Thursday, June 25, 2020

Shenandoah National Park: Best Hikes and Activities for Kids

Each of the big U.S. national parks has a calling card. Yellowstone's got Old Faithful, Bryce Canyon has its bizarre hoodoo formations, and the Grand Canyon features that very grand canyon. The symbol of Shenandoah National Park isn't so much a particular attraction but its vast display of North American splendor  from the breathtaking vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the legendary Appalachian Trail, which bisects many popular hikes. In the park, you feel like this is the America the Beautiful that the song is referring to.

During our two-day visit, we saw everything from gorgeous waterfalls to breathtaking mountaintops to local wildlife. We did three hikes and they were all amazing and kid-friendly.

Where to Stay

I figured that if we were going to be hiking in the woods for two days, we might as embrace the experience completely and stay in a log cabin. We found an adorable one nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains that's a part of the Mountain Whisper Cabins community. Our quaint little cabin was called Falling Leaf, and it was charmingly rustic, yet had all the comforts and amenities of home. The hot tub in the back was the perfect antidote to a long day of hiking!

What to Do

Many of Shenandoah National Park's popular hikes are located off Skyline Drive, a twisty road that winds its way up the mountain, offering beautiful panoramic views along the way that reveal just high you've traveled.

The first hike we did along Skyline Drive was Dark Hollow Falls, a 1.5-mile out-and-back that follows a noisy stream downwards to a multi-layered waterfall. You can get up close with the stream at several points, which we did to touch the water as it flowed by.

It was so cool to see the water cascading alongside us as we hiked the trail, only to witness it tumbling down a majestic waterfall at the end!

At the foot of the waterfall, we had a snack and did some rock-scrambling before starting back up. The trail isn't particularly difficult terrain-wise, but the hike back up is steep and relentless! My kids and husband handled it just fine, but I was huffing and puffing the whole way up.

After a lunch break, we drove five minutes further down Skyline Drive to a trail called Bearfence. This hike is a one-mile loop, which sounds simple enough, except that the first half of the journey is a tough rock scramble straight up the mountain. Choosing where to put your feet and hands is only half the challenge, as you also need to pull yourself up ledges and slide down huge rocks.

The Bearfence rock scramble was challenging for my 11- and 9-year-old kids (and me!), but we all loved it. When you reach the pinnacle, you really feel like you're at the top of the mountain because you're literally perched on a peak, getting a 360-degree view of the world around you. I would only recommend this adventure for responsible kids who are used to hiking; otherwise, the difficulty level and extreme heights may be too overwhelming.

The last hike we did at Shenandoah was the Stony Man Trail, a 1.6-mile loop. It started off innocently enough  a leisurely, slightly inclined stroll through the forest, where we observed wild turkeys and a rather large snake. I got lulled into thinking that this is going to be a fairly tame hike. But halfway into the loop, the trail opens up to reveal a rock outcrop seemingly perched on the top of the world!

We inched our way to the edges of the outcrop, but the view is absolutely dizzying and we didn't feel it was safe to go too far out. Some fellow hikers ventured out to sit on the absolute edge, their legs dangling into the abyss. But even from a few feet back, you could experience the awe-inspiring splendor of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley below. Hold onto your kids!

What's Nearby

Just a few miles from the Shenandoah National Park entrance is Luray Caverns, the largest cavern on the East Coast. I've been inside several caves and caverns before, but nothing compares to the immense grandeur of Luray Caverns. My kids were both in awe of the otherworldly landscape. Here's my detailed post on our visit.

After you've gotten your fill of beautiful mountains and rivers, drive over to Richmond, the state's capital city, where you can experience everything from historical movie theaters to kid-friendly botanical gardens to charming amusement parks. Here's my itinerary for this lovely city.

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