The number-one outdoor activity here is hiking. The park's 112 trails total more than 500 miles, varying in length from short walks to a 101-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail running the entire length of the park. Access to the trails is marked along the Skyline Drive. There are parking lots at the major trail heads, but they fill quickly on weekends.
I strongly recommend that you get maps and trail descriptions before setting out -- even before leaving home, if possible. Rangers at park headquarters will tell which trails are best for you, and whether any are closed. Free maps of many trails are available at the visitor centers, which also sell the topographic maps, published by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Conference, as well as a one-sheet map of all of the park's walks published by the National Geographic.
An alternative to doing it yourself is to take a guided outdoor adventure organized by Aramark Virginia Sky-Line Co. (tel. 888/896-3833; www.visitshenandoah.com). Led by mountain guides, they include short hikes from the park lodges ($10 per person), 1-day hikes ($89-$178 per person), 2-day excursions ($178 per person), and rock-climbing expeditions ($99 per person). Call or check Aramark's website for schedules and reservations.
At a minimum, take one of the short hikes on trails at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Mile 4.6) and the Byrd Visitor Center/Big Meadows (Mile 51). There's an excellent 1.6-mile hike at Stony Man (Mile 41.7).
My gimpy knees don't necessarily agree, but I've concluded that these are the best trails in the Central District:
- White Oak Canyon: Everyone's favorite trail (especially when linked to the Cedar Run Falls trail) begins at Mile 42.6 just south of Skyland and descends into a steep gorge that is the park's scenic gem. The 7.3-mile trail goes through an area of wild beauty, passing no less than six waterfalls and cascades. The upper reaches to the first falls are relatively easy, but farther down the track can be rough and rocky. This not an easy trail, especially coming back up the 2,160-foot climb, a brutal ascent if you're out of shape. In other words, allow all day.
- Limberlost Accessible Trail: At Mile 43 south of Skyland, Limberlost is accessible to visitors in wheelchairs. The easy 1.3-mile loop runs through an old-growth forest of ancient hemlocks. The trail has a 5-foot-wide, hard-packed surface; crosses a 65-foot bridge; and includes a 150-foot boardwalk.
- Cedar Run Falls: Several trails begin at Hawksbill Gap (Mile 45.6). A short but steep trail leads 1.7 miles round-trip to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain, the park's highest at 4,050 feet. Another is a moderately difficult 3.5-mile round-trip hike to Cedar Falls and back. You can also connect from Cedar Run to White Oak Canyon, a 7.3-mile loop that will take all day.
- Dark Hollow Falls: The park's most popular short hike is the 1.4-mile walk to Dark Hollow Falls, the closest cascade to the Skyline Drive. The trail begins at Mile 50.7 near the Byrd Visitor Center. Allow 1 1/4 hours for the round-trip.
- Camp Hoover/Mill Prong: Starting at the Milam Gap parking area (Mile 52.8), this 4-mile round-trip hike drops down the Mill Prong to the Rapidan River, where President Herbert Hoover, an avid fisherman, had a camp during his administration (sort of the Camp David of his day). The total climb is 850 feet; allow 4 hours.
Access points to the Appalachian Trail are well marked at overlooks on the Skyline Drive. Along the trail, five backcountry shelters for day use each offer only a table, fireplace, pit toilet, and water. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 118 Park St. SE, Vienna, VA 22180 (tel. 703/242-0315; www.patc.net), maintains huts and fully enclosed cabins that can accommodate up to 12 people. Use of the huts is free, but they are intended for long-distance hikers only. Cabins cost $15 to $25 on weekdays, $25 to $70 on weekends. You can reserve cabins by calling PATC Monday to Thursday between 7 and 9pm, Thursday and Friday from noon to 2pm (only during these hours). You'll have to submit a signed form (available on PATC's website), so you'll want to start the process as early as possible. PATC's website also shows cabin availabilities.
The park's streams are short, with limited fishing, so it's hardly worth the time and effort. The park publishes a free recreational fishing brochure and an annual list of streams open for fishing, available at the Big Meadows and Loft Mountain waysides or at sporting-goods stores outside the park.
Horses are allowed only on trails marked with yellow, and only via guided expeditions with Skyland Stables (tel. 540/999-2211; www.visitshenandoah.com), on the Skyland Lodge grounds (Mile 41.8). Rides cost $30 per person for 1 hour, $50 for 2 1/2 hours. Pony rides for children are $6 for 15 minutes, $12 for 30 minutes. Children must be 4 feet, 10 inches tall to ride the horses (otherwise they can take a pony ride); an adult must accompany those younger than 12. The stables operate from April through November. Call for reservations at least 1 day in advance. Note that rides can be cancelled during inclement weather.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.