by Grace Bowie
“Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you // Away you rolling river…”
Shenandoah was the first National Park I ever visited. My parents brought me as a kid and we wandered down easy trails, keeping our eyes and ears peeled for black bears and songbirds. I learned to love the feeling of being surrounded by lush greenery, the sound of cascading waterfalls, the sight of wildflowers blooming for miles. (I never learned to love the hundreds of mosquito bites I inevitably got every summer—still working on that.)
At over 1 billion years and counting, these rolling hills are among the oldest in the world. There are few places that I’ve come across in this world where you can simultaneously feel the levity of newness and rebirth, while also being weighed upon by the immensity of time. No other trails have made me feel both so alive and so insignificant.
I was born in Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even after my family moved closer to the coast when I was four, the mountains kept calling me back. I went to college in Charlottesville, Virginia, and dragged friends out to the mountains for sunrise hikes before class or weekend trips to new trails. It’s no wonder that Shenandoah National Park feels more like home than any house or apartment at this point. I moved out to Utah for a brief period after college, seeking new adventures out west. I was awestruck by the red rock wonders I found, but inevitably, I longed to hear that rolling river once more.
Virginia is home to 544 miles of the Appalachian Trail, more than any other state. It also boasts some stunning summits, waterfalls, dazzling fall colors, and if you hit the weather right from a high vista, you’ll realize how these hills came to be known as the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But, with this massive park spanning almost 200,000 acres, knowing where to start can be a daunting task. After countless trips into and out of these woods, I’ve gotten to know the trails well. Below are some of my favorite spots and some practical tips to make your first trip a success. With a little bit of planning, you’ll be set to have a transcendent Shenandoah experience of your own.
It’s a Shenandoah classic with everything you could want: wooded trails, tough-but-fun rock scrambling, and stunning 360 degree views of the Shenandoah Valley. From the Old Rag parking area, you’ll start off on some gentle switchbacks before reaching the rock scramble.
This scramble is no joke—be prepared to squeeze through some tight crevices and use your upper body strength. After some breathtaking views at the top, you’ll descend on a fire road running alongside a stream back to the trailhead.
This hike is extremely popular and the parking area can fill up quickly if the weather is nice, so I recommend visiting on a weekday if possible, or arriving before 7 AM if visiting on a weekend. This hike is 9.5 miles and will leave you delighted but exhausted—I recommend blocking off a whole day to take on Old Rag. Bring lots of water!
If you’re looking for a gentler, shorter hike after a day on Old Rag, stop off at Dark Hollow Falls trail. At only 1.4 miles, this out-and-back trail is short but packs a punch with gorgeous views of the falls. There are multiple viewing points, and plenty of big rocks to skip around on and cool off on a hot day. The climb back up the parking area is a bit steep, but thankfully it’s not too long back to the car!
The summit of Hawksbill Mountain is the highest point in the park, so this hike makes a lot of people’s itineraries for that reason alone. But beyond the breathtaking views at the summit, this trail checks a lot of boxes: you’ll briefly hike on the Appalachian Trail, you’ll spend some time on the Salamander Trail (named for the Shenandoah Salamander, an endangered species found only in this park—keep your eyes peeled!), and you’ll see some stunning rock formations and vegetation.
This hike isn’t too strenuous either, so bring everyone you know! It’s a crowd-pleaser.
There are no shuttles or public transportation within Shenandoah, so having access to a car is a must for experiencing this park. The main road in Shenandoah is Skyline Drive. It runs 105 miles north to south, and on a clear day it takes about three hours to drive the park from end to end. Most hikes are accessible from this road, but some major ones (notably, Old Rag) have parking areas that require you to drive a bit further away.
The average speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35 mph and there are over 70 overlooks, so be sure to fill up with gas before you get there and spend some of your day cruising and enjoying the views. I highly recommend packing a picnic and stopping at an overlook for lunch in between hikes. Plus if you’re visiting in the fall, you’ll be treated to some spectacular fall colors and crisp autumn air.
The beauty of Shenandoah is that, even after all these years, there are still trails I haven’t set foot on. With over 500 miles of trails, there’s so much to explore, so don’t be afraid to pull over if you see something that catches your eye. Adventure awaits you!