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Skyline Drive – One of America’s Finest Mountain Drives

Wind blows through your hair while sun rays hit your scalp. Your favorite music streams from your car’s speaker boxes.

Open views of the Shenandoah Valley alternate with thick forest scenery. As you zoom past yet another spectacular viewpoint, a deer scurries back into the brush. If you’re lucky while driving Skyline Drive, you might even spot one of Shenandoah National Park’s hundreds of black bears hanging out in a tree or foraging on the verges.

This is one of the greatest and most visited recreational mountain roads in the United States, a place visited by more than 1.25 million people each year. Blessed with a great location in central Virginia, Skyline Drive lies only a couple of hours from Washington, D.C. and Richmond and just thirty minutes from Charlottesville.

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park
Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

Driving Skyline Drive Through Shenandoah National Park

You can cover all of Skyline Drive’s 105 miles (169 kilometers) in just a few hours, but it is highly recommended to set aside at least a full day—but preferably two or more—to explore this phenomenal mountain road. Keep in mind that there’s only one (expensive) gas station in Shenandoah National Park, so you’re advised to fill up on fuel before entering the park.

Skyline Drive traverses Shenandoah National Park along the long and narrow crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the only road through the park, accessible at four different entrances.

Musician in Shenandoah National Park
Musician in Shenandoah National Park

Four Entrances

The four entrances are spread out throughout the park.

  • The northern entrance, the Front Royal Entrance Station lies at milepost 0.6 on Skyline Drive and is accessible via Routes 340 and 55. Coming from Washington, D.C., this would be the nearest entrance.
  • The Thornton Gap Entrance Station is at milepost 31.5 and can be reached via Route 211.
  • At milepost 65.7, you can get to the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station via Route 33.
  • The fourth and southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park, the Rockfish Gap Entrance Station lies at milepost 104.9. It is accessible via Interstate 64 and Route 250. This is also where Skyline Drive connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s the most convenient entry point when coming from Richmond and Charlottesville to the east or from Staunton and the southern Shenandoah Valley to the west.
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park
Never-ending Blue Ridge Mountains

Wildlife and Wilderness

While Shenandoah National Park is sometimes seen as more of a tourist attraction than a protected nature reserve, it actually features one of the highest percentages of wilderness areas of all United States national parks. No less than 40% of its surface area is designated wilderness. Even though the park’s landscapes might not be as spectacular as those in some of the West Coast parks, it encompasses seriously wild territory.

Shenandoah National Park consists of mainly forest-covered hills and mountains—95% of the park is forested. Wide valleys characterize the landscape as well, cut out by mountain streams and waterfalls. Plant diversity is enormous. More than 1,400 vascular plants, including no fewer than 132 species of trees (more than all of Western Europe combined), and 1,650 non-vascular plants, such as mosses and lichens, contribute to the park’s impressive biodiversity

This fertile environment is the preferred biotope of a wide variety of wildlife.

Nearly 40 fish species thrive in Shenandoah National Park’s ponds, rivers and streams while some 53 mammals roam its woods. Additionally, you can spot up to 200 different species of birds and 26 reptiles, including 18 snake species.

Clearly, this is a hotspot of biodiversity. And the beauty of it all is that you don’t necessarily have to leave your car to enjoy it. Often, you’ll spot wild animals while driving Skyline Drive. The most common sightings are white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, groundhogs and chipmunks. Fortunate visitors might occasionally spot golden eagles, bobcats and skunks as well. It’s one of the greatest places in Virginia for nature photography.

Black bear cubs, Shenandoah National Park
Black bear cubs frolicking in a tree

Some 75 Overlooks

There are no fewer than 75 overlooks on Skyline Drive’s 105 miles (169 kilometers). In other words, you can enjoy a great view every 1.5 miles. To give you an impression of the beauty of these overlooks, check out the photo gallery at the end of this post.

Dawn over the Shenandoah Valley
Sunrise in the Shenandoah Valley

What to Do When Driving Skyline Drive

Hike a Section of the Appalachian Trail

Shenandoah National Park has 516 miles (830 kilometers) of hiking trails, 101 miles (163 kilometers) of which are on the iconic Appalachian Trail. This long-distance trail, running from Georgia all the way to Maine, roughly follows Skyline Drive and can be accessed at numerous points along the road.

Visit Big Meadows and the Byrd Visitor Center

One of Skyline Drive’s most unique attractions, Big Meadows lies in the heart of the national park. Previously used as farmland, this huge grassland area is now artificially kept clear through controlled fires and mowing. This allows for an abundant of wildflowers, grasses and herbs to flourish, which in turn attract wildlife such as butterflies, birds, white-tailed deer and black bears.

The Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center lies across the road from Big Meadows. There, you can learn about the park’s creation and history. Definitely make sure to check out the exhibit “Within a Day’s Drive of Millions.” Besides the exhibits, there are restrooms, a bookstore, information desks and ranger programs.

Climb a Mountain Summit

Of the many hiking trails that start off of Skyline Drive, several are fun rock scrambles. In case you don’t know, rock scrambling is something in between hiking uphill and rock climbing. It’s basically climbing a summit while using your hands for balance. And it’s extremely fun.

Suggested mountain summits to climb are Bearfence Mountain, Blackrock Summit, Stony Man and Turk Mountain.

Explore Backcountry Wilderness

Other trails lead deep into Shenandoah National Park’s wilderness areas, places where it’s common to spot deer and bears. I personally loved the loop hike created by linking the Trayfoot Mountain and Paine Run Trails.

See Beautiful Waterfalls

In addition to mountain summit and wilderness, several trails also lead to spectacular waterfalls. I strongly recommend doing at least one waterfall hike when driving Skyline Drive. The easiest and most popular one is the Dark Hollow Falls Trail, just north of Big Meadows.

Other superb waterfall hikes are to Overall Run Falls, Whiteoak Canyon, South River Falls, Doyles River Falls and Jones Run Falls.

Enjoy a Sunrise and/or a Sunset

One of my favorite things to do in Shenandoah National Park is watching sunrises and sunsets. From the overlooks and the mountain summits, the landscapes are heart-achingly beautiful in the “golden hour.” This really should be a priority during your visit to the park and Skyline Drive.

Sunset from a Skyline Drive overlook
Sunset in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park Hiking Resources

Visitor Facilities

Along Skyline Drive, there are:

  • Two visitor centers (the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at milepost 5 and the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center at milepost 51)
  • Four campgrounds (Matthews Arm at milepost 22, Big Meadows at milepost 51, Lewis Mountain at milepost 57.5 and Loft Mountain at milepost 79.5). Basic overnight facilities off of Skyline Drive include eight Appalachian Trail huts and six backcountry cabins.
  • Three lodges (Skyland Resort at milepost 41, Big Meadows Lodge at milepost 51 and Lewis Mountain Cabins at milepost 57.5)
  • Three waysides (Elkwallow Wayside at milepost 24, Big Meadows Wayside at milepost 51 and Loft Mountain Wayside at milepost 79.5) selling everything from snacks and sandwiches to camping supplies and gifts.
  • One gas station (Big Meadows at milepost 51)

Skyline Drive Photos

Have You Ever Been to Shenandoah National Park? Share Your Experiences Driving Skyline Drive in the Comments Below!

Further Reading

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