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How About a Winter Hike in Shenandoah National Park?

by Patressa Kearns

Some people just don’t get winter hiking. What’s the point? they wonder. It’s cold and windy. The trees are bare, the ground hard, and there’s nothing much to see except boulders, ice, and frozen dirt. Songbirds aren’t warbling nor can you reasonably hope to spot a black bear. It’s too frigid to have a picnic on a summit and waterfalls aren’t running (all water having been smart enough to either freeze in place or stay underground).

If you’re one of those people who thinks hiking in winter is nothing more than an exercise in tedium it might be time to start thinking outside the ice cube, put on your hiking boots, and hit the trail. Shenandoah National Park has some fabulous trails for winter hiking.

There’s much to love about winter in this national park. Thinner crowds to compete with for trail and summit space, cinnamon-fresh air to breathe, and wildlife tracks to find and follow are easy-to-love features of winter hiking in Shenandoah. The Appalachian Trail – the national scenic trail that extends more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine – crosses Skyline Drive some 25 times, including near three of the Park’s four entrances – Rockfish Gap, Swift Run Gap, and Thornton Gap. And at Skyline Drive’s north end, you can hop onto the Dickey Ridge Trail and hike it all the way to the A.T.’s most northern Skyline Drive crossing point at Compton Gap. This means you can easily access the Park on foot even when Skyline Drive is closed by snow and ice.

There are several day-long hikes you can pick up at Park boundaries, like Old Rag (a 9.2-mile circuit that includes a strenuous rock scramble – making Old Rag not the best idea for hiking in snow or gelid precipitation), Whiteoak Canyon (6 miles round trip to see six waterfalls), and Little Devils Stairs (a vigorous almost-6-mile circuit that takes you on a scramble straight up through a canyon).

Short Hikes

If you choose to keep your winter hikes on the shorter side and Skyline Drive is passable when you arrive (which is usually the case), you’ll be able to connect to shorter but still invigorating hikes. Stony Man at mile 41.7 (1.6 miles round trip), Frazier Discovery Trail at mile 79.5 (a 1.3-mile circuit to excellent views), and Dark Hollow Falls at mile 50.4 (a steep but short 1.4-mile round trip to an impressive-even-in-January waterfall). Medium-length hikes like the 4-mile Rose River Falls loop near Big Meadows and 3.4-mile Chimney Rock at mile 90 are excellent options for the more adventurous winter trekker.

Before you dig out your hiking poles and traction coils (don’t underestimate the added layer of safety and confidence that wearing traction coils can give you on cold-weather hikes), you’ll want to visit the Park’s hiking page for hiking maps you can download and save to your smartphone. Be sure to let someone at home know you’re planning a winter hike in Shenandoah before you head out. Bring plenty of water (even in winter you’ll need to hydrate) and snacks. If you have questions, stop by Byrd Visitor Center, at mile 51 on Skyline Drive. Byrd VC is open on winter weekends (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), 9:30 a.m.- 4:00 p.m.

There. Now you’re out of excuses. Come on out to Shenandoah National Park this winter, hit a trail, and earn your hot cocoa!

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there lay within me an invincible summer.” ~ Albert Camus