The Devil’s Marbleyard
This 8.1 mile hike passes an impressive boulder field then climbs along the Gunter Ridge trail for some nice (but obstructed) views.
We keep a list of hikes we want to do stuck with a magnet to the side of our refrigerator. The Devil’s Marbleyard hike had been on that list for nearly three years. It kept getting delayed for closer hikes or hikes with better views or taller waterfalls. We finally decided it was time to knock it off the list.
We got up early Sunday morning, grabbed donuts, bagels and coffee en route and made our way down the Blue Ridge Parkway. We got to the trailhead parking area around 10:00 and thankfully found only a couple other cars there. Evidently, cars that overflow the official parking lot are frequently towed. So, if you hike this trail, make sure your car is in the lot or that all four wheels are off the road and not on private property.
After crossing a small bridge over a stream, the trail passes through an old stone gateway that used to mark entry to a Boy Scout camp called ‘Camp Powhatan’. You immediately come to a National Forest/Wilderness placard. At this point, you’re only a little over a mile from the Devil’s Marbleyard. (The sign says one mile, but our GPS and most trail guides seem to say it’s about 1.4 miles to reach the Marbleyard). The trail meanders through the woods, crossing shallow spots on the creek a couple times.
I really enjoyed seeing the blooming azaleas, Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel. The laurel bloomed so early this year! What I did not enjoy were the locusts! The Blue Ridge Brood of the seventeen-year cicada is currently emerging in our area, and they were everywhere along the Belfast Creek trail. They were screaming overhead in the trees — I likened the sound to the one made by a failing belt tensioner on our SUV a few years ago. It’s a squeal mixed with an undertone of hiss. Not only are the locusts noisy – they’re CREEPY! Sometimes they fly into you. They have red eyes. And worst of all, they leave yellowish-clear, crunchy, empty husks everywhere when they molt. I will be very glad when locust season is over and I can have seventeen years of peace again!
As we came upon the Marbleyard, we crossed paths with the hikers from the two other cars we had seen in the lot. The first was a nice guy from Virginia Beach who was at the tail end of a week-long hiking vacation along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We enjoyed chatting with him and sharing information and tips about favorite hikes. The second was a pair of local kids who warned us of muddy/slippery conditions on the trail ahead. Adam had a little incident there, but I’ll let him share that tale in his portion of the post.
Before proceeding up the trail, we took some time to explore the Marbleyard. Basically, it looks like an immense stone mountain exploded and collapsed into thousands of boulders of every shape and size. If you want to climb to the top of the Marbleyard, you have to do so by scrambling up the rocks. It looks like the trail alongside the Marbleyard reaches the top, but in reality the trail turns slightly away from the boulder field and climbs upward to the Gunter Ridge trail. I imagine most hikers visit the Marbleyard and then head back to their car, making this a short 2.8 out and back. We considered doing this, but since we had already driven so far, we decided to do the full 8.3 mile loop.
After playing on the rocks for a while, we headed along… climbing uphill for a while until we reached the junction of the Belfast trail and the Gunter Ridge trail. At this spot there is a spacious (but dry) campsite.
The Gunter Ridge trail was easy walking, but was quite overgrown. Because of the heat and humidity, I had decided to hike in shorts and a t-shirt, so I started to worry about ticks climbing onto my legs from the tall grass. Adam, on the other hand, hiked in long pants tucked into his socks. I’m getting ahead of myself, but guess who came home with six ticks crawling on his clothes – and guess who came home with none crawling on her. I always joke that my husband is a real ‘tick magnet’.
The trail along this section really opens up and provides some nice, but slightly obstructed, views. A forest fire that swept through this area about a decade ago is still very evident. There are no tall trees and charred stumps can be seen peeking up through the brushy vegetation in many places.
After walking along the ridge for a while, you come to a seemingly endless series of switchbacks climbing down the mountain. Eventually you reach a wooden horse gate, and cross out of designated wilderness into standard National Forest. Almost immediately after passing through the gate, you will encounter a stream. We stopped here for lunch. I had been wanting to eat for almost an hour, but this was the first place that really had an opening to sit and eat since the campsite at the junction of the Gunter Ridge and Belfast trails.
After lunch, we still had a couple miles of walking along the Glenmont Horse trail. It was easy hiking, but also really boring. It’s the part of the hike where you know you’ve seen all the cool stuff, but you still have several miles of walking along a featureless road/path. It reminded me a lot of all the fire road/paved road walking at the end of the Old Rag hike.
All in all, the hike to Devil’s Marbleyard made for a pleasant day. But, if I were to recommend the hike to others, I’d suggest just hiking to the Marbleyard as an out-and-back. If the rhododendron, laurel and azaleas hadn’t been blooming, I don’t think there was much to see on the rest of the loop.
