At the north end of the Blue Ridge, between the Virginian piedmont hills to the east and Shenandoah Valley (aka the Great Valley of Virginia) to the west, lie the 300 square miles of Shenandoah National Park. The park has more than 500 miles of hiking trails in pristine woodlands. Park rangers and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (703-242-0315) can provide a wealth of information on hiking, camping, and backcountry opportunities.
Spectacular Skyline Drive winds through the park for 105 miles, providing great views of and access to many of the park’s highlights. Shenandoah is known for its spectacular fall foliage, but at any season one can enjoy beautiful scenery, waterfalls, and interesting wildlife. Along the paths and roadways, watch for some of the park’s 205 species of birds, 40 mammals, 50 amphibians and reptiles, 47 ferns and allies, 100 trees, and 1,100 wildflowers and shrubs. Some 600 Black Bears live here, and ten times as many White-tailed Deer.
The text below surveys Skyline Drive; the numbers are distances, in miles, from its northern terminus. The park entrance is at Front Royal, 0.6 mile from the start of the drive. Family campgrounds are located at Mathews Arm (mile 22.2), Big Meadows (mile 51.3; also has a gas station), Lewis Mountain (57.5), and Loft Mountain (79.5).
43.0 LIMBERLOST TRAIL
This 1 1/2-mile round-trip trail traverses a fine stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Listen for the high, thin, upwardly slurred call of the Blackburnian Warbler. Look for the glowing orange throat of the male among the dark hemlock boughs.
46.7 HAWKSBILL MOUNTAIN TRAIL
This moderately strenuous 2-mile trail (roundtrip) leads to the highest peak in the park, 4,051-foot Hawksbill Mountain, with superb 360-degree views. If the day is windy (northerly winds are best) and your visit coincides with the hawk migration season (September-November), expect to see a nice variety of raptors.
51.3 BIG MEADOWS WAYSIDE
Big Meadows is the best place along Skyline Drive to appreciate the park’s meadow flora and fauna. White-tailed Deer visit early or late in the day. Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Bluebirds, Barn Swallows, Woodchucks and Eastern Cottontails are conspicuous in summer, when blueberries, buttercups, irises, Black-eyed Susans, Golden Alexanders, goldenrods, asters, and grasses adorn the meadow.
51.7–53.0 TANNERS RIDGE OVERLOOK TO MILAM GAP
In spring and fall (May and September are prime months), this stretch of Skyline Drive is inundated with migrant songbirds. The Appalachian Trail parallels Skyline Drive here and is a logical, off-road birding choice.
62.8 SOUTH RIVER FALLS AND PICNIC AREA
The varied woodlands along the trails here are the premier place in Shenandoah for viewing an astonishing variety of breeding woodpeckers, flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, and warblers. Listen for the conversational calls of Blue-headed, Red-eyed, and Yellow-throated Vireos, the buzzy songs of Black-throated Blue and Cerulean Warblers, and the robin-like song of the brilliant Scarlet Tanager.
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