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Alum Cave Bluffs Trail to Mount LeConte

June 13, 2013

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This ten mile hike of Mount LeConte is challenging but lots of fun!  The scenery is diverse and beautiful – streams, views, towering rock walls, an arched rock that you get to climb through, and a visit to the famous LeConte Lodge.

View the full album of photos from this hike

View from LeConte Summit

LeConte provides great vistas from the Cliff Tops viewpoint, located about .2 miles above the lodge. Below: The Walker Camp Prong at the very beginning of the hike; A lot of the hike had views; The famous LeConte llamas.

Pretty Stream Open Views LeConte Llamas

Adam Says…

When we were planning our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hike that we were most excited to do was the hike up Mount LeConte.  We hiked this trail last year by taking the Trillium Gap Trail, so it was time to try an alternate route.  Last time we had talked to several people that had taken the Alum Cave trail, so we thought it may be a good option.

The weather was gorgeous this day, but we knew we had a chance for thunderstorms in the afternoon, so we decided to get as early of a start as we could.  When we had hiked up via the Trillium Gap Trail, we didn’t run into a lot of hikers; however, it was evident early on this route was going to be a different story.  While Christine was taking advantage of the facilities near the trailhead, I was getting nervous as I saw large groups of people starting the trail.  We’re fairly fast hikers and I was worried we were going to get stuck in a jam behind families with small kids that would slow us down.  Christine arrived and we got on our way.

We both jumped into the hiking and started hiking at a frenetic pace.  We wanted to get in a spot that was far enough ahead of others where we could stop periodically and snap some photos.  It took us a while to get separated from the larger groups, so we didn’t take as much time to enjoy the scenery in the first mile.  We convinced ourselves that we could have more time to amble along on the return trip.

Waiting to Pass Through Arch Rock

Adam waits his turn to pass through Arch Rock.  Below: Early parts of the hike have gentle elevation gain and lots of roots; Christine crosses a foot bridge; The trail was extremely crowded.

Rooty Trail Christine Crossing Hiking with Crowds

Some of you that have been looking through the pictures and may be asking, “Why am I wearing a Grape-Nuts T-shirt?”  Well, we were contacted to be part of an ad campaign.  This is the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb up Mount Everest.  On this trip, he carried Grape-Nuts with him, so they are doing a “What’s Your Mountain?” campaign.  About 60 people were given swag and Grape-Nuts samples to hand out on their climb.  As I was telling people about our trip, I heard many people weren’t even aware that Grape-Nuts was still around.  Personally, I remember my grandmother loving them but I didn’t like them as a kid (in comparison with my favorite sugar cereals like Fruit Loops, Cap’n Crunch, and Franken Berry).  The samples they sent were for their Grape-Nuts Fit Cranberry Vanilla.  After trying them out, they are quite tasty and a good trail snack with 6g of protein.  Give them a try (Christine likes mixing a serving with her greek yogurt for breakfast).

The trailhead starts from the Alum Cave Bluff parking lot on US-441.  At the trailhead, there is a larger map and some trail information guides you can purchase for $ .50.  You will immediately cross a bridge over the Walker Camp Prong stream.  The trail starts off very flat, but you know you’ll have lots of climbing to do later on in the hike.  The first mile of the hike goes along the Alum Cave Creek.  There are several options to jump slightly off the main trail to take in the scenes of the cascading creek.  At 1.4 miles, you will reach a footbridge to cross Styx Branch before you reach the interesting geological feature known as Arch Rock.  Arch Rock is basically a hollowed-out rock tunnel.  You will climb up some steep stairs with a guideline as you go through to the top.  Once you emerge out of the top, you go a little further and then reach another footbridge to cross Styx Branch one more time.

The trail begins to climb more steeply at this point as you make your way to Alum Cave Bluffs.  At 2.4 miles, you start to come across a larger rock outcropping.  As the trail starts to climb around this, you behold the enormous Alum Cave Bluffs.  With the word “cave” being in the title, your initial expectations would be a large cave would be here.  However, the cave bluffs are basically a humongous rock overhang.  It is still jaw-dropping impressive and unlike anything I’ve seen.  The ground underneath is dry and dusty.  We saw a few drops of moisture come over the edge, but the overhang reaches out about 60 feet.  Standing at one end of the outcrop looking at people at the other end, gives you a perspective of how large of an area this is.

Alum Cave Bluffs

The Bluffs are impressive! Below: The beautiful, rugged terrain of the Smokies.

Beautiful, rugged Smokies

From the Alum Cave Bluffs, you will see a sign that shows the direction to continue up Mount LeConte.   The trail climbs steeply for the next .4 miles, passing some views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge.  The trail reaches a peak and then descends into a saddle for another .4 miles.  The trail begins to climb again rather steeply for a good portion of the remainder of the hike as you make your way up the mountain.  Along the way, you will pass by a rock slide, which opens up to some gorgeous views with nothing but layers of mountain ridges to see.  At 3.8 miles, you reach a set of stairs on a switchback to continue your climb.  The trail eventually comes into a steep, rocky climb with cables put in to use as handrails (since this trail gets very icy with little sun in the winter).

The trail finally starts to level off at mile 4.75 as you enter into a tunnel of fraser fir trees.  Continue on a short distance and then you’ll reach a junction with the Rainbow Falls Trail.  Continue a few hundred feet and you’ll reach the LeConte lodge.

Getting a spot at the LeConte Lodge is competitive and highly coveted by Smokies visitors.  Reservations are made by lottery and typically start booking in early October for the following year, so it takes some planning and a little luck to be able to stay in one of these spots on top of the mountain.  We were lucky enough to get a spot here last year and we hope that we’ll do it again in the future.

Great Views

The Alum Cave Bluffs trail had lots of nice views along the way. Below: Some slick, rocky areas along the trail had cables to provide assistance with staying upright; Parts of the trail were quite narrow; The last stretch toward the lodge is flat and passes through evergreens.

Cable Assist Narrow Trail Nearing the Summit

From the cabin area, we wanted to get some nice views and headed up the main path until we reached a junction.  Hang to the right to go to the Cliff Top trail. This trail is rocky and quite steep.  The sign says that it is .2 miles to the top, but it feels longer than that.  However, when you get to the Cliff Top area, you will have great views for miles on a clear day.  After taking in the views and handing out some Grape-Nuts samples,  we grabbed a sack lunch from the dining room to refuel for our trip back down.  We talked with some fellow hikers at the top and relaxed for a while.  After staying up there a previous year, it was hard to motivate ourselves to head back down.

On our way back down, the trip went by fairly quickly since everything was downhill.  It’s always interesting when you see people hiking uphill that look like they are in complete misery.  We spotted one woman, who was staring daggers at her husband (who I’m guessing convinced her to go hiking).  Her daughter was hanging back with her and said, “I love you, mom”.  The mother’s response was, “That’s nice”.  She was definitely not having a good time hiking.  We imagined how the father was going to get an earful for the rest of day.

If you are interested in geocaching, there are not a lot that are available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the national park prevents physical caches from being placed.  However, there is a virtual cache on the trail to find – Alum Cave Bluff.

Christine Says…

Monday morning dawned in spectacular fashion. It was cool, sunny and crystal clear. Even the typical haze that makes the Smokies seem smoky was absent. That was such a treat, because clear air really lets you appreciate the magnificent, green, lushness of the mountains in this area.

We kicked off our morning with breakfast at Mountain Perks – a little café and espresso bar across from the train depot in Bryson City. The owners, Jeff and Pam Pulley are so friendly and are ready to serve local tips alongside their tasty breakfast and even better coffee. I left there with a pound of their ‘Black Widow’ roast coffee to enjoy at home after the trip.

Fully fed and caffeinated, we made our way into the park. On the way to the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead, we spotted a couple elk grazing in a pasture just north of the Occonaluftee visitor center. What a treat!

Llama

We were happily surprised to find the llamas still at camp! Below: Adam arrives at LeConte lodge; The obligatory pose with the elevation sign; We purchased bag lunches from the lodge for $10.00. Lunch came with bottomless lemonade -of which we took full advantage.

Arriving Obligatory Pose Bag Lunch

We got to the Alum Cave Bluff parking area around 9:30, and found that it was already 100% full. We had to park a ways up the road on a pullout. We geared up, and hit the trail – along with dozens and dozens and dozens of other people. I’ve rarely hiked with so many people on the trail at the same time – even on Old Rag. I’ll admit, it made me a little stressed. As you might have guessed, I stop frequently to take photos along the way. Also, Adam and I are relatively fast hikers. So, when I stop to take photos, we end up leap-frogging the same people over and over again. That’s not a problem when there are only a few groups on a trail, but coming up on the heels of large multi-generational families time after time makes me feel bad. It’s easy to pass a couple, it’s more disruptive to squeeze past ten people, six of them kids under the age of ten. I probably didn’t take as many photos early in the hike as usual so that I could avoid being disruptive.

The first couple miles of the hike were relatively easy, following a stream and climbing very gently through the moss covered forest. The terrain changed when we reached Arch Rock. After crossing a log footbridge, stone steps led uphill steeply through an arch of stone. Very cool!

After the arch, the trail began to climb more steeply. In several places, wire was affixed to the rocky side of the trail to help you keep your footing over narrow, slick areas. We climbed uphill for about .7 of a mile before reaching the famous Alum Cave Bluff. Along the way, the trail alternated between rocky and forested. There was even one nice view on a rocky, sand myrtle-covered turn in the trail.

WOW! I had seen photos of the Bluffs, but they were even more impressive in person. The rock wall soared and arched overhead, forming an immense overhang. The terrain beneath the arch was dry and silty. It was tough to walk on and I imagine this area is tough to traverse when it’s wet and rainy.

