This hike to Mary’s Rock starts from Jewell Hollow. The route follows the Appalachian Trail for roughly three miles to Mary’s Rock. After spending some time enjoying the views, simply retrace your steps back to Jewell Hollow for a total hike of roughly six miles. There are other ways to reach the summit, but in our opinion, this route offers the best scenery and the most pleasant trail conditions.
Mary’s Rock is a great view hike on the Appalachian Trail. There are many theories on how the summit got its name, but my favorite one is that Francis Thornton’s daughter Mary climbed up to the rock and came back down carrying a bear cub under each arm. You can find other legends about the naming of this place on Shenandoah.com. Francis Thornton III owned a lot of land to the east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Thornton Gap is named for him.
We have hiked to Mary’s Rock numerous times in the traditional way, from the trailhead at Panorama, but the trail from Jewell Hollow is not one to be missed. In my opinion, this is definitely one of the best hikes to do in the park for scenery. In the fall, you will be able to see great colorful views looking into the western valley below.
The trail is probably roughest during the first .75 miles, but then the rocks tend to give way to easier footing. There are great places to take in the views at .85 miles at the Pinnacle and at another overlook at 2.0 miles. You will also pass a AT hiker hut (Byrd’s Nest #3) about halfway through the trip.
Despite the fact that we had to rush to make it back to the car by sunset, we really enjoyed this trail. We saw a bear on the trail going up and probably the same one again coming back. On the way back, I was probably only 75 feet away when the bear crossed our path, but he quickly took off as soon as he realized we were nearby. We also encountered two large bucks on the trail, too. When we saw the first one, we were coming downhill and it appeared that the buck wanted to stand his ground and approach us. So, we yelled at him and shooed him back into the forest.
There is a geocache at the top of Mary’s Rock requiring you to identify dates on the USGS markers. You will have to climb up on the steep rocks to find them, but if you feel comfortable scrambling on rocks, this isn’t too tough.
- Mary’s Rock Geocache titled “At the Rock”
What can I say… we didn’t do a very good job using the distance scale on our map for this hike! I would have sworn that our PATC map made the hike look like 3.5 – 4 miles total, rather than the 6 miles it actually turned out to be. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but we didn’t start walking until 5:45 p.m.
This was the first time we’ve accessed Mary’s Rock via the Appalachian Trail. In the past, we’ve always gone by-the-book, and followed the designated Mary’s Rock trail. That trail begins at the Panorama parking lot, and makes its way up the mountain via a series of switchbacks. The Mary’s Rock trail is fine, but it’s really quite boring in way of scenery and views. The hike we did along the AT is longer, but it’s also flatter and tremendously more scenic.
The trail we hiked primarily follows the ridgeline, making one dip down through a saddle between the mountains. The trail is lined with ferns, mountain laurels and rhododendrons. There are many truck-sized boulders along the trail. They kind of look like graveyard headstones for giants. At the .85 mile mark, hikers are treated to an absolutely spectacular view from the Pinnacles, which is the highest point in Rappahannock County. The craggy, boulder-strewn mountains sweep down into the valley, hawks soar below and you get a nice look at Mary’s Rock way off in the distance. As I was enjoying the Pinnacles view, I said to Adam “You know… Mary’s Rock still looks pretty far off. Are you sure we got the distance right? We’re not going to be hiking back in the dark, are we?” He responded “Nah, we’re fine! You need to trust my map reading skills.”
A while later, we passed the Byrd’s Nest #3 Shelter, which was close to the halfway point of the walk up to Mary’s Rock. Time was passing quickly, and I was getting the distinct feeling that the hike was longer than the mileage we estimated. I started to get a bit squirrely at this point. We didn’t have headlamps or a flashlight, and I seriously did not want to get stuck out on the trail after sun down. A lot of the trail’s footing is made up of loose rocky terrain that twists its way through dense mountain laurel thickets. Also, there was a bear lurking in the area – we had heard him crashing through the woods and seen his rounded ears peeking up through the brush.
After passing the shelter, we started almost jogging the trail to make sure we’d have ample daylight for the return trip. We got to the summit around 7:20, just a little over an hour before sunset. Mary’s Rock is an impressive rock outcropping that overlooks both the Shenandoah Valley and a little bit of the eastern Piedmont. In the late afternoon, the light is so warm and lovely on the rock. We enjoyed the vista for a couple minutes, and then promptly began our return trip. Along the way back, we crossed paths with about a half dozen thru-hikers. Many of them were setting up camp at the Byrd’s Nest shelter. We hiked the entire return trip very quickly, and made it back to our car just about ten minutes before the sun set. As we stepped off the trail onto Skyline Drive, I noticed a bear with cubs in the woods on the other side of the road. It was nice to see the bear family as a grand finale for our hike.
Under normal, non-rushed circumstances, I’d have to say this is one of the prettiest and most pleasant hikes I’ve ever done in the park. I’d love to go back and re-hike it in the fall. I think the views along the way would offer some amazing places to photograph the fall foliage. And from now on, we’re not hiking anything over three miles in the evening.
- Distance – 6 miles total, out-and-back
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 800 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. Nice and mostly level, with only a few very moderate climbs.
- Trail Conditions – 3. There are some loose and pointy rocks along several sections of the trail. If you don’t pay attention, this trail can be an ankle-turner. But overall the trail is smooth and well-maintained.
- Views – 4. On a clear day – the views are amazing!
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent
- Wildlife – 5. Bears, bucks, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels and many species of birds. It was a great trail to see animals.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. After a very brief walk on the Leading Ridge trail, you follow the AT all the way up to Mary’s Rock. You will not see signs for Mary’s Rock until the cement marker post at the Meadow Springs trail junction.
- Solitude – 3. You probably won’t see many hikers between Jewell Hollow and the Meadow Springs Trail junction (with the exception of AT hikers in June). However, the officially designated Mary’s Rock is very popular. It is likely you will see many people in the last mile before reaching Mary’s Rock.
Directions to trailhead: The trail is located on Skyline Drive at mile marker 37. Park at the Jewell Hollow Overlook. Walk 50 yards north on Skyline Drive. You’ll see a cement marker for the Leading Ridge trail on the west side of the drive. Follow the Leading Ridge trail for .1 of a mile to a junction with the AT. Turn right and proceed from there.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.