One of the signature outdoor experiences in the Mid-Atlantic will forever be staring across the Blue Ridge Mountains at dawn or dusk as the refracting light catches in the mist and the entire horizon takes on dreamy shades of azure. And while it’s true that Virginia will never hold its shoulders above its mountainous neighbors to the west, witnessing that iconic view of the Blue Ridge reminds you that even less superlative-laden peaks can still inspire a sense of wonder.
Skyline Drive, which winds across 105 miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park, serves as a champion introduction to this part of the country. The road boasts 75 overlooks, providing stellar views of both the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Virginia Piedmont to the east. The grass lining the road and the overlook lots is seldom manicured; in the spring and summer it’s swallowed by neon-green ferns and explosions of wildflowers, while fall brings forth panoramas of the best of autumn’s foliage. Animals native to the park—black bears, deer, snakes, and turkeys—are commonly spotted along the roadside.
The 35 mile-per-hour speed limit assures that you’ll take your time (you could rush through in about four hours… but why?). The road offers quick, easy access to almost the entire park, with mile markers along its length, making navigation (and orientation) a breeze. This gives visitors near-instant access to Shenandoah’s hiking and backpacking trails, established campsites, and in-park lodging.
With 101 of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,181 miles stretching through Shenandoah—and dozens of miles of other trail networks—you have all variety of hikes on offer, many with trailheads accessible directly from Skyline. White Oak Canyon, a 4.8-mile family-friendly hike, consistently ranks as the best waterfall hike in the park, while two-mile Mary’s Rock is a near-vertical ascent that awards you with some of the better views in the lower end of the park. It’s easy to stitch together a long day hike or a several-day backcountry jaunt along Shenandoah’s well-marked, well-maintained trails.
Big Meadows (mile marker 51) is the nicest—and most popular—of the park’s four established campsites. Backcountry camping is also allowed throughout the park, following established rules (100 feet off the trail, use of bear bags); obtain a permit from one of the ranger stations. For more comfortable lodging, there are several B&Bs just outside of the park, as well as Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland Lodge within the park itself. The latter sits at the highest point of Skyline.
Skyline Drive is open to road biking but should be pursued by only experienced bikers. The road attracts a lot of tourists—many of them more engaged with what’s happening on the sides of the road rather than what’s happening on the road. There’s also a fair amount of elevation gain/loss; you gain 2,000 feet in just the first five miles of the south-to-north route.
Skyline Drive has four access points within the park: Front Royal, Thorton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap. Entry costs $15 (or $5 per bike/person). Given its 60-mile proximity to Washington, D.C. and the city’s sprawling suburbs, it can get crowded, especially on holiday weekends and the peak leaf-changing season (typically the second or third week in October).
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication