Biking Overview: Shenandoah National Park

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Skyline Dirve, Shenandoah National Park
Skyline Dirve, Shenandoah National Park (Joe Sohm/Photodisc/Getty)

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

  • Skyline Drive, which runs the length of the park along its high elevation spine for 105 miles, is the centerpiece of any road biking experience at Shenandoah National Park. Overlooks, trailheads, picnic areas, restrooms, and campgrounds provide amenities that enhance any cycling experience.
  • The park is divided into three districts. Access roads climb through the lowlands to bisect the park at Swift Run Gap and Thornton Gap. These steep roads connect to rural roads that can be integrated into a park cycling experience.
  • Be prepared for elevation gains and losses even on Skyline Drive as it surmounts mountains and dips into gaps. Low auto speeds and a ban on commercial traffic on this two-lane road make the overall biking experience a rewarding one.
  • Skyline Drive is quietest in the South District of the park. Elevations are generally lower here but the road has many ups and downs as it passes rocky overlooks.
  • The Central District of the park has the highest elevations, and Skyline Drive nears 4,000 feet. The Big Meadows area has a restaurant in season for hungry pedalers.
  • The North District of the park lies closest to Interstate 66 and Washington, D.C., which makes it the busiest area. However, adjacent rural roads add to the cycling possibilities in addition to the 30 miles of Skyline Drive here.

First the bad news: Shenandoah National Park can be a disappointment to cyclists.

Now the great news: The Shenandoah area has some primo biking.

The park only allows bikes on Skyline Drive and in the campgrounds, and not on any of the trails. With low enough gear ratios and during off-times, Skyline can be a fine pedal—if you're prepared for the hills. So ok, you climb the hill, and you want your payback view? Tough. Air pollution obscures the panorama. And if the area is full of scenic drivers paying more attention to the views than vulnerable cyclists, it can get hairy. Very hairy.

But if it's mountain biking you're after, head to George Washington National Forest twenty minutes away. The national forest has almost 900 miles of trails and 2,000 miles of roads, most all of them open to mountain bikes. There are trails up and down Massanutten Mountain, the famous Blue Ridge Dirt Ride, the Great North Mountain Trail—and dozens more. Plus most all of the forest roads are open to bikers. Pick up a good map and chart your own course.

For classical bicycle touring, you can't beat the Shenandoah Valley. If you like historic old towns, Harrisonburg, Bridgewater, Staunton, and Lexington can't be beat. The countryside in between the towns is generally bucolic—if you stick to the backroads. With a good map and maybe a guidebook, you can search out some satisfying goals. Like the caverns, especially the Grand Caverns near Grotto or the Shenandoah and Endless Caverns near New Market. History buffs can seek out sites and memorials from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Or you can just enjoy the famous pastoral scenery of the valley: the historic farms and orchards, the forests, the meadows, the streams. Isn't that what bike touring is all about?


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