8 Top Shenandoah National Park Things to Do [for Families]

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Shenandoah National Park is like a huge, beautiful painting of nature in Virginia. It covers over 200,000 acres and is only about 75 miles from Washington, D.C. – a perfect escape from the city buzz. The park is close to nice towns like Front Royal and Waynesboro, making it a blend of nature and local charm.

As you explore Shenandoah, you’ll hear the soothing sounds of water, feel the gentle breeze, and spot diverse wildlife. Whether you’re a nature lover or a family ready for fun, Shenandoah offers trails, waterfalls, and stunning views along Skyline Drive.

Come along as we discover all the best things to do in this natural paradise, making sure you don’t miss any of our favorite activities or the best places to stop. 

shenandoah national park entrance signPin

Big Meadows Lodge

Big Meadows Lodge sits in the heart of Shenandoah National Park, inviting families with its cozy charm and perfect location. It’s a great base for families to enjoy the wonders of the park.

The location of Big Meadows Lodge can’t be beat. It’s found at Mile 51.2 on Skyline drive, which makes it convenient to attractions and hiking trails, but also means that you’ll enjoy a picturesque drive to get there.

They have family suites that are perfect for sleeping all the kids and they host tons of activities like stargazing sessions, ranger-led talks, and nature walks.

sign for big meadows lodge shenandoah national parkPin

Visitors Centers

Like any national park, a stop at the visitors center is not to be missed. This is the perfect place to launch your adventure!

Byrd Visitor Center (Mile 51)

The Byrd Visitor Center, located in the heart of the park, is a central place to learn about Shenandoah’s nature and history.

Inside, you can explore exhibits about the park’s plants, animals, and its creation, which involved displacing over 500 families. The exhibits highlight the challenges faced during this time.

While at the Byrd Visitor Center, check the ranger program schedule for interesting activities. Shenandoah is home to black bears, so be sure to attend a bear safety talk.

The center is also where guided van tours to President Herbert Hoover’s Rapidan Camp start, offering a historical adventure into the park’s past.

Byrd Visitor Center at Shenandoah National Park, VirginiaPin
Byrd Visitor Center (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Mile 4.6)

The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, near the northern Front Royal entrance, is an educational stop for those entering from this side of the park.

Inside, you can explore informative exhibits, watch a park movie, and find additional resources in the bookstore. Like the other visitor center, it’s a great place to talk to knowledgeable park rangers.

Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. during certain times of the year (except Wednesdays or Thursdays), the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center provides insights into Shenandoah’s ecology and history.

Although closed in winter (late November to early April), it welcomes visitors during other seasons to learn about the park’s natural wonders.

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center Shenandoah National Park, VirginiaPin
Dickey Ridge Visitor Center Shenandoah National Park (from Virginia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Drive the Scenic Skyline Drive

The 105-mile Skyline Drive is a winding scenic drive offering breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and maybe even a black bear!

With a strict 35 mph speed limit, it’s a relaxed drive that takes you through the entire length of the park. 

Here are must-stop locations:

  • Thornton Gap Entrance: Start your adventure at Thornton Gap Entrance, capturing a photo with the entrance sign.
  • Marys Rock Tunnel: Stop at Marys Rock Tunnel for a stunning panorama of Shenandoah Valley.
  • Big Meadows: Explore Big Meadows, visit the Visitor Center, and enjoy family-friendly hiking trails. Ideal for a leisurely family meal.
  • Skyland Resort: A pitstop at Skyland Resort offers delicious meals and panoramic views, a perfect spot for souvenirs and wildlife sightings.
  • Hawksbill Gap: Reach the highest point in the park at Hawksbill Gap for mind-blowing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is conveniently located near parking lots, so there’s no difficult hike to get to the views.
  • Shenandoah Valley Overlook (Milepost 2.8): A quick stop at Shenandoah Valley Overlook for a snack break and family selfies against the breathtaking backdrop.
Skyline Drive in the fog, Shenandoah National Park, VirginiaPin

Luray Caverns

While not technically in the park, a short drive on U.S. Highway 340 takes you to Luray Caverns. This underground wonderland is an interesting and otherworldly experience for families. Open year-round, the caverns have a constant temperature of 54°F, providing a perfect escape during any season.

The one-hour tour will take you through well-lit and well-paved paths where you’ll see stalactite formations, underground pools, and huge chambers.

You won’t want to miss Dream Lake, where the reflections create an illusion of depth or the Stalacpipe Organ which creates cool sounds throughout the caverns.

luray caverns, virginiaPin
Luray Caverns

Waterfalls

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going on a hike I want it to end one of two places: at a beautiful mountain view or at a waterfall! Here are the best hikes in the park that lead to waterfalls.

