Give yourself permission to go outside and play.
Step away from the flat screen and binge on reality. Rediscover the thrill of three dimensions in Shenandoah County, Virginia, a 512 square mile natural playground nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains, Allegheny Mountains, and Appalachian Mountains and lapped by the winding bends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Find countless adventures up and down all of our peaks and valleys.
Whether your idea of play means splashing in water or mud, climbing high enough to touch the clouds, scrambling under rocks, gripping leather reins or fishing poles, racing on your own two feet or hovering between two wheels, outdoor recreational opportunities abound in Shenandoah County.
Our 178 miles of trails, 100 miles of rivers and streams, and even a valley within a valley are spectacular in every season. From farmland to forests, steep mountainsides to flat meadows, bendy rivers to rocky overhangs, this diverse terrain packs surprises for every sort of adventurer, from timid to daring.
Five local experts offer insights into their favorite activities to help you make the most of the great outdoors during your visit to Shenandoah County.
Hiking trails weave through lush woods, past streams and waterfalls, and open to stunning valley views, whether you’re exploring the George Washington National Forest, the western slope of Massanutten Mountain, or even nearby Shenandoah National Park where it’s easy to hop on and off the famed Appalachian Trail.
“Shenandoah County has a great variety of hiking destinations,” says Dennis A. Turner, who helms a hiking column in the area’s Mountain Courier newspaper and is an active member of a local hiking club. “We have lots of different types of hiking,” he says. “You can hike for a year and do completely different hikes the next year!”
Some routes are steep, others aren’t, but “it’s not just up and down mountains,” Turner says. Among the options are three handicap accessible trails, a Lion’s Tale Trail for visually impaired hikers, and the kid-friendly, 1.2-mile Fox Hollow Loop.
Some trails lead straight to a destination such as a waterfall, swimming hole, mountain stream or valley community, while others loop to multiple points of interest. All offer great views. “There’s a destination, a purpose, a place to go,” says Turner, great news if you avoid aimless wandering. (Though that can be fun, too.)
One popular route on Great North Mountain is Big Schloss. “It’s amazing!” says Turner. “Trails are well-marked and it’s just wonderful to hike. It’s a signature place, a rock sticking out on top of a mountain, unusual.”
From points of interest to level of difficulty, there’s so much variety for hikers in Shenandoah County that it can be a challenge to know where to start. For help planning a route, Turner suggests to other resources online: Hiking Upward and Virginia Trail Guide.
Lush national forest blankets nearly a quarter of Shenandoah County and trails through them beckon to be explored. Whether you visit with your own horse or are looking to saddle up with a guided ride, options abound.
“Some trails get up to pretty high heights and the views from the top of the mountains are just awesome,” says Susan St. Amand, equine enthusiast, avid trail rider, and member of Shenandoah Trail Riders and Horseman’s Association. “The scenery is awesome, as is the chance to get back to nature and slow down.”
A breathtaking range of equestrian trails can be found. “The horseback riding trails are similar to the trails hikers will use in this area,” says St. Amand, who frequently rides in the George Washington National Forest. “The biggest thing is to get out and ride,” she says. “That’s my therapy. I love being out there.” A natural peace can be found deep in the pristine forest.
If you don’t have a horse but want to ride, head to Fort Valley Ranch to join one of the guided rides in the Massanutten Mountains. “For someone who’s riding for the first time, they’re really awesome because their horses are calm and gentle and that makes for a good experience,” says St. Amand. Fort Valley Ranch also boards horses, if you travel with your faithful friend.
In general, terrain in the area is “very rocky,” St. Amand advises, “so your horse has to be used to riding in rougher conditions and has to have shoes or it will tear up their feet.”
Click here to read more about horseback riding in Shenandoah County.
Special Events: To watch professional equestrians loop a track at top speed, check out harness racing at Shenandoah Downs from mid-September through late October each year. If you and your horse are up for a competitive challenge, check out the Old Dominion Equestrian Endurance Organization; a two-day ride is set for late October each year in Fort Valley.
Whether you prefer steep mountains or level valleys, biking in Shenandoah County “is beautiful!” says Kevin L. Watson, cycling instructor for the League of American Bicyclists and Bike Virginia Ambassador. “My wife and I bought our home here because of the riding,” he says. “We still commute to Washington D.C., but this is where we live and we love it!”
