A FUN-FILLED GUIDE TO SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS

four year old kid sits on large rocky outcrop looking over a sweeping blue sky vista at Shenandoah National Park

POST SUMMARY: Everything you need to know about visiting Shenandoah National Park with kids and toddlers, including what to do, where to stay, kid friendly hikes, and tips for ensuring a fantastic family vacation in Shenandoah National park.

Planning a trip to Shenandoah National Park with kids and need the best tips on things to do, where to stay, what to pack, and family friendly travel tips?

With swimming holes, easy hikes, rocks to climb on, and wild blackberries to pick, kids of all ages will enjoy the splendor of Shenandoah National Park with their families.

Located in verdant North Virginia, Shenandoah National Park is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is famous for its stunning fall hues and the scenic Skyland Drive that cuts North to South through the park. With sweeping views and towering waterfalls, Shenandoah is a paradise for families looking to escape from a concrete jungle.

Here’s our complete experience-based guide on everything you need to know about visiting Shenandoah National Park with kids.


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QUICK FAQ GUIDE TO VISITING SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS

HOW MANY DAYS DO YOU NEED IN SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS?

Two days in the park is enough time for most people to visit the park and get a general idea of the park. Since traveling with kids can mean slower travel, three days allows you to see a lot at a leisurely pace and visit nearby attractions like Luray Caverns. If you don’t have that much time or plan to combine a trip to other national parks on the east coast, I would do at least a day and a half to get a good overview of the park.

If you can stay for longer, you should go for it! There is plenty to do and an abundance of fun, family-friendly activities in Shenandoah and the surrounding area.

IS THERE FOOD IN THE PARK?

Yes, the park offers food concessions from simple grab-and-go sandwiches to elegant sit-down dining about every 25 miles off of Skyland Drive. The restaurants close down for the winter season and open back up around late April. You can see the complete list here. If visiting outside of the high season, you’ll want to pack your lunch or drive out of the park to find food.

HOW MUCH DOES SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK COST?

$30 per car, and the pass is good for seven days.

If you are traveling with a child in the 4th grade, you can get a 4th Grade Pass which allows your child and everyone in the family (if you’re in one vehicle) free admission. You can learn about getting a 4th Grade Pass here.

If you are visiting other National Parks, you may be better off buying a National Parks Pass. Good for one year, it gives you admission into every National Park, including hundreds of other additional National Park Service sites. We bought one for our Utah National Parks Road Trip, and it saved us a lot of money. You can learn more about the pass and buy it here.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS?

Early springtime in Shenandoah could mean overcast days and rainy weather. The upside is the trails are empty.

Shenandoah National Park is open 365 days a year, but portions of Skyline Drive might close in the winter season due to dangerous winter conditions. I tend to think summer is a great time to visit Shenandoah National Park with kids since it’s warm enough to splash around the watering holes, and the wild blackberries will be ripe for picking. That being said, it will be humid, hot, and crowded, so you have to weigh if that’s a significant detractor for your family. If visiting in the summer months, try to come on a weekday when there will be fewer crowds.

Fall is the busiest time in the park as everyone flocks to the mountains to see the stunning fall foliage. Fall in Shenandoah is truly glorious and one of the best places to see fall colors in the US. Peak leaf-peeping season varies every year, but in general, October is when the leaves are at their peak colors.

Spring is a beautiful time to visit, and crowds will be lower. We visited in early spring and had a lovely experience. It was grey and overcast, so it didn’t make for beautiful photos, but we loved having crowd-free trails and easy parking. Next time, I would wait to visit till late spring to see the wildflowers and have fresh green leaves on the trees.

If you want to catch good weather and avoid peak crowds, your best bet is to visit the park in late spring/early summer (May/June) or early fall after Labor Day weekend.

HOW TO GET TO SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK

Shenandoah National Park is in Northern Virginia and has four entrances. From North to South, the entrances are Front Royal, Thornton Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Rockfish Gap.

Washington DC is a convenient 1.5-hour drive from the Front Royal Entrance.

