If you want a beautiful mountain backdrop for your engagement photos or elopement in central Virginia, Shenandoah National Park is the place for you.
And I know ALL the good spots!
➤ Visit waterfalls
➤ Climb to epic vistas
➤ Stop on and off overlooks on Skyline Drive
➤ Explore hidden gems
➤ Look for wildlife
All while documenting your love for each other.
This guide will walk you through everything you need to know, whether you want engagement photos or are planning an adventurous elopement.
From stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains to hidden waterfalls to woodland paths, Shenandoah is one of the most beautiful places to elope on the East Coast.
You don’t even have to hike if you would rather not!
Skyline Drive runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park and features 75 overlooks. Some are small pulloffs with room for a few cars. Others have trailheads leading to “leg stretcher” hikes (short jaunts of less than a quarter mile.) While others feature meadows that can be used for ceremonies, picnics or lying on the grass together.
Basically, no matter your ability or inclination, there is beauty to be experienced with the one you love.
Let me show you.
An adventure session is what I call an adventurous engagement shoot or couples photography session. It’s a super fun, 2-4 hour photography session where we explore a natural area together and get epic photos of you and your love in an incredibly beautiful place.
A lot of people book this session for their engagement photography, but they’re also a great pick for “just because” shoots, anniversary sessions or maternity photos.
For couples who want adventure photos without the hiking component, we hit up overlooks off Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Fun fact: overlooks can actually be less crowded than popular summit hikes if you know where to go (which I do!)
If you do want to hike there are many incredible spots.
Imagine this: you head into Shenandoah National Park before dawn. As you wind your way down Skyline Drive you pass deer and owls and raccoons. You might even catch a glimpse of a bear or a bobcat if you’re lucky.
You meet up with your photographer at the trailhead and strap on headlamps that she provides you. As you hike up to the summit in the morning-fresh air, glimpses of first light can be seen through the trees.
At the summit you change into your nice clothes and step out into the breeze to watch the sun rise with your love. You have a thermos of coffee to warm up with and in between shots you take a sip and snuggle in a blanket.
As the sun comes up the most incredible view is illuminated. Fog hangs in the mountains below and you can see 360 degrees around.
After watching the sunrise you move over to another location and break out a breakfast picnic. You have pastries from a local bakery and make mimosas. Ravens do summersaults on the breeze and in the distance you can now see farms beginning to emerge from the valley mist.
After a leisurely breakfast you pack up and head back to the cars to enjoy the rest of your morning.
We can do this for your adventure session, while I photograph it all for forever memories.
Average investment is $750 for an adventure session.
Adventure sessions start at two hours and can go as long as you want! A couple of hours is a good fit for most people.
No! If hiking isn’t your thing then we can do a hop-on hop-off tour of Skyline Drive overlooks instead.
Absolutely! I send out a pre-session questionnaire, which includes questions like “how much of a hike are you hoping for?” (“None.” is an option.) Based on your responses to that questionnaire I’ll make 2-3 location suggestions for your adventure session.
No, my Shenandoah National Park sessions are two hours or longer.
Definitely! Outfit suggestions are included in the adventure session guide, but I’m also happy to give feedback if you want to text or email me options!
I do shoot maternity, but am not currently taking family sessions
Kara’s presence throughout the day was calming, supportive and fun! Kara will capture the raw emotions of your wedding while leaving space for you to soak in every sweet moment with your person. Afterwards, a family member asked if some of our photos were posed or prompted (us crying together during vows)… nope! Kara has such a special talent and unique eye for capturing these memories so beautifully.
Kara is from the area and knows it like the back of her hand. She knew the exact spot we were getting married, where the sun will be at what time, what we needed to bring and keep in mind…I suggest getting as much time with her as you can. Between the detailed shots, family, individual shots... there is just so much to capture…If we could do it again we would do it just the same.
We’ll always be able to look back and remember how we felt in those moments, something that is truly invaluable.
Kara made my wedding day happen! Everything from finding the location, helping me find a florist, and pick out an airbnb. If it wasn't for her the day wouldn't have happened so easily. Through the entire process Kara hung in there every time I changed my mind (67 times to be exact, including my wedding date!) and handled all of it so kindly. She builds a quick relationship with you and brings out the most real emotion in the pictures.
