Spending 3 days in Shenandoah National Park will give you the perfect introduction to this beautiful place and you’ll leave wanting to plan a return trip immediately.
Many people wonder how long to spend in Shenandoah National Park and the answer is as long as you can. If you have 5-7 days in the park then there are plenty of things to do for that length of time.
If you only have a few days though then that’s okay too! Hit the highlights and then come back again when you can.
I spent five days on a road trip in Shenandoah though one of those days it was thunderstorming so I wasn’t able to get out and do much.
This itinerary was created by putting together all my favorite parts of visiting Shenandoah National Park!
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Planning a Trip to Shenandoah National Park
Planning a trip to Shenandoah can seem overwhelming at first. Don’t worry though, this 3 days in Shenandoah National Park itinerary will take all the guesswork out of it.
You’ll want to choose which direction to go on Skyline Drive – north or south. I chose to start at the northern Front Royal Entrance and work my way south so I wouldn’t have as far to drive home.
The National Park Service website and pages for Shenandoah are super helpful resources. They also have a mobile app but just know that service is spotty in the National Park.
If you need more information to help with your visit, then when you arrive make sure you stop at one of the Visitor Centers. The Park Rangers here are so helpful!
I’ll give you a few ideas for places to eat along your trip, but you can always bring your own food and there are plenty of picnic areas in the park.
Shenandoah is one of the most dog-friendly National Parks that you can visit so take advantage of that if you have a great hiking buddy!
Just note that a few of the trails that I mention are not dog-friendly and dogs are not allowed on them.
Where to Stay in Shenandoah National Park
Personally, I recommend staying in the park so you are close to the action. You’ll see so many more animals if you are up on Skyline Drive right after sunrise or right before sunset.
I chose to camp while I was there and put together a guide to camping in Shenandoah National Park.
Best Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park
There is something to be said for every season in Shenandoah National Park.
In the spring, the waterfalls will be flowing, flowers blooming, and all the animals will be lively after emerging from the cold winter.
Summer brings even more wildflowers and greenery. Up on Skyline Drive it will be much cooler than down in the valley so a great place to escape the heat.
Fall is when the leaf-peepers flock to the area to see the gorgeous red, yellow, and orange leaves.
In winter there are far less crowds but the crisp days and no leaves mean you can see for miles. If it has recently snowed you can also cross-country ski in the park.
I do typically try to avoid National Parks in the summer when kids are out of school and families can take their summer vacations.
If you don’t love cold weather and snow then this isn’t a great winter destination for you.
I went at the end of September right before the leaves had started to change and loved everything about it. There were still a few flowers blooming, the temperature was great, and I dealt with no crowds.
I did go during the week though which helped with the crowding situation. I’m sure the spring season is also fantastic other than the week of spring break.
3 Days in Shenandoah National Park
Finally, let’s get to the 3 days in Shenandoah National Park itinerary! This will be full of hiking, small towns near Shenandoah, and great places to eat.
I will say, I didn’t include Old Rag on this itinerary even though it’s one of the most popular hikes in the park. Old Rag is a full day hike and there are so many other great ones I think you should see.
Save it for a return trip!
Since I went from north to south on Skyline Drive, that’s how this itinerary goes as well. You can reverse the order of course if you want to go the other direction.
Dickey Ridge Visitor Center
First thing when you get into the park stop at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. It’s located at mile 4.6 on Skyline Drive which means it is 4.6 miles from the Front Royal Entrance Station.
Here you’ll find the park ranger station where you can pick up free trail maps to take hiking with you. You can also pick their brain on their favorite trails and anything special happening while you’re there.
There are restrooms here and a small gift shop. One of the easy trails in Shenandoah National Park also starts just across the road from the Visitor Center – Fox Hollow Trail.
Hike Compton Peak
If you need to stick to easy trails then do Fox Hollow at the Visitor Center, but my recommendation is Compton Peak.
You can hike to the peak as well as to some unique geological formations that remind me of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.
Like many of the hikes in Shenandoah, you’ll be walking along the Appalachian Trail for a good portion of the hike.
This is one of the best hikes in Shenandoah National Park so I wouldn’t want you to miss it if you only have 3 days in Shenandoah!
Lunch – Elkwallow Waystation
There are picnic tables at Elkwallow Waystation so if you packed food for your trip you can stop and eat it here.
Otherwise, the Elkwallow Waystation sells food so you can pick something up here. You can also wait to eat in Luray at a little cafe or at one of the restaurants at Luray Caverns.
If you got an early start then it likely won’t be lunch time by the time you finish Compton Peak. In that case, I would go ahead into downtown Luray and start exploring and you can pick up lunch later.
