Shenandoah National Park features the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the best way to explore the park is hiking it! Unfortunately, you don’t always have a lot of time to do that. Or, you’d like to see as much of the park as you can in a limited amount of time, so several short hikes are better than one long hike. Whether you’re driving through for a day on a road trip or staying a week in the park, here are the best easy (and short!) hikes in Shenandoah National Park.
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What’s Considered Easy and Short for Hiking Trails?
You’re right to be skeptical; everyone has a slightly different definition for easy and short hiking trails. This can also depend on fitness level. The simple answer for this article is ANYONE can get out and hike, even if you’ve never before hiked a day in your life.
You don’t have to be a super fit athlete to hike. Hiking is basically just walking when you really boil it down. More strenuous trails may include difficult to traverse spots like rock scrambles or ladders, but the majority of any hike is simply walking.
For our purposes for easy and short hikes described in this article, we use the following definitions:
A short hiking trail is anything up to 2 miles in total length. If it’s an out and back type trail, that means it will only extend up to 1 mile out before you turn around and complete that same 1 mile hike back to the car for a total of 2 miles.
Most people can complete short trails in under 2 hours, depending on how many stops are taken for pictures, admiring the views, etc.
An easy hiking trail has gradual elevation change, no difficult spots like rock scrambles or ladders, and a moderately level and clear path.
Easy trails are suitable for every visitor that can walk unassisted. Some are also ADA-accessible.
Hiking Tips for Shenandoah National Park
A few quick hiking tips before we get into the trail specifics:
1. Always bring water.
The cardinal rule for hiking: always bring water. All of the hikes discussed here are short and easy, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need water.
You’ll feel it in the summer and spring, but the fall and winter can be deceptive. The temperature may be cool, but you’re still sweating under all those layers. Stay hydrated!
2. Check the weather before you start a hike.
Rain makes paths slippery and dangerous. Snow conceals trails, and sometimes trail markers. Wind can change the temperature from comfortable to shivering. Sun and humidity rapidly speed up dehydration and can cause heat stroke.
Be prepared before you head out for even a short hike. Don’t hesitate to cancel a hike if the weather looks like it’s not going to cooperate. It’s not worth hypothermia or a broken bone.
3. Know Where You’re Going: Trail Markers & Maps
There are over 500 miles of hiking trails in Shenandoah, so the standard park map you received on entry does not have detailed hiking trail maps. Visitor centers have area-specific hiking maps, or you can download trail specific hiking maps to your phone prior to your trip.
Sometimes trails overlap. The Appalachian Trail (AT), which extends from Maine to Georgia, passes through the heart of Shenandoah National Park. Many Shenandoah trails overlap the AT for a while before splitting off again.
Trails are identified with markers, called blazes, to help hikers stay on the correct path. In Shenandoah, there are three colors of blazes used.
- White denotes the Appalachian Trail (AT)
- Blue denotes Shenandoah hiking trails
- Yellow denotes Shenandoah horseback riding trails
It’s common for trails to start on a blue blazed path, turn onto a white blazed path, and then turn back to a blue blazed path.
4. Be prepared for animals.
The hazards in your home state may not be the same as the hazards in the mountains of Virginia. Shenandoah has plenty of innocuous wildlife like deer and birds, but this national park is also home to black bears, copperhead snakes, and timber rattlesnakes.
It’s important to know what to do if you stumble upon a bear or snake in the wild.
Watch where you’re walking, particularly in fall leaves and sunny patches, and memorize what the venomous snakes look like before your trip.
Not every snake in the park is venomous but all of them bite, so give any snake a wide berth as you walk around and away from them. They won’t attack unless you get too close, and they are highly unlikely to chase you.
Bears usually want to avoid humans, so make noise while hiking. The bears will hear you long before you see them. Talking, singing, or periodically clapping all work. A small radio also works, but don’t blast music through the woods.
Review the bear safety information from the NPS website before your trip. Black bears are not aggressive and will keep their distance so long as they don’t feel threatened.
Never run from a bear. They’re faster than you, and black bears are excellent tree climbers. Back away slowly, keeping an eye on the bear, until you have sufficient distance between you and the bear.
Best Easy and Short Hikes in Shenandoah National Park
Trails are listed from south to north along Skyline Drive, Shenandoah’s main roadway through the park. Each trail’s distance and type (loop or out and back) are listed, and we’ve noted if pets are allowed.
Choose a few of your favorites and create a perfect one day itinerary for visiting Shenandoah when you’re short on time!
