First Timer’s Guide To Visiting a National Park

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As the Shenandoah Valley transitions from its summer blues and greens to brilliant fall foliage, legions of travelers will venture into our national parks.

If you are visiting a national park for the first time, you can count on an unforgettable experience.

Know that the rangers and staff at these parks are counting on you, too—to respect a precious resource and act responsibly. Mishaps like falling off a cliff as you attempt a selfie, or hauling a grill up to a mountaintop—and leaving it there– simply should not and do not have to happen. Such rare examples aside, you can ensure a wonderful visit for yourself and others by keeping in mind some guidelines for park visitors.

Claire Comer, Interpretive Specialist of Shenandoah National Park told us, “Mainly, we want folks to be safe, respect wildlife and other resources, and clean up after themselves!” Within those broad strokes, additional key guidelines for Shenandoah National Park may be found at “Know Before You Go.” 

We asked Claire for some additional advice on visiting in October and November. She gave us the following guidelines: “Be aware you will encounter large crowds, and see them longer—not just cars, but bikes, motorcycles, RVs and pedestrians. We‘ve been seeing good fall color last longer, too—into mid-November.

If You Can, Visit During the Week

“There are a couple of things you can do to avoid long lines at the entrance stations. You can buy entry passes online and when you arrive there will be two lines—one for people who’ve done that and one for people who must pay at the gate.

“The busiest entry points are Front Royal and Thornton Gap. So people might also consider using the two southern entrances—Swift Run Gap and Rockfish Gap. You can drive down Route 340 and visit all those little towns, see the shops and the orchards and of course the views. It makes a great day trip.

“If at all possible we encourage people to come during the week. At this time of year, consider hiking some of the lesser-known trails. Whiteoak Canyon, Old Rag, and Dark Hollow—the most popular hikes– are just so busy you may get a better experience on another trail.

National Park“It’s always important to obey the 35 mph speed limit on Skyline Drive, but with bears actively feeding and whitetail deer in rut it’s especially important at this time of year. If you want to wildlife watch, pull completely off Skyline Drive.

“Campgrounds and picnic areas have grills– and those are the only places an open flame is legal.

“If you bring a pet, bag its poop and take it with you or dispose of it in a campground or picnic dumpster. People have actually left bags hanging on trees and trail markers. We just don’t have the resources to patrol and collect it.

“Stay on the trail, particularly around waterfalls. Wet rocks are slippery and no photo op is worth a spill. While falls in the park are rare, they do indeed happen.”

National Park

Consider these rules a starting point. Depending on what park you visit, and the different conditions and characteristics evident, others might be in effect. Check websites and do a little research before you go. National parks, in Virginia and all over the USA, are a treasured resource enjoyed by millions every year. In 2019, visitor spending in communities near national parks resulted in a $41.7 billion benefit to the nation’s economy.  Keeping those parks protected helps all of us.

Did you know?

Five units of the National Park System can be found within the Shenandoah Valley: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, Shenandoah National Park, the Appalachian Trail, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

PHOTO CREDIT: Banner photo of standing hikers on Humpback Rock AND seated hikers on a cliff were taken by Zak Suhar. Skyline Drive photo is from the National Park Service.

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