Have you ever dreamed of hiking trails that go miles in the gorgeous mountainous wilderness, home to majestic waterfalls and animals? If so, you would probably love Shenandoah National Park.
The park lies just a couple of hours outside Washington DC and is a trendy travel destination for nature lovers worldwide. If you want to visit the park, you may wonder when you should go.
Below, we’ll tell you the best time to visit Shenandoah, why you should go, and some general tips before planning your next visit. Keep reading to learn more.
Why You Should Visit Shenandoah National Park
For camping enthusiasts, there is nothing quite like Shenandoah National Park. Situated in the heart of Virginia, this park is just 75 miles away from Washington, DC, meaning you could go from the big city to the expansive wilderness in just a couple of hours.
This park is over 200,000 acres of protected wildness home to all sorts of animals like birds, squirrels, deep, and even black bears. It has a vast web of hiking trails that fit every experience level and time.
A hiker could take a quick 15-nature walk to a day-long expedition. You could also go backpacking, biking, birdwatching, fishing, horseback riding, or rock climbing.
If you’re looking for more structured outdoor fun, there are plenty of ranger programs that are active throughout the year that you could check out, from guided walks to talks about the local wildlife.
If you don’t want to get out of the car, you can still enjoy the park by cruising along the famous Skyline Drive. All of those trails also make the park perfect for camping. Five main campgrounds make up the park and are open from spring to fall.
- Big Meadows Campground
- Mathews Arm Campground
- Dundo Group Campground
- Loft Mountain Campground
- Lewis Mountain Campground
All these sites come with the basic amenities that any camper needs, like a picnic table, fire pit, and bathroom access. Experienced campers may be tempted to camp in the woods to avoid fees, otherwise known as Boondocking.
While this is allowed in the park, trailers require a permit and need to follow some strict regulations. Boondocking is for tent camping only. RV’s need to stay in a designated campground.
The park experiences all four seasons in beautiful climates and colors. Spring is a great time to experience the newly blooming wildflowers and witness the earth awakening from its long winter sleep.
With summer comes the full glory of the park and the crowds. The park staff offers many programs to make the most of your summer by going for a hike or a guided excursion.
In the fall, things start to slow down in the park, and it’s usually the last chance to go camping before the primary services of the park are closed. At this point, the leaves will turn gold and red, and it can be a beautiful time to check out the famous Skyline Drive.
In the winter, many services are closed, but it’s still a great time to visit the park. Bring your snowshoes or find a peaceful place to watch the wildlife that may still be around.
If you’re interested in some history, the park was once the retreat of President Herbert and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. There is also a wealth of information about the people who lived in the park before it became a protected land.
Overall Best Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park
The overall best time somewhat depends on what you like to do in the park. In general, though, experienced campers and hikers agree that late spring is the best time to go. This would be between April and May.
Late spring is the best time to go because of the crowds. As famous as it is, Shenandoah can get extremely crowded when summer rolls around.
Spring is the time to go if you want to experience the best of the park and avoid the crowd. For one, the snow is usually all melted by April and May. The only places you may see a little snow clinging on are the deeper tree cover or the mountains.
By this time, the typical spring showers have also eased off, making way for warmer days. Between April and May is also considered the best time for hikers.
For long-haul hikers, you’ll get to start with a cooler morning, and it won’t get too hot throughout the day. The trails will also be emptier, mainly if you leave early in the morning.
If you’re hiking any time during the peak season, you’ll see plenty of other people on the trails. For the peace of the wilderness, spring is the time to go. If you’re looking out for wildlife, late spring is just the end of the period when you expect animals to be the most active.
With the quiet winter, some of the shyer animals are probably out of their hiding spots for a little while before the busy peak of spring. One thing to look out for, however, is bears.
As a general rule of thumb, try to make a little noise as you’re hiking through the woods around this time of year, as black bears tend to avoid people, and they’ll go away if they hear you. Also be sure to carry a container of bear spray. See our top recommendations here.
Cheapest Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park
There are a few cheap times to visit Shenandoah. These dates are usually out of the peak season and aren’t near any major holidays that would make people want to visit the park.
The dates are:
- January 8th to March 11th
- April 16th to May 6th
- August 6th to November 18th
January to March is usually a part of the park’s slower winter season when many services are closed. There are also fewer people looking to get out into the great outdoors when snow is on the ground.
The prices don’t drop until January as some visitors may still find the park and its nearby hotels as the perfect getaway for their Christmas. From April to May, there is another slow period just outside the peak times in the summer.
Coincidently, this is also considered one of the best times to visit the park during the year. August to November is the end of the summer, and most families leave the park to get their kids to school.
This is also a great time to visit as the weather is still lovely, and many services are open for a little while. The only exception from August to November is the last two weeks in October when prices start to spike a little again.
