Your footsteps producing that wonderful crunching sound as you follow the trail up a mountain, you suddenly hear quite another kind of crunch. You look around and, down a slope off the path, you see a black bear searching for food in the bushes. There’s no need to be scared, though. Black bears tend to mind their own business. This is, in fact, a wildlife sighting that’s not unusual in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia—one of the major attractions of this mountainous and forested park.

In the heart of Virginia, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park protects a historic mountain landscape characterized by endless mountain ranges, dense forests, large tracts of wilderness, lots of wildlife,…

Because of its location near Washington, D.C.—it’s about two hours by car from the American capital—, the park receives plenty of visitors, many of them day trippers. Almost 1.5 million people visit Shenandoah National Park each year to enjoy the natural delights this pleasant park has to offer. And there are plenty of those.

View from Bearfence Mountain

This Is Why You Should Visit Shenandoah National Park

Although not as undeniably spectacular as the southwestern American national parks, such as Zion National Park, Grand Canyon National Park or Death Valley National Park, when you visit Shenandoah National Park, you get less obvious rewards.

This park gives you more polished landscapes—literally, by wind and time—and pleasant outdoor experiences. The best adjective to describe time spent in Shenandoah National Park is “enjoyable”. It’s simply a fun park, a park that doesn’t require much to be enjoyed. It’s a convenient park, easily reached and easily explored, yet it does also offer some serious challenges to those who look for them.

In a nutshell, people who visit Shenandoah National Park get to enjoy the following five attractions. These are, in my opinion, and most people will agree, the five main reasons why you should visit Shenandoah National Park.

1. Breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountain Views

A long and narrow park stretched along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park boasts some of the greatest mountain views anywhere on the American East Coast. From the 75 overlooks on Skyline Drive to the panoramic vistas from the park’s many mountain summits, the views are amazing everywhere.

My Favorite Viewpoints in Shenandoah National Park

Skyline Drive overlooks

  • Hazel Mountain Overlook (MP 33)
  • Thorofare Mountain Overlook (MP 41)
  • The Point Overlook (MP 55.5)
  • Brown Mountain Overlook (MP 77)

Mountain summits

  • Stony Man (MP 41.7)
  • Hawksbill Mountain (MP 46.7)
  • Bearfence Mountain (MP 56.5)
  • Blackrock Summit (MP 84.4)

Shenandoah National Park

Blackrock Summit

2. Wonderful Waterfalls

A lush and verdant mountain park like this has to have a few picturesque waterfalls, right? Indeed, there are no fewer than ten beautiful Shenandoah National Park waterfalls, all of them reachable via hiking trails starting off Skyline Drive. Note that although a couple of trails are pretty short, most of them require some serious hiking.

Seeing waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park is a multi-hour activity. Just be aware of that when you plan your visit, but also know that seeing a waterfall is a must-do when visiting Shenandoah.

Beautiful Shenandoah National Park Waterfalls
  • Overall Run Falls (MP 21.1) – Strenuous
  • Whiteoak Canyon Falls (MP 42.6) – Strenuous
  • Rose River Falls (MP 49.4) – Moderate
  • Dark Hollow Falls (MP 50.7) – Moderate
  • Lewis Spring Falls (MP 51.4) – Moderate
  • South River Falls (MP 62.7) – Moderate
  • Doyles River Falls (MP 81.1) – Moderate

Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park

Lower Doyles River Falls

3. World-Class Wildlife Watching

As an East Coast park, Shenandoah lies surrounded by high-use land. Farmlands, towns, busy highways and industrial areas encircle the park, making it a premier refuge for wildlife. The total number of animal species remains unknown, but I can tell you that there are more than 50 mammal species, more than 50 amphibian and reptile species, and more than 35 species of fish living inside Shenandoah National Park.

This includes some really high-profile animals—mostly mammals, such as white-tailed deer and striped and spotted skunks, bobcats and coyotes, and American black bears. Especially those black bears are a big attraction in the park. Often spotted foraging in trees or in the verge alongside Skyline Drive, their exact numbers are unknown but said to range between a couple of hundred and a thousand, depending on food availability and the time of year.

The best times of the day to spot wildlife are dawn and dusk, which conveniently pairs well with number five of these reasons to visit Shenandoah National Park—see below.

Best Places to Spot Wildlife
  • Big Meadows (MP 51) and the rest of the central part of the park
  • Trayfoot Mountain-Paine Run Loop (MP 84.4)
  • Randomly all along Skyline Drive

Black Bear Cubs Climbing a Tree

Deer in Shenandoah National Park

4. Hundreds of Miles of Hiking Trails

Shenandoah National Park is home to more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) of hiking trails, 101 miles (163 kilometers) of which is a section of the Appalachian Trail. What’s so exciting about this huge density of trails is that there’s also a wide variety in them.

Some trails lead down from Skyline Drive into wooded hollows and to pretty waterfalls. Others ascend steeply to panoramic mountain tops or lead deep into the wilderness. Hiking and camping is really the best way to truly experience what Shenandoah is all about.

