The Perfect 2 Days in Shenandoah National Park Itinerary

Let me start with a little story about the first time I visited Shenandoah National Park.

It was at the end of a road trip through East Coast national parks and, not knowing any better, I’d only planned one day for Shenandoah. 

Somehow, I’d come up with this idea that Shenandoah was a drive-through park, that I could see all the sights in a day and leave feeling content.

Dear reader, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. 

Sure, Shenandoah has one of the most epic scenic drives I have ever been on and a day here was enough to make me fall in love with the area, but it also left me craving more. 

Stopping at one of the many overlooks along Shenandoah's national park roads
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There were so many nooks and crannies that I didn’t get to touch. Even just one extra day would have made a world of difference. 

So, of course, being the travel-crazed person that I am, I started planning my next trip before I even left. 

Now, I’ve visited Shenandoah three times, and believe me when I say and I still want more of its endless hiking trails, wide-sweeping views, and wildlife around every corner. 

Shenandoah really is such an underrated park. So, while I can’t promise you that after two days in Shenandoah you will feel like you’ve had enough, I’m certain that you’ll leave with a newfound love for the “Yellowstone of the East”.

Getting Around

a sign that reads "entering shenandoah national park on the skyline drive" part of the national park service signage

For this Shenandoah itinerary, you’ll need a car to make the most of it — there’s really no way around it.

If you aren’t driving into the Shenandoah area, you’ll need to rent a car at the airport.

You’ll likely fly into the Washington Dulles International Airport, since that’s the closest major airport with good flight deals.

Whenever I look for rental cars, I always compare rates with Discover Cars to find the cheapest price on my rental, since they look at 500+ agencies and sort out the best ones.

Compare rental car prices here to find the best deal!

You can plug in this itinerary into Google Maps and then follow it (or diverge from it!) as you please.

Another tool that might be worthwhile is buying the Shenandoah audio guide for your phone, which will give you some context to the park that you can listen to along the drive.

Also, check this road trip packing list to ensure you’re not missing anything you’ll need on the road!

Day One of your Shenandoah National Park Itinerary

Scramble for a sunrise.

The author, Nicole Westcott, looking back over her shoulder as the dawn sunrise occurs

During my East Coast road trip, I visited five national parks and woke up for a sunrise hike almost every day (you know, as one does on vacation).

Out of all of these, I can honestly say that Bearfence Mountain was my absolute favorite, and it won by a landslide (metaphorically, of course!).

For starters, it was an adventure. The Bearfence Mountain trail is just a bit over a mile, but what makes this trail somewhat difficult is the rock scramble. 

I can’t tell you how much fun I had maneuvering up, around, and over boulders that were three times my size!

The author, Nicole Westcott, looking away towards the mountain horizon while sitting on rocks

It can feel a bit intimidating but once you get to the top, you’ll be welcomed by 360-degree views of the Virginia Piedmont region and Shenandoah Valley, and suddenly all of that hard work pays off. 

If you need to catch your breath after that climb, there’s plenty of large boulders to sit on and enjoy the sunrise.

When I went in April there was not a single other person up there with me… at least, not in my section of boulders. 

So, just find a cozy spot, kick back, and let the sun rise over the mountains and wow you with its dramatic views. 

Fuel up at Spottswood Dining Room.

little tables out for dining at breakfast time in shenandoah national park
Photo Credit: Pom’ via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The last time I visited Shenandoah, I stayed at Big Meadows Lodge and pretty much lived off of the food at the Spottswood Dining Room

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner: each meal was more surprisingly delicious than the last. The real showstopper is, without a doubt, their breakfast menu. 

As someone who has tried many things on their breakfast menu, I can confidently tell you that you can’t go wrong.

Try whatever your little heart desires, and the talented crew here will serve up a delicious meal! 

With that said, though, I will also tell you that I still dream about the buttermilk pancakes with blackberry compote…

Marvel at the waterfalls (part one). 

the marvelous lewis falls with cascading water during the springtime on a hike

Just a stone’s throw away from Big Meadows Lodge, Lewis Springs Falls is not only a convenient hike to start with, but also a truly wonderful hike.

Lewis Springs Falls is one of many waterfall hikes in the park and one of my favorites, especially in the morning.

The trail is three miles roundtrip with nearly 800 feet of elevation gain, so it gets you pumped up and ready for the day.

Besides, you’ll forget all about the ache in your muscles from that uphill trek when you are constantly being greeted by wildlife like deer! 

It’s important to note that, like most falls, Lewis Springs is the most impressive in the springtime when the snowmelt is at its peak.

If you’re visiting in fall, when many people visit the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah for its fall foliage, the falls won’t be quite as impressive, but it’s still a wonderful hike.

Enjoy great views with little effort.

