Visiting a national park is almost always a worthwhile experience due to the positive health effects of spending time in nature, the opportunity to see protected wildlife, and the simple pleasure of enjoying the great outdoors. But it can be daunting to know which part of a park to visit, especially when you have small children in tow, and you are considering a large park like Shenandoah.
Shenandoah National Park is broken into three sections, each with it’s own entrance – the Northern District with the Front Royal entrance; the Central District with the Thornton Gap (northern side) or Swift Run Gap (southern side) entrances; and the Southern District with the Rockfish Gap entrance. There are many opportunities to stop for food and potties, which is why this park is perfect for parents with young children.
Depending on where you’re staying and how many hours your kids can stand to drive (or you can stand to drive with your kids!), you may want to pick one of these sections per day, or per trip, and stay in that area. Trying to see more than one a day may lead to EFG (Extreme Family Grouchiness – yes, it’s a thing and I made it up), or even worse, car sickness. The roads can be windy, especially in the Central District and right around the Thornton Gap entrance, so bring chewing gum and maybe some Dramamine. We recommend visiting just one district per day.
Most Family Friendly Hike in Shenandoah’s Northern District
The Front Royal Entrance is closest to Washington DC and the easiest to access from the Mid-Atlantic area. It lacks the iconic tunnel at Thornton Gap, but the road leading in is significantly less nausea-inducing. The town of Front Royal is cute and has everything a young family may need (I’m talking drive throughs and convenience stores).
Once you’ve paid your $30 for your minivan to enter the park, there are bazillions of overlooks where you can stop and take pictures. They are truly beautiful, and you will want to stop at all of them (but you won’t because of the spectacle of unbuckling the car seats and trying to corral the kids back in afterwards.) A couple of hikes that you can do, even with a grumpy toddler that just wants to be carried are the Fox Hollow Trail or Fort Windham Rocks.
Fox Hollow is easy to find and convenient because it is right across the street from the Dicky Ridge Visitor Center where you can tinkle, get warmed up, buy a snack, and find ample parking. It’s a simple loop through the forest, and you may even see some wildlife if your youngest isn’t crying their head off.
The Fort Windham Rocks Trail is our favorite, because it is a very short walk with a big payoff. There is a parking lot but it is small, so that may pose a problem. But, if you are able to park, you just head up the Appalachian trail till you come to an intersecting trail (the Dicky Ridge Trail), and turn left. Go a few more minutes, and you’ll come to a huge rock formation that is loads of fun for you and your little ones to climb and explore.
Most Family Friendly Hikes in Shenandoah’s Central District
Stony Man is another short hike with a big payoff – it is a loop of just over a mile that offers a spectacular view that even the smallest spectators can appreciate.
Big Meadows – this is not an actual trail, but a space to visit. Again, it is right across the street from the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, so you can snack, park and use the restroom. It is also a really special place which is just what it sounds like – a big, beautiful meadow high up in the mountains! You can walk along the meadow here and watch the birds and the shadows dipping down from the mountains around you. It’s serene and… well, flat. If you need a break from trudging up the side of a mountain, this is a restful place to picnic or take a stroll.
Dark Hollow Falls is our favorite hike, and it is definitely one of the most popular. Again, it is a short little hike with a bit payoff, as the falls are just under a mile from the trailhead. The trail is steep, and the way back up offers a fun challenge for little legs (and parents to whom heavy small children are attached).
Most Family Friendly Hikes in Shenandoah’s Southern District
Blackrock Summit – there is a small parking area here and it’s just a short hike to an incredible view. It’s also a TRACK trail, meaning that if your kids are old enough to read a kid-friendly brochure and follow along with an activity, this is one of the trails that features this at the trailhead.
Bearfence Viewpoint – with or without the rock scramble. For some families, rock scramble sounds like an awesome, fun challenge. For other families, rock scramble sounds stressful with a side of potential head injuries. And, it may just depend on the time of day and the moods of the smallest family members. So for this hike, you get to decide whether or not to include the rock scramble. Either way, it’s not a terribly long hike, and there is a lovely viewpoint at the end.
One last tip – be sure to watch the sunset at one of the many west facing overlooks. The nice thing about Skyline Drive is that it runs right along the ridge of the mountains, so you don’t have to go too far to find overlooks on either side. Do yourself a favor and spend 15 minutes or so watching the sun dip under the layers of blue mountains, turning everything pink. You won’t regret it.