My quest to visit all of the National Parks in America brought me to Shenandoah National Park in June. Shenandoah is a beautiful 105 miles long stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Before planning my trip the only thing I really knew was that the Appalachian Trail goes through it. So, I turned to social media and asked on Facebook who of my friends has been there and what did they recommend. Armed with beta from friends and my Top Trails: Shenandoah National Park book, we loaded the car and headed south.
After doing a little research I decided that we should stay at Big Meadows Lodge since it was in the middle of the park. This turned out to be a great choice. Our room had great rustic charm and the food at both restaurants was spot on. As a bonus, our room was facing out into the Shenandoah Valley giving us great sunsets.
Our first full day was all about hiking. First up was the loop hike of Stony Man and Little Stony Man. The cliffs of Stony Man are one of the most photographed areas of the park so don’t plan on being alone for the hike. With the threat of rain and starting early enough, we didn’t have crowds to contest with. This was somewhat surprising for a Saturday, but we later found out that many local schools just finished up the day before. Many people also only go to Stony Man so if you do the full loop and visit Little Stony Man you can beat some of the crowds and have more views into the Shenandoah Valley from cliffs.
We took a break for lunch before heading out on another trail. Shenandoah National Park not only has beautiful mountain views, it also has a nice collection of waterfalls and cascades. After talking to one of the park rangers we decided to do the Rose River Loop. If you have never been in the south, be prepared for a wall of humidity. The air was super thick with a 99% humidity level. The nice thing about hiking along rivers and cascades is that you can stop along the way and cool off. We opted for splashing our faces and dunking our hats.
The highest point in Shenandoah National Park is Hawksbill Mountain. This is also the most popular hike. If you want to have the summit to yourself go early. With plans to head down to Charlottesville and visit Monticello around lunch, we hit the trail right after breakfast. As luck would have it, we had the trail and summit to ourselves. Maybe it was because it was Father’s Day, and people were sleeping in or having brunch. I really don’t know, but it was nice to have the views without the crowds. Being on a time constraint we opted for the 2.1 miles round trip Upper Hawksbill Trail. We were heading back down a little after 9:00 AM and the trail and parking lot were starting to fill up.
If you are to encounter a rainy day and don’t feel like hiking I highly recommend visiting one of the caverns in the Shenandoah Valley. We decided to see Grand Caverns, America’s Oldest Show Cave. Grand Caverns has been running tours since 1806 and has the signatures of Civil War soldiers in it. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and friendly. An added bonus to visiting the caverns in the summer is that they are naturally air conditioned. It was about 50 degrees inside during our tour, a nice break from the Virginia heat and humidity outside. Following our cavern tour, we headed out to visit some of the local wineries. The day before we visited Jefferson Vineyards, Blenheim Vineyards, and First Colony Winery in the Charlottesville area. Our winery tour continued with lunch at Cross Keys Vineyard and one more stop at Bluestone Vineyard. If you like white wines you will really enjoy these side trips.
We saved the best for last. Or should I say the hardest? Old Rag Mountain is not for the faint of heart. Not only is the loop 9 miles long, there is also some serious rock scrambling. Most of the hike isn’t that hard, but the scrambling part is legit, using all fours. We had to crawl, squeeze through spots, hop over crevasses, and pull our bodies over rocks. There are multiple false summits to trick you, but all afford beautiful views. Old Rag is an awesome hike, hands down. Just make sure you pack plenty of water and snacks. Once you scramble and climb your way to the summit the downhill back to the car will be a breeze.
There were many more hikes we could have trekked and vineyards we could have sipped at, but our visit was coming to an end. We had our final dinner at Skyland where we enjoyed yet another amazing sunset and good food. When it’s your time to visit Shenandoah National Park make sure you give yourself more than one day. Sure, the drive along Skyline Drive will give you many good views, but you really should take the time to get out of the car and explore more.