This 19.5 mile overnight backpacking trip has amazing views and pretty stream scenery. The terrain is relatively easy, so it’s a great stretch if you’re looking to cover higher miles without a ton of uphill climbing. Since this is a longer post, Adam is going to cover day one, and Christine will cover day two.
This hike had a very rough start and almost became the hike that never happened. The morning of our trip, we loaded up our cars and headed out. We needed to take two cars since we were doing a shuttle. About ten minutes into the drive, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Christine turning back around and heading home. She had forgotten her hiking shoes and was only wearing flip-flops in the car – not the best idea for a backpacking trip. We made a quick return home. When I pulled into the driveway, black metallic smoke started rolling out from underneath our hood. Not good at all! But we didn’t want to throw in the towel yet. We took the smoking car to Bob Wade Auto World (the Subaru dealership where we bought the car), but found they weren’t open yet. So, we decided to fill up on a big breakfast at Cracker Barrel and stop by again when they opened at 9:00. We got to the dealership and explained the problem. They have great customer service! We ended up with a free loaner car to use while our Outback was in the shop. They were so quick with the paperwork and processing that we were back on the road in less than 15 minutes. Saved!!
We dropped our first car at our finish line where the Appalachian Trail crosses VA Route 56. We then headed to the starting point. It took us about 50 minutes to get to Hog Camp Gap, since there is no direct road that parallels the AT. The last piece of road to get to Hog Camp Gap is very rocky and filled with potholes, but we made it there safely. The parking lot was already crowded as this is a great starting point for many hikes, whether you’re going to Mt. Pleasant, Cole Mountain, Spy Rock, or camping near Cow Camp Gap shelter. We got all of our gear together quickly and walked through the large break in the fence to start our hike on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading north. The trail began to climb up a hillside and within 1 mile, we were blessed with astonishing views, looking over the Tar Jacket Ridge to catch views of the bald on Cole Mountain, Mount Pleasant, and Pompey Mountain. I knew at this point our luck was turning for the best. I found it hard to pry myself away from the views, but knowing that we had a lot of distance to cover, we pressed on. The trail then begins to gradually descend from the ridgeline and we crossed USFS 62 and Salt Log Gap at 2.2 miles.
The trail was relatively flat for a good stretch of the trail going forward. There were some views through the trees occasionally as we walked on, but the true treat was all the trillium that was on the trail. This is by far Christine’s favorite wildflower. She was hoping to see some along the trail and we were pleased to find entire hillsides filled with these flowers in perfect bloom. We crossed USFS 246 at mile 3.6, Greasy Spring/USFS 1176A at mile 4.1 and reached the crossing of the North Fork of Piney River at mile 5.9. We stopped and ate our lunch on the side of the trail. The only excitement along this piece of trail was Christine swore she saw a bear, but it was just a person (dressed all in black) taking a lunch break far uphill from the trail (which we thought was an odd place to stop). We pressed on along the trail and finally reached the Seely-Woodworth Shelter at mile 7.4. When we arrived at the shelter there were several backpacks at the shelter, but no sign of people anywhere. We took a long break and rested our feet. We were joined shortly by Christine’s “bear man” who was doing a longer section hike and covering a lot of Virginia. We shared some hiking stories (like how he never purifies water but has only got sick once). Knowing that we had more miles to cover today, we strapped our heavy packs back on and continued.
We reached a junction with Porters Field (a fire road that used to be a railroad trail) at mile 8.4. We had read on the hiking blog of a friend (thanks, Wandering Virginia), about a water source near this junction. We took this short side trail past a campsite and then headed downhill towards the sound of water. Water was coming out steadily from under a large rock. We decided to cook some dinner here. While we both weren’t overly starving since we had eaten lunch not too long ago, this seemed like the best place to cook some dinner and refill water. We were shooting to camp at Spy Rock, which is a dry camp, so we needed to carry enough water for breakfast After dinner, we made our way back to the AT. Christine typically doesn’t like hiking with a full stomach, but because we needed to get to our camp site for the night, we pushed on. We crossed over the Fish Hatchery Road at Montebello at 9.6 miles. On the other side of the road, we saw the steep ascent up to Spy Rock. The trail climbed up about 400 feet in .5 miles, but when we reached the top of the hill, we found our perfect campsite at the base of Spy Rock.
We took off our packs and began to set up camp. There were already a few campsites already claimed, but we found a nice flat spot with no rocks or protruding roots. We had just bought a new two-person tent, the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2, which was much lighter than our 3-person tent, and we were excited to try it out. We set the tent and fly up and then made our way to check out the views from the summit of Spy Rock. There is a little rock scramble up to the top of Spy Rock, but the 360-degree views from this spot are not to be missed. We stayed up there a while to soak in as many views as we could, before making our way back to camp. We had a long, tiring, day that started off stressful, so we were ready to go to sleep before the sun fully set. We both read books for a while and then went to sleep. Or rather, tried to go to sleep. Right after sunset, the wind started to pick up. At first it was an occasional rustle across the treetops, but by midnight it was moaning and howling over the mountains.
That was a rough night to spend in a tent! Even with it staked and guylined, it rattled and shook all night long. The wind continually caught under the fly and funneled through the tent’s mesh. Even in long pants, a hat, and layers of fleece, I was cold in my 35 degree bag. It wasn’t even that cold outside – the wind was just really brutal! Neither Adam nor I got much sleep. I found myself wide awake when the first hints of dawn light started to brighten the tent.
I told Adam I wanted to climb Spy Rock again to watch the sun come up. He decided to stay back. I grabbed my camera, scaled the rock and found a perch facing east. It was a beautiful, though cloudless, sunrise. I thought I was alone on the top of the rock, but suddenly a huge white dog we had met the night before came bounding across the rock and decked me. He was friendly, and I was fine, but his owner was embarrassed and came chasing after the dog. I stayed on Spy Rock watching the sun come up until I couldn’t take the wind and cold anymore.
