View north from Stony Man Mountain
View north from Stony Man Mountain

Eric Bulter - NPS Photo

Looking out over Shenandoah, can you imagine the mountains here being as high as the Andes or Himalayas? If you could go back in time, 300 million years ago, you would be standing among a massive range of soaring, snow-capped peaks stretching from Maine to Georgia. So what happened to this dramatic vista? The rugged, rolling terrain you see today is merely an eroded remnant of these ancient mountains, exposing rocks that were once miles beneath the earth’s surface in the core of the ancient Appalachian mountain range.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Shenandoah’s peaks offer a wide range of memorable terrains that reflect the long, diverse history of these mountains. Different types of rock produce distinct terrains, reflecting their unique character and histories.

Igneous and metamorphic rocks, left over from a mountain range even older than the Appalachians, form the foundation upon which the Shenandoah Blue Ridge rises. Over one billion years old, they can still form dramatic topography, creating the rounded, boulder-strewn summits of Old Rag Mountain, Hogback Mountain, and Marys Rock.

Ancient lava flows, 570 million years old, now form the sheer, jagged cliffs of Stony Man, Hawksbill, and many other peaks within the park. These flows, stacked one atop the other, create a staircase-like topography of sheer cliffs and flat benches that produce many of the most distinctive landscapes in Shenandoah. Most of the park’s major waterfalls are located where streams cut through these layers of lava and plunge into steep-walled canyons.

Quartz sandstones and other sedimentary rocks, from the shores of an ocean predating the Atlantic, now create the steep slopes and rugged topography of the park’s unique South District. Fused together and altered in the heat and pressure of mountain-building, the white quartzites form the great cliffs and boulder fields of Rocky Mountain, Calvary Rocks, and Blackrock South.

Everywhere you look, the mountains of Shenandoah hint at their stories through their very shape and composition. The geologic history that created and shaped these rocks and mountains continues to influence the vegetation, animals, and people that live in and pass through the park.

Related Information

A website that provides helpful information about the Blue Ridge Mountains is:

The Mountain Explorer Website

Listing of this website does not and is not intended to imply endorsement by the National Park Service of commercial services or products associated with the site.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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Shenandoah National Park
3655 U.S. Highway 211 East

Luray, VA 22835


(540) 999-3500

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