Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park
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Introduction. Connected to the Blue Ridge Parkway is Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive in northern Virginia. The two are joined at Waynesboro, Virginia, where the Blue Ridge Parkway begins and Skyline Drive terminates. Skyline Drive is about 105 miles long and is no less spectacular than its extension to the south. It is characterized by views of steep valleys and broad vistas of the piedmont and valley and ridge province. There are plenty of short hikes that are accessible from the Drive. The best hikes in the park access mountain tops with great views or waterfalls that shoot down the sides of the myriad steep canyons in Shenandoah National Park. The Blue Ridge Mountains within Shenandoah National Park are a steep block of ancient crystalline mountains with granite and metamorphic basement rocks. They are among the oldest rocks in the Appalachians and much older than the Alleghany Plateau to the west. The Shenandoah National Park which overlooks the Shenandoah Valley to the west and Piedmont to the east was established in 1926 but Skyline Drive was completed in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The land was acquired by private donation and, unfortunately, by coerced removal of people who lived in the area. Since Skyline Drive is within Shenandoah National Park, there is a fee of $15.00. This fee will allow you access for up to week as long as you keep the receipt. The Drive is open year round but winter can bring heavy snows and temporary road closures. Its close proximity to Washington, D.C. makes it a very popular destination and it can be crowded at times. Avoid weekends.
Front Royal to Thornton Gap Mile 0 for Skyline Drive begins in the north at the junction of U.S. 340 south of Front Royal, Virginia. It quickly climbs to 1390’ at Shenandoah Valley overlook at Mile 2.8 with good views of Massanutten Mountain. At Mile 4.6, elevation 1940’, you will reach the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, an information station with exhibits, services picnic tables and a self guided nature trail. The next major stop is Matthews Arm at 2750’ (Mile 22.2). Between Dickey Ridge and here there are no less than eleven overlooks to enjoy with good views, especially that of Mount Marshall (3368’) which is just after Mile 15. After you reach Mathews Arm the next major point of interest will be Thornton Gap (2304’) at Mile 31.5. There are nice views of the valleys but the nicer scenery is still ahead.
Thornton Gap to Big Meadows. At Thornton Gap the Drive climbs steeply to the Pinnacles at Mile 36.7 reaching an elevation of 3350’. It’s a good place for picnics but don’t get too comfortable because Stony Man Mountain (4011’), the second tallest peak in the park is just around the corner. Stony Man Overlook, 3100’ (Mile 38.6), is a good place to take in the first views of this peak. Little Stony Man Parking (3215’), even closer, is better if you want to hike to the top via the Appalachian Trail (AT). This is the last peak above 4000’ on the AT until Killington Peak in Vermont. The rocky summit of this mountain is also characterized by a few fir trees on its north-facing slopes. Fir trees are typically found at more northerly latitudes. There area number of great overlooks that wrap around Stony Man Mountain right before the Drive comes to Skyland at 3680’ the highest point on the Drive. One of these views is Thorofare Mountain Overlook (3595’) which has views of the rocky Old Rag Mountain (3268’) to the east. Skyland (Mile 41.7 & 42.5) has all of the tourist facilities and a visitor center as well as a lodge which makes it a great base for exploration. One place of interest that you should see here is White Oak Canyon (Mile 42.6), which contains six waterfalls. Just beyond Skyland the Drive approaches Hawksbill (4051’), the highest point in the park. A short hiking trail leads to the summit from two parking lots, Hawksbill Gap (Mile 45.6, 3365’) and Upper Hawksbill Parking Area (Mile 46.7, 3630’). Views to the north of Stony Man are excellent. At Mile 51 the Drive arrives at Big Meadows, another highlight of the Shenandoah Park. Big Meadows is an open, heath-like area set on a mountain plateau.
Big Meadows to Swift Run Gap. Before leaving Big Meadows plan a trip to Dark Hollow Falls which is relatively close to the Drive. The falls cascades 70 feet over ancient greenstone and require a 1.5 mile round trip walk from Dark Hollow Falls Parking (3490’). Heading south the Drive remains well over 3000’ and views of Hazeltop (3812’), the third tallest peak in the park, can be seen soon after leaving Milam Gap. A short hike using the AT reaches the summit although views are better from the road as the summit is tree covered. Better summit views are gained from the top of BearfenceMountain (3620’), is an easy hike from the Bearfence Mountain Parking (3295’) at Mile 56.4. The rocky summit affords great views of the vicinity. At South River, Mile 62.8, there are picnic facilities and South River Falls, which requires a 2.5 round trip hike from the Drive. The next major stop is Swift Run Gap (2365’) at Mile 65.7.
Swift Run Gap to Rockfish Gap. This section completes the southern third of the park and Drive. The mountains aren’t as high but the views of the canyons and valleys are no less rewarding. Loft Mountain at Mile 79.5 has an array of facilities which includes a service station and the usual shops. Five miles to the south is Jones Run (mile 84.1) which has a trail to the mossy Jones Run Falls, a 42 foot cascade that is well worth the 3.6 mile round trip hike. You’ll notice the elevations steadily decrease as the Drive drops below 3000’. At Mile 84.8 the Blackrock Parking has access to a one mile trail which has outstanding views from its namesake Blackrock. Another good place to take in views is at Calf Mountain Overlook (Mile 98.9), a good place to take your first (or last) stop on the Drive before reaching Rockfish Gap at 1100’ and Mile 105.4. Rockfish Gap is the start, or end, of the Skyline Drive. From here you can stay on the Drive as it exits the Shenandoah National Park and continues as the Blue Ridge Parkway.
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