Visiting Shenandoah National Park with Kids: The Complete Guide

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Visiting Shenandoah National Park with kids makes for an easy and accessible family vacation.  Shenandoah is a great introductory park for kids and it’s also a nice park for seasoned hikers. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Shenandoah is a forested park running along the Appalachian Trail.  Shenandoah has a little bit for every member of the family- kid-friendly hikes, dramatic waterfalls, and vibrant panoramas make Shenandoah both soothing and exciting.  If you are looking for a family vacation in which you can unplug, re-connect with your family, and get some R&R, then Shenandoah is the place for you!

We visited Shenandoah in September 2016 when our son was 5 months old.  This was his first flight and also his first National Park.  We picked Shenandoah because given its proximity to D.C. and Baltimore it was easy to get to.  We did a lot of hiking but we also took it easy and just enjoyed each other and our surroundings.  If you have never been to the Blue Ridge Mountains-GO NOW- they are absolutely breathtaking and get their name from the bluish-hue that the trees give off when viewed from afar.

Moormans River Overlook, Shenandoah National Park
Moormans River Overlook, Shenandoah National Park (mile 92)

Useful Things to Know About Visiting Shenandoah National Park

Location

Shenandoah is located in Virginia about 70 miles west of Washington D.C. nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  It is a long narrow park, with its major artery, Skyline Drive, running north to south.  Skyline Drive is 105 miles from top to bottom and the majority of Shenandoah’s trailheads are directly off of or near Skyline Drive. 

From north to south there are 4 entrances: Front Royal (Mile 0, northern most entrance), Thornton Gap (Mile 32), Swift Run Gap (Mile 66), Rockfish Gap (Mile 105, southernmost entrance).

Shenandoah National Park, southern entrance, Shenandoah National Park with kids
Shenandoah National Park, Mile 105, Rockfish Gap

Getting to Shenandoah National Park

As mentioned above, there are four entrances into Shenandoah, one at the northern end of the park, one at the southern end and two in the middle.  The two in the middle can be accessed from both the east and the west. 

Airports:

If you are flying the three primary airports are:

  1. Washington Dulles (IAD): 56 miles east of Front Royal (1 hour 1 minute)
  2. Reagan National (DCA): 72 miles east of Front Royal (1 hour 17 minutes)
  3. Baltimore (BWI): 106 miles east of Front Royal (1 hour 50 minutes)

There are two other airports in the vicinity of Shenandoah, however they are both regional airports and may be more expensive than the Washington and Baltimore airports. They are: Shenandoah Valley Regional (27 miles west of Shenandoah) and Charlottesville-Albemarle (31 miles east of Shenandoah).

Driving:

  1. From the DC area: If you’re driving from DC the closest entrance is Front Royal Entrance, (northernmost entrance) and it’s a 1 hr. 16 min drive. From DC to the Thornton Gap Entrance it’s 1 hr. 39 min.
  2. From Richmond, Virginia: To Rockfish Gap, (southern entrance) is 1hr 26min. To Swift Run Gap (center of the park) it’s 1hr. 44 min.
  3. From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: To Front Royal (northernmost entrance) it’s 3hr. 38 minutes.

Entrance Fees:

The entrance fee is $30 for a single vehicle and all of its occupants and is good for 7 consecutive days beginning with the day of purchase.  To qualify for the $30 entrance fee your car/van must have 15 seats or less. A Shenandoah Annual Pass is $55 per year and covers the pass owner and occupants of their vehicle.  

America the Beautiful offers an annual pass which covers more than 2,000 national parks, national wildlife refuges, and federal recreation lands.  It costs $80 and covers the pass holder and all passengers in a personal vehicle.

Driving Through Shenandoah National Park

The road running from the top to the bottom of Shenandoah National Park is Skyline Drive. It is the Park’s artery and because the park is long and narrow almost everything in the park can be accessed from this road.  You can find your way along the road by referring to the mile numbers.  The northernmost point in the park, Front Royal Entrance Station, starts at Mile 0, and the road ends with Mile 105 at Rockfish Gap, the parks southernmost point. 

Although Skyline drive is ‘only’ 105 miles long, the drive is deceptively long.  The speed limit is 35 miles per hour and you are driving through the mountains for the entire drive.  Along the drive you are inundated with beautiful vistas, alluring trails, and maybe a bear here or there.  I wouldn’t recommend making the drive in one day, but if you must, give yourself at least 4-6 hours to get from top to bottom.

Before setting out check out the National Park Service website to see of any road closures. 

Appalachian Trail, Ivy Creek Overlook
Appalachian Trail, Ivy Creek Overlook

Layout of Shenandoah National Park:

Map of Shenandoah National Park, with marked entrances

Visitor Centers

Shenandoah has two visitor centers, one near the northernmost entrance, Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, and one at the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center at mile 51.  Both visitor centers are in the northern half of the park.