There are four airports within driving distance from the four entrances to the park.

  1. Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD): 56 miles east of the Front Royal Entrance
  2. Reagan National Airport (DCA): 70 miles east of the Front Royal Entrance
  3. Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (SHD): 27 miles west of the Swift Run Gap Entrance
  4. Charlottesville Albemarle Airport (CHO): 31 miles east of the Rockfish Gap Entrance

There are no shuttle providers for Shenandoah National Park, so you will need a car when visiting the park.

WHERE TO STAY IN SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS

Chic modern black tiny cabin at Getaway House
little boy throws hands up in the air in front of blazing campfire

Shenandoah National Park isn’t a large sprawling park so staying inside the park isn’t necessary to get the full experience. For us, lodging in the park is a steep price for what you’re getting. Staying outside the park can usually get you a nicer room with more space.

However, if you are visiting in peak season and are planning to get an early start to your day to avoid crowds, then staying in the park can be a great strategy. If you are visiting in peak season, you should get your lodging as soon as possible. Hotels book up quickly, and prices will rise to astronomical levels the closer you want to visit the park. Don’t wait. If you’re unsure, look for lodging with a flexible cancelation policy to lock in a rate.

Staying Inside The Park

Shenandoah National Park has three lodging options ranging from rustic cabins to contemporary-style hotel rooms. You can see the full list of lodging choices in the park here.

Camping in the park is another option and an excellent way to keep costs down. There are five campgrounds in the park and all campgrounds except Lewis Mountain except reservations six months in advance. You can learn about the campgrounds here.

Staying Outside The Park

When we visited Shenandoah, we stayed at a Getaway House in Stanardsville, Virginia. We loved our time there and highly recommend it for a family looking for a unique, fun experience. They are stylish tiny cabins with a queen-sized bunk bed and a large picture window that looks out onto the forest. We loved coming back from the park and making s’mores at the fire pit and eating outside on the picnic tables. It’s similar to glamping because it’s in a campsite setting where you’re within nature, but even more luxurious since everything you need is provided. From Getaway, it’s a thirteen-minute drive to the Swift Run Gap Entrance of the park. You can read about our experience and what it’s like to stay at one in our Getaway House Review post. You can also use our code AWILDERLIFE to take $25 off your total stay.

If you want something with more room than a tiny cabin, a great choice is a home rental in Luray, Virginia. Luray is the gateway town to the Thornton Gap Entrance and also where the family-friendly Luray Caverns is located. We always prefer a home rental via VRBO over a hotel since they tend to be cheaper, are more private, and we enjoy having a kitchen to prepare meals and cut costs. Check out these cute VRBOs in Luray below:

Cottage Farmhouse (Two bedrooms, Sleeps 4, Walking Distance To Restaurants)
Modern Historic Apartment (Three bedrooms, Sleeps 6, Next to Hawksbill Creek walking trail)
The North Hawksbill (Three bedrooms, Sleeps 6, Outdoor Hot Tub)


READ NEXT: Tried and Tested Tips For Camping With A Toddler


WHAT TO PACK WHEN VISITING SHENANDOAH WITH KIDS

Here’s a shortlist of things to bring to Shenandoah when visiting with kids. For clothing, remember to bring layers since the park is at a higher elevation and typically 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding cities.

RAIN JACKET: Shenandoah receives a fair amount of rain, with the wettest months typically being May and September. Bring a rain jacket that you can easily crush down and stuff in your daypack. We live in a rainy climate, so we prefer a high-quality waterproof rain jacket like this one from REI, but if you don’t live in an area that gets a lot of rain, you can opt for a more affordable rain jacket from Arctix Kids.

WATERPROOF HIKING SHOES: The trails can be muddy or wet, especially around the waterfalls, so you’ll want tennis shoes or hiking shoes that are waterproof. We learned the hard way when our son’s socks were wet for half of the day. Oops!

SWIM CLOTHES: If visiting in the summer, bring swimsuits and/or quick-dry UPF50+ shirts they can wear in the water. Don’t forget to throw a wet bag from Bumkins so you can easily store their wet clothes in your bag.

