Trail Running in Shenandoah National Park: An Insider’s Guide
When is trail running not really trail running? In other words, can this increasingly popular activity be so challenging that it becomes less like running and more like hiking?
If there is such a thing, it likely exists in Shenandoah National Park. And although there are certainly some trails in this stunning, 200,000-acre park that offer a more gentle trail running experience—flowing rollers, minimal rock-hopping—there are others that are sure to test even the most hardcore veterans, with steep ascents, boulder scrambling, and other obstacles that can slow a brisk pace to a 20-minute-mile slog.
But whatever kind of trail you tackle, you’re all but guaranteed an unforgettable experience, with some of the most stunning vistas in Virginia’s Piedmont region. And, with more than 500 miles of trails within the park (one-fifth of which is the iconic Appalachian Trail), you never have to run the same route twice. But be prepared to walk if necessary, and be sure to choose your shoes carefully: You’ll want a pair that offers good support and a sturdy sole with some grip.
The area around Skyland is a popular spot for trail runners. Situated between mileposts 41 and 42, this is also a good rest stop along the 105-mile Skyline Drive that serves as the main road through the park. There is food and lodging here, but the real draw for trail runners are the superb routes.
The Stony Main Trail starts on a gradual incline on a rocky surface, ascending to the summit on a 1.6-mile route. Some sections are steep and you may be forced to walk. If you’re looking to add some hill work to your routine, this is a good choice. Other trails in the Skyland area include Millers Head (1.6 miles), Limberlost Trail (1.3 miles), and Little Stony Man (0.9 miles).
Another good section for trail running is around Big Meadows, which serves as roughly the halfway point between the northern and southern ends of Skyline Drive. The entrance to Big Meadows, which has food, lodging, RV parking, and gas, is around milepost 51.
The Story of the Forest Trail is a 1.8-mile circuit consisting of tree-lined paths and a paved sidewalk that runs alongside a road. It's a nice change of pace from some of the rocky and technical terrain featured throughout the park, with some beautiful views of the meadow across Skyline Drive for which this area is named.
If you want to run a bit longer, try the three-mile Skyland-Big Meadows Horse Trail, which stretches between Big Meadows on the south and the Fishers Gap Overlook on the north.
All of the horse trails within the park are blazed in yellow and most offer a comfortable gravel surface. Translation: less rock- and fallen-tree hopping required.
For a short run and a fantastic view, park in the Blackrock Summit parking area just before milepost 85 and try the one-mile circuit to the top of Blackrock that traverses the Appalachian Trail and a fire road. And after you take in the breathtaking view, continue running on the AT in either direction to lengthen your run.
A good pair of trail running shoes is an essential piece of gear at the park, along with a slim pack with some basic supplies. And don't forget your camera! Better yet, strap on a GoPro for brag-worthy footage.
The highest point of the park is Hawksbill Mountain at 4,051 feet above sea level. All of the trails are at least a few thousand feet up, so keep that in mind when you're huffing and puffing up a hill.
Skyline Drive starts in Front Royal and continues south for 105 miles until it ends in Waynesboro. At that point, the road becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is similar to Skyline Drive in that it winds through the mountains, except that it's 469 miles long and travels through Virginia and North Carolina. Two crossing roads intersect with Skyline Drive: Thornton Gap (milepost 31.5) and Swift Run Gap (milepost 62.7).
Park entry fees are $20/car for seven days of access; an annual pass is $40.