Check Out Downtown Luray
Next you’ll leave Skyline Drive from the Thornton Gap Entrance Station and head out to Luray.
Luray is a cute little town with lots of unique stores and a charming main street. I visited Appalachian Outfitters, Virginia Gift Store, and Nest & Hive.
Appalachian Outfitters had tons of outdoor gear, shoes, and other hiking/camping equipment. If you forgot anything outdoor-related then this is where you should stop.
You’ll find tons of cute gift ideas at the Virginia Gift Store and I even picked up a few Christmas presents here.
Nest & Hive has home decor, clothes, gifts, and more! I loved this cute little spot and the handmade soap here is some of the best I’ve tried.
Visit Luray Caverns
I’ll be the first to admit that I was a skeptic of Luray Caverns. I thought it would be super touristy and that it was overhyped.
I was completely wrong!
If you do anything outside of the park I would make sure to visit Luray Caverns. Not only were the Caverns themselves stunning, but there were so many other things to do there!
Admission was $32 (Sep 2021) and that included a self-guided tour of the Caverns, entrance to the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum, Toy Town Junction, and Shenandoah Heritage Museum & Village.
You’ll also find a Garden Maze here and a ropes course for kids. It was well worth the price and I wish I had gotten there earlier so I had more time before it closed.
The caverns are 54 degrees year-round but it doesn’t feel that cold because of the humidity. It feels like around 65.
The parking lot is huge here and parking is free which was nice. You really could spend an entire day exploring the Caverns and museums.
Visiting Luray Caverns when you come to Shenandoah is a bit like taking an airboat ride when you visit the Everglades. You gotta do it. FYI airboat rides are one of the most fun things to do in Everglades National Park!
You can check tour options here for Luray Caverns.
Dinner – The Valley Cork or Skyland
At this point you can either hang out in Luray a little longer or head back up to Skyline Drive.
If you choose to stay in Luray then dinner at The Valley Cork is a must. This is a wine bar, bottle shop, and restaurant where you can have an upscale meal.
Sometimes it’s nice to be closer to where you are staying when it gets dark though so it’s understandable if you want to head back up to the park.
Skyland has a couple different dining options. You can eat at the Pollock Dining Room or the Mountain Taproom if it’s outside of the dining room’s operating hours.
If you eat at Skyland then you have to get the Blackberry Ice Cream pie for dessert. This is not negotiable on your Shenandoah National Park itinerary. The tartness of the blackberries mixed with the sweet ice cream makes for a delicious mix.
It’s also huge but don’t worry, one person can tackle it just fine.
Stay – Mathews Arm Campground or Skyland
Skyland also has cabins and hotel rooms that you can stay in if you would rather not rough it and go camping.
Depending on what room you get, you may have a gorgeous view of the valley. However, it will cost much more than camping.
If you are trying to save money then go with Mathews Arm Campground. This is a wooded campground back off the road with plenty of bathrooms but no showers.
Check out my guide to camping in Shenandoah National Park if you want to know more.
Hike Stony Man
Stony Man was one of my favorite hikes in the park and is actually one of the few easy hikes in Shenandoah National Park.
It’s also right along the road that takes you to Skyland Resort so perfect if you chose to stay there last night.
It’s a beautiful trail where you’ll pass beds of ferns and boulders along the way. At the end there is a rocky outcropping where you can sit and enjoy the view for a while.
The view over the Shenandoah Valley and Luray below is incredible.
Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park so this one really is a must. If you want to know more about how to hike this trail then check out my guide to the best hikes in Shenandoah.
While there is an easier way to hike this trail, there are still a couple of steep sections if you go that direction.
It is definitely worth it once you reach the top though. The view over the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains is gorgeous.
Lunch – Spottswood Dining Room at Big Meadows
Now you’ll need to refuel so drive on down to the Spottswood Dining Room at Big Meadows. Of course, if you brought a picnic there are also plenty of picnic tables at Big Meadows.
Spottswood is run by the same company that runs the dining at Skyland Resort so if you ate there last night you may want to opt for a picnic.
There are also grab & go options here so if you didn’t bring along picnic supplies you can pick something up here.
If you need more recommendations or have any other questions then go by the Harry Byrd Visitor Center near Big Meadows.
Hike Dark Hollow Falls
Dark Hollow Falls is probably the most popular waterfall hike in the park. Likely because it is one of the shorter hikes to reach a waterfall but don’t think that means it is easy.
Coming back out from the base of the falls is very steep. It’s super close to Big Meadows though so you don’t have too far to go.
