About the Site
Shenandoah National Park (8)  


Park History

Overlooks - Far North

Overlooks - Near North

Overlooks - Central

Overlooks - Near South

Overlooks - Far South

Shenandoah Valley

Skyline Drive

Dickey Ridge Visitor Center

Skyland Lodge

Big Meadows



Skyline Drive

The most well known feature of Shenandoah National Park is undoubtedly Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge from the northern border of the park near Front Royal to the southern border of the park where it connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Skyline Drive is possibly the best known scenic highway in all of North America, located in one of the nation's most popular national parks. When Congress authorized the national park, it realized that a round on the crest of the Blue Ridge would possibly be the new park's most popular feature.

Construction on Skyline Drive was begun on July 18, 1931. Although the nation had entered the Depression, and money was scarce, President Herbert Hoover authorized the use of drought relief funds the cover early construction costs.

By the time Shenandoah National Park was authorized, 40 miles of Skyline Drive had already been completed. Getting an early start on building the road was a way of jumpstarting support for creation of the national park. The first section of the road to be completed was the route from Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap. The final section of the highway, the section from Rockfish Gap to Front Royal in the northern section of the park, was not completed until 1939. In May of 1939 the entrance fee for a car was 25 cents.

Highway officials who worked on the early plans for the road did not provide a sufficiently scenic design for national park officials. NPS landscape architects, especially Charles Patterson, came to have more influence and added greatly to the quality of the design. In genreal, these landscape architects were interested in building a road which would blend into the natural scenery of the area by appearing natural.

For the National Park Service, Skyline Drive was the first major eastern road building project. It served as a place to test new design concepts and ways of road building which could be applied to other parks.

Skyline Drive was constructed with a great deal of help from the men of the civilian Conservation Corps, along with many recreational facilities in the park. during the 1930's. There were up to 1200 workers housed among 6 camps. From 1933 to 1942 the CCC workers made the drive a "long, man-made naturalistic garden in a regenerating wilderness" (The Story Behind the Scenery).

The road provides outstanding views of the forests in the park as well as the Piedmont and coastal plain to the east and the Shenandoah River and Shenandoah Valley to the west. The existence of the Drive, as well as the relative narrowness of the park, makes Shenandoah National Park one of the most accessible national parks in the system. Because of Skyline Drive, it can be said that the park was designed with the motorist in mind. However, during the early phases of construction there were disagreements with trail enthusiasts over the effects of building such a road. It was the first superintendant of the park, James Ralph Lassiter, who made the decision to route the road along the crest of the Blue Ridge.

Skyline Drive runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge, which it was designed to do. It is a winding road with plenty of elevation change along the way, climbing to a high point of 3860 feet. It provides exceptional views of the Shenandoah Valley and the 40 mile long Massanutten Mountain to the west and the rolling Piedmont country toward the east. In some places the route of the road follows that of trails originally blazed by Indians and early settlers.

Skyline Drive is the only public road in the park, excepting the roads which cross the mountains. All of the visitor concession facilities are located along the Drive.

One of the outstanding features of Skyline Drive is the set of 75 overlooks located periodically along the drive. These are a major aspect of the experience of visiting the park and traveling on Skyline Drive. Pictures and descriptions of many of these overlooks can be found elsewhere on this site.

There are also 30 parking areas for trail heads along the route. In the early construction period overlooks were not taken into consideration. The Panorama to Swift Run Gap section was buit with no consideration of incorporation of overlooks. Design and construction of the remainder of the road did take the incorporation of overlooks into consideration.

A number of extensive visitor facilities can be found at various intervals along the route of the road. These include the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, the Skyland Resort, and the Big Meadows Visitor Center.

Mileposts on the west side of the highway mark the distance from the northern border of the park.

For the entire length of Skyline Drive the road has 2 lanes. There is a 35 mile an hour speed limit on Skyline Drive. It winds and gains and loses altitude throughout its course.

Skyline Drive is the only public throughway in the park, with the exception of the roads running across the mountains from east to west. At the south end of Skyline Drive, beyond the border of Shenandoah National Park, the road connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

It is sometimes said that Skyline Drive overshadows the other features of the park. The park contains many wild area, beautiful forests, waterfalls, meadows, and other natural attractions, but many visitors do not go far from the roadway.

In 1961 a new interchange in Thornton Gap was completed.

Another picture of the area around this gap is shown below.

In 1983 a project to resurface Skyline Drive as well as rebuild the stone walls along its route was begun.

Skyline Drive is currently listed as a National Scenic Byway. In 1997 the Drive was entered onto the rolls of the National Register of Historic Places.

One of the noteworthy sights on Skyline Drive is the Mary's Rock Tunnel (below). This tunnel was bored 600 feet through the solid rock on the side of the mountain. The tunnel was a marvel of engineering when it was initially built, and was also a bit of a tourist attraction and a marvel. The image of the tunnel was found on many park souvenirs. During the presidency of FDR., a number of road tunnels were built in various national parks.

The builders of the tunnel drew from knowledge of those who had built tunnels for railroads. At the place where the tunnel was dug the topgraphy made a tunnel the best choice to avoid an unsightly scar on the slope which would hav been prone to slides. The tunnel was blasted through the ridge in 1932, cutting through granodiorite and a dike of greenstone. The length of the tunnel is 610 feet, and the length of the actul rock cut is 690 feet. The Mary's Rock Tunnel starts at an elevation of 2444 feet and rise to 2522 feet, representing a grade of 3.15%. Some 11,000 cubic yards of granite was moved to create the tunnel. In 1934, the tunnel was widened by 4 feet, to 27 feet, to accomodate a 22 foot roadway, a 3 foot pedestrian walk, a 2 foot curb, as well as a ditch on the west side of the roadway necessary to carry off water dripping into the tunnel from springs above it. To deal with this problem th etunnel was lined with concrete in 1959.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

One of the unique aspects of Skyline Drive is the walls which run along much of the road. There are actually two types of stone walls. Ashlar masonry, requires expert masons to build. Dry-laid walls could be built by non-specialists, such as the CCC personnel working on the road. At present, there are about 38 miles of stone walls along Skyline Drive. Later in time, stone walls were replaced with new construction incorporating concrete and built 5 inches higher. Wood rail walls were also introduced, which decreased the monotony of all of the stone walls and were said to allow better views of the valleys from the roadway.

Also, at various locations along the road gutters were installed to handle erosion. These gutters were often built by CCC workers.

The original roads surface was true macadam. This featured 4-5 inches of graduated stone with no asphaltic binder or surface treatment (Engle, 2006).

Trees along the route of the road were saved whenever possible. Some trees were retained and moved to other locations in the park. Plantings were also done on certain slopes along the road to improve stability. In some places, however, forested areas were cleared or trees were pruned to proved a better view from the road or from the overlooks. During World War II, when workers for the park were in short supply, forests reclaimed a lot of land along the roadway.

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  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

  • Commercial use of the images contained in this document without express written consent is strictly prohibited.

  • Comments and other remarks can be sent via e-mail to parkvision@shannontech.com

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