Best ways to make your trip to Shenandoah National Park safe & easy

shenandoah national park
Thornton Gap entrance of Shenandoah National Park. (Courtesy Claire Comer)

Even though the mountain is still mostly green, October is a big month for Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, which is already seeing 10% more business than usual. Here are some tips for a smooth visit.

“You know some of our northern overlooks get crazy crowded,” said Claire Comer, an interpretive specialist at Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive. “But with over 65 of those guys – just go a little further, and you’re bound to find an overlook that’s not so crowded.”

Approach the park from the south

Southern entrances at Swift Run and Rockfish aren’t as busy.

“Coming from the D.C. area, it would be a gorgeous day to take Route 29 south, down to Route 33 or all the way down to Route 64, and then head a little bit west and enter the park and do a great big circle and come back up Skyline Drive,” Comer advised.

“You’re going to get not only a gorgeous view while you’re in the park, but a gorgeous view of the park while you’re traveling those other roads.”

Buy your pass into the park before arrival

“At our busiest entrance stations we have pass lanes, so if you want to get in the fast lane – you need to buy your pass online,” Comer said. There are pass lanes at Front Royal and Thornton Gap.

Plan ahead — cell phone reception can be spotty along Skyline Drive and in the park, but your phone’s GPS will show you exactly where you are on a map if you download the free app; go to settings and download the offline content.

“It will track you everywhere you are in the park, without a cell phone signal,” Comer said.

That allows you to make last-minute detours if, say, the parking lot for a specific trail is crowded.

“You don’t want to go on a hike with a bazillion other people,” Comer said.

She recommends making a couple back-up plans for trails you might like to explore. You can plan hikes ahead of time and download maps from the park’s website.

Bring your mask

Face coverings are required to enter the park’s facilities, including bathrooms, restaurants, gift shops and visitor’s centers.

“Our rangers are all assembled outside, socially distanced with their masks, but they are outside the visitor centers able to help with maps and other tips that you need,” Comer said.

See what awaits you

You can explore conditions along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park on the park’s Facebook page.

When should you go?

Virginia Tech professor John Seiler said that he expects the peak of color for mountainous areas, such as Shenandoah to be around Oct. 24. And this year’s burst of autumnal shades is expected to be even better than last year.

“I’m expecting really good color” for this year’s fall foliage season, said Seiler, who teaches tree biology.

He said good rainfall this summer and fall has helped make trees healthy, and he expects those trees to provide some spectacular color, possibly a little bit earlier than last year.

WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report.

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