Searching for the perfect fall getaway? A long weekend in Shenandoah National Park might be just what you need if you’re looking to get outdoors, explore, and take in the fall foliage.
Last November, my boyfriend and I did just that. We spent three days in Shenandoah exploring the park and the surrounding area. Since time was limited, we wanted to make the most of our days on vacation by packing as much fun in as we could. If you’re thinking of making the trip to see Shenandoah National Park yourself, these are four things I suggest incorporating into your visit.
Take a Cruise Down Scenic Skyline Drive
When you first enter the park, I suggest taking a cruise down Skyline Drive. This 105-mile road runs the entire length of the park and provides the perfect opportunity to get your bearings before setting out to explore the park on foot.
Skyline Drive winds its way along the ridge of the mountains, offering stunning views and lookouts at every turn. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a bear crossing the road. We did, and it’s something I’ll never forget. Luckily, we were in the car and not on foot when it happened.
Hike Your Heart Out
You can’t visit Shenandoah in the fall without taking a hike. Shenandoah is home to over 500 miles of hiking trails, ranging from beginner-friendly paths to very strenuous climbs. There’s something beautiful for hikers of all levels to discover in this park. But with limited time, these are the three trails we chose to hike during our first trip to Shenandoah.
Compton Peak, West and East
After a long day of driving from New Jersey, we were eager to stretch our legs and hit the trail. The park ranger nicely suggested we check out the Compton Gap Trailhead for a fun hike to do before sunset. Located at mile 10.4 on Skyline Drive, this trail is conveniently only a short drive away from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.
The Compton Peak, West and East trail is a 2.4 mile, moderate hike leading to two distinct viewpoints. First, you climb the trail up to the west viewpoint, overlooking the breathtaking Shenandoah Valley. This was hands down my favorite view and photo opportunity of the whole trip. You simply can’t beat those colors in the fall, and it was absolutely worth the relatively short, but somewhat steep climb to get there.
After looking out at the west viewpoint, it’s time to head back to the intersection and continue straight to the east viewpoint. Here, you’ll find a stunning geological structure called columnar jointing. Caused millions of years ago by cooling lava, this one of the coolest rock formations I’ve ever seen up close.
After our Compton Peak hike, we were feeling energized and still had a few hours of daylight left to burn. We decided to continue on Skyline Drive to milepost 15.9, where we climbed to the South Marshall viewpoint.
This was a quick, 1.6-mile hike that offered a lot of payoff for minimal effort. In fact, we reached the peak so quickly that it threw us off, and we continued further along the Appalachian Trail than we intended without realizing. All in all, this was the perfect hike to end our first day in the park.
On day two, we woke up excited and ready to tackle the Whiteoak Canyon trail. A 10 mile out and back trail, hikers have the choice of starting up top and hiking down towards the falls or starting at the bottom and hiking up to them. Having read a lot of reviews, we decided to park at the Skyline Drive entrance, which meant hiking downhill first and uphill on the way back.
The hike down to the Upper Whiteoak Falls is 2.3 miles one way and rated as easy to moderate. Once we reached the Upper Falls, we decided to continue on roughly one more mile down to the Lower Falls. Here, we stopped to take in the stunning waterfalls, take photos, and eat our lunch.
Rather than continue down the steep stairs for another 2 miles after lunch, we made the wise decision to turn around at the falls and begin our climb back up to Skyline Drive. Going up was much tougher than the way down! By the time we reached the car I was exhausted in the best way possible. Whiteoak Canyon was my favorite hike of the trip. It’s one you don’t want to miss!
Watch the Sunset From Skyline Drive
After a full day of exploring the park, you deserve a chance to kick back and take in the sights. And what better way to relax than by witnessing a beautiful sunset?
I suggest cruising along Skyline Drive until you find the perfect spot to pull over and watch the sun go down. This was a peaceful way to end our last day in the park and gave us time to reflect back on our incredible time spent in Shenandoah.
Visit Luray Caverns
On our last day in Virginia, we decided to visit Luray Caverns before we hit the road and headed home. Although not technically inside the park, Luray Caverns is located only a short drive away from Shenandoah.
At first, I was hesitant to visit the Caverns because I thought it might be another overpriced tourist trap. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the size and beauty of the cave. Not only were the caverns themselves amazing, but our tour guide was informative and entertaining as well. If you have time, I highly recommend making a stop here.
Have you ever been to Shenandoah Valley National Park? What do you recommend that isn’t on my list?