Dark Hollow Falls (Mile 50.7)

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 1.4 miles (round trip)
  • Trailhead: Located at Mile 50.7, Dark Hollow Falls offers a moderately challenging yet family-friendly hike. The trailhead leads to a cascading waterfall, surrounded by lush greenery. While the descent is relatively easy, the return does involve an uphill climb. Keep a watchful eye on younger hikers, and you’ll be rewarded with the refreshing sight and sound of Dark Hollow Falls.
dark hollow falls, shenandoah national park, virginiaPin
Dark Hollow Falls

Rose River Falls Overlook (Mile 49.4)

  • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
  • Length: 2.6 miles (round trip)
  • Trailhead: Beginning at Mile 49.4 in the Big Meadows Area, this hike takes you to an overlook adjacent to Rose River Falls. The walk down is easy, but be prepared for a steeper return. Surrounded by the forest, this trail leads to a less-crowded waterfall destination, making it perfect for families who want a quiet outing.
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Rose River Falls

Overall Run Falls (Mile 21.1)

  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Length: 6.4 miles (round trip)
  • Trailhead: For families up for a more challenging adventure, Overall Run Falls Trail begins at Mile 21.1. This strenuous but rewarding hike takes you to the highest waterfall in the park. While the length and elevation gain may be more suitable for older children or experienced young hikers, the payoff at the falls is undoubtedly worth the effort.
Shenandoah National Park things to do: overall run fallsPin
Overall Run Falls

Lewis Spring Falls (Mile 51.2)

  • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
  • Length: 3.3 miles (round trip)
  • Trailhead: Starting at Mile 51.2, Lewis Spring Falls Trail is a family-friendly hike through the forest leading to a picturesque waterfall. The trail is relatively gentle, making it great for children.
lewis spring falls, shenandoah national park, virginiaPin
Lewis Spring Falls

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is an exciting way to explore any national park! Skyland Stables (Mile 42.5), operated by Delaware North, provides a range of horseback riding experiences suitable for riders of various skill levels.

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Outfitting Options

Riders can choose from one-hour, two-hour, or half-day trail rides, accommodating different preferences and schedules. The one-hour ride provides a taste of the scenic beauty, while the longer tours offer a deeper exploration of the park’s landscapes.

Pony Rides for Kids

For the littlest adventurers (ages 5 and under), Skyland Stables offers wrangler-led pony rides.

This is the best way to give the little ones a gentle introduction to horseback riding.

Tips for Families

  • Riders must be at least 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weigh less than 250 pounds to participate in the guided trail rides.
  • To plan your family’s horseback riding adventure and make reservations, visit the Skyland Stables website.
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Rock Climbing

By far one of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park is rock climbing.  Two standout locations for family-friendly rock climbing are Old Rag Mountain and Stony Man, each offering a unique climbing experience amidst the park’s stunning landscapes.

Are you and the family inexperienced? Don’t worry! There are outfitters in the park who can give you all the equipment and practice you need to make it safe and fun for the whole family.

Blue Ridge Mountain Guides

  • Website: Blue Ridge Mountain Guides
  • Services Geared for Families:
    • Guided Rock Climbing Trips
    • Family-Oriented Climbing Adventures
    • Climbing Courses for All Ages
  • Details: Blue Ridge Mountain Guides specializes in crafting rock climbing experiences suitable for families with children. Their guided trips and courses ensure a safe and enjoyable introduction to the world of rock climbing. Whether it’s a first-time climb for the kids or a family adventure, Blue Ridge Mountain Guides provides expert guidance.
person rock climbingPin

Shenandoah Mountain Guides

  • Website: Shenandoah Mountain Guides
  • Services Tailored for Families:
    • Guided Rock Climbing Trips for Families
    • Outdoor Rock Climbing Courses for Kids
    • Group Adventures with a Family Focus
  • Details: Shenandoah Mountain Guides understand the dynamics of family rock climbing. Their certified guides ensure a safe and enjoyable climbing experience for all family members. With specialized courses for kids and tailored group adventures, Shenandoah Mountain Guides create lasting family memories amidst the rocks of Shenandoah.
child rock climbingPin

Hiking

While waterfalls grace the park, Shenandoah National Park offers miles of trails that lead to other picturesque spots. For a list specific to our favorite family-friendly Shenandoah National Park hikes, check out this article.