Kara shot our wedding and put together the most beautiful wedding videos that we will cherish forever! Her adventurous personality shined through all of her creative ideas. Kara was a joy to work with and I’ll never forget our wedding day splashing in the creek thanks to her!
An adventure elopement is an experience-driven celebration of your marriage. Rather than having a wedding that is an “event,” you plan a day of activities for you and your love and your very closest friends and family.
Having trouble imagining it?
Let me help.
You and your love get up in the wee hours of the morning. You drive to Shenandoah and meet up with your photographer who hands you headlamps and helps you strap your clothes into or on your backpacks, and makes sure your bouquet is ready to go.
You do a short hike up to the top of a mountain. There you get ready separately – your photographer helps you with your bowtie or dress. You check your hair in a portable mirror and head out to the summit to see your love for the first time in their wedding outfit.
Together you watch the sunrise over the mountains. You share hot chocolate spiked with Bailey’s Irish Cream. Cloud inversions hang in the mountains below.
After sunrise you head back to your Airbnb where you take off your wedding outfits, make banana pancakes and take a bath together.
You take a break and nap or chill.
In the afternoon, a hair and makeup artist comes and refreshes your look. You spend some time writing private vows and then get dressed together. Then you head out for the evening adventure: a hot air balloon ride over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
When you get to the launch site you say your vows in front of the balloon, then soar off for a sunset ride.
When you get back, you head back to the Airbnb for a private chef-cooked meal for two complete with cake and champagne. You end the night in the hot tub while the stars come out. It’s been the best day of your life!
We can do this, this can be your wedding day.
Shenandoah boasts an incredibly versatile environment. Besides views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are scenic rocky summits, meadows, waterfalls, wooded paths, swimming holes and unique geological formations.
When you choose an adventure elopement in Shenandoah National Park, you are choosing an experience you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s not an event for other people, but rather a carefully curated day that you get to fully experience.
Shenandoah is easily accessible from Washington DC, Charlottesville or Richmond. There are tons of cute Airbnbs near the entrances and incredible food options if you want a post-elopement reception.
If you have more than 15 people at your event, including officiant, photographer and videographer, then you are going to need a permit.
I am incredibly knowledgeable about Shenandoah National Park and can help guide you every step of the way.
What kind of scenery do you want? Are you interested in a sunrise or sunset elopement? Do you want to have a post-elopement reception somewhere? Don’t stress – I can help you with this part too if you need it, but this is the time to get excited about the possibilities.
Big weddings are an event. Elopements are an experience. What do you hope to experience on your wedding day?
About 50 percent of my couples choose a “just us” experience while the other half chooses to include close friends and family. Just be aware that guestlists are one of those things that spiral quickly and you may need to have a hard and fast rule or you’ll end up with a totally different wedding than you originally envisioned.
There are many stunning hikes in Shenandoah National Park that work really well for elopement ceremonies. But if you don’t want to or are unable to hike then you can still elope in Shenandoah National Park! We’ll just choose a location on Skyline Drive instead.
Are there any cultural or religious traditions you want to include?
A post-ceremony celebration can look like a picnic for two on the mountain or it can be a reception with your friends and family later that evening.
The permitting process is old school. Go to this site, print the paper application, fill it out and mail it back to the park address (listed at the top of the form) along with a non-refundable $150 permitting fee. It can take up to six weeks to get your permit approved. The park does not guarantee your permit will be approved.
But, generally speaking, as long as there isn’t another permit already issued for the same day, time and location, permits are approved for “stand-up” ceremonies of 15-29 guests at any overlook or summit you choose. A stand-up ceremony is a very simple ceremony with no chairs, decorations or music (non-amplified music such as acoustic guitars or violins are sometimes allowed on a case by case basis). Please note, throwing rice or biodegradable confetti or leaving ANYTHING behind is strictly prohibited.
In the fall months of October and November, permitted weekend ceremonies at an overlook must be completed by 10 AM. (Non-permitted ceremonies can still happen at other times, although from personal experience I HIGHLY recommend October and early November couples choose a weekday and/or sunrise to avoid the extremely large crowds no matter how small their party size.)
