Little Devils Stairs
We hope you enjoyed our special Great Smoky Mountains Edition! Now we’re back to Virginia! Although… honestly, the heat has kept us mostly off the trail lately.
The 5.5 mile Little Devils Stairs hike climbs through an impressive gorge along Keyser Run and loops back past a family cemetery that pre-dates the park.
To try and beat afternoon rain in the forecast, we decided to hike Little Devils Stairs early in the morning. To cut back a little on the distance along fire roads, we decided to start the hike from the perimeter of the park (near Sperryville) rather than from Skyline drive.
The trail begins immediately going into the forest from the parking lot and is a very gradual ascent along Keyser Run. After about .9 miles, the trail then begins to climb more steeply as you are climbing up the “stairs” along the gorge. The climbing can be quite steep, at times requiring you to use your hands to also help balance or pull yourself up. Over the next mile, you gain 1000 feet of elevation on your climb. Along the way up the climb, you will come across several smaller waterfalls and will have to cross over the stream in a few places. At 1.75 miles, the climb tapers off and the trail moves away from the gorge. At 2.1 miles, you reach the junction with the Keyser Run Fire Road. Take a left on this fire road and begin your descent. The road was fairly uneventful, but it is a good place to spot butterflies and you may see a snake sunning itself on a part of the road. At 3.9 miles, the road begins to enter the forest again and you will see some more old-growth hemlocks along the road that create a canopy over the road. At 4.2 miles, you will reach the Bolen family cemetery. Just ahead is the junction with the Hull School Trail, but stay on the fire road veering to the left. At 5.4 miles, you will reach the park boundary and at 5.5 miles, you will return back to your vehicle in the small parking lot.
The highlight of this hike is definitely the gorge that was created along this geological fault line that eroded quickly. You can read more about the geology of Shenandoah National Park here. At one point along the trail, you can see a sheer cliff face of rock. I can easily imagine people rock climbing up this gorge wall with the proper technical gear. I have seen Little Devils Stairs and Big Devils Stairs listed in a book about rock climbing in Virginia, so you may luck out and see some people navigating up to the top.
A sadder note along the trail is the Bolen family cemetery. While we may enjoy the national park that is here, there were many families that were forced to uproot their lives and move out of the area as the government took over the land. The cemetery of the family still stands and was rededicated in 2002.
Little Devil Stairs is another hike we’ve had on our list of trails we wanted to add to the website for quite a while. We’ve hiked it before - the last time was probably about a year before we started this website. It’s a decent hike, but I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorites in the park. The section of the hike that passes through the gorge is fun, tough and interesting – but that’s only a little over one mile of the entire five and a half miles. Way more than half of the hike is along a fire road. And if you’ve read our site with any regularity, you know how I feel about fire roads (they’re boring!)
The drive to the trailhead was really pretty. We passed by Luray, over Thornton Gap and down past Sperryville. There were lots of winding country roads, meadow views and meandering stone walls on the way to the parking area. When we got there, we were the only car. I absolutely LOVE having a trail all to myself!
We started off climbing gently uphill through the woods, crossing several spots of dry streambed. The insect activity on this particular day was insane. I alternated walking like a normal person with walking like a crazy person, arms flailing all around my face, trying to bat away the clouds of gnats and midges. Between the bugs, the humidity and the heat – summer hiking can be really tough.
I had been pretty concerned about the dry streambed crossings, but once we reached the gorge, the water flow picked up a bit. Little Devil Stairs is definitely a hike you want to do when there has been a significant amount of recent rain. The primary appeal of the gorge is the constant string of small waterfalls and rapids that pours down the ‘stairs’. When the weather has been wet, Little Devils Stairs is lovely and wild. The sound of running water hemmed in by stone walls constantly surrounds you. However, when the weather has been dry, the hike is nothing but steep uphill through a rugged, overgrown and brushy gorge. The towering rock walls are still impressive, but without running water, something is missing from this hike.
With a thousand feet of elevation gain in just under a mile, the path up can be a real quad-burner if you’re not in decent shape. It’s mostly walking along trail, but there are several sections where you must scramble up over giant stair-like rocks. The top of the gorge is marked by the largest of all the waterfalls along Keyser Run. After you pass the final fall, the trail grade becomes more gentle and passes through pretty, quiet forest. In a short time, you’ll reach the Fourway Junction. People hiking Little Devil Stairs from Skyline Drive will come down the trail at this junction. For us, it was the point where the ‘hike’ ended and the fire road walking began.
We considered jogging down the trail to make the distance pass more quickly, but I wanted to keep my camera and telephoto out in case we saw wild flowers, butterflies or bears! The heavy camera kept bouncing on my hipbone, so I had to slow to a walk (I got a huge bruise anyhow). And indeed – there were plenty of butterflies and wildflowers to photograph along the way. We didn’t see a bear on the trail, but we did see one later as we drove back through the park.
The last point of interest along the fire road was the stop at the Bolen Cemetary. It’s a beautiful spot for a final resting place – surrounded by a stone wall and shaded by elegant maple trees planted by the original property owner. It’s one of the more meticulously maintained cemeteries in the park. If you walk amongst the headstones, you can’t help but notice how young most people died. So many babies, children and young adults rest under these markers. When I was researching information about this trail, I came across a wonderful feature article from Blue Ridge Country magazine about the family reunions that still take place at the cemetery. I enjoyed reading all the recollections of Beulah and Mary Bolen about their life in the area before the park existed.
After leaving the cemetery, the remaining distance along the fire road went steeply downhill. We arrived back at our car fairly quickly and headed to Big Meadows to have some lunch in the park. After lunch, the skies opened up and it poured down rain the rest of the day. I’m glad we got a chance to get out before the weather changed!
- Distance – 5.5 miles
- Elevation Change – About 1650 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The climb up Little Devils Stairs can be strenuous in parts, but the fire road is easy walking.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The climb up the stairs is rocky and you do have to cross Keyser Run as the trail criss-crosses over in several places.
- Views– 1. From near the top of the gorge, you may get an obstructed view, but nothing spectacular.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. You are walking along Keyser Run through the first couple of miles of the hike. The waterfalls are mostly small, but still nice to see.
- Wildlife – 2. There are signs of bear scat in the area, but we didn’t see much wildlife other than a snake along the fire road. You will hear lots of warblers and other birds as you enter the hemlock forest near the end of the hike.
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. The blue blazes for the Little Devils Stairs hike are not as prevalent in some places and may require you to look around for the next one, especially in the fall when leaves cover the trail. Posts at the trail junctions provide some great direction.
- Solitude – 3. Except on weekends, I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of people on this trail.
Directions to trailhead: Off of 211 north of Sperryville, take a left on County Road 622/Gidbrown Hollow Road. Follow this road for a few miles and then take a left on County Road 614/Keyser Run Road. At the end of this road, you will reach a small parking lot. The trailhead starts to the right of the parking lot, marked by a concrete post.