Get Away to Shenandoah National Park


...and what to do there

Shenandoah is considered the most beautiful national park east of the Mississippi. The mountain views are unbeatable, the shear amount of waterfalls the park presents is unmatched by anything I’ve come across in the Eastern US. Because Washington DC is only a couple hours’ drive, it makes for the perfect city getaway for busy and tired Americans. The main attraction is Skyline Drive, a 109 mile scenic road that runs over the top of the Shenandoah mountain range. There are 75 expansive overlooks along this drive, and none of them disappoint. Just when you think you’ve seen the prettiest view…you are amazed to see an even more beautiful one just up the road and that feeling continues as you drive along Skyline Drive. With a maximum speed limit of 35mph, no one is in a hurry, the views are epic, and the stillness is overpowering.

But Skyline Drive isn’t the only attraction in the park. There are over 500 miles of hiking trails, almost all of them lead to, or start from a gorgeous view. We hiked some of the most famous trails in Shenandoah including: Upper Hawksbill Trail, Dark Hallow Falls Trail, Old Rag Trail, Rose River Loop Trail, and White Oak Canyon Trail. All the trails were amazing, but they were also extremely challenging, which was surprisingly comforting. Most trails that are difficult usually aren’t popular, but these were, and seeing other hikers struggling to make it down to waterfalls or climbing over boulders to reach a summit is comforting in a small way.

Camping/Backpacking along these trails is also extremely popular, and what we ended up doing for our trip. Although we took a more rugged route the first night and backcountry camped, we also stayed at the Big Meadows Lodge and the Big Meadows Campground for a couple nights. Backpacking was far more difficult than I expected it to be. I thought of myself as a pretty fit individual before I started backpacking. The rain compounded the difficulty and I slipped a couple times treading down the narrow river trail, but getting to the bottom was worth the trip. We actually set up camp on a peninsula between two rivers, and falling asleep to the sound of running water on either side of you was unbelievably peaceful. Camping at Big Meadows was a far different experience however. There is running water, hot showers, a camp store: almost everything you need. We didn’t use all the amenities, but it was very quiet, everyone was very respectful of the quiet hours and we had a great night’s sleep there and built a fire in the morning! Staying at Big Meadows Lodge was probably the highlight of the trip. I can see now why a newlywed would want to spend their honeymoon there. The views from the rooms were gorgeous, and the sun sets right off your balcony window, truly an unbelievable experience. The lodge serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and on some nights there is live music in the bar underneath the dining hall.

Shenandoah National Park is the perfect escape from a busy world. Time slows down. Something about the mountains has always enabled me to dig deeper into who I am and where I want to go. I’ve made more important life decisions on the top of a mountain, than I ever have penciling out pros and cons on a piece of paper. The business of life can sometimes be so loud; we can’t even hear ourselves think. It’s hard to live in a world like that: we need to get away. We weren’t designed to be busy all the time, to live in a loud, tireless, always churning-out-more-work world. Get outside. Go climb a mountain. Go visit Shenandoah.

Published: October 17, 2016

Matt Van SwolStoryteller

Matt Van Swol is a self-taught landscape photographer, writer, and nuclear scientist for the US Department of Energy. After personally struggling with depression for many years, he is passionate about showing others t...

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