Itching to explore a new place or longing for some time in nature? Venture no farther than Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Here, you’ll encounter picturesque landscapes, trails boasting panoramic views and quaint country towns that will surely charm you.
It takes just two hours by car to arrive at the northern entrance of Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal, Virginia. I recommend stopping at the grocery store in town to stock up on snacks and water before heading into the park, as there will be few opportunities to purchase food inside.
An attendant will greet you at the northern gate to confirm that you paid the $30 private vehicle fee — I suggest doing this in advance because cell service can be unreliable within the park’s boundaries — but thereafter you are free to explore over 196,000 acres of protected wilderness.
You’ll find yourself cruising down Skyline Drive, the acclaimed 105-mile road that runs the vertical length of the park. The tree-lined byway winds along the Blue Ridge Mountains and brings you past a number of scenic overlooks; stop at any (or all) of them to indulge in the sweeping vistas and snap a few pictures. During my trip in October, rust-colored fall foliage stood against bright blue skies, adding to the park’s splendor — we could not have visited at a better time.
While these lookouts offer the opportunity to admire the Shenandoah Valley’s pastoral landscape, I encourage you to hit the trails and immerse yourself in nature if that feels comfortable. The park contains over 500 miles of well-maintained trails for hikers with all levels of experience to enjoy, and even a short stroll creates an experience that the drive cannot match.
Depending on the trail, you might stumble upon cascading waterfalls, native wildlife or mountaintop vistas — maybe all of these if you’re lucky! But whatever its specific features, every trail promises serenity and natural beauty that will leave you in awe.
My partner and I opted for a 5.1-mile round-trip hike to see the biggest waterfall in Shenandoah National Park. We parked at the Mathews Arms Campground and immediately set off on the trail. Because we got an early start, we had the trail all to ourselves. I was struck by the quietude I experienced but easily embraced the clear mental state that came upon me as I rambled along the wooded route.
After an hour of walking, that thick silence was interrupted by the distant hum of the nearby falls. With each step, its drone became louder and louder until finally the path emerged from the forest and the falls came into sight.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the immense energy with which the water tumbled down the impressive 93-foot chute. We stopped here to rest and appreciated the scene for a few moments before turning back, making the return trip in roughly an hour and a half. In total, the mildly-strenuous hike took less than three hours and the spectacular waterfall made the journey worth the effort.
Back in the car, we pulled onto Skyline Drive again and continued south through the forested mountains. A picnic in the park would have been lovely, but we hadn’t planned for that and so we headed into Luray for a late lunch. Smaller than Front Royal, Luray features only one main road lined with a few shops and restaurants. I was enchanted by its antique shops, cozy cafes and expansive view of the Blue Ridge Mountains — but be warned, most restaurants close by 3 p.m.
After lunch and a bit of window-shopping, we began the 2.5-hour trip from Luray back to Baltimore. Though long, the winding drive through the Virginia countryside is nearly as striking as the park itself, and so feels shorter. While the fall foliage certainly added to the region’s magnificence, every season comes with its own special qualities.
Whether you consider yourself outdoorsy or not, everyone can appreciate a day spent in Shenandoah National Park and its surrounding towns. So lace up your sneakers and make the trip down to Shenandoah Valley in Virginia — you won’t be disappointed!
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