SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. — The ridge-top Skyline Drive, the curvy 105-mile Virginia road from Waynesboro in the south to Front Royal on the north, offers 75 scenic overlooks in the 197,000-acre national park that was dedicated in 1936.
Shenandoah National Park is a mountain park with a river’s name. Some of its best views are its very highest.
Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in the park at an elevation of 4,050 feet and offers stellar long-distance views of the Shenandoah Valley. Hawksbill Mountain also offers relatively easy access. Depending on which Skyline Drive trailhead you use, you can hike to the top in 1.7, 2.1 or 2.9 miles.
On an April visit, I started at the trailhead at mile marker 45.6 (mileage is measured from north to south in the park) for the 1.7-mile one-way hike. It was an easy-to-moderate hike with an elevation gain of 700 feet. That means it gets steep in places.
The blue-blazed trail runs through groves of striped maple trees and crosses talus slopes or boulder fields beneath sheer cliffs of Catoctin greenstone. It ascends through balsam fir, mountain ash and red spruce, remnants of more-northern locales.
The trail takes you to the Byrd Nest Shelter, a rock building that serves as a day-use shelter near the summit.
The top of Hawksbill Mountain is a stone-walled overlook that faces north. The views are not 360 degrees, but close. It was noisy atop the mountain with the wind blowing. I ran into a couple at the overlook on my visit, but the summit does not draw huge crowds.
What makes Hawksbill unusual is that the terrain falls off steeply from the mountaintop, boosting the up-high panoramas. Hawksbill Mountain is a prime spot in the fall to watch southbound migrating eagles, hawks and other raptors.
You are almost atop Timber and Buracker hollows that form East Hawksbill Creek, flowing west to the town of Luray that is easily visible 3,000 feet below the overlook.
Farther to the west are the Shenandoah Valley and the Allegheny Mountains. Massanutten Mountain is clearly visible.
To the north, you can see the Skyline Drive swing to the east around Stony Man, the second-highest peak in the park. The view to the south is of Spitler Hill, and to the southwest the rounded Naked Top.
Easy access for hikers
In all, the park offers 516 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The white-blazed Appalachian Scenic Trail stretches 2,160 miles from Georgia to Maine. Virginia has more miles of the trail – 544 – than any other state.
To the east is Old Rag Mountain, one of the most-popular day-use hiking trails in the park. You cannot access Old Rag from the Skyline Drive. It is a tough steep climb, an 8.8-mile hike and rock scramble that climbs 2,380 feet to the roundish summit of the 3,291-foot mountain.
To access Old Rag, you must exit the Skyline Drive at Thornton Gap (Mile 31.5). Go east on U.S. 211 for seven miles. Go south on U.S. 522 for 0.8 mile. Turn right on state Route 231 and go about 8 miles. Turn right on state Route 601 and go about 3 miles. Follow the signs to the parking lot.
Take the Ridge Trail south from the parking lot to the summit and descend via Saddle Trail on the northwest slope. Use the Weakley Hollow fire road to get back to the starting point.
Stony Man Mountain, the park’s No. 2 peak, is 4,010 feet in elevation. From the north, it said that the mountain resembles the visage of an old man facing to the west. It is easily accessible, too.
A nature trail runs from 3,670 feet at the trailhead near the Skyland Lodge at Mile 41.7 and gradually climbs to the summit. It is a 1.6-mile loop, generally easy with a few steep sections.
The forest is a high-elevation hardwood. You will find American mountain-ash with its bright red berries in late summer and early fall. Up higher, you will find red spruce and balsam firs.
A small copper mine operated near the summit in the early 1800s.
You can also get a glimpse at Stony Man Mountain from Little Stony Man Cliffs at Mile 39.1. There is a short steep hike to the rocky cliffs that look to the west. The round-trip hike is just under 1 mile with a climb of 270 feet. The reward is one of the best vistas in the park. You can also access the summit from the cliff area, but the hike is a little longer and steeper.
The cliffs are composed of greenstone from ancient volcanoes. For me, Little Stony Man Cliffs is a favorite spot for sunsets across the Shenandoah Valley.
Nearby, the Thorofare Mountain Overlook at Mile 41 and an elevation of 3,595 feet offers stunning sunrise views to the east across the Virginia Piedmont.
The park is also home to more than 15 major waterfalls.
One of the most popular trails leads to the waterfalls in White Oak Canyon. It is a 4.6-mile round-trip hike from the trailhead at mile 42.6 to the first waterfall, an 86-foot-high cascade. Hikers descend from 3,510 feet at the trailhead to 2,470 feet. The return hike is very steep, according to the park service.
If you want to see the five other falls in White Oak Canyon, it’s another 2.7 miles one-way and a drop of another 1,100 feet. That makes a tough exit hike. But it is one of the most beautiful and most visited areas of the park with its ancient hemlocks, giant boulders, sheer cliffs and the waterfalls.
The most-visited waterfall in the park is Dark Hollow Falls at mile 50.7. It is a moderate 1.4-mile walk from 3,425 feet down to a beautiful falls at 3,130 feet on Hogcamp Branch.
The park, long and narrow (80 miles long and 2 to 13 miles wide), has four entrances, three visitor centers, about 285 rooms and cabins and four campgrounds, plus backcountry camping. It gets about 1.2 million visitors a year.