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These are my 2 favorite hikes in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park – here’s why – TravelAwaits | Gmx Pharm

If you had the choice between a hike that would take you to a cascading series of waterfalls or one that would take you to “the top of the world” scenery, which would you choose? In Shenandoah National Park, you don’t have to choose because these two hikes are close together, doable (even in the same morning), and are my favorites.

Just 75 miles from Washington, DC, Shenandoah National Park is “dotted with cascading waterfalls, spectacular views, fields of wildflowers and tranquil wooded hollows. With over 200,000 hectares of protected land that is a haven for deer, songbirds and black bears, there is so much to explore,” says the National Park Service. I couldn’t agree more!

My husband Dean and I love national parks (I’ve written about Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Acadia before), and we think time spent in one is time well spent. Dean hadn’t been to Shenandoah National Park since he was a kid, and neither had I. We visited in late October when the color was past peak but still beautiful and the temps were a perfect 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, great for hiking.

North entrance to Shenandoah National Park

North entrance to Shenandoah National Park

Copyright: Joan Sherman

Before we delve into the trails, a few general notes about Shenandoah National Park. I’m a big fan because this park is easy to navigate, even for someone like me who is a little “direction challenged”.

Skyline Drive runs 105 miles north and south through the entire length of the park. The impressive, winding road was built on the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, allowing you to see the National Forest on one side and the Shenandoah River Valley on the other. Don’t forget to stop at some of the viewpoints along the driveway (not that you can; they’re everywhere).

Each mile of Skyline Drive is marked with a small signpost called a Milepost (MP). Starting at the north entrance, at MP Zero, and driving south through the park, the milestone numbers increase with each mile up to MP 105 at the south entrance, making it easy to get your bearings.

Pro tip: Visitors must purchase a ticket to gain access to Shenandoah National Park, whether driving into the park on Skyline Drive or hiking in from the park boundary. Prices vary, especially by day, so check out the link above.

Now let’s take a closer look at these two hikes.

Hiking to Dark Hollow Falls

Hiking to Dark Hollow Falls

Copyright: Joan Sherman

1. Dark Hollow Falls

  • Length: 1.4 miles round trip
  • Estimated hiking time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
  • Altitude gain: 440 feet
  • Location: Milestone 50.7
  • Valuation: Moderate

Our exploration began at the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center in Big Meadows, where we asked a park ranger for hiking suggestions. She told us that the hike to Dark Hollow Falls was the park’s shortest hike for the best view of the falls. Shortest and best – sounds like a winning combination!

We hiked on a Wednesday morning and it wasn’t busy, but this is usually a very popular hike. From the starting point we hiked through a wooded area and the trail soon turned off the road. The trail follows a beautiful stream to the base of the falls. The trail is well traveled but rocky, with stairs in the steepest parts.

Sky reflections at the viewpoint

Sky reflections at the viewpoint

Copyright: Joan Sherman

We stopped at a viewpoint where I loved the blue sky reflected in the water. We stood here over the crest of the falls; we could hear them but not yet see them. It was 1,000 feet (a sign told me) to the lower falls.

Dark Hollow Falls

Dark Hollow Falls

Copyright: Joan Sherman

As we hiked into the gorge there was a large rock face to our left as the path curved to lead us to the base of Dark Hollow Falls. The parking attendant was right – the shortest and the best! We loved this cascading 70 foot high set of waterfalls.

As we lingered by the falls, I struck up a conversation with an elderly woman who said she had been hiking here for decades. This hike was part of her family legacy; They had enjoyed it for generations (kids and grandkids). She asked me to take a picture of her at the falls and told me that although her husband was no longer able to hike, he was waiting for her in the car. How generous and sweet. I thought about the seasons of life and that made me so thankful for Dean and all the hikes and adventures together.

The Hike of Dark Hollow Falls

The Hike of Dark Hollow Falls

Copyright: Joan Sherman

Although other trails join the falls to take you deeper into the park, we turned around and went back the way we came.