If you are having an all-outdoors wedding with more than 30 people in the group or want to set up decorations, chairs and/or awnings, the park almost always requires your wedding be held at one of the amphitheaters. There are three — one at Skyland (mile 42.5), one at Big Meadows (mile 51), and one at Loft Mountain (mile 79.5). Skyland and Big Meadows are both in the Central District of the park and Loft Mountain is in the South. The amphitheaters are all different sizes, so your party size may dictate which amphitheater you can use.
If you aren’t interested in eloping, but still want to get married in Shenandoah, you have two options for a traditional-ish wedding with indoor reception: Skyland or Big Meadows. Skyland Lodge weddings can be booked early-April through the end of November while Big Meadows Lodge weddings can be booked mid-May through early-November.
(Note the amphitheaters are outdoor theaters and are separate from the lodges.) Using the amphitheaters DOES require a special use permit.
If you opt for one of the lodges, you do not need a special use permit. However, the maximum number of guests you can have for a Shenandoah wedding, even at one of the lodges, is 100.
To apply for a wedding at Skyland or Big Meadows simply fill out this request (which, unlike the special use permit, you can submit online!) Skyland has three outdoor ceremony location options while Big Meadows just has one. The reservation fee for one of these ceremony spaces is $200. Chairs can be rented for $2.50 a chair. *All chair rentals, catering (except cake) and alcoholic beverages for park weddings must come through the park services.*
Receptions can either be held at Skyland’s historic conference building (50-100 guests) or at the Massanutten Room at Big Meadow Lodge (35-64 guests). Please note that there ARE guest minimums for renting these spaces or you might get a surcharge. Receptions must end by 9:30 PM. The rental fees currently range from a high of $4,000 for Skyland on holiday and peak fall weekends to a low of $1,250 for Big Meadows Lodge on off season Friday and Sundays.
The room rental fee includes set-up of tables & chairs, china, silverware, glasses, white tablecloths and napkins. You can upgrade your linens for an additional charge.
If you are getting married in the fall, just remember it’s a really busy time of year and both Big Meadows and Skyland cottages and lodging fill up QUICKLY. So if you want all your guests to be able to stay on site, you’re probably going to need to have a little bit longer engagement just to make sure there are enough rooms available for everyone for your date.
Real flowers ARE allowed for weddings at the lodges, but they are pretty strict about cleanup of florals to protect native vegetation from invasive species.
Ceremony and reception exits that include sparklers or throwing glitter, dried flowers, confetti, bird seed and such are not allowed. If you want an exit, a good alternative option would be glow sticks, ribbon wands or even LED lanterns.
Skyline Drive runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park. Every 1.4 miles or so there's a pull-off with an overlook. Some of these overlooks are really narrow and tiny. You can climb on top of the retaining wall, but there isn't much space to move around. Others allow you to access the Appalachian Trail or "leg stretcher" hikes. While still others have meadows next to them or rocky outcroppings.
Not every overlook works well for an elopement ceremony.
But others are perfect! Here are five of my favorites.
Features a large flat rock perfect for a ceremony and west-facing views. Guests can either sit on the retaining wall or stand nearby. Downside is it’s RIGHT by the parking area so you will probably have driveby visitors. Upside is it’s accessible for just about everyone – even those who use walkers or wheelchairs.
The point is accessible via a short leg-stretcher hike (less than .1 miles). It’s also west-facing and has an incredible view, but can get crowded in the evenings – especially on the weekend. So it’s a spot I recommend for sunrise or weekdays and for parties with no more than four guests.
Tanners Ridge is the best spot on this list if you have 12-14 guests. The ceremony takes place under an incredibly beautiful tree a short walk from the parking area. The walk is easy, but it is more removed from the pull off so if cars drive by they don’t feel right in your face the way it can at Baldface Mountain. This is also west-facing
Crescent Rock features a leg-stretcher or a walk to a long narrow rock. This view is north-facing and it’s possible to avoid other people there by moving up or down the rock. It’s rarely crowded (mostly because you have to know the trail is there to venture that way) and is perfect for either sunrise or sunset. It is not accessible, though, for people with movement challenges and would not fit a group bigger than six total.
