A Shenandoah National Park day trip makes a beautiful outing from Northern Virginia and Washington DC, whether you crave a leisurely scenic drive or an active hiking expedition. Our planner highlights what to do and where to go in the park’s Central District for a perfect day in the mountains. We also suggest a scenic route to reach the park from the DC region. Finally, we recommend places to visit on your way to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
It’s possible to drive all 105 miles of Skyline Drive in one day. Instead, we suggest fewer miles and more time for fun. Focus on a smaller area of the park to enjoy hikes, viewpoints, visitor centers, shops, and lodges. Below we highlight our favorite stops and things to do in Shenandoah National Park’s Central District. This area begins at mile marker 31, at the Thornton Gap Entrance, and ends at mile 65, at the Swift Run Gap entrance.
34 miles may seem like a small section to cover, but there is so much to do. It would be difficult to squeeze every hike and stop on our list into a single day trip. Keep in mind that the road is winding, the speed limit is 35, and those views and trails will be calling you.
Shenandoah National Park Day Trip: Thornton Gap to Skyland
Enter Shenandoah National Park at the Thornton Gap Entrance, and head south toward Skyland and Big Meadows. While the Front Royal entrance is a little closer to DC, this entrance leads to our favorite part of the park. The Central District is home to some of the best views, hikes, and stops in the park.
If you need a restroom break, there are bathrooms on the right at Panorama, just after you enter the park.
Mary’s Rock Tunnel Overlook 32: Drive through the tunnel and pull into the overlook on your left. The view isn’t the best on the drive, but most visitors like to get a picture of the tunnel. Be careful and watch for cars while you get your photo.
Hazel Mountain Overlook 32.5: Beautiful eastward views and cool rocks to climb on. A small maple tree in the parking area turns brilliant red in fall.
Jewell Hollow Overlook 36.5: Head to the upper lot for excellent westward views of Shenandoah Valley and the long ridge of Massanutten Mountain.
Hike to The Pinnacle and Mary’s Rock 36.5
From the Jewell Hollow Overlook, a 7-mile out-and-back hike on the Appalachian Trail leads to a dramatic, rocky viewpoint. For a shorter hike, follow the trail about a mile until the first viewpoint, known as The Pinnacle. From here you’ll have a beautiful view north along the ridge toward Mary’s Rock. This hike is one of our favorite fall activities in Shenandoah Park.
Plan your hike: Mary’s Rock from Jewell Hollow hike details.
Viewpoints and Hikes on Stony Man Mountain
Stony Man Mountain Overlook 38.5: See if you can find the stony man’s face from the overlook. There are two fun short hikes nearby. Look for hikers on the rocky outcropping known as Little Stony Man, and further up, people enjoying the Stony Man summit.
Choose from three great routes in our guide Stony Man Trail Hikes to Beautiful Shenandoah Views
Little Stony Man Hike 39.1: A short, steep hike leads to a large rock ledge with spectacular views west and north. You’ll get a peek at the winding road you just traveled.
Thorofare Mountain Overlook 40.5: Between the two Stony Man hikes, take in a beautiful westward view from Thorofare Mountain Overlook. You can see the rocky spine and summit of Old Rag Mountain, one of the most popular and challenging hiking destinations in the park.
Stony Man Hike 41.7: An easier but longer 1.6-mile trail to Stony Man summit and similar views. The trailhead is just inside the northern entrance to Skyland.
Skyland Restaurant and Lodge 41.7
Stop for a meal, a snack, and a souvenir. Enjoy nice views and a classic lodge feel from Skyland’s restaurant. You can also grab a bite and a drink at the tavern, or pick up a snack and head to the patio. Stop in the gift shop for Shenandoah National Park books and souvenirs.
Favorite Central District Viewpoints, Hikes, and Stops: Skyland to Big Meadows
Limberlost Trail 43: The only wheelchair-accessible trail in the park offers an easy loop walk through the woods. We were surprised to encounter black bears on this popular trail on one hike. A few loud claps and they scampered off. This is also one of the most stunning trails in the park in June when Mountain Laurel surrounds the path.
Hawksbill Hike: 46.7: Take a short but steep hike to an incredible viewpoint from the highest point in the park. Park in the Upper Hawksbill parking area for the 2-mile roundtrip hike.
Find details on Hawksbill and more in our guide: Short Hikes to Gorgeous Virginia Views.
Rose River Loop Hike from Fishers Gap Overlook 49.4: This is one of the most scenic waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park. The Rose River loop follows falls and cascades for more than half of its 4-mile distance. The moderately difficult trail descends from Skyline Drive, then parallels Rose River, offering constant water views and access. Take a quarter-mile side trip on the return to popular Dark Hollow Falls and more beautiful waterfall views.
Dark Hollow Falls 50.7: This popular waterfall hike parallels beautiful cascades then reaches a nice view from the bottom of the falls. The 1.4 out-and-back hike is steep, so be prepared for the climb back up to your car. This is a very popular trail and can be very crowded on weekends. The Rose River Loop described above is a good alternative hike.
Big Meadows Area Visitor Center, Lodge, and Hikes
Harry Byrd Visitor Center 51: Interesting and informative displays explain the history of the park and its inhabitants. You can also shop in the gift store and get a meal at the wayside.
There are easy trails through the meadow where you will often see deer. Another easy hike is the 1.8-mile Story of the Forest. Trail. The trail begins at the Visitor Center parking area and tells about the transition from meadow to forest.
Big Meadows Lodge and Restaurant: Enjoy a meal in the historic dining room, the casual taproom, or on the patio at Big Meadows Lodge. The lodge has a rustic feel and we love the westward views from the patio.