1.0 mile / Loop / Pets on leash
Fairly gentle incline up to the viewpoint. Topped with a rock pile of small boulders. Kids especially love to climb these rocks at the top. This trail offers views on both sides of the mountain ridge.
There are actually two ways to complete this loop. The map online includes the loop out to the Trayfoot Mountain trail. However, the map at the parking lot shows you can also just follow the AT on the other side of the boulders and catch the fire road back to the parking lot at the same point that the Trayfoot trail would meet it.
The online map route is a full mile loop. The modified route from the parking lot map is slightly shorter if you’re in a hurry.
Bearfence Viewpoint (NOT the rock scramble)
1.1 miles / Out and Back / No pets
The Bearfence Loop Trail has a spectacular 360° viewpoint, BUT it requires a rock scramble. That is just not for everyone. Luckily, the NPS knows that and has an alternative hike to a 180° viewpoint that does not require that rock scramble but has similar amazing views. Woot woot!
Both hikes, the Bearfence Rock Scramble and the Bearfence Viewpoint, begin at the Bearfence Parking Lot. The parking lot is on the west side of Skyline Drive, but the trails are on the east side. Carefully cross Skyline Drive and climb the stairs up to the ridge.
To avoid the rock scramble, do not start on the Bearfence Loop Trail. Turn right onto the Appalachian Trail (AT) instead. A connector trail will be on the left which connects to the Bearfence Loop Trail after the steep rock scramble section. The 180° viewpoint will be on your right, and you return to your car the same way you came.
Pro Tip: download the online map for the Bearfence area trails and bring it with you.
If you find yourself faced with the rock scramble, just turn around and retrace your steps until you find the intersection with the AT. Do not feel obligated to do the rock scramble if you’re not comfortable.
Dark Hollow Falls
1.4 miles / Out and Back / No pets
One of the most popular trails, if not THE most popular, in Shenandoah. Beautiful waterfall at the bottom of a rocky path.
The hike down is the easy part. It’s the hike back up that’s not as much fun. Go at your own pace. Let faster hikers pass you.
Pro Tip: The parking lot fills fast, and park rangers will direct you to move on if it’s full. This hike is busy most of the year. It’s really a game of luck if you can get a parking spot or not. Increase your odds by arriving early.
1.3 miles / Loop / No pets / ADA Accessible!
Easy trail through the woods for viewing flowers, trees, and a nifty geological formation. No viewpoints out over the mountain valleys, but that also means it’s more protected from the wind!
The path is not paved but is compacted crushed greenstone, and is level throughout for accessibility. Wheelchairs or motorized scooters, or strollers for babies, can pass more easily.
1.6 miles / Loop / No pets
Beginning on the white-blazed AT from the Stony Man parking lot, turn left onto the blue blazed Stony Man Trail to complete a loop to the amazing viewpoints and then back to the AT to return to the parking lot.
Stony Man parking lot is not directly off of Skyline Drive. It’s in the Skyland area of the park. Use the northern entrance to the Skyland area (there are two turn offs), and the Stony Man parking lot is on the right.
Don’t get Stony Man confused with Little Stony Man, discussed next. 😉
Little Stony Man
0.9 mile / Out and Back / No pets
Steeper but shorter option than hiking all of Stony Man, Little Stony Man has a small parking lot directly on Skyline Drive, north of the Stony Man trail and the Skyland area.
Little Stony Man is a quick hike option if you’re short on time. As mentioned, it’s steeper but not impossibly steep. Just take your time. The view from the cliff edge is worth it! And then it’s all a downhill hike back to the parking lot.
Pro Tip: You can get to Stony Man Trail from the Little Stony Man parking lot. Follow the AT and you’ll arrive at the Stony Man Trail turn off from the north. This is about 4 miles round trip, but handy to keep in mind in peak season when parking lots fill up fast.
Hawksbill Summit via Upper Hawksbill Trail
2.1 miles / Out and Back / Pets on leash
Honorable mention for this hike, located between the Dark Hollow Falls and Limberlost trails. It is just barely over the 2 mile total length threshold for a short trail but accesses the highest mountain peak in Shenandoah National Park: Hawksbill Summit.
Park at the Upper Hawksbill parking lot and hike out to the summit viewing platform. Return the way you came. Don’t get this confused with the Hawksbill Gap parking lot to the north which services the Lower Hawksbill trail.
Note that while the Lower Hawksbill trail is shorter, it is steeper and rockier and doesn’t really qualify as an easy trail. If we’re bending our rules to allow one of these trails, the Upper Hawksbill trail is the easier of the two hikes.
Enjoy these short and easy hikes in Shenandoah National Park!