48 Hours in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Only a 2 hour drive from Washington D.C., Shenandoah National Park makes for the perfect weekend getaway. The main drag, known as Skyline Drive, is famous for its scenic views, hiking trails, and epic fall foliage.
When To Go
The park is open year round, but most of the lodging and stores are closed mid Nov - late Mar.
Best views are in late Spring and Fall. Use this peak Fall foliage calculator to pick the ideal date, or else just plan around your calendar.
What To Do
3 pm - Hit the Road
If possible, take off work early so that you can enjoy most of the drive and be well into the park by sunset. From DC, its 1.5-2 hrs to get to the entrance to Skyline Drive, in Front Royal, VA. Bring some road trip snacks and plan on dinner after 7.
5 pm - Enter Skyline Drive
Enter the park in Front Royal. Pay the $20 per vehicle entrance fee (up to 15 ppl per vehicle) and pick up a map of Skyline Drive and the trails. Enjoy the views as you wind your way south through the park and put on some bluegrass radio on Pandora.
NAVIGATION TIP: Cell phone service is spotty in the park so pay attention to the mile markers and know your destination marks OR enter your destination in google maps and start the navigation while you have signal. As long as you do not close/exit the navigation, it will continue to work just fine without a signal.
6:15 - 6:45 pm - Enjoy the Sunset
Sunset changes daily, but this is the range for the month of October, getting earlier every day. Timber Hollow Overlook (mi 43.0) and Spitler Knoll Overlook (mi 48.1) are both near the center of the park and face west. Plan to pick your viewing spot and get settled about 10 min before so you have the camera ready to go.
Note: If you are planning to camp, you may want to start earlier in the day so you can get camp set up before dark.
7 pm - Dinner in Skyland
Skyland, located at mile 41.7 on Skyline Drive is a great place to stay and has a nice dining room with a hearty, home cooked dinner. Also a great place to watch sunset as it overlooks the Western part of the range.
8 pm - S'mores by the Campfire
Stock up on s'mores supplies before you leave greater DC, or stop at one of the small stores along the park (but it will cost more). There are firepits located in many of the campgrounds and a nice setup just outside the dining room at Skyland. The nights are chilly so bring your fleece and relax by the campfire.
9 pm - Get Some Sleep
Rest up for all the hiking and adventures to come this weekend.
8 am - Eat a Good Breakfast
Sit down for a full breakfast in the Skyland Dining Room to fuel up for the hike today. If you are in a hurry, they have an extensive buffet, or you can order a la carte.
Pull out the park map and plan your hikes for the day while you eat. Recommend a morning hike and an afternoon hike, with a nice lunch break and scenic drive in the car in between. Be sure to download the hiking maps so they will work offline or take a screenshot. A paper copy as backup is great too.
8:30 am - Hit the Trail
There are tons of hikes you can do in the park, all categorized by ability. Plan to drive to the nearby trailhead and park in the lot. Bring a daybag with water, snackbars, and layers to add (or a place to stash layers as the day warms). For mid October we started with a hat, gloves, a long sleeve tee, a fleece, a windbreaker, and a scarf in the early morning.
Assuming you can handle some uphills and climbing over rocks, the Bearfence Rock Scramble (mi 56.4) is really fun because it is a lariat trail, the terrain changes, and the 360 views from the summit are breathtaking. Rated moderate, I would recommend for kids 7+ since there are some big rocks to traverse. 1 hr minimum, closer to 2 if you stop to enjoy the views and take photos as you go. Moderate/difficult going up, easy going down on the return path. If you need something lower impact, or have a mixed group, there is another trail on Bearfence that is rated Easy. The group will split at the start of the trail, but can meet up on the backend and walk together back to the car.
For the early afternoon, try one of the great waterfall hikes along Skyline drive. Depending on where you entered the park you can continue South (South River Falls recommended), or venture North (try Rose River Falls).
12 pm - Lunch on the Road
Stop by Big Meadows Wayside (mi 51) after your morning hike and refuel for the afternoon.
5 pm - Dinner at a Vineyard
Relax for the rest of the afternoon and make the drive out to Veritas Vineyard for a tasting and some charcuterie. Stay for the sunset views from the property.
Early - Photograph the Sunrise
If you are willing to brave the cold, its worth it to get up early and drive to an overlook to watch the sunrise. Here is a great article on the best places to photograph the sunrise in Shenandoah and Skyline Drive, and where you should be positioned.
Plan ahead for breakfast to go this morning and enjoy coffee and pastries as you admire the view.
9 am - Horseback Ride through an Orchard
In advance, book a 1 hour trail ride that departs from Skyland. Hour long rides ($50 pp) depart several times a day throughout the weekend. If you want something longer, they offer 2.5 hour rides ($90 pp) on Saturday mornings. See here for schedule and reservations.
11 am - Cleanup and checkout
Rinse off after the visit to the stables and check out of your cabin or campground. Start winding your way along Skyline drive to make your way out of the park and back home in time for Sunday dinner.
Where To Stay
If you want to be one with nature, camp sites ($15-20 each) are very accessible throughout the park. Reservations highly recommended.
If you enjoy some basic comforts, there are three lodging options within the park. I can personally recommend the simple but sufficient rooms of Skyland and the location is very central to the park and many of the recommended activities.