Cliff Tops View

The nice view from Cliff Tops.  Below:  Time to leave the lodge; Adam walks along the trunk of a fallen giant; The steep and rocky descent.

Leaving the Lodge Huge Fallen Tree
Steep Going Down

I think a good number of people stop at the Bluff and then return to the parking area, so the trail traffic was much lighter after passing that area. We pressed on toward the summit of LeConte.

After the Bluff, the climbing is serious and steady. There are also a number of great views along the way. The Smokies really take my breath away. I kept thinking about how lucky and blessed I am to visit such places and have the physical capability to enjoy the tough climbs.

Eventually the trail turned a corner and leveled out and passed arrow-straight through an evergreen forest. The trail bed looked almost like cobblestones – white, round, smooth rocks. From that point, we had an easy .75 mile walk until we arrived at LeConte lodge.

At LeConte, we did all the obligatory things – took our photo in front of the dining hall with the elevation marker/date, said hello to the llamas, visited the office to get our exclusive summit-shop-only 2013 shirts, sat on rocking chairs, drank copious amounts of LeConte lemonade with our bagged lunches and made the .2 mile climb to enjoy the view from Cliff Tops.

Being at the top on a nice day was such a different experience than our 2012 visit in the rain! However, as the afternoon wore on, we noticed that some darker clouds were starting to build in the sky. We headed back down after about an hour at the summit.

The hike down went very quickly – all downhill! It’s amazing how much faster you can descend 2700 feet than you can climb it! We saw several cute red squirrels that took the time to chatter loudly at us. We scared a grouse from it’s resting spot – and the grouse scared us equally back! They really explode out of the brush when they startle!

Adam at the Bluffs

Adam rests at Alum Cave Bluffs. Below: Climbing back down through Arch Rock. Notice the tiny people waiting at the bottom; Painted trillium; This pretty stream follows the beginning and end of the hike.

Climbing Down Through the Arch Painted Trillium Pretty Stream

We enjoyed passing back under Arch Rock and taking some time to enjoy the beautiful stream beside the trail. We were back at the car by 3:00, tired but really happy with our day.

That evening for dinner, we rewarded ourselves with a feast at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. I got the Brewery Ale Steak, which might be one of the tastiest steaks I’ve ever eaten. I also really liked their Tuckaleechee Porter.

Trail Notes

  • Distance10 miles + a little extra for walking around the lodge grounds and up to the Cliff Tops Viewpoint
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 2650 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.5.  The hike up Mount LeConte is quite steep and the length of the hike makes this a tough one.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is well-used and maintained, so we didn’t find much difficulty.  During heavy times of rain or ice, parts of the rocky areas could be incredibly slick.
  • Views – 4. The best views are along the hike up to Mount LeConte and at the Cliff Top overlook.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Early in the hike, you do get some nice views of Alum Cave Creek and Styx Branch.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We did see some cute red squirrels, but last year people had seen a bear.  There were some nice spots for birdwatching though.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  There are not many places to get steered wrong based on signage and the trail was always clear.
  • Solitude – 0.  On a nice day, expect heavy crowds on the way up to Alum Cave Bluffs.  After that point, there should be fewer people on the way up Mount LeConte; however, this is definitely the most popular way up Mount LeConte.

Directions to trailhead:  From Gatlinburg, TN take US 441-S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Go 11 miles.  Parking is available in a large lot on the left or alongside the road.  The trailhead starts near an opening on the southern side of the parking lot.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Kephart Prong

June 9, 2013

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The 4-mile Kephart Prong hike ascends gently along a beautiful stream and end at the backcountry campsite – Kephart Shelter. This hike offers lovely cascades, wildflowers and history.

View the full album of photos from this hike

Adam Crossing Foot Log

Adam crosses one of several log bridges over Kephart Prong. Below: The trailhead is located on the side of Rt.441.  The first bridge takes you across the Oconaluftee River; The Oconaluftee is beautiful and cascading; So much of the Smokies seems to be wet, green and covered with moss.

Trailhead Oconaluftee River Mushrooms and Mosses

Christine Says…

Our second day in the Smokies was earmarked for a hike to the summit of Mount LeConte, but we woke to gloomy weather. We decided that we didn’t want to hike ten tough miles and not even get payoffs in terms of views, so we devised a new plan!  After redoing our Deep Creek Waterfall Loop Hike to get better photos, we were still ready for more hiking.

I perused our hiking guide and found a trail called Kephart Prong. It sounded interesting – remnants of an old railroad and a CCC camp, a backcountry camping shelter and the trail followed a (possibly pretty) stream. After redoing the earlier hike, the 4-mile length of the Kephart Prong was appealing, too – short and sweet! Also, it had the benefit of being closer to the Bryson City side of the park where we were staying for the early part of our trip.

It was still morning, so we grabbed a snack and made our way to the trail. What we found exceeded my expectations. The stream was incredibly beautiful – rapids and small waterfalls tumbling over mossy rocks and fallen hemlocks. In at least four places, rough, hewn log bridges traversed the stream. The sounds of running water carried through the entire hike. We saw lots of wildflowers – pink lady slippers, wild geranium, ragwort and many others I couldn’t name.

Wildflower

There were many kinds of wildflowers along the trail.  This might be a wild geranium?  Below: Adam explores the ruins of the old CCC camp in the area. This chimney was supposedly located in the barracks; There was once a railroad and a trout hatchery in this part of the Smokies, so look for abandoned rails, train parts and pipes from the hatchery. The item below appears to be an old pipe joint possibly; Another beautiful, mossy, log bridge over the stream.

CCC Camp Ruins Railroad Parts Mossy Bridge

The hike climbed gently the entire two miles until eventually arriving at the Kephart shelter – a sturdy stone and timber hut intended for backcountry camping. We chatted with other dayhikers using the hut for a lunch stop and one man who was there for an overnight stay.

Signs near the shelter showed that the Kephart Trail connects to the Sweat Heifer and Appalachian Trails. If we had continued to climb past the shelter, we would have arrived at Charlie’s Bunion in several miles.

Despite the draw of the Bunion, lunch was a higher calling, so we made our way back down the trail. It’s amazing how much faster the climb down always goes! We got back to the car around 1:00 and were back in Cherokee by 1:30. We couldn’t find anything that sounded good and was actually open on Sunday, so we pressed on back to Bryson City and ended up at a place we found on Yelp – The Bar-B-Que Wagon. They served great, traditional Carolina style pit barbecue with all the expected sides. We sat at a picnic table by the river and enjoyed an enormous, late lunch.

After lunch, we thought about going back to the hotel to shower, but instead we pushed on to visit the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). The complex has a fantastic outdoor outfitter and a super cool riverside patio bar (Big Wesser BBQ + Brew). We got a few drinks and watched rafters and kayakers working the rapids. So relaxing! What a great day!

Adam Says…

The Kephart Prong Trail is one of the most definitive picturesque, riverside trails you’ll find.  The lush forests surround you in a sea of green in every direction you turn.

The trail starts off by crossing a large bridge, giving you great views of the Oconaluftee River. Once you cross the bridge, the trail starts off as wide and gravel-covered. At .2 miles, you will come across the remnants of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was here from 1933-1942.  You’ll see signs of a stone plaque and a tall chimney, among other partial walls.

At the .5 mile mark, you’ll reach your first footbridge over the stream.  As you continue further, the trail continues a slow, gradual ascent to the end. You’ll cross three other footbridges, but these consist of narrow, split logs with wood handrails. The last of these was the only one I was a little concerned with crossing, since the handrail required you to stoop to be able to touch it and the log bounced some in the middle.  The trail leads to the Kephart shelter, which was well-constructed.  From the shelter, you can proceed on the Sweet Heifer Creek Trail which joins the Appalachian Trail in 3.7 miles or take the Grassy Branch Trail to the Sluice Gap Trail for a total of 3.8 miles to reach Charlies Bunion.  Since this is a nice junction for an overnight trip, expect other people staying at the shelter in the nice summer-fall weekends.  Backcountry reservations for overnight campers is $4/night and is required to be made in advance.  See here for further regulations regarding backpacking permits.

Kephart Shelter

Kephart Shelter sits under the shady evergreens. You must have a permit to stay the night in this shelter.  The stream runs behind/left of the shelter.  There used to be a logging camp where the shelter now stands.  Below: Most of the trail follows the stream closely; Adam makes his way across the bridge; A trail sign near the shelter shows the directions to other trails higher up the mountain.

Walking Along the Stream Another Crossing of Kephart Prong Kephart Prong Trail Sign

The Kephart Prong is named after Horace Kephart, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  He was an extremely intelligent man, enrolling in graduate school at Cornell University at the age of 17.  He became the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Libray, but he lost his job.   He had turned to drinking and his wife and family left him for New York.  He decided he wanted to  re-establish himself in the wilderness of western North Carolina and Tennessee.  There he wrote the book Camping and Wildlife, which was considered the “bible” of camping.  When he became concerned that the Smoky Mountains were going to be heavily logged, he started writing letters to advocate for the establishment of this area as a national park.  He soon became friends with a photographer, George Masa and together they started photographing and mapping this area.  It was the partnering of Kephart’s words with Masa’s pictures that caught John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s attention, who donated $5 million to help purchase the lands to help secure the area to become a park.  Kephart died in a car crash before the park was to be established, but Mount Collins was renamed Mount Kephart in his honor.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center

Big Wesser BBQ + Brew at the Nantahala Outdoor Center is a great place to enjoy drinks after a day on the trails.  You can see the canoe/kayak course gates in the river.  It’s fun to watch people coming down the rapids.  Below: Carolina-style BBQ in Bryson City.

Carolina 'Cue

Another interesting spot almost immediately on the trail are the remnants of the site of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp 411 here.  You can see the large chimney and camp signboard on the side of the trail.  This group of nearly 200 built rock walls, roads, trails, and footbridges that are still in use today.  There is an interesting history of this from one of the leaders, James William Biggs.

