Mt. Willard is one of the most popular easy day hikes in the White Mountains region. Its highpoint of 2,800 feet is dwarfed by most every other mountain around, but it still offers a dramatic vista looking through Crawford Notch.
Mount Willard is an extremely popular family hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It’s quite accessible since the trail takes off from the train depot at Crawford Notch. Many hikes in the Presidential range can be intimidating, but this hike of only 3.2 miles is more manageable. The hike has some rocky, steep sections, but if you take your time most people with a little hiking experience can reach the peak.
We started off the hike by crossing the railroad tracks near the train depot station where the AMC Highland Center is located. The trail quickly leads into the woods and in .1 mile, you reach a junction. Take a left to climb the Mt. Willard Trail (the other trail at the junction is the Avalon Trail, leading to Mount Avalon and Mount Field). The trail has a small stream crossing and then begins the climb. The trail is rocky and somewhat steep, like most of the area in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Along the hike up, there is a small waterfall called the Centennial Pool on the right. There are a few steps down to reach the base of the falls, which is a nice cascade to give yourself an excuse to take a break on the way up. Continuing up the trail, eventually the path of the trail consists of smaller, but more abundant rocks. A short distance of climbing through this and then the trail begins to level off around 1.4 miles. It is a short distance at this point to reach the summit at 1.6 miles.
The summit gives you great views down into Crawford Notch as you can see down Rte. 302 and the train tracks that would leave from the depot. You can see the path of the glacier that carved out this area. There are some precipitous drops from the top, so keep a close eye on any children. We stayed at the top for a while until it started to become overcrowded with larger groups, so we made our way back down the way we came.
After the hike, we went into the train depot where they have a small gift shop to purchase shirts or hiking guides. After we left the area, we headed down to one of our favorite lunch spots, Moat Mountain in North Conway, NH. Their nachos are amazing and we’ve always been impressed with the beer they brew there.
When I say that Mt. Willard is a favorite family day hike, I mean that literally! My parents walk to the summit of Willard several times a year. It’s probably one of my dad’s very favorite hikes in the region. It’s the right distance and right amount of climbing for them, plus they really enjoy the view from the top. They prefer to leave the high peaks and steep climbs for us to do on our own, but we always like to try and find a hike we can all do together. On this visit, Willard fit the bill perfectly.
Before setting out for our hike, we stopped in Sugar Hill for a big pancake breakfast at Polly’s Pancake Parlor. It’s a standing tradition to eat there at least once on every visit. I love all the different batters and pancake fillings. They also have delicious chicken-apple sausage.
We got an early enough start that we were able to begin our hike by mid-morning. We set out across the train tracks and headed up the Mt. Willard trail. The climbing on Mt. Willard is steady, but never terribly steep. The trail is rocky, but nowhere nearly as rocky as what you see above treeline. It was a humid day, so everyone was sweating like crazy. Thankfully, the bugs weren’t too bad and we were able to hike without bug spray or constant swatting.
At half a mile, we passed the Centennial Pool. I scrambled down to the base of the falls and snapped a few photos before a large family group caught up to us. The group of twelve included many young children who wanted to scramble on the rocks around the pool. We left the spot to them and continued our uphill climb.
As we continued upward, the trail became rockier and wetter. Thunderstorms the day before left plenty of water still draining off the mountain. There were a couple places that the trail was more like a shallow stream. When we reached the summit, there were only a couple people there. We claimed a nice spot overlooking the notch below. We took photos and enjoyed the view together for a few quiet moments. Soon enough, lots of other hikers began to reach the summit. Children were running pellmell all over the summit. Fortunately, it’s a safe and wide summit. There are steep drop-offs, but the ledge is spacious enough that there is plenty of room to enjoy the view without ever getting close to the edge.
After exploring the summits different views and angles, we decided it was getting a little too crowded at the top. We gathered our gear and started the descent. The hike down went pretty quickly. We passed many people climbing up as we descended. It’s definitely a popular and well-traveled trail. We soon arrived back at the train depot. After the hike, we headed into North Conway for lunch. It was a great day and I loved spending some time on the trail with my parents.
- Distance – 3.2 miles
MapMyHike Stats *
- Elevation Change – 980 feet
- Difficulty – 3. Not too tough by New Hampshire standards, but a moderate uphill climb.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail is rocky and does have some loose rock. Due to the popularity of the trail, the path is normally clear of debris.
- Views – 3.5. There are some nice views from the summit.
- Waterfalls/streams – 2.5. The Centennial Pool is a picturesque waterfall on the way to the summit.
- Wildlife – 1. I wouldn’t expect to see anything on this trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. Once you find the trail and take a left at the junction, it is just on one trail so it should be easy to find your way.
- Solitude – .5. This trail is extremely popular. Start off early in the morning if you want the summit to yourself.
Directions to trailhead: From I-93, take exit 35 to merge onto US-3 N toward Twin Mountain/Lancaster. Stay on that for 10.4 miles and then take a right on US-302 E. Go 8.3 miles and the AMC Highland Center will be on the right. Park in the parking lot and make your way towards the train depot station. Cross the train tracks and you should see the trailhead leading into the woods.
Note: We’ll be taking you to New Hampshire for our next seven hikes! Enjoy the north country!
This 5.3 mile hike includes open ledges, ladders up cliff faces, caves, tight squeezes, and rock scrambling. At the summits of both Morgan and Percival, you get great views of Squam Lake. Look for blueberries along the way!
After two lengthy days of travel from Virginia to New Hampshire, the last thing we wanted to do was get back into the car for more than a short drive. So, for our first hike in the area, we chose the Mt. Morgan – Mt. Percival Loop. The 5.3 mile hike is just a few minutes from my parents’ house and offers great views of Squam Lake.
We hiked this loop in 2009, before we started including out-of-state hikes on Virginia Trail Guide. I remembered only a few generalities about this hike: challenging, exceedingly buggy, nice views, tons of blueberries. It definitely seemed worth another look!
By New Hampshire standards, this trail is rated moderate. On paper, that seems fair – 5.3 miles and 1,575 feet of climbing. But, by Virginia standards we probably would rate this hike more toward difficult due to the terrain. If you follow the route as we hiked it, there are ladders, exposed ledges, steep rock scrambles, and a tight-squeeze section that passes through a series of caves. It’s also very muddy, rocky and rooty. I would equate the skill-level/fitness needed for this hike to be similar to what you need to hike Old Rag.
We started off early in the morning, but the parking lot was already full when we arrived. We managed to wedge into one small space still remaining in the corner of the lot. I think most of the cars parked in the Mt. Morgan lot belonged to people hiking the Rattlesnakes on the other side of the road, because we saw relatively few people on our hike.
The Mt. Morgan trail started off at the end of the parking lot. The path was wide, gradually ascending, and covered with pine needles. There were beautiful, papery white birch trees all through the woods. As the trail continued, the climbing got rockier and steeper. We passed sections of old stone wall half buried in the forest. There were also several muddy stream-bed areas to traverse. At 1.7 miles, the Mt. Morgan trail and the Crawford-Ridgepole trails joined ways for about .4 miles before reaching a series of ladders affixed to a cliffside.
