Shenandoah National Park is a long, narrow strip that covers a 100 mile
stretch of the Blue Ridge in northern Virginia, from Chester Gap (1300') near Front Royal south to Rockfish Gap (1900') near Waynesboro. Here the Blue Ridge finally gets serious, rising above 4000 feet and becoming a complex mountain range. To the northeast, the nearest 4000 foot peaks are in New York State's Catskills, making the park a popular destination for those in the Mid-Atlantic seeking the high country. Although high, the Blue Ridge here is way too far south to reach timberline--instead, the charms of the place are in its wilderness forests, several craggy summits, abundant wildlife, excellent trail networks, and a great mountain road.
Shenandoah has a twin backbone: the Skyline Drive for cars, and the
Appalacian Trail for hikers. These two routes are never far apart as they
cross each other 30 times, both traversing the entire length of the park from north to south. They are also both pure pleasures: the Skyline Drive is a gently winding, well-paved, very scenic route with many turouts and no trucks allowed, while Shenandoah's Appalachain Trail is a wide, easy, gentle path with a reputation as the best-maintained section of the Trail's 2000 mile length. The only drawback is that both can also get very crowded--the Skyline Drive can get clogged with slow Winnebagos, while typical National Park camping rules and regulations are necessary to control the throngs of
backpackers in much of the park.
Two roads cross the park from east to west, U.S. 211 at Thornton Gap (2300') and U.S. 33 at Swift Run Gap (2400'). These two roads divide the park into three sections of (very) roughly equal size, a northern, central, and southern. Some broad generalizations: the northern section is the smallest, is heavily visited due to closeness to Washington, DC, and has some fine terrain. The central section is by far the highest, most rugged, and most visited, containing both the park's 4000 foot peaks as well as its most spectacular, Old Rag Mountian (3268'). The southern section is by far the least visited, on average the lowest, and a good place to loose the crowds on nice summer weekends.
The Northern Section: The main Blue Ridge crest and the Appalachian Trail
enter the park up a ways from Chester Gap, but the Skyline Drive begins at the big tourist town of Front Royal, VA, and snakes south along Dickey Ridge for a while before joining the main divide and the A.T. This first section of the Drive is especially scenic, offering almost aerial views of Front Royal and the pleasant surrounding farms. Further south the Blue Ridge reaches 3000 feet for the first time at North Marshall Mountain (3368'), and the first significant outlier, The Peak (2925'), is found jutting off ito the Piedmont to the east.
The highest point in the northern section of Shenandoah National Park is
Hogback Mountain (3474'), near Mathews Arm Campground, the main visitor facility in the section. The highest waterfall in the park, Big Falls on Overall Run, is downhill to the west from this area.
The Central Section: The Blue Ridge gets even higher south of Thornton
Gap, rising to the Pinnacle (3730'), fourth highest peak in the park, and then to Stony Man (4010') and Hawksbill (4050'), the first 4000 footers on the Blue Ridge and the only ones for the next 70 miles to the south. For some reason the Appalachain Trail skirts these peaks to the west, but each summit is easily reached form the Skyline Drive by short trails. The Drive's high point is 3680 feet, east of Stony Man, so the vertical gain is not particularly awe-inspiring on these hikes. Both summits provide nice views. The two main visitor center/museum/campground complexes here are at Skylands, an old resort are that pre-dates the 1930s-era park establishment, and Big Meadows, an open, grassy saddle on the ridge some miles south of Hawksbill.
The most spectacular peak in the park, and perhaps all Virginia, is Old Rag (3268'), a large, solitary mountain well east of Stony Man, Hawksbill and the main Blue Ridge. Don't be fooled by its embarassingly low elevation--Old Rag boasts awesome and wild summit ledges, outstanding views of the Blue Ridge and the farms of the Piedmont, and a trail running along its sheer northwest cliffs that is among the most demanding and difficult in the country, with tricky passages through narrow defiles and boulder caves. The trailheads for Old Rag, in the deep hollows at the mountian's base, are less than two hours from Washington, DC, making the extraordinary loop hike over the peak very popular. This area is connected to the Skyline Drive and A.T. in the Skylands area by Whiteoak Canyon, a wooded ravine featuring many beautiful waterfalls that only adds to the overall splendor of this very attractive region.
South from Hawksbill the Blue Ridge gets slightly lower, passing over
Hazeltop (3812'), the highest point on the actual Appalachian trail in the park, then Bush Mountain (3527') before carrying the very closely parallel Skyline Drive and A.T. to Swift Run Gap at U.S. 33.
The Southern Section: With no especially high or spectacular mountians,
and far from big cities, the southern section of Shenandoah National Park is
in some sense the backwater of the park. The highest point is Hightop (3587'), just south of Swift Run Gap, and Loft Mountain (3300'), Flattop (3320') and Cedar Mountain (3330'), all near the Loft Mountain campground, are all relatively high. However, the Skyline Drive doesn't ever get aboe 3000 feet here, and the Appalachian Trail slavishly follows this road, often only a few hundred yards away for much of this section. Perhaps the main attraction of the southern section is the large wilderness area to the west of the main crest, with many trails serving Rocky Mount (2741'), Rocky Mountain (2864'), and Rockytop and its ridge (2856'). This area definitely ranks high nationally in the confusing nomenclature department, too. Don't go excpecting the Rockies, but it is a great place to backpack for a few days away from the much of the hordes thronging, say, Whiteoak Canyon.
The main part of Shenandoah National Park ends at Jarman Gap, but a
skinny finger of park land allows the Skyline Drive to extend south to I-64 at Rockfish Gap. By this point the Blue Ridge has been fairly low and relatively uninteresting for quite a while.