We enjoyed this beautiful trail and I can see incorporating this trail as part of a backpacking trip in the future.

Trail Notes

  • Distance4 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 770 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.5. The ascent on this hike is very gradual and easy.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is well-graded and in great condition.
  • Views – 0.  No scenic views.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  Very beautiful!
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything other than chipmunks and squirrels.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is very easy to follow to the shelter.  Once you reach the Kephart Shelter, you may decide to continue on.
  • Solitude – 2.  Because of the relatively short length and easiness of this hike, you will probably see a fair number of people.

Directions to trailhead:  Head north on US-441 N from Cherokee, NC.  Head 4 miles north of the Smokemont Campground.  Parking is available on the shoulder of the road and the trail starts after crossing the bridge over the Oconaluftee River.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Deep Creek Area Waterfall Loop

June 4, 2013

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Deep Creek is an area of the Smokies popular with tubers, bikers, horseback riders and hikers. This (roughly) 5.4 mile hiking route provides spectacular views of three waterfalls and the beautiful streams that feed them. We ended up hiking this trail twice on our trip – the second time was mostly to get better photos. :-)

View the full album of photos from this hike

If you haven’t visited the Smokies before, check out our overview post from 2012 – Intro to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Toms Branch Falls

Toms Branch Falls is the first waterfall you’ll come to on the loop. It’s only about a quarter mile from the parking area. Below: Another angle of Toms Branch Falls; Horseback riders love the Deep Creek area; Tubers on Deep Creek; Christine enjoys stream scenery.

Toms Branch Falls Horseback Riders
Tubers Christine on Deep Creek

Adam Says…

We rolled into Bryson City, NC around 2:15 and almost immediately headed out for a hike.  We were tired but our hotel wouldn’t let us check in even 45 minutes early. Evidently, the Microtel in Bryson City is very strict with their policies! We decided to do something close by, so we headed to Deep Creek campground for this hike with three waterfalls.

We knew we were getting close to the campground when we saw tons of “TUBES” signs. People were waving as we drove by, hoping that we would stop and rent tubes from them for floating down the river.

We arrived and got changed in the parking lot and made our way to the trailhead.  The parking lot was crowded, mainly for tubing people.  We followed the masses heading out carrying their inner tubes to their drop-in spots.

We started on the Deep Creek trail and soon passed the junction with the Juney Whank trail on the left. In just about .25 miles, we came across the first waterfall on the right, Toms Branch falls.  This is a gorgeous waterfall that drops about 60 feet over several different rock shelves before plummeting into Deep Creek.  We saw several people floating down the creek as we stopped for some photographs.

Indian Creek Falls

Adam enjoys beautiful Indian Creek Falls. Below: We spotted pink lady’s slippers along the trail. They were a little tattered at the end of their blooming season; Adam climbs the trail.

Pink Lady Slipper Climbing the Trail

At .75 miles, we reached the junction with the Indian Creek Trail. This is actually the last spot where people can drop their tubes into the creek, but we continued on the Deep Creek trail.  At 1.75 miles, this trail intersects with the Loop Trail.  We took a right on to the Loop Trail which starts a steep ascent.  At 2.4 miles, the trail reaches its peak and intersects with the Sunkota Ridge Trail. Continue on the Loop Trail which now descends at about the same rate as it ascended.  At 3.0 miles, you reach the junction with the Indian Creek Trail.  Take a right here.

At 3.8 miles, you’ll see a side trail that descends to  Indian Creek Falls.  Indian Creek Falls is a wide waterfall that has a gradual, sliding cascade into the water.  After taking in the sight, head back to the trail and continue to the right.  Shortly after passing the waterfall, you will reach the junction again with the Deep Creek Trail.  Take a left here to retrace your steps.  You could make this a shorter trip by initially taking a right at the junction, but we enjoyed putting a little extra effort to earn all three waterfalls.

Right before you reach the parking lot, you’ll see the junction trail again with the Juney Whank trail at 4.5 miles. Take the steep trail to the right up for .3 miles. Once you reach the top, you’ll see Asian which points you to the next waterfall. Descend down a short path and you’ll reach a footbridge and the waterfall.  Juney Whank Falls is another great waterfall that plunges down after about a 80 foot cascade.

Continue to the other side of the footbridge and continue on the trail, heading left at the first junction.  The trail descends rather steeply.  You’ll see signs that lead you to the parking lot and back to your car.

Deep Creek

The streams in the Smokies are so beautiful! Below: Since the trail is popular with horseback riders, there is a lot of manure along the way.  Butterflies apparently love manure!; Beautiful Deep Creek; Adam on the loop portion of the trail.

Butterflies on Manure Deep Creek Loop Trail

We had a great time on this trail that maximizes your waterfall experience.  The Deep Creek Trail and Indian Creek Trail both gave you great creek views almost the entire walk and it was fun to watch everyone float by us.  I can see why this is such a popular place to hike and tube for families.  We saw one person with a foot cast and met one woman with a pacemaker along the way, so most people should be able to handle this.  If you want to see some great Smokies waterfalls, this is a hike for you!

Christine Says…

We wanted to do this hike last year when we visited Bryson City, but with so much to do in the Smokies, we just ran out of time. This year, we knew the lay of the land a bit better, and we ready to hit the ground running (or hiking, so to speak!)

We arrived to the area mid-afternoon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. We tried to get into our hotel one before official check-in, but the desk clerk turned us away. We decided to drive over to the Deep Creek Campground, and check out an easy loop hike that took us by a couple waterfalls – Toms Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.

I changed clothes in the crowded parking lot. Let me tell you… switching from jeans and a shirt into shorts, wicking shirt and sports bra without flashing anyone is quite a feat!

We started off along a wide, road-like trail that followed parallel to Indian Creek. It was packed with people out enjoying the warm, sunny weather. Apparently, the Smokies have had an exceedingly cold and wet spring, so the bright, 80-degree Memorial Day weekend was a great chance for everyone in eastern Tennessee to go outside. Deep Creek is very popular with tubers. All up and down the road leading to the campground, various vendors have set up shop renting tubes for roughly $5 a day. Once you have a tube, you walk about a mile up the trail, and then bob and bump along the shallow, but rapid-y river. It looks like a lot of fun! As hikers, we were in the definite minority.

Juney Whank Falls

Juney Whank may be the prettiest waterfall on the loop. Below: Adam enjoys the falls from the bridge; Juney Whank is beautiful from every angle; Below the falls.

Adam at Juney Whank Juney Whank Juney Whank

Walking along the Deep Creek Trail for about .25 miles, we came to the lovely Toms Branch Falls. It’s a tall waterfall that enters Deep Creek from the bank opposite the trail. Very impressive!

We walked along the creek until reaching a junction that makes a lollipop loop on the route. We decided to follow the longer arm of the loop so that we could visit Indian Creek Falls closer to the end of our hike. The trail mostly followed the stream before turning and climbing steadily uphill for about half a mile. At the highest point, the trail met the Sunkota Ridge Trail, which leads to higher elevations and a larger trail system. We remained on the loop and descended another half mile to meet another trail junction.

At this junction, we met a group of horseback riders. One rider was really struggling with her mule. She had dismounted because he had become so skittish. When we passed, he was bellowing and dancing around. She eventually got him under control and was able to ride on. He looked like quite a handful though!

In a few more tenths of a mile, we came upon Indian Creek Falls. These falls are not as steep, and are made up of a couple of small ‘shelf-drops’ before falling into one larger fall. Very beautiful!

About a tenth of a mile past the falls, you join back up with the beginning of the lollipop loop. From there, just follow the trail and the tubers back to the parking area.

Nantahala Brewing Company

The Nantahala Brewing Company – a good post-hike stop in Bryson City.

To be honest, I was really unhappy with my photos from this hike. Waterfalls, sunny conditions and photography simply don’t go together. So, I left this hike feeling a little disappointed with the photos I had to share. That regret quickly faded after a few beers at the Nantahala Brewing Company. What an awesome place! If you like craft beer, don’t miss a visit. After beers, we went for pizza at Anthony’s. It hit the spot and we loved our outdoor table facing the train depot.

I thought our experience with the waterfall hike was over, but the next morning we woke to gloomy, drizzly weather. Since it was such an easy hike, we went back and did it again so I could get better photos. And the second time, we added the .6 mile loop to visit Juney Whank Falls to the trip. These falls required a short, but steep climb, but may have been the prettiest of the three! And the better photos gained from a second trip around made this hike twice as nice!

Trail Notes

  • Distance5.4 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
    These stats are from the first time we hiked the loop, so Juney Whank Falls are not included in the MapMyHike mileage or elevation.
  • Elevation Change – About 630 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.  The only tough parts of this hike are the steep trail on the Loop Trail and the side trail to the Juney Whank falls
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Most of the trail is gravel except for the Loop Trail.  This is a multi-use trail and you will see hikers, bikers, and horses on this trail.  The trails were in great shape with no blowdowns or rough footing.
  • Views – 0.  No scenic views from the trail, but this is more for the waterfalls.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  You’ll have the best stream views along Deep Creek and three gorgeous waterfalls.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Don’t expect larger wildlife due to the crowds of people on this trail.  We did hear lots of pretty warblers in the tree.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Good signage at the trail junctions for the most part except for coming off the Juney Whank falls trail.
  • Solitude – 1.  Expect to see lots of people for most of the trail.  A lot of people choose not to do the Loop Trail.  

