Shenandoah National Park near Washington DC lures many nature lovers to climb its mountaintops, stop by its many scenic overlooks, and discover its vast collection of flora and fauna. It also has a unique feature that not many national parks have: Skyline Drive, a paved road that stretches the length of the park from bottom to the top.
Driving the Shenandoah Skyline Drive, Washington DC
America’s Scenic Byway
Skyline Drive is Shenandoah National Park’s scenic roadway. It follows the crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles and provides guests with a portal for number of unique experiences within the park. It’s a very popular drive for many Americans, particularly in the fall, when the changing colors of the forest below provide stunning views of Shenandoah Valley.
The idea of the Shenandoah Skyline Drive came from a guy named William C. Gregg, who was a member of the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee. He conveyed his idea for a ridge road to L. Ferdinand Zerkel, a board member of the Shenandoah Valley, Inc., who then submitted it to the voting committee. The motion was approved and by January 1931, surveys of the area were conducted. Construction officially began July of the same year and was completed in 1939.
How to Get There
There are four entry and exit points to the Shenandoah Skyline Drive. From north to south, they are Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap. The closest one to Washington, D.C., is the north entrance at Front Royal. It’s 70 miles from The White House and takes just a little over an hour’s drive. If you’re traveling from Charlottesville, VA, the Swift Run Gap entrance will be your best option.
There is a $20 park fee per car that’s valid for seven days. It might seem steep if you’re only traversing through part of the byway so consider getting an annual membership to Shenandoah National Park instead. The cost is $40 and gives you unlimited access to the park and to the Shenandoah Skyline Drive itself for an entire year.
Notes and Precautions
There are three things worth mentioning when driving the Shenandoah Skyline Drive. The first thing is that the speed limit is 35 miles per hour. Park sheriffs are constantly perusing the area to ensure the safety of visitors so keep tabs on your speed at all times to avoid getting a ticket. Second, the road only allows for one lane on each side so overtaking is not an option. If you happen to follow a car that’s moving slower than the speed limit, remain patient or stop by one of the scenic overlooks instead to reduce the stress. Third, know that cellphone service can be interrupted so if you’re using your mobile phone as your primary navigation system, take note of specific points and have a backup map if possible. It’s not uncommon to lost a signal for 10-15 minutes at a time while on the road.
What Can You Do?
Since the Shenandoah Skyline Drive cuts through the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, it provides visitors with access to all the activities and destinations you can do and visit inside the park. Day-trippers can take advantage of over 500 miles of trails with varying degrees of difficulty, while those looking for a more relaxed experience can pack a lunch and simply spend the day enjoying nature and good food at one of its many outdoor picnic spots. Adventure types can take on cycling and horseback riding. There are 75 scenic overviews that line the 105-mile road and each one of them provides a unique view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the surrounding forest. Some of them also have miniature trails you can follow. Take some time to absorb the natural beauty of the surroundings you’re in and explore the flora that line them.
With dozens of scenic overviews and trails to choose from, it’s a little difficult to pick a list of the best ones, but here are a few highlights.
When on the road at Skyline Drive, stop by the Byrd Visitor Center and spend an hour or two learning about the natural history of the park. Children will enjoy the interactive displays and movies that teach them about rock formations and the different types of plants and animals that call the park home. Then there’s Rapidan Camp, the summer retreat established by President Herbert Hoover. It is a network of 13 buildings connected by paths made out of wood and stones. During summer, park rangers offer accompanied tours to the site that starts at the Byrd Visitor Center. Finally, Skyland is the park’s highest point. There are several outlooks within, including the Thorofare Mountain Overlook that sits at 3,595 feet above sea level.