When I came down, Adam was already in the process of breaking down camp. We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and were back on the trail by around 7:30. Day two of this trip had a bit more climbing than the first day. Our first ascent was that of Maintop Mountain. It was a moderate ascent with one nice view near the summit. I started the morning in a fleece jacket and gloves. By the time we reached the summit, I had stripped them off. Climbing really warms you up!
From there, we descended into Cash Hollow. We passed a southbound section hiker and a group of Boy Scouts. We crossed a couple gravel roads – 826 and 526. Off-roaders really enjoy these roads – they’re very rugged and tough to drive unless you have a serious 4WD vehicle. After the second road crossing, signs and an informational board informed us that we had just entered The Priest Wilderness.
We had about a mile of climbing to reach the Priest shelter and the ridgeline of the mountain. The climbing is really pretty moderate, but it seemed tough to my tired legs and sleepy mind. We stopped at The Priest shelter for a snack and rest. I changed into shorts – the day was warming very quickly! Adam and I both made our ‘confessions’ in the Priest journal. It’s one of the funniest we’ve seen along the AT – reading everyone’s confessions is definitely worth a stop!
From there, we completed our last couple hundred feet of ascent to the top of the Priest. Near the top, we enjoyed amazing views of the valley and had a chance to see an adult bald eagle soar by on the wind. The rest of our hike was a long, 4-mile, 4,000 foot descent to the Tye River.
We took it slowly, enjoying wildflowers along the way! The trail was abundantly lined with trillium, wild violets, and wild geraniums. Both of us remarked that we were glad to not be climbing up this side of the mountain! Southbound AT hikers experience one of Virginia’s toughest climbs when they encounter the Priest!
The first mile of the descent was the steepest. As the grade moderated, we came to another outstanding overlook. The opening in the trees revealed lush Virginia countryside – farms and ponds. At this elevation, the trail was much greener. Leaves were opening in the canopy and the ground cover was brilliant green. We crossed Cripple Creek in several places. The rain a couple days earlier had filled the stream and created several beautiful waterfalls. We enjoyed walking through the woods and listening to the sounds of falling water. We saw even more wild flowers – a hillside of scarlet catchfly was especially beautiful!
Eventually, we could see the sunlight catching on car windshields through the trees. We were both pretty tired and happy to be back at the car! We had covered almost 20 miles in roughly 24 hours. It’s the furthest we’ve ever hiked in that time period, so we felt pretty accomplished.
We had a long car shuttle to get back to Hog Camp Gap. After picking up the other car, we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Reed’s Gap so we could have lunch at Devil’s Backbone. It’s always great to eat a HUGE plate of food after a big hike – fries, a grilled brat and beer for me!
- Distance – 19.5 miles [Day One] [Day Two]
- Elevation Change – About 3172 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. Mostly for distance. This section of the AT has little climbing uphill overall, but the hike down The Priest is quite steep.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail is well maintained and in good shape. We did feel the hike down from The Priest was really rocky and hard on the feet and ankles.
- Views – 5. This hike has AMAZING views from Tar Jacket Ridge, Spy Rock, and The Priest.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. The best views are along Cripple Creek, near the end of the hike, where you can see a small waterfall and a scenic creek surrounded by wildflowers. There are options for filling up water near Greasy Spring, Porters Field, the Seeley-Woodworth Shelter, and Cripple Creek.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see much wildlife other than birds along the trail. We did have a great encounter with a male black-headed grosbeak, who was singing beautifully along the side of trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Just keep following the white-blazes and pay attention to junctions to stay on the Appalachian Trail.
- Solitude – 3. We didn’t run into too many people on our trip. Spy Rock had a decent number camping at the top.
Directions to trailhead: Requires a shuttle. Park one car at the finish. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, head east on VA-56/Crabtree Falls Highway for 11.2 miles. Park car in large parking lot where the AT crosses the road. From this point to reach Hog Camp Gap with your second car to start the route, continue east on VA-56/Crabtree Falls Highway for 6.9 miles. Turn right on to VA-151S/VA-56E. In 10.5 miles, take a right on to US-29 South. In 3.1 miles, take the US-60 exit towards Amherst. Take a right at the exit ramp to go on US-60 heading west. In 18 miles, take a right on to State Route 634. In 1.6 miles, take a right on to State Route 755/Wiggins Spring Road. This road turns to gravel with large pot holes. Follow this for 2.7 miles until you reach the parking lot where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Park your second car here. Go through the wooden fence and pick up the Appalachian Trail, heading north.
This 8-mile hike completes our Appalachian Trail mileage in Shenandoah National Park. There isn’t much to see along this section of trail – the views aren’t great and the stream is fairly run-of-the-mill, but we’re still happy to say we’ve walked every step of the AT in Shenandoah!
We finally finished hiking the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah! For two years, less than 5 trail miles were keeping us from that distinction. It’s really quite silly, but this final stretch of trail has been somewhat of a mental burden for me! The reason was sort of two-fold. The first sticking point – in order to most efficiently cover the miles, we needed to do a car shuttle. I didn’t want to spend the gas money, and honestly, I just don’t like to drive by myself. Shuttles are just a pain when both cars are yours! The second problem was that this stretch of trail just seemed… boring. I will admit that a bad day hiking is still better than a good day doing many other things, but I had a hard time getting myself psyched-up to hike this stretch.
Finally, faced with a beautiful spring day and a lack of plans, I acquiesced. We dropped our first car off in a small AT parking lot on the side of 522. Then we headed into the park and left a second car at Jenkins Gap –where we came off the trail after our last section of the AT in SNP.
From Jenkins Gap, we had a steady uphill to the summit of Compton Peak. At the summit of Compton, there are blue-blazed trails leading to viewpoints on both the east and west sides of the mountain. Each viewpoint lies .2 miles off the AT. We decided to only visit the west summit (it has better views.) The east summit has some interesting columnar rock formations. If you’re into geology, they’re definitely worth a peek!
After the summit, we descended for almost a mile into Compton Gap. After Compton Gap, the AT is shared with the yellow-blazed Compton Gap trail for about 1.7 miles. The hiking is along this section is wooded trail without many distinguishing features – no streams or overlooks to speak of. The trail is wide, flat and very easy to walk. You’ll likely pick up a lot of speed along this stretch!