If you’re not into height and ladders, you can continue on the Mt. Morgan trail for several tenths of a mile to reach the summit. We chose the ladders. I did fine until there was a horizontal move from one ladder to another, followed by a step onto a large metal screw in the rock. I kind of panicked at that point because I couldn’t span the space with my arms. I could get my feet where they needed to be, but I couldn’t reach any solid handhold to pull myself up the rock face. Adam ended up giving me a hand up. We both passed through a small cave onto a steep, exposed ledge with views of Squam Lake. After enjoying the view for a moment, there was still a little more steep, scary boulder scaling we had to do to get to the summit of Mt. Morgan. I stood on the ledge and pondered whether I wanted to go back down the ladders and go around, or figure out a way up the rest of the rocks. I ended up opting for directly up the rock face, but I paid a price for it. I got several huge bruises and two gashes on my legs from the sharp, hard granite. What can I say… I never go home from New Hampshire unbranded!
The view from Morgan was lovely, albeit misty and hazy on the day we visited. There also weren’t as many blueberries as I remembered. We had a snack, took a few photos and pressed on to the next summit – Mt. Percival.
We followed the Crawford-Ridgepole trail for about .9 of a mile to the summit of Percival. The trail across the saddle between the two mountains was alternately rocky, boggy and piney. There were a few steep spots, by this section of trail was one of the easier parts of the hike.
Right at 3 miles, we reached the summit of Percival. The view was similar to that of Morgan – Squam Lake’s asymmetrical, island-dotted expanse. At the summit of Percival, there are two sets of blazes – one to the side and another that plunges steeply right of the front of the mountain. When we visited, there was no sign indicating where each trail headed, so we used our guidebook and map to make a guess. If you take the trail on the side, you’ll have steep (but normal) climb down the Mt. Percival trail. If you follow the blazes over the cliff, you’ll find yourself wedging your body through a series of caves and opening in boulder tumbles. The cliff route is fun and a little bit unnerving.
There were several places that Adam and I looked at each other and thought NO WAY! We had to pass backpacks and trekking poles through openings. There was even one place I thought I’d make it, but my backpack got hung up and left me stuck! After several squeezes, we came to the junction of the Mt. Percival Cliff Trail and Cave Trail.
After this point, the rest of the climb down Mt. Percival was just a steep, rocky, rooty, slippery, muddy knee grinder. I didn’t particularly enjoy this part of the hike. My knees and feet were hurting and I was being relentlessly menaced by bugs. It’s hard to pay attention to your footing when you’re flailing your hands to swat flies away from your face. I definitely slipped and slid several times.
I was pretty happy when, at 4.7 miles, we reached the junction with the Morse Trail, because it meant the hard hiking was behind us and we were almost back to the car. We flew along the Morse Trail, enjoying pretty streams and easier footing. We made one final left turn back onto the Mt. Morgan trail for the final tenth of a mile.
After wiping off the mud and doing a little minor first aid, we were on our way to a well-deserved lunch at Squam Lakeside. They have enormous lobster rolls and sherbet freezes. It’s a great place to eat outside and enjoy a view of the lake.
This was one of those trails that I first discovered five years ago when I was researching nearby geocaches when we were visiting the White Mountains for the first time. I was also drawn to Mt. Percival due to my love for reading Arthurian legends when I was younger (Percival accompanied Sir Galahad on his quest for the Holy Grail). I remember this being a challenging hike, yet unlike anything we have in Virginia. As a hiking couple, we sometimes find that one of us enjoys a hike more than the other; we also face days where one of us is not having a strong hiking day. This hike was one that I enjoyed more than Christine. For me, if I experience something unusual on a hike (a rock scramble, ladders, exposed cliffside walks, a stream crossing where we have to wade across), I find that I really have fond memories of it. As I’m reflecting, I realize I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out how to overcome an obstacle. This loop definitely has some of those memorable abnormalities on it.
We were looking for a decent hike to start off our trip to the White Mountains. Since we had about a 12 hour drive from our home in Virginia to New Hampshire, we were looking forward to doing something active. We found the parking lot and trailhead along Rte. 113. The trail starts off level and at .1 miles, you reach the junction with the Morse Trail, your return route for the loop. Stay straight on the Mount Morgan Trail. The trail starts off with a gradual uphill, but the trail begins to get steeper and rockier as you continue. There wasn’t a lot to note on the hike up, but the sight of white-barked birch trees always makes me happy to be in New England. At 1.7 miles, you reach a junction with the Crawford Ridgepole Trail. Stay on the right to continue your hike up to Mt. Morgan. At 2.1 miles, we reached a sign that shows that you can reach the summit of Mt. Morgan through the ladders or circumvent and reach the summit by continuing on the trail.
During our first visit in 2009, I had decided to go up the ladders and Christine went the other way. In 2009, never having experienced ladders attached to large rocks before, I was very apprehensive and worried about climbing up that way. But when I saw an older man climb the ladders without any difficulty, I dug deep and forced my way up them. This time, I didn’t have any trepidation, most likely from the combination of climbing these ladders before and experiencing more harrowing ladder climbs at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. Once we reached the top of the ladders this time, we had some rock scrambling to do up some exposed rocks until we reached the summit of Mt. Morgan. I was proud of Christine tackling the ladders and the rock scramble, because these are definitely things she doesn’t usually enjoy.
We had a hazy day from the summit of Mt. Morgan, but the view over Squam Lake always amazes me with the small islands scattered through the lake. We climbed down from the summit and shortly reached the sign which pointed out the other option for reaching the Mt. Morgan summit. We continued on the rocky trail, which is fairly flat on the ridge, but does have some ups and downs as you are climbing over rocky areas of the ridgeline. At 3.0 miles, we reached the summit of Mt. Percival. The summit of Mt. Percival was very hazy and cloudy, which didn’t give us great views this day, but we remember the great views we had from here in 2009. The signage at the summit of Mt. Percival didn’t help us too much. We saw two sets of blazes leading down the mountain, but there was no signage stating where they headed. After consulting my map, we took the rightmost trail (facing the view) that seemed to lead straight down the rocks. It turns out this is the option to go down via the caves (the next trailhead down to the left of this one would be more of a cliffside trail but they join ahead). We climbed down this very steep section and then at one point, I said “You’ve got to be kidding me. How are we getting through that?” The trailblazes led down into a hole that wasn’t much bigger than my body.
This turns out to be the entrance to the cave on this trail. You can still see light shining through in spaces between the rocks, but it is fairly closed off and not a route for any claustrophobic people. We rock scrambled through the cave and then eventually the blazes lead you out of the cave through another hole not much larger than my body. When I peered through this opening, I couldn’t see what was ahead, but I plunged my body through and I felt like I was getting reborn through a rocky birth canal. On the other side was a family heading up, so we had to exit before they could try to enter. We made our way through and then had a little more downhill rock scrambling to do until we reached another sign. This one pointed the way to the summit via the cliffside trail or through the caves. This would have been helpful from the summit.
The trail at this point continued its rocky climb down and you can hear the sounds of Smith Creek at times. Eventually at 4.7 miles, we reached the junction with the Morse Trail, that ducks to the right. We took the Morse Trail, which was mostly flat but more overgrown and less traveled than the other trails. This trail joins the Mt. Morgan again at 5.2 miles. We took a right and made our way back to our car in just another .1 mile.
At the summit of Mt. Percival, we met a girl hiking with her dog. She was also trying to figure out which way led down Mt. Percival and she took the cave trail as well. I can’t even imagine how she navigated her dog through the caves, but we saw her at the junction with the Morse Trail. She told us how tough it was for her dog. She was training for her goal of trying to hike the 48 peaks of New Hampshire that are above 4000 feet with her dog. This goal has been most popularized by the book Following Atticus by Tom Ryan and you can read more about their adventures on his blog.