Directions to trailhead:  Take exit 67 off of NC-74 towards Veterans Blvd.  Go .6 miles and take a right on Main Street/NC-19.  Take the second left on to Everett Street.  You’ll see signs directing you to Deep Creek Campground.   Go .3 miles and take a right on Depot Street.  This road makes a quick left on Collins Street and then a quick right to continue on to Depot Street.   This becomes Deep Creek Road.  Go .3 miles and take a left on to West Deep Creek Road.   Continue 2.4 miles until you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Deep Creek campground.  A parking lot is on the left.  The trailhead starts near the drop-off roundabout next to this parking lot.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Laurel Prong – Mill Prong Loop

May 24, 2013

This 7.3 mile loop has a bit of everything – views, waterfalls, history!  The route takes you over Hazeltop Mountain, along several streams and past President Hoover’s Rapidan Camp.

The Rapidan River

Camp Hoover sits where the Laurel Prong and Mill Prong spill together, forming the Rapidan River. Below:  Trillium was blooming everywhere when we hiked; The route had many stream crossings; Adam enjoys the view from Hazeltop.

Trillium Everywhere One of Many Stream Crossings Adam on Hazeltop

View the full album of photos from this hike
View a short video clip of Adam crossing the stream below Big Rock Falls

Christine Says…

We love hiking in this part of Shenandoah!  It’s the area we typically choose when we have out-of-town friends who want to visit Shenandoah National Park.  It’s also a likely choice when we’re hitting the trail with hiking newbies.  Why?  Well… we think it’s pretty much perfect.  The climbing isn’t difficult, so it helps convince non-hikers that hiking isn’t just torturous uphill climbing.  This area is great for spotting wildlife. (In his portion of the post, Adam will tell you more about the exciting wildlife experience he shared with his office.)  It’s also scenic, with lovely streams and a waterfall along the route.  There is even a significant piece of American history sitting in the middle of the forest – the Rapidan Camp, which served as Herbert Hoover’s presidential retreat.

Our normal route in the area is a relatively easy 4 mile out-and-back to ‘Camp Hoover’.  For this post, we decided to go the long way and make a 7.3 mile loop incorporating the Appalachian Trail, the Laurel Prong Trail and the Mill Prong Trail.   This longer route added a nice view, many stream crossings and a bit more elevation gain.

Apple Blossoms

Lots of trees were blooming in the park! Below: Adam walks along the Appalachian Trail.  Adam was like a wind sock on Hazeltop.

Adam on the AT Windy on Hazeltop

We parked at Milam Gap.  The hike started across Skyline Drive on the AT, headed southbound.  Almost immediately, the trail began a long, gentle ascent to the summit of Hazeltop Mountain.  The AT is so well-worn into the mountain that the path looked like a ribbon of dirt through the bright green of spring grass.  On this particular May morning, the trail was abundantly lined with my favorite wildflower – Trillium.  They were everywhere with big showy flowers in pink and white.  We also saw (and heard) many birds.  The prettiest songs came from the eastern towhees.  This type of towhee has striking orange, white and black markings, which makes them easy to spot.

After almost two miles of climbing, we reached the high point of the hike on Hazeltop Mountain.  There was one nice place to take in the view.  It was really windy on the rocky outcropping, but I enjoyed looking out over the spring-green valley. From the viewpoint, we hiked downhill for almost half a mile to reach the junction of the AT and the Laurel Prong Trail.

Views from the Laurel Prong

There are obstructed views from the Laurel Prong Trail. Below: Eastern Towhee; Huge boulders and rocks along the Laurel Prong Trail; A neat tree near the junction of the Cat Knob trail.

Eastern Towhee Rocks on Laurel Prong Neat Tree Near Cat Knob Junction

The Laurel Prong trail descends all the way to Camp Hoover.  Along the way, you’ll get some obstructed views from the trail, especially when trees are without their leaves.  There are lots of rocks and boulders lining the path, especially right at the beginning.  The lower parts of the Laurel Prong trail pass through a mix of open forest and mountain laurel thickets.  As you approach the low point of the hike, you should begin to hear the sounds of water.  Most of the time, streams along this trail will be shallow to non-existent.  When we hiked, it was after several days of heavy rain.   Single-step crossings became multi-rock hops and in many places the trail was under several inches of rain.  It was fun to cross so much water!

At around the 5.25 mile mark, we reached Camp Hoover.  It was a great spot to eat lunch, soak in the sunshine and enjoy the sound of rushing water.  The camp is built at the headwaters of the Rapidan River, making it an ideal fishing spot.  Most of the buildings that made up the camp have been lost to the ravages of time, but several cabins, including the president’s personal residence, have been renovated and preserved and are now open to the public (check park schedules for tour opportunities!).

While Adam napped in the sun, I went and did battle with my new carbon fiber tripod.  It’s really light and stable, but it’s like an engineering puzzle to get it initially set up!  I may have threatened to throw the tripod into the river.  I guess I should look at this hike as the tripod’s dress rehearsal. It can prove its true worth on another hike.  Besides, it really wasn’t a good day for taking photos of moving water (too sunny), but I think I was able to capture the impressive flow we witnessed on this day.  I’ve never seen the streams around Camp Hoover flowing so powerfully!  There were rapids and small waterfalls in places I’ve never seen them before.  It was beautiful!

Laurel Prong

The Laurel Prong joins with the Mill Prong to form the Rapidan River just a few hundred feet from this spot. Below: Adam cross the stream again; The Brown House has a great back porch; Another streamside view of the Brown House.

One of Many Stream Crossings The Brown House Streamside

After leaving Camp Hoover, we walked the trail along the Mill Prong.  There is one spot where the trail crosses the stream (right below Big Rock Falls).  We probably could have rock-hopped if we were careful, but both Adam and I decided to take off our boots and put on our Crocs to wade across the stream.  The water came over my knees, which is really high for this spot.

After crossing, we took a few minutes to enjoy Big Rock Falls and then made our way back toward Milam Gap.  For much of the way, the trail stayed close to the stream.  We had several more stream crossings to complete, but none that required a shoe swap.  The last couple miles of the hike went quickly, and we were back at the car by early afternoon.

We were surprised by how few people we ran into on the hike.  I would have expected big crowds on a perfect, sunny Mother’s Day, but we really only saw a handful of people – a few backpackers making a short overnight of the loop and a pair of birders at the camp.  I suppose we saw a few more people as we hiked back up the Mill Prong trail, but overall the crowds were light.

If I were to recommend a version of this hike – the 4 mile out and back or the 7.3 mile loop, I think I’d probably stick with the shorter version.  The longer version is nice, and great if you’re looking to pick up some mileage, but there’s really not a lot to see on the Laurel Prong and there are nicer views in the park than Hazeltop.  The main reasons to hike in this area are Camp Hoover and beautiful stream scenery; and you get both of those on the shorter out-and-back.

Adam Says…

The hike down to the Rapidan Camp is always one of our favorites in Shenandoah National Park.  We have taken several groups of people down to this area.  When I talk to people about Shenandoah National Park, they have no idea that a Presidential retreat was once here and how this helped to establish a national park in Virginia.  This route adds a view to the hike for an extra bonus.  If you would like a map of the hiking area in advance, download one here.

Big Rock Falls

Big Rock Falls was as big as we’ve ever seen it! Below: Adam crosses the stream right below Big Rock Falls; Lots of water in these little streams.

Crossing Mill Prong High Stream Flow

We’ve seen that on Hiking Upward and in our Hiking Shenandoah National Park Falcon Guide the hike was done in the reverse direction that we did the hike.  But, our way has less of a continuous elevation climb and it puts Camp Hoover in the last third of the route (save the best for last!).  We started off from the Milam Gap parking area and crossed Skyline Drive near the southern entrance to the lot to start on the Appalachian Trail.  Heading southbound on the white-blazed AT, we quickly came across the junction with the Mill Prong Trail.  This is your return route, so continue to go straight.  The trail gradually climbs up a total of 450 feet.  You reach a nice viewpoint to the right of the trail around 1.8 miles before you reach the Hazeltop summit in 1.9 miles.

The trail then begins to descend and at 2.6 miles, you reach the junction with the Laurel Prong Trail on the left.  Take this blue-blazed trail which continues to descend.  At the 3.6 mile, you will pass a junction with the Cat Knob Trail but stay on the Laurel Prong Trail.  At 4.9 miles, you reach another junction with the Fork Mountain Trail, but again stay on the Laurel Prong Trail.  The trail changes to yellow-blazed at this point, since it is now accessible to horses.  At 5.3 miles, you will pass by a fire road on the left and then come up to a side trail for Five Tents.  The Five Tents location was where some of the staff would stay at the Rapidan Camp, but there is no longer a building there.  Christine took this route, but I stayed straight and we met up shortly at the Rapidan Camp, entering near the Prime Minister’s Cabin.

Upon leaving the Brown House at Rapidan Camp, we caught the trail heading past the Creel Cabin.  Crossing the fire road, we picked up the yellow-blazed Mill Prong Trail which gradually ascends most of the way.  At 5.5 miles, you will cross Mill Prong (which may require you to wade across the water after heavy rainfall) and reach Big Rock Falls on the other side.   At 5.9 miles, you reach a junction with the Mill Prong Horse Trail.  Continue straight instead of taking this trail, but the blazes change to blue as it is no longer a horse trail.  The trail crosses Mill Prong again and then you will have a gradual climb back up.  At 7.3 miles, you reach the Appalachian Trail junction again.  Take a right and in a short distance you’ll reach the parking lot.

Abundant Trillium

Pretty pink trillium Below: Wild geranium (I think?); Ragwort; Adam finishes out the loop.