Short Hike to Blackrock Viewpoint: Near the lodge, take a short .4-mile out-and-back hike to the beautiful, rocky Blackrock Viewpoint. This one of the easiest trails to a viewpoint in the park. For more challenge, continue on to the AT and a 3.2 mile loop hike to Lewis Spring Falls.
Big Meadows is a good turnaround point for a Shenandoah National Park day trip in the Central District. However, there are many more fantastic stops to the south. If you have time to complete your Central District drive, continue your journey south to the Swift Gap Entrance Station.
More Stops in Shenandoah’s Central District
The Point Overlook 55.5: With its beautiful, sweeping westward view, The Point Overlook is a great place to watch the sunset in Shenandoah National Park.
Hike Bearfence Mountain 56.4: Our final hike in the Central District offers incredible drama in a short distance. The hike to the summit of Bearfence is only 1.2 miles roundtrip, but the trail navigates a challenging rock scramble. While not technically difficult, the rocks are very exposed to the cliffside. If you have a fear of heights, this is not the hike for you. But if you complete the rock scramble you are rewarded with gorgeous, nearly 360-degree views of the Bule Ridge Mountains. Alternatively, follow an easier trail to a nice viewpoint.
When you are ready to head home, you can exit at Swift Run Gap, backtrack to Thornton Gap, or drive all the way north to Front Royal. We generally return to Thornton Gap, and enjoy one of the stops outside the park that are described below.
Shenandoah National Park Essentials
Shenandoah National Park charges a $30 entrance fee per car for a 7 consecutive day pass. If you plan to make repeat visits, buy an annual National Park pass instead. With just a few visits, you’ll recoup the $80 price. Plus, you can use the pass at Northern Virginia area parks like Great Falls and Prince William National Forest.
There are four entrances to Shenandoah National Park: Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap.
Stay alert and respect park wildlife. Black bears are common in the park, but they are generally shy and will run away from humans. The park is also home to rattlesnakes and copperheads, so use extra caution in rocky areas, especially in summer. Drive slow and obey speed limits to protect bear, deer, and other wildlife crossing park roads.
Tips for a Shenandoah National Park Day Trip in Winter
Shenandoah Visitor Centers, campgrounds, and lodges all close during the winter months. Campgrounds usually close in late November. Lodges and waysides close in November, and Visitor Centers close in late December. Check the park website for current facility closing and opening dates.
Rime ice and frozen waterfalls are two of the beautiful winter sights in Shenandoah. Rime ice occurs when water droplets in the air freeze onto surfaces, creating beautiful patterns and forms. Big Meadows is a wonderful place to view grasses and trees covered in rime ice.
Dark Hollow Falls is one of the easiest waterfalls to view during a freeze. Use extra caution on slippery, steep trails.
Scenic Drive: DC Area to Shenandoah National Park Central District
Pop Shenandoah National Park into your GPS from the Washington DC area and the map will offer a straightforward route—head west on Route 66 until you reach the Front Royal Entrance. It’s an easy, one to two-hour drive, depending on your starting point and traffic, but it’s a little dull.
We’ve got a better route! Enter at the Thornton Gap Entrance instead, and you are close to some of the best overlooks and hikes in the park’s Central District. Best of all, the scenic route to Thornton Gap is both pretty and full of tasty stops.
Our favorite route for a Shenandoah National Park day trip passes through the small towns of Flint Hill and Sperryville on the way to the park. Washington, home of the famous Inn at Little Washington, is an easy side trip. Here’s a map of the route from Fairfax, Virginia; just adjust the starting point to your location:
You have a couple of options for your return route, depending on how much time you have. Return the way you came and stop in Sperryville or Flint Hill (suggestions below). Or, if time allows, you could complete Skyline Drive north, exiting in Front Royal.
Where to Stop Outside the Park on a Shenandoah National Park Day Trip
If you want to pick up a picnic to enjoy in the park, or you’re looking for a tasty way to end the day, you’ll find several great options outside the park.
Sadly, Creekside Bakery and Deli has closed. This was our favorite place to pick up sandwiches and treats before the drive up to the Thornton Gap park entrance. Next visit, we’ll check out Before and After Cafe for a pre-hike sandwich.
Back on route 211, in the Sperryville Schoolhouse Building, Headmaster’s Pub offers a cold brew and pub menu perfect for a post-hike meal. The beer list features craft beer from breweries in Virginia and throughout the east coast. We enjoyed a delicious Hardywood Gingerbread Stout with a burger during one December visit.
Our favorite stop after a Shenandoah National Park day trip is Griffin Tavern in the center of Flint Hill. The British flag flying from the wraparound porch caught our attention and suggested a nice pint was in our future. We’ve returned several times for a meal on the outside deck or a beer in the bar. While we haven’t stayed for dinner, the dining rooms in the front of the house look lovely and the menu is tempting.
The town of Little Washington, famously know for the Inn at Little Washington, is close by and a fun stop if you want to poke around in the shops and galleries.
If you exit via the Front Royal entrance, you’ll have many restaurants to choose from before you jump back on to route 66. Our favorite stop is The Apple House for a sweet fix in the form of apple cider donuts. These tasty little sweet bombs are a nice reward for a day of hiking. They also serve barbecue and other sandwiches, but frankly, we’re all about those donuts.
While we love a Shenandoah National Park day trip from the DC area, there is much more to do both inside and outside the park. You could also combine your park visit with a road trip through the Shenandoah Valley.
The Central District is our favorite area to explore on a Shenandoah National Park day trip. There is so much to see and do along Skyline Drive that we return frequently to try new trails and enjoy the changing seasons.
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This article was published in 2018 and updated in 2019 and 2020.