Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley

February 10, 2016

The following day hikes come from AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley. For more information, check out the book.



For children, for the childlike at heart, or really for anyone with a hankering for ice cream (soft serve and blackberry!), the gentle hike from Mathews Arm down Elkwallow Trail will be a trip to remember.

  • Location: North District, Shenandoah National Park, VA
  • Rating: Easy
  • Distance: 3.8 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 1,049 feet gain
  • Estimated Time: 2–3 hours
  • Features: Fee, family-friendly, dogs allowed
  • Maps: PATC, Map 9, Appalachian Trail and other trails in Shenandoah, National Park, North District, 2009.

Short Trail Description (for a complete description, see AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley)
Refreshment awaits at the end of this hike thanks to the conveniently placed Elkwallow Wayside facility. Carryout meals, groceries, gifts, and camping supplies are available. In spring, expect to see Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hikers taking a break on the nearby picnic tables. It’s always fun to chat with them about their journeys.

For very small children, consider starting at the Mathews Arm parking lot; have another adult in your party drive your vehicle to Elkwallow Wayside and walk north on the trail to meet the southbound party. This results in a one-way hike of 1.9 miles, with 383 feet of gain and 666 feet of loss—overall, it’s nice, gentle downhill walking. And ice cream at the end.



Cold Mountain


Cold Mountain’s alpine meadows and balds are not especially large, but they are an interesting change of pace from the Mid-Atlantic’s more expected ridgelines and forests.

  • Location: Glenwood & Pedlar Ranger Districts, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, VA
  • Rating: Moderate
  • Distance: 6.1 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 1,586 feet
  • Estimated Time: 5–6 hours
  • Features: Dogs allowed
  • Maps: Trails Illustrated: Lexington/Blue Ridge Mountains, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Map 789 (National Geographic).

Short Trail Description (for a complete description, see AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley)
As you wander across the bald fields of Cold Mountain (4,020 feet), sometimes also referred to as Cole Mountain, you might imagine yourself strolling through the alpine meadows of New Hampshire, Colorado, Alaska, or Switzerland. Take special care to stay on the path in these areas; alpine vegetation is particularly fragile. The climb to these meadows is not especially steep, but the views at the top are well worth the easy grade, and the unusual ecosystem at the top makes for a singular Mid-Atlantic hike.

The origin of balds such as those on Cold Mountain is a bit of a topographic mystery. While peaks in the North—such as Mount Washington or the high peaks of the Adirondacks—are devoid of vegetation due to the combined effect of latitude and elevation, peaks in the South are not technically alpine peaks because of the warmer climate. In some cases, such as with Cold Mountain, one peak will develop a bald while another peak of similar elevation will not (you might contrast Cold Mountain with nearby Mount Pleasant). Most experts tend to believe that balds of this sort developed due to the habits of grazing animals. In some cases, the National Park Service and the Forest Service have continued to allow animals to graze these areas to maintain their open characteristics.



Old Rag

No other hike in the Shenandoah Valley rivals the fame of the scramble along Old Rag’s Ridge Trail. If you’re going to do only one hike in the area, this might very well be the one. But come prepared—the Class 3 terrain atop is as challenging as it is rewarding.

  • Location: Central District, Shenandoah National Park, VA
  • Rating: Strenuous
  • Distance: 9.0 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 2,812 feet
  • Estimated Time: 4–7 hours
  • Features: Fee
  • Maps: PATC, Map 10, Appalachian Trail and other trails in Shenandoah National Park, Central District, 2008; Old Rag Area (National Park Service)

Short Trail Description (for a complete description, see AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley)
Old Rag is one of the best hikes in the region, and everybody knows it. Midmorning on a beautiful spring day, count on finding this parking lot full to bursting and plan on encountering a few thousand of your best friends on the mountain. For more solitude, come on a weekday or on a day when the weather is less than ideal. Even then, this is a very popular hike; expect to wait in lines at some of the obstacles. The terrain at ridgeline is challenging and will likely require you to use your hands to pull yourself up and over the rocks; if you’re uncomfortable with very rocky terrain, this may not be an ideal hike for you.

Old Rag, the mountain’s official name, is actually a shorter version of “Old Raggedy Top,” as it is often known. As you’re driving in on US 211 toward Shenandoah, you should be able to spot the distinctively ragged line of Old Rag’s rocky summit, which stands out against the more typically wooded Mid-Atlantic peaks.

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Michael Martin

Michael Martin is author of AMC's Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide to 30 of the Best Multiday Trips from New York to Virginia (AMC Books, 2014).

Jennifer Adach

Jennifer Adach, the coauthor of AMC's Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley, has thru-hiked California’s John Muir Trail and Sweden’s Kungsleden trail, and has logged several thousand miles in the Mid-Atlantic. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

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