Length of stay: 4 days
Visited: October 2017
- Old Rag
- Bearfence Mountain
- White Oak Canyon
- Dark Hollow Falls
- Luray Caverns
The Shenandoah Valley stretches across 200 miles between the Blue Ridge Mountains in the east and the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians in the west. The Shenandoah National Park encompasses around half of that stretch from Front Royal in the north to Rockfish Gap in the south. The Skyline Drive, the main road that winds and twists through the park, offers sweeping views of rolling hills from the neighbouring mountain ranges in either direction.
The below map highlights our trip to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Day 1: The Views are Better on Top
We arrived at Shenandoah National Park late last night. We flew into Dulles International Airport and landed just before 9:30p.m. The inflight entertainment was watching people struggle and get frustrated as they try to squeeze their over-sized carry-ons into the overhead compartment bins for nearly an hour before take-off. Once we landed we picked up our rental car and then drove for about two hours, stopping to pick up some groceries along the way, to Mathew’s Arm Campground which is situated in the northern part of the park. By the time we set up our tent and arranged our sleeping bags and sleeping pads it was just after 1a.m. We snuggled deep into our sleeping bags and fell asleep. Or at least we tried. The frequent falling of acorns in the middle of the night took awhile to get used to.
We woke up around 7:45a.m feeling a little groggy and still tired from our late arrival last night. But we were pretty pumped to start exploring Shenandoah’s National Park. We packed some peanut butter, bread, an orange, and water in our day pack and then properly checked in at the campground.
Temperatures were still a little chilly, so to warm ourselves up we started our day hiking along the Upper Hawksbill Trail (3.4km roundtrip). At an elevation of 4,050 feet, Hawksbill Mountain is the highest mountain in the park. The trail head is situated just off the main road somewhat near the summit already so it’s a fairly short and easy hike. We followed the blue blazes leisurely up the mountain. We stopped at the Byrds Nest 2 Shelter and ate our breakfast at the picnic table. From there it’s a short 50 yards to the viewing platform at the summit.
We were surprised at how lush and green the valley was despite the fact that it was mid-October. Apparently because of the warm autumn and lack of rainfall the fall colours were pretty muted in comparison to previous years. But the sweeping views into the valley, even if it was all green, were still pretty impressive. We returned the way we came back to the parking area.
We continued driving south along the Skyline Drive for another few miles before turning off at the parking area for Dark Hollow Falls (2.3km roundtrip). We followed the trail down a series of switchbacks following closely along the river that eventually leads to these waterfalls. The trail continues a few kilometres along the Rose River, but we turned it around at the base of the waterfalls.
We hopped back in the car for a short while before turning off at the general camp store in Big Meadows to pick up some camp fuel for our stove. But unfortunately they did not carry the type of blend we required. And the closest place near the park that would likely supply this type was located a good hour away in Luray.
We made a short detour at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center since it was right around the corner. We attended the ranger program on the bobcats in Shenandoah before heading inside to pick up a booklet for their Junior Ranger Program (it’s not just for kids). We watched the short film about Shenandoah National Park in the auditorium before heading back out.
We then made the long drive down to Luray to pick up our camp fuel at an outdoor shop. And luckily they had the blend we needed in stock. And since we were in the area already we decided to check out one of the most impressive caves in Virginia – the Luray Caverns. Discovered over a hundred years ago this underground cavern system has been converted into a show cave and displays some pretty spectacular cave formations.
A tour was just about to start by the time we arrived to purchase our tickets. The group size was fairly large – easily over 50 people, but we staggered ourselves towards the end of the pack of people so we could better take our time and enjoy the impressive speleothems without bumping into others or worry that they’d obstruct our views. The guided tour was just over an hour in duration and involves leisurely strolling down a paved path. There is no special equipment required and there is lighting throughout the cavern. Along the way our guide shared the history of how the cave was founded and explained the various cave formations.
