This 6.6 mile loop offers some of the area’s most amazing high-elevation, Appalachian bald scenery! It was right up there with Roan Mountain. The views are 360 degrees and showcase mountains in every direction. If we were to hike it again, we’d do it as an out-and-back and skip the return arm of the loop along Graveyard Ridge and Mountains to the Sea.
When we were planning our trip to the Smokies, we decided we wanted to spend the first few days near the Asheville, NC area and check out a few hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had set out in the morning to check out the Graveyard Fields waterfalls. On a trip here many years ago, we remembered how beautiful the series of waterfalls were. We brought a book with a description of the hike that would include a visit to Black Balsam and Tennent Knob on the loop. However, we didn’t have a map of the area other than what our book had provided. After driving along the parkway for some time, we pulled up to where the parking lot would be (mile marker 418.8) and it was all blocked off by fencing. It appears they are doing some major renovations of the parking area and stairs down to the Second Falls. They had blocked off any access to the trail and instead had signs saying that you could access the trail from many miles away. We were very disappointed, but decided to drive up further along the Parkway. We took a right on the gravel road 816 (mile marker 420.2) and followed that until we saw a trail marker to the right that led up to Black Balsam Knob. We were relieved we were going to be able to see the balds and I realized we were picking up our loop trail but just a little differently than we had originally intended.
From the road, you start on the Art Loeb trail. In a few hundred feet, you will see a side trail to the right. This is the Mountains to Sea Trail that will be your return from the loop. Stay straight to continue on the Art Loeb Trail as it ascends past amazing vistas. You will reach the summit of the Black Balsam Knob at .9 miles and will see many campsites at the top. On a clear day from here you will have 360-degree views all around with the Smokies to the west and Mt. Mitchell to the north. The trail took a sharp left at this point as you continue on the Art Loeb trail. On Black Balsam Knob, there are many other trails cut-in over the years along the balds which makes it tricky to know if you are on the right trail. As we left the summit area, we came to a junction between two trails that both looked legitimate. One seemed to go over a hillside and the other went to the left and around. We took the one to the left and saw a very worn sign that read “Art Loeb” so we knew we made the correct choice. The trail wrapped around the hillside and went through a narrow path with waist-high shrubbery growing along the trail. Our legs got a little scratched along the way, but we pressed on. After a while the trail went through a few switchbacks while descending and then flattened out. At this point, we could see Tennent Mountain ahead of us, so we felt comfortable that we were going the right way. Soon, the shrubbery opened up into a clearing and we climbed up the rocky path and reached the summit of Tennent Mountain at 2.5 miles.
The summit of Tennent Mountain was just as scenic with more views in every direction. From here we could also see Looking Glass Rock, one of the most iconic images along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the distance. We had our lunch on the top of this spot and then made the decision to do the full loop instead of just the out-and-back to the summits. We continued forward on the Art Loeb Trail. From here, there were a few more nice views but then the trail descended into a more wooded trail. The trail passed a few more campsite options before we reached the area known as Ivestor Gap at 3.1 miles. Ivestor Gap is a large open junction point where many trails converge. There was a map that showed where we were, but none of the trails were marked to let us know which was the right one to take. When you reach Ivestor Gap, take the larger trail to the right that looks like an old road. This was the Graveyard Ridge Trail. We were on this for only .3 miles, before passing a small spring in the rocks on the lefthand side of the trail, and took a sharp right to stay on to the Graveyard Ridge Trail, another unmarked junction [staying straight on the trail would begin the Greasy Cove Trail]. The Graveyard Ridge Trail was very rocky and had a lot of water on the trail, so there was some times of rock-hopping and getting your shoes wet. While on this trail, you may have a few glimpses at Tennent Mountain above to see where you came from and there are a couple of spots for viewpoints.