Recommended Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
  • Stony Man (MP 41.7) – Easy
  • Whiteoak Canyon Falls (MP 42.6) – Strenuous
  • Dark Hollow Falls (MP 50.7) – Moderate
  • Big Meadows (MP 51) – Easy
  • Bearfence Mountain (MP 56.5) – Moderate
  • Frazier Discovery Trail (MP 79.5) – Moderate
  • Doyles River-Jones Run Loop (MP 81.1) – Moderate
  • Trayfoot Mountain-Paine Run Loop (MP 84.4) – Strenuous
  • Old Rag (trailhead on the park’s eatern border, not accessible from Skyline Drive) – Very strenuous

Trail in Big Meadows

Hiking Trail in Shenandoah National Park

5. Spectacular Sunrises and Sunsets

With 75 scenic overlooks and plenty of relatively easily reachable mountain summits, Shenandoah National Park is a prime sunrise- and sunset-watching destination. There’s nothing like watching the sun appear from behind the Blue Ridge Mountains in the morning or dip behind them in the evening.

Great Sunrise/Sunset Spots in Shenandoah National Park

Sunrise in Shenandoah National Park

  • Tunnel Parking Overlook (MP 32.5)
  • Buck Hollow Overlook (MP 32.8)
  • Hazel Mountain Overlook (MP 33.0)
  • Thorofare Mountain Overlook (MP 40.5)
  • Bearfence Mountain (MP 56.4)

Sunset in Shenandoah National Park

  • Stony Man (MP 41.7)
  • The Point Overlook (MP 55.5)
  • Bearfence Mountain (MP 56.5)
  • Brown Mountain Overlook (MP 77.0)
  • Rockytop Overlook (MP 78.0)
  • Blackrock Summit (MP 84.4)

Shenandoah Sunset

Golden sunrise in Shenandoah National Park

Skyline Drive Links It All Together

A ribbon of a road snaking its way along the Blue Ridge Mountains’ crest, Skyline Drive ties everything together. It’s the only road through Shenandoah National Park, running for 105 miles (169 kilometers) from north to south through the park. This is easily one of the most scenic mountain drives anywhere in the United States.

I wrote an entire blog post dedicated to Skyline Drive a while ago. Go check it out for more information about this phenomenal road.

Interestingly, the southern end of Skyline Drive is the starting point of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which continues southward for hundreds of miles more. Another spectacular mountain drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most visited unit in the entire National Park Service System. It connects Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

If you have two weeks to spare, I strongly recommend combining these three National Park Service entities for an epic mountain journey.

View from Skyline Drive

How Much Time Do You Need?

The beauty of this park is that it’s entirely possible to see and do all this in just one day. What’s even better is that, beyond the main highlights mentioned above, there’s plenty to do to keep you occupied for days. So, I definitely suggest that you spend more than just one day in the park.

I actually think that two to three days is the ideal amount of time for this particular park. It allows you to do some serious hiking, to drive the entire length of Skyline Drive, to enjoy both a sunrise and sunset, and quite likely to catch a glimpse of a black bear as well.

Mother Bear with Cubs

Consider using nearby Charlottesville—less than half an hour’s drive from the park’s southern entrance—as a base when you visit Shenandoah National Park. Use it as a starting and ending point of your trip, possibly camping within the park for a night. Charlottesville is a vibrant little college city filled with fun stuff.

There are fantastic historic sites like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the gorgeous University of Virginia, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. C’ville, as it’ affectionately called by locals, also has countless restaurants and shops, and a few excellent craft breweries. It’s an ideal place to kick back after and let sink in your Shenandoah adventures.

Shenandoah National Park Map

The map below marks all the overlooks, waterfalls and hikes mentioned in this post. Note that this overview is not exhaustive whatsoever, and that there are dozens more places of interest in this great park. These are simply my favorites, spots or areas I think you should focus on when you visit Shenandoah National Park for the first time.

Visit the official Shenandoah National Park website for lots more information about this amazing park.

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Bram Reusen

Bram Reusen is a Belgian travel photographer, writer and the founder of Travel. Experience. Live. He now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. From backpacking and adventuring to slow travel and cycling trips, Bram focuses on nature and adventure travel. His passions are hiking in national parks and sampling craft beers.

3 Comments

lukas kae · June 10, 2017 at 06:50

amazing pictures.I think you enjoy a lot there. thanks for sharing with us.

Brenda · September 29, 2017 at 11:33

My family of 5 is headed to Shenandoah NP for a day trip tomorrow. We have only been once & just drove around for a short time. It was fogged in so badly we could barely see the road, so hiking & enjoying the overlooks was not possible. Your article is a wonderful help in planning some great spots to hit. My only suggestion would be to make a small notation on the degree of difficulty next to your trail & waterfall suggestions. Your photos are breathtaking. I can not wait to see it all for myself, well except the bears. I don’t want to meet a bear on a trail! Thank you so much for all the information.

    Bram Reusen · October 3, 2017 at 16:42

    Hi Brenda. I’m so glad you found this article useful, that’s exactly what it’s for! I have taken your suggestion to heart and included the difficulty of each (waterfall) hike, thanks for that. 🙂 I hope you had a good time in the park, the weather sure was delightful last weekend!

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