It is no picnic to pack up the camping gear for seven of us and wedge it into and on top of my minivan. But my children find our annual camping trip the highlight of their summer vacation, and I have yet to find another family vacation that brings my family together as much as camping. Something about beautiful scenery, crisp mountain air, campfires and s'mores, and everyone trying to sleep in the same tent makes us laugh, relax, and enjoy each other in a way we can't do anywhere else.
Camping in Shenandoah National Park
A quick hour and 30 minute drive from Washington D.C., camping in Shenandoah National Park is an experience every family should try. Beautiful Skyline Drive winds over 100 miles through the park, and there are four campgrounds located on Skyline Drive:
- Mathews Arm Campground (mile 22.1), easy to access from the north entrance
- Big Meadows Campground (mile 51.2), walking distance to three waterfalls, showers
- Lewis Mountain Campground (mile 57.5), small and primitive feel
- Loft Mountain Campground (mile 75.2), amazing views, largest campground in park
Mathews Arm is my favorite spot for camping in Shenandoah National Park. I like the smaller campground with a more primitive feel. Many campsites back to the woods, so even though you have neighbors while camping, you feel more isolated. The bathrooms are small but clean with flush toilets. If you want a shower, you would be better to go to a larger campground, such as Big Meadows or Loft Mountain.
Are you new to camping? These Tent Camping Tips for Beginners will give you the confidence to take your family camping. These delicious recipes for Campfire Cooking with Kids will make cooking fun rather than work on vacation.
Prepare for Rain
In a place a lush as the Shenandoah Valley, you should plan for rain so that if it happens it doesn't ruin your trip. Invest in a waterproof tent if you plan to be a tent camping family. A good tarp under your tent will protect against humidity and rain. Tuck the edges of your tarp all the way under your tent so rainwater won't puddle and soak everything in your tent (yep, I learned this the hard way once). Bring an activity or two that works in a tent or car in case of rain. Glow sticks entertained the kids for an hour during a heavy rainstorm on one camping trip. A deck of cards or other small game can be memorable in a tent.
Camping in Shenandoah National Park can present a great opportunity to see a black bear in the wild. This park is home to several hundred black bears, and I have seen a black bear on two of my last four trips to Shenandoah National Park. Seeing a bear in the wild in an amazing experience, but seeing a bear in your campground might ruin your camping trip. Make sure to keep all food in a locked car at night, and dispose of trash in the bear-safe trash cans in the campgrounds.
The park is filled with wonderful hikes, many waterfalls, and over 75 viewpoints along Skyline drive. Plan to drive, get out and take pictures, and hike as you meander through the park. A wonderful family-friendly hike is Dark Hollow Falls, near mile marker 51. The hike to the 70-foot waterfall is an easy round-trip hike of only 1.4 miles. We carried our youngest in a backpack and everyone else was able to hike up and back just fine. The return trip at Dark Hollow Falls is all uphill, so plan to stop and play in the river and take breaks along the way. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park and will be crowded on a nice, weekend day.
Looking for more great family hikes? Check out our Shenandoah National Park Hiking Guide for Families.
If you come from the north and pass through Front Royal, be sure to stop at Spelunkers for award-winning burgers and frozen custard. My children are always highly motivated to be pleasant on our hike when they know they get frozen custard at the end of the day! Camping in Shenandoah National Park will make memories to last a lifetime.
Good to Know
Where: Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, just west of Washington, D.C. The northern entrance is at Front Royal, VA and the southern entrance near Waynesboro, VA.
When: Campgrounds open late spring through fall. The best time for fall foliage is early October. If you want to camp in the fall leaves, reserve your campsite in advance.
How Much: Tent campsites cost between $15 and $20 per night. Reservations recommended.
Amenities: Varies based on campground, but all have fire rings, flush toilets, nature programs, drinking water, etc.