Distance: 105 miles
Time: 6 to 8 hours
Season: Spectacular spring bloom and fall foliage. Fall weekends are crowded; in winter road occasionally closes due to weather. Distances designated by mileposts. Admission fee to park.
Teetering atop the narrow spine of the Blue Ridge, the Skyline Drive gazes down on the fertile Shenandoah Valley to the west and rolling foothills to the east. Inhabited by Native Americans, then mountaineers, this wild backcountry became Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s.
From Front Royal, follow US 340 south 1 mile to the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. As the road climbs forested Dickey Ridge, patterned lowlands appear to the east through the hickories and oaks. Below the Shenandoah Valley Overlook (mile 2.8) stretches the fabled valley that Native Americans purportedly called “Daughter of the Stars”—Shenandoah. Through it the Shenandoah River wanders amid farm fields studded with barns. Bisecting the valley is the long rampart of Massanutten Mountain. The nearby Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (mile 4.6) offers park information.
Six miles beyond, the road runs into the Blue Ridge at Compton Gap, and from here follows the mountain crest. In spring the Blue Ridge is vibrant with blossoming redbud, dogwood, azalea, and mountain laurel, and in fall its forested ridges are painted in rich autumnal hues.
At Hogback Overlook (mile 21) stop to look down on the looping course of the Shenandoah River. From here, the road snakes down to Thornton Gap, then enters Marys Rock Tunnel (mile 32.4). At its southern portal, the Tunnel Parking Overlook peers into a hollow where more than 20 families lived when the park was established.
The park’s third highest peak is Hazel Mountain, whose 3,815-foot summit may be seen at Hazel Mountain Overlook (mile 33). Hikes into the area called Hazel Country, along rocky streams and through forests of hemlock and mountain laurel, begin a half mile ahead. Relics of former inhabitants are visible everywhere: rock walls, split-rail fences, abandoned orchards.
Moseying south, the road winds around The Pinnacle, then Stony Man Peak. Keep a lookout for white-tailed deer, prominent throughout the park, as well as less visible denizens—skunks, barred owls, and the occasional black bear. At mile 41.7, the parkway reaches its highest point—3,680 feet at Skyland. Now a hub of park facilities, this historic mountain resort was founded in the 1890s.
At the Old Rag View Overlook (mile 46.5), note the ancient Old Rag granite visible on this venerable mountain’s upper peaks. Two fine hikes can be accessed along the next several miles. From Upper Hawksbill Parking (mile 46.7) a mile-long trail leads to the top of 4,050-foot Hawksbill Mountain, the park’s highest peak.
Farther on, a steep trail descends less than a mile past ferns and liverworts to Dark Hollow Falls. Thomas Jefferson once stood below this 70-foot cascade, admiring its beauty. Beyond, the road enters an open area called Big Meadows (mile 51), remnant of an ancient plain that once extended over the entire region. Blueberries and strawberries grow here, and deer like to browse along the edges. At the Byrd Visitor Center, a movie depicts the history of the park.
A wonderful view of the Blue Ridge’s classic smoky peaks appears at Hazeltop Ridge Overlook (mile 54.4). As you continue along the ridgetop, watch for Bearfence Mountain Parking (mile 56.4), where you can scramble up a short, boulder-strewn trail leading to one of the few 360-degree vistas in the park.
After that the road curves in long, lazy turns to Swift Run Gap (mile 65.7), an important Blue Ridge crossing for decades. Beyond here, the views overlook a sea of undulating blue ridges, especially striking at the Big Run Overlook (mile 81.2).
After passing through the park’s southern boundary, the parkway ends at Rockfish Gap, where a buffalo path, then a colonial road, once ran.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Map and information originally published in National Geographic's Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Mornings often bring views of a phenomenon known as a fog ocean, where the mountaintops rise from cloud-filled valleys like islands in a cottony-white sea.
On the Way: The 105 roadside mileposts are designed to help you find your way around the park. The main visitor area, Big Meadows, for example, is located at MP 51.
Be Safe: Though the 35-mile-an-hour speed limit may seem unnecessarily slow, the park's abundant wildlife (not to mention equally unpredictable tourists) makes this poky pace a smart idea.
Motorcyclist Memo: Use the route's 75 pullouts to enjoy the scenery.