WATER SHOES: If your child will be playing in waterbeds or wading in shallow water, you’ll want shoes that can go from trail to water. We love to use the Jefferson Shoe from Native since they double as regular everyday shoes. Less to pack! If you want something with more traction and durability, Keen has fantastic water shoes for kids that are durable and strong. You can compare prices for kids’ water shoes on Keen and REI. I like that KEEN also has toddler sizes. 

BUG SPRAY: Mosquitoes and ticks are commonplace in the park, and you’ll want to bring protection, particularly for deer ticks. If you want a DEET-free Spray, you can use Repel, which uses oil of lemon eucalyptus to repel ticks. If you prefer to use DEET, you can use Deep Woods Spray which has 25% DEET.

SUNBLOCK: The higher elevation means you will burn faster. We prefer to use Blue Lizard sunscreen on our son. 

REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE: Bring more water than you think you need, especially in the humid summer. We always bring our Hydro Flask water bottle since it keeps our water ice-cold for 24 hours. We love them! We have one for ourselves and a small one for our son. You can buy it from Amazon or purchase it directly from Hydro Flask. There are water refill stations spread throughout the park. You can see the list of potable water locations here.

BABY/TODDLER CARRIER: If traveling to Shenandoah with a toddler or baby, you’ll want to bring a hiking carrier since strollers are of little use in the park. The Deuter Kid Comfort Pro is the premium choice when looking for a hiking backpack to carry toddlers. You can read about other great carriers in our guide to the best toddler carriers for travel.

What about bear spray? We unnecessarily brought bear spray since we’re used to visiting parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, where being bear-aware is a part of the environment. I asked a park ranger about it, and she said, “we’re not a bear spray park.” She said that the park has never had a dangerous bear incident, and black bears will scurry away as soon as they hear you’re around. Obviously, you should be smart and keep your senses alert whenever you’re hiking, but there is no need to bring bear spray to Shenandoah National Park.


READ NEXT: Essential Toddler Hiking Gear To Pack On The Trail


An Overview Of The Park

Before we jump into things to do in Shenandoah with kids, it’s good to get a general layout of the park and how it operates. Skyline Drive is the main road that runs North to South and has four entrance points. Everything is delineated by the mile marker posts along the road, with mile 0 starting at the Front Royal Entrance.

The park has three districts:

The North District: Beginning at the Front Royal Entrance to the Thornton Gap Entrance at Milepost 31.3

The Central District: Beginning at the Thornton Gap Entrance at Milepost 31.3 to Swift Run Gap Entrance at Milepost 65.5.

The South District: Begining at the Swift Run Entrance at Mile 65.5 to Rockfish Gap Entrance at Mile 105.

map of Shenandoah National Park

The Central District is the most popular section of Shenandoah National Park. It’s the highest point in the park, so it’s where you’ll get the best views. The park’s southern area is a great place to escape crowds if you’re visiting in peak season.

BEST THINGS TO DO IN SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS

Have you truly visited Shenandoah if you haven’t grabbed a selfie at an overlook on Skyline Drive?

When making an itinerary of what to do in Shenandoah National Park with kids, you’ll want to fit in time for one waterfall hike, an overlook hike, and a hike that fits in scrambling and climbing on rocks.

Here are our suggestions on fun things to do in Shenandoah with kids.

OVERLOOKS AND DRIVING SKYLINE DRIVE

While most kids aren’t jumping up and down at the prospect of a scenic drive, doing a portion of the Skyline Drive to take in a few scenic overlooks is a standard part of visiting Shenandoah National Park. The good news is that the park has one road, and it’s Skyline Drive, so there’s no way to NOT do Skyline Drive.

The entire drive is 105 miles long, and at a 35 MPH speed limit, it takes about three hours to drive with no stops. There’s no need to do the entire drive with your kids (unless you have a baby/toddler and you want to nap them!), but it is nice to do a portion and pull over for one or two overlooks to snap a family photo or to enjoy the view.

