Hiking Trails in Shenandoah National Park

9 Best Hiking Trails in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is a beautiful region of mountains and valleys, known for inspiring lookouts and towering waterfalls. Many of the trails in the park are relatively short, though often steep and intense, leading to stunning views or impressive natural features. The best-known trail is the Appalachian Trail , which runs through the park all the way from Maine to Georgia. Hikers will inevitably cross or spend time on this trail as they complete many of the walks in the park. The Appalachian Trail is like a hiking trail through the park, with scenic trails looking out to the lookout towers and waterfalls.

View from Skyline Drive | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The main road through the park is Skyline Drive , and almost all hikes are accessible from this route. The park map indicates the location of viewpoints and parking areas by milestones along this road. Unlike many mountain roads that run along the valley floor, Skyline Drive runs high along the ridge, with plenty of scenic lookouts. As a result, many of the hikes start in a downward direction and end with a serious hike back to the parking lot. With limited time or just a single day for hiking, it’s best to do two or three short hikes, with at least one to the overlook and another to a waterfall, or to one of the full-day hikes.

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1 Upper Hawksbill Trail

Upper Hawksbill Trail |  Photo copyright: Lana Law
Upper Hawksbill Trail | Photo copyright: Lana Law

The view from Hawksbill Mountain is one of the best in the park, with two lookouts near the top. This is the highest point in Shenandoah National Park, and the rocky vantage point at the top clears the way for scenic views, with no vegetation to block the view. If it’s a busy day with lots of walkers, there’s still plenty of room at the top to spread out, relax for a while and enjoy the moment. At the top is a stone hut for daily use with a picnic table that overlooks the valley.

The trail starts at the Upper Hawksbill parking lot at km 46.7 and leads to the summit, covering 3.4 km round trip . The ground is flat and follows part of the fire road, making it suitable for most tractors. This is a great late afternoon hike that usually takes about 1.5 hours to complete. If you are traveling with two cars, it is possible to combine Upper Hawksbill Trail with the Lower Hawksbill Trail by parking one vehicle at each trailhead.

2 Bearfence Mountain Trail

Bearfence Mountain Trail |  Photo copyright: Lana Law
Bearfence Mountain Trail | Photo copyright: Lana Law

The Bearfence Mountain Trail is a short but challenging hike that offers some of the best views in the park. From the barren, rocky summit, a 360-degree view extends over the surrounding mountains and valleys, giving you a complete view of the entire area. However, this involves scrambling over rocky sections, making it unsuitable for some walkers. These more difficult sections involve climbing with hands and feet up and over rock ledges. For the average fit hiker, this is not a problem and well worth it, especially considering the loop is only 1.2 miles long.

While the typical direction of this hike is clockwise, some people start in a counterclockwise direction, using the Appalachian Trail to take them to a lookout just above the peak, with a 180-degree view, and then return the same way way they came in. This is a simpler alternative that doesn’t require a rock scramble. A better option, for people who have the time to do just one hike to a lookout, is to hike the Upper Hawksbill trail or the Stony Man trail.

The parking area for the Bearfence mountain trail is approximately 56.5 mile mark. Pets are not allowed on this trail.

3 Dark Hollow Falls Trail

Dark Hollow Falls Trail |  Photo Copyright: Lana Law
Dark Hollow Falls Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

This is the most popular hiking trail in Shenandoah National Park and it is always recommended by the park staff. This is a brief overview Fifteen mile round trip that is suitable for almost everyone and very popular with families. The trail leads down from the car park and follows a good track on mostly flat ground, with a few rocky areas. At the bottom, Dark Hollow Falls tumbles 70 feet over ledges and into shallow pools right at the edge of the trail, making it one of the most accessible falls in the park. Although most people turn around at this point, it is also possible to continue following the trail to where it connects with the Rose River Trail. Where the trails cross is another waterfall, although it’s really just a lower section of Dark Hollow Falls.