After you have enjoyed some solitude amongst the depths of Shenadoah’s magical forest, it’s time to make your way up into rocky terrain where you will be met with large crowds and wide-sweeping views.

The Stony Man Trail is easily one of the most popular trails in the park and for good reason!

At only 1.5 miles roundtrip and minimal elevation gain, Stony Man rewards you with spectacular views for very little effort. 

Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that?

There are various ways to reach Stony Man so make sure you are parking at mile marker 41.7 for the easiest route…

… or opt to do the Little Stony Man loop (3.3 mi roundtrip) for a bit more of a challenge. 

Pig out at Elkwallow.

Photo Credit: Jasperdo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Don’t let their “grab and go” online menu description fool you.

Elkwallow isn’t just a little grocery store offering cold premade sandwiches. 

This hidden little gem has a quick service counter serving up hamburgers, cheesesteaks, chicken tenders, and more!

And, just so we’re perfectly clear, “more” most certainly includes milkshakes. Just when you thought your trip couldn’t get any better! 

So grab yourself a greasy burger (you deserve it) and head outside to find a seat on the patio, or amp up the privacy at one of the nearby picnic tables. 

And since you’re here, you might as well take advantage of the wayside’s other perks, like its gas station, camp store, and souvenir shop.

P.S. Seriously, don’t leave without getting a speciality milkshake (blackberry, of course). You’ll thank me later. 

Discover a hidden gem.

basalt columns along the compton peak trail

When I plan a trip, I do all of the research possible, for what feels like weeks at a time, but then I also leave space open for some exploration.

I’ve learned through my travels that just because something isn’t posted on the internet, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. 

So, in the spirit of adventure, I always try to find one underrated attraction wherever I go and it doesn’t get more underrated than Compton Peak.

I stumbled upon Compton Peak on an afternoon where I was just getting into the park and didn’t have much time before sunset.

So, I just parked in the first lot that piqued my interest and discovered the hidden gem that is Compton Peak. 

Now, this trail is 2.4 miles roundtrip and I didn’t do the entire thing (and you don’t have to either). 

What really amazed me on this trail was the imposing basalt columns. You don’t have to be a geologist to fall in love with this feature! 

So, if you are not up for all the mileage of the full trail, just head right over to the East Overlook and get ready to be blown away. 

Take in sunset at the Point Overlook (or any, really).

Sunset at The Point Overlook, Shenandoah National Park

With one amazing viewpoint after another (no, seriously, there’s literally 72), there are plenty of places to watch the sunset.

Now, I don’t say this to overwhelm you but rather offer you some reassurance. 

Chances are, you’re going to be exhausted (as you should be!) after a busy day in the park, and rushing over to a specific sunset point for “the perfect view” just might not be in the cards for you.

The good news is, that’s totally okay. 

There’s been times when I’ve spent an hour waiting at a specific spot to see the entire sunset process…

… and there’s been times when I’ve pulled into the park just as the sun was setting and stopped at the very first viewpoint I could find a spot in. 

Guess what? Both were memorable experiences, so don’t sweat the small stuff. 

But, if time and energy are on your side, I do recommend making your way to the Point Overlook at mile marker 55.5.

With wide-sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s no such thing as a bad sunset here!

Do yourself a favor and take the 0.1 mile walk to the rocks.

You’ll understand why when you get there.

Unwind with dinner and drinks.

taps at a beer place

What could be better after a long day of hiking than pizza and beer? The New Market Taproom at Big Meadows Lodge is the perfect place to treat yourself. 

With a nice variety of draft beer, speciality cocktails, and personal pizzas, everyone in your party is sure to be satisfied!

Not to mention, the signature blackberry ice cream pie is to die for.

Day Two of Your Shenandoah National Park Itinerary

Skip the hike and have a spectacular overlook sunrise.

Pictured: Buck Hollow Overlook

Feeling a bit of deja vu? I’ll skip the lecture about how every overlook in the park has something to offer and get right to my top three choices. 

Thorofare Mountain Overlook (MP 40.5): As the name suggests, this overlook offers amazing views of Thorofare Mountain, but what you may not realize is that it’s the highest overlook in the park!

This means you’ll also have wide-sweeping views of other striking features like Old Rag and Pinnacle Ridge. 

Hazel Mountain Overlook (MP 33.0): Looking out over Hazel Mountain and Buck Ridge, this is one of my favorites!

There is a truly magnificent pile of rocks to sit on as you admire sunrise views over rolling mountains that seem to never end. 

Buck Hollow Overlook (MP 32.8): Another overlook with a perfect sitting rock, Buck Hollow is probably my favorite of the bunch, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you why.

There’s just something special about the angle of the mountains here that makes the sunrise that much more spectacular. 

