At just 70 miles west of the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park is the most accessible national park for the millions of Americans who call the densely populated Northeastern Corridor home. Hikers, of course, have long known it as one of the most scenic segments of the Appalachian Trail. But this sinewy stretch of Blue Ridge highlands is increasingly a popular escape for everyday urbanites who come in droves in search of fresh air. Among these blue-tinted hills on the edge of D.C.’s suburban sprawl, there's homes for cascading waterfalls, serene wooded hollows, and more than 50 species of mammal. Among them are black bears. Lots of black bears. In fact, Shenandoah claims one of the highest black bear population densities in the country.
“On a clear day when you look off to the west, you can see mountains all the way to West Virginia,” says park ranger Dan Hurlbert, who’s roamed the uncharted corners of this park for more than 20 years making maps as a geographical information system specialist. “It just makes you feel good inside because you know you’re breathing clean air when you can see out into the distance forever.”
Bike the Skyline Drive
Shenandoah is a rare national park in that its main road is its No. 1 attraction, but that doesn’t mean you have to bumble along the cloud-hugging Skyline Drive caged in a car. “While we don’t allow any off-road use of bicycles, the Skyline Drive is quite popular with cyclists,” Hurlbert says. Be warned, however, that the spectacular valley views on this 109-mile byway come as a hard-won award for tackling killer hills, not to mention unnervingly blind curves. Hurlbert says those with more time should follow the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way down to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by connecting at Shenandoah’s southern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where dozens of campsites and 300 miles worth of hiking options await.
Hike the Riprap-Wildcat Loop
One of Hulbert’s favorite trails is the strenuous 9.8-mile Riprap-Wildcat loop in the park’s little-visited South District. “Follow the Riprap trail down off Skyline Drive, loop back up on the Wildcat Ridge Trail, and then take the Appalachian Trail back where you began,” he explains. “You’ll start off with some really nice vistas before you drop down into a canyon with some historic buildings and a great swimming hole.” Be prepared for an elevation gain of 2,365 feet as you scramble back from the Shenandoah Valley into the Appalachian highlands.
Crack Climb Old Rag
Shenandoah National Park attracts hordes of rock hounds with some of the finest climbing opportunities on the East Coast. Hurlbert recommends heading to spots with excellent crack climbing like Old Rag Mountain, which will have you dangling from granite at 3,000 feet above the Virginia Piedmont. If you’re new to the sport, Shenandoah Mountain Guides offers scheduled rock climbing and rappelling adventures (from $90) that depart out of Skyland Resort between April and September.
Prefer to jump off mountains rather than climb them? The NPS issues hang gliding and paragliding permits for thrill-seekers at three approved launch sites along Skyline Drive: Millers Head, Hogback, and Dickey Ridge.
Where to Stay
Skyland Resort is the answer to lodging queries for all folks not looking to make a "Virginia is for Campers" retreat out of their time there. With a history trailing back to the 1800s, you'll enjoy great views of the Shenandoah Valley and local cuisine at their various farm-to-table dining options. You'll still get an in-the-park experience (their lodging options are all on Skyline Drive) but with the luxury of AC and plush bedding.