Regardless of whether you turn around at the lookout or head for the second waterfall, the return journey is a steep uphill hike and will likely take almost twice as long to go up as it does to go down. Fortunately, the trail is shaded for most of the way, so it’s not very hot in the midday sun. The total time for this hike varies considerably, but most hikers will need to drive 1.5 hours.

The parking lot for this trail is located just north of the Byrd Visitor Center . Despite being quite large, the car park can fill up quickly on weekends, particularly on Saturdays. Luckily this is a short trail and people are always coming and going. Pets are not allowed.

4 Stony Man Trail

Stony Man Trail |  Photo copyright: Lana Law
Stony Man Trail | Photo copyright: Lana Law

The park’s second highest point is Stony Man peak, and like Hawksbill Mountain, it offers rewarding views from the top. From the vantage point, the view extends over the Shenandoah Valley, the town of Luray, and the Massanutten and Allegheny mountains. This popular route is fairly easy and suitable for all levels of walkers. It is also often busy, but there is a large car park. The trail ascends gradually from the parking lot at mile 41.7 until it reaches the small rock-covered overlook. Except for the viewing area at the top, the ground is flat. The total distance of this lollipop-shaped hike is 1.6 miles , with 340 feet of elevation gain. The total time for this walk is approximately one hour. Pets are not allowed.

5 Lewis Falls Trail

Lewis Falls Trail |  Photo Copyright: Lana Law
Lewis Falls Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Lewis Falls rises 81 feet over a rock ledge and is one of the most beautiful falls in Shenandoah National Park. How much water flows over it depends on the time of year and the amount of recent rainfall, but it’s a nice walk to do at any time. This is a 3.3-mile loop trail that follows the Appalachian Trail for much of the hike. The main feature is Lewis Falls, but there are also some nice views of the trail in some parts. Parts of the trail are rocky, uneven and steep in some areas.

Near the Byrd Visitor Center in Big Meadows, the hike can be started at the Big Meadows Campground Amphitheater or at the Tanners Ridge Overlook, just south of the Visitor Center on Skyline Drive. As you begin to look at the Tanners Ridge, you have the option of stopping for lunch at the Big Meadows Lodge for a midway hike. If you are not interested in the full loop and just want to see the falls, start at the Tanners Ridge and head out and hike to the falls. From here, it’s a 1.5-mile hike downhill to the falls, returning along the same route, for a 1.8-mile loop.

6 Old Rag Trail

Old Rag Trail Mike Petrucci / photo modified
Old Rag Trail Mike Petrucci / photo modified

Old Rag Trail is a beautiful and challenging all-day hike, but it is not accessible from Skyline Drive. This 9.2-mile hike is a favorite trail with hikers looking for a longer and more strenuous trail. It features a two- to three-mile rock scramble that passes through narrow rock passageways, over huge boulders and natural steps, and over uneven, rocky ground. But for those up for the challenge, the trail offers exceptional scenery, from balanced rocks and unique rock formations to outstanding vistas. This hike usually takes about six hours to complete and is rated as strenuous by the park.

One of the biggest problems with this hike is the access point, which is on the east side of Shenandoah National Park. It cannot be reached from the Skyline drive. Visitors staying in the park should drive north or south of the park and walk around to the east side, onto Route 600, near Nethers. Make sure you start early in the day. Pets are not allowed.

7 Whiteoak Canyon hiking area

Whiteoak Canyon Hiking Area Karen Blaha / Photomodulation
Whiteoak Canyon Hiking Area Karen Blaha / Photomodulation

The Whiteoak Canyon area offers a variety of hiking options. The Cedar Run to Whiteoak is a popular all-day walk that takes between five and six hours to complete. This scenic loop passes eight waterfalls, including the 86-foot Whiteoak Cascades, as well as a number of other unique features. At one point on the Cedar Run Trail, if there’s enough water, you can swim and slide down rocks, which can be a refreshing treat on a hot day. Some parts of this walk are very steep and the circuit is rated as tough. The parking lot at Skyline Drive is between miles 45 and 46. It is also possible to access the Cedar Run Trail from outside the park on Route 600.

