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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Visiting Shenandoah National Park in a Day (in winter, with dogs!)


For me, visiting a National Park in the off-season is the best season. Our National Parks are gems to be shared by all but visiting these parks in the summer and fall months means you will be in the company of others, many others. Trails will be packed, parking lots full, and it can be a lot harder to enjoy the quiet of the outdoors when you are in a crowd. 

Winter is a great time to visit our National Parks as with just a few "restrictions", you will be able to see a national treasure without the crowds. Shenandoah National Park is a great place in the winter as clearer skies offer sweeping views across the valley. No traffic, parking is a non-issue, and the trails are perfectly quiet. While I know this park is breathtaking in the fall, we figured it was beautiful enough to visit in the winter too - just in a different way. Of course, we had our dogs with us, and as it turns out that Shenandoah National Park is one of the most dog-friendly National Parks in the U.S. (only 10 trails are off-limits). 

Our plan was to head to the park by 9am, drive the entire length of Skyline Driving, stopping for two (dog-friendly) hikes and lunch at an overlook, and maybe catch a sunset before exiting the park and heading back to our Airbnb.

I am happy to report that our day in the park offered less than 20 cars the entire day and even fewer people on the trails. While all the facilities in the park were closed due to the virus, we were happy to be self-sufficient and have wide-open parking areas and views basically to ourselves. Pack your own lunch, bring plenty of water, have a full tank of gas, and acknowledge that there will not be any bathroom facilities open in the park at this time (normally some facilities stay open throughout the winter). Embrace the solitude and head to Shenandoah National Park (in the winter) to experience Shenandoah Valley and the famous Skyline Drive without the crowds.

Fast Facts

Shenandoah National Park is the perfect place for anyone looking for a scenic drive, a place to camp, or a spot to hike/backpack. To me, the park came across as more of a small day hike kind of place. However, the Appalachian Trail does traverse the entire park (101 miles, not too far from Skyline Drive itself) making it the perfect place to section hike or backpack the AT (usually done in about a week).  

Creating the park: The park was established on December 26, 1935. To create the park, Virginia state officials acquired 1,088 privately owned tracts and donated the land to the nation. This was the first time such a large expanse of private land was turned into a National Park and some 465 families moved or were moved from their cabins and resettled outside the proposed park boundaries.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (a government jobs program that was created during the Great Depression) built the park - including Skyline Drive, overlooks, picnic grounds, campgrounds, and trails. 

Size: 197,411 acres
Annual visitors: 1.4 million
Visitor centers: Dickey Ridge, Byrd/Big Meadows, Loft Mountain
Skyline Drive: (further detailed below) was constructed in the 1930s by 
Lodging in the park: Skyland – 179 rooms, Big Meadows Lodge – 97 rooms, Lewis Mountain – 10 rooms
Overlooks: 75 off Skyline Drive throughout the park
Activities: Scenic drive, hiking, camping, horseback riding (1 stable in the park)
Hiking Trails: 518 miles (200 miles of horse trails and 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail)
Facilities: 1 gas station in the park, 
Campgrounds (closed in winter): Mathews Arm Campground 172 family sites; 3 group sites, Big Meadows Campground 220 family sites; 2 group sites, Lewis Mountain Campground 30 family sites, and Loft Mountain Campground 220 family sites; 3 group sites. 

Access
The park is open year-round and there are four separate entrance points throughout Skyline Drive, the only road that crosses through the park. While the park is open, parts of Skyline Drive will close to cars if the weather is not safe in winter.


Entrance Stations
There are four entrance stations that allow access into the park from north to south. We decided to enter the north entrance, driving south from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap. This way, we could do our "longer" hike first (Hawksbill) and end with a quick 1.1-mile hike (Blackrock Summit) near the southern entrance. Rockfish Gap is also the entrance station to the Blue Ridge Parkway so if you plan on driving both scenic drives, start north to south. 