At 5.1 miles, we reached another junction. Deciding to forego the trip to see the waterfalls to Graveyard Fields (which would have probably added another 4.5 miles roundtrip to our hike), we took a sharp right up the Mountains to Sea Trail. This trail was extremely steep and at times felt like a bushwhack as the trail was very overgrown. In about .5 miles, you’ll gain over 500 feet of elevation, so it is a slow effort. Eventually at 5.75 miles, the trail reached the top of the bubble and you got a few more views from a rocky outcropping. Blazes were painted on the rock that led the way as the trail descends below. The trail moves away from the ridgeline before switching back – it feels like the wrong direction, but it’s not. The trail descends for a few hundred feet before climbing up again. You’ll pass over several wooden footbridges along this section of the trail. At about the 6.5 mile mark, the trail goes into a deep wooded area again and you reach the junction again with the Art Loeb Trail. Turn left and you head back to 816 in a short distance.
At the top of Tennent Mountain, there is a plaque on the rocks dedicated to Gaillard Stoney Tennent (1872-1953) who “established organized hiking in North Carolina.” I couldn’t find any more connections or information about Tennent online, but this sounds quite impressive.
If you are interested in Geocaching, there are several you could find along the trail (and it wouldn’t hurt to have a GPS handy):
- Black Balsam Between Branches
- Black Balsam Boardwalk
- Black Balsam Birch Walk
- Black Balsam Babbling Brook Bridge
- Black Balsam Briars
- Black Balsam Bearings
- Black Balsam Benchmark
- Don’t Take Garnet for Granite
- The New Art Loeb Trail Cache
- Black Balsam Bushes
- Black Balsam & Beyond
- Black Balsam Bonu$
- Black Balsam Babbling Brook Bridge
- Black Balsam Birch Bark
- Black Balsam Boardwalk
- Black Balsam Between Branches
While we tried to cover some extra ground on this trail by making it a loop (and leaving the option to inspect the waterfalls), I would recommend doing this trip as an out-and-back to Tennent Mountain. The trail system is very confusing here since trails are rarely marked and junctions are not labeled (we’re a little spoiled here in Virginia). We had to ask several people along the way if we were going in the right direction, so I can imagine a lot of people will feel lost at some point along this trail. All that being said, the views from Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain are breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see for hundreds of miles and can see ridgeline after ridgeline of mountains around you with few glimpses of anything resembling civilization. Don’t miss this one if you are looking for a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway!
Our first full day in Asheville, we got up early and had an amazing breakfast at Biscuit Head. Seriously – if you’re in Asheville, go eat those biscuits! We had planned a 5.2 mile hike starting near Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We drove the hour from Asheville to the trailhead to find the area completely closed off with an 8-foot tall chain link fence and orange plastic mesh. Even the wooden stairs leading to the entire larger trail system were blocked off. So, we grabbed our Falcon Guide for Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and started scrambling for alternatives. We settled on a different hike that would still let us see Black Balsam Knob, and give us the option to visit the waterfalls (if we had energy to spare).
The Falcon Guide offered vague (at best) descriptions of the hikes along the parkway, so we weren’t really sure how long the hike would be, what kind of elevation change we’d experience, what the terrain would be like or even the names of all the trails we would traverse. We had a rough map of the area in the book, so we could make some educated guesses, but we definitely went into this hike with a lot less information than we normally do.
We found the trailhead parking area packed – the lot was full and cars lined both sides of the rough, potholed road. We started off on a white blazed trail that climbed gently to sweeping views from bald Black Balsam Knob. The first great views are less than a mile of relatively easy hiking from the trailhead, so we saw tons of people. There were at least 3-4 tents sent up atop the bald. It was gorgeous – but it was a zoo!
From there, the trail got a little confusing. There are so many social paths to campsites worn into the mountain. We had a hard time knowing for sure that we were still on the white-blazed Art Loeb trail. There weren’t any blazes to be seen, and the only sign was so weathered that it looked like a blank piece of wood on a post. We stood pondering our book/map for a few minutes, when a foursome passed and confirmed that they had hiked this area many times and we were indeed on the correct trail. A little later, we passed an actual Art Loeb trail sign.