There are several geocaches along this trail:
- Mount Morgan Surprise – earthcache
- Mt. Morgan cache
- King Arthur’s Knights
- The Peak of Percival – earthcache
- Percival II – Le Presse-citron
- Easy Rider
- In the Realm of the Blue Knights
As we are always trying to cover new ground whenever possible, I’m not sure how often on our return trips to the White Mountains we will revisit this loop, but this is definitely a hike that you will remember. The interesting features and scenic views give you an introductory glimpse into what hiking is about in New Hampshire.
- Distance – 5.3 miles
MapMyHike Stats *
- Elevation Change – 1575 feet
- Difficulty – 4.5. Even with a moderate elevation gain and distance, the terrain of this trail warrants a higher difficulty rating.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was a muddy, slippery mess when we hiked, but generally the trail is well maintained and passable.
- Views – 4. On a clear day, the view of Squam Lake is beautiful.
- Waterfalls/streams – 2. There are lots of small streams and springs on this trail. Nothing mind-blowing (and a lot them just make mud), but a couple crossings along the Morse Trail are pretty.
- Wildlife – 1. We saw red squirrels and a salamander.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. There are multiple trails that lead the same place. Also, there isn’t a sign differentiating the cave and cliff trails on Mt. Percival.
- Solitude – 3. This trail is not as popular as the nearby Rattlesnakes, but you’ll probably still see a number of hiking parties along the way.
Directions to trailhead: From I-93: Take Exit 24 and follow Rt. 3 South to Holderness. From the town Holderness, get on Rt. 113 and follow it northeast for about 5.5 miles. Parking will be in a gravel lot on the left. The large parking lot on the right is for the Rattlesnakes hike. If there is no space left in the Morgan lot, it is fine to park at Rattlesnakes.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
We’re back from our fourth trip to New Hampshire and figured we’d update our tourist’s guide! Christine’s parents bought a home there in 2008, and it has quickly become a favorite destination. Each time we visit, we’re blown away by the area!
Stay tuned – we have seven new New Hampshire hikes on deck to share. At the bottom of the post, check out links to past editions.
Some General Tips for Hiking in the Area
The White Mountains are TOUGH
The trails are steep and the rocks are hard. Trails considered moderate in New Hampshire may have 3,000+ feet of elevation gain over just a few miles. Much of the footing on trails is root-snarled and rock-covered, with loads of mud, shifting boulders underfoot and swift-moving streams to cross. The weather changes without warning in the Whites. On a sunny 80 degree day in the valley, you may experience 50mph winds, 45 degree temps and heavy fog on a mountain top. Even in the heat of summer, it’s likely you’ll want a hat, gloves and a windproof/waterproof shell. There aren’t many trails in Virginia that can adequately prepare you for what you’ll see in the Whites.
In fact, in its section about Mt. Washington, the AMC’s White Mountain Guide states:
To a person unused to mountain trails or in less than excellent physical condition, this unrelenting uphill grind can be grueling and intensely discouraging. If you are not an experienced hiker or a trained athlete, you will almost certainly enjoy the ascent of Mount Washington a great deal more if you build up to it with easier climbs in areas with less exposure to potentially severe weather.
So, heed that advice and pick tough Virginia hikes to train/practice on before you make your White Mountains visit.
New Hampshire has a Negligent Hiker Law.
Be prepared to take care of yourself in the Whites. Carry the ten essentials in your pack, let someone know your route, stay on the trail, stay with your group, be willing to turn back if the weather or your ability dictates, and don’t do anything stupid. If you need rescue because of your own negligence, you may receive a hefty bill from the state. Visit HikeSafe.com for more information.
Many New Hampshire State Parks Are as Impressive as National Parks.
OK… now that we’ve sufficiently scared you with bad weather, tough climbs and personal liability, it’s time for the good stuff! New Hampshire is incredibly spectacular and wild. When you compare many of New Hampshire’s state parks to the state parks we have in Virginia, prepare yourself to be blown away! The scenery, wildlife and expansiveness of New Hampshire parks like Franconia Notch, Mount Cardigan and Mount Washington rivals (OK… let’s be honest – exceeds) what you see in Shenandoah National Park.
There are lots of great hiking guides for New Hampshire. We recommend the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, Hiking New Hampshire (Falcon Guide) and 50 Hikes in the White Mountains. We suggest photocopying the pages you need for the day of the hike, as it saves you from carrying the extra weight of a guidebook. The website Hike New England is also a super resource.
Stay Alert for Wildlife on Highways
Each time we’ve visited the White Mountains, we’ve seen moose hit by cars on I-93. It’s very sad and dreadfully dangerous to hit a moose. We’ve seen bears and deer along the interstate, too.
Where to Stay in the Area
We have free lodging in the Holderness/Plymouth area (thanks Mom & Dad!). It’s a great location – nestled right between the Lakes Region and the White Mountains Region. If you want lodging even closer to prime trails in the Whites, North Conway (very crowded, very touristy) and Lincoln are great choices. Both have tons of amenities and are close to popular trails. The area also has loads of camping, and for the true adventurer, the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a series of seasonal backcountry lodging.
Must-See Things That Don’t Involve Hiking
- Take a Drive on the Scenic Kancamagus Highway. There are great views, cascading streams, opportunities to spot wildlife, and access to many of the area’s easier family trails.
- Visit the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center (Christine’s mom is a volunteer). This center has fantastic hands-on displays for children and a nice variety native animals on display (bears, bobcats, eagles, etc). The Center also runs boat excursions to observe loons in the wild on Squam Lake.
- Rent Bikes and ride through Franconia Notch. There is a ten-mile paved bike path that runs the length of the notch. You can rent a bike, arrange a shuttle and coast downhill through the park stopping at all the scenic/historical sites along the way.
- Watch an Optical Illusion Put the Old Man of the Mountain Back Into Place – In May of 2003, New Hampshire’s most notable natural landmark fell from the face of Cannon Cliffs. Now, due to the generosity and ingenuity of interested individuals and companies, you can visit Profile Plaza and watch the Old Man reappear on the cliffside. This stop was very cool!
- Sample Craft Beer – Moat Mountain, Woodstock Inn, Tuckerman’s, Smuttynose and Long Trail (among others) are all located roughly in this region (some require a bit more driving than others).
- Visit Castle in the Clouds – This beautiful, historical mansion overlooks Lake Winnipesaukee. The grounds are beautiful and traversed by an extensive network of trails.
- Take a Day Trip to the Coast – In about an hour and a half you can be in York/Ogunquit eating lobsters and chowder by the oceanfront. There are lighthouses, beachfront strolling, mansions, ice cream… everything you expect to see at a New England Beach. York/Ogunquit has the Marginal Way – which is a beautiful walk. If you visit, don’t miss stopping by the Stonewall Kitchen flagship store. If you enjoy cooking or eating, it’s a great stop! Lunch at Lobster Cove in York was especially delicious and memorable.
- Take a Day Trip Into Burlington (Vermont) – Burlington is a beautiful city on the shore of Lake Champlain. On various day trips, we’ve stopped at many shops in town and toured the University of Vermont. In 2014, we visited several breweries (Magic Hat, Citizen Cider and Zero Gravity) and took a tour of Lake Champlain Chocolate. We also had a fantastic dinner at the farm-to-table restaurant/brewery Prohibition Pig in Waterbury. If you take the northern route past St. Johnsbury, stops at Ben & Jerry’s, the Cabot Cheese headquarters, and Dog Mountain (an absolute must for pet lovers!) are all worthwhile.