There are over 70 overlooks, each offering slightly different variations of Shenandoah. It’s overkill to stop at all of them, but it is nice to look at at least one overlook that faces East to see the Piedmont region of Virginia and an overlook that faces West to see the Shenandoah Valley.

VISITOR CENTERS

Stop by one of the two Visitor Centers to pick up paper maps, go to the bathroom, or walk through their interactive displays. Walking through the exhibits and seeing the pictures can help to give context to your children about the history of the park and why Shenandoah is a place of immense value to the US. It’s also where you can talk to park rangers and get insights and valuable tips on trail conditions, where to spot wildlife, and their favorite hikes. NO ONE knows the park better than a park ranger.

The two visitor centers are the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center at mile 4.6 located near Front Royal in the northern part of the park and the Harry Byrd Visitor Center at mile 51 located across from Big Meadows in the center of the park.

When you get paper maps, make sure to ask for trail maps for all the different areas.

TIP: When talking to a park ranger, ask them what THEIR favorite hike is and why, rather than inquire about popular hikes. You can sometimes get great tips when you ask them to give their personal opinion rather than the standard hikes on every trail guide.

WATERFALL HIKES

waterfall in shenandoah national park

Whiteoak Canyon Trail (Central District, Mile 42.6)- Whiteoak Canyon is one of the most popular trails in the park. Popularity shouldn’t keep you away though. It’s a beautiful hike with six waterfalls and small swimming holes that kids (and adults!) can enjoy. It’s a 4.6-mile out and back hike with a 1200-foot elevation gain. The NPS marks it as a moderate hike, and you will feel the burn on the return hike back. While young kids might be able to do the hike, it’s best suited for older kids who are up for the moderate challenge. Be sure to have shoes with good tread as the rocks can be slippery.

Another option is to access the Whiteoak Canyon Trail from the park boundary near the village of Syria. You’ll need to show proof of payment. This trail takes you to the lower falls and is a 2-mile roundtrip hike with a 500-foot elevation gain.

Here is a map for both trails and directions on how to get there.

Dark Hollow Falls Trail (Central District, Mile 50.7) Another popular trail is the short but mighty Dark Hollow Falls Trail. Like Whiteoak Canyon, you’ll first descend a rocky trail and follow along a stream to an overlook of Dark Hollow Falls. It’s a moderate hike and 1.4 miles out and back with a 440-foot elevation gain. After the first viewing spot, you can continue down to get another view of the falls, but if you’re visiting with young kids, you might want to stop there and go back up to cut off the climb back up. We did the entire 1.4 miles out and back hike with a four-year-old and were able to do the steep trek back up, but we definitely felt a good burn in our legs.

Park at the Dark Hollow Falls parking lot north of mile marker 51.

South River Falls Trail: (Central District, Mile 62.7) For older kids who can manage a more moderate hike, the South River Falls Trail takes you out to one of the largest waterfalls in the park. It’s a 3.3-mile loop hike with an elevation gain of 910 feet. The view of the falls from the overlook is nice, but the real treat is if you continue an extra .8 mile to the base of the falls. That’s where the view is incredible! If you’re doing this hike with a toddler, we highly recommend having a backpack carrier.

Park at the South River Picnic Area north of mile marker 63.

Rose River Falls: (Central District, Mile 49.4) Another fantastic hike for kids who can manage a moderate hike. The hike is a 4-mile loop hike with an elevation gain of 910 feet. Rose River Falls is a 67-foot waterfall with a dreamy swimming hole at the bottom and various places to dip in and cool off your feet. Like the South River Falls Trail, we suggest bringing a backpack carrier if you’re doing the hike with a toddler.

Park at Fishers Gap Overlook north of mile marker 50 and cross Skyline Drive to the trailhead.

OVERLOOK HIKES

Hawksbill Loop: (Central District, Mile 46.5) If you want breathtaking views, Hawks Bill Summit is the highest point in Shenandoah National Park, sitting at 4050 feet. It’s marked as an easy hike and is a 2.1-mile round trip with a 520-feet elevation gain. Overall, it’s an easy hike but does get steep at the summit.

