Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah’s Blue Ridge Mountains are covered by hardwood forests that teem with a wide variety of wildlife. The Skyline Drive and Appalachian Trail run the entire length of this narrow park, along with more than 500 miles (800 km) of hiking trails passing scenic overlooks and cataracts of the Shenandoah River.


Current geological activity in Shenandoah National Park is a result of natural and man-made forces acting on the surrounding mountains and valleys

Current geological activity in Shenandoah National Park is a result of natural and man-made forces acting on the surrounding mountains and valleys. Freezing and thawing can result in rockfalls and spalling from cliff faces. Severe thunderstorms and rain events can cause flooding and associated erosion. In extreme cases, large amounts of rain can cause landslides. Some forces act together to produce geological change. A wind storm may bring down trees that were killed in a wildland fire on land where, in turn, severe rain could cause significant erosion. Most often these events are relatively small, but over millions of years, these small events produce sizable changes in the land. The result is a landscape undergoing constant change.

Basement rocks, left over from a mountain range even older than the Appalachians, form the foundation upon which the Shenandoah Blue Ridge rises. Over one billion years old, they can still form dramatic topography, creating the rounded, boulder-strewn summits of Old Rag Mountain, Hogback Mountain, and Marys Rock.

Greenstone lava flows, 570 million years old, now form the sheer, jagged cliffs of Stony Man, Hawksbill, and many other peaks within the park. These flows, stacked one atop the other, create a staircase-like topography of sheer cliffs and flat benches that produce many of the most distinctive landscapes in Shenandoah. Most of the park’s major waterfalls are located where streams cut through these layers of lava and plunge into steep-walled canyons.

Chilhowee metasedimentary rocks, from the shores of an ocean predating the Atlantic, now create the steep slopes and rugged topography of the park’s unique South District. Fused together and altered in the heat and pressure of mountain-building, the white quartzites form the great cliffs and boulder fields of Rocky Mountain, Calvary Rocks, and Blackrock South.

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Native American History

Meet the first people of Shenandoah National Park

The first traces of humans within Shenandoah National Park are around 8,000 to 9,000 years old. Native Americans seasonally visited this area to hunt, gather food, source materials for stone tools, and trade. In the 1700s, European hunters and trappers explored the mountains of the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley. Soon after 1750, European settlers moved into the lower hollows near springs and streams. Over the next century and a half hundreds of families worked the land, planting orchards and crops, building homesteads and mills, using the mountains for logging and mining.

By the late 1800s an increasingly urban American society yearned for places of recreation and refuge. Enterprising spirits built vacation resorts, marketing the mountain views, healthy water, and cool breezes. As congress established National Parks in the west, a call arose for an eastern National Park accessible to large population centers. It would take two decades to authorize Shenandoah National Park. Another decade passed before the Park’s establishment.

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Park History

How Shenandoah became a National Park

People have lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains for at least 9,000 years. American Indians hunted and gathered game, fruit, nuts, and berries on the upland slopes. Some constructed permanent villages at the lowest elevations in the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley outside the Park.

The earliest European settlers moved into the foothills by the 1750s. These settlers moved upwards in a constant search for land on which to farm, graze livestock, and tend to orchards. In the mid to late 1800s people purchased mountain land for the extraction of resources: copper, lumber, bark for leather tanning, and water for powering mill operations. Others early saw the beauty of the Blue Ridge as a commercial product in itself, and built resorts catering to visitors from the cities.

There are some groups and individuals that have left a significant mark on Shenandoah National Park. The several hundred mountain residents who lived on the land that became the Park left behind their homes and communities, forced to start anew. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed hundreds of young men to build roads and trails, to re-establish wilderness and create a park that people would come to see.

George Freeman Pollock saw a business opportunity in the clean air and mountain views and established Skyland Resort, a getaway from the industrial cities nearby. Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover built their own getaway here, Rapidan Camp, as a retreat during Hoover’s often tumultuous Presidency.
Park managers and visitors have played a role in Shenandoah National Park’s history. Park managers initially established segregated facilities. Black visitors could picnic and camp in Lewis Mountain, but nowhere else. Desegregation occurred officially in 1950, yet the impact of separate facilities did not vanish overnight.

