14 Beautiful Hikes in Shenandoah National Park for All Levels
By Guest Contributor
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Updated July 20, 2022
With nearly 200,000 acres of beautiful scenery in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park is one of the most underrated parks in the country, and a must-see for hikers on the East Coast. An hour away from Washington DC, there are over 500 miles of hiking trails, traversing cascading waterfalls, rocky and rolling hills, beautiful forests, and wetlands in Shenandoah. While the park’s most famous attraction is the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive, once you venture off the main road you’ll discover scenic overlooks, rich historical landmarks, and hikes for people of all ability levels. We created this guide to the best hikes in Shenandoah National Park so you can find a trail to explore, no matter your experience level.
Headed to Shenandoah National Park? Check out these other postings for urban outdoor adventures in and around the DMV area:
Blackrock Summit via Trayfoot Mountain and Appalachian Trail
Trail Distance: 1.1 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 180 Feet
This well-traveled, short hike is both easily accessible and gives a great view at the end. With plenty of natural sights, from birdwatching to wildlife, and a great view of the surrounding mountains, few hikes beat this one when searching for an adventure that’s suitable for everyone. This hike is at its best from April to October, otherwise, winter conditions may make the rocky terrain slick. Dogs are also allowed on this hike if you want to bring a furry friend along, just make sure you take a leash with you. This area is a popular bird-watching spot as well, and it’s a good choice if you want to expose children to wildlife on a hike. At the end, there’s plenty of optional scrambling to be done if you want a slightly better view or haven’t worn yourself out yet.
Trail Distance: 1.3 mile loop
Elevation Gain: Minimal
This trail is among the easiest hikes in the park and will bring you along great views of nature and wildflowers. The trail is relatively flat and well maintained, and it is both stroller and wheelchair friendly. If you’re looking for a quick kid-friendly hike that’s not too remote, this is a great option!
The Limberlost Trail also offers great opportunities for seeing wildlife and birdwatching. White-tailed deer are known to graze in this area, and hawks and owls are frequent visitors to the area. For bird watchers, this is a great hike, as the elevation means that several species of warblers, veery, Acadian Flycatchers, ruffed grouse, and more are waiting to be found. In marshy areas, salamanders are common for the amphibian lover in your life. This trail is a great option for an easy, casual amble outdoors.
Loft Mountain Loop
Trail Distance: 2 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 495 Feet
This 2-mile hike offers 2 scenic overlooks along the way. The trails are well maintained, and the area is moderately trafficked. With a paved road to the trailhead and dirt trails most of the way, Loft Mountain Loop is great for families or anyone looking for a short, rewarding hike. The primary challenge lies early on, with most of the elevation gain coming in the first mile or so. There is some mild scrambling by a stone overhang, but it is very mild and hardly of note. If you plan to stay in Loft Mountain Campground, this hike is close by. There are plenty of picnic tables and stopping points if you want to bring along lunch. It’s a popular birdwatching trail as well and offers great views of wildflowers between the rocky vistas.
Stony Man via Appalachian Trail
Trail Distance: 1.5 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 321 Feet
This popular hike offers one of the best views among short hikes and offers attachment to the Appalachian Trail. It’s the second-highest mountain in the park. Even with the peak sitting at 4,011ft, it’s a relatively accessible and easy hike to the summit – only gaining 400ft of elevation. The hike follows a forested gradual incline to the peak, where you have a spectacular view of the Shenandoah Valley and the surrounding area. Like the other hikes, there are great opportunities for bird watching, views of wildflowers and wildlife, and more on the way up.
People commonly use this trail for running and walking, and it’s great for anyone, from young children to seasoned hikers alike. It can be windy at the peak, but the views are well worth it! As a more popular hike, it’s recommended to go early to beat the crowds. It can also get quite slick in winter conditions, so you may want some spikes if you plan a snowy day hike. If you want to add length and MORE views to your hike, you can do Little Stony Man. It’s a loop trail that’s rated moderate at ~3.3 miles. You may even run into an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker!
Moderate Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
Trail Distance: 2.7 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 748 Feet
As one of the best hikes in Shenandoah National Park for the views alone, Hawksbill Mountain is the highest point in the park, coming in at 4,049 feet. Hawksbill Summit is a short yet steep hike that leads you directly to a viewing platform where you can take in all the splendor of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a view that photos won’t serve justice. With a stone observation platform (Byrd’s nest #2) at the top and plenty of space to enjoy the views, a hike up Hawksbill is essential for anyone visiting the park. The way up is moderately intense due to elevation, but the hike back down is primarily downhill. There’s some very mild scrambling along the trail, but the biggest obstacle is making sure you brought insect repellent. Pets are allowed on the hike as well if you want to bring your dog along! Similar to most of the park, there are plenty of wildflowers to be found on your trek.
