
- Traces Trail (mile 22.02)
- Stony Man Nature Trail (mile 41.7)
- Limberlost Trail (milepost 43)
- Old Rag Ridge Trail
- Ragged Run Trail
- Old Rag Saddle Trail (above Old Rag Shelter)
- Dark Hollow Falls Trail (mile 50.7)
- Story of the Forest Nature Trail (milepost 51)
- Bearfence Mountain Trail (mile 56.4)
- Frazier Discovery Trail (mile 79.5)
Even though it may appear long, this list totals fewer than 20 miles of the 500 miles of trails in the park!