Long before the concept of social distancing was relevant and part of our vocabulary, Adam and I made regular treks to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on the days we needed to recharge. Although for many of us 2020 provided all the alone time we’ll need for quite a while, nature has always offered a way to disconnect and energize. When you think about it, nature has plenty to offer in a world where screen time consumes much more of our day than ever before and the challenges of “Zoom fatigue” are all too real. If you’re within driving distance of the Mid-Atlantic, the Shenandoah Valley may be just the remedy you need.
Shenandoah Valley is much more than the national park that bears the same name; bordered by the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains as well as the Potomac and James Rivers, the valley is cradled by history and boasts something for everyone: from long hikes to long afternoons at wineries, and from days soaked with sunshine to nights under starry skies, there are plenty of reasons to spend some vacation time in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley!
Things to Do in the Shenandoah Valley
The Shenandoah Valley covers a large part of Virginia, which makes it home to some of the Commonwealth’s most beautiful spots to see. Here are a few of our can’t-miss destinations for your visit!
► Shenandoah National Park
Established in December 1935, Shenandoah National Park is much older than its official birthday suggests: evidence of human activity in the region dates back to more than 8,000 years ago! Native Americans subsisted on the bounty of the region, which provided them with hunting opportunities as well as access to stones used for weapons and trade. When European settlers arrived in the 1700s, the land gave them similar opportunities, and log cabins began to dot the landscape near freshwater streams. That opened the doors to what the region offers today: by the start of the 20th century, the Shenandoah Valley was synonymous with vacation for Virginians, and families would leave the cities to seek respite in the mountains throughout the year.Today, Shenandoah National Park brings visitors in for day trips and longer stays alike. It’s the scenic views and animal sightings that excite most park guests; one of the most iconic and popular ways to experience the park is to spend a day driving along Skyline Drive. With more than 100 miles of paved roadway, Skyline Drive is punctuated by spots to stop, get out of the car, and admire the spectacular scenery that cascades toward the horizon. Autumn is widely known as the best time to enjoy Skyline Drive, although that also leads to lengthy delays to enter the park (we’ve waited more than two hours at the entrance before because of traffic congestion!). While Virginia’s peak foliage season is worth braving the crowds, don’t hesitate to pick a different time of year to explore at a more leisurely pace (after all, there are many great spots in Virginia to see the changing leaves!). Spring in Shenandoah National Park is beautiful when the trees start to bud, summer is gorgeous when the valley is green and lush after the rain, and winter is stunning under a blanket of fresh snow (although it’s a good idea to check the park’s opening status before venturing out—inclement weather can close the roads during any season).
Of all the places within Shenandoah National Park to pause, Ravens Roost Overlook is our favorite. Located just across from the park’s Rockfish Gap entrance, it is technically outside of the park itself and is located along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which means you can visit without paying the park’s entrance fee. It’s popular with tourists as well as photographers, and Ravens Roost offers some terrific, unobstructed views of the expansive valley as well as a sole tree that is lucky enough to have the best seat in the house.
Plenty of wild animals call Shenandoah National Park home, and watching for wildlife is one of the best reasons to visit. Deer are plentiful, but keep your eyes trained for foxes, moles, minks, or even black bears. The park is also paradise for bird watching, and dozens of birds can be seen in the trees or the skies at any given time.
One tip for your visit to Shenandoah National Park: be sure to arrive with a full tank of gas, as gas stations are few and far between when you’re within the official boundaries, and there aren’t many exits to get in and out. Take some snacks as well—picnics are a great option and make up for the lack of restaurants or eateries within park territory.
More Information: NPS.gov/shen
► Virginia CavesThe Shenandoah Valley is home to some of the most incredible caverns in the United States. Luray Caverns, Shenandoah Caverns, Natural Bridge Caverns, Skyline Caverns, and Endless Caverns are just a few of the places where you can explore these subterranean wonders. The caves, while humid, tend to hover in the mid-to-upper 50 degree range all year, so they can be an especially nice destination to visit in the summer months.
