Visiting Shenandoah-Best Hikes with Kids
Shenandoah National Park is a great family destination. It is about 2 hours west of Washington D.C. in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is a very accessible National Park to much of the East Coast. There are many things to do in the park including hiking, lookout points, and spotting wildlife. Shenandoah National Park provides easy hiking opportunities for novice hikers as well as more challenging trails for the more adventurous. It’s a wonderful place to get out in nature and enjoy the peacefulness of being in the mountains.
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How Many Days To Stay In Shenandoah with Kids
Our family enjoyed 2 full days in Shenandoah National Park. We felt like that was a good fit for our family. I think we could’ve filled 1-2 more days with easy hikes going at our leisurely pace. There are also many cute towns on the edges of the parks that all provide different attractions and things to do if you have more time in your itinerary.
When to visit Shenandoah
Shenandoah can be enjoyed most of the year. We visited in mid-April and the trees were still bare. I expected things to be more green but the trees still looked very brown/grey and sparse. One month later the park appeared to be lush and green. For the best experience, try to visit from May-October
The best time to visit Shenandoah is the fall. The trees are surely magnificent when they are changing colors. The views you can get over the valley and rolling hills will be full of color. If you want to visit in the fall, I would recommend booking your accommodations a long time in advance, especially if you want to stay in the park.
How To Get There
You will need a car to best explore Shenandoah National Park. There are four entrances to the park: Front Royal (North end of park), Thornton Gap (middle of park), Swift Run Gap (middle of park), and Rockfish Gap (South end of park). The price to enter a National Park is $30 per vehicle which is good for 7 days. An annual pass costs $55 and is worth it if you will visit the park more than once a year.
Shenandoah Best Hikes with Kids
Right next to the Skyland Resort in the park is the Stony Man trailhead. This was one of the most recommended family hikes I came across when researching the trip. Stony Man is about 1.8 miles round trip. It took us 1 hour and 40 minutes including lots of snack breaks, picture breaks, and owie breaks after taking some spills. It wasn’t too strenuous for my 5 and 3-year-old, or for me who was hiking wearing a baby and carrying a heavy camera.
At the summit, there is a rock outcropping that gives you a fantastic view of the valley. While not a huge drop-off, be careful with little ones and hold them close as it is still a little precarious. Follow the blue trail blazes to stay on the hiking trail instead of diverting to the horse trail or Appalachian Trail (white blazes).
Dark Hollow Falls
Dark Hollow Falls was the other hike that seemed to be the most recommend. It was 1.4 miles roundtrip and also took us about an hour and 40 minutes with several breaks. The trailhead is located very close to Big Meadows and the Byrd Visitor Center. Pop in the visitor center first to use the bathroom, then head over to the trail.
This hike starts off by going downhill along a creek and ends with some pretty waterfalls. Since you start by hiking down, that means the more challenging part of the hike is the way back up. Just keep that in mind when hiking with kids. The trail was muddy in areas which could’ve been due to rain or just the nature of that trail.
Other Shenandoah Family Hikes
Below is a list of hikes from North to South, they are all rated “Easy” from the NPS. The links will bring you to a PDF map of the trails and the surrounding area of the park. Each hike has a short description. Note the estimated hiking time and elevation change to give you a better idea of each one.
Fox Hollow Trail Hike-1.2 mile circuit
Fort Windham Rocks Hike-0.8 miles roundtrip
Lands Run Falls Hike-1.3 miles roundtrip, hike waterfalls that drop 80 ft. into a gorge
Traces Trail Hike-1.7 mile circuit
Limberlost Hike-1.3 mile circuit
Miller’s Head Hike-1.6 miles roundtrip
Boundary to Lower Falls Hike-2 miles roundtrip
Upper Hawksbill to Hawksbill Summit Hike-2.1 miles roundtrip
Story of the Forest Hike-1.8 miles circuit
Appalachian Trail Tanners Ridge Road Hike-2.1 miles roundtrip, fairly level hike, takes you through a former homestead
Bearfence Viewpoint Hike-1.1 mile roundtrip
Frazier Discovery Trail Hike-1.2 mile circuit
Blackrock Summit Hike-1 mile circuit
Turk Mountain Hike-2.25 miles roundtrip
Find all the hiking maps to the park here.
Here’s another guide to day hikes in Shenandoah National Park
Things to Do in Shenandoah
Skyline Drive is the main road that transverses the entire park from North to South. One of the most popular things to do is simply to drive on Skyline Drive, pulling over to stop at various lookout points. The speed limit is 35 mph, so it’s not the place for fast driving. Slow down and enjoy the views and keep your eyes open! You might just spot some deer or even some black bears.
Skyland Resort is one of two places you can actually stay inside the park. Even if you do not reserve a room here, consider stopping in for a meal at the Pollock Dining Room, a drink at the taproom, or just to pop in the gift shop.
The gift shop here was bigger than the one at the Byrd visitor center although they seemed to have some different items for sale in each. There is also a small coffee stand selling drinks and light fare, sandwiches to go, etc.
We stopped here for lunch and the food was terrific! Make sure someone orders the crab soup, it is delicious! The dining room has big windows filling the room with light and giving you some nice views into the valley. I also loved that they gave the kids little Etch-a-Sketch toys instead of crayons to play with while they waited for their food.
The restaurant does close in between meal times so be aware of that when you visit. The hours of the restaurant are:
Byrd Visitor Center
This visitor center near Big Meadows has a small museum detailing the history of Shenandoah National Park. There is also a theater playing a movie and a gift shop. You can meet and talk with park rangers here. They can give you a map and talk to you about the best places to hike for your group. It’s a good place to go if you need to wait out some rain as we did! You can also find restrooms here. (There is supposed to be a cafe and a gas station here as well, it looked to be closed for construction during our visit).
You can stay at three places inside the park, Skyland Resort, Big Meadows, or Lewis Mountain Cabins. If you are unable to get a room here you will need to stay outside of the park and drive in each day. Some cities to look for lodging are Winchester, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Masanutten Resort, and Luray.
Check the box below for deals on lodging near Shenandoah National Park.
Gas. There is a gas station inside the park at Big Meadows but gas is more expensive there so it is best to fill up before entering the park.
Pack snacks. There is food available at Skyland resort in the restaurant or a few grab-and-go items. It’s wise to pack snacks, water, and a picnic lunch. That way you aren’t scrambling for food when people get hungry.
Shoes. The trails we did were easy enough for novice hikers like us. You don’t need serious hiking boots but wear good athletic shoes. The trails had loose rocks and mud which make slipping easy. You definitely want good footwear.
Hiking with kids. Bring snacks, bring water, wear sunscreen. Take breaks liberally. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and say you have to keep walking until the timer goes off. Look for animals, look for birds nests, look for the trail markers. Find ways to distract their attention to other places. Make sure to use the bathroom before setting out on your hike.
Keep Track of Your Trip with a Kid's Travel Journal.
Junior Ranger Program
Did you know that the National Park Service has a robust program for kids? There are several activity books on the website you can print out and help your child complete. When they complete one, they can earn a badge. You can also purchase a National Park passport ($10) to stamp at each National Park.
Download the Activity Book for Shenandoah