Wildflowers Ragwort End of the Loop

Last year, I brought a few of my co-workers down to the Rapidan camp for a team-building retreat.  I felt that if it was good enough for the President, it should be good enough for us.  When we arrived, a volunteer who stayed at the Creel Cabin, gave us a tour of the Brown House, where President Hoover stayed.  We learned a lot about Hoover, the problems he faced during his presidency, and his relationship to Franklin D. Roosevelt.  After the tour, we did some team-building and communication exercises to learn more about how to work best with each other.  While we were in the middle of making some breakthroughs, a small snake fell down off the roof just a few feet from where we were working.  One of my co-workers, who is not a hiker by any definition, jumped out of her seat and was constantly looking around for other animals.  After we made our way back up, we were talking along the way.  I heard some people say, “Adam, look out”.  I nearly walked right into a mama bear with three cubs.  The family of bears quickly took off up the hill.  I had told my co-workers that I’m usually pretty good at finding bears and we may see some.  They were thrilled to see the cubs, as a few of them had never seen a bear cub before.

Along with the possibilities of seeing bears, you can usually find this trail to be an excellent trail for birding.  The Laurel Prong and Mill Prong trails were filled with beautiful songs as we hiked along.  A couple that was hiking near us also recognized the song of a blackburnian warbler.

If you’re up for a longer hike to the Rapidan Camp, I would suggest this route.  The views from near Hazeltop summit were expansive, you get to see a nice waterfall, hear the songs of birds, and learn about the history of one of our Presidents and how it helped create a national park in Virginia.  This hike does have it all!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 7.3 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change –  1100 ft
  • Difficulty – 3.  This hike is not steep or difficult, but some hiking novices might find the 7+ mile distance a little challenging.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trails were in great shape, despite being underwater in several place.  We didn’t see any blowdowns or sloppy areas.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 4.  Big Rock Falls, the Rapidan River, Mill Prong and Laurel Prong are all lovely and offer lots of water scenery along this hike!
  • Wildlife – 4. We didn’t see much on this particular day beyond birds, but we’ve seen lots of deer and bears on past trips.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Trail directions are clearly marked at junctions with cement markers.
  • Solitude – 2. This is a popular hike, both as a day trip and a short overnight loop.

Directions to trailhead:

The hike starts at mile marker 53 on Skyline Drive.  Park in the Milam Gap lot, then cross the drive.  The trail picks up on the other side of the crosswalk.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Table Rock

May 14, 2013

The drive to the trailhead is probably tougher than the actual hike, but this 2.4 mile out-and-back in the Canaan Backcountry has spectacular views and is well worth the bumpy ride to get to the trail’s start!

Christine on Table Rock

Table Rock has great views of the valley. Below: When the weather has been wet, there are several muddy sections to cross (it was quite dry when we visited); Later this summer, the rocks will be covered with blueberries.

Muddy Crossing Blueberry Blooms

Adam Says…

This hike was definitely one of those pleasant surprises you find once in a while.  We have been going to Canaan Valley for years (my wife has been going since she was a kid) and we never knew about this great place for hiking that was just a short distance from where we always stay.  I’ve driven by the Canaan Loop Road and thought to myself, “I wonder where that road goes.”  If I had known earlier that it led to this area of hiking, we would have tried this out a long time ago.

We had picked up the Day & Overnight Hikes: West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest book a couple of years ago and have done a few of the hikes before.  This one led us right to the Canaan Loop Road for this great out-and-back hike.  When we started on the road, we passed by a few houses on the gravel, pothole-laden road and then quickly came upon a school bus parked in the middle of the road, blocking any traffic.  I thought this was odd (and possibly a little like the start to a horror movie), but I didn’t see anyone inside.  I walked up and saw a man about halfway down the bus that was straightening some things up.  I asked if he was moving and he darted up front, started the bus, and gunned it down the road.  We followed the bus for a while, but it was quickly leaving us in the dust kicked up from the gravel road.  After a few miles, we came upon the bus again as it was parking for a scouting group that looked like they were packing up after a large picnic.  We continued past the group on a very bumpy and narrow road that has some precarious edges that you just pray that another car doesn’t come the other way.  We only came across one other vehicle on the road, but I would warn you to be cautious as you make your way along the road and drive slowly.

Thick Rhododendron

The rhododendron along this trail was thick and jungle-like. There were lots of buds, so it should be a pretty bloom this year! Below: Trails are not typically well-marked in the Canaan backcountry; Adam walks through open forest; Crossing another muddy section.

Trailhead Sign Open Forest Mucky

After driving for exactly 10 miles on the Canaan Loop Road, we came to the parking area to the left for Table Rock.  We started down the trail.  The trail is technically blue-blazed, but you will likely only see a few of these blazes on the trees.  The trail is fairly obvious, but I can imagine after the leaves first fall, it could be a little tough to find your way.  The trail starts almost in a jungle of rhododendron, but that quickly opens up to an open forest of larger beech, maple, and birch trees.  The trail stays relatively flat the entire way and there are a few areas of mucky ground or pools.  Rocks and logs have been placed over in some of these to help you traverse, but in some areas after a good rain, you will likely need to get your shoes wet.  After about 1.1 miles, you come across a campsite.  Just ahead is Table Rock.

The outcropping has phenomenal views.  The rocks have crevasses that can be quite deep, so watch where you are stepping and be careful around the edges since there are huge drops below.  Since this place isn’t visited often except by locals, this will be a great off-the-beaten path hike that you can likely enjoy the views all by yourself.  The spruce-covered mountain across the gorge is Green Mountain.   Since this trail is flat, almost anyone could enjoy this hike.

It was quite breezy at the top and I had to hold my hat a few times as the wind picked up.  You can tell that this area does get a lot of wind that funnels quickly through the gorge.  We look forward to coming back to this area sometime soon and visit some of the other trails that crisscross around the Canaan Loop Road.

Christine Says…

Normally when we visit the Canaan Valley area, it’s all about hiking and nature and waterfalls!  This visit was all about… cleaning.  Adam and I agreed to take care of the annual spring cleaning of my parents’ rental property in the area.  In the three days we were there, we scrubbed, scoured, swept and probably did more than 20 loads of laundry.  It wasn’t a fun trip, but we did manage to get out for one short, nearby hike.

I have no idea how the trails off the Canaan Loop Road escaped our notice.  I guess when you’re close to Dolly Sods, Seneca Rocks, and Spruce Knob, other trails fall a bit by the wayside.  But, I’m really glad we took the time to drive the ten bumpy miles to this trailhead.

Greening Up

I love watching green creep up the mountainsides each spring. Below: Lovely trillium, A couple views of Table Rock.

Trillium Table Rock Table Rock

The hike to Table Rock was short, but had a spectacular payoff in terms of views and solitude.  The path led through gorgeous forest, alternating between dense stands of rhododendron and open, mossy forest.  The whole route is flat and easy, so in about 20-30 minutes, you’re already at the overlook.  The rocky shelf stands over a magnificent, undeveloped valley.  When we visited in mid-spring, the emergence of leaves created the effect of green creeping up the mountainsides.  So beautiful!  There were tons of blooming blueberry bushes in the area, too. It would be nice to visit in August and pick berries!

I also enjoyed the Painted Trillium along the trail.  Most of the trillium I see along the trails in Shenandoah is plain white or pink, so seeing a different variety was a nice change of pace.  We were there a little too early to see the rhododendron bloom, but most of the plants were abundant with buds.  It should be really pretty when they finally open!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 2.4 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change –  195 ft
  • Difficulty – 1. This trail is very flat, so just about anyone could enjoy it.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  The trail isn’t that well-used, but it was still a worn path.  You may have to do a little rock-hopping to make it across some of the larger puddles.
  • Views4. Breathtaking views are clear from this point.  We enjoy not being able to see houses from great viewpoints and you shouldn’t see many signs of civilization from this outcropping.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent.
  • Wildlife – 2. Other than a few birds, we didn’t see anything on the trail. 
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. There is only one trail on this hike, so there shouldn’t be any confusion.  The only reason to downgrade this is because it is not blazed often at all and in the fall it could be a little challenging to follow the path.
  • Solitude – 5.  We didn’t see anyone on a beautiful weekend day in the afternoon. 

Directions to trailhead:

From Davis, WV, head south on WV 32.  In 3.2 miles, turn right on to Canaan Loop Road (Forest Service Road 13).  Follow the road for exactly 10 miles.  The parking area is on the left and there is a wooden sign that shows the beginning of the trailhead.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Hazel Falls

May 1, 2013

This easy 5.2-mile hike leads to a beautiful waterfall on the Hazel River.  The falls are surrounded by towering rock walls and a couple small caves.

Wide View of Falls

Hazel Falls are not terribly high, but they sit in a beautiful gorge. Below: Adam at the Meadow Spring trailhead; Little wildflowers grew abundantly along the trail; A great place to enjoy the sun.

Trailhead at Meadow Springs Wildflowers Nice Place to Rest

View the full album of photos from this hike
View a short video clip of Hazel Falls

Christine Says…

Every time I think we’re running out of nearby hikes to complete, we seem to stumble across something that has escaped our notice for one reason or another.  That was just the case with this beautiful, easy walk to Hazel Falls!  Typically, when you think of Shenandoah’s waterfalls, you think of Dark Hollow, White Oak Canyon or Doyles River-Jones Run.  It’s not very common to see photos or hear people talking about Hazel Falls.  After being there in person, I’m not really sure why.  It was a great hike!  Although the falls are not high, I found them to be nicer than some of the park’s more popular falls – I’m looking at you Lewis Springs Falls!  It’s probably spring’s higher water flow,  but this small waterfall was much more impressive than some of the park’s larger falls.

Christine Hiking

The trail was mostly wide and gentle. Below: Adam negotiates the largest blow down on the hike; The junction of the steep rock trail that leads down to the falls/caves; Rock walls tower above the falls.

Navigating Blowdowns Junction to Falls Trail Rock Walls

The hike mostly consisted of pleasant, gentle walking through pretty forest. The last time we hiked in this area was a few years ago when we went on our very first overnight backpacking trip with PATC.  That trip made a loop of Hazel Mountain and Catlett Mountain.  It’s funny – I remembered the trail being a lot steeper than it seemed this time.  I guess I had a heavier pack and wasn’t in very good condition on that trip.

