With a couple coinciding days off and a full tank of gas, my sister and I made an impromptu decision to head to Shenandoah National Park for some fall hiking. Shenandoah is a 4.5-hour drive from New Jersey, and one of the closest national parks within driving distance that I could think of, so we hit the road for Luray, Virginia, our chosen gateway to the park.
Settling into town a little later than expected, we still had a couple hours of daylight to burn and headed for the park’s Thornton Gap Entrance. Just a 15-minute drive from Hotel Laurance, our home for the weekend, Thornton Gap was the closest entrance to the park and, coincidentally, a great starting point for hikers on day one with limited time.
We opted for the South trail exit once inside Shenandoah and parked at the first parking lot we found, Panorama parking grounds. Our eagerness to get on the trails paid off, as we happened to park at the gateway to Mary’s Rock trail, a challenging but short trail with jaw-dropping views at the peak and a downhill return.
The steep, winding and beautiful trail opened up after several miles to sweeping views of Shenandoah.
We opted for Mary’s Rock with limited time before impending rain and darkness, but a better-planned timeline would give wise hikers the option for several other connecting trails, including Skyland, another seven-mile trek from Mary’s Rock.
The hike back to the car was all downhill and much faster than we anticipated, so we caught the gorgeous full sunset at the car and on the road to the hotel — and the rain we feared never came, a gift and curse of the Valley region.
We utilized the map we were given at the park entrance (a real paper map, who knew) and made plans for a full day of hiking the next day, with trails lined up between sunrise and sunset.
Pro tip: Like many trips into a national park, the drive to the Thornton Gap entrance is a steep, winding road. Try to travel during the day, and in high-visibility/pleasant weather to avoid any undue stress weaving along the mountainside.
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