The trail descended through thick, dense scrub – lots of berry bushes and rhododendron. Eventually the trail opened back up and we began another ascent to the summit of 6,000 ft.+ Tennent Knob. This outlook was even more spectacular than Black Balsam. We could see for miles in every direction. We stopped at this point and had lunch on the trail. I had packed an apple, a Kind bar and some cookies from a bakery in the top of my pack. The strong sunshine had warmed the cookies to the point that they tasted like they had just come out of the oven. So good!
After the summit of Tennent Knob, we descended again before reaching Ivestor Gap. At the Gap, there was a troop of Boy Scouts at the information station. We consulted our map again before heading down another unmarked trail that we believed to be correct.
The trail at this point became wet and streamlike. We came across another hiker and his backpacking beagle! The beagle was really sweet and apparently a good hiker – able to do 12 mile days! The man was filling up his water bottles at a spring along the trail. Right after the spring, the there was a trail junction. We took the sharp hairpin turn onto the unmarked Graveyard Ridge Trail. It was a mostly flat, but very sloppy trail. It was wet and muddy for most of the way.
We eventually reached one of the only marked junctions on the hike, with a sign pointing toward the waterfalls and parkway one way and the Black Balsam Parking area the other way. This is where we picked up the Mountains to the Sea trail. This trail was also white blazed. The trail was more of a bushwack than anything for a while. It was very narrow and overgrown and headed steeply uphill. We soon came to a rocky ledge with more nice views… and no sign of the trail continuing. Again… we got the book out and were getting ready to make another guess. The trail we needed to follow seemed to go in completely the wrong direction. Adam looked at me and said ‘I’m just not confident this is the right trail!’ Fortunately, a couple hikers came up behind us. They told us they were following the same loop we were, had done it before and had gotten lost before! However, this time they were confident and able to point us in the right direction. The trail that looked totally wrong turned out to be exactly correct!
From the ledge, we descended into dark woods, traversed numerous wooden footbridges across swampy areas and made one final ascent back to the parking area along the road. All in all, we hiked 6.6 miles. It was a great hike with spectacular scenery from Black Balsam and Tennent. If I were to recommend the hike to others, I’d also suggest doing it as an out-and-back to see just the two bald summits. The loop option was poorly marked and didn’t offer much in way of scenery.
After our hike, we decided to drive back to Asheville through Waynesville. We heard it was a cute town and that Frog Level Brewing was worth a visit. We were able to easily find the Brewery, and ended up enjoying samples at a nice picnic table by the river. Nice finish to the day!
- Distance – 6.6 miles
- Elevation Change – about 1300 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The real difficulty is the Mountains-to-Sea Trail as it goes brutally up the mountain in some points.
- Trail Conditions – 2. The trail up to Black Balsam was the best maintained. The Art Loeb Trail around Black Balsam to Tennent Mountain was very brushy and overgrown. The Graveyard Ridge Trail had a ton of water on the trail and The Mountains-to-Sea Trail was also very overgrown.
- Views – 5. Amazing views from Black Balsam and Tennent Knob.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. Just a couple of small crossings through some water on the trail, but nothing scenic.
- Wildlife – 1. We didn’t see anything other than a few birds on this trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 1. You may often feel unsure if you are going the right way. Trails are not blazed well and junctions are not marked. The connection to the Graveyard Ridge trail is not marked. There are also lots of other trails that have been cut through by hikers, but they aren’t labeled, especially near the top of Black Balsam Knob on the Art Loeb trail.
- Solitude – 2. On a nice day like we had, there were lots of others on the trail.
Directions to trailhead: At Mile Marker 420.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, turn onto 816. Stay on that road for about 1 mile. Park on the side of the road and you’ll see the trailhead on the right side of the road.
This 9.1 mile hike is challenging, but offers wonderful view payoffs and a fun rock scramble. There is a shorter option for this hike for people wanting to skip the toughest part of the climb.