By the time we entered back into the park we still had a couple of hours of daylight. We could either make an early dinner and hang out at the campground or try to squeeze in another hike. We opted for the latter and hiked up to Compton Peak, West and East (3.9km roundtrip). The trail starts across the road from the parking lot off of Skyline Drive along the Appalachian Trail. We missed the marker at the intersection, which in retrospect seems incredibly silly because the path diverges into two places – upwards (or right) to get to the eastern peak and downwards (or left) to get to the western viewpoint. We continued along the Appalachian Trail for about half a mile or so until we came across a thru hiker who was hiking along the Appalachian Trail for realsies and asked for directions. We turned it around and hiked with this really nice guy who was 5 months deep into hiking the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail and only had 60 miles left to go. We parted ways at the marker.
We first hiked a couple hundred metres upwards to the eastern viewpoint which provided commanding views into the valley below. And we had the summit entirely to ourselves.
Afterwards we headed downwards to the western viewpoint which featured some cool geologic columnar jointing.
As we were driving back to the campground the sun was starting to set. We pulled over at one of the lookout areas and watched as the sun dipped below the horizon.
As soon as the sun set temperatures plummeted to around freezing. We cooked dinner by the light of our headlamps and packed everything up as soon as we finished eating to retire to the tent. We played a couple rounds of cards before heading off to bed.
Day 2: Old Rag
We set our alarm for 6:45a.m this morning in an effort to beat the crowds up at Old Rag today. Old Rag is reputed to be the most popular hike in Shenandoah – in large part because of this intense rock scramble, which also makes it one of the most strenuous hikes in the park.
We woke up and didn’t waste much time before hitting the road. Since it was still dark and chilly outside we figured we’d make breakfast when we got to the parking lot. Although Old Rag is accessible from the park by driving along Skyline Drive, the park rangers at our campground recommended exiting the park along Route 211 and driving towards Sperryville. From there we took Route 522 south, turned right onto Route 231 and another right onto Route 601. There was fairly decent signage to the parking area along the way.
After eating some breakfast (we fried up some eggs in the back of our SUV despite questionable looks from incomers – it was probably just jealousy) we filled up our packs with water, snacks, and some lunch. We commenced our hike shortly before 8a.m. As we were leaving the parking area the rangers on duty were just pulling in and asked us to check in with them upon our return to either show our parks pass or pay the per-person fee for this hike.
The trail is 14.8km (or 9.2miles) roundtrip and takes an average of 7-9 hours to complete. The first kilometre or so is along a paved road that passes by a number of houses for which the owners are fiercely protective of their property – there were numerous “no trespassing” or “private property” signs posted. The paved path eventually intersects with the official start of the trailhead. From there we followed the blue blazes up a slight incline for the next few kilometres.
At nearly 5km in marks the start of the rock scramble. And this is when the hike really begins. From this point every blue blaze is marked with a number in sequential order in the event of an accident. For the next couple of hours we used every body part available to manoeuvre up, down, around and through large boulders. There is no graceful way to approach this.
There were a few dicey sections that created a backlog of hikers. This is a large factor as to why the estimated time to complete this hike is so long – because there are many bottleneck areas where you just have to sit around and patiently wait for your turn as there is no opportunity to bypass. For most of the way up the rock scramble we followed closely behind a father (Mathew) and his son (Dave).
We reached the (first) summit shortly after 10:45a.m. We sprawled down on the rocks and ate our lunch and an orange. It wasn’t until after we began what we thought was the descent down that the rock scramble continues until the second summit.
After taking another break and eating an orange at the second summit we started our descent for real this time. Descents are always my least favourite part of any hike – it’s much harder on your body. We followed along on the Saddle Trail and continued right as we passed the Old Rag Shelter area. There are washrooms located here – you can smell them before you can seem them. We then followed along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road trail to the start of the trailhead. Along our hike back down we bumped into Mathew and Dave again and walked with them back to the parking area. By the time we returned to our car it was just approaching 1:30p.m.
We still had pretty much the entire afternoon free and since we didn’t so much feel like embarking on another hike, a guided tour through one of the many caverns scattered around the area seemed like a great idea. We drove to Shenandoah Caverns. Given that one of the cavern’s selling points listed on its website was that it offered elevator service, we knew this was the cave tour for us.