Have a delicious breakfast.

People dining at a restaurant
Photo Credit: Joe Haupt via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With another day of adventure ahead, it’s important to fuel up with breakfast and the Pollock Dining Room is just the place to do it.

Get the Hiker’s Power Breakfast or go all-out (I mean, you are on vacation)  and get the absolutely decadent blackberry french toast. 

As an added bonus, the dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows so you won’t even have to stop enjoying the views!

P.S. Make sure to grab lunch from the Grab ‘N Go because you’ve got a busy day ahead.

Hike up to the highest peak. 

The summit of Hawksbill, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

With the title of “Highest Peak in Shenandoah,” hiking up to the summit of Hawksbill can sound a bit intimidating but I assure you there’s nothing to worry about. 

In fact, the Upper Hawksbill Trail is only two miles roundtrip, and over that distance you only gain an elevation of about 500 feet.

Those are some pretty low numbers for a summit hike!

Plus, this hike isn’t just for bragging rights.

From the peak, you’re instantly rewarded with 360-degree views of the park and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Sure, you’ve been seeing similar views at the roadside overlooks and maybe even got a glimpse of a Shenandoah 360-degree view at Bearfence Mountain, but Hawksbill still puts all those other places to shame.

Looking for something a bit more challenging? Take the Hawksbill Loop (2.9 miles roundtrip) and gain an extra 360 feet in elevation. 

Marvel at the waterfalls (part two).

Dark Hollow Falls cascading in the springtime when they are more powerful in Shenandoah national park, Virginia

As a hiker who actively tries to avoid crowds, I have to admit that Dark Hollow Falls rubbed me the wrong way… at first. 

This trail is always busy because of its close proximity to Big Meadows Lodge and its relatively short distance (1.4 miles roundtrip).

So when I got to the falls and was surrounded by 20 people or more, it was kind of hard to enjoy it… but I wanted to!

The falls really are magical. There’s a reason that so many people come here to see it. It’s a sight that everyone should see on their visit to the park. 

And, you know, I get all of that! But even still, I remain selfish.

So if you’re someone like me who wants to have their cake and eat it too, I have two pieces of advice for you. 

Number one, lower your standards… just a little. You won’t be able to have this trail all to yourself but you can get pretty close. 

Which brings me to number two… find a quiet space!

Most people will stand around the main set of falls but not many will wander out a bit further.

The upper and lower sections of the falls may not be as large but they are equally as impressive, and you’ll actually have the breathing room to enjoy them!

Choose your path to Mary’s Rock.

View of the Shenandoah Valley on the Blue Ridge Mountain range from Mary's Rock, a popular hike in Virginia

One of my favorite things about Shenandoah National Park is that there’s usually more than one way to tackle a hike, and Mary’s Rock is no exception.

With two approaches to reach the summit, you get to decide just how much of a challenge you’re looking for that day. 

Mary’s Rock South is the easier of the two with a total mileage of 2.7 miles and an elevation gain of 800 feet.

This approach starts at the Meadow Spring parking area

At 3.4 miles roundtrip and an elevation gain of 1200 feet, Mary’s Rock North is for those looking for a bit more of a challenge.

This approach starts at the Panorama Upper parking area

No matter which you choose, both trails give you a taste for what it’s like to hike on the incredibly famous Appalachian Trail and offer the same great view at the end.

If there’s one hike to end your adventure in Shenandoah on a high note, it’s this one. 

Have a Skyland dinner.

Photo Credit: Joe Haupt via Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Remember those floor-to-ceiling windows I was telling you about earlier?

Now, imagine them at sunset… overlooking Shenandoah Valley… with a delicious farm-to-table dinner sitting in front of you. 

Still not convinced? You want outdoor seating, you say? Done!

Not only does the Pollock Dining Room offer spectacular views from inside, it now also offers terrace seating too!

So grab a seat, inside or out, and watch the sunset over the valley as you stuff your face with something delicious like the Peppercorn Skillet Steak, Trailhead Grilled Quail, or Forrester Pasta. You really can’t go wrong.

Oh, one last tip: whatever you do, just make sure you save room for dessert!

Where to Stay

Not sure where to stay in or near the park? Here’s a map of hotels and vacation rentals you can book that shows you the distance from the park easily.

Here are a few recommendations as well, which were featured briefly in the post as dining spots, but also make great places to spend the night!

  • Skyland Lodge: Home to the Pollock Dining Room mentioned above, this national park lodge is extremely convenient for this itinerary! It’s also affordable and look at those views from the dining room — now imagine they’re yours any time you want!
  • Big Meadows Lodge: Home to the Spottswood Dining Room also mentioned above, this lodge is located right near Lewis Falls and is a super convenient central location for virtually everything this Shenandoah itinerary

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