Shenandoah National Park contains more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail. They connect and sprawl, leading to almost endless possibilities for exploration. A few are both easy to access and yield stunning views. These are generally the trails I suggest for engagement and adventure sessions or even elopements.
Weather can be a factor in the park. In the winter, Skyline Drive often closes due to snow and ice, and rain and fog can linger in the mountains. So when planning your session, it’s important to both have an adventurous spirit and to be flexible. Typically, I’ll shoot no matter the weather as long as it’s safe (i.e., no thunderstorms), but sometimes we do have to shift plans if it is pouring down or our first location pick proves inaccessible.
About 24-hours before a session, I’ll check in with you to go over the forecasted weather and send you detailed instructions on how to find the parking area and me. It’s really important to make sure you know where you are going before you leave your home or lodging, because cell phone service in the park is intermittent!
There are a couple of legends about how Mary’s Rock got its name. My favorite is that in the early 1700s, a large Rappahannock County landowner named Francis Thornton had a daughter named Mary who climbed to the rock outcrop at the summit and came back with a bear cub under her arm.
I actually HAVE seen a black bear when hiking to Mary’s Rock, so that one could have shade of truth!
Mary’s Rock is the eighth highest peak in Shenandoah National Park, but boasts stunning views of the valley below. It’s also the longest hike I typically suggest to couples. It’s my favorite for winter because it’s one of the only peaks accessible without having to get on Skyline Drive, allowing us to avoid any Skyline closures due to snow and ice.
There are a couple ways to get to the summit. The most popular are via the Jewell Hollow Overlook on Skyline Drive (about 6 miles round trip), from the Panorama parking area near the Thornton Gap entrance to Shenandoah National Park (about 3.7 miles round trip), and from Buck Hollow off of Rt. 211 near Sperryville (about 9 miles round trip.) When hiking with couples, I typically start at Panorama, offering us the shortest hike.
From the Panorama parking area, hikers hop on the Appalachian Trail for an ascent of about 1 ½ miles. The trail then splits off and it’s about another .2 miles to the summit. This hike is moderately difficult but is possible for pretty much anyone as long as we leave enough time for resting.
At the summit, hikers have about a 270 degree view of the park and of Page County below the mountain to the west.
Because of the wide visibility, I’ve shot couples here at sunrise and sunset and it’s equally lovely. It is almost always very windy, though, so when hiking here in the winter or late fall/early spring, layers are a must!
If Mary’s Rock is my pick for the winter months due to accessibility, Stony Man is where I usually shoot in other seasons. That’s because it’s both really easy to get there — about a half mile each way — and gorgeous. It’s also the second tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park and one of only two over 4,000 feet.
I recommend couples choose a sunrise session for Stony Man because it is a popular destination and can get crowded later in the day. But like Mary’s Rock, the summit boasts a 270 degree view and would be fine for either sunrise or sunset photography.
The most common way to get to Stony Man is to park at Skyland Resort. Many of my couples stay overnight at the resort and then just drive the five minutes over to the trailhead to meet me. If you don’t stay in Shenandoah National Park, drive times to the trailhead are typically about an hour on the winding 35 mph parkway. From the Skyland Parking area, you hop briefly on the Appalachian Trail until you reach a junction. From there, it’s another .3 miles to the summit.
For sunrise, I like to get to the summit about 20 minutes before the sun comes up. Leaving 30 minutes for the walk, I recommend us meeting an hour before sunrise. Like Mary’s Rock, Stony Man can be really windy, so layers are always a good idea, even in the summer.
Little Stony Man
A few miles down from the parking area for Stony Man is the Little Stony Man parking area. In general, I lean toward Stony Man for shoots because there is a little bit more to see, UNLESS you are bringing a dog. In that case, Little Stony Man is a better option. Stony Man and Blackrock Summit (described below) are among the few trails in Shenandoah National Park where dogs are not allowed.
If hiking for pleasure, Little Stony Man and Stony Man can be enjoyed as a 3.4 mile loop. But for engagement and adventure sessions in Little Stony Man, we usually just go to the lookout, which is .9 mile out and back from the parking area.
To access it, you simply park at the Little Stony Man parking lot, which is right before mile marker 40 on Skyline Drive and follow the signs to the summit. This summit is west facing, so it’s a better option for sunset than sunrise for having the sun in the background.
I shot here for the first time this summer and it quickly became one of my favorite spots. The upside of Blackrock is that it’s gorgeous and easy to get to. The downside is that the summit is really, really rocky, which makes it difficult to move around much, so sturdy shoes and good balance are a must.
Blackrock is a good option for people coming from Charlottesville. The trail can be accessed from the Blackrock Summit parking area just north of mile marker 85 on Skyline Drive.
The hike is only about a half mile each way, and is the flattest option listed here. Although the hike itself is easy, the summit does require rock scrambling to get to the best views.
With 270 degree views it’s ideal for either sunrise or sunset, but like the other options listed, it is much more crowded in the evenings. If mornings are just not your thing but you want to avoid the crowds, weekday sessions are a good option. There are far fewer people in the park on a Tuesday or Wednesday than Saturday.
I’m including Hawksbill Summit because it would be a good option for the right couple. It is it is the steepest, most challenging option on this list, but it’s an enjoyable hike to a really cool manmade overlook that honestly looks like it was designed for an elopement ceremony.
While Hawksbill isn’t far from Skyline Drive — about two miles round trip — it is the tallest peak in the park, which is why it requires some effort to ascend.
There are two options for the hike — upper and lower Hawksbill. Lower Hawksbill will take you straight up the mountain — you climb about 800 feet in less than a mile. It is the fastest, but most heart-pumping option. A better choice in my opinion is to take the upper Hawksbill trail to the summit, which is slightly longer at a mile each way, but a lot less steep. For pleasure, the two routes can be combined into a three-mile circuit. Note that parking areas for upper and lower Hawksbill are different, so make sure you know which one you are intending to hike before you start!
Like the other options listed, Hawksbill’s view is about 270 degrees and would be a good option for either sunrise or sunset. But as the tallest peak in the park, it’s a very popular destination for visitors, so unless you want to share the summit with a lot of people, it’s probably a better choice for sunrise than sunset, and/or a weekday rather than the weekend.
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