At roughly 4.9 miles into the hike, we reached the park boundary. There is a sign marking the beginning of private land. Just south of the park boundary, there is also a backcountry permit station. Permits are free and self-service in Shenandoah. If you’re going to camp in Shenandoah’s backcountry, all you need to do is fill out a tag and tether a copy to your pack. It’s really easy!
Right after we departed the park, we came to the one viewpoint from this stretch of Appalachian Trail. Possums Rest has a decent, but slightly obstructed view, of rolling foothills. It’s worth a stop, but there are definitely many better views along the AT in Shenandoah.
From Possums Rest, the trail descended briefly but steeply through a jumble of rocks. In about another .7 miles, we reached the Tom Floyd Wayside – the first backcountry shelter located north of the park. It’s a nice spot with a nearby water source. We chatted with a section hiker from Washington, DC. He had completed a thru-hike the year before, but evidently the trail called him back!
After Tom Floyd, the trail continued very gradually downhill. As we walked along, we could see the advance of spring on the lower elevations. Redbuds were blooming, tiny green leaves were opening in the canopy and the grass along the trail was growing quickly. We crossed Rt. 601, and a little over a mile later, Moore Run and then Rt. 602. The stream was crossing was just an easy rock-hop.
After crossing 602, we had a short uphill before one final descent to Rt. 522 in Front Royal. The last part of the hike followed a chain link fence for over a mile. I’m not sure if the fence was just marking private land, or if it was part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Either way, it is one of the less scenic parts of the AT.
The last quarter mile of the hike passed between fenced pasture land and a residential neighborhood. After crossing a small wooden footbridge, we found ourselves back at the car. On our way out, we saw a few of the Smithsonian’s animals walking down a hillside. They appeared to be some type of antelope – kind of neat! Before going back to pick up our second car, we stopped at Spelunker’s in Front Royal for lunch. They make fantastic burgers and milkshakes! I was thrilled to see gingersnap was their shake flavor of the day!
While this hike didn’t provide much reward with views or waterfalls, I’m still really glad we did it. I’m happy to be officially and technically finished with Shenandoah’s AT miles!
It was great to finally finish the AT section through Shenandoah National Park! With the entire trail being 2180 miles from Georgia to Maine, the section through Shenandoah National Park is less than 5% of the entire trail. Daunting to say the least, but we still feel we have accomplished something measurable. There are about 550 miles of the AT through Virginia, making it the longest section through any one state. Virginia is also a state where a lot of thru-hikers quit, feeling that they will never get through the state (often called the “Virginia Blues”). The section through Shenandoah is more like 19% of the AT through Virginia. Most of the thru-hikers fly through Shenandoah National Park, averaging over 20 miles per day. The climbs are not as tough as in many sections and they have worked into their “trail legs”, gaining the strength to cover many miles per day.
After we dropped our car off at the trail crossing of Route 522, we made our way into the park and parked at Jenkins Gap. While you will drive about 12.4 miles on Skyline Drive, the trail through the park and out is a lot shorter. From the parking lot, you join the Jenkins Gap Trail for just about 100 feet and then take a right to join the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading north. The trail took us through some storm-damaged areas of trees, leading us through one of the two ascents on this trail. We gained about 500 feet up to Compton Peak. At 1.4 miles, we reached a post which pointed out to two short blue-blazed trails that lead to views from Compton Peak. Since we knew there wasn’t going to be many views on this trail, we decided to take a left and check out the West Compton Peak view. This side trail of .2 miles was a rocky uphill trail that led to a small, but scenic viewpoint. We made our way back the way we came to reach the post and then took a left to continue on the Appalachian Trail heading north. The trail descended again, as we dropped 500 feet in about .8 miles. If you did the side trail to Compton Peak, add another .3 miles to any of the distances given from this point forward. At 2.2 miles on the AT, you cross over Skyline Drive at Compton Gap. At 2.4 miles, you reach a junction with the Dickey Ridge Trail and at 2.7 miles, you reach a junction with the Springhouse Trail. The Springhouse Trail allows for horses and actually shares the next section of the AT, which is why you will see both yellow and white blazes. The trail is fairly level at this point.
At 3.8 miles, you reach a junction with the Compton Gap Trail. This is where horse-riders would come off the AT, since they are not allowed further on the trail. Take a left here to stay on the white-blazed AT. You will soon come across an area where backpackers can fill out paperwork for backcountry camping permits and continuing further, you will reach the Shenandoah National Park boundary at 4.0 miles. Within a short distance, you reach the area known as Possums Rest, a very small overlook that has some views. The trail at this point goes down a very steep and rocky area as you go below Possums Rest. The trail descends for most of the rest of the way At 4.7 miles, you reach the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter, which also has tent sites, a privy, and a nearby spring. Continuing from the Tom Floyd Wayside, you descend further, passing by other signs for the spring. At 5.1 miles, you reach a junction with a side trail to VA-601. From here, you have a couple of stream crossings over Moore Run and at 6.5 miles, the trail crosses VA-602. The trail at this point goes up a steep upgrade, as you gain over 300 feet in .4 miles. Once you reach the crest of the hill at 6.9 miles, the trail descends again as you go through a grassy area. You walk along a long fenceline and behind some people’s houses before reaching the boardwalk which takes you back to your car at 7.7 miles.
Once we made our way back to the car, we stopped at Spelunkers. There was a large bike ride being conducted nearby, so the place was quite crowded. One of the great things about hiking for us is that it allows us to eat whatever we want after a hike and not worry about the calories. We made our way from there back to our first car and then headed out of the park. It was a gorgeous day for a hike with perfect temperatures.
While this hike isn’t the most scenic, this was definitely one I will remember since it was our “finish line” though SNP. I’m so grateful to have a wonderful hiking partner to share all of these experiences.
- Distance – 8 miles (includes a visit to the Compton Peak viewpoint)
- Elevation Change – About 1900 ft. but mostly downhill.