8 Rose River Loop Trail

Rose River Loop Trail Kurt Thomas / fotomodulatie
Rose River Loop Trail Kurt Thomas / fotomodulatie

The Rose River Loop Trail is a nice option for warm days as it meanders through large trees and past waterfalls and streams. The two main highlights on the trail are the Rose River Falls and the lower portion of Dark Hollow Falls . Walking clockwise, the trail passes Rose River Falls and then enters an up-and-down trail section that skirts a stream with small waterfalls until it reaches the connection to the Dark Hollow Falls hike. At this point you can take a small detour to get a look at the upper part of Dark Hollow Falls before returning down and continuing on the Rose River Fire Road. This is an intermediate, four-mile circuit , starting at Fishers Gap Overlook.

9 South River Falls

South River Falls |  Photo copyright: Lana Law
South River Falls | Photo copyright: Lana Law

The South River Falls Trail can be done as an in-and-out hike to the falls and back, or it can be hiked as a circuit, following the fire road and Appalachian Trail back. The main observation point for the falls is quite far from them and the view is nowhere near as good as for other falls in the park. There is an optional 1.4-mile round-trip spur leading to the base of the falls, which is highly recommended. The main trail follows a winding creek for a short distance. This is a good opportunity for photographers looking for easy access to small waterfalls and moving water. It is possible to walk in the creek and over stones for close-up photos.

The trail out and back to the South River Falls Observation Deck is 4.2 miles back. The full loop, including an additional hike to the lower falls, is 7.5km . Parking for this trail is in the South River picnic area just north of milepost 63.

Hiking tips

  • Save the hikes with the sweeping views of the mountains and valley on sunny days and do the waterfall hikes when it’s overcast. Waterfalls are best photographed on cloudy days, when there is less contrast, and the vistas are much more satisfying when the views are unobstructed by cloud cover. If you have the option, leave the summit hikes for the late afternoon, rather than the afternoon. Early morning is also good if you can get to the summit early enough.
  • The trails are marked with colored paint, usually found on trees or rocks on the trails. White flags indicate the Appalachian Trail, blue flags are regular hiking trails, yellow flags are fire roads or horse trails. Square concrete posts can be found at most intersections. They have a metal band around them that shows the direction and name of the trail, with distances to major points of interest or other intersections.
  • For the latest trail conditions, check with the park before heading out. https://www.nps.gov/shen/index.htm

Where to stay near Shenandoah National Park

There are a few towns and villages outside of Shenandoah National Park where visitors can choose to base themselves. However, Harrisonburg is one of the best positioned cities for park access. The Swift Run Gap Entrance Station at Skyline Drive is about a 30-minute drive from Harrisonburg. This is a very central point in the park, close to some of the best hiking trails and highlights. This small town is a university town, so there is a nice atmosphere and many restaurants. Harrisonburg lacks true luxury hotels, and most accommodations here are chain hotels. Below are some highly rated hotels in Harrisonburg :

  • Luxury Hotels: The Country Inn & Suites is located on the south side of town and is easily accessible from Interstate 81. This hotel has large, modern rooms; an indoor pool and hot tub; and serves a complimentary hot breakfast. The Hampton Inn is next door and rooms include a refrigerator, microwave and free afternoon cookies. There is also a seasonal outdoor pool and many chain restaurants within walking distance. Ideal for large families or groups, the new Residence Inn offers rooms with a fully equipped kitchen and a separate living room. An indoor swimming pool and a sports court, ideal for basketball, tennis and volleyball, are on site.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: The Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham has standard rooms and a seasonal outdoor pool. Prices include breakfast, with a donut making machine available to guests. Rooms at the Sleep Inn & Suites feature mini-fridges and microwaves, and laundry facilities are on site. A well-priced, pet-friendly option is The Village Inn. Many rooms have spa baths and terraces. The inn has a swimming pool and a playground for children.
  • Budget Hotels: The Motel 6 Harrisonburg is an excellent budget choice, with clean and inexpensive pet-friendly rooms and an outdoor pool. Located on Linda Lane, this property is also well positioned for park access.

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