Strickler Knob was the second hike we posted on Virginia Trail Guide… way back in May of 2009. In the years since we first did this hike, there was a bad forest fire in the vicinity, the Forest Service painted over the purple/pink blazes to the knob (and then someone put them back), and the trail became vastly more popular.
On this particularly beautiful morning, we were planning a hike in Shenandoah National Park, but at 7:45 a.m. a text popped up on my phone. It was from our friends, Suzanne and Anthony (we met them at PATC’s Backpacking 101 workshop several years ago). They had made a spur of the moment decision to drive down from Maryland to hike Strickler Knob and wondered if we might want to join them. We don’t see them often enough, so the answer was clearly YES!
However, I had a few concerns going into the hike. The first was the possibility of swift/deep streams and run off from the deluge of rain we had received a day earlier. Roads and bridges were washed out all over the area. The second was the fact that the MMT 100 was being run that weekend. I wasn’t sure if the trail would be crowded or have limited access due to the race. We decided to put those concerns aside and go for it.
We met our friends at the defunct Massanutten Visitor’s Center on Rt. 211 near Luray. From there, we proceeded in one car to the Massanutten Trailhead on Crisman Hollow Rd. Right as we arrived, a carload of six was also unloading at the trailhead. We ended up playing leap frog with them along the trail all day long.
The trail initially crossed a flat, open area and a view into the valley. But soon, the trail dropped very steeply downhill on Waterfall Mountain. I’m not really sure why it’s called Waterfall Mountain. We didn’t see any waterfalls along the way – maybe they’re someplace else, or maybe ‘waterfall’ just refers to the extremely quick drop in elevation. Along this section of trail, we all joked about what a tough climb uphill this would be at the end of the day. I enjoyed the flowers blooming along the trail. We spotted mountain laurel starting to bud and even a pink lady’s slipper!
Eventually the trail leveled out near a stream. We passed a large campsite near the water just before coming to our first stream crossing. The water was pretty high and fast, but some well-placed logs made the crossing doable. From there, the trail followed a series of ascents and descents with lots of little stream crossings along the way. Most of the small stream crossings are probably dry under normal circumstances. We soon came to a second large stream crossing. After that crossing, the trail followed the stream – literally. Due to the 4-5 inches of rain the area experienced, the trail was completely underwater. It didn’t even look like a trail, and the only way we were sure it was the trail was the presence of a blaze on a tree about 50 yards ahead. We walked for more than a mile in ankle deep water. It was fun, but it was also wet, sloppy and muddy!
We reached trail junction 408. This is where the folks coming up from Scothorn Gap join the trail. At this point, we turned right and followed the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail uphill in the direction of the Gap Creek Trail. This part of the trail is really easy – wide and very gently graded. There were lots of pink native azaleas on one side of the trail. On the other side, the area burned out by a forest fire stood, charred – but slowly growing back.
When we reached the ridge, there was an obstructed view where the trail continues over the crest and then downhill. If you find yourself going downhill on the orange-blazed trail, you’ve passed the turn to Strickler Knob! At the top of the ridge, look carefully for purple/pink blazes on rocks and a reddish disk stapled to a tree. This is the way to Strickler Knob.
The walk to the knob starts off as a rocky but easily passable trail. But gradually the rocks become bigger, more jagged and trickier to traverse. It’s easy to lose the blazes as you pick your way along the rocks. You’ll come to one stunning viewpoint and think you’ve reached the end, but you still have the most intense part of the scramble to go! There are several steep, tall rock faces to negotiate before you finally come to a collection of towering rock stacks overlooking the Page Valley, Fort Valley and the Shenandoah River. The view from the knob is majestic!
On this particular day, Strickler Knob was packed. There were so many people at the overlook, it was hard to find a spot to sit. I think part of it was because the presence of two hiking clubs. But in addition to the clubs, there were also a number of couples and foursomes. Honestly, I’m shocked that this trail has become so popular! The crowds rivaled what I expect to see on a nice day on trails like Dark Hollow Falls or Hawksbill Mountain (in SNP).