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center is located at mile 4.6 on Skyline Drive; right across the street from the Fox Hollow Trail Head.

Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center is located at mile 51, right across from Big Meadows (located close to Big Meadows Lodge).

Cell Service & WiFi

Cell Service: Generally, the cell service in Shenandoah is limited; however, cell service is available at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. The website also says that cell service is available “at most west-facing overlooks throughout the Park.”

WiFi: You’ll find free Wifi at the Byrd Visitor Center, Big Meadows Lodge, and Skyland Resort. 

Wildlife in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah is teaming with wildlife and in my opinion the wildlife is one of the main reasons for visiting Shenandoah National Park with kids. Shenandoah has a wide array of large mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and insects.  While visiting Shenandoah you’ll have lots of opportunities to view and photograph wildlife but along with those experiences come a huge responsibility.  These are wild animals, and as parents and caregivers it’s our responsibility to teach our children how to respectfully view and interact (or not) with wildlife. 

A few of the larger mammals present in Shenandoah are black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, and coyotes.  Black bears are one of the most fascinating animals, but also must be viewed with the most care.  Never approach a black bear but also never run from one either.  Check out the Shenandoah National Park page on Bear Safety and also talk to a ranger when you arrive.  We’ve visited parks all over the country with black and brown bears, and have never had a problem. However, you want to understand what to do and not to do should you have a bear encounter.        

One more thing to note is that ticks are present throughout Shenandoah. You should understand how to check yourself (and your children) for ticks, and how to remove them. Check out the Shenandoah National Park page on ticks for more information.

Leave No Trace

Leaving No Trace means exactly what it sounds like. Endeavor to leave Shenandoah exactly the way you find it.  Do not leave trash or belongings behind and don’t take any of the park with you.  Check out the ‘seven principles’ of leaving no trace.  

What is There to do in Shenandoah National Park with Kids?

Take Your Kids Hiking!

The most enjoyable thing to do is go hiking with your kiddos! I promise, they will enjoy it and you will too!

What to Pack for a Day of Hiking?

This is what is in our day pack when we go hiking with our son:

  1. Water
  2. Nutrition/snacks
  3. Mini-first aid (see packing list post)
  4. Sunglasses
  5. Sunscreen
  6. Change of clothing for kiddo
  7. Wipes
  8. Insect Repellent
  9. Hat
  10. Good pair of shoes
  11. Baby Carrier or Stroller

Where to Hike in Shenandoah National Park with Kids?

The Shenandoah website has a handy-dandy chart with most of its hikes. Any hike that is categorized as ‘easy’ should be kid friendly.  Also, any trail that has the ‘wheelchair’ symbol, or that is paved should be OK. Shenandoah is unique in that its trails encompass 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail!  I think it’s pretty cool to get to hike the AT without having to hike the entire thing!

Below are hikes that are probably suitable for hiking with children.  Depending on your endurance and hiking capabilities you may be able to do more strenuous hikes. 

Also, we hike with our son in a carrier.  When he was a baby (which he was in Shenandoah) we used a Baby Bjorn.  We’ve also hiked with our Lille Baby which is a six position soft-structured-carrier.  Now we use a Dueter Kid Comfort III for hiking. 

The trails that have a ‘track trail for kids’ notation are particularly kid friendly and link to a kidsinparks.com site that gives you GPS coordinates and some kid-friendly background on the trail.

North District

  • Fox Hollow Loop-Mile 4.6-easy, 1.2 miles.
    • This trail runs through the forest and passes by a cemetery.
    • Self-guided booklet available.
    • Track Trail for Kids available.
  • Fort Windham Rocks-Mile 10.4-easy, .8 miles.
    • Runs along the Appalachian Trail
  • Traces Trail-Mile 22.2-easy/moderate, 1.7 miles.
    • Trail passes by ‘traces’ of former mountain settlements.
    • Elements of natural and cultural history.
    • Geological topographies.
Hike to Dark Hallow Falls, Shenandoah National Park with Kids
Hike to Dark Hallow Falls