Jewell Hollow is one of the “biggest” overlooks on Skyline Drive. There are several options for ceremony locations ranging from rocky outcroppings to meadow. It’s one of the more accessible overlooks, but it also very popular so expect other visitors to drive by at some point while you are there.
It depends! Celebrations with fewer than 15 participants do not need a permit. But if you want to set up chairs or decorations, have more than 15 people or want to play music you will need a permit. You can find out more about how to apply for a permit here.
The short answer is as little or much as you budget for! As long as you have a total participant count under 15 you do not need a permit. Marriage licenses cost $30 in Virginia. So theoretically your cost could be as low as $30! But most of my clients budget between 10-15,000 for their elopements.
No! If hiking isn’t your thing then we can do a hop-on hop-off tour of Skyline Drive overlooks instead.
Absolutely! I send out a pre-elopement questionnaire, which includes questions like “how much of a hike are you hoping for?” (“None.” is an option.) Based on your responses to that questionnaire I’ll make 2-3 location suggestions for your elopement.
Spring is bridge season in the mountains and is the best time for an elopement if you are hoping for beauty without the summer and fall crowds. The “green up” starts later in the mountains so while the valley may have blooms in March, Shenandoah doesn’t fully get green until late April or early May. Temperatures can still be quite cool at this time of year and there are fewer people than you will see in the summer months. Ideal time for a spring elopement? Early May when the blooms are out, but school hasn’t let out for the summer (so families haven’t started traveling yet).
Summer in Shenandoah brings beautiful wildflowers and stunning vistas, but also crowds and humidity. So definitely consider a weekday or sunrise elopement. Temperatures can be quite a bit cooler than in the lowlands, so if you’re looking for some relief in the middle of August, you’ll find it in the mountains! If you are having a weekend sunset ceremony, definitely plan extra time to get into the park – lines at the entrance stations can be long!
Fall is by far the most popular month to elope in Shenandoah. October can get a little crazy with people coming to see the leaves change colors! The park service actually prohibits Saturday weddings after 10 am for groups larger than 15 in October and November. So if you are having guests at your elopement, make sure to plan for an early morning ceremony. All that aside, fall is my favorite time in Shenandoah. Fall foliage is absolutely stunning and the summer temperatures have cooled off. Want fall weather without the crowds? Consider September – school has started back so visitors drop off from summer crowds and the leaves haven’t started turning from green to orange, yellow and red.
Winter elopements in Shenandoah can be stunning, but are a little trickier to plan. That’s because Skyline Drive closes at the hint of snow and ice and can stay closed for a long time (colder temperatures in the mountains cause things to stay closed longer). However, you can hike into the park even if Skyline Drive is closed. I know, I’ve done it with couples, and even with small children and dogs. And it was a memorable adventure – I’ve got great photos to prove that! So if winter appeals to you – for sure, you won’t have to worry about any crowds – let’s do it!
Virginia is a “no-wait state” meaning you can get your marriage license from the courthouse and get married the same day. Marriage licenses are valid for 60 days and the marriage must take place in Virginia.
No witnesses are required to get married in Virginia.
You do, however, need an officiant. And typically that officiant needs to be already licensed. Some states regularly recognize “online” ordinations, but Virginia is not one of them. I’ve heard of some people having their online ordination accepted, but I have never had it work for one of my couples (or personally for that matter – my brother officiated our wedding, but we had to get legally married later).
Annnnnd meet the pack. Leo, Lucy, Bo and Honey. Owning four dogs is not for the faint of heart and I don’t think we’ll do it again — it makes travel reallllly hard, but we love these guys to pieces and are all in for their whole lives. Conspicuously, you’ll notice there aren’t any photos of my daughters on my website or social media pages. It’s kind of a crazy thing for a photographer to do, but we are trying to keep them offline until they are old enough to choose for themselves how they want to show up. It’s honestly really, really hard, because I am making a conscious effort to document them on an almost daily basis and, damn, do I think they are cute. But besides having to check my own ego at the door, there doesn’t seem to be any downsides to the decision, and we can always change our minds in the future :smiley:. But be forewarned, if we meet for coffee, and you ask about my kids, I may make you scroll through a few of the several thousand images I have on my phone.