(This article may or may not contain affiliate links. What does that mean?)
“There’s a bear outside our tent….” So said the author to his bewildered wife.
It was around 2:00 AM when I completed a successful night stargazing and photographing the milky way in the Big Meadow’s area of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. My family’s campsite, directly along the Appalachian Trail (AT), was perfect: adorned by wildflowers and shaded by oak and birch trees.
No sooner after I was snug in my sleeping bag my sweet daughter awoke in a fit of jealous rage when she realized her mother was preoccupied nursing her 3 month old brother. Up until this time my daughter was always, well, pretty easy going.
“No Papa, No Adrian!” She screamed in a banshee-like wail that transformed into an inconsolable racket of screams and cries. I doubt Snow White would have been able to sleep through that let alone our neighboring campers. Her case of mommy-itus sounded very similar to a rabbit distress call. Did I mention there were bears yet?
Sure enough I felt the presence of one of the parks’ famous resident black bears outside the tent, no doubt curious about the cries coming from inside. When I whispered the opening quote of this entry to my wife she replied, “You can see it?”
“No, I can’t see it. I feel it.”
A quick loud clap from yours truly was all it took for the bear to flee. Then it ran into the camp grill above the fire ring resulting in a piecing bang. The commotion woke up our neighbor’s dog which then proceeded to howl for what seemed like an eternity.
Crying daughter, a howling dog, and all in the middle of the night? Yeah, we were “that” family…..
Fast forward to the morning and my daughter woke up in just an exuberant mood with no memory of what had transpired only hours earlier.
“Papa, are we going hiking today with baby Adrian?” She asked in that innocent toddler tone. And onto the AT we went; an otherwise great day was had.
My family and I have been visiting and camping in Shenandoah National Park for many years. We love it there and every season brings something of the marvelous for our family to encounter. From the wildflowers of spring, the rainbows of summer, and the kaleidoscope of autumn leaves the park is a top destination for families who want to escape to the great outdoors.
NO TIME TO ENJOY THIS ARTICLE NOW? PIN IT OR BOOKMARK FOR LATER!
About Shenandoah National Park
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and only 70 miles from Washington DC, it’s as if Shenandoah National Park was a world away.
It is most famous for Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road that follows the ridge of the mountains throughout the entire length of the park. Open year-round, the drive is one of America’s best. There are 76 overlooks of breathtaking Appalachian scenery, including spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley. The drive eventually meets the equally popular Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Over 500 miles of trails are within this relatively small (for a National Park) park, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
The park is divided into three districts: North, Central, and South. There are four entrance stations into the park. A $30.00 entrance fee for a single vehicle and all passengers is good for seven days. However, if you find yourself visiting multiple National Parks within a year, you may want to consider purchasing an America The Beautiful Annual Pass. For $80.00, you will be able to enter any National Park, National Forest, National Wildlife refuge, and more federal lands without an entrance fee. It’s worth it.
Shenandoah is home to many species of wildlife, including black bear and white-tail deer populations. In the spring and summer, colorful warblers and other songbirds sing from the canopy. The park is also home to the Shenandoah salamander, an endangered salamander that only exists on three peaks within the protective boundaries of the park.
The park hosts five campgrounds spread out along Skyline Drive that are open seasonally from early spring (think March) until late October or early November, depending on the site. These include Matthews Arm Campground, Loft Mountain Campground, and Lewis Mountain Campground. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance on reservations.gov. The earlier you can book, the better. In the post-pandemic era, the campgrounds, especially on weekends in summer and autumn, have often been booked to full capacity. All are great family campgrounds. Additionally, some campgrounds do include group sites. Or, if it’s a true wilderness experience you want, the park has over 19,000 acres of designated wilderness for backcountry camping.
Big Meadows Campground
Each campground provides an excellent experience, but not all will have the same amenities. Our favorite is the Big Meadows campground. It features all the amenities you could ask for, such as hot showers, laundry facilities, a dump station for RVs, potable water, and flush toilets, and is centrally located to some of our favorite family hikes. The campsites can be used as an RV or tent site and include a picnic table, bear-proof storage containers (a requirement for storing your food), and a fire ring with a grill. Firewood can be purchased easily at the campground store or at the nearby Big Meadows Lodge. There is a ban on bringing in firewood from outside the park due to the invasive and pesky emerald ash borer, which has killed millions of ash trees in the United States. The campground is also a hop and skip away from the Wayside camp store, where you can purchase camping equipment and goods, gifts, and grab-and-go food. There is a gas station there as well, the only gas station in the park. Next door is the Byrd visitor center, one of two visitor centers in the park, where your family can learn more about the park’s history through exhibits and a film that plays in the auditorium.
