Shenandoah National Park is one of the gems of the U.S. East Coast. It contains over 500 miles of hiking trails, jaw-dropping views over the Shenandoah Valley, and spectacular waterfalls. It’s only 90 minutes from Washington, DC but contains the best day hikes near DC and the best hikes in Virginia. As a Washingtonian, Shenandoah is one of my favorite city escapes, and I’ve spent many weekends exploring its trails. So to help travelers who are short on time but want to see the best of the park, I compiled this list of the best day hikes in Shenandoah.
These hikes vary in length and difficulty — from quick and easy strolls to rock scrambles to brutal climbs lasting several hours. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into before you set off on one of the best day hikes in Shenandoah. The park has tons of variety, and this list includes suitable hiking trails for everyone.
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1. Old Rag Mountain
Topping the list of the best day hikes in Shenandoah National Park, and one of the best national park hikes in Virginia, a hike up Old Rag Mountain is an experience not to be missed. The hike is most famous for the epic Old Rag Mountain rock scramble. Less-fit (or more-vertigo-prone) hikers will appreciate the more moderate trail up the other side.
Old Rag is most beautiful in the fall, as the leaves are changing colors. It also makes an amazing sunrise/sunset hike (don’t attempt the rock scramble in the dark).
A good pair of hiking boots is essential if you’re going to attempt the Old Rag rock scramble.
The Rock Scramble
The typical route starts at a parking lot near Sperryville (overflow parking is available, but you have to pay). The ascent is along some very steep switchbacks that last about three miles. Then, you must traverse the open rock face to the summit — roughly a mile of rock scrambling. The summit is the ideal lunch stop. Then, descend along the fire road to complete the loop.
Even though the hike isn’t particularly long, you should allow at least six hours to complete it. For one, you’ll want to linger at the summit for awhile to enjoy the views. But the rock scramble also takes considerably longer than normal walking would. Expect to spend 90 minutes on this one-mile section. Also note that you pick up most of your distance on the descent, so carry snacks to power you through to the end!
A few words of warning are necessary about this day hike in Shenandoah. One, hiking at Old Rag gets extremely crowded on nice days between April and November. You may have to wait 20+ minutes to get through some of the narrow sections of the scramble. For that reason, I don’t recommend reversing the route and attempting to descend on the scramble — you’ll end up having to wait for an endless stream of folks coming up.
Additionally, while it’s one of the best hikes in Shenandoah, don’t be misled by the popularity of the trail — it’s difficult and can be dangerous. I wouldn’t even consider it in wet or slippery conditions. Injuries are common. Go slow and ask for help if you need it. And definitely carry your belongings in a backpack like this instead of trying to carry a water bottle, camera, etc. in your hands.
Distance: 9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,415 feet
Why it’s so great: Awesome rock scramble to the summit. Epic views over the Shenandoah Valley.
Route Map: https://www.hikingupward.com/snp/oldrag/
The alternative route
Still want to experience one of the best day hikes in Shenandoah without the rock scramble? No problem! The alternative route up Old Rag is for you.
This hike starts in the (very small) parking area just past the lower entrance to White Oak Canyon. It begins along a fire road, before turning off onto a vertical — but not overly steep — trail straight to the summit. You’ll have to walk across some large boulders at the top, but they’re not difficult to traverse and don’t require any climbing.
This route is radically less crowded than the rock scramble, but it does still see plenty of people. Try to get on the trail by 9 am to avoid them. The very limited parking also means an early start is essential.
It only takes about three hours to go up and down the mountain in this direction, making it easy to fit into a morning.
Distance: 5.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
Why it’s so great: Same views as the rock scramble version, with fewer crowds and a far easier ascent
2. White Oak Canyon
Serious hikers, take note: While tourists flock to Shenandoah National Park for Old Rag, those in the know head for White Oak Canyon. This very-difficult but incredibly-beautiful hike takes you past a string of Shenandoah’s best waterfalls.
