5 Best Hikes in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park might be one of the most user-friendly units in the country-wide system of preserves.

Shenandoah National Park might be one of the most user-friendly units in the country-wide system of preserves. Consider its location about 70 miles from Washington, D.C. And within a day’s drive of large cities from New York to Atlanta, it is not a far-flung destination. This is a national park in many backyards. Then you have Skyline Drive, a 105-mile two-lane blacktop that cuts through the heart of the park, making entry to the majority of trails and campgrounds simple and straightforward. Shenandoah is even one of the few national parks that allows dogs on its trails. It’s no wonder nearly 2 million people visit the park every year.

And what will you find when you, too, visit this ever-accessible gem? Roughly 200,000 acres comprised of an enticing mix of dense, hardwood forest, distinctive rocky outcroppings, waterfalls and pastoral meadows. The park stretches for a hundred miles northwest of Charlottesville, Va., protecting a scenic leg of the Blue Ridge Mountains that peaks at 4,050 feet. Below that ridgeline is the bucolic Shenandoah Valley and its eponymous river. And hiking—more than plenty of hiking opportunities, with over 500 miles of trails, including a chunk of the world-famous Appalachian Trail. To help focus your next trip to Shenandoah, here are five of the best hikes inside the park, from easy rambles fit for kids to full-day summit bids on towering peaks. 

Old Rag 

This is Shenandoah’s signature hike—a massively popular destination thanks to the dramatic, rocky summit and its 360-degree view. It’s also one of the toughest hikes in the park, requiring hand-over-hand rock scrambling to reach the peak. There are several different routes up Old Rag, but the 9.2-mile Old Rag Circuit is the classic loop thanks to the copious views along the way. You now need a ticket to hike Old Rag between March 1 and Nov. 30, which is an effort by the park service to limit crowds and minimize impacts on the mountain. Tickets cost $1, and 800 will be issued per day, half of which are released 30 days in advance, the other half released five days in advance. The hike starts at Old Rag Parking Area off Route 601. Even with the ticket system, you need to get there early for a parking spot. More Info: nps.gov

Whiteoak Canyon Falls 

There are several different waterfalls inside Whiteoak Canyon—a narrow slice of sheer rock walls and boulders cutting through the dense canopy—and a couple of different trails will access various portions of the gorge, delivering you to individual falls. But if you want to see the canyon in all its glory (and tick off all of its waterfalls), hike the Cedar Run/Whiteoak Circuit, an 8.1-mile loop with almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s an all-day affair, but worth the effort. The journey starts at Hawksbill Gap Parking Area, at Milepost 45.6 on Skyline Drive, and follows Cedar Run Trail before picking up Whiteoak Canyon Trail and climbing through the gorge, passing one waterfall after the next. Lower Whiteoak Canyon Falls, complete with a swimming hole, is a popular destination, but the 86-foot Upper Falls is just as dramatic. More Info: nps.gov

Little Devils Stairs Loop 

Experience a rocky gorge, several waterfalls and even a bit of park history on this tough loop in the northern section of the park. From the Keyser Run Parking Area at Milepost 19.4, follow the blue-blazed Little Devils Stairs Trail as it climbs steeply through a narrow gorge that requires some hand-over-hand scrambling at times. You’ll cross the river repeatedly and pass a series of cascades and waterfalls that highlight Keyser Run, the swift river that has carved the gorge over time. After climbing out of the gorge, the return trail is a more mellow affair that will take you by a historic cemetery and some old-growth hardwoods. More Info: nps.gov

Blackrock Summit 

Not all worthy destinations require long, arduous journeys. The short 1-mile loop to Blackrock Summit is easy enough for kids, but delivers the goods as it traverses through a boulder field before peaking at a rocky outcropping with expansive views of the forested slopes and Shenandoah Valley below. Pick up the Appalachian Trail at the Blackrock Summit Parking Area at Milepost 85 on Skyline Drive and hike the white-blazed trail through the boulder field before taking the Blackrock Hut Road/Trayfoot Mountain Trail back to the parking lot. More Info: nps.gov

Appalachian Trail to Mary’s Rock 

The Appalachian Trail runs through the heart of Shenandoah National Park for 101 miles, but the most dramatic stretch of this National Scenic Trail covers half a dozen miles traversing some of Shenandoah’s most iconic rock outcroppings and best views. The hike starts at Pinnacles Picnic Area at Milepost 36.7 on Skyline Drive and carries you through a dense forest and open meadows until you climb The Pinnacle, the park’s third-highest peak. The climbing and descending continue on this 7.2-mile out-and-back until you reach Mary’s Rock, which has a long-range view with the town of Luray, Va., and Massanutten Mountain in the distance. More Info: midatlantichikes.com

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.