Each cavern experience is unique and worth a visit, and selecting which one you will visit may be a factor of nothing more than which is closest to your hotel or other destinations you plan to visit.
If you’re wondering what a visit to the caverns might be like, take a few minutes to read about our visit to Luray Caverns!
► Peaks of OtterPeaks of Otter is one of the most scenic locations in all of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it’s a popular place to visit for hiking, swimming, or just to enjoy the beautiful views. We visited during the fall to check out the foliage, but we were met with thick fog that almost fully engulfed the scenery, giving it a bit of a spooky feel. Even with the obscured view, it was still easy to see why this location has been revered by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and local native tribes. Interestingly, some of the stones from the Peaks of Otter were used to build the Washington Monument in Washington, DC.
► Natural Chimneys
If you’re looking for a great place for a picnic with a bit of an unexpected backdrop, consider Natural Chimneys in the central Shenandoah Valley. Towering up to 120 feet, the huge rock formations are the remnants of an ancient inland sea that once covered the area. Today, visitors can enjoy the view of Natural Chimneys (free of charge) while also enjoying the nearby campgrounds, picnic areas, and public pool. The site also hosts live concerts with their performance stage and the largest jousting tournament in the eastern United States each August—an event worthy of a trip in itself!
► Shenandoah WaterfallsShenandoah National Park has some spectacular waterfalls that are both easy to access and difficult to reach, and seeking them out can be as quick or as challenging as you would like. Two of our favorites are closer to the “easy to reach” side of that spectrum, with both being just a short walk along a trail from their respective parking areas.
Crabtree Falls is the highest cascading vertical-drop waterfall east of the Mississippi River, and it’s a popular destination for hiking enthusiasts. There are trails with multiple views of the waterfall, but the first one is a short walk from the parking lot, just over one hundred yards down a paved path. You can follow the trail farther north for additional views as well.
Well-loved Dark Hollow Falls is another one of our favorite places to stop along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. The 0.75 mile trail is a fairly easy out-and-back hike (for 1.5 total miles) that culminates with the falls themselves, which can be seen from along the trail as well as up-close once you reach them. In warmer weather, visitors may splash around in the water to cool off in preparation for the uphill hike back to the parking area; in colder weather it can be a bit slippery, so wearing nonskid shoes is a good choice. Dark Hollow Falls is often very busy, especially on weekends, so visiting early in the day might help you to carve out more of the experience for yourself—by lunchtime, you’ll be fighting for space and won’t find solitude if that is your goal.
► Natural BridgeJust west of Shenandoah National Park you’ll find the famous Natural Bridge of Virginia. The enormous land bridge towers 215 feet above a small creek, and it’s been considered a sacred place by local Monacan tribes for centuries. Natural Bridge was surveyed by George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson had a particularly strong fondness for the location. In fact, he liked it so much that he personally surveyed the land, purchased the site along with the land surrounding Natural Bridge, and built a log cabin onsite so he could host guests and share the experience.
In his book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote:
Some of the famous visitors to Natural Bridge include former presidents James Monroe and Martin Van Buren along with many other notable names such as Sam Houston (leader of the Texas Revolution), Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick), and Wiliam Cullen Bryant (a poet and writer). William Cullen Bryant went so far as to compare the “world-famous bridge” to Niagara Falls as two of the most notable locations in all of North America.
More Information: DCR.Virginia.gov/State-Parks
► New Market Battlefield and the Virginia Museum of the Civil WarThe American Civil War of 1861-1865 left an enormous imprint on the Commonwealth of Virginia, as numerous battles took place either within the state’s borders or in neighboring areas. The Shenandoah Valley saw a few notable battles, and there’s no better place to learn about the conflict and the people involved than by stopping by the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. The museum is next door to the New Market Battlefield, a conflict which saw the only time in American history that a group of college students played a pivotal role in battle as part of an active military conflict. The students were cadets at Virginia Military Institute, and several lost their shoes in the muddy fields during the battle. VMI honors the event with New Market Day each year, and the incident is memorialized in the movie Field of Lost Shoes. The battlefield is a great stop if US history is of interest, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the conflict and the role it played in the Civil War’s trajectory.