- Take a Day Trip to the Quechee Gorge (Vermont) – There is a lot to see on this drive! On the way to Quechee, you’ll get the chance to stop in Hanover and visit the beautiful grounds of Dartmouth College. This route also takes you by the King Arthur Flour headquarters. I know, many of you are thinking ‘flour?’ – but trust me, it’s another super stop for anyone who likes to cook or eat! Quechee is also home to another Cabot Shop and Simon Pearce Glassblowers. A little extra driving will take you to both the Harpoon and the Long Trail breweries.
Above: King Arthur Flour Company Bakers, Simon Pearce Glassblowers, Sampling at Long Trail, The Dog Chapel, Stonewall Kitchen Store & Cooking School, Nubble Lighthouse; Classic Maine Lobster Roll, Along the Marginal Way, Covered Bridges are everywhere, Profile Plaza recreates an optical illusion of the Old Man of the Mountain; Adam enjoys the children’s exhibits at the Squam Natural Science Center
A Restaurant Recap
- Polly’s Pancake Parlor (Sugar Hill, NH) is celebrating its 75th year of making customized, made-to-order pancakes. They have several batter choices and several add-in choices, so you can mix-and-match to create an endless number of combinations. Their maple-apple chicken sausage is delicious! Don’t forget to pose on Trot-Trot before or after your breakfast!
- Flatbread Company (North Conway, NH) serves handmade, wood-fire cooked pizzas that make heavy use of local, seasonal, organic ingredients. We went there for lunch on the one rainy day of our 2013 trip and loved sitting next to the huge, brick pizza oven. So cozy!
- Lucky Dog (Plymouth, NH) is a reliable college-town pub. They serve endless cheese and a wide variety of bar food – burgers, nachos, wings, etc. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s always good when we go.
- The Common Man (throughout New Hampshire) is a local chain of unique, independently run restaurants. They exist in many styles and iterations all over New Hampshire. We ate at three different restaurants under the Common Man umbrella on our 2013 visit. Italian Farmhouse, Town Docks and The Common Man – Ashland. All three were equally great!
- White Mountain Bagel Company (Lincoln, NH) was a great post-hike stop for sandwiches. Creative combos and everything was very fresh!
- Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery (North Conway, NH) is a favorite stop for craft beer, but they also serve fantastic barbecue! We never miss a stop to eat at Moat when we visit the area.
- The Woodstock Station Restaurant (Woodstock, NH) is another brewery-restaurant combination. We visited early for dinner on a Monday evening, and the place was packed. The service has a reputation for being slow (and it was), but the food and beer was good. They have the biggest gluten-free menu we’ve ever seen, so if you have to avoid wheat and want a large selection, this is a great place to go!
Above: Town Docks by The Common Man has excellent outdoor, lakeside seating, Moat Mountain nachos, Flatbread Company pizza oven, Polly’s pancakes and maple-apple chicken sausage, Woodstock Station Inn
Trails We Covered in the White Mountains
- Mt. Morgan – Mt. Percival Loop
- Mt. Willard
- Mt. Pemigewasset
- Mt. Pierce
- Mt. Madison
- Zealand Falls
- Red Hill
- Mount Cardigan
- Franconia Ridge
- Lonesome Lake
- Mount Washington via Ammonoosuc Ravine
- Mount Moosilauke
This 16.5 mile overnight backpacking trip has cooler temperatures in the summer, beautiful streams and waterfalls, high mountain meadows, abundant berry bushes, and even an old plane wreck to explore. It’s a great change of pace from hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Initially, we planned on doing very little hiking in July this year. Our goal was to stay out of the heat and to rest up a bit so we wouldn’t overdo things before we tackle our trip to New Hampshire later this summer. But the weather was too nice and we had lots of invitations to go hiking. Over the 4th of July weekend, our friends Anthony and Suzanne suggested we go on a backpacking trip together. We always enjoy hiking with them, so plans were made to hike in the Spruce Knob area. This was actually the second 4th of July weekend we’ve spent on the trail with Anthony and Suzanne. A couple years ago, we did a trip to Dolly Sods.
Our friends came down and spent the night before the trip at our house. We divided up some group gear and then packed the car and headed out fairly early to start our trip. We arrived at the trailhead mid-morning. We saw the short trail to the Spruce Knob summit fire tower, but we decided to visit that at the end of the loop the next day to feel like we had truly earned it. Spruce Knob is the highest peak in West Virginia.
The printed maps we have found of this area are fairly outdated and online maps also don’t have the trails completely accurate. The best map I have found of the entire area has been from Mid-Atlantic Hikes and it may be helpful to bring that along since there are lots of trail options here.
We started off our first day of the hike on the Huckleberry Trail (TR533). The trail starts off with a little bit of crushed gravel on the trail, but that goes away in a short distance. This first section of the trail was fairly flat or downhill and alternates from going from dense Spruce forests to more open fields. There are numerous dry campsites along the trail. In the fields, we found tons of blueberries that were just starting to ripen. We stopped along the way for a few handfuls before pressing on. At 3.4 miles, you will reach a campsite and a sign that points to the trail going right. Follow this trail and in another short distance, you’ll come to another sign pointing you to go left as the trail winds around a dense forest area. You’ll soon reach another sign that shows that the Lumberjack Trail is .4 miles away. The last .4 miles of the Huckleberry trail drops rather steeply to the large trail junction at 4.7 miles. Take a right at this junction to join the Lumberjack Trail (TR534).
The Lumberjack Trail is a relatively flat trail. We were warned that it can be very muddy and wet, but we found that even after some recent heavy rains there were only a few 20-foot sections that had mud to slog through. Most of the trail had rocks or logs placed that saved us from having to get our shoes wet or muddy. Around mile 5.8, we saw a plane door hung on a tree and a short, yet steep trail that led down to plane wreckage (a Piper PA-23 that crashed here in 1973 with two casualties). Be respectful if you decide to visit this site. We stayed on the Lumberjack Trail until it came to a junction with the High Meadows Trail at mile 6.7. Take a left to join the High Meadows Trail (TR564).
The High Meadows Trail was the most overgrown trail we came across. There were times that it felt like we were bushwhacking. There are stinging nettles everywhere along the trail and grass was up to our knees in some portions. The High Meadows Trail also has alternating landscapes; you will go from dense forests to large open meadows several times. Keep an eye out for blue blazes on posts or trees as you navigate through these high grass areas. The trail descended through these gorgeous meadows and it is not surprising that we were thinking of the Sound of Music when we were walking through these fields surrounded by mountains.
Eventually, you will enter into the woods again and cross a small creek. At 8.6 miles, you will reach another trail junction. Take a right here and you will descend even more as you make your way through a scenic forest landscape. You will soon hear water flowing from Seneca Creek below you. The trail crosses the creek and comes to a junction with the Seneca Creek Trail at 9.1 miles. At this point, you will cross Seneca Creek to reach the trail on the other side. The water was flowing to make a nice small waterfall. Before we crossed, we ventured just a short distance (about 75 yards) to the right down the Seneca Creek Trail and came across one of the most beautiful waterfalls/swimming holes I’ve seen – Seneca Falls. We dropped our bags on the trail and scrambled down to reach the base of the falls. There was a large cavernous rock overhang to the right of the falls. In the water, we could see brook trout swimming around, occasionally breaching the water to catch flies that were dancing along the water surface. Once we climbed back up from the basin, another group came down to the falls jumped into the swimming hole at the base of the falls. From the screams when they jumped in, we could tell the water was extremely cold. We made our way back to our original junction and then determined the best place to cross the creek was at the very top of the small waterfall. We all made it across safely.