Dark Hollow Falls Trail
Trail Distance: 1.4 Miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 564 Feet
Dark Hollow Falls Trail is one of the best hikes in Shenandoah if you’re looking for waterfalls and wildlife. This popular, moderate hike brings you to a beautiful cascade and offers amazing snapshots of rocky streams, wildlife, and forests. The way to the falls is downhill most of the way, leveling off as you get closer to the waterfall. In autumn, the falls are framed by beautiful trees filled with yellow leaves, giving a unique and aesthetic view that ranks high among the park’s features. The way back can be challenging since it’s primarily uphill, earning this hike a moderate rating. If you’re up for the incline, this trail is still relatively friendly for hikers of all levels. This is the most popular waterfall in the park, and while it’s no Angel Falls, it’s often very crowded. The area is teeming with wildlife, with plenty of beautiful plants and flowers, deer, and birds to see along the way.
Sugarloaf Loop (via Piney Branch)
Trail Distance: 5.1 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 984 Feet
If you get the chance to hike this trail in the early summer, you will be gifted magnificent white flowers from the mountain laurel bloom. But have no fear; if you miss the bloom, this hike is still beautiful and serene year-round. Sugarloaf Loop provides an opportunity to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail, cross a stream, take in views from Hogback Overlook, and enjoy a true walk through the woods. This is a great morning or afternoon hike in any season!
Rose River Trail
Trail Distance: 3.8 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 875 Feet
Are you looking for more waterfalls? If that’s you, Rose River is a must-do hike. A nearly 4-mile loop, the Rose River trail guides you through a wilderness-designated area filled with streams, cascading waterfalls, and beautiful forests. Many recommend the Rose River Trail as one of the best hikes in Shenandoah to take during the winter months because you can see some surreal ice formations. There are many smaller waterfalls along the hike and like most of the park, plentiful wildlife, wildflowers, and natural features will captivate you along the way. You can marvel at the 67-foot Rose River Fall, pass by an almost hundred-year-old cemetery (Cave Cemetery) and filled-in old copper mine shaft, cross bridges, listen to the sounds of lush streams flowing, and swim in fresh mountain pools.
This hike earns a moderate rating due to mild inclines and possibly slick areas. Due to the waterfalls and streams, some rocks and leaves may be slippery. There’s a small stream crossing, but if you keep an eye on where you step it doesn’t offer much of an obstacle! If you have a waterproof pair of shoes or boots, it may be a good idea to bring them along. After completing this gorgeous waterfall-filled hike, you can swing by the Big Meadows Wayside, grab a cold beverage, and check out the souvenirs.
Bearfence Mountain Trail
Trail Distance: 1.4 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 311 Feet
With a short distance and relatively low elevation gain, Bearfence Mountain Trail earns its moderate rating due to a high amount of scrambling on rock. The hike offers a 360-degree view of the Virginia Piedmont and the valley, but for those who fear heights, you may want a different trail. You begin the hike on some wooden steps built into a hillside, but before long you’re navigating some jagged boulders. While you aren’t rock climbing, this hike does require some use of handholds on the rocks, and possibly pulling yourself up in some areas. To navigate the scramble, follow the blue painted markers along the way. The views are well worth the scrambling, even if it isn’t your favorite style!
Whiteoak Canyon (Lower Falls)
Trail Distance: 2.8 Miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 406 Feet
If you are looking to chase waterfalls, Whiteoak Canyon is for you. It’s another popular, well-marked, and well-traveled hike in Shenandoah National Park. This trail has a few distance options as well. In addition to the lower falls route, you can adventure further to the upper falls (5.3 miles) or do an even longer and challenging pursuit via the Cedar Run Trail (~7.5 miles) – see below! The trail traverses beautiful cascades of waterfalls like none you’ve ever seen, provides tree canopy coverage with pockets of sunlight that shine through, and showcases Appalachian moss, swimming pools, butterflies, wildlife, and streams. Be sure to pack a lunch if you want to spend time around the waterfalls and plenty of water if you plan to hike past lower falls and explore what else Whiteoak Canyon has to offer.
Challenging Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
Trail Distance: 9.3 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 2,116 Feet
This trail is among the best hikes in Shenandoah National Park, as you’ll find mountainside views of the rolling hills, streams, and waterfalls along your path. There’s also a swimming hole if you need to cool off, and teeming wildlife all around you. The hike doesn’t feature any inclines that are too intense, despite the elevation gain. It’s rated as a hard hike primarily due to the distance, but hikers in good shape should have no problems. There are some stream crossings, so waterproof footwear is a good choice.
