This 3.1 mile out-and-back takes you up a steep and rocky road and along the Appalachian Trail. After a short scramble up a nearly sheer rock face, hikers are treated to what is arguably one of the best views in central Virginia.
Adam and I had a great hike up to Spy Rock. The route is kind of uneventful for the first mile, as it follows a steep, blue-blazed, rocky forest road. Hikers gain about 1000 feet in elevation over this mile, so it’s pretty tough climbing. There wasn’t much scenery worth mentioning along this stretch, but there was one interesting tree (pictured below) that you can’t miss! I thought it looked like a gnarled Ent. We saw a few Appalachian Trail hikers descending the road. They were probably on their way to the Montebello Post Office or the Dutch Haus. (this bed and breakfast is well-known for providing free lunch to thru-hikers). Note: As of 2014, Dutch Haus is closed.
At right around the mile mark, the road comes a junction with the Appalachian Trail. Go left at the junction and head north on the trail. Along the AT, the way continues rather steeply uphill. The terrain moderates a little after about a tenth of mile, but this is definitely an all uphill haul. We felt really lucky to do this hike on such a cool, pleasant morning. The forecast in the valley called for highs near 90 and excessive humidity. Up in the mountains, it was humid, but the temperature never quite made it to 70.
We quickly reached the spur trail, on the right, to Spy Rock. It passes through a lovely, open section of woods. The area around Spy Rock is flat and grassy. It would be a perfect place to camp, as long as you haul in enough water.
Spy Rock is a bit of a challenge to climb. The trail leading to it abruptly ends at the base of the giant boulder. There is no clear path up the rock, rather you pick and choose your own route based on what you think you can cling to or balance upon. I definitely got a bit of vertigo climbing up, so I focused on taking some deep breaths and looking at the rock immediately beneath me. Once I cleared the edge of the boulder, the head-spins I felt were made immediately worthwhile. What a spectacular view! The top of Spy Rock is enormous and flat – pitted with small pools of water. There are mountain views in every direction.
We shared the rock with a couple more thru-hikers. (there are still quite a few in Virginia – although I think the bulk of the pack is north of here, headed into Pennsylvania and beyond). This pair didn’t seem to be having the best day on the trail, so we left them to their conversation. We enjoyed the view for a short while and then hiked back – thankfully, all downhill.
Spy Rock really provides some of the most amazing views in Virginia. There are so many hikes in this area (like The Priest, Cole Mountain, and Mount Pleasant) that I think get missed by a lot of people, but I would definitely recommend taking a few days to visit this area of Virginia. Traveling along the curvy roads to get to this hike defines to me what Virginia is all about – rolling hills, farmland, and mountains.
The trail starts off near the Montebello State Fish Hatchery. You start the trail across from the parking lot. You go around the road gate and up the gravel fire road. The road is flanked by wildflowers and blackberries along each side and provides a steady uphill climb. You will see blue blazes sporadically placed on trees or telephone poles up the side of the road. You stay on this road for one mile (you will see lots of side roads to residential cabins, but stay on the main blue-blazed road/trail). At this point, you will reach a junction with the Appalachian Trail. Take a left to head north on the AT for another .5 miles. You will then reach several well-established campsites and a sign pointing to Spy Rock. You will need to scramble up the rock, so you may want to leave your trekking poles/hiking sticks at the bottom. The scramble up the rock leads to amazing 360-degree views all around you. Return the way you came. For a longer option, The Priest is about four miles from Spy Rock, which would make for an 11 mile trip to two great views.
If you have a compass with you and a map, this is a great spot to test out your ability to follow the map and name the peaks around you. Among others, you should have good views of Maintop Mountain, The Priest, The Cardinal, The Friar, and Painter Mountain.
For any geocachers out there, there is one geocache, Spy Rock Geocache, that is easily accessible from the summit.
I could have spent a long time up there staring into the distance and enjoying the scenery. I can only imagine how gorgeous this must look in the fall with the leaves changing color. I highly recommend this hike to everyone!
- Distance – 3.1 miles, out-and-back
- Elevation Change – 1260 feet
- Difficulty – 3
- Trail Conditions –4. The forest road leading up the mountainside is rocky, but still east to walk on. The half mile section of the Appalachian Trail is well-graded. Spy Rock itself might be slight challenge to climb for some.
- Views – 5. Amazing, breathtaking and expansive.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. None.
- Wildlife –3. We saw a couple deer and lots of butterflies.
- Ease to Navigate –4. Just follow the forest road up the mountain and turn left on the Appalachian Trail. Unless you follow one of the drives off the forest road or miss the Spy Rock spur, there’s no way to get lost.
- Solitude – 2. We saw a few groups of thru-hikers and a group of dayhikers.
Directions to trailhead:
From I-81, take exit 205 towards Steeles Tavern. Take a left on to Rte. 11 and then a quick right on to VA-56 heading east. Follow the road, passing under the Blue Ridge Parkway. In Montebello, follow signs to the Fish Hatchery (Fish Hatchery Ln.) Pass the signs for the hatchery’s nature trail and proceed until you see the signs for Spy Rock/Appalachian Trail parking. There is a large parking area at the trailhead.