The Best Of Shenandoah National Park

A couple of months ago we went on a family vacation to Virginia and West Virginia and were able to take a quick detour to Shenandoah National Park. It also happened to be Finn’s first visit to a National Park outside of the womb!

I wanted to share some of the details of our trip with you because whenever I’m planning a visit somewhere, I want to read about the experiences other people have had in that place! Especially when those people had kids. Gimme all the knowledge! And hopefully, I can do the same for anyone else considering a trip to Shenandoah in the future!

Overview of Shenandoah National Park:

Shenandoah is located in northern Virginia but is also very close to the border of West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC. We went in early October and were just a little too soon to see any fall colors. We were told that the colors in the park were beautiful in later October, but that it also gets pretty crowded.

The park is a long, skinny stretch of land with a road called Skyline Drive running the entire length of it. Some choose to drive the whole thing, which takes around three hours (and that’s if you DON’T stop anywhere and get out along the way). 

Our Plan:

Since we have a little guy, we chose to target a small segment of the park and just cover that area. And since we only had one day to spend there, it made sense to stick to a particular area and do a minimal amount of driving. I like to get out, stretch my legs, and really interact with the parks, ya know? And so do wiggly young children.

Shenandoah has several waterfall hikes and mountaintop lookouts. We decided to choose one of each for the day to get the full experience. We came in at the Thornton Gap Entrance Station and drove south. The entrance fee as of 2019 was $25 per vehicle, which gets you in for 7 consecutive days. 

First, we drove through Mary’s Gap Tunnel. Immediately afterward, there’s a lookout where we pulled over for a quick roadside glimpse of Shenandoah’s rolling mountains. Then we headed to the Harry F. Byrd visitor center. While you’re there, you can talk to a ranger or learn about the history of Shenandoah from various displays. There’s also a gift shop and places for a picnic lunch. Did I mention there’s also a gas station? This can come in handy when you’re in the middle of a remote park, let me tell ya. 

Shenandoah National Park
Mary’s Rock Tunnel in Shenandoah National Park

Hiking to Dark Hollow Falls

Afterwards, we headed to the Dark Hollow Falls Trailhead, which is less than a mile from the Byrd Visitor Center. The entire hike there and back is a total of 1.4 miles. The way there is primarily downhill, so inevitably it’s a bit of a climb on the way back.

As we started out, Finn set the tone for the hike by proclaiming, “This is gonna be dope!”. This is coming from the mouth of a three-year-old, mind you. That just goes to show you the measure of conversations between my husband and his brothers. 

Finn enjoyed the climb down and alternated between family members when deciding whose hand he wanted to hold as he navigated the rocky path. After the necessary oohs, aahs, and mandatory picture-taking session at the falls themselves, we began the trek back up.

Normally, Finn’s great at climbing on his own. But with six different family members at his disposal (the majority of whom were pretty willing to carry him for a time), he mostly enjoyed the trip back from grandpa’s shoulders while the rest of us enjoyed a nice bit of exercise.

A couple of notes:
  • The trail is rugged enough that you wouldn’t be able to do a stroller. Baby-wearing is probably the best option for really young ones. 
  • There was no bathroom at this trailhead (at least when we visited) so we had to head back to the Byrd visitor center after. Cause we like to drink water, ya know?
Shenandoah National Park
Dark Hollow Falls in Shenandoah National Park

Climbing Hawksbill Mountain

After our waterfall hike, we climbed Hawksbill Mountain, which is the highest peak in the entire park. It was also located super close to Dark Hollow Falls and the Byrd Visitor Center.

Apparently there are a couple of different ways to get up. We took the Lower Hawksbill Trail, which is the shortest and most direct path to the summit. The total elevation for Hawksbill is 4,050 feet, but since the drive takes you the majority of the way up, you only have to ascend 800 feet. However, you do this all in .85 miles, so it’s a pretty steep climb the whole way up. The total hike distance is 1.7 miles.

I learned later that there was a longer but less strenuous and more scenic loop option (total of 2.8 miles) that is part of the Appalachian Trail from the same parking lot. Ohhhh well; perhaps next time!

Finn is a pretty good sport about hiking, but by the time we got here, he was noticeably tired. He kept stopping to claim that he was “out of fuel” and needed more snacks before he was able to proceed.

Once we pushed through, the view from the top was beautiful. There’s an actual summit platform at the top (which I managed to get precisely zero pictures of) as well as several other places to observe different views. 

A couple of notes:
  • There were also no bathrooms here, so back to the Visitor’s Center, we went after the hike!
  • Pictures can be deceiving. No matter what it looks like, we never let our little guy get within 20 feet of the edge, even when we were holding him. Too many easily preventable accidents happen in National Parks and I just ain’t about that. 
Shenandoah National Park
Hawksbill Summit in Shenandoah National Park
Hawksbill Summit in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park
Hawksbill Summit in Shenandoah National Park

So in a nutshell, that was our trip to Shenandoah National Park!

If you want some travel ideas and tips for another beautiful destination, check out our recommendations for the 25 Best Activities in Traverse City, Michigan for Outdoorsy Families!

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