Trees at the peak of Fall color are seen looking out over the Piedmont October 26, 2013 from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER        (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

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Shenandoah National Park

Top choice in Shenandoah Valley

One of the most spectacular national parks in the country, Shenandoah is a showcase of natural color and beauty: in spring and summer the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves burn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. White-tailed deer are a common sight and, if you're lucky, you might spot a black bear, bobcat or wild turkey. The park lies just 75 miles west of Washington, DC.

Your first stop should be the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, close to the northern end of Skyline Dr, or the Harry F Byrd Visitor Center. Both places have exhibits on flora and fauna, as well as maps and information about hiking trails and activities.

The surrounds are mighty easy on the eyes, set against a backdrop of the dreamy Blue Ridge Mountains, ancient granite and metamorphic formations that are more than one billion years old. The park itself was founded in 1935 as a retreat for East Coast urban populations. It is an accessible day-trip destination from DC, but you should aim to stay longer if you can. The 500 miles of hiking trails, 75 scenic overlooks, 30 fishing streams, seven picnic areas and four campgrounds are sure to keep you entertained.

Skyline Dr is the breathtaking road that follows the main ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and winds 105 miles through the center of the park. It begins in Front Royal at the western end of I-66, and ends in the southern part of the range at Rockfish Gap near I-64. Mile markers at the side of the road provide a reference. Miles and miles of blazed trails wander through the park.

The most famous trail in the park is a 101-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail (AT), a 2175-mile route crossing through 14 states. Access the trail from Skyline Dr, which roughly runs parallel. Aside from the AT, Shenandoah has more than 400 miles of hiking trails in the park. Options for shorter hikes include Compton Peak (Mile 10.4; 2.4 miles return; easy to moderate), Traces (Mile 22.2; 1.7 miles return; easy), Overall Run (Mile 22.2; 6 miles return; moderate) and White Oak Canyon (Mile 42.6; 4.6 miles return; strenuous). Hawksbill Mountain Summit (Mile 46.7; 2.1 miles return; moderate) is the park’s highest peak.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Shenandoah Valley attractions

1. Hawksbill Mountain

3.49 MILES

The highest peak in the park (4050ft) is also a well-known nesting area for peregrine falcons. Stand on the rustic stone observation platform at the end…

2. Luray Caverns

10.42 MILES

If you can only fit one cavern into your Shenandoah itinerary, head 25 miles south from Front Royal to the world-class Luray Caverns and hear the …

3. River Hill

11.53 MILES

Reminiscent of a moonshine still, this micro-distillery in a shed grows its own corn to produce 50% proof corn whiskey and a smoky bourbon on a small…

4. Montpelier

25.25 MILES

Thomas Jefferson gets all the attention in these parts, but it's well worth branching out and visiting James Madison's Montpelier, a spectacular estate 25…

5. Barboursville Vineyards

26.11 MILES

Spread across 900 acres, Barboursville Vineyards has earned high praise for its fine wines, and you can plan an afternoon of wine tasting, strolling the…

6. Rappahannock Cellars

28.05 MILES

The major draw here is the setting: vineyard-covered hills shadow the horizon, like some slice of Northern Italian pastoral prettiness that got lost…

7. Our Lady of the Angels

28.56 MILES

The cows living near this secluded, verdant and peaceful Trappist monastery must be happy – their milk is so sweet that the nuns at the monastery are…

8. Skyline Caverns

28.98 MILES

Boasting rare, white-spiked anthodites – mineral formations that look like sea urchins – these caverns are Front Royal's main claim to fame. Guided tours…