After some obsessive planning May saw myself and a few friends heading on a road trip through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and back through Virginia along the Appalachian Trail.

We planned things down to the minute using Excel / Google sheets. We estimate distance and time for travel, time spent at each location and costs of each little piece. Of course life doesn’t quite work that way but it was nice to have a plan! I also created information sheets on each location we were going too which for some places was key.

As we began our road trip with a first 8–10 hour drive we were all in good spirits despite a forecast of rain for our entire trip!

Shenandoah National Park is basically along one mountain top winding road, Skyline drive, with overlooks and trails along the way. You can enter at the top, middle, or bottom; those are the only entrances / exits. We started at the top and did all the overlooks before getting to our campground. We stayed at Matthew Arm Campground, a more primitive site in the park because we arrived on a weekend and the sites were busy.

This was not my first visit to Shenandoah and I will say the drive gets to me, I don’t love driving on winding roads with lots of cliffs so I hadn’t thought I’d be back. In all reality, since it isn’t too far from where I live, I will probably be back again one day. However, I will enter the park in the middle (Thornton Gap) next time. The only thing I will miss is the overlook Range View which has beautiful rolling hills.

Shenandoah National Park

Old Rag Mountain is NOT off Skyline drive, you have to approach from outside the central park area or exit. A pass is still required for parking.
9 mile loop hike
2,355 ft of elevation gain

Shenandoah National Park Skyline Drive Overlook
Shenandoah National Park Skyline Drive Overlook

We ended the first day a bit early after the long drive. We had a busy schedule for our days in Shenandoah and ended up missing quite a few hikes we planned because there was so much. We did not end up making it to any of the sunset hikes, often due to rain and total exhaustion / laziness.

We started early the next day and almost made sunrise…

Shenandoah National Park Skyline Drive Overlook just after Sunrise

Our next hike is part of Shenandoah National Park but you have to exit the park at Thornton Gap to get to the parking area. We drove to Old Rag Mountain parking. Old Rag Mountain from what we had read is a 9 mile hike with 2355 feet elevation gain and we had set aside 8 hours to hike it (we were running a little late). It was unclear if this mile total included the walk from the parking lot to the trail head. In the end my Fitbit (using my phones GPS) said we hiked 9.4 miles. At the end of the trip this was still a favorite hike in our group and our longest (in miles walked) day!

The greenery was both very similar to home and not. There are a great variety of ferns, a large amount of wild rhododendrons, and other differences.

We started the hike with the knowledge that thunderstorms were expected around noon so we wouldn’t want to be on the top of the mountain then. We all prepared with rain gear and set off.

We had hoped during our visit for some May flowers but found only a few type in bloom while we visited.

As we got closer to the rock scrambles this hike is famous for we started to believe we were near the top. While out of the tree line at this point we were not actually that close to the summit yet. At first the view was a bit cloudy. Given the weather the fog that gives the Smoky Mountain range it’s name often rolls through in different patterns creating different levels of visibility. While hiking along the mountain ridge there were making views of the surrounding country side. To one side we often found trees and fields with peoples homes, and the other mountain ranges.

I don’t have a great photo of it, but one of the scrambles often seen when researching this hike is this, it’s a narrow space you have to climb down into. From above it looks much deeper than in this photo. There is an arrow pointing down on the rock that is very literally telling you where to get down, there are almost stairs in the rocks to help you so it isn’t very difficult.

With frequent rock scrambles, stairs, and other formations we continued to wonder were the actual summit was. We finally made it to the summit with some rushing as we got nervous the closer to noon it got but luckily the rain held out.

Afterwards we took a short rest, hopped in the car, and drove back through Thorton Gap to the exit on the other side of the mountain range and visit Luray Caverns. Luray Caverns is the largest cavern in the eastern US and a popular site to visit. It cost $28 and you join a tour which leave above every 30 minutes.

The caverns are full of these beautiful formations throughout. The tour guide gives information about these particular caverns, general information on how they are formed, and little spots to stop along the way with stories. They ask you not touch the formations to help preserve them for future generations.  Sadly our group was not as respectful as we might have hoped and we often found ourselves telling both adults and their children not to touch. The images of the caverns with reflections in a popular stop and photo of Luray. The small pools of water create these very realistic looking reflections.

Afterwards we headed back into Shenandoah. We found the road getting foggier and foggier and we got back into the mountains. This turned out to be the scariest part of the trip, we were in white out conditions and barely able to see in front of the car. We drove in the middle of the road to avoid the cliffs and barely 5 mph. I would highly recommend getting back early to avoid this!

Luray Caverns

101 Cave Hill Road,
Luray, VA
Open 9:00 – 6:00
A tour is about 1 mi and 1 hr, $28.00 / adult