Shenandoah National Park Day Trip Planner: Things to Do in the Central District

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.

Best things to do and see in Shenandoah National Park Central District Virginia

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.

Skyline Drive Marys Rock Tunnel Shenandoah NP
Skyline Drive Marys Rock Tunnel Shenandoah NP

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.

View east from Hazel Mountain Overlook, Shenandoah National Park
East from Hazel Mountain Overlook, Shenandoah National Park

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.

Fall foliage fills the view toward Mary's Rock from the Pinnacle in Shenandoah
Fall view toward Mary’s Rock from the Pinnacle, Shenandoah NP
Shenandoah National Park summer view from Mary's Rock
Shenandoah National Park summer view from Mary’s Rock

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.

Little Stony Man view north
Little Stony Man view north

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.

Thorofare Mountain Overlook east view Shenandoah NP
Thorofare Mountain Overlook east view Shenandoah NP

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.

View north from Stony Man Mountain
View north from Stony Man Mountain

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.

Black bear on Limberlost Trail Shenandoah NP
A black bear on Limberlost Trail Shenandoah NP
Mountain Laurel on the Limberlost Trail in June, Shenandoah NP
Mountain Laurel on the Limberlost Trail, Shenandoah NP

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.

Hawksbill Summit View Shenandoah NP
Hawksbill Summit View Shenandoah NP
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.

Rose River Loop Hike Shenandoah National Park VA
Rose River Loop Hike Shenandoah National Park VA

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.

Dark Hollow Falls Shenandoah National Park Virginia
Dark Hollow Falls Shenandoah National Park Virginia

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.

Big Meadows sign Shenandoah NP
Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park

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.

Big Meadows Lodge patio views in Shenandoah NP
Big Meadows Lodge patio views in Shenandoah NP

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.

Westward view from Blackrock Shenandoah NP
Westward view from Blackrock Shenandoah NP

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.

View from The Point Overlook
View from The Point Overlook

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.

Bearfence Mountain fall view in Shenandoah National Park Central District
Bearfence Mountain fall view in Shenandoah National Park

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.

There are several options for overnight lodging in the park, including lodges, cabins, and campgrounds. We recommend the lodge at Skyland for it’s beautiful views and central location.

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.

Learn more and follow Shenandoah National Park: web | Facebook

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:

Map: Scenic Route to Shenandoah National Park

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.

Sperryville

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.

Flint Hill

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.

Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill Virginia
Stop Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill Virginia

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.

Front Royal

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.

Apple House cider donuts Front Royal VA
Apple House cider donuts Front Royal VA

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.

Please share your feedback in the comments below or join us on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram for more places to visit, things to do, and travel in and from Northern Virginia and the Washington DC region.

Our Shenandoah National Park day trip planner covers stops, food, and fun in the Central District, perfect for a leisurely scenic drive or an active outing.

This article was published in 2018 and updated in 2019 and 2020.

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18 thoughts on “Shenandoah National Park Day Trip Planner: Things to Do in the Central District”

  1. This is so helpful! You say this is an itinerary to enjoy in 3 – 5 hours? With all the hikes it seems that it’s much longer. Am I reading this correctly…Perhaps these are just options? We will have 3 – 5 hours…what would you recommend in this itinerary?

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for catching that error! I just updated the article and took out the 3-5 hour estimate. That’s enough time to drive this segment and stop at overlooks and the Visitor Center but it doesn’t allow time for hiking and lunch. If it’s your first visit I’d do the drive, overlooks, Harry Byrd Visitor Center, and stop at Skyland for a quick snack. You could add in the short hike to Little Stony Man if you don’t mind a steep and somewhat rocky trail. Limberlost is an easier short hike but there is no viewpoint. Have a fantastic time and let us know if you have any tips or feedback after your visit. Thank you and happy travels!

      Reply
  2. Hi

    This would be our first ever time driving upto the Great smokies from DC with a one night pit stop at the SNP.will be travelling with the husband and 2 kids.

    We have booked ourselves for one night at the skyland resort in SNP, Can you please advise me the best route to get to skyland resort from DC and also what would be the preferred itinerary for the given 24 hours we got at the park.

    Reply
    • Hi Suganthi. The quickest route to the park is to drive west on DC to the Front Royal entrance. Entering there would let you see the northern section on your way to Skyland. Skyland is very close to the Stony Man and Little Stony Man hikes listed above so I’d definitely do one of those. If you want a longer hike, try the Pinnacles and Mary’s Rock hike listed above. Just click the link for details. I’d also head south to the Visitor Center at Big Meadows. Have a great time in the park!

      Reply
    • Thank you Tasting Page! I agree—with all of the hikes, overlooks, and other stops it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not cover as much as you hoped. Not pulling into every overlook is hard for me, but now I’ve visited so many times I know which ones are my faves.

      Reply
  3. Such a complete experience explained, loved the post and the pictures! I think my favorite was the Hawksbill Hike (the viewpoint from the highest point in the park is amazing) and I will definitely stop at The Apple House to taste some donuts! 😀
    xoxo, Pilar
    http://www.thelifestylehunter.com

    Reply
    • Thank you for the wonderful feedback Pilar. The Hawksbill viewpoint is incredible and they have just renovated a nice stone platform on the summit that makes it a great photo opp. Hope you have a chance to visit. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Glad to help with the research for this article, especially the food parts. The BLTs and apple cider donuts are definitely worth stopping for. Great hikes, of course, along Skyline Drive, wonderful to visit any time of the year.

    Reply

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