While camping at Big Meadows, be sure to visit its actual namesake Big Meadows! The high-elevation meadow hosts an ecological rarity called a malic fen that is home to rare flora and fauna for the state of Virginia. You can also encounter trees more at home in the northern states and Canada, and they are not usually associated with the southern Blue Ridge Mountains. These include gray birch, red spruce, and aromatic balsam fir.
If tent camping is not your thing, there are other options. Within the central district, there are two lodges, Skyland and Big Meadows, where you can stay in cabins or more traditional or premium rooms. Both lodges have a large parking lot and host restaurants that serve excellent breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you want a true, rustic cabin experience, there are plenty at Loft Mountain. Reservations may be made here.
Camping in Black Bear Country
Seeing a black bear is near the top of the list for many who visit Shenandoah. It’s a wonderful experience your family will never forget. However, bears, as well as other wildlife like raccoons and skunks, are attracted to food and scented items. Always store those items in the bear-proof storage containers at your campsite. The National Park Service provides additional bear safety guidelines here.
With so many trails, Shenandoah is a hiker’s paradise, and there are trails for every family size and fitness level.
For those with very young children, the Limberlost trail is one you should definitely check out. The 1.3-mile circuit is paved and wheelchair accessible with minimum elevation gain. It’s easy hiking, and in June, both sides of the trail are adorned by the pink and white flowers of mountain laurel.
Old Rag Mountain
More adventurous families with older children may want to experience the challenging but very enjoyable Old Rag Mountain circuit. The first part of the hike is all upward, and you will gain significant elevation crossing many switchbacks. From there, you will navigate a rock scramble to the summit, where you will be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the park. The summit is my favorite picnic area in the entire park. It’s a total blast of an adventure, but If you do this hike, there are some things you should know.
Prior to becoming a National Park in 1935, part of the area used to be a fishing retreat for President Herbert Hoover. His home, the Rapidan Camp, is still visible today. This four-mile moderate circuit begins at the Mill Prong Trail and features two stream crossings until you stay right on the Mill Prong Horse trail to the camp. This hike is also excellent for wildflowers. You may also book a ranger-led interpretive hike to the camp here.
Dark Hollow Falls
More than a dozen waterfalls exist in Shenandoah National Park, and one of the most accessible and beautiful is Dark Hollow Falls. Located slightly north of Big Meadows, the trailhead begins at a stream and follows downhill to the absolutely stunning waterfall. The return hike upward may be challenging, so take your time with young children and be aware of slippery rocks. It is totally worth the effort. For campers at the Big Meadows campground, you may start the hike at the campground.
DON’T MISS! Best Places In America To See Wildlife
Luray Caverns, in the nearby town of Luray, is an excellent addition to your trip if you have the time. This geologic wonderland, the largest cavern in the eastern U.S., features some of the most incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations. The caverns are open every day of the year.
For those who travel in an RV, there are RV parks located not far from the park.
Get the best tips on how to enjoy Shenandoah National Park with family. Learn the best hikes and campgrounds and what to do there.
When You Go
How to Get to Shenandoah National Park from Los Angeles
One of the best things about this park is its accessibility.
From Los Angeles (LAX) you can book an almost 5-hour direct flight to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, VA, Dulles International Airport (IAD) in Dulles, VA, or to Baltimore Washington International (BWI) in Baltimore, MD. Most airlines fly direct to one or all of these airports, including Southwest, Spirit, United, and American, while Alaska Airlines flies direct to both DC-based airports. Depending on which airport you fly to it will be an hour to an hour and a half drive to the North District in Front Royal, VA or the Central District at Thornton Gap off Highway 211 near Sperryville, VA. You may also fly direct to Richmond, VA, and drive around 95 minutes to the South entrance at Rockfish Gap.
An excellent discount site for flights (and cars) is Expedia!
If you live in the area and are planning on taking a family road trip, this Virginia road trip guide will help you have the most amazing time.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE CONSIDER SHARING OR PINNING IT!