If you’re looking for a hike that has it all, few are better than this one. It can be difficult to find one hike that can take you to spectacular viewpoints, forested areas, and an easy-to-navigate space.
Whiteoak Canyon and Cedar Run Trail Loop
Trail Distance: 9 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 2,372 Feet
This strenuous hike will take you to a waterfall, through beautiful foliage, and give you plenty of opportunities to see the natural features in the valley. Several cascades are by the trail, and flowing waters will accompany your entire hike. There are several stream crossings on this hike, so waterproof footwear may be a good idea. Many hikers recommend this as a winter trek due to the beauty of the waterfalls when frozen. Wet leaves and stream crossings make potential falls a hazard, but if you’re careful, this is a rewarding and well-loved hike. Some scrambling is also required. You will follow well-maintained trails the whole way, but a longer distance and large amount of elevation change clock this hike in higher intensity. The views of several waterfalls are well worth it, you’ll see some of the best areas of the park!
Dark Hollow via Appalachian Trail and Story of the Forest Trail
Trail Distance: 5.9 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 1,476 Feet
This often traveled trail connection gives a great opportunity to search for wildlife and plants in the park, as well as witness some of the spectacular waterfalls. It earns a hard rating due to steep hiking later in your journey. If you want to take the hike in a less intense manner, some hikers say that the clockwise trek isn’t as strenuous as the traditional method. If you’re searching for a forested, calm, and higher-intensity hike, this is a great option. Smaller cascades are along the trek, as well as some larger waterfalls. There are also no required scrambles or cliffside walks, so this is a favorite for hikers who can’t stand heights. If you’re looking for hikes to introduce yourself to harder days on the trail, this is a great start.
Old Rag Mountain Loop
Trail Distance: 9.5 Mile Loop
Elevation Gain: 2,683 Feet
Among the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park, Old Rag Mountain Loop ranks among some of the best hikes in the country. Old Rag Mountain tops out at 3,284 feet, and the hike features rugged and rocky scrambles up to a beautiful view at the peak. It’s so popular that a ticket is required for each hiker, though they only cost $1.
The hike begins as a dirt trail, and before long you’ll find yourself scrambling and pulling yourself through boulders, passages, and crevasses, and eventually travel up a stone staircase. After that, you’ll hike up some more rocks and boulders to the summit for some great views of the park. The hike finishes up along some creeks, and you follow dirt trails littered with gravel and rocks, and bridges across streams. There are alternate routes to avoid the scramble, but it’s a fun challenge that hikers should be open to. As long as you wear proper footwear, and you’re in shape enough to handle the scrambling, this hike is a spectacular way to explore the park!
Shenandoah National Park is among the best natural spaces in America, and for hikers of all levels, there are great adventures to be had. If you plan and pack properly, you’ll be in complete safety on your adventure. Remember to wear proper footwear and clothing, bring food and water, and consider items like insect repellent or sunscreen depending on the time of year and conditions in the park. Few places offer such variety, beauty, and opportunities to see wildlife in the same way you can in Shenandoah Valley. Happy Trails!
Breathable hiking clothes – For warmer hikes, you’ll want to wear a sweat-wicking shirt and breathable pants, like these Patagonia hiking shorts for men and women. For cold-weather hikes, we recommend dressing in layers, including merino wool baselayers for men and women, a down puffer jacket for men and women, and a Northface waterproof outer shell for men and women (a must for hiking in Seattle). And don’t forget a pair of the best women’s and men’s hiking socks!
Trekking poles – You won’t need these for every single hike, but we suggest throwing them in your car just in case. We recommend the Black Diamond Trail Ergo cork trekking poles, which are lightweight, easy to transport, and durable.
Water bottle – Having water available at all times is a huge must. To limit disposable plastic, we recommend bringing your own refillable water bottle. We’re obsessed with Hydro Flask water bottles because they keep water cold for hours.
Sunscreen and bug spray – Sweatproof sunscreen and DEET bug spray can help you avoid sunburn and bug bites, two of hiking’s most annoying after-effects. Our favorite kind of sunscreen is Sun Bum, as it is free of harsh chemicals and safe for marine life, including coral reefs.
A brimmed hat or cap – The sun can be brutal in open hikes, so always pack a brimmed hat or capfor day hikes in the sunshine.
Emergency blanket and first aid kit – We’d strongly recommend bringing a first aid kit and a lightweight emergency blanket on every hike. Why? Because the unfathomable can happen, and it’s always best to play it safe.
Durable day pack – A durable day pack is the perfect spot to stash all your hiking gear. While any backpack will do, we recommend the Osprey Tempest 20 or the Talon 22 day packs because they’re comfortable and breathable for long hikes. For more information, check out our best day packs for any terrain guide.
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