The best thing about White Oak Canyon is it’s a spectacular year-round hike. In the fall, the leaves are gorgeous. In the summer, you can swim in the waterfalls’ pools and slide down the natural water slide at the first waterfall. The waterfalls are at their most spectacular after spring rains. And if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to snowshoe this hike in winter when the waterfalls freeze over, it’s sure to be your most memorable Shenandoah experience.
There are several variations on White Oak Canyon, all of which would qualify as among the best day hikes in Shenandoah. For this guide, I’m covering the most difficult version — but you could easily just do a quick and rewarding down-and-back jaunt along the Cedar Run Trail to the first few waterfalls.
The Full Circuit
Start on the White Oak Canyon trail. It goes down — sometimes quite steeply — for about three miles. Remember, going down is harder on your body than ascending. So take it easy on this first half of the hike to reserve your energy for the climb out. The ideal lunch spot is at the bottom of the canyon, in view of its most spectacular waterfall.
Then, prepare for the long, brutal climb back out of the canyon. You’re going to gain about 3,000 feet of elevation here, and most of it is in the final 2 miles — in other words, it’s very steep, and it gets steepest at the end of the hike. Allow yourself plenty of time for the ascent. You’ll be on the Appalachian Trail for the first half, before switching to the Cedar Run Trail for the final push.
If you want an easier hike, just reverse the circuit — start on the Cedar Run side. It’s a less satisfying trek, and it’s very easy to get lost on the way out, but it does cut about 400 feet off the elevation gain and it’s a much more gradual ascent.
While it’s personally my favorite of the best day hikes in Shenandoah, this is one of the hardest hikes in Virginia and you need to come prepared with all the day hiking essentials. Make sure you bring enough food and water to fuel yourself for six hours — attempting to finish the hike faster than that will leave you very, very sore. (Trust me, I once did it in 4.5 hours and couldn’t walk for days afterwards.) A CamelBak water bladder is essential for this hike, and I highly recommend walking poles if you have knee trouble. If you’re going to try some of the more remote offshoot trails, you should definitely bring a compass or other navigation system, as a few of these routes require unmarked stream crossings.
Difficulty: Very difficult
Distance: 11 miles (with shorter variations available)
Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet
Why it’s so great: Hands-down #1 of the best waterfall hikes in Shenandoah National Park
3. Lewis Falls Circuit
You don’t have to be a hardcore trekker to enjoy the best day hikes in Shenandoah National Park. The Lewis Falls Circuit offers two of the best parts of the park — fall colors and waterfalls — in a moderate, half-day package.
This hike starts and ends at Big Meadows Lodge. So there is ample parking, access to clean restrooms, and the chance to get a big post-trek meal or milkshake at the restaurant.
The first mile of the trail is a moderately steep descent to the waterfall. Cross the river to get to the best overlook, from where you can see the entire gorge. Then, take the Appalachian Trail back out for a gradual 2.5 mile climb.
Because it’s so accessible from one of the lodges, Lewis Falls can get pretty crowded. Go in late afternoon to avoid huge groups. (In the fall and spring, if you start out by around 2 pm you should have plenty of time to finish before dark.)
Distance: 3.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet
Why it’s so great: Canyon and waterfall views, especially beautiful in the fall
4. Little Stony Man
The easiest of the best day hikes in Shenandoah, Little Stony Man takes you to one of the park’s best overlooks. Anyone capable of walking 2 miles can complete this hike, as the ascents and descents are not steep and the trail is very well-maintained.
The trail starts near Skyland Lodge. It goes up for about 3/4 of a mile, where you’ll reach the overlook. (There are two good viewpoints; keep walking past the first to reach the better one.) Then, the gradual descent goes along the Appalachian Trail before linking back up with the Little Stony Man trail.
You could easily complete this hike in about an hour. If you’re looking for a longer hike, the trailhead for Miller’s Head is within walking distance — it’s another short, easy hike to a viewpoint.