On this particular spring day, I enjoyed seeing all the early season wildflowers blooming along the side of the trail. We had perfect weather – sunny, crisp blue skies and a nice breeze.  It was ideal for hiking, but not so ideal for waterfall photography.  When we finally got down to the falls, I did the best I could to capture a few decent shots under the bright mid-day sun.  It didn’t go that well.

I also really enjoyed the little caves adjacent to the falls and sunning on the big flat rock next to the smaller falls.  It was a gorgeous spot and I’ll look forward to visiting again.

After our hike, we decided to stop by Big Meadows for Shenandoah’s famous blackberry ice cream.  Even though the park has a new concessionaire for food/gift shops, the ice cream was just as good as it’s always been!

Adam Says…

The hike to Hazel Falls was a pleasant surprise.  When looking for hiking suggestions, we typically peruse our hiking guides, study maps, and explore the internet for ideas.  The 2000 edition of the Falcon Guide for Hiking Shenandoah National Park didn’t include Hazel Falls in the book, but the updated 2012 edition does cover it.  So, we have to give thanks to Bert & Jane Gildert, the authors, for including this one for us to explore.  As Christine said, I feel that this is a great waterfall that really allows you to sit down and take in the beauty of the setting around you.

Hazel Falls with Adam

Adam enjoys the falls. Below: Adam makes his way down the steepest part of the trail; Pretty cascades leading away from the falls; Christine at the lower falls, Another view of Hazel Falls.

Climb Down to Falls Smaller Hazel Falls Christine at the Small Lower Hazel Falls Another View of the Falls

The trail starts off from the Meadow Spring Trail parking lot.  This is a popular parking spot for many hikes and overnight backpackers; we have rarely seen this lot not packed with vehicles.  If you are going with a larger group, try to carpool to minimize the number of parking spots you may need.  The good news is that most of the cars will likely be heading down to Buck Hollow or doing larger loops around Hazel and Catlett Mountains.  The trail goes just a few feet before you reach a junction with the Buck Hollow Trail.  Instead of branching off, just stay straight on the trail and walk down the wide path.  The trail is mostly a slight downhill grade with some flatter sections.  At 1.5 miles, you will reach a junction with the White Rocks Trail on the left.  Take the White Rocks Trail.  At 2.4 miles, you will reach a junction post that will direct you to take the trail to the right for the falls.  Climb down the steep trail and you should reach the first, small waterfall at the bottom.  Continue along the path over the rocks and you will reach the larger Hazel Falls and see the cave to the right.  Make your way back the way you came to get back to your vehicle.

Cave Near Hazel Falls

Adam checks out the cave near Hazel Falls. Below: Making the steep climb back up; Blackberry ice cream at Big Meadows wayside

Steep Climb Uphill Shenandoah Blackberry Ice Cream

Because of the uncomplicated, mostly gentle terrain, this might be a great hike to do with older children.  The only strenuous part of the hike was hiking the last .2 miles (the climb down will challenge your knees and the climb back up will get the blood pumping).   You can tell a lot of great trail work has been done to create the stone steps that allow you to climb down without it being too slippery.  The picturesque setting of the falls will encourage you to take some time to relax, eat a snack, and enjoy the sound of rushing water.  The pool at the larger falls could also be one to wade into fairly easily if you like getting your feet wet.

While Christine was busy taking a lot of photos, I enjoyed peeking inside the larger cave near the falls.  Christine took some coaxing to go in, since she was worried that bats would fly out.  I didn’t see any bats inside or guano on the ground, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of them took refuge in the top of the cave on occasion.  At the falls there is also a path that leads to a small rock opening that you can climb around to get closer to the falls.  As I was climbing around there, I saw a bird’s nest tucked in the top of the rocks.  Sure enough, within a few minutes, I saw a bird (I believe a sparrow of some sort) fly into the nest.  I hope too many people don’t disturb the nest and it is able to raise some cute chicks.

I imagine we will go back to Hazel Falls many times in the future.  If you haven’t been here before, this is a waterfall that is worth checking out.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change –  800 ft
  • Difficulty – 2.  The final .2 mile descent (and climb back out) into the stream gorge is very steep, but the rest of the hike is flat or very gently graded.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  There were a few blow downs that required navigation, but most of the trail is smooth, easy footing.  The descent to the waterfall showcases the great work trail maintainers do in the park.  They turned a extremely steep piece of terrain into a giant staircase with a series of well-placed rocks.
  • Views0.  In the winter and early spring, you may catch some glimpses of mountainsides through the trees.  Otherwise, this walk takes place exclusively in the woods.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 4.  Though the waterfall is not tall, it’s it a lovely setting surrounded by towering rock walls and small caves.
  • Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything on this trip, but we have spotted bears and deer in the vicinity on past trips.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Trail directions are clearly marked at junctions with cement markers.
  • Solitude – 2.5. The parking lot was jam-packed on a pretty, sunny Saturday afternoon, but there are lots of trail options in this area.  We saw about 15 people over the course of the hike.

Directions to trailhead:

From Skyline Drive proceed to mile 33.5.  Parking is on the east side of the drive at the Meadow Spring parking area.  The trail descends from the south end of the parking lot.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Fridley Gap Loop

April 28, 2013

This six-mile loop hike in the Fridley Gap area of George Washington National Forest has everything – views, waterfalls, beautiful stream scenery, rugged climbing and great backcountry camping.  It’s a perfect hike to get away from the crowds in Shenandoah National Park.

View the full album of photos from this hike
(Photos in the album are captioned and in order of what you will encounter on the route)

Adam at the Overlook

If you miss spotting the faint side trail behind one of the many backcountry campsites along this loop, you’ll miss the best view of the hike! Below: Adam crosses the stream; A small waterfall on the stream; This loop has many choices for backcountry camp sites.

Adam Crossing Fridley Run Smal Waterfall Backcountry Site

Adam Says…

Last year, we made an attempt to do this Fridley Gap loop hike, but we had trouble finding one of the trails.  We bushwhacked for a while, but finally gave up.  This time when we returned, we had better directions and the blazes had recently been repainted on much of the loop.

From the top end of the parking lot, we started on the trail.  We saw both purple and blue blazes early on, and started to worry.  (Fortunately, it turned out that this was the only section of the trail that hadn’t been recently re-blazed.)  Early parts of the trail traverse large rocks, and it’s sometimes tough to see exactly which way the trail goes. We saw faded red Xs painted on the surface of some of the rocks which let us know that we were going the right way.  The trail is uphill but not too steep.  In .2 miles, you come to a fire road.  Take a right here and continue on the fire road.  You will pass by some small falls and Mountain Run to the right and a large boulder slide to the left.  The trail actually follows the streambed, and you will need to rock-hop to continue on.  At .45 miles, you will reach another falls area and you will cross over Mountain Run until you see the trail junction cement post.  This is also the point that Mountain Run and Fridley Run join.  It was at this point that we failed last time trying to find the orange-blazed Massanutten South trail.  Looking at the cement post as you approached it, look back around 4:00.  You will see the orange blazes on the Massanutten South trail as you will cross the water again (this time it is Fridley Run) and climb up the hillside.  These weren’t painted on the trees before (they look fresh now), so you should be able to find your way more easily.

Walking in the Streambed

Early in the hike, the trail traverses the streambed. There are plenty of rocks, so it’s fairly easy to hop from spot to spot and avoid getting your feet wet. Below: Adam climbs up the trail shortly after the parking lot; A rockslide early on the hike; Blooming redbuds.

Adam Hiking Fridley Gap Trail Rock Slide Redbuds Blooming

The climb up the Massanutten South trail is quite steep and you may need to stop a few times along the way to catch your breath.  This trail is also narrow and you may have to cross over a few blown-down trees, but the trail wasn’t too hard to navigate with the recent re-blazing.  At 1.85 miles, you will reach a campsite area.  Look closely and you will see a path that leads to a rock outcropping called Grubbs Knob Overlook.  Take this path up to the overlook to get the best views along the hike.   You will see the top of Grubbs Knob to the left from the overlook and views to the west.  After taking in the view, go back to the campsite and continue along the Massanutten South trail.  At 2.05 miles, the trail reaches its peak and then you will start to descend, as the trail takes a steep turn to the left.  You will make your way back down this very narrow path and cross Fridley Run at 2.70 miles.

After crossing Fridley Run, you will begin to ascend on the trail again (turning again into a wider fire road) until you reach a rocky slide that gives you views of Fridley Gap and North Mountain at 3.25 miles.  Continue to ascend as you walk around part of Third Mountain. The fire road stops ascending at 3.5 miles.  The trail then descends and you reach another cement junction post at 3.84 miles.  Take a left on the purple-blazed Fridley Gap trail, which follow another wide fire road.  You will likely see lots of burned trees from a fire in 2010 that covered a big portion of this area.  At 4.5 miles, you will reach another junction. The purple-blazed Fridley Gap trail ascends to the left and continues through the woods.  Take this trail and begin a steep ascent across some switchbacks.  At 4.85 miles, you will reach the top of your climb and there are a few stones that you can rest on for a few minutes if you need to catch your breath.

Christine at the Small Waterfall

This small waterfall feeds one of the most popular swimming holes in the area. Below: More pretty cascades.

Mountain Run

The trail now begins to descend very steeply.  We were so glad we had our trekking poles since the rocks under the leaves were often loose and it helped to lower ourselves down the steep steps.  We were also glad we did this hike this direction rather than the clockwise version of the loop.  At 5.5 miles, we reached another junction with the Massanutten South trail.  Take a left on the orange and purple-blazed fire road (don’t go the way that crosses the bridge) and you will reach the junction that closes the loop at 5.65 miles.  Take a right here, crossing Mountain Run again and make your way back down the fire road.  Be sure to catch the rocky path at 5.8 miles that leads back to the parking lot at 6 miles.