- Difficulty – 2.5. There are really only two climbs on this hike – one up Compton Peak and one shorter one near the end of the hike. All in all, it’s a moderate, mostly downhill hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Nicely maintained section of the Appalachian Trail. In fact, we saw a crew member trimming grass back when we hiked.
- Views – 2. The view from Compton Peak is decent, but it’s not actually on the trail. Possums rest is small and a bit obstructed.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. Moore Run was flowing nicely when we visited.
- Wildlife – 2. You may get to catch a glimpse of zoo animals at the Smithsonian facility at the end of this hike!
- Ease to Navigate – 3. There are lots of trail junctions and shared paths. Just make sure you follow the white blazes and you’ll be fine.
- Solitude – 2. We saw many dayhikers and backpackers on this stretch of trail.
Directions to trailhead: We parked one car at the parking lot on US-522 in Front Royal, which is 4.7 miles from where US-340 intersects with US-522. We then drove to northwest on US-522 for 2.8 miles. Take a left on E. Criser Road. In .7 miles, take a left on US-340. In .2 miles, take a left to enter Shenandoah National Park. Drive 12.3 miles to park at the Jenkins Gap parking lot on the right. Join the Jenkins Gap Trail from the parking lot for a short distance, before taking a right on to the Appalachian Trail, heading north.
Congratulations to our two winners for our drawing for Sole Source gift certificates. Thanks to everyone who entered!
I love hiking because I came to it by accident, but now it’s an integral part of who I am. My family wasn’t much into the outdoors while I was growing up, but I went on a backpacking trip to the Wind River Range in Wyoming when I was 15 that opened my eyes to a whole new set of experiences. Ever since, hiking and the outdoors have been the way I facilitate thinking, relaxing, exercising, and getting to know my family and friends. As a dad, I use hiking as a way to teach my toddler about anything we walk by. Before I had a kid, I used to think about how far I’d hiked or if I’d reached my destination; now, we can spend three hours on a “hike” and go only one mile, but that’s OK- we are talking and learning the entire time.
Two things I love about hiking: marveling at our beautiful piece of the earth when standing on top of a mountain and the feeling of strength and accomplishment after finishing a tough hike.
This easy 4.5 mile out-and-back along the Appalachian Trail offers great views in many places! It would be a perfect family hike or a leg-stretcher for folks riding along Skyline Drive.
This is one of those hikes where you get a lot of payoff for minimal effort. There are some great views from both South Marshall and North Marshall along the way, making this an excellent family hike. Technically, both peaks are part of the larger Mount Marshall, though they feel like two distinct mountains. We had covered the Marshalls on a longer section hike along the Appalachian Trail, but we felt this would be a great out-and-back that most people could do.
We started our hike from the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot. We crossed the road and picked up the white-blazed Appalachian Trail heading north. The trail goes through a wooded area and has a gradual ascent. After .9 miles, you reach your first grand set of views on your climb up South Marshall. Continuing a little further, there are a couple of other viewpoints along the ridge. At 1.1 miles, you reach the highest point of the trail over South Marshall and begin your descent. At 1.6 miles, you cross Skyline Drive to continue on the Appalachian Trail and begin your ascent up North Marshall.
The trail up North Marshall is a steeper section than what you experienced at South Marshall. Around 1.7 miles, you reach a very steep, rocky section, resembling a stony staircase up the side of a hill. At the top of this staircase, you see a large, monolithic rock. On our climb towards this rock, we heard a loud crow that was cawing at us madly. The toughest part of the climb was now over. I noticed a small, unmarked path around this monolithic rock and decided to explore. I was pleased to find a few rock outcroppings on this path that led to more spectacular views and you can even see Skyline Drive snake through the mountains. The crow continued to announce his displeasure and I’m guessing there was a nest we were nearing. As I made my way around one of the rock outcroppings, I stuck my hand in a big pile of bird droppings – I’m guessing the crow got his last laugh. After cleaning up, we rejoined the trail. Around 2.2 miles, we reached the last set of views from North Marshall. We continued just a little further to reach the summit, marked only by a small metal survey marking post in the ground, to bag a second peak on the trail. We made our return trip from this point, reaching our car at 4.5 miles.
The North and South Marshall Mountains were once known as Bluff Mountain, but were renamed in honor of John Marshall, who served as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, serving for 35 years (the longest-serving justice in our history). He was appointed by President John Adams and previously served as Secretary of State and leader of the Federalist Party.
We’ve been spending a lot more time hiking than writing lately! That’s a great thing (for us), but it’s leaving us quite a backlog of posts to pull together. This hike of The Marshalls is a route I wanted to cover for families and other people looking for shorter/easier hikes. I feel like most of the moderate hikes in Shenandoah are already heavily traveled and well-known. The Marshalls offer spectacular views, but I doubt many casual hikers even know they’re there!
We had great weather at the beginning of our hike. It was sunny and breezy – perfect for hiking. It was still early enough in the season that trees in the mountains were bare and only a few wildflowers were starting to bloom. Whenever we came to open vistas, we could see the vivid green color of spring trees starting to creep up the mountainsides from the lower elevations in the valley. It was beautiful!
When we hiked this area last time – on a backpacking tip in 2012, we skipped climbing the unmarked trail to the cliff-sides on North Marshall. I’m glad we stopped on this trip, because the rocks were fun to climb and provided some especially nice off-trail views.
After the cliff views, we reached the trailside view from North Marshall pretty quickly. I couldn’t remember if there were any additional views along the ridge, so we walked along a couple more tenths of a mile until we found the survey marker. After the survey marker, the trail descends into the deeper woods.
On our return hike, the weather shifted quickly. What had been a pleasant, sunny day quickly turned cloudy and windy as a front approached. We could see shadowy columns of rain off in the distance and the clouds looked dark and angry. We hiked faster than usual back to the car. We made it back to the car before any rain fell.
We decided to drive home through Luray so we could grab something quick for lunch. In this case – fried chicken! It’s not something I eat very often, but I always feel that hiking earns me an occasional indulgence. :-)
- Distance – 4.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – About 900 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. There is only one steeper section on the North Marshall Mountain, but it a short stretch.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in excellent shape.