We spent some time at the overlook eating lunch and taking photos. The hike back went really quickly. We walked in the water, we crossed the streams, we did all the little ascents and descents… and then we came to the base of Waterfall Mountain.
That climb was every bit as brutal as we all expected – gaining over 800 feet in about half a mile. The section isn’t climbed with mediating steps or switchbacks – it’s pretty much straight up the mountainside. We were all pretty glad when we got back to the flat, grassy section again!
When we got back to the car, the parking lot was much more crowded than when we had left it. We made the short drive back to the Massanutten Visitor’s Center and bid farewell to Anthony and Suzanne. It was a great hike and great to see them!
Between the two routes to Strickler Knob, I would probably recommend the shorter route from Scothorn Gap to most hikers. You get all of the excellent scenery, and only miss the extremely challenging descent/ascent of Waterfall Mountain. The section on Waterfall Mountain doesn’t really offer any remarkable scenery, but it’s a great training hike if you’re looking for a cardio challenge or practice on elevation change. We probably benefited from the longer, tougher ascent to prepare for our upcoming Smokies Trip.
Normally, when I describe the hike to Strickler Knob, I tell people that it’s an introductory rock-scrambling hike to see if you are ready for Old Rag. While there is not as much rock-scrambling and navigating as Old Rag, there are a few spots towards the summit that will test you enough to see if you can pull yourself up some of the rocks and let you gauge your comfort-level with scrambling over some drops. If you’ve already done Old Rag, this should be easy, but if you are intimidated by Old Rag from stories you’ve heard, try Strickler Knob first. I would agree with Christine that this hike has become more popular over recent years. When we had done the hike five years ago on a beautiful day, we only ran into one other couple on the entire trail; this time, it was crawling with people.
This is also a hike where people often get lost. You won’t find the purple-blazed summit trail on any maps currently, so I would suggest bringing a copy of the map I’ve provided below. I had a co-worker that tried to find the trail a few years ago (possibly when the blazes were still removed) to no luck. We also came across a larger hiking group from Northern Virginia that had missed the trail completely. When we gave them better directions, they turned around to attempt it again. Part of this also has to do with what few blazes are actually on the trail. You’ll know you are on a trail, you may just not be entirely sure which trail.
We started off the hike from the small parking area on Crisman Hollow Road. The orange-blazed Massanutten trail starts off on nice, level terrain through a wooded area. The trail soon opens up to more of a brushy, open field. As the trail winds around through this area, there is even one spot that has a view into the valley below at .2 miles. Shortly after this point as the trail winds around, the trail begins its very steep descent down Waterfall Mountain at .5 miles. The entire time that we were hiking down, I was thinking this was going to be a pain to hike back up at the end of the hike. The trail does have a few switchbacks, but the overall descent is tough on the knees as you descend about 800 feet in that half mile. At the 1.0 mile marker, we finally reached the bottom of the descent and a junction with the Massanutten Connector Trail. Take a left at this junction to stay on the main, orange-blazed Massanutten trail. The trail begins to climb slightly at this point and at 1.2 miles, you will reach a nice back-country campsite along the side of the Big Run stream. You’ll soon cross the stream (usually by balancing yourself along logs that have been laid across) and continue your climb. After the second stream crossing, the trail begins a steeper climb with a large switchback to help ease the elevation gain.