People from Shenandoah’s past can be found all around. If you pay close attention you may walk past the foundations of an old home site or through a cluster of apple trees that were once an orchard. You may stop at an overlook and stand on a rock wall that a young man from the CCC built years ago. Every trail and campground, every overlook and bend on Skyline Drive has been travelled before.

You, our visitors today, decide what Shenandoah National Park will become for people who have yet to visit this enchanting place.

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The best things to do in Shenandoah National Park

Hike a section of the Appalachian Trail
Ride the Sky on Skyline Drive on the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Gaze at the stars from a high altitude (without light pollution)
Go back in time at Rapidan Camp, the historic summer retreat of President Herbert Hoover
Visit Byrd Visitor Center and learn about the park’s creation
Explore back country wilderness, mountain peaks and waterfalls
Climb a rock scramble
Spend the night on top of the world at Skyland or Big Meadows Lodge
Attend a Birds of Prey presentation and meet live raptors
See fog oceans roll in between the foothills of the mountains

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Shenandoah National Park is home to a wonderful variety of plant life

Shenandoah National Park is home to a wonderful variety of plant life. The park’s Mid-Atlantic location straddles conditions of both the Northern and Southern Appalachian mountains allowing everything from lichens to oak trees to thrive. Over 1400 species of vascular plants are found in the park, though fewer than one hundred of these are the familiar trees and shrubs most noticeable to park visitors.

The forests within Shenandoah National Park are generally classified as “oak-hickory”, yet they contain far more than just oak and hickory trees to discover. The park’s 70 mile length and 3500 foot elevation range create numerous habitats able to support a variety of forest cover types. Some of the strongest influences determining what plants grow in certain areas of Shenandoah National Park are elevation, the available moisture, the bedrock geology, and the directions of slope exposure (slope aspect), and soil conditions. Chestnut and red oak forest are common in the park, but other forest types such tulip poplar, cove hardwood, and even small areas of spruce-fir forest, may also be found when exploring the park’s hillsides, sheltered stream valleys, and peaks.

Forest names such as cove hardwood and chestnut oak are only a starting point to describe the variety of plants present within Shenandoah National Park. The forests would be incomplete without the seemingly countless herb, fern, and shrub species found beneath the trees. Trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, interrupted fern, blueberries, azaleas, and lady slipper orchids are just a few examples of the numerous smaller species that enrich the understory. Explorations into the forests of Shenandoah National Park provide tremendous opportunities for discovery to both the casual and serious botanical enthusiast.

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Animal Life

Shenandoah is home to a variety of wildlife

People travelling in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700s reported an abundance of various animals. As European settlers cleared land, introduced domestic animals, and hunted, animal populations decreased. Hunting eliminated American bison around 1798 and elk followed in 1855. Beaver and river otter disappeared in the late 1800s. The eastern timber wolf, eastern cougar, white-tailed deer, turkey, black bear, and bobcats were either extirpated or declined drastically. The exact number of native species lost is unknown. In the past century, most of these species have returned either through re-introductions on lands elsewhere in Virginia or through natural population recovery. The designation and management of the area as a National Park provides refuge to resident and migrating animals.

Today, Shenandoah is a refuge for many animals otherwise pressured by human activities. The Park is home to over 190 resident and transient bird species, over 50 mammal species, over 20 reptile and amphibian species, over 40 fish species, as well as an unknown number of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. A handful of animal species are large, more likely to be sighted. With patience, skill, and some luck, visitors may see some of the thousands of other park residents. When viewing wildlife always follow wildlife vewing safety practices.

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Hiking Trails

The natural sandstone formations make this location amazing to visit.

Safety Tips: more about safety
Carry water, at least 20 oz (.6 L), and more on warm days. Do not drink water directly from any streams without boiling or purifying it first.

