Camping in Shenandoah National Park on a Southern U.S. Road Trip

by Stephanie Withers
Hiking in Shenandoah National Park on a Southern U.S. road trip

In July of 2013, my sister Amanda and I sat down in a Starbucks in Northeast Philly and started to plan our most epic southern U.S. road trip ever – an 8-Day, 2,000 mile historic tour of the South. Amanda was a History major in college and knew she wanted to see historic sites and I knew I just wanted to see something new. We had about a week and about $400/each to our names. What follows is what we have dubbed Mayleen and Mable’s Southern Sojourn.

Check out this guide I wrote on how to plan and budget your road trip. This is the same method my sister and I used to plan this trip and I use it as an example there.

When we both sat down in the big comfy chairs at the local Starbucks, we grabbed our notebooks and my laptop and got to work. The first city that came to mind was New Orleans and my sister squealed. We were huge fans of those Vampire Chronicles novels by Anne Rice that are set in New Orleans, Louisiana. That’s right – it wasn’t Bourbon Street or Mardi Gras pulling us south, it was a period vampire drama.

But we needed to pick a few stops along the way with shorter driving distances to flesh out our week.

Follow along on this 8-day, 2,000+ mile Southern U.S. road trip. First stop: Shenandoah National Park for cheap camping and a short hike on the Appalachian Trail. #exploreusa #usatravel #usroadtrip

Our trip started around 4 AM when we crammed my little Ford Focus full of everything we might need. In order to save some money on the trip, we bought a bunch of food beforehand and had a big cooler with bottles of water. We also pre-booked our campsites and two hotel stays beforehand in order to find the best deals.

We made the Philadelphian’s obligatory stop at Wawa for coffee and breakfast sandwiches (if you ever visit Philly or the Northeast, you gotta have a Wawa) and then we hit the road!

The first stop on our Southern U.S. road trip was Luray Caverns.

Once we got off of I-95, the drive through Virginia was gorgeous. The sunrise cast a golden glow along the rows of pines.

It was still pretty early when we arrived in Virginia, so we decided to take a detour and check out Luray Caverns on the way to our first campsite.

We had some time to kill before the first cavern tour, so we decided to check out the small museums adjacent to the cavern entrance. The first was the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum which hosts an 1897 Mercedes Benz and other really neat cars. I’ve always had a weird fascination with cars. I couldn’t tell you anything other than the make or model, but I know a beautiful one when I see it!

They also have an old toy collection from Dr. Richard Worden assembled in another museum called Toy Town Junction.

Finally, it was time to enter Luray Caverns.

Luray Caverns is the largest caverns in the Eastern United States.

I had been to Crystal Cave in Pennsylvania when I was a child (and was absolutely terrified of it for whatever reason), so I was familiar to the idea.

After descending the tight stone staircase into the caverns, I was taken by surprise at just how big it really was. And how positively gorgeous!

I believe Luray Caverns offers guided tours to give you a bit of history and information about the place, but I have really terrible ADD and tend too get too distracted to listen.

Amanda and I mostly wandered around on our own, listening in to the guides of other groups from time to time as they talked about different areas. I took a ton of pictures (my favorite thing to do on a trip) and was just fascinated by the natural beauty around me.

After a few hours exploring the caverns, it was time for lunch. This was about the time I realized we’d made a huge road trip prep mistake – we forgot our camping stove! We whipped together a quick lunch in the parking lot – I think we had canned chicken or tuna in mayo on pretzel thins. Important – create a checklist of all of the things you know you can’t get through the trip without.

Thankfully, there was a Walmart a few miles away and we were able to pick up a new stove. We wouldn’t have been able to make the trip without it!

Southern U.S. Road Trip - Night 1, Shenandoah National Park

I had been camping in Shenandoah National Park before and I was so excited to share it’s beauty with my sister.

We spent the first day along Skyline Drive, the scenic highway that travels through Shenandoah National Park. It’s a slow and winding drive and the views are incredible. It has plenty of areas to pull off the road and enjoy the views or take a nice hike. I’ve seen all kinds of animals on the drive like deer and black bears.

We hiked through the Big Meadow, an area I remembered fondly. There were deer wandering peacefully around us and, surprisingly, not too many other hikers. We almost didn’t want to leave, but we knew we had to get our tent set up before dark.

Camping is an excellent way to save money on a road trip.  If you know you’re going to be passing through a few National Parks, a National Parks Pass is also a great investment!

After getting our site set up, we took a little time to explore. The Appalachian Trail actually passed right behind our tent! Who could pass that up?

Amanda and I had been talking about through-hiking the trail and we got so excited just to step foot on it!

And when I say excited, I mean REALLY excited. Like kids in a candy shop. We hiked until we couldn’t anymore and relaxed on a little rock cliff, enjoying the breeze and views of the Shenandoah valley.

Back at our campsite, we had some dinner and settled into the tent right after sunset. It was the first or second week of August (probably about 90 degrees in Philly) and I remember laughing at my sister for packing sweaters… you guys, we almost froze the first night! That’s where I made road trip prep mistake #2 – I didn’t look up the weather at all! I had no idea what to expect. What a rookie, haha.

The next morning, we bundled up and got everything back into the car. We took some time to enjoy the rest of Skyline Drive (bundled in hoodies) as we drove off to our next destination – Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee!

Planning a road trip to/through Virginia? Check out my Road Trip Virginia Pinterest board!

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