Shenandoah National Park is a mountainous national park in Virginia which protects a long narrow section of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. The park is famed for its mountain vistas and waterfalls. Visitors come to this park to explore the 105-mile Skyline Drive which runs from the north end of the park to the south end of the park.
When the sun sets on Shenandoah National Parks, visitors have a chance to experience some of the darkest skies on the east coast. For this reason, Shenandoah National Park is excellent for stargazing. Here’s everything you need to know to take a stargazing trip to Shenandoah National Park.
Note: Due to the novel coronavirus, National Parks vary in opening hours and access. Be sure to check if the park you want to visit is open before planning a trip.
How to Get to Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is located in western Virginia, about 71 miles from Washington D.C. and 93 miles from Richmond, VA. It can take anywhere from 2-3 hours to drive from the D.C. area to reach Shenandoah National Park, but this is an ideal distance to escape the light pollution of the nation’s capital.
If you are flying to Shenandoah National Park, your best option is to fly into one of the Washington D.C. airports. Both Reagan National (DCA) and Washington Dulles International (IAD) offer daily flights from around the United States and the world. As major airports, rental cars are plentiful. Depending on traffic it will take between an hour and a half and four hours to reach the park from D.C.
There are four main entrances to Shenandoah National Park: The north entrance is located in Front Royal, VA. The south entrance is located in Waynesboro, VA. The mid-entrances are located at Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap.
How to Go Stargazing in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park offers many places to view the stars. The key is to find an overlook with a great view of the sky and away from the minimal light pollution. Shenandoah National Park sits on a mountain ridge overlooking the valleys below.
Looking out from the park, you can see several of the small towns that surround the park. The key is finding an overlook that looks out with minimal light pollution.
Where to Go Stargazing in Shenandoah National Park
Due to these small towns, the park has a minor issue with light pollution. The best stargazing is found at overlook away from these towns or in the interior of the park. Depending on where you are staying in or out of the park, it is recommended to scout the nearby overlooks for their sky views and proximity to the nearby towns.
Along the 105-mile Skyline Drive, the following overlooks are the best places for stargazing in Shenandoah National Park:
- Indian Run (Milepost 10.5)
- Howwallow Flats (Milepost 13.6)
- Rattlesnake Point (Milepost 21.0)
- Jermeys Run (Milepost 26.5)
- Thorton Hollow (Milepost 27.5)
- Pinnacles (Milepost 35.0)
- Thorofare Mountain (Milepost 40.5)
- Rocky Mount (Milepost 70.1)
- Two Mile Run (Milepost 76.0)
- Rockytop Mountain (Milepost 78.0)
- Doyles River (Milepost 82.0)
- Trayfoot Mountain (Milepost 87.0)
Where to Stay Near Shenandoah National Park
Hotels near Shenandoah
There are three hotels located within Shenandoah National Park. These hotels are rustic mountain lodges and cabins with excellent views of the park and provide the perfect base to explore the park. The Big Meadows Lodge is a historic hotel that is centrally located in the park. Skyland is the largest hotel in the park and is just north of Big Meadows. Lewis Mountain Cabins is a set of rustic cabins located to the south of Big Meadows.
Outside of the park, there are a range of hotel options. The towns of Front Royale and Waynesboro are located to the north and south entrances. Elkton is located just south of the Lewis Mountain Cabins. Luray and Sperryille are just north of Skyland.
Camping near Shenandoah
There are five campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park. These campgrounds are spaced out along the Skyline Drive. Several of the campgrounds allow for reservations to be made during the summer; others stay first-come-first-serve. If coming during the weekends or around holidays reservations can be made up to six months in advance and are highly recommended. There are no electric or water hookups in the park.
Outside of the park, many of the small towns offer campgrounds with RV hookups.
What to See & Do During the Day in Shenandoah
What to See in Shenandoah National Park
Most visitors to Shenandoah come to take in the breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountain range from Skyline Drive. The Skyline Drive is a 105-mile long paved road that runs along the ridge of the mountains. The road features numerous overlooks and places to enjoy the view. Wildlife such as deer and black bears are often seen along the roadway.
What to Do in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park offers a range of activities from hiking to fishing to horseback riding. The park’s most popular activity is hiking. It is a hiker’s paradise. The park has over 500 miles of maintained hiking trails including 100 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.
Many of the trailheads are located along Skyline Drive and trails range from short and easy to multi-day hikes that are strenuous. This park is pet-friendly and dogs are allowed on many of the trails. Please respect this and clean-up after your dog.
Popular Shenandoah hikes include:
- Old Rag Mountain – A 9-mile circuit that takes about 7 to 8 hours to complete. This is a popular but strenuous trail. The trail starts outside the park on the eastern boundary.
- Dark Hollow Falls – A 1.4-mile waterfall hike that is highly recommended. The trail is moderate with a few steep sections but the falls are worth it.
- Stony Man Trail – A 1.6-mile hike to the second-highest point in the park. Excellent views.
- Lewis Falls Trail – A 3.3-mile waterfall hike along the Appalachian Trail.
If you want to venture outside the park, there are several caves to visit such as Luray Caverns.
Other FAQ about Stargazing in Shenandoah National Park
When is the best time to go stargazing in Shenandoah?
The stars can be seen all year round in Shenandoah. But the late spring to early fall provides the best weather for stargazing and the best chance to see the Milky Way. This season is also the most popular time outside of the fall leaf season to visit the park and you should expect heavy crowds and hotels and campground to be full.
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Shenandoah? When?
Shenandoah is one of the best places in the state of Virginia to see the Milky Way. Summer provides the best Milky Way viewing. The Milky Way will be visible most of the night.
Is there a dark sky festival in Shenandoah?
Yes, there is! The Annual Night Sky Festival typically takes place during mid-August and lasts for three days. This event included daytime talks about the stars and activities for kids. In the evening there are education programs and local amateur astronomers will set-up their telescopes for close up star viewing. Learn more about the Shenandoah Night Sky Festival.
Is the Shenandoah National Park open at night?
Yes, Shenandoah is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Most of the park’s services close from late November to early March and parts of Skyline Drive will close to vehicle traffic during inclement weather.
The entrance stations are closed at night but you are still required to have a valid Shenandoah entrance receipt or National Park pass when in the park.
Are there guided night tours in Shenandoah?
On select nights, volunteers will host a night sky viewing party. These volunteers are amateur astronomers who are donating their time to share their love of the skies and dates are limited and tours and events are free. You can find current dates here and here. If there isn’t a tour or event during your visit you are welcome to enjoy the stars from any of the Shenandoah Overlooks.
Other Shenandoah Stargazing questions? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: bahahamelly via Flickr