Wear appropriate clothing including sturdy hiking shoes and layers. Temperatures on the mountain can be 10 to 20 degrees cooler than in the valley.

Follow trail blazes and use a map. Blue blazes indicate a hiking trail, white blazes indicate the Appalachian Trail, yellow blazes indicate horse trails.

Know the difficulty level of the trail and evaluate your physical abilities and limitations. Different people experience hikes at different difficulty levels. Here’s our formula for determining hiking difficulty.

Follow Leave No Trace principles including staying on trail, carrying out all trash, and leaving what you find.

Never walk around the top of a waterfall. Wet rocks are slippery and can lead to dangerous falls, potentially causing serious injury or death.

Follow these guidelines on wildlife viewing safety and know what to do if you encounter a bear.

Pets: more about pets
Shenandoah National Park is one the few national parks that allows pets on trails. These regulations protect your experience as well as native animals, park resources, and other visitors.

Pets must be restrained on a leash no longer than 6 feet (1.8 m).
Pets are prohibited on the following trails: Fox Hollow, Stony Man, Limberlost, Dark Hollow Falls, Story of the Forest, Bearfence Rock Scramble, Frazier Discovery, Old Rag Ridge and Old Rag Saddle Trails.
Alerts & Closures: current hiking alerts and closures
Occasionally, trails are affected by emergency operations, weather events, and for resource protection.

Rock outcrops are home to scenic views and are often popular hiking destinations. These special places are also home to fragile plants species and ecosystems. In order to better protect rock outcrop ecosystems small areas on Little Stony Man, Hawksbill, and Old Rag are closed to public access.

Choosing a Hike
With over 500 miles of trails, choosing the right hike for you will depend on how much time you have, where you are going in the park, the physical ability of yourself and your fellow travelers, and what you want to get from your experience.

Overview of hikes in Shenandoah: This table contains an overview of suggested hikes including distance, difficulty, and trailhead location.
Waterfall hikes: An overview of hikes that lead to waterfalls.
Brochures and Trail Maps: Trail maps for day hikes for different areas can be found on the Brochures and Trail Maps page.
Appalachian Trail: Learn more about the Appalachian Trail, 105 miles of which is in Shenandoah.

South District Hikes In Shenandoah
Parks: Shenandoah National Park
Type: Active, Solitary/Remote, Inspirational, Outdoors
Topics: Geology, Rock Landscapes and Features, Scenic Views, Trails
Activities: Hiking
A tall rock formation jutting out of the forest.
The more remote South District of Shenandoah National Park offers plenty of hiking opportunities from the easier Blackrock Summit featuring a rocky talus slope and majestic views to the very strenuous Riprap Trail featuring cascades, and views of Shenandoah’s Wilderness. While there is no visitor center in the South District, the Loft Mountain Wayside and Campground can offer some services.

North District Hikes in Shenandoah
Parks: Shenandoah National Park
Type: Active, Solitary/Remote, Inspirational, Outdoors
Topics: Geology, Rock Landscapes and Features, Scenic Views, Trails, Archeology, Burial, Cemetery and Gravesite, Waterfalls
Activities: Hiking
A rock formation that looks like columns stuck together in the woods on a sunny day.
Hikes in the North District of Shenandoah National Park include the quiet, historical Fox Hollow Trail, the scenic Overall Run Falls, and Compton Peak, with impressive columnar jointing geological features. While in the North District be sure to talk to a ranger at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.

Central District Hikes in Shenandoah
Parks: Shenandoah National Park
Type: Active, Inspirational, Outdoors
Topics: Geology, Rock Landscapes and Features, Trails, Waterfalls, Mountains, Scenic Views
Activities: Hiking
A cascading stream in the forest.
Hiking options in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park include scenic waterfalls like Dark Hollow Falls and Whiteoak Canyon, sweeping summits like Stony Man Mountain and Marys Rock, and much more. The Central District also includes Big Meadows and Skyland, areas rich with history that currently are home to lodging, dining, and shopping options.

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