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Category: national parks

4 Tips for a Weekend Well Spent in Shenandoah National Park

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.

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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.

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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.

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South Marshall

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.

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Whiteoak Canyon

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Have you ever been to Shenandoah Valley National Park? What do you recommend that isn’t on my list?

Making the Most of Your Day Trip to the Grand Canyon

For serious backpackers, casual day-trippers, and adventurous families alike, the Grand Canyon is a must-see attraction waiting to be checked off their bucket list. Nearly five million visitors flock to the Grand Canyon each year to marvel at the canyon’s sweeping vistas, learn about its rich history, and explore its many trails.

Because of its size, it can be somewhat tricky to cram everything you want to do at the Grand Canyon into a single day. However, when my family and I recently took a trip to Sedona, I knew I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to see the Grand Canyon, if only for a few hours. Better to have seen it briefly and leaving wanting to go back then to have never seen it at all!

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” -Gandalf the Grey

Much to my delight, my family and I were able to make the most of our day in the park, and experience it in a way that felt fulfilling but not exhausting. To help you do the same, I’ve written three tips to ensure you take full advantage of your time at the Grand Canyon. After all, it is one of the seven wonders of the world, and who knows if you’ll make it back to see it twice!

Take killer photos, but don’t kill yourself for the perfect photo

I can not stress this enough: safety always comes first. I don’t know how many people I saw throughout my trip to the Grand Canyon risking their lives for a selfie. There are many areas of the Grand Canyon that don’t have railings and also offer killer (pun intended) views of the park. While it seems like it would be common sense not to stand too close to the edge, I learned during my visit (and subsequent reading of the book Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon) that numerous people have died this way over the years.

I love a good photo op just as much as anyone else, but I made sure not to put myself in any truly dangerous situations close to the edge. With that said, I do recommend taking ample time at the beginning of your visit to take as many photos as you like. The Grand Canyon is a trip you’ll want to remember for the rest of your life, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to remember what you looked like before hiking all day in the hot Arizona sun.

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Get into it, but make sure you can get back out

If at all possible, I would highly recommend going on a hike during your visit to the Grand Canyon. The sweeping views from up above will take your breath away, but there are some details of the canyon that you simply must go over the edge and into the canyon to fully appreciate.

My family and I decided to hike a portion of the Bright Angel Trail, which is located on the South Rim. The trail is 12.2 miles roundtrip, but we decided to turn around at about the halfway point. Hiking this trail in the summer heat is no joke, and I would highly suggest bringing plenty of water and listening to your body. It’s easy to get caught up in the beautiful scenery on the way down and not realize how taxing it’ll be to climb back up and out of the canyon.

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If you’re looking for a shorter hike, the Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge is 3 miles roundtrip, or Grandview Trail to the first overlook is about 2.5 miles roundtrip, but a bit more rugged. No matter which trail you choose or how far you go, I promise you won’t regret taking the opportunity to see the canyon up close.

Take advantage of park resources

One of my favorite parts of our day in the park ended up being a presentation we saw by one of the park rangers. She taught us all about the California condor, a rare bird sometimes spotted in the canyon. Although we didn’t see one during our trip, my family and I really enjoyed learning all about them from one of the highly knowledgeable park rangers. Be sure to make time during your trip to learn about the park by reading the signs, making a stop at the visitor center, or attending one of the park ranger programs.

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Another unexpected highlight of our trip was the ice cream! Nothing is better after a long hike on a hot August day than grabbing a root beer float from Bright Angel Fountain. It’s located right on the rim of the canyon just a short distance away from the Bright Angel Trail Head. I’d recommend packing a lunch for your day trip to the canyon (food can be expensive in the park) and saving your money for a post-hike ice cream cone instead.

And there you have it! Those are my top three tips for enjoying your limited time at the Grand Canyon. Have you ever been to the park before? What made your time there so special?

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