Though it’s only 75 miles outside of D.C., you feel like you’re in another world when you enter Shenandoah National Park. Driving along the winding Skyline Drive – which travels 105 miles along the north-south crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains – dense forests rise up on either side, the green wall punctuated by breathtaking lookouts that offer picturesque views of the valley below. There are over 500 miles of trails, plenty of park-sponsored programs and countless opportunities for amazement. Here are six great reasons why now is the time to go.
As summer fades and autumn arrives, the park’s greenery gives way to a fiery array of blazing reds, sunny yellows and brilliant oranges. Late September through early November is the best time to visit to enjoy this sumptuous season of change. Keep an eye on the weekly color report to find out where to see the finest foliage.
Close to 200 species of birds call the park home, either permanently or during their migration, including red-tailed hawks, barred owls, wild turkeys, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and pileated woodpeckers. To combine exercise and ornithology, take a hike on Limberlost Trail (mile 43 on Skyline Drive) or South River Falls Trail (mile 62.8) for especially good birding opportunities. Download a full list of the park’s birds here, so you can check off those you glimpse during your visit.
Perched at 3,680 feet above sea level, the park’s rustic hotel boasts sweeping views of mountains tumbling into the Shenandoah Valley below. The recently renovated premium rooms are a graceful alternative to pitching a tent, while the Pollock Dining Room ensures you can have a real meal rather than something freeze-dried you bought at REI. If you’re looking for a sugar rush, save room for the intensely sweet, monster-sized blackberry ice cream pie topped off with a snowdrift of meringue. A small gift shop has a strong selection of gifts and the necessities you may have forgotten (bug spray, allergy medicine, super glue and the like), while the lobby coffee shop offers up strong brews for early risers. Skyland closes for the season on Sunday, November 25.
More than 100 miles of the 2,180-mile long trail snakes its way through the park. Much of it is close to Skyline Drive, so it’s easy to access if you’d like to trek only a portion of it. On Sundays and Fridays at 2 p.m. until October 27, there’s a fantastic Ranger Program devoted to the A.T. leaving from the Milam Gap parking area (mile 52.4). The two-hour, two-mile hike is punctuated by a series of micro lectures on the history of the trail, its creators, some of its most famous hikers and the equipment you might need to undertake such an epic walk.
There are hundreds of black bears roaming the park. You might see one ambling across the road, gorging in the midst of a blackberry patch or loping through a campsite. Definitely take a picture if you can, but don’t get too close in search of that perfect Instagram shot. Though bears rarely attack, it’s better to be safe than a cautionary tale.
Junior Ranger Program
If you’ve got a little one aged 7 to 12-years-old, encourage them to take part in the Junior Ranger program. Pick up a copy of the activity book at Byrd Visitor Center (mile 51) or Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (mile 4.6), or download it online. If kids complete the booklet and attend one of the Ranger Programs, they earn a free park badge that you can sew on their backpack, so they can proudly boast about their travels in the park.