Central District

  • Little Stony Man Trail-Mile 35.9, near Skyland. 0.9 miles
    • Panoramic views
    • Wildflowers
    • Good springtime hike
  • Stony Man Trail-Mile 41.7, Skyland north-fairly easy, steep sections, 1.6 miles
    • Beautiful viewpoints
    • Self-guided booklet available
  • Miller’s Head-Mile 42.5, Skyland south-fairly easy, steep sections, 1.6 miles
    • Nice viewpoint
  • Limberlost-Mile 43-easy, ADA Accessible, 1.3 miles
    • Trail runs through the forest with various mountain topographies
    • ADA accessible
    • Track Trail for Kids
  • Upper Hawksbill-Mile 46.7-moderate, 2.1 miles
    • Viewpoint/summit
  • Rose River Falls-Mile 49.4-moderate, 2.6 miles round-trip, climb of 720 feet
    • Take out and back, not loop (loop is 4 miles)
    • Waterfall
  • Dark Hollow Falls-Mile 50.7-moderate, steep sections, 1.4 miles
    • Waterfall
  • Story of the Forest Trail-Mile 51-easy, 1.8 miles
    • Trail runs through the forest
  • Blackrock Viewpoint-Mile 51.2, Big Meadows Lodge-easy, .4 miles
    • Nice viewpoint
  • Lewis Falls Trail-Short-Mile 51.4-moderate, steep sections, 2 miles (also a circuit hike that is 3.3 miles)
    • There is an observation platform of the waterfall
  • Bearfence Viewpoint-Mile 56.4-easy, 1.1 miles
    • Trail runs along the Appalachian trail, to a view point

South District

  • Jones River Falls: Mile 84.1-moderate, 3.4 miles
    • Waterfall
  • Blackrock Summit: Mile 84.8-easy, .08 or 1 mile
    • Track Trail for Kids
    • Trail runs through various mountain topographies
    • Viewpoint
Trayfoot Mountain Overlook, Shenandoah National Park
Trayfoot Mountain Overlook, Shenandoah National Park (mile 87)

Other Things (besides hiking) to Do in Shenandoah National Park with Kids?

Playgrounds: Check out the playgrounds at Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland Resort.

Skyline Drive: Drive Skyline Drive during naptime!  Or anytime, really.

Ranger Led Program: Check out the free Ranger led programs. They are offered in spring, summer, and the fall.  

Junior Ranger Programs: Check out the Junior Ranger Programs; these are fun and are designed for children ages 7-12.

Create a Scavenger Hunt: Make a little scavenger hunt to look for wildlife or other natural objects (waterfalls, white (insert any color) rocks, large sticks, downed logs, etc…). 

Visiting Shenandoah with Kids: Additional Questions Answered

Things to do with Kids in and around Shenandoah National Park

We did not do a cave tour but a few were recommended to us. There are a number of cavern tours in the Shenandoah area, but Luray Caverns is the most popular. 

Luray Caverns is one of the largest cave systems in the eastern US.  The tour operator also hosts a number of exhibits, one of which, ‘Toy Town Junction,’ is dubbed as the ‘real toy story’ and has hundreds of miniature trains and toys.  Admission is free for children under 5. (Score!) 

Check out visitshenandoah.org for more family activities in the area.

Shenandoah National Park with a baby

I would recommend any of the easy trails with a baby.  And I would definitely wear the baby if possible!

A note on Cloth Diapers

We cloth diapered our son and brought cloth diapers on our trip to Shenandoah. As mentioned, we stayed at Big Meadows Lodge; adjacent to Big Meadows Lodge is a campground with washer/dryer facilities.  In fact, one of the reasons that we decided to stay at Big Meadows Lodge was because it had washer/dryer facilities nearby.  We picked a day that we’d wash our diapers and just relaxed at the campgrounds that afternoon. 

Baby hanging out at Big Meadows Lodge Campgrounds
Baby hanging out at Big Meadows Lodge Campground while we washed nappies

Where to Stay in Shenandoah?

We visited Shenandoah in September and it was HOT. It cools down considerably at night, but it was still hot and muggy.

Options in the Park:

Big Meadows Lodge

Big Meadows Lodge is located at mile 51 on Skyline Drive.  They offer a variety of lodging options including the main lodge, rustic cabins, and more traditional and ‘preferred’ hotel/motel rooms.  We stayed here and opted for a ‘Preferred Room’ in large part because these rooms have air conditioning.  I’m all about air conditioning, especially with a baby in tow.  

On the premises they have a restaurant, a taproom, and a craft shop; they also offer nightly entertainment in the tap room. The lodge has a really pretty sitting area with great vistas of the park.  I would definitely recommend this place!

Skyland Resort

Skyland Resort is located at mile 42 along Skyline Drive. The lodging options are spread out over 27 acres in 28 separate buildings.  Options include rustic cabins, premium rooms, and some premium suites.  Skyland has a gift shop, and a taproom; free-family friendly entertainment is offered in the taproom, nightly.

Lewis Mountain Cabins

The Cabins are for those who want to camp but who don’t want to sleep on ground; these are one step up from a campground. Located at mile 57.5, these one or two bedroom cabins are rustic, but do offer electricity, heat, ceiling fans, towels, and linens.  They also offer more rustic cabins with no bathroom or linens.