Christine hit a wall with her energy level, so we stopped a few minutes to eat a snack on the opposite side of the creek at a nice campsite. Knowing we still had a distance to go, we pressed on further. The Seneca Creek Trail went to the side of Seneca Creek for the entire way. We crossed the creek in a couple of places. Around mile 10.4, we began to see a ton of campsites. We were surprised to see that there were so many people that were camped here overnight. When we kept passing people on the trail, we felt that we would have our picks of campsites, but we didn’t realize how many people come here a different way (mostly from the lower Spruce Knob parking lot and taking the Seneca Creek Trail to these campsites). Anthony and Suzanne hurried ahead, while I waited a while for Christine to try and regain her strength.
We caught back up with our friends soon and they had claimed a gorgeous campsite (even though it was hard to imagine a bad one here) at 10.6 miles that was near a waterfall that plunged into the creek. While there were lots of larger groups out here, we found a nice, secluded campsite that had a nice waterslide that created a babbling brook sound throughout the night. We set up camp and started to make some dinner. I always enjoy bringing a card game with us when we do an overnight backpack and this time I brought the game Hike. It was pretty brainless fun and plays similar to Uno with specialty cards that create twists in the game. It was starting to get dark, so we created a small, but nice fire in the pit. Once the sun set and the fire died out, we retired to our tents. It may have been the sound of the brook, but I probably slept the best I have ever slept backpacking that night. What a great first day!
As usual on backpacking trips, we both woke up right around first light. We spent a little while longer in our sleeping bags, chatting and stretching. It was a chilly morning, so we weren’t quite ready to climb out into the cold.
Eventually we emerged from our tent to start the day. I put on gloves and a light jacket and headed downstream to take a few photos of the big waterfall at the next campsite over. The folks camping there had packed up and departed very early. Adam went to get the bear bags down while I took photos.
We got everything out for breakfast and started taking down our tent, rolling up sleeping pads and stuffing our sleeping bags back into compression sacks. I decided that I was going to eat a huge breakfast, so I wouldn’t bonk again on our second day of hiking. Adam didn’t go into much detail in his day one post, but right around mile ten of our hike the day before, I hit a wall – HARD! It was right after we visited Seneca Falls and crossed the stream. I sat on the ground and told everyone that I was feeling really lightheaded and sick. I didn’t feel hungry. I had been drinking water all day. Regardless, my legs just felt like jelly and I just didn’t want to walk another single step. Adam, Suzanne and Anthony all told me that they thought I needed to eat. Turns out they were right – I had been hiking for ten miles with a 25 lb. pack on under 700 calories. I guess I just didn’t realize how little I had eaten until I did the calorie math. My appetite always goes away when I’m doing strenuous activities. Usually, it doesn’t cause problems and I just eat when I get to camp. I guess this time I just expended all my short term energy before we finished for the day. I need to do a better job forcing myself to eat enough.
Alright… off that tangent and back to breakfast! As promised, I ate a large breakfast – oatmeal, cheese, a honeybun and coffee. It was about 600 calories of food and much more in line with my energy needs for a tough uphill and 6 miles of hiking. Everyone had eaten and packed up camp by around 9:45 and we were on our way again.
We had a short distance left to walk along Seneca Creek. Within about a quarter mile, we reached a small wooden footbridge across the stream. We crossed and continued uphill on the Seneca Creek Trail. The steepest climbing was across a beautiful, expansive meadow. We got great views of the valley and our last glimpse into the Seneca Creek watershed. The high meadows on this hike are truly majestic and are definitely one of the trip’s highlights.
After crossing out of the meadow, we continued uphill through the woods back to the four-way junction of Seneca Creek/Lumberjack/Huckleberry. Staying straight took us back onto the Huckleberry Trail. From there, we retraced our steps from the day before. It was a little slower going and felt longer on the second pass. It was all uphill and everyone was a little tired. It’s always funny how different the same four miles can feel under different circumstances.
We enjoyed the sunny, unseasonably cool July weather. We stopped and picked many blueberries along the walk back. I also took a little side trail from one of the meadows and found a talus slope with nice views across the mountains.
We got back to the car around noon. We threw our packs into the back of the car and took the short, flat walk to check out views from the observation tower atop Spruce Knob. It’s just a short quarter mile walk and well-worth the extra time and steps. We spent some time enjoying the lofty views and cool breezes. Anthony, Adam and Suzanne decided to walk to one more nearby viewpoint on the Whispering Spruce Trail. It was just a tenth of a mile down the trail and provided even more spectacular views. I headed back to the car to eat some more candy and switch my trail shoes for flip flops.
After a few minutes, everyone was back at the car and we were on our way back to Harrisonburg for a celebratory meal and beer. We all decided that Jack Brown’s was the best spot for lunch. They have fantastic gourmet burgers and a great beer list. It’s a perfect post-hike indulgence.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather, scenery, or company for this 4th of July weekend backpacking trip. After lunch, we bid farewell to Anthony and Suzanne. They’re such great hiking buddies and we always feel lucky when we get to hit the trail together.
- Distance – 16.5 miles [Day One] [Day Two]
- Elevation Change – About 2300 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The distance makes it fairly tough and the second day has a lot of uphill on the trail.
- Trail Conditions – 3. Most of the trail was well-maintained. The High Meadows Trail was quite overgrown. There are some rocky, loose sections on this trail too, which can be a little rough on the feet.
- Views – 5. The best views are from the Spruce Knob trail near the fire tower. The fire tower has wonderful views, but once you take the .5 mile trail around the fire tower, you will have gorgeous, breathtaking views from the highest point in West Virginia. The views along the main backpacking trip were mostly during the High Meadows Trail. There are gorgeous mountain views and no sign of civilization.
- Wildlife – 3. There were lots of birds to be found on the High Meadows Trail. We did have a deer visit us several times at camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. The Huckleberry Trail and High Meadows Trail could use more signage. I would suggest printing out our step-by-step desciption and bringing the midatlantichikes map to help guide your way.
- Solitude – 2. This is a popular spot for people to do overnight camping. Expect to see lots at the campsites, but you will have more solitude until you get to Seneca Creek.
Directions to trailhead: Directions vary so greatly depending on the direction you’re coming from. Please refer to the trailhead marked on the map below to determine your best route.
This tough 8.75 mile hike follows a vaguely Y-shaped route to two outstanding viewpoints. There are ample opportunities for backcountry camping on this route. If you’re lucky, you may be joined on part of your hike by the famous House Mountain hiking goat!
Like most hikers in Virginia, Adam and I are fans of Hiking Upward. It’s one of our primary resources for route information. We’ve been in touch with Bryce and Tony (the creators of HU) off and on the past few years. We had casually tossed around the idea of meeting up for a hike or backpacking trip, but our schedules never seemed to work out. Finally, in June, we found a date that suited everyone and made plans to meet up for a hike of House Mountain. The HU guys were working on updating information for the re-routed trail up Little House Mountain and we were hiking the area for the first time.
The morning started off gloomy and gray. I was a bit worried about missing out on views, but we got in the car and hoped for clearing skies. Everyone got to the trailhead around 8:30 a.m. We made our formal introductions and started the hike right away. Our hiking party was made up of Adam and me, Tony and Bryce (HU team), and two of Bryce’s friends from work – Wayne and Bharath. It was a great group to hike with and we all fell into easy conversation on the hike up.