From back country roads to roadways through communities along the Shenandoah River, farmland to national forests, mountains to parks, “There are so many different roads, places to go, and things to do—we love it!” says Watson, who pedals between 3,000 and 5,000 miles each year.
Bike routes vary from paved roads to dirt paths to gravel trails—choose what suits your bike and ambition. “Absolutely any level of rider can enjoy a beautiful route,” he says. “There’s incredibly challenging riding for advanced cyclists and also plenty of nice areas for less serious or less advanced riders.”
Watson enjoys riding North on Highway 11, which offers “beautiful!” views of Signal Knob (the northern peak of Massanutten Mountain in the Ridge and Valley Appalachians) and the Allegheny Mountains. Another of his favorite rides is along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
Plan to bring your own wheels; there’s no bike outfitter in Shenandoah County at present.
For centuries, people have cooled off in the Shenandoah River, one of the few rivers that flow from south to north. “Whether it’s boating, tubing, swimming, fishing, or just jumping in to cool off on a hot day, our rivers are very popular,” says Steve Shaffer, who has kayaked or canoed most of Shenandoah River’s North Fork and South Fork. He says “the scenery” most distinguishes these waters.
Different segments of the river have different moods. “In the central part of the county there’s some deep backwater,” says Shaffer. Head there if you prefer boating with a motor. “There’s no waterskiing above the dam, but you’ll see quite a lot of motorized fishing boats,” he says. The river’s primary navigational hazards are five dams and several low water bridges. Three dams are located between Edinburg and Woodstock; two dams are located between Strasburg and Riverton.
Though quite often “the water flow is really just enough to support the towns, farmers and recreation,” says Shaffer, some seasons are standouts. “It’s been a wet year and that’s good because now the river water is high. It’s absolutely beautiful with good flow. This whole summer has been great for boating.”
With its clear water and mild whitewater, the North Fork is most attractive to paddlers. With views of Massanutten Mountain, “the scenery is beautiful!” says Shaffer. When water levels are low it can be a challenge to navigate; canoers may need to walk their boat through some shallow areas.
The North Fork is quite private with six public access points along the North Fork. “The goal is to put in a half-dozen more public entry points,” says Shaffer. In the meantime, since most land that banks the North Fork is privately owned, the easiest way to gain access is by lodging at one of the local accommodation options that offers a dock as well as boats and gear to borrow or rent. Unless you stay with someone who can provide a boat, plan to bring your own; there’s not currently a boat outfitter in the area.
The Shenandoah River winds through Shenandoah County for 72 miles. Perhaps nobody knows its twists and turns better than Harry Murray, author of 15 books about fly fishing and owner of Murrays Fly Shop, one of the East Coast’s largest and most complete angling shops.
“The geographic area is so beautiful,” he says. “The fishing is incredible. For those who are most serious about fly fishing, Shenandoah National Park is the best in the state—it’s all wild, they don’t stock, all fish are returned to the roughly 20 trout streams there.”
Shenandoah County offers more than 31 miles of trout streams within the George Washington National Forest; stocked trout areas include Passage Creek, Peters Mill Creek and Tomahawk Pond.
You can hook bass in the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, a relatively narrow, shallow river that’s easily accessible for wade angling. “You can fish right behind our shop here in Edinburg and catch browns and rainbows,” says Murray.
Classes and guide services, which Murray offers, might improve your odds of landing a fish. “We conduct about 30 trout schools and 30 bass schools each year,” he says. Lessons start in a classroom but head out to a stream with rod and reel provided. The opportunity to fish with an expert “provides tremendous insight to learn the most about it,” he says, noting that four professional fishing guides work with him. Whether you want to try your hand at fly fishing, spin fishing, or prefer to use night crawlers, Murray says, “we just want people to have a good time.”
For details about Virginia fishing license and permit requirements, visit the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Beyond fishing, boating, cycling, horseback riding and hiking, other adventures await in Shenandoah County, including hang gliding, sky diving, zip-lining, off highway vehicle riding, golfing, skiing, climbing and more. Come play in our great outdoors.