Shenandoah National Park: Virginia’s Best Escape Plan

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While the price to enter Shenandoah National Park will increase a bit this summer, park lovers can take some comfort in the fact that the increase is actually far less than what was originally considered.

Effective June 1, 2018 the park entrance became $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle and $15 per person. These fees are good for seven days. An annual park pass will cost $55. (All park entrance fees will be waived June 16th in honor of Park Neighbor Day.)

The National Park Service had originally proposed an increase to $70 per vehicle, during the peak season of June through October. But overwhelmed by thousands of public comments in opposition—including those of the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association, which also supported alternate ways of increasing revenue—the increase from $25 per vehicle to $30 was announced.

Commenting on the increase, Park Superintendent Jennifer Flynn stated “The additional fees will enhance all aspects of the visitor experience in Shenandoah. Visitors will directly see improvements at our contact stations, on Skyline Drive, on trails, in our campgrounds and picnic areas and at our visitor centers. We are committed to providing a safe and rewarding experience for all visitors.”

If you consider what else you could spend $30 on, a seven-day pass to Shenandoah National Park can hardly be beaten. Towering waterfalls, scenic vistas, abundant wildlife and stone remnants of past generations lie in the deep canyons and high summits of this magnificent resource. Just last month, Conde Nast Traveler named it “the most beautiful place in Virginia.”

Shenandoah National Park is about 75 miles from Washington, DC, but a world away in every other sense. Visitors can explore 500 miles of hiking trails, be awed by mountain views from the 105-mile Skyline Drive or eat a fabulous meal in a dining room high above the Shenandoah Valley. A long list of organized activities now fills the Park calendar as well and the lodging concessioner: clogging, various types of live music and dancing, astronomy events, wine tastings, and annual festivals like the Apple Butter Celebration and the Night Skies Festival.

In 2017, the Park saw 1.46 million visitors. The Park is open all year; by far the highest visitation is in the fall, and a great percentage of visitors are content to simply motor down Skyline Drive and stop at the overlooks. But June is a very popular month to visit as well, when vast square miles of blossoming wildflowers overwhelm the senses. Look for violets, wild geraniums, buttercups, spiderwort, azaleas, and mountain laurel– among the 850 species of flowering plants that grow in the Park.

June 2nd happened to be National Trails Day. As part of that celebration, Shenandoah National Park hosted “Beyond the Trailhead,” in partnership with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. They  offered guided hikes, hands-on demonstrations of the use of traditional tools such as two-man crosscut saws, and information on topics such as Leave No Trace and the safe and responsible enjoyment of our natural resources. Check the Park’s calendar for many other events to be held throughout the year.

While day trips to the Park, whether by car on Skyline Drive or on foot along a fern-strewn hiking path, are a true delight, one cannot really experience the Park without staying at least a few days. Several lodging options are available. (For reservations call 877-247-9261 or visit GoShenandoah.

Skyland (MP 41.7 and 42.5), originally called Stony Man Camp and actually opened before the area became a national park, combines Shenandoah history with modern amenities, fine dining and comfort. With splendid views a glance in any direction, Skyland’s rooms have suites and fireplaces, and recent renovations both interior and exterior have updated the lodge’s appearance. A full service restaurant (wheelchair-accessible) offers spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley. “Vintner Dinners” held at both Skyland and Big Meadows, pair the Park’s fine chef creations with wine from local, award-winning vineyards.

Big Meadows (MP 51.2) is a complex that comprises a lodge, mountain cabins, an amphitheater (for Park Ranger programs), camp store, Wayside and Restaurant, the Spottswood Dining Room, New Market Taproom, a Craft Shop, and the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center. The Visitor Center houses displays, photos and exhibits central to the region’s culture both before and after the establishment of the park. Directly across Skyline Drive from the Visitor Center is the “Big Meadow” for which the lodge complex is named. Its picturesque fields are often visited by whitetail deer, affording great opportunities for wildlife photography.

The Lewis Mountain Cabins (MP 57.5) provide a rare opportunity to disconnect electronically. There are no phones and no Internet access. While the cabins have bathrooms, electric lighting, ceiling fans and heat, their rustic authenticity is in keeping with the area’s Appalachian roots. Visitors should bring their own food, cooking utensils, ice and coolers, and plan to cook on the outdoor grill at each cabin. Some of the cabins allow pets—inquire when making a reservation.

If you prefer to pitch a tent and camp out, you have several options–Matthews Arm (MP 22), Big Meadows (MP 51) and Lewis Mountain Campgrounds (MP 57.5) and Loft Mountain (79.5). For reservations—advisable at this time of year—call 877-444-6777, or visit  Backcountry camping (with a permit and after a thorough review of its rules and regulations)  is the best way to find seclusion in the most remote areas of the park. (Update: It’s out of the ordinary, but on May 31st, the National Park Service announced that excessive rainfall had created dangerous conditions for hikers and backcountry campers in some areas. Check Hiking Alerts and Closures before planning a trip.)

Getting there:
There are four highway entrances to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park: through Front Royal on U.S. Route 340; near Luray at Thornton Gap on U.S. Route 211; via Swift Run Gap on U.S. Route 33; and through Rockfish Gap and I-64 and U.S. Route 250 — also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The enchantment and beauty of our national parks have been revered in untold numbers of books, documentaries and articles. In thinking of Shenandoah National Park, this quote—source unknown—seems particularly appropriate: “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

This just in: The National Park Service advises there may be some traffic delays on Skyline Drive miles 97 to 105, due to construction work that started in late May. Should only take a couple of weeks.

Photo courtesy National Park Service/Neal Lewis





september, 2023

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