A funny moment happened along the hike.  Christine had programmed her phone to use the MapMyHike app.  In a recent upgrade, it now includes some vocal updates along the way, usually at the mile increments.  One time, we heard the voice say “Don’t stop now.  Walgreen’s is behind you.”  (Walgreen’s is now advertising on MapMyHike.)  While this is meant to be a word of encouragement to keep hiking strong, I was thinking of it as “Walgreen’s is chasing us.”  As I sometimes do, I started thinking of a parody song to the tune of the Road Runner Show TV theme song.  So for your enjoyment, here are my lyrics: “Fridley hiker, Walgreen’s is after you. Fridley hiker, if he catches you, you’re through.  That Walgreen’s is really a crazy store.  They have pharmaceuticals, toiletries, and so much more.  Fridley hiker, never, never, never slow down.  Fridley hiker. Walgreen’s is after you.  Fridley hiker.  If he catches you, you’re through.

There is one geocache along the trail, Fridley’s Cache, a normal-sized cache near the swimming hole.

It is always a good feeling to know that we redeemed ourselves by covering a hike that we had previously failed to navigate.  If you are looking for good views of streams or a swimming hole, along with a challenging hike to get some views, this may be a great hike to try out some time.

Rocks at Grubbs Overlook

The rocks at Grubbs Overlook might trick people into thinking there isn’t an open view. Below: Views from Grubbs Overlook and the campsite that sits adjacent to the overlook.

View from Grubbs Adam at Grubbs
A View Into the Valley
Campsite at the Grubbs Overlook

Christine Says…

Hallelujah for freshly painted blazes!  I was so frustrated last year when our attempt to hike the Fridley Gap Loop ended in failure.  The failure was mostly my fault.  I tried to map out the hike based on a course I saw on someone’s Runkeeper page.  There were no directions, just the route overlaid on a rudimentary map of the area.  I thought we’d be able to figure things out on our own with a NatGeo map of the area.  It turns out that faded blazes and a large group of people camping in the middle of the trail are insurmountable challenges to my ability to navigate.  We’ll let bygones be bygones and get on to the successful version of our Fridley Gap hike.

Let me start by saying, I loved this hike!  It was even better than I expected.  The stream was running beautifully, the views of the valley ‘greening up’ below were lovely and the weather was perfect (sunny, cool and breezy enough to keep the bugs away).  I really enjoyed the little rock-hop as the trail followed the stream bed.  The small waterfall and swimming hole were so pretty.

The climb up the Massanutten South trail to Grubbs Knob was steep enough to be challenging, but not so steep that we had to stop for a breather.  On the way up, we could see all the little signs of spring creeping back into the forest – tiny buds on trees, tightly curled ferns and the occasional early season wildflower poking up through the leaves.  The overlook at Grubbs Knob is rather easy to miss.  It lies at the top of a faint footpath above a campsite.  When you first climb to the top of the footpath, vertical, spine-like plates of rock obstruct any possibility for a view.  But if you climb along the rocks, eventually you come to a few footholds that allow you to scramble to the top of the rocks.  Once you’re there, the valley below spreads out as far as the eye can see – farms dotted with red barns; small country towns; and wide, green fields make up most of the vista.

Downhill Through Dense Laurel

The climb downhill after Grubbs Knob takes you through dense mountain laurel. The harsh light makes for an ugly photo… but you get the idea.  Below: Adam approaches the stream; Crossing Fridley Run.

Approaching Fridley Run Crossing the Stream Again

After leaving the Grubbs Overlook, we ascended a few more moments before taking a sharp downhill turn.  The trail passed through dense mountain laurel, with occasional peeks toward the next ridgeline.  Eventually, we heard the sound of water again.  For a short way, the trail followed Fridley Run.  But soon, we had to cross the stream and head back uphill along a wide fire road.  From the fire road, we caught our second open viewpoint of the hike.  It was a nice view, but nowhere nearly as lovely as the one from Grubbs Overlook.  It’s one thing to slog uphill and come to a magnificent rocky outcropping with a sweeping vista to appreciate.  It’s a little less stirring to stop along a roadside and take in a view of a couple mountain ridges.

Eventually, the fire road met up at a four-way trail junction.  One direction headed toward the Boones Run shelter, another toward Cub Run Road, another continued along the Fridley Gap trail in the direction of Martins Bottom, and of course the fourth headed back in the direction from which we arrived.  Seeing this junction made me think of all the different ways these trails cross and connect.  There are definitely multiple possibilities for overnight backpacking loops in this area.

Second Overlook

The second overlooks comes at a spot along the fire road. Below: Adam checks out the map at this four-way trail junction; Continuing along the fire road before our climb up Third Mountain; Charred trees from the 2010 fire.

Four-way Junction Hiking Along the Fire Road Charred Trees

We followed the fire road to another junction.  Heading straight would have taken us toward Martins Bottom, but to stay on course we turned left and started very steeply uphill along the purple-blazed Fridley Gap trail.   By this point of the hike, I was pretty hungry and my energy was starting to flag.  If I were smarter, I would have eaten a snack before tackling the climb.  But I’m not smart, so I spent most of the climb complaining that I was hungry!

After a short break (and snack) atop the tree-covered peak of Third Mountain, we began a crazy-steep descent.  For three-quarters of a mile, we carefully picked our way down the craggy, leaf covered mountainside.  Through the trees, we could see some really fascinating rock formations on the shoulder of the next mountain over.  I kept trying to appreciate the view, but every time I did, I lost my footing a bit.  This climb down definitely makes the case for paying attention and using your trekking poles.

Steep Uphill Over Third Mountain

The ascent of Third Mountain may not look steep in this photo, but it is!  Below: Descending Third Mountain – you can see rock formations through the trees; A bridge not taken on the Massanutten trail; Adam once again crosses the stream we crossed early in our hike.

Steep Descent of Third Mountain Bridge on Massanutten Trail Final Stream Crossing

At the bottom of Third Mountain, we had just a short walk back to our original junction – the one where everything went wrong when we tried to hike Fridley Gap last year!  I was quite pleased to see that marker again and be 100% certain that we had actually found our way successfully this time around.  From the last junction, we retraced our steps through the streambed, past the rockslide and back to our car.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change –  1417 ft
  • Difficulty – 3.5.  The trail goes up and down several times. 
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  Some of the trail would be rated higher when you are walking along the fire roads.  However, the trail had blowdowns, loose conditions, and narrowness that has us giving this an average rating. 
  • Views3.  The views from the Grubbs Knob overlook are the best on the trail, but if you miss the path from the campsite you would be disappointed.  The views along the path at 3.25 miles are nice, but not remarkable.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 4. The trail goes along (and through) Mountain Run and Fridley Run on several occasions.  The small falls and swimming hole gives it a bonus. 
  • Wildlife – 2. This may be a good hike for bird watching.  We saw a peregrine falcon soaring above at the Grubbs Knob overlook and enjoyed hearing the song of the eastern towhee along the way.
  • Ease to Navigate2.  If we got lost before, we have to give this a low rating.  The path to start the trail from the parking lot could be better blazed and there are several turns to make.
  • Solitude – 4.  You may see some people at the swimming hole or camping alongside the junction with Mountain Run and Fridley Run.  However, we only saw one other group after this point on a nice spring weekend day. 

Directions to trailhead:

From Harrisonburg, VA, head east on 33.  Take a left onto VA-620 North/Indian trail Road leading to Keezletown, VA for 1.7 miles.  Turn right on VA-620 North/Mountain Valley Road for 4.6 miles.  Turn right to stay on Mountain Valley Road for 2.8 more miles.  Turn right again to stay on Mountain Valley Road for .4 miles. Take a slight right to get on Armentrouth Path.  Once you pass the Bethel Church of the Brethren, take the first left on Airey Lane.  Stay on this gravel road until you reach the larger parking lot in 1.1 miles.  The trailhead takes off from the smaller lot past the larger lot on the right-hand side.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

High Knob & Hoover Ridge

April 22, 2013

This 5.75 mile hike takes you to an old fire tower sitting atop a high peak on the border of West Virginia and Virginia.  After visiting the tower, you can either head back to the parking area (which would cut the distance and make this a 3 mile total round-trip hike), or continue to explore the Shenandoah Mountain trail with a walk over to Hoover Ridge.

High Knob Fire Tower

The High Knob Fire Tower provides panoramic views into both Virginia and West Virginia. Below: Adam looks at trail information in the kiosk in the parking area; The Shenandoah Mountain Trail is often lined with dense mountain laurel; Trail junction – one way climbs up the fire tower, another continues on the Shenandoah Mountain trail, and the third descends to the Brandywine Recreation area.

Parking Areas for High Knob Trail Dense Mountain Laurel Along High Knob Trail Trail Junction on Shenandoah Mountain Trail

View a 30 second video of the panoramic view from the High Knob fire tower.

Christine Says…

First of all, I’m not sure whether to call this a Virginia hike or a West Virginia hike.  While you park in West Virginia, the Shenandoah Mountain trail meanders right along the states’ borderline.  I believe the High Knob fire tower sits on the Virginia side of the line, but views look out into both states.  This is definitely a hike worth doing!

Our first attempt to hike High Knob was on April 7th, 2013.  That hike started off well enough, but within the first half mile the trail turned into a veritable luge track.  It was a smooth, slick, well-polished chute of ice!  Had we planned more extensively, we would have packed Yaktrax, but after a week of warm, sunny weather, we simply didn’t expect to see so much ice!  We watched a couple on the trail ahead of us falling down, over and over and over again.  The girl literally fell ten times in about two minutes.  She couldn’t make a single step of forward progress.  Adam and I looked at each other and said ‘Nah… we’ll come back and do this some other time.”

