There’s plenty to see and do in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, as I’ve made abundantly clear in previous blog posts. From driving Skyline Drive to sunset hikes and stays at historic lodges, this wonderful mountain park has plenty to offer. What I haven’t talked about in greater detail, though, is the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park.
The numerous beautiful Shenandoah National Park waterfalls are one of the main reasons why you should visit this scenic park. In fact, Shenandoah may just be one of the nicest U.S. national parks for pleasant exploration and pretty waterfalls. All along Skyline Drive, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to go for a waterfall hike. Many of the park’s streams, originating from springs near the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, tumble down the mountain flanks in series of waterfalls.
Best Waterfall Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
While there are many Skyline Drive waterfalls, if you’re visiting Shenandoah National Park for just one or two days, I recommend that you focus on the following five.
I’ve done several waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park and these are my five favorites. I’m pretty sure that most people will agree with this selection of Shenandoah National Park waterfalls, though there is, of course, always room for discussion about their order. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you have a different number one.
5. South River Falls Trail
The third-tallest of the Skyline Drive waterfalls, South River Falls falls 83 feet (25 meters) down a rocky ledge. The waterfall is made up of two smaller falls, one above the other, and plunges into a swimming pool below.
Because its setting at a sheer, rather imposing rock face, South River Falls is one of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park. It’s good to know, though, that in summer, the ferocity of the water is much less impressive than in spring or fall. If you’d like to see the waterfall at its mightiest, spring is probably the best time of year to visit.
This hike is 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) there and back. The trail drops down quickly, after which it runs through a wooded hollow. Enjoyable because of the trail’s quiet woodsy scenery and the falls’ height, South River Falls definitely belongs in the top 5 Shenandoah National Park waterfalls
- Distance: 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers), out and back
- Duration: 2 hours
- Difficulty: moderate
- Location: Skyline Drive MP 62.8, at the South River Picnic Area
4. Whiteoak Canyon Trail
The Whiteoak Canyon Trail is one of the most difficult hikes in Shenandoah National Park. Running steeply down into a rocky gorge, the return trip is a definite thigh-cruncher.
As strenuous as it may be, it’s totally worth it for the abundance of waterfalls in the canyon. There are no fewer than six of them, three upper falls and three lower falls. The Whiteoak trailhead on Skyline Drive lies basically just across the street from Skyland Resort. The roundtrip to the lowest of the lower falls and back up is more than 7 miles (11 kilometers)—and, again, it’s steep. Please don’t overestimate your hiking abilities on this hike.
You can also start this hike from below, at a parking lot called the Whiteoak Canyon Boundary Trailhead. This way, you’ll save the easy part, the descent, for last. This lower trailhead, however, lies on the park’s boundary and isn’t accessible from Skyline Drive, which makes it inconvenient if you’re focusing on driving Skyline Drive. But if you’re staying in Charlottesville, for example, this would be the quickest way to get to the Whiteoak Canyon Falls.
If you’re up for a challenge and confident in your fitness level, you might consider making this a loop hike by linking the Whiteoak Canyon Trail with the Cedar Run Trail. Doing so, you’ll add at least two more wonderful waterfalls, creating a very strenuous 7.7-mile (12.4-kilometer) circuit. The best place to start this particular hike is the Hawksbill Gap parking lot at MP 45.6.
All these options might be a bit confusing, but the Shenandoah National Park waterfalls map at the end of this post will clarify a lot.
- Distance: minimum 6 miles (9.7 kilometers), out and back
- Duration: 4 to 5 hours
- Difficulty: strenuous
- Locations: Skyline Drive MP 42.6, at the Whiteoak parking area; or MP 45.6, at the Hawksbill Gap parking lot
3. Dark Hollow Falls Trail
One of the most popular waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park and in all of Virginia, Dark Hollow Falls offers some serious bang for your buck. Considering the shortness of the trail, the rewards are out of proportion. This is a beauty of a waterfall, and the one waterfall hike I’d recommend if you only have a short amount of time to spend in the park.
You’ll find the trailhead at Skyline Drive MP 50.7, just south of the Big Meadows area. This is an out-and-back hike, the trail running down a hollow—as the waterfall’s name implies. The roundtrip might be only 1.4 miles (2.25 kilometers), but don’t underestimate it. The trail is steep and the climb back to the parking lot will literally take your breath away.
(Note that dogs aren’t allowed on this trail.)
- Distance: 1.4 miles (2.25 kilometers), out and back
- Duration: 1 hour and 15 minutes
- Difficulty: moderate
- Location: Skyline Drive MP 50.7, at the Dark Hollow Falls parking lot
2. Rose River Falls Loop
I think this is one of the most pleasant waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park. Rose River Falls is a wonderful series of picturesque large cascades, spread out along several hundreds of yards (or meters).
The beauty of this particular hike is that, after pretty much every cascade or rapid, the water regroups in a swimming hole. There are more swimming holes on the Rose River Falls Loop Trail than I could count.
It’s possible to hike down to the falls and retrace your steps the same way you came, but I strongly recommend making this a loop hike, which will be much more rewarding. Instead of turning back after the waterfalls, continue down Rose River and follow Hogcamp Branch, also featuring a couple of nice cascades, until you get to the Rose River Fire Road. This wide and well-maintained gravel road brings you back to the parking lot at Fishers Gap Overlook.
An added bonus to this tranquil hike is that Dark Hollow Falls is only a few hundred yards from the intersection of the Rose River Loop Trail and the Rose River Fire Road. It’s a fantastic opportunity to take in that stunner of a waterfall as well, if you feel like a mini-side trip.
- Distance: 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) out and back
- Duration: 2 hours
- Difficulty: moderate
- Location: Skyline Drive MP 49.4, at the Fishers Gap parking lot
1. Doyles River-Jones Run Loop
This is my absolute favorite of all waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park. Although none of the waterfalls on this loop hike are spectacularly tall, it’s their setting and scenery that sets them apart from the rest.
There are several trailheads on Skyline Drive where you can start this hike—the Jones Run, Browns Gap Overlook and Doyles River parking lots are all good options. However, I do recommend starting at the Doyles River parking lot. This will put the most strenuous part, which is the climb back out of the hollow, in the middle of your hike, instead of at the very end. When starting at this particular spot, the last couple of miles will be on the pleasant Appalachian Trail.
There are a few noteworthy waterfalls along Doyles River, especially the Upper and Lower Doyles River Falls. The latter might just be the most beautiful of the many Shenandoah National Park waterfalls. Additionally, numerous swimming holes make the Doyles River-Jones Run Loop a great hike on a hot summer’s day.
- Distance: 7.8 miles (12.5 kilometers), loop
- Duration: 4 hours
- Difficulty: moderately strenuous
- Location: Skyline Drive MP 81.1, at the Doyles River parking lot
Book recommendation: To plan all my hikes in Shenandoah National Park, I use this great guidebook.
Shenandoah National Park Waterfalls Map
This map of the waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park lists all trails and waterfalls mentioned in this post. The red lines indicate the five individual trails, while the yellow ones outline connector trails, shortcuts or extensions. The blue markers are, of course, the waterfalls themselves.
Which Are Your Favorite Waterfall Hikes in Shenandoah National Park? What Do You Think Are the Most Beautiful Shenandoah National Park Waterfalls?
As usual, I recommend that you wear proper hiking boots or shoes and the right clothing. Always bring a filled water bottle with you. Hiking poles may be useful on some of these trails, as they can be slippery at times. You can check out more outdoor gear here.