Here are some most popular hikes in the park, but please note that *not all of these are what I’d consider “family-friendly”:

a family hiking in the woodsPin

Marys Rock (Mile 31.6 and 33.5)

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Length: 3.7 miles (round trip) from Panorama or 2.9 miles (round trip) from Meadow Spring
  • Trailhead: Positioned at Mile 31.6 and 33.5, Marys Rock is a moderately challenging hike with stunning valley views. The longer trail from Panorama is a bit more difficult, making it better for older children. The reward at the top, however, is a spectacular rocky viewpoint overlooking the valley.
Shenandoah National Park things to do: marys rock shenandoah national park, virginiaPin
Mary’s Rock

Limberlost (Mile 43)

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Length: 1.3 miles (round trip)
  • Trailhead: Starting at Mile 43, Limberlost Trail is a flat and fully accessible hike suitable for all ages. This trail provides insights into the effects of invasive species on Shenandoah’s hemlock forests. It’s an educational and easy walk through an area stripped by the destructive hemlock wooly adelgid, and a great opportunity to learn about the park’s conservation efforts.
Limberlost Trail Shenandoah National Park, VirginiaPin
footbridge along the Limberlost Trail

Bearfence Mountain (Mile 56.4)

  • Difficulty: Strenuous (due to rock scrambles)
  • Length: 1.2 miles (round trip)
  • Trailhead: Positioned at Mile 56.4, Bearfence is a short yet strenuous hike with a rock scramble. While the overall length is manageable for families, the rock scramble may be more suitable for teens/experienced older kids. The summit rewards adventurers with a 360° view making it well worth it for families who want to take on the challenge!
bearfence mountain at sunset shenandoah national park, virginiaPin
Bearfence Mountain at sunset

Hike a Section of the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, and few have the opportunity to hike to whole thing. But, that doesn’t mean your family can’t get a glimpse of what the adventure is like!

appalachian trail marker in shenandoah national park, virginiaPin
Appalachian Trail marker in Shenandoah NP

Here is the basic information you need to know to hike a section of the Appalachian trail in Shenandoah NP:

  • Starting Point: Thornton Gap Entrance (Mile 31.5)
    • Why Start Here: Thornton Gap Entrance serves as an excellent starting point for families venturing onto the Appalachian Trail. This location marks the intersection of Skyline Drive and the trail, providing easy access for families coming from the park’s central region.
    • Trail Section: Begin your family-friendly Appalachian Trail adventure by heading north from Thornton Gap. This segment has a balanced mix of scenic beauty and manageable terrain suitable for hikers of varying skill levels.
    • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
    • Age Appropriateness: All ages, including younger children with some hiking experience.
  • Stopping Point: Marys Rock (Mile 31.6)
    • Why Stop Here: Marys Rock provides panoramic views of the Shenandoah Valley and is an ideal spot for families to take a break and enjoy a picnic.
    • Trail Section: The Appalachian Trail section leading to Marys Rock is relatively short, making it manageable for families with younger children.
    • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
    • Age Appropriateness: Suitable for children with a moderate level of hiking experience.
  • Ending Point: Pinnacles Picnic Area (Mile 35.1)
    • Why End Here: Finish your family-friendly Appalachian Trail experience at Pinnacles Picnic Area, the perfect spot for a post-hike meal and relaxation.
    • Trail Section: The segment between Marys Rock and Pinnacles Picnic Area maintains a family-friendly level of difficulty, allowing for an enjoyable and rewarding hike.
    • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
    • Age Appropriateness: Suitable for children with moderate hiking experience.
a family hiking in the woodsPin

Best Times to Visit Shenandoah National Park

Deciding when to visit Shenandoah is crucial to making sure your family is about to make the most of their adventure. Here’s a guide to help you find the best time for your family:

Spring

  • Pros: Wildflower are blooming everywhere and there are mild temperatures, perfect for hiking.
  • Cons: The more popular spots int he park will be crowded during this time because everyone loves wildflowers!

Summer

  • Pros: The days are longer, so there’s plenty of time to explore the park. The summer heat is still very reasonable in this area, so it’s a perfect time to visit.
  • Cons: This is the peak season, so expect crowded trails and limited parking.

Fall

  • Pros: There is nothing more gorgeous than the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall! The air is cool and crisp and the colors or spectacular.
  • Cons: During the weeks when the color in the trees is the most vibrant, expect crowds.

Winter

  • Pros: This is the least crowded time of year, so it’s perfect for a quiet family adventure. If you time it right, you can also see the park blanketed in snow, which is a fantastic experience.
  • Cons: Some sections of Skyline Drive may close during winter weather. Certain facilities and services may also have reduced operating hours.
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, VirginiaPin
a curve in the road along Skyline Drive

So, there you have it – the wonders of Shenandoah National Park await your family!

Whether you’re taking in the cozy charm of Big Meadows Lodge, driving along the scenic Skyline Drive, discovering waterfalls, horseback riding, or heading off on a rock climbing adventure, the park promises endless fun and memorable moments.

So pack your bags, lace up those hiking boots, and get ready for an adventure that your family will cherish forever.

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best things to do for families in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: top 8 ideas including hiking, waterfalls, horseback riding, rock climbing, Luray Caverns and more! Pin
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About Sara Brand

3 thoughts on “8 Top Shenandoah National Park Things to Do [for Families]”

  1. We did so many of these on our trip to Shenandoah last summer! I dragged my boys on lots of waterfall hikes; those are my favorite.

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