Mountain Laurel is Getting Ready to Blook

Fetterbush is blooming!  Below: Trails are marked with a double yellow blaze; Occasionally views opened up through the trees.

Yellow Blazes on Shenandoah Mountain Trail Views Along the Shenandoah Mountain Trail

The very next weekend, we headed back and ended up with much better hiking conditions.  The trail to High Knob is pretty basic – it follows the Shenandoah Mountain trail until a junction with a spur trail that leads directly to the tower.  The way is well marked with double yellow blazes and has nice footing.  The path passes through dense stands of mountain laurel.  From the number of flower buds on the laurel, it looks like it’s going to be a spectacular bloom this year!

About .8 mile into the hike, we reached the junction – hikers can turn uphill and take the spur trail to the fire tower, continue on the Shenandoah Mountain trail, or head downhill to the Brandywine Recreation Area.  We decided to visit the fire tower first, mainly because it was early and we wanted to avoid Sunday afternoon hiking crowds.  The spur to the High Knob tower is probably the steepest climbing of the entire hike.  While the section is steep, it’s also fairly short.  At the top of the climb, the trail comes out on a fire road that leads pretty much the rest of the way up to the tower (there is one other very short section that cuts through the woods).  We were surprised how heavily the area was marked with ‘Private Land – No Trespassing’ warnings.  There were dozens of signs and trees spray-painted red.  I’m guessing the public land abuts private land that is heavily used for hunting, and the landowners are trying to protect hikers/bikers from getting shot.  Regardless, the area is very thoroughly and clearly marked – you shall not pass!

As we arrived at the fire tower, we passed a foursome of hikers headed down.  We had the tower all to ourselves for about twenty minutes.  We enjoyed the views in every direction!  I especially enjoyed looking down on Switzer Lake.  It brought back lots of memories from my days as a college student at JMU.  On warm spring days, my sorority would load up in cars and make the drive to Switzer for an afternoon of swimming (and perhaps some beverage consumption).  Swimming is no longer allowed in the lake (maybe it was never allowed?), as it’s used as a public water source.  Even though you can’t swim in the lake, it’s still a great place for scenery and birding.  A friend of mine has even seen bald eagles at Switzer!

Approaching the Fire Tower

Adam climbs the fire road up to the High Knob fire tower.  Below: Adam makes the steep climb between the Shenandoah Mountain trail and the fire road that leads to the High Knob Fire Tower; The fire road offers gentler terrain, Private land in the area is very thoroughly and clearly marked; A bird’s eye view of the private land from the fire tower.  I think those might be hunting camps/blinds.

Steep Climb on High Knob Spur Trail Walking the Fire Road
Marked Private Land View of Private Land

After enjoying the views and eating a snack, we climbed back down to the junction.  It was around 11:15 a.m. and we were torn – do we continue to explore Shenandoah Mountain or do we call it a day and get a nice lunch in Harrisonburg?  We didn’t have a coin, so Adam flipped his pass-case – card side up, we hike on – card side down, we go home.  The pass-case dictated a longer hike.

We followed the Shenandoah Mountain trail over to Hoover Ridge.  If I were to make a recommendation, I would tell people to skip this part of the hike.  In the end, the views weren’t worth the climb. The trail is narrow – too narrow to ever be level.  You hike most of the way with your uphill foot much higher than your downhill foot.  It’s also covered with tons of loose stone and slate that shifts under every step.  On the early spring day we hiked, the trail was still under a foot of dry leaves.  The footing was treacherous.  I was so glad for my trekking poles.

There are several steep climbs on the way to Hoover Ridge.  Once the trail meets the ridge, it comes out on the fire road again.  Walking along the ridge is pleasant.  The terrain is open and grassy and there are obstructed views of mountains in every direction.  You can even catch a glimpse of the fire tower off in the distance.  On Hoover Ridge, we decided we’d hiked enough for the day and turned back to make our return to the parking area.

Since it was mostly downhill, the walk went quickly.  We were back at our car by 1:15 and back in Harrisonburg for lunch a half hour later.  It was a great day to be out hiking after such a cold and snowy March!  We’ll definitely make a return hike to the fire tower… Hoover Ridge, not so much.

Adam Says…

As Christine mentioned, this was a second attempt at High Knob, since it was too ice-covered to walk up previously.  We hate having to bail on a hike, but we want to feel that it is something we can accomplish and still enjoy.  We’re glad that we waited for the snow to melt to enjoy this trek up to the fire tower.  Our friends at Hiking Upward covered this hike from the Brandywine Recreation Area, but this is a shorter way to accomplish the hike up to the top.  If you’ve purchased National Geographic’s Staunton/Shenandoah Mountain Trails Illustrated Map 791, you will see High Knob Fire Tower on the cover.

Christine Enjoys the Fire Tower View

Views from the fire tower look out in every direction. Below: You can see Switzer Lake from the fire tower; More views; Adam enjoys a snack (Trader Joe’s Monkey Business trail mix) on the fire tower.

Switzer Lake Views from the High Knob Fire Tower Enjoying a Snack on the Fire Tower

From the parking lot on 33, we took off down the stone steps.  The parking lot and surrounding areas has a lot of trash thrown around, so if you can, bring a trashbag and help to carry out some of the litter.  Once you join the Shenandoah Mountain trail at the bottom of the stone steps, the trail will be clear of litter.  The trail starts off fairly level and then gradually ascends up the mountain.  In .85 miles, you do reach a large junction that includes the spur trail to the High Knob Tower.  Take this spur trail up the mountain.  At about 1.1 miles, you will reach a fire road (FR 85-3).  Take a right on the road and continue to follow the signs to the High Knob Tower.  For some reason, the trail crosses briefly into the woods and then rejoins the fire road again shortly.  Continue your ascent up the fire road until you reach the High Knob Tower at 1.4 miles.

We retraced our steps until we returned back at the junction at 2.0 miles.  At this point, we took a left to continue on the Shenandoah Mountain trail.  This part of the trail was not well-maintained and we were constantly worried about turning our ankles on loose rocks that were hidden underneath the leaf-covered trail, crossing over tree blowdowns, or catching ourselves from falling off the narrow trail with our trekking poles.  The trail in most places along this section felt more like a narrow animal path than an actual trail.  The rough trail and the steepness in some sections really made us question how far we were going and if it was worth it.  At 3.1 miles, we rejoined the fire road (FR 85-3) and took a right.  From behind you, you should be able to catch some glimpses of High Knob Tower through the trees.  The fire road allowed for easier walking.  We made our way a little further uphill but we weren’t fighting rough terrain the whole way.  We reached the crest of Hoover Ridge at 3.5 miles, which gave us some obstructed views of the areas to the south.  After taking a few minutes to explore the open fields and campsites on Hoover Ridge, we made our way back.  We rejoined the Shenandoah Mountain Trail at 3.8 miles, reached the large junction at 5 miles, and reached our car again at 5.8 miles.

Hoover Ridge Views

Adam hikes along Hoover Ridge.  Below: One of the few tricky spots on the Shenandoah Mountain trail.  The cairn indicates that hikers should take the lower trail, and not follow the trail partially blocked by branches; Sign on Hoover Ridge,  More Hoover Ridge scenery.

Shenandoah Mountain Trail Cairn Signage on Hoover Ridge Hoover Ridge Scenery

As Christine stated, I would agree that I probably wouldn’t add on Hoover Ridge to this hike unless you would like to get some extra hiking accomplished.  Of course, you could also make a long hike or an overnight trip to Bother Knob and this hike would allow you to enjoy some campsites from the top of Hoover Ridge.  This was also the area that we saw the best wildlife.  We saw a deer in the distance take off when we were spotted and a grouse jumped out of some brush when we were walking by that caused us both to nearly jump out of our hiking shoes.

The hike up to High Knob is one that I think would be a perfect hike if your goal was to see great views from all directions. On a clear day, you should be able to see several layers of mountain ranges.  I’m sure the foliage scenery in the fall is breathtaking.  I can see this being a great hike to take some out-of-town visitors to show the splendor of the rolling Virginia and West Virginia mountains.

If you are into Geocaching, there are three that you can find on the trail:

  • Tip Top Cache  – a traditional cache, but I was unable to find it
  • What’s the Buzz – a traditional cache, that could take a little time to find
  • Back in Time – a virtual cache that requires you to answer something about the fire tower to receive credit for finding it
High Knob Fire Tower From a Distance

The fire tower is visible along much of the hike to and from Hoover Ridge.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – About 5.75 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change –  1168 ft
  • Difficulty – 3.5. This is a moderate hike in terms of elevation change.  On the day we hiked, the Shenandoah Mountain trail was still covered with deep, slick leaves and quite a few fallen trees.  These challenges increased the difficulty level somewhat.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail to High Knob is in great shape, but the Shenandoah Mountain trail is narrow and rocky.
  • Views5.  Views from the High Knob fire tower are spectacular and panoramic.  Views from Hoover Ridge are obstructed.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0. There are no streams on this hike.
  • Wildlife – 2. We saw a deer and a grouse, but I think hunters scare off most wildlife in this area.
  • Ease to Navigate –3. Trails are generally well-marked/blazed, but there are a few mildly confusing spots on the walk to Hoover Ridge. There were a few worn paths in the woods that looked like old trails or animal paths.  As long as you still to the most well-worn pathway, you should be fine.
  • Solitude –2.  You will likely see quite a few people on the walk to the fire tower, but few along the way to Hoover Ridge.

Directions to trailhead:

Head on 33 West from Harrisonburg, VA.  In about 10 miles, you will enter into George Washington National Forest.  In 12 more miles, you will reach the parking lot on the left right after you see the “Welcome to West Virginia” sign.  A large kiosk with a map of the area gives some general information and you will see a break in the girders that will lead down 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.

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