► Roanoke StarPerched atop Mill Mountain, over 1,000 feet above the skyline of Roanoke, Virginia, the Roanoke Star is a must-see location in the southern part of the Shenandoah Valley region. Also known as the Mill Mountain Star, it’s been compared to California’s Hollywood sign in its visibility—it can be seen from to 60 miles away—and for its regional significance: it’s been shining bright as an icon of Virginia since 1949.
Visitors can drive right up to the base of the star and admire the view from a scenic overlook. The opposite direction of the star provides a panoramic view of the Roanoke skyline, so you’re bound to get an impressive photo in either direction! A nearby park with plenty of picnic tables makes a great place to extend your visit and enjoy the afternoon.
► Dinosaur Land
If you’re looking for an interesting roadside attraction to visit during your trip through the Shenandoah Valley, plan to stop by Dinosaur Land! Home to more than 50 giant dinosaur statues (and even a few monsters like King Kong), Dinosaur Land has been entertaining curious tourists since 1963. The family-owned park near Winchester, Virginia lets visitors walk along trails decorated with the giant statues, and it has a great gift shop. Just 70 miles from Washington, DC, it’s a fun day destination if you’re in the area—especially if you have kids or are looking for a lesser-known attraction not too far from the city.
More Information: DinosaurLand.com
This video from Washington, DC’s ABC 7 shares a good look at what to expect when you visit Dinosaur Land.
Whiskey, Wine, Beer, and Snacks
Any good road trip should include a few snacks and beverages, and the Shenandoah Valley is a wonderful place for a tasting or a tour at a winery, brewery, distillery, or factory. Here are a few of our favorite stops in the Shenandoah Valley.
► Virginia WineriesIf you have been part of the Road Unraveled family for a while, you know we’re huge supporters of the Virginia wine industry and frequent visitors to the many wineries around the state. The Shenandoah Valley is home to some incredible wineries, including some of our favorites like CrossKeys Vineyards, North Mountain Vineyards, Veritas Vineyards, Peaks of Otter Winery, and King Family Vineyards.
King Family Vineyards is especially fun to visit if you are interested in polo or if you’re looking to experience it in person. Every Sunday between Memorial Day and mid-October, you can visit King Family and watch live polo matches while you enjoy a glass of wine. We had never seen a live polo match before our visit, but the energy was contagious—and it was fun to see the true fans arrive, set up tents, and prepare for a full afternoon!
If you’re a casual wine drinker or are looking for some truly unique tastings, Peaks of Otter Winery specializes in fruit and other flavored wines—look for apple, pear, plum, chocolate, and even “Kiss the Devil,” which is made from 30 varieties of peppers! If you’re hoping for a great lunch or brunch, don’t pass up a chance to visit CrossKeys Vineyards, which offers outstanding wine, delicious food, and unbeatable views that might combine to create a practically perfect afternoon.
► Copper Fox DistilleryWe discovered Copper Fox Distillery during one of our visits to Founding Farmers in Washington, DC. The restaurant specializes in a locally sourced farm-to-table experience, and they use Copper Fox as one of their house rye whiskeys. After some investigation, we learned that the distillery is located on the eastern side of Shenandoah National Park in Rappahannock County and we quickly planned a visit. Copper Fox Distillery offers tours of the facilities to give visitors a first hand look at the process of making their award-winning rye whiskey. As an added bonus, if you like the whiskey you can purchase a barrel kit which gives you an opportunity to make your very own batch of whiskey at home—a great souvenir if you are so inclined!