On a weekend this hike could be incredibly crowded in the afternoon so a plan B would be moving on to exploring one of the local towns.
Explore Sperryville or Elkton
Sperryville and Elkton are both small towns near Shenandoah National Park with lots to offer.
In Sperryville, you’ll find multiple wineries where you can enjoy great views along with a tasting or glass of wine.
The downtown area is small, but there are a few independent stores, a coffee shop, and an outfitters store to check out.
Elkton Brewing is in town so be sure to leave time to walk around a bit if you visit this one.
From Big Meadows, these towns are in opposite directions. Sperryville is north toward the Thorton Gap Entrance Station and Elkton is south toward Swift Run Gap Entrance Station.
So you’ll have to pick which one sounds best to you.
Stay – Lewis Mountain Cabins or Campground
Tonight you can either rent one of the Lewis Mountain Cabins or stay at their campground. Lewis Mountain is the smallest campground in the park and all the spots are first-come-first-serve.
This is the most secluded campground and where you’ll find the most privacy. While you can stay at Big Meadows Campground, it was my least favorite of the ones I stayed at.
The spots seemed closer together at Big Meadows and with no trees, it seemed that there was no privacy.
However, if Lewis Mountain is full then Big Meadows is always a great backup plan.
Hike Doyles River Falls
This was my favorite waterfall hike in the park and one of my favorite hikes in general. It really is a stunning waterfall and a must on any Shenandoah National Park itinerary.
If you get started early, you’ll probably have this trail all to yourself. Maybe other than some photographers.
The Upper Falls are pretty, but the real stunner is the Lower Falls. This is one of the longer hikes that I did in the park and it was pretty tough coming back out.
I had to stop and catch my breath on this one more than any other.
Hike Blackrock Summit
Finish your hiking off with an easy trail that leads out to a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are plenty of places to perch on a rock out here and enjoy a snack.
This was probably one of the most surprising hikes of my trip. I didn’t expect much with it being so easy but the reward was incredible.
It’s another one of the best easy hikes in Shenandoah. For half of the hike you’ll be on the Appalachian Trail.
Lunch – Blue Mountain Brewery
After so much hiking, you deserve a good meal. At Blue Mountain Brewery you can sit outside and enjoy the scenery while also having one of the best pizzas you’ll find.
If you don’t like pizza, they have plenty of other options. Who doesn’t like pizza though?
I was a fan of their beer as well. If they have the ice cream sandwich for dessert when you are there then be sure to get that as well. You won’t regret it.
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
If you still have time to spend nearby before heading back home then take a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and head toward Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
You may not have time to make it all the way down to the park on the NC/TN line, but however long you can spend on the Parkway will be worth it.
There are plenty of overlooks to stop at and points of interest along the way. A Blue Ridge Parkway road trip can be a separate trip all to itself.
Whenever you get tired just hop off the Parkway and head back home. So there you have it – the perfect 3 days in Shenandoah National Park!
Shenandoah National Park Itinerary FAQs
How many days do you need in Shenandoah National Park?
If you love hiking, gorgeous sunrises or sunsets, and cute small towns then you’ll want at least three days and possibly a whole week.
There are so many places to explore right outside of the park that you’ll never make it to them all. And the hiking opportunities here are endless!
What are the best towns to stay in near Shenandoah?
Front Royal, Luray, and Waynesboro are the most popular. However, I would also check to see if there are any vacation rentals in Elkton or Sperryville – both very cute small towns.
How to spend 2 days in Shenandoah National Park?
If you only have 2 days in Shenandoah then I recommend condensing this itinerary by doing the Stony Man, Hawksbill, Dark Hollow Falls, and then heading out to Luray on the first day.
In Luray make sure to visit the Luray Caverns and have a nice dinner. Then on day two do the Doyles River Falls and Blackrock hikes then check out the Waynesboro/Afton area. Blue Mountain Brewing really was a nice spot and there are tons of wineries nearby.
What is the best entrance to Shenandoah National Park?
There isn’t really a “best” entrance – it’s all about what you want to see and what you are closest to. The Thorton Gap and Swift Run Gap Entrance Stations are closer to the middle of the park and I used them the most.
Is Shenandoah National Park worth visiting?
For sure! The beautiful mountain views, wildlife, and cooler temperatures make this a popular park.
It’s a great one to visit for hiking, driving, or picnicking. Oh and I would drive here for the blackberry ice cream pie alone.
Is Shenandoah National Park crowded?
It definitely gets crowded during peak season. Summer is popular when kids are out of school and fall is a nuthouse with the changing leaves.
Weekends are worse than weekdays of course.