The first couple miles of this route follow the Saddle Ridge Trail. This portion of the hike starts off as a gravel road and passes a number of private residences. After the first half mile, the route becomes more trail-ish and passes through shady woods. There is one decent view of rolling hills and field on the right side of the trail.
At about two miles in, you reach the saddle between the Big House and Little House summits. The saddle was historically a homestead and a fruit orchard before being turned over to public use. There is still plenty of open pasture space for tent camping in the saddle. Take a few minutes to read the informational signs about the area while you’re at the saddle. They provide information about the area’s history and the conservation efforts that made these trails possible.
When we visited, we decided to hike Little House first. The trail to the summit is a recent re-route. The old trail was extremely steep, climbing straight up the mountainside without the amelioration of switchbacks. The new trail is still quite steep, but the switchbacks definitely ease the climbing. The trail was just blazed in spring of 2014, so if you hike anytime soon you’ll see plenty of fresh blue blazes marking the way.
We caught some nice views through the trees on the way up before finally gaining the ridge. The ridge made for more moderate walking and included lots of interesting rock formations. There were several small campsites along the ridge walk, too.
Eventually, we reached the end of the trail and a beautiful viewpoint. It was still pretty overcast, but the low clouds had lifted enough to give us a view of the valley below and surrounding mountains. We took time for a snack and a few photos before making our way back down to the saddle. On the return trip, Tony and Bharath decided to take the old trail back down. They beat us back to the saddle by a few minutes.
With everyone regrouped, we headed up the trail to the Big House summit. Within the first couple tenths of a mile, we passed the House Mountain backcountry shelter. It was a nice spot with a new privy and a side trail leading to a spring. We found the shelter stocked with lighter fluid, plastic silverware and other often-forgotten necessities. This hike would make a great beginner backpacking trip! You’d have a couple miles of hiking with a pack. But then you could set up camp and visit the two summits pack-free.
Most of the climb to Big House is along a rugged ATV trail. It’s straight up the mountainside until you reach one large switchback. At the switchback, look carefully for a very rocky, less-worn footpath departing the trail. Depending on the vegetation, this might be an easy spot to miss. If you take the switchback and continue the trail in that direction, you’ll just have a longer walk in the woods and no views.
We started scrambling up the rocks when all of a sudden a black and white animal wearing a red collar bounded out of the woods. At first, I thought it was another random hunting hound that was lost in the mountains. But no… it was a GOAT! She hiked with us the rest of the way to the viewpoint.
At the summit, she followed us around – begging for food and vigorously licking the salty sweat off our arms and legs. It was a hoot and we really enjoyed such a friendly and novel companion on the trail. We ate more snacks, took more photos and spent time hanging out with our new goat buddy.
On the hike down, the goat left us shortly after the switchback. She gave us several loud farewell bleats before she bounded back into the woods. The return hike to our car was all downhill, passing the saddle one last time before retracing our steps on the Saddle Ridge Trail. Near the end of the hike, we had the privilege of meeting Brian. He lives in one of the houses along the trail and is one of the primary people who works on building/maintaining the trails on these mountains. If you see him, be sure to say thanks!
At our cars, we decided to head into downtown Lexington for some post-hike food and beers! As Bryce put it ‘Every good hike should end in a pub!’ We had a good meal and more fun conversation at ‘The Palms’. It was mid-afternoon and not very crowded when we visited – probably a good thing to not subject too many fellow diners to the smell of dirty hikers. :-) After lunch, we made our farewells and parted ways. We had a great day and can’t wait to hit the trail with these guys again.
It was great to finally meet up with Hiking Upward. We do most of our hiking with just the two of us, so there is always a little anxiety about hiking with new people. Because of all the miles they have covered, I wondered if we would be able to keep up or were going to get left in the dust of their hiking boots. Along with our pace, I also wondered what we’d talk about. However, within a few minutes, I knew we were quite the kindred spirits. We talked about many things from hiking experiences to favorite microbrews. As we were sharing some of our favorite trails, we were bringing up names of trails as if we were consulting maps. I guess when we all write these hiking entries, that knowledge sticks with us. I know this was the first of many adventures we will share together.
We started off from the parking lot (pay attention to the sign to know where to park and respect the boundaries). We made our way up the road and at .3 miles, you reach a gate that begins the official trailhead. Past the gate, you start a gradual ascent up a fire road, passing by a residence to the left. At 2.25 miles, you reach the saddle between Big and Little House Mountain and the junction between the two trails.
We started off by hitting Little House Mountain first, taking a right at the information signs and following the blue-blazed trail. The trail starts off relatively flat, but as you round the mountain the trail is very narrow and requires you to be mindful of where you step. At 2.5 miles, the trail then begins to climb up the ridge very steeply and you begin a series of switchbacks until you gain the ridge at 3.1 miles. The trail at this point goes through a thick area of rhododendron and remains slightly flat or downhill until you reach the viewpoint. Along the way, you pass through some areas of larger rocks. At 3.6 miles, the trail opened up to breathtaking views. We paused here for a while to eat a snack and take some photos. There are a few different places to get views from the rocks nearby.
We made our way back to the junction and saddle area, which we reached at 5.0 miles. Now, it was time to take on Big House Mountain. We took the opposite trail at the junction (as you were originally climbing up the trail, it is the trail to the left), making our way through some grassy areas before the trail opened up. Within a short distance, we passed a nice overnight shelter to the right. This shelter had it all – there was a sleeping bag someone left behind and even some cans of Yuengling for someone else to enjoy (if warm beer is your thing). There was a privy building a short distance away. We noticed another blue-blazed trail, which we were told later (by Brian, the trail maintainer) leads to a water source.
After we passed the shelter, the trail opened up to a larger fire road again which kept up a steady, tough climb gaining 400 feet in .4 miles. The trail came to a junction with a switchback trail to the right that leads to the true summit of Big House Mountain, but the views are gained by staying straight on the trail. The trail becomes very rocky at this point and we were soon joined by our goat friend. Her nimbleness on the rocks amazed us and she led us to the rocky Goat Point viewpoint at 5.9 miles. There was an upper perch and a lower perch for taking in some of the gorgeous views. As I was heading to the lower outcropping, I spotted a geocache behind one of the rocks. As I was signing the log, the goat jumped down from the high perch, scaring me and almost making me fall down the mountainside. Be careful out there, especially when there are salt-craving goats waiting to pounce.
We headed back after taking in the views for a while (and being thoroughly licked by the goat). I will say that I think I was the favorite of the goat. This wasn’t the first time I had been amply licked by a goat while hiking – the other time was when we hiked the Massanutten Ridge trail. Maybe the salt from my sweat tasted the best or I was the most agreeable to being licked – I’m not sure. But, as we headed back down the goat followed us until we reached the rocky junction with the switchback to the summit. She stared at us from the top as if to beg us to come back to his place for more licking. We said our goodbyes to the goat and then made our way back. We reached the saddle junction again at 6.6 miles and made it back to our car at 8.75 miles.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are 17 different geocaches to find on the Little House Mountain and Big House Mountain trails. I won’t list them all here, but here are the two at the summits:
After we arrived back at our vehicles, we decided to hit The Palms in Lexington for some great food and a few beers. We had such a great day with our new friends! I can’t believe that we had not heard much about this hike before. This is a true gem of a hike with so many panoramic views!
- Distance – 8.75 miles
- Elevation Change – 2850 ft.
