On the mountain top the views can be awe-inspiring and humbling, making you feel on top of the world in one moment and insignificant compared to your surroundings in the next. Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park sits on the top of the Appalachian Mountains’ Blue Ridge Range. Skyline Drive runs for 105 miles through the park along the crest of the Blue Ridge, and the views from its 75 overlooks are more like those seen from a plane than a car. The popularity of passenger cars was a factor in the national park’s creation, allowing automobile travelers to see views from the mountain top before air travel was common. We spent four days in the park being awe-inspired and humbled by the views while hiking several trails, with a focus on Shenandoah’s waterfalls.
We arrived via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah. The parkway follows the Appalachian Mountain chain, and we took 2 ½ days to travel the 469 mile road from North Carolina to Virginia. There seemed to always be something to see along the way as the Blue Ridge Parkway has over 200 overlooks, 26 stone tunnels, 168 bridges, and six viaducts, with elevations ranging from 649 feet to 6,047 feet.
As we drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were surprised to see pristine forests and isolated valleys, but then turn off the road to be almost immediately back in civilization. Not only did we see stunning vistas from the overlooks, but we stopped at several historic sites. Our favorite was Mabry Mill, built in 1910, with a working waterwheel and an idyllic pond next to it. With the exception of two years, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been the most visited of the entire 400 + national park system units since 1946. Being late spring, we were fortunate to share the road with few other cars, making our experience even more relaxing.
Shenandoah National Park boasts over 500 miles of trails. The weather during our time was cool, foggy, and rainy. It wasn’t the most conducive for hiking, but we were still able to complete treks in several sections in the park. Just as was the case with Great Smoky Mountains, the Appalachian Trail (AT) traverses through Shenandoah, in this case for about 100 miles.
Our first steps in the park were on the AT as we hiked to Chimney Rock in Shenandoah’s southern Riprap section. The 3.4 mile hike took us to a viewpoint and a formation called Calvary Rocks before arriving at the pink-toned Chimney Rock. The sheer drop-offs into the valley below gave us commanding vistas from both our vantage points.
While in Shenandoah, we based ourselves at the Big Meadows Campground, located in the middle of the park. We learned about the park’s history at the visitor center. Motivated by a desire to create an eastern park on par with those parks already popular in the western U. S., Shenandoah was built from over 1,000 privately owned tracts of land. Some people sold their land voluntarily, while others left against their will. By the time the park was established in 1935, the protected land stood at 199,000 acres. Home site remnants can still be found throughout the park, as well as structures built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. Shenandoah was the 17th most visited national park in 2016, drawing 1,437,341 visitors.
From Big Meadows, we decided to focus our hikes on waterfalls, which were at their best with the cool and wet weather. From our campsite we could walk right on to the AT, which ran behind us. One day we went to the right and walked north on the AT to the beginning of the Rose River Loop. The trail traveled through a section of dense trees to the Rose River Falls (67 feet high). The foggy conditions made the forest around us feel mysterious.
The path became steep, and we made our way slowly to a fire road marking the intersection with the Dark Hollow Falls Trail. A series of switchbacks took us to an overlook and a view of the 70 foot waterfall cascading down a series of black rocks. We hiked up hill from the falls to a trailhead and then back to the campground, completing 6.6 miles in all.
The next morning we headed out the opposite direction from our campsite on the Appalachian Trail to hike south to the Lewis Falls Loop. It had rained quite a bit the night before, making the trail slick and muddy in places. However, the hike was well worth it as we arrived at the observation point to view the 81 foot tall waterfall peeking out from a mass of trees. Best of all, the 4.5 mile trail was not crowded, and we only saw a handful of other people.
Later, a short drive took us to the Skyland portion of the park. We had lunch at the lodge and then hiked the Limberlost Trail. The 1.3 mile loop took us past many blooming flowers.
Our final hike in Shenandoah took us on the AT for a short distance once more as we trekked to the Overall Run Falls in the northern Mathews Arms area of the park. At 93 feet it is the tallest waterfall in the park and arguably the most difficult to reach. We hiked downhill (steeply at times) and lost 1,300 feet in 3.1 miles to arrive at the falls viewpoint. Blooming laurel greeted us along the trail as we walked.
The waterfall was spectacular, as it majestically flowed down from the sheer gray rock. We agreed that it was one of the best falls we had ever seen while hiking. The 3.1 mile return trip hiking up 1,300 feet was made better by the cool weather. We were fully satisfied with our 21.9 miles of Shenandoah hiking as we reached our car, taking our final steps on the Appalachian Trail.
As we drove towards the park’s northern entrance, the sun came out. We stopped at a final viewpoint along Skyline Drive to look down into Shenandoah Valley to the east of us.
Even though most of the weather was foggy, rainy, and cold, we enjoyed our visit to Shenandoah National Park. While there, we hiked to a variety of waterfalls and learned more about the unique composition of the park. And the feeling we got from the mountain top views will stay with us for a long time.
We continue our travels up America’s East Coast to our next national park: Acadia in Maine.