Backpacking in Shenandoah National Park: An Insider’s Guide
With 200,000 acres of protected lands and iconic 105-mile Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park is arguably one of Virginia’s most beloved outdoor destinations—especially among visitors who love the outdoors. The park, which was established in 1935, boasts more than 500 miles of trails, including 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, that range in difficulty, elevation change, and terrain. In other words, it’s the perfect backdrop for a backpacking trip in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, with westward-facing views showing off the majestic mountain skyline of the George Washington National Forest.
The park is accessible via four entrances; once inside, you can focus on the abundant trails, views, and nature within. The park is downright majestic in the fall, when a riot of changing leaves draws thousands of leaf-peepers to Shenandoah, but whenever you visit, you’re all but guaranteed an unforgettable outdoor adventure.
Options abound for backpack hikers who want to spend a few days enjoying nature here. A solid two-day trip is in the Whiteoak Canyon Area. Starting in the Crescent Rock Overlook at milepost 44.4, you’ll take the Appalachian Trail and the Salamander Trail to Hawksbill Peak. From there, you hike south, cross Skyline Drive, and tackle a challenging but breathtaking route that passes no less than six waterfalls, the highest of which is 86 feet. Day 1 includes roughly 6.5 miles of hiking; you’ll bed down for the night at campsites on the Whiteoak Canyon Trail.
Day 2 consists of about five-plus miles of hiking the rest of the way up Whiteoak Canyon and shorter sections on the Limberlost Trail and the Crescent Rock Trail. This route gets crowded on the weekends, so plan your trip during the week to enjoy more solitude.
The Riprap area, located in the southern region of the park, offers some excellent backpacking routes. One circuit, approximately 9.5 miles and ideal for a two-day trip, connects the Riprap and Wildcat trails, with a stretch along the Appalachian Trail and a swimming hole along the way. The route starts at milepost 90 in the Riprap Parking lot, with day 1 starting on the AT before turning into the Riprap Trail. Many backpackers usually do three to five miles during this stretch, which has some steep sections as it negotiates the mountain terrain, although the views make up for it. Day 2 finishes the Riprap Trail (if you didn’t finish it on day 1) and then follows the Wildcat Ridge Trail (2.7 miles) and the Appalachian Trail north (2.8 miles) back to your car.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor to Shenandoah or a seasoned veteran, there are several must-do trails worthy of exploring. From presidential history to waterfalls to jaw-dropping views, these trails deliver every time.
Named after a spectacular, 81-foot waterfall, the Lewis Falls Trail is one such highlight. One option to check out these falls is a 3.3-mile circuit route from the amphitheater at Big Meadows to the Lewis Falls observation point; another is a two-mile out-and-back hike to the falls from Skyline Drive. Both routes cross the Appalachian Trail, so you can jump on that and head either north or south and turn a relatively quick hike into a multi-day journey.
Hiking around Old Rag is one of the most epic treks in the park, but it is only recommended for experienced hikers and backpackers. A backcountry camping permit is required to stay overnight, with limited campsite areas because camping above 2,800 feet is prohibited in this area.
Start a hike here from the Old Rag parking area, which is off Route 600, not Skyline Drive.
The Rapidan Camp area features a restored presidential fishing retreat used by former President Herbert Hoover. Built in 1929, the camp has three historic buildings and can be reached by the Mill Prong Trail (between mileposts 52 and 53 on Skyline Drive). It’s a four-mile out-and-back route, while other trails, like the Laurel Prong Trail, intersect along the way. The iconic Appalachian Trail is within easy distance, too, offering options for multi-day hikes here.
Other areas to consider for backpacking trips are the Loft Mountain Area (near milepost 80) and the Blackrock Summit Trail (milepost 85). Both boast stunning views and many other trails cross their paths, making for great two and three-day hiking options.
If you want to do a few days’ worth of hikes but don't want to stay in the backcountry, plan some day hikes around these four areas with campsites: Mathews Arm, Big Meadows, Lewis Mountain, and Loft Mountain.
If You Go:
- The park has four entrances: Front Royal in the north, Rockfish Gap in the south, and intersecting roads at mileposts 31.5 (Thornton Gap) and 62.7 (Swift Run Gap)
- A seven-day access pass is $20; an annual pass is just $40
- Campsites are booked far in advance during the fall months, when many visitors come to the park to see the changing leaves
- For more information, visit the park’s website