More Information: CopperFoxDistillery.com
► The Apple House
Serving locals and tourists alike since 1963, the Apple House in Linden, Virginia has become another one of our required stops any time we’re heading to the north end of Shenandoah National Park. In addition to the famous Apple Butter Donuts, they have a dining area with amazing barbeque and a huge gift shop and country store with canned goods, touristy items, and local Virginia products like wine, cider, beer, and peanuts. If you like hot sauce, be sure to spend some time browsing the store’s selection of hot sauces—you’ll have more than 300 bottles to choose from!
More Information: TheAppleHouse.net
► Virginia Breweries
Virginia has a rapidly growing craft beer scene, and some of our favorite breweries can be found near Shenandoah National Park. Blue Mountain Brewery, Devil’s Backbone, and Starr Hill are all part of the ‘Brew Ridge Trail’ collection of local breweries. Starr Hill was a favorite of Adam’s during his years at University of Virginia, and Blue Mountain Brewery is a must-visit destination any time we visit Charlottesville; in addition to their beer, they have a great dining menu. Devil’s Backbone is one of the most well known Virginia breweries, and you can visit the place where it all began with a stop at the brewery.
More Information: BrewRidgeTrail.com
► Route 11 Potato Chip Factory
We’ve long enjoyed Route 11 chips, but we only recently discovered that they had a factory in the Shenandoah Valley that allows visitors to see the production in-person! Route 11 makes kettle style potato chips in a variety of flavors, and you’ll find them in grocery stores throughout the mid-Atlantic region. A highlight of our visit was the opportunity to sample different flavors of chips—a few of which we had not seen in stores. Barbeque and Chesapeake Crab are two of our favorites, but if you’re looking for chips with a spicy kick be sure to try Mama Zuma’s Revenge.
More Information: rt11.comAs an added bonus, after you visit the potato chip factory, drive a couple miles to see the Meems Bottom covered bridge. We love the historic covered bridges of Virginia (Humpback Bridge in Covington is one of our favorites, and it’s beautiful in the Autumn months with foliage). Built in the 1890’s, Meems Bottom bridge has a span of 204 feet, making it the longest still-standing covered bridge in the state. Stop by for a photo!
► Virginia Ham
You may have seen Virginia Ham sold at grocery stores around the United States, but the tradition runs strong in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Fulks Run Grocery has been home to Turner Hams since 1949, and they have appeared on many best-of lists including Food and Wine Magazine and USA Today. Located north of Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley, a stop at Fulks Run Grocery will give you the chance to try their famous sugar-cured Country Ham and experience a part of Virginia history.
More Information: FulksRunGrocery.com
Where to stay near Shenandoah National Park
Although camping is a popular option for many visitors, you don’t have to worry if your idea of camping is a night or two at a motel with basic cable. You’ll find plenty of hotel options on both sides of Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Booking.com has plenty of great deals to consider; we use it to find and book most of our hotels because it’s easy to compare amenities and ensure you find a property with a flexible cancellation policy in case your plans change—especially during the pandemic! Take a look at Booking.com to see if they have a hotel that meets your needs!
Map of Things to Do in Shenandoah Valley
The Shenandoah Valley is a big place, and we hope this map of our favorite spots helps you to visualize how you can make the most of your vacation time during your visit!
We have long been advocates of taking time off, and for so many of us we need time off more than ever. We’re grateful to live close to the Shenandoah Valley, our welcoming host as we have sought exercise, fresh air, and sunshine—and even a touch of adventure while we wait for travel to open more widely to us all.
But don’t take our word for it. United States Founding Father and noted Virginia historian Thomas Jefferson may have described the area best in his writing. In a letter from 1816, Jefferson wrote to a colleague about his affinity for this part of the country:
The western part of Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley is full of beautiful landscapes, fun activities, and scenic drives. There is something for everyone!
We always enjoy writing about our home state of Virginia! Here are a few more places we’ve written about.