Distance: 1.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 340 feet
Why it’s so great: One of Shenandoah’s best overlooks
Practicalities to plan a trip to Shenandoah National Park
Hiking safety on the best day hikes in Shenandoah
Shenandoah’s accessibility can lead to a false sense of security on the trails. Yes, the park has a major road and a number of lodges. But you should still take typical hiker precautions — carry a small first aid kit, good insect repellent, sunscreen, plenty of food, and at least 3 liters of water per day.
Bears are a serious issue in Shenandoah. I’ve seen at least one bear on nearly every springtime hike I’ve done in the park. They’re generally harmless if you keep your distance and aren’t threatening. Practice basic bear safety and never get between a mother and her cubs.
If you stick to the best day hikes in Shenandoah, chances are you won’t run into any trail maintenance issues. But if you start exploring less-worn paths, you may run into downed trees and tough stream crossings. This is especially an issue in winter. If a trail presents too many obstacles, turn back.
Most of Shenandoah National Park lacks cell phone coverage. Always hike in a group so you can get help in case of an emergency.
Travel to Shenandoah National Park
The easiest way to reach Shenandoah is by car from Washington, DC. It’ll take you about 90 minutes to drive from the city (take Route 66 west).
The park is divided into three districts. Access to the Northern District (for Little Stony Man) is through Front Royal. The Central District (for White Oak Canyon and Lewis Falls) is most easily reached from Warrenton. Old Rag is on the boundaries of the Central District, so pass through Warrenton and connect with the access roads in Sperryville. The Southern District is of less interest to day hikers, but you can reach it through Culpepper.
Skyline Drive is the main road if you want to drive through Shenandoah National Park. It’s a gorgeous drive, and well worth exploring before or after your day hike. You can pull over at any of a number of viewpoints — Hawksbill is my favorite — for sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley.
Watch out for bears, cyclists, and hikers when you’re driving along Skyline Drive. Keep your speed within the speed limit — park police are serious about enforcing it.
If you don’t have a car, check out Capital Hiking Club’s upcoming events. This group organizes bus hikes around the DC area, including frequent Shenandoah hikes. While there is a hike leader, it’s not really guided group hiking — everyone goes at their own pace and you’re responsible for getting yourself to the end safely. The hikers in this group tend to be more serious, so you should be able to walk at least 9 miles at a moderately quick pace.
Where to stay when you visit Shenandoah National Park
Given the short distance from Washington DC to Shenandoah National Park, it’s easy to day-trip. But if you want to spend a little longer exploring the trails, there are a handful of good accommodation options. Within the park, the lodges and campgrounds are only open from late March to mid-November.
The three Shenandoah National Park hotels are the lodges at Skyland, Big Meadows, and Lewis Mountain. All three offer roughly the same range of accommodation — from rustic cabins to hotel rooms. Big Meadows is the best campground in Shenandoah National Park, and the Lewis Mountain Campground is also pretty nice. For reservations, visit the National Park Service’s booking site. Prices skyrocket at peak times and rooms fill up well in advance.
If you’re camping, in addition to the lodge campgrounds, you can find a site at Matthew’s Arm or Loft Mountain. Note that Lewis Mountain and Matthew’s Arm campgrounds are first-come, first-served and don’t take reservations. You can also try backcountry camping Shenandoah. And the Appalachian Trail runs through Shenandoah National Park, along which basic shelters are available.
If you prefer to stay outside the park, there are bed and breakfasts and cabins near Old Rag, and plenty of other places to go camping around Shenandoah National Park. Sperryville is the main town in the area.
If you drive to Shenandoah, you’ll pay a flat fee of $25 for access to the park. This lasts seven days. Cyclists or bus passengers will pay $10 per person. You can also purchase a $50 annual Shenandoah pass (giving you unlimited visits for a year) or an $80 National Park Pass, which buys you unlimited access to all national parks and public lands in the U.S.
Whether you’re in the DC area or road-tripping the USA’s East Coast, Shenandoah National Park is sure to be a highlight of your trip. It’s one of the U.S.’s best national parks for hiking. Hit the trails and see the best of what this park has to offer!
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