This is likely because of Halloween and the spooky vibes of a forest at this time of year that people love. The absolute cheapest time to visit is usually in early September.
Again, this coincides with when most families leave the park as kids return to school. September still has excellent weather as well. This time of year is still considered peak season, so some services may be crowded.
Least Busy Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park
If you’re trying to avoid the crowds, don’t go on a weekend during the peak season (from June to October). These are the times when the park and its services are packed, and the trails are usually filled with people.
The least busy time would be mid-winter during the off-season, from November to March. The only downside to this time of year is many (but not all) of the services are shut down for the winter. It still makes a great time to go snowshoeing or enjoy some quiet nature.
If you go in the spring, you’ll experience many services, but it can get a little chilly in early spring. Late spring is considered one of the best times to go as the weather gets warmer, but the park is still not too busy.
If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, focus on weekdays. From the peak season of June to November, the park will be the most crowded on the weekends.
If you go during the middle of the week, mainly if you visit early in the morning, you’ll get all the goodness of the warmth and sun of summer without the pressing crowds.
Worst Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park
There are two answers to this, depending on what you’re looking for. If you hate crowds, don’t go on weekends during the peak season.
The park will be overcrowded, and it will be nearly impossible to have a moment of solitude no matter where you go. This is why we recommend either going on a weekday or in the spring before the summer rush starts.
If you want clear trails, fantastic weather, and plenty of programs, don’t go in the winter.
Winter is cold, the weather can be treacherous sometimes, and many services are shut down for the season. You can still go hiking, but you may need extra gear, such as boot spikes and plenty of layers.
Things to Consider
Now that we’ve told you the best (and worst!) times to visit Shenandoah National Park, here are a few things to consider as you’re planning your trip:
- There are only a few areas where you can get cell phone reception. If you need a phone, many areas have public phones available. There are many along Skyline Drive, ranger stations, and campgrounds.
- If you like to use your phone for navigation, maybe consider another form, such as a handheld GPS or a paper map. The trails are generally easy to follow and easily marked, but losing yourself can still be easy if you don’t know where you turn and when. The park has several maps on its website of recommended day hikes. All you need to do is download them and print them off before your visit.
- There are black bears in the park. If you’re hiking during the slow season, we recommend making some noise as you walk to make the bears avoid you. A popular method is to tie something to your bag that will tingle as you hike.
- There is an entrance fee to the park (however, there are a few free entrance days throughout the year). The price depends on whether you’re bringing a vehicle into the garden and the number of people.
- There are discounts for seniors, the military, and students. If you plan on visiting often, you can purchase an annual or lifetime pass. If you’re a business, there is also a commercial entrance pass. The cost for a single adult is $15.00.
- If you plan camping, there are fees separate from the entrance fee. Depending on your entrance pass status, you may be entitled to a discount on your camping fees.
Frequently Asked Questions
Finally, we’ll cover a few common questions about Shenandoah National Park:
When are Free Park Days?
While there is usually a fee to enter the park, a few days throughout the year are free for visitors. These days tend to land on particular national holidays. The dates may change slightly every year, but as an example, the 2022 dates were as follows:
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Jan 18)
- First Day of National Park Week (April 17th)
- Neighbour Appreciation Day (June 19th)
- Anniversary of Great American Outdoors Act (August 4th)
- National Park Service Birthday (August 25th)
- National Public Lands Day (September 25)
- Veterans Day (Nov 11)
While all free days have already passed for 2022, they will likely announce the 2023 dates soon.
Do you need reservations for Shenandoah National Park?
This depends on what you’re doing. To visit and spend time in nature, no. You can show up, pay the parking fee, and go on your merry way. However, you may need to make reservations for anything beyond that.
If you’re signing up for one of the programs or camping, it may be wise to see if you can reserve your spot beforehand. This is because the park is bustling during peak season, and it will be near impossible to get a place by just showing up.
Is Skyline Drive worth it?
We would say it makes an excellent day trip, particularly during the fall when the leaves turn.
Do you need a bear canister?
Most campgrounds provide a food locker to keep your food safe from bears during the night. If your campground doesn’t have one, if it’s complete, or if you’re boondocking, we highly recommend bringing some bear-safe container to store your food in.
What is the nearest town to Shenandoah National Park?
The park is long and narrow, covering a vast portion of Virginia. It lies just west of Washington, DC, but there are closer towns. Front Royal is at the north tip of the park, while Waynesboro can be found at the south.
So, What’s the Best Time to Visit Shenandoah National Park?
The verdict is in! We say that late spring is the best time to visit Shenandoah. Not only do you take advantage of the warming temperatures after a long winter, but you also get to avoid the crowds that come during peak season.
If you plan to visit during the spring, remember to bring a couple of extra layers with you in case it gets chilly, and we hope you enjoy your time. Happy travels!