- Views – 5. There are so many spots to get views on this hike.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 2. You may see deer on this hike and a few soaring birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Just follow the white-blazed AT. Be careful and keep your bearings if you venture off the trail to get the views near the monolithic rock climbing up North Marshall.
- Solitude – 3. Since this trail is in the northern section, expect to see more people that are visiting from Northern Virginia/DC. You should expect to see others near some of the view outcroppings.
Directions to trailhead: In the northern district of Shenandoah National Park. Park at Mile Marker 17.6 at the Gravel Springs Gap parking lot. Cross Skyline Drive to pick up the Appalachian Trail, heading north-bound.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Why Do You Love Hiking?
While we were away backpacking over the weekend, our little blog turned FIVE! To celebrate the occasion, we’re giving away $25.00 gift certificates to the Sole Source.
To enter, tell us why you love hiking – just share a favorite moment or a fondest memory from your time on the trail! We will pick two winners on Monday, May 12.
As far as what we love about hiking… it’s everything – the sweeping views only earned by climbing mountainsides, waterfalls tumbling through the woods, hearing birds sing and watching light filtering into our tent, seeing the sun rise from atop a remote summit, walking by a hillside covered with trillium or mountain laurel, glimpsing the black back-side of a bear diving into the vegetation, the feeling of accomplishment when we complete a tough hike, and sharing quality time with one another. Honestly, hiking feels like a gift each time we’re out there.
Tell us why you love it!
* We receive no compensation from the Sole Source. They’re just great people who love supporting the local hiking community!
This 9.5 mile loop in the southern district of Shenandoah National Park offers vistas, streams and quite a bit of solitude! We think it would make a great short backpacking loop with a beautiful stream-side campsite along Paine Run.
Every weekend this April has provided glorious hiking weather! I’m feeling so grateful that we’ve been able to get out so often and take full advantage of the warm, sunny days. On the Saturday before Easter, we chose to hike the challenging 9.5 mile Trayfoot Mountain – Paine Run loop.
This hike begins at the Blackrock Gap parking area (not to be confused with Blackrock summit parking). From the lot, cross to the eastern side of Skyline Drive and make your way north along the Appalachian Trail. After a couple tenths of a mile, the trail crosses back over the drive and heads steadily uphill for a little over a mile. As you climb, you’ll come to a 4-way junction – stay on the white-blazed AT, as the other two directions go to Ivy Creek Spring and the Blackrock shelter.
At 1.3 miles into the hike, you’ll reach a cement marker for the Trayfoot Mountain Trail. Do NOT take this turn unless you want to miss the splendor that is Blackrock Summit! Continue another tenth of a mile to the massive jumble of boulders and jagged rocks that makes up this impressive viewpoint. We took some time to enjoy the views and climb on the rocks. The views from this spot are probably the best on the entire hike, although there are a couple more nice spots yet to come.
The Appalachian Trail skirts around the front edge of the summit before coming to a spur trail that leads down to the Trayfoot Mountain trail. The spur descends through a corridor of flat-sided slabs. When spur reaches the junction with the Trayfoot Mountain trail, turn left and follow the trail uphill along an old fire road.
The uphill climb along this section is steady going! Near the top, you’ll pass another marker pointing toward the Furnace Mountain trail. Continue on the Trayfoot Trail until you reach the cement post marking the summit and high point of your hike. There are no views from this summit, but this starts the beginning of a lovely, easy ridge walk.
The ridge rolls gently along for a little over a mile and a half, offering nice views of the Paine Run valley and a distant glimpse of Skyline Drive. The trail eventually begins a long gradual descent to Paine Run. Your last sweeping vista on this hike comes at a pretty outcropping of rocks overlooking pointy Buzzard Rock.
Switchbacks take you swiftly down to Paine Run. Near the first stream crossing, a cement marker points you onto the yellow-blazed Paine Run Trail, which is essentially an old fire road. There were several stream crossings on this section of trail. All of them were easy but the second crossing. We found the stream wide and flush with water. Most of the stones people use to cross were underwater. Instead of trying to attempt the rock-hop, we took off our shoes and waded across. Refreshing!
The Paine Run trail is very pleasant for a couple miles – sounds of running water and mountain views through the trees. When we hiked, the stream was flowing with lots of rapids and tiny waterfalls. I imagine it will run low and dry later in the summer. The path climbs so gradually you hardly notice you’re ascending! Eventually, you leave the streamside and head back toward Skyline Drive. After one final sharp switchback, you have one more moderately steep ascent back to your car.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with both the views and streams on this route. We had a great time! MapMyHike said this hike is only 9.3 miles, but all other sources put it at 9.7-9.8… so who knows!
We feel like we have covered so much of Shenandoah National Park on our blog, but it seems there is always another trail or loop that you can try. We talked about a hike to Blackrock summit before in our coverage of an AT segment, but this is a longer loop version that offers a few additional views and a stream to enjoy. Other than the Blackrock summit, you will likely not see a lot of people on this trail. We only saw a few people the entire day, which was a little shocking for a beautiful weekend day that happened to also be a free National Park entry day.
As Christine mentioned, you could skip the Blackrock summit trying to follow the signage, but you don’t want to miss the best part of the hike. When we hiked previously, our route bypassed the spur trail that leads to the Trayfoot Mountain Trail. This spur immediately gives you some additional views and some interesting rocks to scramble around. Most people that are doing an out-and-back just to the summit from the northern approach will miss this area also.
One thing that Christine and I both mentioned throughout the day is how this would make for a great overnight backpacking loop. If you choose to do so, I would tackle all of the tough uphill climbing the first night, making your way through the Trayfoot Mountain trail and camp somewhere near Paine Run. This will provide a great water source and there were some nice campsites near the water. The following day, you’ll just have a steady, but not too strenuous hike back uphill to your car.
When we started walking the ridgeline of the Trayfoot Mountain trail, I felt like we stumbled across the best place I’ve ever seen to spot grouse. We encountered three along our walk. A couple of years ago, while hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we encountered our first grouse on a trail. The beating of its wings created a strange echoing syncopation in our chest which made us both wonder if our heartbeats were going haywire. Seeking sources online, we found it was a common sound for mating grouse. We actually spotted several on this trail and when they took off in flight, we could briefly hear that same noise that perplexed us before. What a relief to actually spot the culprits this time.
