So you’ve decided to elope in Shenandoah National Park! Congratulations! Shenandoah is truly an incredible place to celebrate your love. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about Shenandoah and eloping here.
Elopements with 2-16 participants and no setup do not need a permit. Ceremonies of any kind that require a setup (i.e. chairs or arbor) are only approved to take place in a park amphitheater or facility.
Any ceremony that takes place on an October or November weekend must be completed before 10am.
If you have more than 16 participants (this includes officiant and photographer), you will need to apply for a special use permit.The permit costs $150 and you must apply for this permit at least six weeks before your wedding date. The permitting office is old school still and you must fill out a paper application. You can find that application here.
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.)
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!
The park is broken into three districts: The North, Central and South District. Connecting them is one main road: Skyline Drive. It’s 105 miles long and almost all of the places you will see in this guide are accessed from it.
Most people eloping in the park get married in the Central District. You can, of course, get married wherever you want, but most of the easy-to access epic-view hikes and overlooks are in the Central District. That being said, I do shoot in the South District quite a bit as well. Very rarely do I venture into the North District for reasons you will see!
There are 12 hikes I recommend for eloping couples. They are:
- Blackrock Summit (1.1 miles moderate)
- Frazier Discovery Trail (1.3 miles moderate +)
- Hightop Summit (2.8 miles moderate +)
- Bearfence Mountain (1 mile moderate)
- Dark Hollow Falls vis Rose River Fireroad (2.4 miles moderate - )
- Hawksbill Mountain (1.6 miles moderate +)
- White Oak Canyon Lower Falls (2.7 miles moderate)
- Miller’s Head (1.5 miles moderate)
- Stony Man (1.5 miles moderate)
- Little Stony Man (1.2 miles moderate)
- Mary’s Rock (2.7 miles moderate)
- Compton Peak (2.3 miles moderate)
All of these hikes are under 4 miles round trip. Most are considered “moderate” hikes and lead to either epic views or beautiful waterfalls.
For couples who don’t want to hike, we instead either do a hop on hop off tour of Skyline Drive or pick one overlook to focus on. The hop on hop off tour allows couples variety without effort. A single overlook is often a good pick for couples who also have locations they are utilizing outside of the park such as an Airbnb or traditional wedding venue.
The hop on hop off tour always happens in the Central District because there are so many more overlooks to choose from that are close together!
If you want to stay in Shenandoah National Park you have three main options: camp at one of the campgrounds, book a cabin or room at Skyland or a room at Big Meadows Lodge.
Otherwise, you’ll be looking for an Airbnb/VRBO or hotel/b&b outside of the park.
Keep in mind that the speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35 miles an hour so driving distances from your lodging to a trailhead or overlook are typically 30-90 minutes. When I recommend spots to couples I try and keep travel time under an hour. 40-70 minutes is typical.
The North District is the one closest to Washington DC – it’s also the section of the park I work in least frequently. While there are some stunning hikes and overlooks there, they are either very long, or lead to obstructed views. If you want to stay near the North District, though, look for accommodations in:
- Front Royal
- Flint Hill
The two Central District entrances are Swift Run and Thornton Gap. Swift Run is in between Standardsville and Elkton. Thornton Run is in between Luray and Sperryville. So when looking for accommodations for this district look in:
The south district entrance is called Rockfish Gap and is located right in between Crozet and Waynesboro. So when you are searching for accommodations look in the following towns:
This part of the guide will describe each location and include the mile marker spot, which I will annotate as MM.
This is a moderate hike that features decent, panoramic northwest facing views. This is a good pick for couples who want to be in the North District, but it is a physically smaller summit than some of the other places on this list. There are also very cool rock formations on the path called a columnar jointing that are worth stopping at on the way back down.
Mary’s Rock is one of my favorite winter hikes because it’s one of the few places on this list that can be accessed even when Skyline Drive is closed due to snow and ice. It features beautiful northwestern views of the Shenandoah Valley. It is dog friendly, but is the longest hike on this list.
This is one of the best sunrise watching overlooks on Skyline Drive. For that reason I usually skip it because it is almost always busy at sunrise! That being said, it is beautiful and does feature stunning views.
Hazel Mountain Overlook is most well known for a large rock formation right beside the parking area. It features beautiful east facing views, but is one of the most popular overlooks in the park. When I’m doing a hop on/hop off tour of Shenandoah, this is where I typically start for sunrise.
I actually really love Pinnacles Overlook. It doesn’t have a lot of space to move around past the wall, but people tend to drive past it after watching sunrise at Buck Hollow or Hazel Mountain and the clouds here can be incredible.
This is one of the best overlooks in the park for an elopement ceremony with guests. It’s the biggest overlook in the park and has two parking areas that act as kind of an “L” around the north and western views. Even if there are other visitors it’s possible to move away from them here.
This is an easy hike to decent western facing views. Unlike Stony Man (below) Little Stony Man is dog friendly so it’s a great option for bringing your pup! It is also a good option for a ceremony with guests because there is a decently big flat dirt area at the summit.
