Plan a family trip to Shenandoah Valley
Shenandoah National Park has a beauty that is subtle, gentle, and surprising. Visitors find themselves pausing to stare at a goldfinch resting on a thistle or a marveling at an unexpected valley vista during an otherwise shaded hike.
Drawn to its charm, my family has returned to Shenandoah for generations. My grandparents honeymooned in the Shenandoah Valley and then brought their family camping in the campground along Shenandoah’s famous Skyline Drive. Later, my mother brought our family to the park for camping adventures.
What’s Special About Shenandoah National Park?
Located in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, Shenandoah National Park offers a retreat for many living in the busy Washington, D.C. metro area.
The park’s central throughway, Skyline Drive, winds 150 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. The drive is studded with nearly 70 overlooks, inviting visitors to pull over for selfies. Most hikes, campgrounds, and other activities are located along Skyline Drive.
Know Before You Go
Because Shenandoah National Park is located on a ridgeline, it is much cooler than the surrounding valley. Pack a few warmer layers, even if you are visiting in the summer.
A lightweight rain coat and rugged shoes are useful when visiting this park. Any hiking boots or trail running shoes will work well, but my kids loved wearing hiking sandals for splashing in the creeks and rivers. (Need some sandals? Here are our recommendations.)
Practice bear safety protocol. This includes stowing your food, toiletries, and trash in your car or in the bear-boxes set up around the camp.
Best Family Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah’s most popular hikes are Old Rag and my favorite, Whiteoak Canyon. While hiking the Old Rag circuit, visitors scramble over rocks and crawl through crevices. Because this hike is a little over nine miles, it was too strenuous for our group. Perhaps we will try it when the kids are older.
If you want to stand on Old Rag’s summit but avoid the challenging rock scramble, try the Nicholson Hollow Trail. This eight-mile trail is recommended for pet owners and a delapidated homesite.
Whiteoak Canyon Trail
I have fond memories of exploring the Whiteoak Canyon Trail Ciruit. These two trails takes you on an incredible journey to a series of six waterfalls in the mountain gorge. Along the route are many swimming holes and natural water slides perfect for a mid-hike dip.
Many visitors skip the long circuit and treat this trail as a there-and-back again hike, choosing to stop at the upper falls. If you have you have young children, this is a wise approach as it’s a 4.6-mile hike – but it takes willpower to stop before you visited all the waterfalls!
After splashing in every watering hole, you’ll reach the canyon’s bottom. Here you may either turn around or hike on Cedar Run Falls to view the sixth and final waterfall. Cedar Run Falls will return you to your parking spot after a nine-mile hike.
Family hiking tip:
Whiteoak Canyon Trail and other hikes in Shenandoah typically begin at the ridgeline. Hikers must first walk down and then after climb uphill during the second part of the trip. If you are used to more traditional up and then down hikes, select a slightly less challenging hike than you typically would. This will prevent your troop from burning out just before a steep climb.
More Easy Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
Mary’s Rock Trail
This 3.7 round trip hike was delightfully less traveled hike with spectacular views and a final, short rock scramble to the summit. Want to avoid the rock scramble? A large ledge sits at the base of the rock scramble and gives expansive views of the valley and can be a satisfying destination.
Hawksbill Loop Trail
Hawksbill, the highest mountain in the park, measures just over 4,000 feet. A moderately challenging 2-mile hike brings visitors to its busy summit with an observation platform offering panoramic views.
The Appalachian Trail
I dare you to visit the park and not find yourself on this famous hiking trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. The AT traverses the park, covering more than 115 miles, and many of the park’s hikes merge with the AT for a time. My kids were fascinated with the idea that they could walk from Virginia to our home in New Hampshire on this trail.
Dark Hollow Falls Trail
Dark Hollow Falls is a very popular hike because its an easier stroll that ends in a spectacular view. The kids rambled down the three-quarters mile path with zest, but several had to be carried on the steep return journey. While climbing, they enjoyed nibbling on the wild berries growing along the path.
This waterfall is particularly stunning in the spring when the water levels are high. Our trip was scheduled for early August in the middle of a drought but even with a diminished flow, the falls were enjoyable.
Big Meadows Trail
Big Meadows is a large grassy meadow along the Shenandoah ridge. This field provided the ideal location to look for wildlife. Perviously, I saw two bear cubs in a tree while hiking the paths near Sheandoah! We sighted them during a ranger-led hike from the Big Meadows Lodge, and our group was very careful not to approach them. (For more on bear safety, read this.)
On this trip, we observed a mating dance between two rattlesnakes! Birds love the thistle and other plants growing on the meadows.
The open field at Big Meadows allows visitors to observe the night sky without interference from light pollution.
If your kids love challenging features but languish on long hike, then they will love this trail. Bearfence Trail is a popular 1-mile-loop trail traverses a delightful rock scramble and features stunning views.
Over the years, our family has learned a few important lessons about the Bearfence Trail the hard way. On one visit, the park ranger assured my mother that my grandfather, who had Parkinson’s disease, could handle this trail. When we got to the rock scramble, he struggled to manipulate his body through the rocks. Meanwhile, my brother who was six at the time began bounding across the rocks like a mountain goat. My mother was torn, did she prevent her son from jumping to her death or help her father? Thankfully, that hike ended with no fatalities or injuries. To prevent a similar situation, here are a few tips before you try this hike:
- ) Encourage your children to be cautious on the rocks and clearly explain to them your expectations before beginning the hike.
- ) Don’t let the length fool you into bringing your elderly relatives up this trail. It’s short but brutal, requiring upperbody strength and flexibity.
- ) Don’t bring your dog on this trail! The rock scrambles are steep and not safe for a dog.
Other things to do with kids in the Shenandoah Valley
After exploring the park, save time for adventure in the surrounding Shenandoah Valley.
Shenandoah River Tubing
Rent a tube, kayak, or raft to explore the Shenandoah River with Shenandoah River Outfitters. Since our group had several young children, we decided to tube. While drifting, we passed several cliffs and watched as dragonflies and butterflies landed on our knees.
Usually, the outfitters serve a delicious hamburger lunch mid ride and offer a post-float steak dinner. This meal had been a highlight from one of my family’s previous trips. Unfortunately, COVID interrupted the meal offerings this year, but they plan to serve them again in 2022.
Visit Luray Caverns with the Family
These caverns are the largest on the east coast and offer an otherworldly journey into the earth. The cavern’s ceiling is curtained with luminous sheets of stalactites and towering stalagmites. Within the subterrain halls, an organ plays using the rock formations as pipes.
If you have a whole day, explore the garden maze or ropes course just outside of Luray Caverns or our the museums next door.
Horseback Riding in Shenandoah
Do you love to explore by horseback? Then this is the park for you! Shenandoah National Park offers over 180 miles of equestrian friendly trails! For those new to riding or without their own horse, the park offers guided tours from Skyland Stables.
Mountain Biking near Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park prohibits bikes on most of its trails, but Massanutten Trail Resort is only 20 minutes from the park’s southern entrance. This trail network incorporates approximately 30 miles biking trails through a wooded terrain.
Visit Shenandoah National Park with Kids
Family friendly hikes and activities are plentiful in Shenandoah National Park. Every time we visit, we wander long our old favorites and explore new trails. I encourage you to simply try a trail that seems interesting to you and follow the adventure.
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