Further along the Trayfoot Mountain Trail, we climbed up on a few rocks to enjoy our lunch and get some views. I managed to pick some rocks which were not in the least bit contoured to our bodies, which made for an uncomfortable sitting. It reminded me of how fast food chains design their seating area so the chairs are only comfortable for a short amount of time to prevent loitering. We quickly ate and moved on.
Around the 4.0 mile marker, the ridge line ends at a nice rock outcropping which gives you some last views before descending towards Paine Run. Some local families like to park on the western outskirts of the park and hike up to this area for views.
When we reached Paine Run, the water was a little high from the recent rains. There were a few places to rock-hop across. In one spot, we did have to shed our shoes to make our way across. Christine said I looked like a hobbit with my pantlegs pulled up halfway as I crossed. I responded back in my geekiest way, “May the hair on my toes never fall off.” I will say the water was very cold, but it felt so refreshing to my feet. The sensation of the freezing water made me feel as if I had just received a nice massage on my feet. After the refresher, I felt I could hike a lot longer.
The stretch on the uphill Paine Run trail was very gradual. While some people may think this was more of a boring stretch, I enjoyed the views of Paine Run along the side. There were even a few very small waterfalls to enjoy since the water level was high. We also came across a group horseback riding along the trail. All yellow-blazed trails, like the Paine Run trail, in Shenandoah National Park allow horses on the trails. This would be a great trip to take down to the water and let the horses rest and get a drink before returning.
We got back to our car and then heading north along Skyline Drive. Within a few miles, I spotted a young black bear on the side of the road. We were excited to have our first bear sighting of the year. The bear quickly ran away once it knew it was spotted, but we hope we get to see many more this year. We stopped at the Loft Mountain wayside to get our first blackberry milkshake of the year. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers talk about these treats for days in advance of getting to Shenandoah and the hype is worth it. However, their milkshake machine was broken and we had to settle for blackberry ice cream. It was still a just reward for a long hike.
While we realize this hike is longer and not as popular as some of the others in the park, this hike really has some nice gems along the trail. I was pleasantly surprised at what this had to offer!
- Distance – 9.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – About 2200 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The climbs to Black Rock summit and Trayfoot Mountain can be a little steep, but the climb from Paine Run back to the parking area is very pleasant and gradual. The length adds to the difficulty rating of this hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was clear and in great shape!
- Views – 5. The views from Black Rock summit are spectacular. While the summit of Trayfoot Mountain has no view, there are other nice views from the Trayfoot Mountain trail – especially the outcropping that overlooks Buzzard Rock.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Paine Run was surprisingly pretty and broad in the early spring. As we hiked up the Paine Run trail, we had many stream crossings and nice views of the water.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw deer and lots of grouse on the trail. We also saw a black bear shortly after leaving the parking area to come home!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There are only a few, well-marked turns on this hike.
- Solitude – 4. We saw a few people near the stream that had come in from the western perimeter of the park, a few people on Black Rock Summit, and a trio of women on horses. All-in-all, we enjoyed a lot of solitude for a long stretch of trail on a pretty ‘free park entry’ day!
Directions to trailhead: Located in the Southern Section of Shenandoah National Park. Park at the Blackrock Gap parking lot around MM 87.3. Cross the road and find the cement post for the Appalachian Trail. Take a left, heading north, to start your hike.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
The full Rocky Mount lariat is known as one of the Shenandoah’s most punishing hikes, but if you do it as an out-and-back (like us!), you get a moderate 6.8 mile hike with great views and a lot of solitude! Our route eliminates the less scenic Gap Run Trail on the back side of the mountain.
We’ve covered most of Shenandoah National Park already – there aren’t many trails we haven’t written about! But, Christine did some research and found a hike we hadn’t done yet. We entered the park at Swift Run Gap. We needed to buy a new annual pass, since ours had expired. The park ranger asked where we were going and we said, “Rocky Mount”. She looked at us with a disapproving pause and questioned why we would want to do that one. Christine told her we had covered most of the rest of the Park and the ranger just handed back our pass with a shake of her head. After leaving the fee station, we began to wonder how tough this hike really was. We had heard it was one of the toughest in the park due to the elevation gain split over several tough climbs. Most of the reviews we read were based on the Rocky Mount-Gap Run lariat loop which incorporates the Gap Run Trail. The back side of the mountain, which uses the Gap Run Trail, is repeatedly described as very steep and lacking in any noteworthy scenery. So, we decided to do this one as an out-and-back hike that hit the big view payoffs.
The weather was quite warm based on what we had grown accustomed to during the cold winter. The temperature was already in the 60s and it was barely 9:00 a.m. We parked at the Twomile Run Overlook and then walked north for a short distance. After the barrier wall ended on the western side of the road, we saw the concrete post on the left which marked the beginning of the blue-blazed Rocky Mount trail. The trail begins with mostly descending through the woods. You drop down about 700 feet (some level sections, some steep sections) until you reach the junction with the Gap Run Trail at 2.2 miles. We stayed straight at this point and began a steeper ascent. The trail climbs along a path that wraps around Rocky Mount, leading to a few (mostly obstructed) views along the way. At 3.4 miles, the climb ends near the summit and you can see a short side path to the left leading to a rock outcropping. Here is where the best views on the mountain can be seen.
We paused for a while to take some photos and eat some lunch. However, there were biting bugs that were trying to eat me alive. It took away from the experience! After swatting and flailing like a man possessed, I covered my body in DEET. Those insects were probably drooling over their first available human meal after months of starvation. For some reason, they preferred me over Christine, who got quite a chuckle over my melodramatic gesticulations. One thing that I don’t like about hot weather hiking are the insects. Hopefully this isn’t a sign of what’s to come for the rest of the warm season. We headed back the way we came, arriving back at the junction with the Gap Run Trail at 4.6 miles. The trail then starts a rather long climb back up. We finished the climb and got back to the trailhead to make the out-and-back trip 6.8 miles.