Pro tip: The park warns, “The return hike is challenging, know your limits and take your time, especially if the trail is wet and slippery.” We had great weather for this hike, so that wasn’t our experience. A bit steep in parts, but doable. Nevertheless, it is advisable to listen to the park’s advice.

Ready to go? See the Big Meadows trail map for full details.

Stony Man Trail

First steps on our way to the Stony Man Summit

Copyright: Joan Sherman

2. Stony Man Summit

  • Length: 1.6 mile round trip
  • Estimated hiking time: 1 hour
  • Altitude gain: 340 feet
  • Location: Milestone 41.7
  • Valuation: The easiest

This Stony Man hike had views that made us feel like we were on top of the world! It also didn’t hurt that the trailhead was in the backyard of our Skyland Resort accommodation.

Pro tip: Skyland is great for location, location, location. It’s fairly central on Skyline Drive. There’s something for everyone at this sprawling resort (178 units, ranging from rustic cabins to spacious luxury suites). It lies between MP 41.7 and MP 42.5 at the highest elevation on Skyline Drive, 3,680 feet.

We started at the trailhead and hiked a small portion of the Appalachian Trail (it’s not uncommon for national park trails to cross and overlap the Appalachian Trail). When the trail split we followed the well marked trail to Stony Man Summit.

Stony Man Trail

This trail is rated “easiest”.

Copyright: Joan Sherman

When we got to the summit, there was a large ledge (and no crash barriers). We had spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley, Massanutten Mountain and more. We shared the view with some other hikers perched on this wide ledge and there was plenty of room for everyone!

Dean, the sensible man that he is, stayed on his feet and enjoyed the view while I maneuvered around the rocks like a billy goat, looking for just the right camera angles (typical).

Skyline Drive from Stony Man Summit

The view of Skyline Drive from Stony Man Summit

Copyright: Joan Sherman

In my search I noticed an overgrown footpath, so I took it and came across another large rock clearing, this time with fewer people. Great black birds flew up and down the cliffs. Bushes with red berries couldn’t possibly grow out of the rock. I could also see the winding Skyline Drive from this vantage point and I loved the view of the road and the fall trees. Even after the peak it was great!

Walking back to our car we saw an offshoot on the way. We went the “less traveled path” but soon realized that this wasn’t the right path and we decided to correct our mistakes.

Pro tip: Trailblazes (markers) can be found on trees and rocks throughout Shenandoah National Park. Blue denotes a national park trail and white denotes the Appalachian Trail. If you are on a yellow marked trail you may be sharing it with horses. I’m just saying.

Stony Man Trail

A family hikes the Stony Man Trail

Copyright: Joan Sherman

Once we were back on the right trail, I noticed a family walking down the trail in front of us. The parents each held the little girl’s hand in the middle. Of course, sometimes they would pick up their daughter off the ground and I could hear their screams of joy and their talking and laughing. I love that slice of life stuff; it is precious to me.

Pro tip: We did this hike during the day and it was spectacular, but Stony Man Summit is also popular for the sunset views if you’re willing to hike later in the day.

Ready to go? See the Skyland Resort area trail map for full details.

Skyline Drive Overlook, Shenandoah National Park

View from a Skyline Drive Lookout, Shenandoah National Park

Copyright: Joan Sherman

Hike both ways

Cascading waterfall or view from the “roof of the world”? Well what would you choose? These two hikes are so close and doable that you don’t have to choose. I don’t think you can go wrong with either one, but better yet, try them both.

Shenandoah National Park offers over 500 miles of hiking trails, but these two are my favorites. So lace up your hiking boots, grab your hiking poles, some trail mix and water, and head out into the open. When you visit this beautiful national park full of beauty, I hope you enjoy these trails as much as we do.

Updated: September 17, 2022 — 12:32 am

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