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Relaxing by a waterfall while hiking in Shenandoah National Park

Virginia

Shenandoah: Finding Natural Beauty Just Outside Washington, D.C.

By: Talia Salem

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  • States:
    Virginia

Combine urban allure with rural charm on your next visit to Washington, D.C.

While this dynamic capital city of the USA has a lot to offer on its own, get more out of your trip with a visit to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, this expansive valley is anchored by Shenandoah National Park and is home to picture-postcard towns, wineries, historic landmarks and outdoor adventures. Its closest point is about 120 kilometers from the city.

On the Way to the Shenandoah Valley

Begin your trip by spending a few days exploring Washington, D.C., and its neighborhoods, cultural attractions and landmarks. Grab picnic supplies and a rental car downtown or at Union Station before setting out on your journey to Shenandoah National Park. You may also pick up a rental car at the airport when you arrive, but parking is difficult to find and expensive in the city. Public transportation is an easier and more affordable option.

Shenandoah National Park is long and skinny, and with four entrances, there are many ways to get to and experience the park. If you have time, take one of the most beautiful routes. Start at the National Mall and cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge to George Washington Memorial Parkway, which affords you panoramic views of Georgetown and other parts of Washington, D.C. From there, take Interstate Highway 66 to Front Royal for about 100 kilometers and follow signs for Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. This will take you to the northernmost park entrances and Skyline Drive, which spans 175 kilometers through the entire park.

Spectacular view at sunset in Shenandoah National Park

Spectacular view at sunset in Shenandoah National Park
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Get to Know Shenandoah National Park

Topping dozens of lists for the most scenic drives in the USA, Skyline Drive has beautiful valley vistas at almost every turn and offers many stops along the way for an epic selfie or a picnic lunch.

One of the busiest times to see Shenandoah National Park is in the fall when the leaves change color, but it is beautiful throughout the year. Bring your camera for photo opportunities galore, such as frozen waterfalls in the winter and colorful flowers in the spring.

The park also has more than 800 kilometers of hiking trails, including about 160 kilometers of the famed Appalachian Trail, which traverses the USA from Maine to Georgia. The park’s most popular and dangerous hike, Old Rag, is a challenging, 14.5-kilometer trail that takes you on switchbacks with amazing views. Give yourself seven to eight hours to complete it and don’t forget to pack plenty of water and snacks. There are many other shorter, less-challenging hikes, including Marys Rock, accessible from the Thornton Gap entrance off Route 211. A hike on this six-kilometer loop will reveal an unobstructed view of the valley.

At a loss about where to hike? Just ask a park ranger. They know about the trail conditions and can suggest a route that will fit your time constraints and desired difficulty.

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Explore Luray Caverns

If you want to explore the area near Shenandoah National Park, take a detour to Luray Caverns, which is west of the park. One of the largest cavern systems in the USA, Luray Caverns sits below Shenandoah National Park and there are guided tours through the caverns’ remarkable calcite formations.

After you have worked up an appetite, head to nearby Sperryville for antique shopping, dinner and whiskey. Stop in the low-key, small-production Copper Fox Distillery for some award-winning spirits that grace the cocktail menus of top Washington, D.C., restaurants. Consider spending the night in the area and continuing your journey or head back to Washington, D.C.

Walking through the underground formations in Luray Caverns

Walking through the underground formations in Luray Caverns
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Discover Towns Surrounding the Park

After your day of exploration, head southwest to Staunton. Named one of the “20 Best Small Towns in America” by Smithsonian magazine in 2012, Staunton has a charming historic downtown, farm-to-table restaurants, antique and boutique shopping, and cultural attractions like the American Shakespeare Center. Spend the night at a bed-and-breakfast like the Inn at Old Virginia or downtown at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel.

After visiting Staunton, head east on Highway 64 toward Charlottesville for some wine tasting. This area is home to some of the best wineries in the state, so set aside a few hours for tasting. A local favorite about 30 minutes from Staunton, Afton Mountain Vineyards, was one of the first vineyards in the Charlottesville area, and it has spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

After wine tasting, continue east on Highway 64 to Charlottesville. A college town with a population of about 45,000, Charlottesville is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and brims with charm. Stay at one of the many downtown hotels like the Omni Charlottesville Hotel to explore the historic downtown mall with its mix of chic boutiques, al fresco restaurants and bars.

Before leaving the area, make sure to save a few hours to visit Monticello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Experience U.S. President Thomas Jefferson’s legacy through a tour of his sprawling estate, including his house, gardens and grounds.

Sunset overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains

Sunset overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains
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