An out-and-back route was the perfect way to tackle Rocky Mount – we enjoyed all of the views and suffered none of the slogging! Certainly, there are some folks who like tough climbing and don’t need spectacular scenery to have an excellent day on the trail. I’m not one of those people! If I’m going to have a great time a tough hike - there must be views or waterfalls or a near 100% guarantee of seeing wildlife. Don’t get me wrong, I love the cardio challenge. It’s just not enough to make me endorse a hike as a must-do hike.
The day we hiked Rocky Mount was unseasonably warm. I loved being back in shorts and a tank top again! My mom always tells me that I should wear long sleeves and long pants to avoid ticks, but honestly the only ticks I’ve ever found attached to me have been on days that I DID wear full-coverage clothing and repellent. I think it’s just easier to spot ticks moving on bare skin and flick them off before they attach. I’ve also had good luck with using a combination of DEET and treating my clothing with permethrin. Ticks are such a huge problem in our part of Virginia, and the recent increase in cases of Lyme disease is shocking and scary. The threat isn’t enough to keep me off the trail, but I am definitely vigilant about preventative measures and doing thorough tick checks. Typically, if you remove a tick within a few hours of it attaching, there isn’t time for Lyme disease to transmit into your blood stream. OK… end of my public service announcement!
Adam did a thorough job describing the terrain and distances. I’ll just add that I found the ascents at both the middle and end of the hike to be fairly moderate. They were probably a little tougher that day since we weren’t accustomed to the warmer weather yet. It was in the low 80′s by the end of the hike. The trail also had quite a bit of direct sun exposure. The route will be shadier as the park gets leafier, but right now there is still a lot of light coming through the canopy. I got a little bit of sunburn on my shoulders, but I was glad that the bare trees gave us views that we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy later in the season.
We ate lunch on the rocky outcropping near the summit of Rocky Mount. For whatever reason, the biting flies just weren’t bothering me. Poor Adam – he’s not exaggerating when he describes his flailing. He was pretty close to having a full insect-driven meltdown! After lunch, we returned the same way we came and headed back to our car.
Over the course of the hike, we didn’t see a single other hiker! When we got back to the parking area, there was one guy who had just come off the trail, but he had done the loop in the opposite direction and our paths never crossed. Rocky Mount is definitely one of the less-traveled trails in the park, but I think it is definitely worth doing. I thought the views were well worth the climbs! Ambitious hikers might enjoy the extra challenge of the mountain’s backside, but for me the 6.8 mile out-and-back was just right!
Note: I ran MapMyHike during this hike, but I forgot to stop app off when we got back into the car. The time in the car messed up everything from the route to the elevation to the pacing. I left it off this post!
- Distance – 6.8 miles
- Elevation Change – 1800 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. The hike to the summit wasn’t too tough, but the return trip has a long, slogging uphill climb.
- Trail Conditions – The trail was well-maintained with only one blowdown on the entire trail. The path was very clear and only covered by leaves in a few places.
- Views – 4. Great 180-degree views for miles from the rock outcropping.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Nothing to report.
- Wildlife – 1. We didn’t see any wildlife on the trail, but we saw a ton of signs of either bobcat or coyote droppings on the trail. Pressing forward from the summit, we did startle a hawk resting on a log.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. As soon as you follow the trailhead, you just head straight on the Rocky Mount Trail. The side path for the views at the rock outcropping isn’t marked, so it could be possible to just walk right past it.
- Solitude – 4. We didn’t see anyone else on the trail, but at the trailhead we did run into a solo hiker that had finished the entire loop.
Directions to trailhead: In the Southern Section of Shenandoah National Park, park at the Twomile Run Overlook at MM 76.2. Head north a short distance. When you reach the end of the retaining wall, you’ll see the concrete post marking the trailhead (around MM 76.4) on the left (western) side of the road.
This 5.1 mile loop hike is deceptively challenging. Views and pleasant ridge walking are paired with some steep ascents and descents.
Wow – the first weekend of April 2014 was GORGEOUS! I think we (and every other hiker in Virginia) decided to hit the trails. We tossed around the idea of going backpacking, but we just didn’t get our act together. We perused our hiking book collection, a bunch of maps and several websites. We settled on a hike we found on Hiking Upward – Fortune’s Cove. It wasn’t a long drive from our house and looked like a good choice for early-season hiking.
We got to the trailhead parking lot right around 10:00 and found it jam-packed. There was one group of about 15 hikers getting ready to depart. I feel a little bad saying this, but I’m always a little deflated when I get someplace and find that we’re going to have lots of company on our hike. We set out immediately, in hopes of putting a little distance between ourselves and the large group. We hike quite a bit faster than most social groups, but the self-inflicted pressure to keep moving made me feel like I couldn’t pause to take photos. I took most of my pictures while still walking, so they might be a little blurry or random.
We hiked the trail in the opposite direction of Hiking Upward. In retrospect, I think I’d go the way their directions suggested - the ascent is longer, but more gradual. We started our hike at the end of the parking lot with the informational bulletin board. The trail actually starts from the main road, right before the turn-off to the parking lot. Initially, the hike rambled along over rolling hills, climbing gradually uphill above the cove. After crossing a small wooden footbridge over a creek, we were treated to a small but pretty waterfall. After the waterfall the hike followed a series of switchbacks uphill. We eventually crossed a fire road and continued a short flat section of trail. Soon, we reached a junction. At this point, you can take the shorter, easier Lower Loop around the cove, or follow the challenging, longer Upper Loop. We wanted views, so we went with the Upper Loop. From the junction to the cell towers atop the high knob, the climbing was pretty brutal – I’m not going to lie. Sometimes there were switchbacks to ease the ascent, but other times the trail went straight up the mountainside. We were still hiking hard to stay ahead of the group, so I was very relieved when the towers came into view through the trees. The climb was almost DONE!
