Hiking on the Famed Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park
One of the most beloved and popular National Parks in the United States is Shenandoah in Virginia, featuring the famed Blue Ridge Mountains.
A 100-mile, well-marked section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) goes through the park on the crest of the mountain range. (The entire Appalachian Trail is 2,000 miles and runs from Maine to Georgia.)
Our small group hiked a 35-mile “best of “ section of the AT in the park over four days featuring spectacular vistas and well-situated, rustic, full-service cabins and lodges along the way. We had our luggage transferred for us each day so we only needed light daypacks while we hiked.
At our welcome dinner in Luray, Virginia, we were treated to an informative talk by a former Shenandoah Park Ranger, Jerry Dofflemyer. He shared with us the history and lore of the park and mountains (more than 500 families had to be displaced to open the park in 1936).
Starting near the Swift Run entrance station we hiked on our first day in the park for about eight miles.
It was a nice section with plenty of overhead canopy. The weather was perfect; in fact, we were fortunate enough to have the most ideal weather the entire trip; it was that late September refreshing transition between summer and fall. Just off the trail was the Lewis Mountain Cabins and we stayed there for our first evening. Local Appalachian Trail liaison Alison Coultrain from Luray brought us up a delicious BBQ dinner and let us borrow her Appalachian Trail board game as we sat around the fire in fellowship enjoying the quiet of the area. (Did you know only 1% of those who set-off on the entire 2,000 mile trail finish it?!)
On our second day in the park we hiked roughly another eight miles which started with a gentle ascent of Bearfence Mountain.
There’s an amazing hands and feet scramble up basalt rocks to a spectacular 360-degree view. (But you can also take an easy path if you’re not keen on scrambling.)
Towards the end of the day we got to Hazeltop Mountain and hiked a mile along the ridge, called the “green tunnel.” It’s a magical section where you almost expect to see leprechauns, gnomes, centaurs and fauns. Not too far off of the trail is Big Meadow Lodge, where we stayed for the evening.
Day three saw us setting out on the AT but also we took a couple of what they call “blue-blazed trails” that detour from the AT to panoramic overlooks.
One is called the Salamander Trail which leads to the top of Hawksbill Mountain, the highest peak in the park with spectacular views. We then descended to the Hawksbill area and continued on the AT to Skyland Lodge, our accommodations for that evening, which was our last evening in the park. We hiked roughly eight miles on that day too.
Our last day on the trial was chock-full of views, most notably – Mary’s Rock.
The vistas were expansive from this viewpoint and we had fun taking some final photos inside Shenandoah National Park. We then descended down the AT trail on our final stretch to the Panorama Parking at Thornton Gap Entrance Station where Alison picked us up and took us to our luxury classic accommodations in Luray, just outside the park. That was a 10-mile hiking day.
The next morning before we checked out, we got what felt like an unearthly experience by visiting the Luray Caverns.
The cavern system is generously adorned with speleothems such as columns, mud flows, stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and mirrored pools. It’s the largest system of caverns on the east coast.
Our lodge-to-lodge trekking adventure in Shenandoah National Park was so inspiring.
The Appalachian Trail is well marked inside the park and all of the accommodations were just fine. Some had limited services due to the pandemic, but it didn’t’ really affect us that much. We were grateful for the wonderful hospitality of the employees at the cabins and lodges and as always we came across (safely) so many nice and kind hikers along the trail. As crude and divisive as the news and social media can be these days, one thing I’ve noticed is that no matter where you are in the world, people out in nature on hiking trails are always genuine and respectful. I guess it’s that common bond of the great outdoors that brings us together as humans. In a modern world, retreating to nature and hiking is indeed the best medicine for the body, mind and soul.
If your small group would like a guided or self-guided lodge-to-lodge trekking adventure on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park feel free to contact me at Jack@ActiveWorldJourneys.com
Jack Witt, MS, CPT
Fitness and Health Coach