Like Pinnacles, Hemlock Springs is a beautiful overlook that often features gorgeous light and clouds, but doesn’t have a huge area to move around on past the wall. So usually we just shoot a few on the wall and then move on to another area
Thorofare mountain is east facing and is one of my favorite overlooks because you can hop over the wall and explore the mountain laurels, a large rock and meadow.
Stony Man is probably the most popular place I take couples to – or at least it’s neck and neck with Blackrock! It’s got incredible panoramic views and three summits, making it relatively easy to “get away” from other visitors if need be. Because of the three summits, it’s one of the best places in the park to get tiny-people-big-world shots across the mountain. This spot works beautifully for both sunrise and sunset.
This is a spot I just started taking couples to, but it’s become one of my favorites! There is a manmade lookout tower that is perfect for a ceremony and then, depending on the time of year, you can hike below the tower to a more natural overlook spot. The below-tower-overlook can get overgrown in the summer, but when it is cut it is stunning. This viewpoint is west facing.
Tiber Hollow features a large flat rock and is great for an elopement ceremony where you don’t want to hike. There are also paths to explore and a hilly meadow. Timber Hollow is west facing.
Crescent Rock Overlook is lovely because just to the left of the parking area is a .1 mile “leg stretcher” path to a narrow rocky overlook. If you scramble down the rocks, there is an open area to the right that leads to an incredible view of the mountains that’s a little bit hidden from where others go so you can often get this little spot to yourself!
Old Rag Overlook features a large meadow that is mowed down several times a year so it can be a great place to get some mountain shots of Old Rag and walk around a meadow. This overlook is northeast facing.
Hawksbill is a moderately challenging hike that leads to a beautiful manmade viewing platform that is east facing. It’s a beautiful spot for a sunrise ceremony. If you don’t want to use the viewing platform there is plenty of space to the left of the platform for a ceremony or portraits.
Franklin Cliffs is a northwest facing overlook that features a large rock that can be used for a ceremony or just simply portraits. It looks out over the Shenandoah Valley and the town of Stanley, Virginia.
Dark Hollow Falls is one of the best hikes in the park for viewing waterfalls. But the actual hike down to Dark Hollow Falls is pretty steep, so instead, you can take the fireroad down. We simply park at Fisher’s Gap (MM 49.5) and walk the easy .7 miles down to the falls.
Big Meadows is an incredible place. While you don’t have the mountain views that Shenandoah is “known” for, you do get beautiful rolling meadows with paths winding through them and deer almost always hanging out in the background.
This is one of the most popular ceremony spots in the park. It features a beautiful tree that is used as an arbor and mountain views in the background. It is west facing.
The Point is a leg stretcher overlook. Once you park, you can walk down the path about .1 miles to a rocky outcropping with panoramic west-facing views. It’s very popular so I usually don’t recommend this spot unless we are on a weekday in the offseason.
Bearfence is one of the most popular hikes in the park because it leads to incredible 360 degree views. It’s truly a beautiful, beautiful spot. It’s also not *that* big and I’ve never been there when other people haven’t also been there. That being said, it is epic, it’s not far (but does require a rock scramble) but expect to share the space with other visitors.
Baldface Mountain Overlook is one of the most popular ceremony spots I take couples to. It’s very close to the Swift Run entrance of the park so it’s a good fit for couples who have guests but don’t want a long travel time to a ceremony spot.
South River Overlook faces…south but it’s a beautiful small spot that often has wildflowers in the summer and is worth a stop as part of a hop on hop off tour.
Hightop is one of the best winter elopement locations because you can hike into the trailhead even if Skyline Drive is closed. It features beautiful west facing views, but is one of the smallest summits on this list. I don’t typically recommend it unless Skyline Drive is closed!
Frazier Discovery Trail is a bit of a hidden gem. The trailhead starts at the Loft Mountain Wayside and goes up ¾ of a mile to a beautiful west-facing overlook. There are actually two summits here so if people come to one, you can head a little further up trail to the second one.
Doyles River Overlook is a beautiful spot for a ceremony right off of Skyline Drive. There are no rocky outcroppings, but neither is there a wall so you can stand right off of the road in the grass and get incredible panoramic views to the east.
This is the most popular summit hike I take people to who are stationed near Charlottesville or Waynesboro. It features incredible rock formations and panoramic 360 degree views. It’s big enough that it is rarely crowded but on occasion I do come up on other photographers working here. It probably ties with Stony Man as “most popular summit hikes” for eloping couples.
You can hike to Little Calf Mountain (about 1.2 miles) but typically we just stop at Beagle Gap and walk into the meadows a bit. This is a good fit for couples who want meadow vibes as part of their gallery aesthetic but don’t want to drive all the way to Big Meadows. There are mountain views in the distance.
Moorman’s River Overlook is one of the most beautiful overlooks in the park. It features northwestern facing views and rolling mountains with no commercial buildup in the background.
Lower White Oak Canyon is one of the few hikes that can be accessed without getting on Skyline Drive. It’s a 2.7 mile out and back hike but features the best waterfalls in the park. If a waterfall elopement is what you want then this would be the pick for you. It does get *very* crowded on the weekend and for that reason I would only recommend it for a weekday elopement.
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.
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.