Camping

There are four campgrounds in Shenandoah:

  • Mathews Arm Campground (Mile 22.1)
  • Big Meadows Campground (Mile 51.2)
  • Lewis Mountain Campground (Mile 57.5)
  • Loft Mountain Campground (Mile 79.5)

Options Outside the Park

If you’d like to save a bit of money then staying outside of the park is a good option, especially during peak dates. Because Shenandoah is a long, skinny park, the surrounding area is dotted with small towns running alongside the park.  If you stay outside of the park you are going to do a lot more driving, but it may be worth the savings.  Some towns to check out are (from north to south) Front Royal, Luray, Sperryville, Elkton, Standardsville,

Also, check out Airbnb or Homeaway for home rental options.

Our Trip Itinerary: September in Shenandoah National Park

We took it REALLY easy on this trip. It was our first proper vacation with the baby and we wanted to make is as leisurely as possible. Plus I’m all about babies napping, so that was a priority for me. We went into this trip without many firm plans and here is what our final itinerary looked like:

  • Visited Shenandoah from Thursday, September 8, 2016-Monday, September 13, 2016.
  • Flew in and out of BWI:
  • Rented a car on priceline.com.
  • Stayed at Big Meadows Lodge from the 8th– the 12th.
  • The last night we stayed at the Crowne Plaza Annapolis.
  • Explored Annapolis, Maryland on the morning of the 13th.

Day 1: We flew from Chicago, Midway to Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) on Southwest Airlines. We departed at 12:20pm (CST) and arrived at 3:05pm (EST).  We rented a car on Priceline.com and it was really easy to get in and out of BWI’s car rental facility.  Then, we drove to Big Meadows Lodge, in the park, which is where we stayed for four nights.  The drive from BWI to Shenandoah, with stops, was about 3 hours and 30 minutes.

Day 2: Our first day at Big Meadows Lodge we explored the lodge and its surroundings. Big Meadows has a nice sitting area and a larch porch/veranda over looking the Blue Ridge Mountains. We also explored the gift shop.

Day 3: Our second full day in the park we took it easy. We went hiking/walking, including the Story of the Forest Trail and the Dark Hollow Falls hikes.

Day 4: For our third full day in the park we visited the Byrd Visitor’s Center. In the afternoon we washed nappies at the Big Meadow Lodge campground and took turns hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Day 5: We packed up and headed out for Annapolis, Maryland. On our way out of the park we stopped at the Ivy Creek (mile 77.5), the Trayfoot Mountain (mile 87), and the Moorman’s River (mile 92) Overlooks.

Don’t make the mistake we did and miss your turn off out of the park at the Thornton Gap Entrance Station. What should have been a three hour drive turned into a seven hour drive; we had to drive all the way to the Rockfish Gap Entrance Station (mile 105) to exit the park.  Also beware of Washington D.C. traffic and try not to hit D.C. during rush hour.

That night we stayed in Annapolis, at the Crowne Plaza.

Day 6: Explored Annapolis in the morning; flew home at 2:55pm from BWI.

Recommended Itinerary for Shenandoah National Park with Kids, if you Only Have One Day

If you only have one full day in Shenandoah then you’ll want to hit the highlights.  I would recommend doing one of two things.

Option One: Enter Shenandoah through the Thornton Gap Entrance Station (mile 32) and head south. I would explore the area from mile 32 down to Big Meadows Lodge/Byrd Visitor Center (Mile 51). This gives you a nice 20 mile drive along Skyland Drive and you’ll have access to a number of nice hikes.

I’d recommend Little Stony Man (Mile 35.9) and then Dark Hallow Falls (Mile 50.7). Both hikes are appropriate for doing with small children and doing one at mile 35 and one at mile 50 will give you a nice break between hikes.

You’ll also pass by Skyland Resort and end at Big Meadows lodge, in case you want to grab a bite or if you need some amenities (like a bathroom). You’ll also get to visit the Byrd Visitor Center.

Option Two: Enter Shenandoah from the north, through the Front Royal Entrance Station (mile 0) and visit Dickey Ridge Visitor’s Center (mile 4.6). You can then meander down to Thornton Gap (mile 32) or drive out as far as you’d like and head back north towards Front Royal.

I’d recommend Fox Hollow Trail (mile 4.6), Fort Windham Rocks (10.4), and the Traces Trail (mile 22.2).

Takeaway

I hope that this post inspires you to visit Shenandoah National Park with kids (or any of the national parks, for that matter)! Visiting Shenandoah is not only an accessible and affordable vacation, but will allow you to disconnect from the rest of the world and re-connect with your family and yourself!

If you’d like to visit another U.S. National Park with your kids then a few suggestions are the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, the Smokies, or the Tetons!

Shenandoah National Park with Kids Pinterest Image

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