The group size of our tour was pretty small – maybe around 15 people. But after having started the tour they decided to add a (big) group of latecomers to our party. So after 15 minutes of waiting around for the other group to catch up we continued onward. This limestone rich cavern featured some pretty impressive calcium carbonate formations created thousands of years ago. There were stalactites (holding tight to the ceiling), stalagmites, columns, and lots flowstones.
Once we finished up our guided tour we drove back to the park. Since we planned on attending the evening ranger program at Skyline we decided to just cook up our dinner at the Pinnacles picnic area since it was much closer than our campsite at Mathew’s Arm. We heated up some vegetable chili and made grilled cheese sandwiches. From there we drove straight to the amphitheatre and listed to Ranger Bob’s talk about the adaptations (i.e. superpowers) of many of the creatures and critters that reside in Shenandoah.
Day 3: Classic Fall Hiking
After emerging from our tent and frying up some scrambled eggs for breakfast we were ready for another day of hiking. There was some general soreness and stiffness from our hike up to Old Rag, but for the most part our bodies were feeling pretty good. We started the day with a gentle hike up Stony Man (2.6km roundtrip). There is some minor elevation gain, but for the most part this is a pretty straightforward hike. The hike starts along part of the Appalachian Trail and later diverges to the Stony Man Trail closer to the summit.
Once we returned to our car we were back on the road for a short while before turning off at the parking area for the Whiteoak Canyon. The trail starts just off of Skyline Drive and intersects twice with the Limberlost Trail as it leisurely winds down to the upper falls of the canyon (7.4km roundtrip). The path continues downwards to the base of the lower falls – but it’s steep. We scampered down the rocks and found a nice area overlooking the upper falls to eat a snack. We were perfectly content with turning around here.
By the time we finished it was lunch o’clock so we pulled over at another picnic area to refuel. We then made a quick detour at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center to collect our junior ranger badge. Priorities. From there we continued driving south to Bearfence Mountain. This hike is 1.9km roundtrip and features a mini rock scramble to the summit. Alternatively you can bypass the rock scramble entirely and reach the summit via the Appalachian Trail to the Bearfence Viewpoint. But the rock scramble really is the best part of the hike.
We briefly contemplated hiking a second circuit up the rock scramble, but instead headed back on the road to try to catch the evening ranger program at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. We listend to Ranger Mathew’s talk on the night sky in Shenandoah. Afterwards we headed back to our campground, stopping at an overlook to watch the sunset.
Day 4: Virginia is for Lovers
We woke up relatively early to get a headstart on our final day in Shenandoah. The park was pretty busy yesterday and many of the trails had limited parking towards the afternoon so we were eager to get out on the trail before the crowds narrowed in. While we were waiting for our water to boil for tea we took down our tent and started paking all of our gear into our suitcase. After finishing up our breakfast we checked out of our campsite. We then headed down to the trailhead for Mary’s Rock.
There are actually two trailheads for this hike – one at the back of the entrance of the Panorama parking area (6.0km roundtrip) and the other from the Meadow Spring parking area (4.7km). We opted for the longer version of the hike. The path follows along the Appalachian Trail for the most part. We veered right at the marker to reach the summit.
On our descent down we encountered many groups of hikers. And by the time we reached our car the parking lot was completley full. Within seconds of pulling out another car jumped for our space. We contemplated squeezing in a short hike to either Little Stony Man Cliffs or Hawksbill Gap but there were no parking spaces available. Besides, there’s something about hiking with crowds of people that just doesn’t seem very appealing. Instead we pulled over at a picnic area and made some grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch and just enoyed the fabulous fall weather in Shenandoah.
We finished packing the rest of our gear in our carry-ons before embarking on the two-hour drive back to the airport. We were fortunate to have had four days of blue skies and lots of sun as we tranced around Shenandoah in the peak of its fall season. This trip officially ends our camping season for the year.
L & K