National Parks Counter: 14
Shenandoah National Park was actually a spot I was actively thinking about going to in March of 2020. I never quite got to the booking stage because our friend covid was starting to make a muck of things just before and I was holding off. It also sounded like March was hit or miss on weather in that area. After getting back from Colorado my Sidekick and I were looking for new spots. Again, it had to be non stop flight and easy access to a cool outdoor spot. Slim pickings at that time, but we found it with a flight to Baltimore, and a quick hour, hour and a half trip to an area close to the Virgina/West Virginia border called Shenandoah National Park. This was over Labor day, so we made it an extended weekend. Shenandoah is a huge draw during the fall foliage season but it wasn’t possible to get there at that point.
We got in rather late and had hotel reservations at…wait for it…Super 8, in Front Royal, VA. So long story short, the park is beautiful and great, but that town at the entrance is pretty much garbage! There actually were not a whole of hotel options to be had and Super 8 it was! But at least the hotel was very close to the park entrance.
So this is an interesting park with a complicated history that I am not going to get into, but feel free to check it out here. The park is very thin, and very long. Basically it is situated around the main drive through the park called Skyline Drive and it is slightly longer than 100 miles long. We actually came into the park early the next morning and did our recon thing, scoping out things. We found a store inside the park selling some locally brewed beer, specifically for the park and found a little baby introductory hike, that was actually a part of the Appalachian Trail called Bearfence Mountain Trail, and we conveniently had the namesake beer! This trail is actually fairly simple, a mile with 250 feet elevation gain, despite alltrails saying it’s moderate…but it was quiet and had a good spot at the top to sit, soak in the views and have a Bearfence IPA!
Our second hike was an early morning one called the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. We went to a waterfall called the Lower White Oak Falls. The trail went on for a while and I think we actually went a bit further than that. According to alltrails, it’s about 3 miles out and back to the lower falls, if that is indeed where we stopped and turned back, with about 400 feet of elevation gain. The spot we accessed this trail from was actually not off of the main drag through the park. Instead, we drove through an area parallel to the park. The town? if you want to call it that, that was close to the area is called Etlan. The hike was nice and easy, but could be pretty lengthy and it was actually pretty crowded, especially considering it was off the beaten path and there was still a small ranger station there for payments. No free access to this park! After this trail we stumbled upon really calm and chill winery in that Etlan town called DuCard Vineyards. Really pretty spot in the Virginia Mountains and good wine! There is no cell phone service out here either!
After catching a beautiful morning sunrise in the park a couple other trails we did from the more usual way to access the park were the Mary’s Rock Trail and the Upper Hawksbill Trail. Another general National Park hiking reminder: parking lots are usually tiny and fill up fast, so always keep that in mind, ESPECIALLY in busy parks like this one. Mary’s Rock is a 3.5 mile out and back summit trail with 1200 feet of elevation gain and a good rocky top with killer views! This trail is also a part of the AT. Hawksbill is the tallest mountain in the park at a little over 4000 feet and there are several trails to access the summit. The one we chose was called the Upper Hawksbill Trail. It is the fastest trail to the top at only about a mile each way and 400 feet of gain. Alltrails says this one is moderate and has a “gradual” slope. There is nothing “gradual” about that trail. In fact, it may very well be one of the steeper trails I have done. No, it’s not long, no it’s not exposed, and it is very wide, but it’s a calf work out on the way up and don’t slip and bust your ass on the way down! There is a nice observation deck at the top that looks over the park and the Shenandoah Valley to the west. Heads up! There does appear to be a false observation point. When the trail finally flattens there is a structure of some time and then an open expanse to view the surrounding area. Past the structure, though, the trail does actually continue a bit to get to the proper observation area.
The out of the park life was a little disappointing. This town was really dirty and blighted looking. Finding good outdoor places to eat or hang was not too easy. There was a brewery in town and it was surprising that the little Italian joint we found sold none of their beer. We stopped at the Front Royal Brewing Company once. The first impressions were not great. It was a chore to get a table and the staff seemed inattentive and overwhelmed. Eventually we got seated and the food and drink were pretty solid. I would hope that post pandemic the place is more pleasant, but it’s about the nicest place we found. After a few days, it was time to start making our way back to Baltimore. We took a route back that went past some dinosaurs and through Harpers Ferry, WV. This is an old historic town on a river. The whole area is a national historic landmark. The Appalachian Trail passes through here. We came on a day when a lot of shops and restaurants were closed up but we did find one place open to microwave some food that serves hikers on the AT, called The Towns Inn. The lady running the place is a former teacher and now tends the house for the hiking crowd.
We stayed just long enough to soak up some views over the river and traintracks once Almost Heaven Pub and Grill opened and then it was time to come back to the FL!
Overall impressions: Pros: Beautiful National Park. Great hiking. It was not terribly overcrowded. Harpers Ferry looks like a cool little quiet weekend spot. Cons: Front Royal, VA sucks. We were in Harpers Ferry on a not weekend day.
The Adventurer Final Word:
4 Stars! A definite nice place to go out of your way for but there are parts of the overall experience that could have been better!