Eventually the trail met the stream again and due to the heavy rains, the trail was completely submerged. We ended up hiking what felt like almost a mile through a submerged trail by rock-hopping or just getting our feet wet and muddy. The trail finally separated from the water and leveled out and we reached the junction with the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap trail at 3.0 miles. Take a right at this junction to stay on the orange-blazed Massanutten trail. The trail feels more like a fire road at this point, as you’ll climb up slightly. We were able to see a lot of the fire damage to the trees around, so there is little more than some lower brushy, understory on the trail at this point. At 3.6 miles, you reach the crest of the trail and can see some obstructed views straight ahead. At this point, look around to your right. We found a small cairn on the ground and were able to see some red and purple blazes higher than eye-level on a few trees to mark the beginning of the purple-blazed trail to the summit of Strickler Knob. The purple blazes at this point are typically marked on the rocks where you step. The trail is very rocky at this point and you will be walking the ridgeline until you reach the summit. The trail can also be a little hard to follow, but if you keep looking for the blazes and just remember you are walking the crest of the ridge, you should be fine.
At 4.2 miles, you reach a very nice viewpoint where you can get great views to the west. Keep pressing forward and you’ll soon need to climb up a larger rock wall and then pass by a primitive campsite. Just a few 100 feet away, you will reach the larger boulders of Strickler Knob at 4.5 miles. You’ll see a large rock overhang that you’ll climb under. There is a small area to take in a few views to the right. For those that are most adventurous, the best views are to the left where the overhang is. If you feel comfortable, you will need to navigate a crack between the two larger rock formations and hoist yourself up to the top of the rocks. The views from both rock formations are absolutely breathtaking as you have 360-degree views from all around the valley.
After eating a packed lunch, we made our way back the way we came. We did have to face the waterlogged trail again. We came across several groups on our way back that were also looking for directions. One girl asked me if there was any other way back to the car other than going back up Waterfall Mountain. I suggested that they make their way back through Scothorn Gap and then walk Crisman Hollow Road back. We all definitely wished we didn’t have that steep trek back up Waterfall Mountain to do. It is a very steep trail almost straight up the mountain and it takes quite an athlete to do this without taking a breather at some point on the return. When we finally reached the top, we congratulated our success and then made the last .5 miles back to our car.
When we were hiking the trail, I kept thinking about the MMT 100 racers that were running this trail. We had come across one of the race-workers and he told us that most of the fast runners were coming through this area near Waterfall Mountain around 8 p.m. So, if you were a little slower than that you would be running this trail in the dark with a headlamp. I can’t even imagine how tough this would be and how any of them would escape injury from running into a tree, twisting an ankle, or falling down the trail.
I would also recommend for most people to do the hike from Scothorn Gap instead of the route we took. It is a lot of extra effort with nothing overly impressive to see along the way.
It was great to see our friends again. We were all getting ready to head to the Great Smoky Mountains soon, so this was great training before we had to handle some of the tougher terrain that the park had to offer.
- Distance – 9.1 miles
- Elevation Change – About 2250 ft.
- Difficulty – 5. This rating is earned by both the hike length, the scramble to the knob, and the ascent of Waterfall Mountain that comes right at the end of the hike. For an easier version of this hike, start at Scothorn Gap.
- Trail Conditions – 2. No switchbacks, soggy streambeds, a couple crossings that can be challenging in wet weather, and a tough scramble. This is not a beginner’s hike.
- Views – 5. Views from the knob are spectacular.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2.5. The usually low streams were beautiful and running high when we visited, but they’re probably usually less impressive.
- Wildlife – 0. This trail is popular enough to scare away most wildlife.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. Trails are sporadically blazed and can be hard to follow. The junctions for trails leading to to the knob do not mention Strickler Knob. We suggest bringing a map on this hike.
- Solitude – 2. This trail has become extremely popular!
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 264 heading east through New Market. Head east on West Old Cross Road for .2 miles. Turn left on to US-11/N. Congress Street. In .3 miles, turn right on to US-211/Lee Highway. Go 3.6 miles and turn left on to Crisman Hollow Road (it is right before the green building on your right that is the Massanutten Visitors Center). Follow Crisman Hollow Road for 2.2 miles (passing by the parking lot for the Massanutten Storybook Trail) until you reach where the orange-blazed Massanutten Mountain Trail crosses the road and the small parking area. Park here, cross the road and start the trail.
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.