Best Day Hikes in Shenandoah National Park’s Central District
With over 500 miles of trails, Shenandoah National Park offers some great opportunities for those who are ready to take a hike. The Appalachian Trail runs the length of the park and is a star attraction for day hikers, weekend overnighters, section-hikers, and thru-hikers. Get away from the white blazes, though, and you’ll find some other outstanding trails, ranging from short to long; easy to hard.
SNP’s Central District is bounded on the north by US 211 and on the south by US 33. This section of the park features a pair of Shenandoah’s most visited facilities, Big Meadows and Skyland, plus a variety of popular hiking trails, so you can expect encounter more crowds than you will hiking in the less-visited South District, particularly on weekends during the summer and fall. Most of these hikes can be easily accessed from Skyline Drive, with one notable exception. We’ll start our list with that one.
1) Old Rag
Distance: 7.1 miles
Trail type: Loop
Old Rag is one of the premier hikes of Shenandoah National Park. Standing like a sentinel over the rural farmland of Madison County in the eastern portion of the park, Old Rag Mountain offers some fun rock scrambles that reward you with 360-degree views.
Unlike most of the hikes we’ll discuss, access is from Rt. 231, not Skyline Drive. Follow Rt. 231 north from Madison, or south from Sperryville, until you see the sign for Old Rag near the small crossroads town of Etlan. Follow the signs to the parking area, and be sure to arrive early on weekends and during peak season in the fall. There’s an admission fee for the park at the parking area, which is sometimes self-service. Do the right thing and pay the fee, or better yet, buy an annual pass for SNP so you can come back for more hiking. Check the SNP website for current user fees.
Start your trek with a road walk from the parking area until you reach the Ridge Trail branching to the left. You’ll ascend steadily on a well-graded trail until near the top, where the fun begins. As you pass out of the trees and approach the rocky summit the trail grows increasingly difficult, with scrambles up, over, around, and even through the rocks until you reach the top. Exercise caution—my wife (a nurse practitioner) once had to improvise a makeshift sling for an injured hiker who’d gotten a bit too careless.
After you drink in the views as your well-earned reward, it’s time to move on. Continue following the blue-blazed Ridge Trail, descending steeply, until you reach the Byrd’s Nest #1 day shelter (no camping allowed). Turn right here onto the Saddle Trail and follow the trail past the Old Rag Shelter (no camping) to the intersection with the Weakly Hollow Fire Road. Turn right and follow the fire road to complete the loop of this iconic hike. Mission accomplished!
2) Stony Man Mountain
Distance: 3.1 miles
Trail type: Loop
Stony Man combines two features which make it a can’t miss hike. The first is easy accessibility, while the second is a view well worth the hike. The area surrounding Stony Man and the Skyland Resort was first developed as a tourist attraction in the early 20th century by George Freeman Pollack. He founded the Skyland Resort and was instrumental in the campaign to establish Shenandoah National Park in the 1920s and 30s.
You’ll find the parking area for the hike to the west of Skyline Drive, just south of MP 41. Park in the large parking lot to the right and look for the trailhead at the large notice board, found at the end of the parking area. You’ll start the hike by following the AT north up a gentle grade until you reach a trail intersection that leads off to the left. Follow this trail to the summit. You can also reach the summit by following a short loop trail that branches off from the summit trail.
After enjoying the view and soaking in the sun on the bare rocks on the summit, retrace your steps to the AT and go left to continue north. You’ll pass Little Stony Man Cliffs, with another killer set of views, and then an intersection with the Passamaquoddy Trail. Turn left here. The Passamaquoddy Trail skirts along the somewhat rugged west side of the mountain, below the viewpoints you’ve enjoyed, until it reaches the yellow-blazed trail that climbs back up to the developed area of Skyland. Follow the road back to the parking area, or take a little time to grab a bite at the dining room, a beer at the Tap Room, or grab a snack and a drink at the store and sit outside to catch the view and observe the human parade of day trippers, backpackers, trail runners, and others who stop by this popular wayside.
3) Rapidan Camp
Distance: 7.9 miles
Trail type: Loop
This pleasant circuit hike takes you to the vacation retreat of President Herbert Hoover. Hoover, an avid fisherman, situated Rapidan Camp at the confluence of two streams that form the Rapidan River. Even if you’re not an angler you’ll appreciate the beauty of the spot.
From the parking lots at the Big Meadows complex, cross Skyline Drive to reach the Rapidan Trail across from the southern end of the complex. There is limited parking at the trailhead if you come during a weekday or off-season, but a stop at the Visitor’s Center at Big Meadows is worth your time as part of the trip. Begin by following the wide and well-graded Rapidan Trail along the margins of Big Meadows downwards past the intersections with the Mill Prong Horse Trail and the Upper Dark Hollow Trail. There are some excellent views of the surrounding mountains, particularly during the winter months. After about 5 miles, a gravel road will enter from the left. Turn right and proceed upwards, then cross a bridge to reach the camp.
During Hoover’s presidency in the late 20s and early 30s, Rapidan Camp was a large complex with numerous guest cottages, a dining hall, and barracks for US Marines assigned to the post. Three buildings remain, including Hoover’s cottage. Volunteers or park rangers are on site during the summer to provide tours of the cottage. Be sure to take the opportunity to see the cottage if offered—it was well worth the time to this history buff.
After checking out the grounds, head west on the Mill Prong Horse Trail. After crossing a small stream with a pleasant waterfall, you’ll reach a fork. Stay to the right, continuing on the Mill Prong Horse Trail, and climbing through a mature forest until you reach the Rapidan Trail. Turn left and retrace your steps to Big Meadows.
4) Bearfence Mountain
Distance: 1.2 miles
Trail type: Loop
You’ll find the parking area for Bearfence Mountain at MP 56 on Skyline Drive, just a few miles south of Big Meadows. Take the time to check out this short hike and rock scramble and then stop for a blackberry milkshake at Big Meadows—both are worth the stop.
From the parking area, cross Skyline Drive to the trailhead and ascend a set of stairs and a steep section of trail until you reach an intersection with the AT. Cross the AT to enter the Bearfence Loop Trail and you’ll begin a ridgeline traverse with a series of rock scrambles and a great 360-degree view. When the trail connects again with the AT turn right and follow the white blazes back to the trail to the parking area.
This is a fun stretch of the legs for when you’ve been in the car for a while and rewards you with one of the signature views in SNP. It’s also one that fearless kids will enjoy. Leave Fido behind though; Shenandoah prohibits pets on the Bearfence Loop Trail.
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