- Difficulty – 4.5. There is some pretty serious climbing on this hike. Not many hikes of this length in Virginia have quite so much elevation gain.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape and the hard work put into maintaining this trail is evident. The newer trail to the summit of Little House Mountain is narrow and steep with some loose sections. We recommend a hiking stick or trekking poles to help keep yourself upright!
- Views – 4.5. Gorgeous! I’d love to visit on a crystal clear fall day sometime!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None – but there is a small piped spring near the camping shelter.
- Wildlife – 3. Any trail that has a wild(ish) goat gets a few wildlife bonus points!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trails in this area are very well-marked. The one tricky spot might be finding the viewpoint on Big House Mountain. If you miss the rocky path departing the trail at the hairpin turn, you might miss the views altogether.
- Solitude –3. We saw a fair number of hiking groups along the trail, but had both overlooks to ourselves.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take the I-64 exit 191 toward Lexington/Charleston. Follow I-64 for six miles to exit 50 (US 60 East). Follow US 60 East for 2.2 miles, turn right on Route 639. Go .8 miles and bear left onto Route 638. Follow 638 for 1.1 miles. Turn right on Route 641, go 1.1 miles. Turn right onto Route 643. Parking is on the left side of the road in .3 miles. Make sure you follow the parking signs on private property.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 9.5 mile hike to Bear Church Rock from Bootens Gap (on Skyline Drive) is a great alternative to the route that begins down in the valley at Graves Mill. While this route doesn’t include the scenic Staunton River or the Jones Mountain Cabin, it crosses some of the deepest, least traveled parts of Shenandoah National Park. And in the end, you reach the same great viewpoint. While this route is a little longer than the alternative, it has less climbing and feels a little more moderate.
Bear Church Rock really impressed us when we hiked it a few years ago, approaching it from Graves Mill. However, we were thinking it would be nice to take a different route that would be more accessible from Skyline Drive. This approach is a mile longer, but it has 400 fewer feet of elevation gain, making this an overall easier climb.
We started off from the Bootens Gap parking lot at Mile Marker 55 on Skyline Drive in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park. We took the Appalachian Trail from the parking lot, heading north. In .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail. We took a right to join this trail. The Laurel Prong Trail ends up going through a relatively steep decline through a loose, rocky section. The trail eventually bottoms out and you reach a junction with the Cat Knob Trail at 1.1 miles. We took the Cat Knob Trail and began a steep incline. The trail hits another junction with the Jones Mountain Trail at 1.8 miles. Take a right on the Jones Mountain Trail. At this point, the trail is relatively flat or downhill for most of the way to Bear Church Rock. At 4.6 miles, we reached a side trail that takes you up a few feet to reach Bear Church Rock. Return the way you came to make this a 9.5 out-and-back.
One thing to note on the trail is you do come across several times where the National Park crosses back and forth across boundary lines with the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. You may see some US Boundary markers in several places that marks the portion that is under National Park control versus Virginia control.
When we reached the highest point of the Cat Knob Trail, we found the largest concentration of pink lady slippers I have ever seen. Everywhere we turned, we kept seeing more and more and they were at the peak of their bloom. That was such a nice reward by coming this route.
Somewhere along the Jones Mountain Trail as we were making our approach to Bear Church Rock, my knee buckled and gave me a lot of pain for the rest of the day. One hard part about hiking is if you get injured, you don’t have a lot of choice but to keep going. I stopped about .25 mile before we reached the summit and rested. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it all the way. Christine went ahead to scout the way and see how much further. Not wanting to be separated too long, I pushed myself onward and found her at the rock overlook. We stayed there to rest for a while and we had the rock all to ourselves. We were joined in about 20 minutes from a man from China who had come up the route from Graves Mill. He didn’t speak English and we heard him on his walkie-talkie talking to someone that we presumed to be his wife. We were guessing she was farther behind and he was assuring her he made it. The climb the other way is quite steep, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had either turned around or was just taking longer to get to the rock.
The views were spectacular. While we had a bit of a cloudy day, it was nice to see the shadows from the clouds creeping along the mountain ridges in the distance.
We decided to make our way back. I felt like getting to the viewpoint and soaking them in allowed me to heal my knee enough to make the return. I was hobbling along slowly, but I had to keep pushing forward. We got back to the car and I was glad to not have to take any more steps.
It was National Trails Day, the weather was great – and even though neither of us was in the mood to go on a long car ride to a distant trailhead, we had to get out and hike! We settled on the hike from Skyline Drive to Bear Church Rock – mostly because it was close to home, but also because we’d never hiked it before. A few years ago, we hiked from the valley bottom in Graves Mill up to Bear Church Rock. That was a challenging and beautiful hike, so we thought it would be fun to visit the rock from the other approach.
From the parking lot at Bootens Gap, we headed north on the Appalachian Trail, gradually ascending Hazeltop Mountain. I was amazed by how lush and green everything in the park looked. It almost looked as green as the Smokies! Our last hike in the park had been in late April, before the leaves fully emerged. Spring always take a long time to fully arrive in the mountains.
After a short, easy stretch on the AT, we reached the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail. We turned right onto the trail and followed it gently downhill, past several springs. In a saddle between two mountains, we reached the junction with the Cat Knob Trail.
That trail climbed steeply over the knob before reaching the junction with the Jones Mountain Trail. The Jones Mountain trail bears to the right. This section of trail actually departs Shenandoah National Park and enters the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. You’ll notice park boundary signs and different orange/red blazes (as opposed to Shenandoah’s blue blazes) when you’re on this part of the hike.
This section of trail is incredibly beautiful! We enjoyed the expansive understory of ferns and countless pink lady’s slippers. The mountain laurel was just starting to bloom. The terrain along the Jones Mountain trail was rolling – lots of ups and downs, none of them too steep. This route to Bear Church is probably less popular than the route from Graves Mill, so the trail was narrow and overgrown. Tall grasses brushed our legs all along the way. Adam said, “All I can think of is ticks. I feel like I’m crawling with them!’ Luckily, the permethrin we’ve been using on our clothes and gear really seems to be working. Neither of us found any ticks during a thorough post-hike check.
Around 3.8 miles into the hike, the trail took an incredibly steep downward turn. We lost about 300 feet of elevation in about a quarter mile. We passed a few rocky outcroppings that looked like they might potentially have views, but they all turned out to be obscured by trees. At 4.25 miles, we started watching carefully for the spur trail to Bear Church Rock. It’s not a marked spur, so conceivably, one could miss it. Our guidebook said that outlook was at this point, but all we could see is a trail continuing steeply downhill.
Adam began to wonder if we passed the view or if maybe it had been closed in by trees. I told him that it was a really open, spectacular view and that it had to be nearby. I told him I’d scout ahead and shout back if I found it. I ended up walking almost another half mile before I reached the spur trail! The distances in our guidebook were way off on describing the last mile of the hike to the viewpoint. Other sources I checked afterwards all put the distance between 9.5 and 9.8 (rather than the 8.5 miles indicated by our book).
There was a large hiking group on the rock, so I felt weird about shouting for Adam. They told me they were headed out the way we came and would send Adam down when they passed him. But, just as the final hiker departed, Adam arrived.
We had lunch on the rock and enjoyed the unspoiled, pristine views of the park. One of the nice things about Bear Church is that you really don’t see civilization from the viewpoint. You get great views of Fork Mountain, Cat Knob and the Staunton River Valley – but no roads or houses or farms. It’s beautiful! The mountain laurel around the rocky viewpoint were in full bloom and quite spectacular!