It has been about 20 years since I last hiked the Devil’s Marbleyard trail. Those that know me personally or have read this blog for a while know I grew up in Lynchburg. Some of the hikes that are most popular with people around there are Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Devil’s Marbleyard. The first two have great views and are close to Peaks of Otter, a popular picnic area. The last time I did this hike I was with with a group of friends from home. I remember the boulder field seemed so impressive. While there are similar slopes of rock along Furnace Mountain and Hawksbill summit (among others), these boulders are much larger. My friends and I climbed up the boulders from the bottom of the field. One of my friends almost stepped on a rattlesnake that was sunning itself on the rocks. I’m sure a number of rattlesnakes make their home in the cracks between the rocks, so be careful. The climb up to the top takes longer than you would expect and requires a lot of energy to navigate the scramble. Since we planned on hiking a long loop, we opted to just climb around a while on the bottom.
With every interesting geological feature, there seems to be a legend that has been passed down over the years and Devil’s Marbleyard is no different. In the local tale, this area was occupied by Native Americans and the land was supposedly very green and lush. There was a large stone altar at the top of this hill that was used for worship on full-moon nights. A white couple met the Native Americans and they were thought to be spirits since they looked so different than the local tribes. The couple said they were not spirits but they worshiped a higher power. They converted the Native Americans to Christianity. However, the next year brought about a great drought and the Native Americans felt the new God and the missionaries were to be held responsible. They burned the couple alive on the altar. As the flames reached high into the sky, a storm formed. Lightning struck down upon the altar and exploded the rock over the mountainside.
Christine and I talked about this legend on the hike. I guess there can be a few different morals to the story depending on your perspective. From the perspective of the white missionaries, it may be best to not spread your religion to others if you want to stay alive. From the perspective of the Native Americans, it may be to either believe your own gods or keep faith in your new God. It is an interesting thing to think about on this hike, even if there may not be much truth to the origin of the boulder slope.
To complete the full loop hike, begin in the parking lot and cross the bridge and take the blue-blazed Belfast Trail. At .2 miles, the trail splits. Bear right to stay on the blue-blazed trail. The trail is a rocky, uphill climb that leads to the Devil’s Marbleyard boulder field at 1.4 miles. Continue up the trail which follows parallel to the right of the boulders up a steep section (which can also be very slippery if there has been recent rain – as I found out with a hard fall onto slick rock). After you near the summit of the boulder field, the steepness of the trail lessens. At 2.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and a small campsite. The Gunter Ridge Trail heads off to the left heading down the mountain slightly, but you are mostly following along a ridge line. Eventually, this trail begins to open up to some obstructed but nice views on the ridge. The trail then descends quickly through a series of switchbacks. At 5.8 miles, you will exit the James River Face Wilderness boundary through a gate and cross Little Hellgate Creek. At the 6.0 mile mark, you will reach the orange-blazed Glenwood Horse Trail, a large fire road. Follow this to the left and make your way along this trail that does go slightly uphill until reaching the junction with the Belfast Trail at 7.9 miles. Take a right on the Belfast Trail to reach the parking lot at 8.1 miles.
If you are interested in geocaching, there is one geocache that can be found on the scramble up the boulders at the Devil’s Marbleyard – Devils Marble Yard Cache.
Like Christine, I would probably recommend that if you were coming here to see the best features of the trail, I would just do this as a 2.8 mile out-and-back to the Marbleyard and back. The views from the top of the Gunter Ridge Trail are more obstructed and doesn’t seem necessary when there are many other nice view hikes nearby on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- Distance – 8.1 miles
- Elevation Change – 1510 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The climb up past the Marbleyard to the Gunter Ridge trail is steep, but once you gain the ridge it’s most level or downhill. The Glenmont horse trail is wide open and slightly uphill.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The trail is in decent shape in most places. It was very slick, steep and muddy climbing alongside the Marbleyard. The Gunter Ridge trail was easy to follow, but very overgrown with tall grasses and brush.
- Views– 2. There are plenty of obstructed views on the Gunter Ridge Trail, but nothing spectacular.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2.5. The stream running along the Belfast Trail is small but lovely.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a ton of fence lizards but not much else (unless you want to count the seventeen year locusts)
- Ease to Navigate – 3. There are a few turns and trails here are not as well marked as trails in the national park, but if you pay attention, finding your way should be easy.
- Solitude – 3 You will likely share the Marbleyard with other hikers, but the rest of the loop does not seem heavily traveled.
Directions to trailhead: From the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile 71, you will see a small road (FSR 35) that is on the western side of the road at a curve. Take this road which leads past the Petites Gap AT parking area. At 4.2 miles, you will see the parking area on the right (just after you start seeing more houses on the road). Make sure you either park in the lot or make sure you park completely off the road or your vehicle may be towed.