Celebrate spring with a mountaintop journey in a glorious national park.
Meandering along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive offers visitors spectacular scenery and rugged outdoor adventure. The National Scenic Byway spans the length of the narrow Shenandoah National Park with sweeping views of the Shenandoah River Valley to the west and the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont region to the east. The quiet two-lane road winds for 105 miles and is accessible from four entrance stations—Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap. With a speed limit of 35 mph and many scenic overlooks viewable from inside a vehicle, drivers can theoretically travel the entire road in about three hours. But don't count on it—with the number of places to stop, look, picnic, or play, you'll want to spend a day or more exploring.
Once this park finally comes out of hibernation in March, no two days present the same view. Spring unfolds first in the lower valleys, while upper elevations are days or even weeks behind. Tender shoots and vibrant blooms follow an upward path, climbing about 100 feet per day.
"The landscape is dotted with flowering dogwood, serviceberry, and redbud trees," says Sally Hurlbert, who's the management specialist at Shenandoah National Park. "Trails are lined with colorful azaleas and dazzling white-and-pink mountain laurel, along with colorful flowers on the forest floor."
More than 850 species of wildflowers take turns blooming from April until October, when leaf peepers make for crowded entrances and a slower pace.
The northernmost entrance is less than 2 miles from downtown Front Royal, which means it's only about 70 miles from Washington, D.C. You'll want to be sure to fuel up before starting the day's journey, because the only gas station on Skyline Drive is more than 50 miles away at Big Meadows Wayside. Grab lunch at Blue Wing Frog in Front Royal, where everything on the menu is made from scratch (including the condiments), and they'll graciously pack up your favorites for a picnic in the park.
Front Royal to Thornton Gap
Mileposts 0 to 31.5
Because Skyline Drive is part of the National Park Service, you'll pay a fee to enter. Adventurous travelers can purchase a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, which is honored at national parks across the U.S. Pick up a park map at the entrance station, and set your odometer to zero. Mileposts beginning at the Front Royal Entrance Station follow the two-lane route to the final exit at Rockfish Gap at milepost 105. These markers will help you navigate the road and also determine the distance to the next scenic overlook or attraction.
Stop by the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (milepost 4.6) for exhibits, maps, backcountry permits, and souvenirs. The rangers there can provide detailed maps of trails, advise you about where to look for wildlife, and let you know which waterfall hikes are the most (or least) strenuous. Limited rainfall in summer means some waterfalls are dry, so ask which ones are "running."
Of almost 70 overlooks on Skyline Drive, Hogback (milepost 20.9) has one of the most expansive views. On clear days, look for the serpentine loops of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, just ahead of Massanutten Mountain to the west.
Getting hungry? Exit at Thornton Gap Entrance Station (milepost 31.5), and drive east to Sperryville Trading Cafe and Market, where owner Eric Tollefson is happy to recommend a breakfast sandwich or a juicy burger made with locally sourced beef.
WATCH: The World's Largest Instrument Is In A Virginia Cave
For a longer side trip outside the park, head west at the exit toward Luray. Geologists have documented 4,400 caves and caverns in Virginia, located beneath the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and 10 have been commercialized into show caves. Stop and hear the rocks sing at Luray Caverns, a designated U.S. National Natural Landmark. The base of the cavern is home to the Great Stalacpipe Organ, the world's largest musical instrument. Rubber mallets tap stalactites scattered throughout 3 acres. The instrument is sometimes played by an organist sitting at a traditional keyboard and other times controlled by an automated cylinder similar to what you would see on a player piano. The result is hauntingly serene music that echoes off the cavern walls. Before you leave the area, stop at Gathering Grounds Pâtisserie & Café for a sandwich or a frozen drink. Cool off on warm afternoons with a refreshing self-guided float down the Shenandoah River. Downriver Canoe Company in Bentonville provides tube, canoe, and kayak rentals and a ride to your launching point. After a day on the river, treat yourself to a relaxing evening at Hotel Laurance, a boutique property in Luray that's within walking distance of downtown restaurants and attractions.
Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap
Mileposts 31.5 to 65.5
Shenandoah National Park has 500 miles of hiking trails at all skill levels, and most begin on Skyline Drive. Trail markers indicate length and difficulty, but consult rangers and maps for more details. Many paths cross or merge into the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), which closely follows Skyline Drive for 101 miles. Hikers have a few options for reaching the broad view at Marys Rock Summit (milepost 31.6), where you will pass outcroppings, stands of mountain laurel, and blooming wildflowers. You may encounter A.T. thru-hikers and possibly white-tailed deer or black bears in the area as well. Proximity to the Thornton Gap entrance and splendid vistas here make any path popular, so expect to share the view with fellow explorers.