Near the towers, the trail comes to another junction. One spur leads to the tower and several decent views (although – the presence of towers really does detract from the beauty of the views). The other direction continues to follow the Upper Loop trail around the perimeter of the cove. The remainder of the loop is rolling hills and ridge walking. There are several big descents and a couple short, steep ascents, but all the tough uphill is behind you at this point. We chose to have lunch at the first little rocky outcropping with views. It was nice to see Wintergreen and The Priest through a few (still bare) trees. There was a ton of mountain laurel on the back half of this hike. It should be beautiful in late May – early June!
Some of the downhill on the back loop was very steep and covered with deep, slick, dry leaves. We were both really thankful to have trekking poles. We continued to enjoy occasional views, mostly looking into the cove, as the hike progressed. At one point, we were hiking along in companionable silence, when suddenly a large German Shepherd bounded in our direction, barking loudly – fortunately he was friendly. It turned out that a couple of hikers had two unleashed dogs on the trail. We love dogs, but they’re not allowed in Fortune’s Cove. The restriction is clearly marked at trail entries and the rules are posted online, so please leave your dog home!
Eventually the Upper Loop and Lower Loop met back up at the final trail junction of the hike. The last bit of the hike was fairly consistent, knee-grinding downhill. Adam asked me to hike in front of him, so he could ‘grimace in pain’ in the rear. I was hiking along, when out of the blue, Adam bellowed and shouted. At first I thought he hurt himself, but it turned out that a gigantic black snake had just slithered across his feet. The thing was easily five feet long. I love snakes – Adam is less fond.
Through the trees, we could see our car in the parking lot drawing closer and closer. We walked the last little bit of trail, enjoying the budding and blossoming trees at the lower elevations. We saw cherry, redbud and pear all starting to flower. It was a great hike for a pretty spring day.
Fortune’s Cove Preserve consists of 755 acres that was donated by Jane Heyward to The Nature Conservancy. The staff and volunteers help maintain this land and hiking trails.
As Christine mentioned, when we arrived at Fortune’s Cove, there were a ton of cars in the parking lot and a bunch of hikers ready to hit the trail. I told Christine “Grab your stuff quickly and let’s get going.” We didn’t want to experience this hike with a larger group and having to play leapfrog up the trail as we stop to take pictures. I know that some people like to meet new people and enjoy the outdoors as a group, but we tend to hike with just the two of us or just another couple of people. When we took our first pause for photos, we could see the group approaching, so we rushed ahead. In fact, I would say we ascended the trail much faster than normal so we could stop to take photos at all. Since this was one of our first hike with real elevation change in a while, we probably pushed ourselves harder than we wanted.
From the parking lot and behind the large trail map of the preserve, we walked up the road about 20 yards and then saw the trail sign on the right of the road that marked the start of the trail. The yellow-blazed trail starts off on a small ascent through a serene, wooded area. You can see glimpses of the farmland to the right of the trail as you skirt around the property. Eventually you will cross a couple of bridges over some creek beds and see a small, yet picturesque waterfall along the lefthand side of the trail around .75 miles. Continuing from this point, the trail starts a more steady ascent. At 1.1 miles, you reach the intersection with the white-blazed lower loop trail. We took the upper loop trail, which had a warning sign for the steepness of the trail. This truly was no joke as the trail had us slogging up the mountainside. At 2.25 miles, we finally reached the top summit. There was a small trail (only a tenth of a mile) to the left which led to the top of High Top Mountain, which had a large cell tower at the top. The view was obstructed around us and being near a large tower didn’t make us feel like we were getting away to nature. We rejoined the upper loop trail and continued on our hike. We were now doing ridge-walking, so the toughest bit of climbing was behind us. We took a brief rest to eat our packed lunch while seeing the obstructed views of The Priest and Wintergreen across the valley in front of us.
We pressed along the ridge hike, which quickly began to lead back down the mountain. We were pleased to see there were several spots along the trail that led to some outcroppings of rocks with open views. The views below sum up what I picture when I think of Central Virginia – rolling mountains and farm houses. We continued down the steep trail, which had my knees feeling some pain. At 4.4 miles, you reach another intersection with the white-blazed lower loop trail. We continued down the mountain and made our way back to our car at 5.1 miles, passing through two blue posts before reaching the road and parking lot.
After the hike, we decided we had earned a trip to the nearby Blue Mountain Barrel House to sample some beer and get a snack from the food truck located outside. We enjoyed sitting outside with a few beers and were able to look out into the mountains on a gorgeous spring day. If wine is more of your thing, you can get samples from March-November on Wednesday-Sunday afternoons at Mountain Cove Vineyards, Virginia’s oldest vineyard.
- Distance – 5.1 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1700 ft. (the big climb is about 1450, but once you add in all the little ups and downs, it’s closer to 1700)
- Difficulty – 4. There is some pretty serious climbing on this hike. It surprised us how challenging it was!
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape in most places. There were a couple mucky spots near drainage, and dry, fallen leaves made some of the descents slippery.
- Views – 3. From the cell towers atop the High Knob to the junction with the Lower Loop, there are nice views in many spots along the trail. Even though there are many views, we’ve marked this down to a 3 because most of the viewpoints are partially obstructed.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There is a small waterfall that probably only runs part of the year on the early part of this hike.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything but a few birds and squirrels. DOGS ARE NOT ALLOWED ON THIS PRESERVE!
- Ease to Navigate – 5. The trails on this preserve are more abundantly marked/blazed than almost any other place we’ve been.
- Solitude –1. We had heard this place wasn’t well known or popular, but on the day we went, we encountered a large group people hiking together (shout out to the PATC – Charlottesville Chapter) , plus about a dozen groups of 2-4 people. It was a very busy day on the trail. We’re not sure if this is the norm, but we’d give this hike low marks for solitude.
Directions to trailhead: From Charlottesville, head south on US-29 for 28 miles. Take a right on State Route 718. Follow this for 1.6 miles and take a right on to State Route 651. Follow this for 1.6 miles, passing Mountain Cove Vineyards on the right and then reaching the small parking lot. The way we approached the route, was walk on the road past the large trail map board about 20 yards. You’ll see the trail post to mark the start of the trail on the right side of the road.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.