Hiking Shenandoah National Park: A Weekend Guide
I’m going to start off with a little honesty: Shenandoah National Park really hasn’t ever been on my radar. I want to visit all of the National Parks one day, yes, but I always imagined Shenandoah National Park being packed full of people and really close to a road (Skyline Drive). And it kind of is.
So, I was never really interested.
Until I became black bear-obsessed.
Now, I know I could see lots of bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but I’ve been there so many times and wanted to try something different. Good ole SNP has one of the densest population of black bears documented in the United States (Bill Bryson told me so), so I figured I’d have a shot at seeing a bear.
So, my fiance, Rob, and I set off on a weekend warrior journey to hike some mountains and see some bears. We left Thursday night, got there at the crack of dawn on Friday, and began our expedition. Here’s what we learned:
You have to hike Old Rag.
Old Rag is the most popular hike in the park, and it’s popular for a reason. It’s a fun hike (by fun, I mean I was cursing to myself while Rob was laughing at me) and the views from the top are beautiful. So, do it, but heed these warnings before you do it.
The rock scramble is basically bouldering for a mile.
Don’t wear a heavy pack for this because your center of gravity will be off. I’m going to be honest here: Rob carried my pack while I struggled to scramble up the rocks.
Hike this one on a weekday.
I’m so glad this was our first hike because when we went to the ranger station on Saturday, everyone and their mother was asking about Old Rag. Apparently a lot of people from D.C. drive on the weekend to hike it (it’s a 45 minute drive!).
Enjoy the views.
They are superb. Now I understand why there are so many songs about the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Don’t follow the National Park Service backpacking suggestions.
Follow them if you aren’t comfortable with reading maps or don’t have a device of some sort, but there are a ton of small trails in Shenandoah that connect. Rob and I made up our own circuit and it was way more fun. Plus, by the end, I wanted chicken fingers and Sprite so bad that we took a different trail to get back to our car.
Making up our own trail offered us flexibility that I enjoyed. You do, however, have to write your intended route on a ticket they give you at the ranger office and keep it on the dashboard of your car (because safety).
Wear long pants or be prepared to get cut.
Umm, ok, the trees were squeaking. I don’t know what’s going on in April at Shenandoah National Park, but we were in a wind tunnel. Trees were squeaking left and right, and apparently falling down left and right because we encountered a ton of trees on the trail that we had to walk around or climb over. Sometimes there were so many trees down I was afraid we’d lose the trail.
Anyway, I was wearing shorts and my legs got cut up pretty bad from the experience. C’est la vie. It made me look really tough for a week.
Bring warm clothes.
Like I said: Wind Tunnel. I borrowed Rob’s Minus33 hat the whole time 🙂 When you’re down low, it’s surprisingly cold. I guess I should have expected this being an experienced and all but oh well..
There will be river crossings.
The park ranger tried to show us routes without river crossings. Mostly because it was cold and I didn’t want to deal with them. But there were still river crossings. Tons of them. They’re not difficult, just be prepared to get your feet wet.
Drive some of Skyline Drive for a bit.
The best views are on Skyline Drive. No, seriously. I wish we would have spent more time driving for some nice photo ops. You really can experience the whole park without stepping out too far from your car.
In all serious, Shenandoah is a lot great views. Is it my favorite National Park ever? No. Was it an enjoyable backpacking trip? Yes, but it was easy. Am I a little mad I didn’t see a bear? Most definitely, yes.