Shenandoah National Forest ‣ Baymax, rattlesnakes, and bears - oh, my!
Facts at a Glance:
Visitor centers:Dickey Ridge, Byrd/Big Meadows, Loft Mountain
Entrance fee: At time of publishing, $30 per vehicle; $15 per person. Current fees can be found here.
Park entrance is free to holders of America the Beautiful -- National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Passes, as well as the National Park Service's Golden Eagle, Golden Access, and Golden Age passports.
Situated in close proximity to Washington and Baltimore, the park stays busy year round with fall being the most popular time to visit. The summer and winter weather on the mountains can be grueling, so the best time to go is during the spring; especially on a weekday, when the crowds can be mostly avoided.
Shenandoah is known for its gorgeous fall-foliage, and October accomadations in and near the park can book out a full calendar year in advance. When planning your day, remember: it is significantly cooler on the mountaintops than in the valley, so make sure your hiking clothes accommodates the full range of temperature!
For passerby's, the Skyline Drive is about a three hour trek without stopping, and is the ultimate "scenic route." But if you've got time, give yourself at least a full day to take in the views at the marked overlooks - and beware of inclement weather. Oh, and did we mention animals? Skyline Drive is a 105-mile winding road varying in elevation, and we had to stop or slow drastically down several times, because of the fog (and deer!) The park is currently in a phased reopening, but usually, there is a lodge, wayside snack bar, and seven picnic grounds - so plan around your circumstances, detours are often the best tours.
We had the inimitable opportunity of hiking the grounds just after the COVID lockdown - which meant NO humans! Absent the entrance workers, we only saw one other couple in the entire park, and words fail to express how eerily beautiful of an experience that was. (Especially at the hollows of the waterfalls).
Even (or especially then) we were quick to realize that using GPS or internet mapping is insufficient for navigating the grounds. Apple Maps didn't even get us to the park entrance correctly, and after further research, it seems that most systems tend to send visitors down roads that are closed to the public. As such, we suggest that you download the park's app, which is available on Apple Store and Google Play. As soon as your in, pick up a good old fashioned paper version and play close attention to the signage! Good news is, though - once you get on the trails, beauty awaits you at every corner - so it's pretty tough to make a "wrong" turn.
Plants and animals are protected, so all hunting is prohibited. Pets must be kept on a leash at all times and are not allowed on some trails. Baymax would also let you know that he would prefer to never go hiking again. He is an indoor dog. He likes hotels.
And heed this warning - Be on the lookout for wildlife! We went up to Big Meadows and hiked down to the falls in South River. Kennedy had an absolute blast rock-hopping through the creeks (Baymax, not so much). And yes, we saw rattlesnakes. Plural. Rattle SNAKES. Which, let me tell ya', has an unparalleled ability to flip your mindset from "Oh, wow - there is a rattlesnake on *our trail," to "Holy shit, we need to get out of *their den right now."
(Other animals to be aware of: black bears, bobcats, and lots and lots of water moccasins.)
Best Hiking Trails:
Dark Hollow Falls Trail
Stony Man Trail
Lewis Falls Trail
Old Rag Trail
Rose River Loop Trail
Upper Hawksbill Trail
Bearfence Mountain Trail
Suggested Minimum Length of Stay: One day
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