Park at the Upper Hawksbill parking area at mile 46.5.

Stony Man – (Central District, Mile 41.7) Stony Man is the second highest peak in the park. It’s an easier hike than Hawksbill Loop, so it’s a great choice if you’re visiting Shenandoah National park with young kids. It’s a 1.5-mile out and back hike with a 360-foot elevation gain. It’s a popular hike, so expect crowds, especially if you’re visiting in summer or fall.

Park at the Stony Man parking area, just inside the north entrance to Skyland at mile 41.7

Little Stony Man – (Central District, Mile 39.2) A great alternative to Stony Man is the hike to Little Stony Man. It’s not as high as Stony Man and doesn’t offer the same “wow” factor, but it’s not as crowded. Sometimes, when traveling with kids, less crowded is exactly what you want. It’s a .9-mile out and back hike with a 285-foot elevation gain. It’s a little more challenging than Stony Man, but the short length makes it doable for most kids. The cliff edge is abrupt and quite exposed, so I would opt for wearing toddlers and skipping it if it makes you nervous if your young kids are too old to wear.

Park south of the large Stony Man Overlook parking area at mile 39.2.

ROCK SCRAMBLING HIKES

Bearfence Rock Scramble was too much for this little guy, so we went to Blackrock summit to play on rocks.

Bearfence Rock Scramble Hike – (Central District, Mile 56.4) A fun and thrilling hike for kids who love to climb rocks. While this is technically a trail, a lot of the “hike” will entail full-on climbing and scrambling up rocks. It’s great fun and something your kids are sure to remember. It’s not a hike recommended for toddlers and is best suited for kids six and up. Age recommendations are hard to make because every child is different, and every parent has a different risk tolerance. My best advice is to try it out and if at any point you don’t feel comfortable, turn around and try another hike. It’s marked as a moderate hike and is 1.4 miles round trip with a 311-foot elevation gain. The view at the top is fantastic and offers a full 360 view of the park.

Park at Bearfence parking lot at mile 56.4 and cross Skyline Drive to the trailhead.

Blackrock Summit: (The South District, Mile 84.4) An alternative to Bearfence Rock Scramble Hike is to hike to Blackrock Summit, where your kids can climb on a sprawling mass of boulders. It’s an easy 1-mile loop hike with a 175 feet elevation gain. This is the perfect hike for toddlers and young kids since they can do the hike on their own. It also offers beautiful views of the Shenandoah Valley.

Park at Blackrock Parking area at mile 84.4.

BLACKBERRY PICKING

Starting in July, the park begins to burst with succulent blackberries lining the trails and waterways. Bring a berry carton and stock up on nature’s candy. While customarily, you’re not allowed to alter the landscape of a national park, you are allowed to pick the blackberries. Kids will love foraging for sweet berries, and a park ranger should be able to point you in the direction of the best places to find them. If you missed peak season, stop by Big Meadows Lodge or Skyland to see what tasty treats they are offering with locally sourced blackberries. There’s also Blackberry Delight, an annual festival featuring blackberry-infused dishes, dancing, live music, and kids’ activities.

TWILIGHT HIKING

For a unique adventure in Shenandoah with your kids, go on a guided twilight hike. Offered from May to August, Shenandoah Mountain Guides will take you out at dusk to watch as the day turns into night. They’ll focus on the sights and sounds of nighttime hiking, including looking for signs of animal life and identifying plants. A treat for older kids who love stargazing and being out on the trail at night.

HORSEBACK RIDING

For budding equestrians, a one-hour horseback ride is available for all kids (and adults) 4’10” and over at Skyland Stables. For younger children, 15- 30 minute pony rides are available.

PLAYGROUND TIME

While the entire park is a “playground” for kids, Shenandoah does have two conventional playgrounds located at Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge. A great option if you need a small break for your kids to play while you sit and enjoy the view.


That’s our complete guide to visiting Shenandoah National Park with kids! Enjoy the park!

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