Front Royal (North Entrance)
Near Front Royal, Virginia, off of Route 340 (also called Stonewall Jackson Highway).
GPS Coordinates: 38.905729, -78.198624

Thornton Gap
East of Luray, Virginia and west of Sperryville, Virginia. Off of Highway 211 (also called Lee Highway).
GPS Coordinates: 38.660959, -78.320761

Swift Run Gap
Physical address: 22591 Spotswood Trail, Elkton, VA
GPS Coordinates: 38.366176, -78.578864

Rockfish Gap (South Entrance)
A few miles east of Waynesboro, Virginia, off of Highway 250.
GPS Coordinates: 38.033777, -78.85902

Fees

Per vehicle: $35 (good for the week
Per motorcycle:  $25 per motorcycle.
On foot or bike: is $15 per person. 
Park specific annual pass: $55
National Park annual pass: $80

Scenic Drive 


Skyline Drive

The major attraction at Shenandoah National Park is the scenic road trip along the 105-mile long Skyline Drive. The road runs north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is the only public road through the park. It is pretty special to drive along the crest of the mountains, enjoying the slow travel and gorgeous views as you make your way through the mountains. There are nearly 70 overlooks, rest areas, bathrooms, visitor's centers, campgrounds, and lodges along Skyline Drive. This website is great at detailing the various stops and mile markers along the drive.

Time: Plan about three hours to travel the entire length of the Park on a clear day

Winter Weather: Skyline Drive is generally open 24 hours a day / 7 days a week unless winter weather shuts down the road. For the most up-to-date road status, call 540-999-3500 (option 1, option 1).

Clearance: If you are traveling with an oversized vehicle, note that Mary's Rock Tunnel (mile 32.2) has a maximum clearance of 12'8".

Dogs in the park 

Thankfully, this is one of the most dog-friendly National Parks in the USA. Dogs are allowed on most trails and the park clearly indicates the trails that dogs are not allowed on. There are only 10 of them (listed from North to South)

10 Trails Dogs are NOT allowed on:
  • Fox Hollow Trail
  • Stony Man Trail
  • Limberlost Trail
  • Post Office Junction to Old Rag Shelter
  • Old Rag Ridge Trail
  • Old Rag Saddle Trail
  • Dark Hollow Falls Trail
  • Story of the Forest Trail
  • Bearfence Mountain Trail
  • Frazier Discovery Trail


Must-Do (Dog-Friendly) Hikes 

Hawksbill Gap Trail - Moderate 2.6-mile hike to the highest summit in the park

Black Rock Summit Trail- Easy 1.1-miles round trip loop hike - great sunrise/sunset spot 



Hawksbill Summit - loop hike, the highest peak in the park - amazing views all around and a little "lookout" deck. 

Distance: 2.93 miles RT
Elevation (gained): 767 feet 
Elevation (sumimt): 4,050 feet
Duration: 1 hr, 20 minutes 
Direction: We went counter-clockwise, following the AT across, turning left onto the salamander trail, and following the upper and lower Hawksbill Trail back to the parking area. there will be steep sections towards the summit.
Parking: Upper Hawksbill Parking Area - Parking is off Skyline Drive around mile marker 46 (about 3,635 feet). The trail is a popular one and parking can fill up fast. 







Blackrock Summit

Distance: 1.1-miles
Duration: 30 minutes
Elevation (gained): 200 feet
Elevation (summit): 3,097 feet
Parking: Blackrock Parking Area - Parking is off Skyline Drive around mile marker 85. The trail is a popular one and parking can fill up fast.
Trail: Follow the Appalachian Trail to the summit (a great spot for sunrise or sunset). Follow the Trayfoot Mountain Trail back (which basically parallels the AT).



Where we stayed 

We booked this small AirBnb in the town of Mt Jackson, about. It was very clean and had everything we needed - the perfect spot to cook meals and relax after visiting the park. The Airbnb price was absolutely fair, the hosts were great, and access to Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive's Thornton Gap entry was 38 minutes or 29.8 miles.

Things to do outside the park

Winter in Virginia leaves you a little more limited in what you can do outside the park. Here are a few winter-friendly ideas while you are in the area. 

Luray Caverns (post coming soon) - visit the largest caverns in the eastern United States

Blueridge Parkway - If you have the time (and don't mind more driving), you can extend your scenic drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 469-mile parkway (free!) starts at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and ends at Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee. 

Vineyards/wineries - there are numerous vineyards and wineries in the area that offer a great detour and chance to enjoy some local wine outside the park. 

For a detailed list of wineries near each entrance, and for other seasonal attractions, check out this great post by blog.virginia.org

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