Skyline Drive is a 105 mile long road that runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park. If you aren’t from the D.C., Maryland, or Virginia (DMV) area, you might be wondering. Where is Skyline Drive?” The drive begins in Front Royal, Virginia and ends in Afton, Virginia. The Southern Terminus is also the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Unlike the parkway, the National Park Service charges an entrance fee: $30 gets you unlimited access to the park for 7 days. We believe a chance to bike Skyline Drive is well worth it. The 75 overlooks provide endless views, and the mountains provide exceptional cycling that’s hard to find elsewhere in the DMV. Without further ado, lets talk about bikepacking Skyline Drive!
The 105 miles of Skyline Drive scarcely have any flat spots. The route more closely resembles a Tour de France stage than most other areas of Virginia. Despite this, the riding isn’t overly difficult. Most sections top out at a reasonable 6-7 percent grade. You may be climbing for a while, but nothing is “fall-over steep.” At the top of each climb (and likely several times on the way up) you’ll be rewarded with one of the famous Skyline Drive overlooks. Whether it’s Big Meadows, Spitler Knoll, HogBack, or Hawksbill, every skyline drive overlook has something to offer.
There are also plenty of places to stay on Skyline Drive. The 5 campgrounds, Dundo, Matthews Arm, Lewis Mountain, Big Meadows, and Loft Mountain are all very well-maintained. You can also stay in cabins or lodges at Skyland, Big Meadows, and Lewis Mountain. With all of those options to choose from, Skyline Drive provides a great playground for a bike trip.
How to Approach Bikepacking Skyline Drive
Since it’s only 105 miles long, Skyline Drive is better used as a weekend tour or as part of a larger tour. There are several places to get food and water along the way. Big Meadows and Skyland both have an on-site restaurant where you can get a good meal and coffee! Filling up on water is also easy as several locations like Thorton’s Gap have water fountains and bathrooms. Remember to bring a headlight and taillight to make sure you can see in the tunnels, and cars can see you. The tunnels are not lit and can get very dark on a cloudy day.
With over 11,000 feet of climbing, Skyline Drive will test even the strongest cyclist. While it would be a great addition to a bikepacking trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway, today we’ll discuss shorter trips just along Skyline Drive. On its own, there are a few ways to tackle it; as an overnight trip, starting in the middle, or as an out and back.
A 105 mile trip is achievable in two days for a cyclist who wants a challenge. In our experience, the best way to do an overnighter is to start in Front Royal, Virginia and ride Skyline Drive as it was intended. From mile marker 0, you’ll hit your first climb, a solid 4.5 miles up to Dickey Ridge. The climbing really continues for another mile or so to get you up to the true ridgeline.
We recommend staying at Skyland around mile marker 41. Since it’s the highest point along the entire road, it is a great place to experience a Shenandoah sunset. That leaves you with a long second day, but with the greater part of the climbing done, it shouldn’t be too bad. This downside to the over-nighter is that you need someone to pick you up at the end and maybe drop you off at the start as well.
Meet in the Middle
Another way to experience the parkway would be to start at the middle and camp at Big Meadows. Big Meadows is located at mile 51, nearly the center point of Skyline Drive. From there you can ride toward either end and camp at one of the many campgrounds that are right off of the road. Two favorites are Mathews arm and Loft Mountain. After 3-4 nights of camping and riding, you can return to your car at Big Meadows.
The ultimate way to bikepack Skyline Drive is to do the double. Start at one end, ride across, and head back. For a massive challenge, you could make an attempt in only two days. That option is only for the brave (or crazy) and requires a Day One of over 130 miles. A more reasonable trip would be over 3, or ideally 4, days. More modest mileage also gives the intrepid tourer a chance to do a bit of hiking on the many trails that Skyline Drive offers. In our opinion, no Skyline Drive bicycle tour is complete without a side trip on at least one hike.
If you want to do the double, but don’t want to carry 20-30 lbs of gear over 210 miles and 22,000+ feet of climbing, don’t despair! Join us for a guided trip: The Skyline Double Bicycle Tour!