While weary travelers won't find abundant lodging options in Shenandoah National Park, they won't have to venture far afield for a meal and comfy bed at Skyland Resort (mileposts 41.7 and 42.5), next to the highest point on Skyline Drive. Originally known as Stony Man Camp when it opened in the late 19th century, the resort features a sprawling Craftsman-style lodge and many rustic brown cabins dotting the mountainside. Wake up to a stunning view of the Shenandoah Valley as the sun lifts the morning fog from the farms and meadows below.
Skyland Stables (milepost 42.5) offers pony rides or saddled horses for one- to two-and-a-half-hour trail riding located near the Limberlost Trail (milepost 43), notably lovely in late spring, when thickets of mountain laurel bloom. The 1.3-mile gravel circuit hike includes a boardwalk and bridge, and it also has plenty of benches where you can relax and enjoy the natural woodland around you.
Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures commonly patrol the skies over the open fields and farms that surround the park, making wide circles as they draft on thermals. Recent efforts to repopulate peregrine falcons have shown some success, and lucky park visitors might see one at Hawksbill Gap (milepost 45.6) or Stony Man (milepost 38.5), two overlooks at high elevations. Ask rangers where birds of prey have been spotted, and consider a hike for a closer view.
The 0.7-mile hike to Dark Hollow Falls (milepost 50.7) is the closest to Skyline Drive, making it a very popular trail. Follow a series of cascades to the beautiful 70-foot waterfall that runs year-round. It's stunning after a spring shower. Because trails to all the waterfalls lead down into gorges, return hikes are steep. Come prepared with a walking stick!
Stop into the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center (milepost 51) for helpful info, permits, and refreshments. The permanent exhibit explains the history of Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive with images depicting its 1931-to-1939 construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The facility is open daily from late March to late November and Friday through Saturday in other months. Step onto the outdoor patio and look across the road for a good view of Big Meadows (milepost 51). The 135-acre grassy expanse, carpeted with wildflowers and wild fruit, attracts white-tailed deer, rabbits, butterflies, and birds. As night approaches, listen for spring peepers—small chorus frogs with high-pitched trills—that sing at dusk and during rainstorms.
During the day, travelers tend to gaze down on the valleys and views below, but after dark, they are all looking up at the breathtaking night sky. "Skyline Drive is a dark-sky oasis for those who want to see the stars," says Greg Redfern, NASA ambassador. "The Milky Way galaxy can be seen in all its splendor, especially at Big Meadows." Redfern, also called the "Sky Guy," hosts the annual Night Sky Festival at Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland Resort. Plan to take in the stars during your visit—it's one incredible show.
Before his Presidency, Herbert Hoover selected land near the Rapidan River to build a rustic summer retreat, Rapidan Camp, about 100 miles from the Capital. (The hike to Rapidan Camp begins at milepost 52.4.) The altitude of Hoover's plot provided a cool escape from mosquitoes, and the nearby river and streams offered great trout fishing. Rapidan Camp was not in use long, as later administrations built another retreat, which eventually became known as Camp David, in Maryland. From spring through fall, the park gives two-and-a-half-hour guided tours of the historic landmark, which features exhibits spotlighting Hoover during the Great Depression. Buses depart from the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center and require reservations.
If you're heading out in May, be sure to attend the 32nd Annual Wildflower Weekend. Guided hikes, art workshops, and a youth art contest are free with park admission May 5 and 6, 2018. See how many of the hundreds of wildflower species you can spot.
Swift Run Gap to Rockfish Gap
Mileposts 65.5 to 105
You'll find the southern segment of Skyline Drive peaceful, as many stretches of the winding road have little development. Catch a bit of geologic history by roaming around Blackrock Summit (milepost 84.4). Blackrock refers to large boulder fields called talus slopes. From the parking area, hikers can pick between two routes—1 or 1.6 miles. Choose the longer trail, and you can scramble through the boulder jumble.
The southern gateway at Rockfish Gap (milepost 105) marks the end of Skyline Drive—or the beginning, if you happen to be driving northward. The road doesn't end outright but instead continues on through Virginia and into North Carolina as the Blue Ridge Parkway—yet another Appalachian byway where you'll need to embrace a leisurely pace.
Celebrate the end of your trek at Stable Craft Brewing in Waynesboro, where they serve locally sourced food along with 16 different varieties of refreshing craft beers. Two other interesting eateries in town are The Farmhaus on Main, aiming to be "the best coffee shop and gathering place in Waynesboro," and The Green Leaf Grill, where an eclectic menu includes vegetarian options and creative nods to New Orleans.
Still inspired by Rapidan Camp? Fly-fish for native brook trout like President Hoover did with help from the guides at South River Fly Shop. Later, tuck in for the night at The Iris Inn's main bed-and-breakfast or one of their on-site cottages in Waynesboro, or stay at The Farmhouse at Veritas, an exquisite B&B in Afton. Built in 1839, the farmhouse sits adjacent to Veritas Vineyard & Winery, providing peaceful views of the Blue Ridge foothills. There you can bid a sleepy farewell to the Shenandoah…at least for now.