After a nice rest, we hiked back the way we came. Most of the return trip was uphill, but other than a short section of climbing right after leaving Bear Church it was very moderate, gradual climbing. The last little bit along the AT was smooth downhill. We saw a doe and fawn hiding in the ferns right before we got back to the car. Once we were back in the car, we decided to head up to Big Meadows for blackberry milkshakes (yay!) and to say hello to our PATC friends. We were glad to catch up with the pair of PATC volunteers who led our Backpacking 101 course several years ago. Good day!
- Distance – 9.5 miles
- Elevation Change – About 1800 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The climb down and back up are not overly tough, but the distance gives it an average difficulty.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The rocky slope climbing down the Laurel Prong trail did have some loose rock. The Jones Mountain Trail was quite overgrown along the way and we were walking through a lot of knee-high grassy areas. Wear bug spray and check for ticks afterwards.
- Views– 4. Great mountain views from Bear Church Rock.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t really see much wildlife on this trail. We thought much of it would be a great place to spot a bear since it is in a very wide part of Shenandoah National Park and not as well-traveled.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. You do take four different trails to get to Bear Church Rock, so pay attention at the junction markers.
- Solitude – 3. Most of the people we saw on the trail were on the Laurel Prong portion (typically making their way to the Rapidan Camp). I would expect that you would see someone at Bear Church Rock.
Directions to trailhead: Follow Skyline Drive to mile marker 55. Park at the Bootens Gap parking area on the east side of the drive. The AT departs from the end of the parking lot.
This 4 mile out-and-back follows beautiful Porter Creek to a small waterfall at Fern Branch. The waterfall itself was barely a trickle when we visited, but the lush Smoky Mountain forest was especially beautiful here. This hike also takes you by a historic barn and an old hiking club cabin.
With our week in the Smokies winding down, we wanted to hike something special and something we had never hiked before. I found myself referring to the ‘Hiking In the Smokys‘ website again. They have a list of their personal top 10 favorite hikes. We didn’t want anything over 10 miles, so that ruled out Gregory Bald, Rocky Top and Mt. Cammerer. We had already hiked six of the others (LeConte, Charlies Bunion, Andrews Bald, Chimney Tops, The Jump Off, and Alum Cave). So that left just one from the favorites list – Porters Creek. It sounded like a lovely trail – old growth forest, streams, a waterfall and lots of history.
Before setting out on our hike, we got donuts from The Donut Friar. This made me exceedingly happy and was the perfect start to the day. There is something magical about their chocolate crullers. After donuts, we were on our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies. We’d never hiked anything in that area before, so we were excited to try someplace new.
The road into Greenbrier is mostly gravel, but is well-maintained and easy to drive. It’s also very scenic and follows the Little Pigeon River. The trailhead is about 4 miles down the road. It’s clearly marked and there is plenty of parking.
The trail starts off as a wide, gravel road through the woods. Porters Creek runs along the trail, offering plenty of scenic water views. About .6 of a mile along the way, you’ll see signs of old stone walls and stairs on the right side of the trail. The remnants date back to the early 1900’s when Elbert Cantrell built a farm in this area. Immediately past the farm, you’ll pass the Ownby cemetery. Adam and I walked around the cemetery and noticed that most of the graves belonged to very young children. Sad – it really makes one appreciate modern medicine and vaccinations.
About a mile into the hike, you’ll cross a log footbridge over the creek and come to a Y-junction in the gravel road. The trail to the right goes to more historical structures, but we’ll cover those on the way back. We took the trail to the left and arrived almost immediately to another trail junction – continue bearing left on the Porters Creek Trail. At this point, the gravel road ends and becomes a ‘real’ trail.
This section of the hike is beautiful – lots of big old, trees. It’s so green, shady and peaceful. At 1.6 miles we crossed another log footbridge. This one was much longer and crossed the stream crookedly. From there, the trail ascended gently until we reached Fern Branch falls at 2 miles. The falls are on the left side of the trail and set back a bit in the woods.
When we visited the falls were not flowing very heavily. It was still a beautiful spot – especially with the sunlight filtering into the woods at the crest of the falls. We took some photos and then headed back the way we came.
On the return arm of the trip, we stopped at the Y-junction and visited the John Messer farm site. The cantilevered barn is in excellent condition. Just past the barn, you can visit a springhouse and an old cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking club. Overnight stays at the cabin are no longer permitted.
After visiting the barn and cabin, we made our way back to the car and headed back into town for lunch. We ended up at Hungry Bear Barbecue. It was great and definitely deserves the top ratings it has online.
Porters Creek was definitely beautiful and we would recommend the hike for a low-key, easy day. It would also be our last new hike of our 2014 spring trip. The next day, we chose to re-hike an old favorite – Charlies Bunion.
Staying in Gatlinburg, TN for a few days, we wanted to explore some different sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We decided to check out the Porters Creek after reading about Fern Branch Falls and the wildflowers on the trail. When we got out of our car, we could tell from the wetness of the area and the humidity that it would be a good idea to douse ourselves in bug spray.
We crossed the gate and started along the wide fire road. As Christine mentioned, during the first mile you do get some stream views, ruins of an old farm, and a family cemetery. The trail does ascend, but very slowly, so it is not very challenging.
At the .9 mile mark, there is a small footbridge you can use to cross a small stream (or you can rockhop across). At the 1.0 mile marker, you reach a large junction. There is a side trail to the Messer Barn and hiking club cabin and also a junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail. Take the left Porters Creek Trail. At 1.5 miles, you come to a large footbridge that crosses Porters Creek. This footbridge was much longer and can be a little unsettling since it is fairly high above the creek in some points. The railing for me was also below my hip in some spots, which didn’t give me the feeling that it would protect me if I did slip. After you cross the footbridge, the trail seems to change environments as you walk through a large area of wildflowers and fern. The forest floor was exploding in green! The trail then becomes steeper, narrower, and rocky through this portion until you reach the falls.
As we were walking along, we could hear a waterfall off to our right and got a faint glimpse from a distance, but this was not Fern Branch Falls. Instead, at 1.8 miles, we reached the large waterfall on our left. The trickle from the waterfall wasn’t overly impressive, but it was a nice scenic spot. We made our way back the way we came.
When we returned to the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail, we took the short side trail that led to the barn. Behind the barn, you cross a small stream and then can find the hiking cabin and springhouse. Both the cabin and barn are open, so we enjoyed exploring the abandoned buildings.
We made our way back to our car and found several cars that were arriving to hike this trail. With the cabin, farm, ruins, and graveyard, this hike really does give you a glimpse into the life and environment of families that lived in this area and used these facilities in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. The hiking cabin actually permitted members to stay here until 1981.
- Distance – 4 miles
- Elevation Change – About 800 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. The climbing is gradual and gentle.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The section from the trailhead to the Messer farm is essentially a road. The section from the farm to the falls is trail, but it’s in good shape. The only part that may challenge some hikers are the two log footbridges.
- Views – 0. None
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Porters Creek is lovely. Fern Branch falls would probably be more impressive in wetter weather. It was fairly small when we visited.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple salamanders and a big black snake. There are bear sightings in all parts of the Smokies.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well-marked and easy to follow. You may miss some of the historical remnants if you’re not paying attention.
- Solitude – 3. We hiked on a pretty Thursday in late May and only saw a few other people.
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, go east on 321 for 6 miles. Take a right at the Greenbrier entrance to GSMNP. The road will turn to gravel. The road will fork at 3.1 miles, but continue straight at the fork to reach the Porters Creek parking area at about 4 miles.