Bearfence Mountain

Bearfence Mountain is a short, but deceptively challenging hike in the central district of Shenandoah National Park.  Although it  measures just 1.2 miles, it’s not for the faint of heart when it comes to heights.

The beginning of the Bearfence Trail
The beginning of the Bearfence Trail

Adam Says…

We decided to do this one on short notice, because it’s so close to our house and we didn’t have a lot of free time today.  It is one of the southernmost hikes in the central district of the Shenandoah National Park.  While it is only 1.2 miles, the short length can be misleading.  The footing is tricky through the rock scramble and it is not a good idea to attempt for a lot of people.  If you have weak knees, aren’t flexible, have unsure balance or a fear of heights, this is not a hike for you.  Bearfence can also serve as good practice if you are planning on attempting Old Rag.  The rock scramble does take some planning to determine how you will traverse each obstacle.  The hike takes most people well under an hour, so it’s a great hike to combine with other short hikes in SNP (especially if you’re trying to add to your summit total.)

The rock scramble begins right after you round this rock outcropping
The rock scramble begins right after you round this rock outcropping

There is an earthcache geocache hidden here titled On Top of Bearfence Mountain.  While physical geocaches are not allowed in the park, earthcaches typically teach something about geology.  You will normally have to find some information or spot something regarding the geology and answer a few questions to be allowed to give yourself credit.

The scramble.
The scramble.

Christine Says…

Bearfence Mountain is usually a hike that offers great views of the western valley (photo from winter 2007) and Skyline Drive.  But today, we were socked in by unusual mid-day fog.  It was so odd – at our house (which may be ten miles away as the crow flies) it was mostly clear blue skies with the occasional puffy cloud.  But on Bearfence, it was like pea soup.

The trail was really crowded today, mostly by two vanloads of folks from Eastern Mennonite University.  They were inexperienced hikers, and moved at a snail’s pace across the rock scramble.  Luckily, they let us pass them along the way.  Several in the party were really struggling, and were obviously uncomfortable with the terrain.  They were hiking with two trained trailguides, so I was a little surprised to see the group on Bearfence.  Of all the hikes in the park, I see more people turn back on Bearfence than any other trail.  I think the short length misleads people into hiking something they’re not capable of or comfortable with.  Don’t get me wrong… most average hikers will find the rock scramble to be quite fun.  Personally, scrambles are my favorite type of terrain to hike.  I’d rather do a scramble than a sheer uphill any day!

view blog
What a view, eh?

The scramble on Bearfence starts after about the first quarter mile of the hike.  It’s really the only challenging portion of the trail.  After the scramble, you’ll walk along the ridge for a short while.  Eventually, you’ll meet back up with the Appalachian Trail and make an easy walk back to where you started.

While we hiked it in the spring this time, Bearfence is especially spectacular during the peak of autumn color.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 1.2 miles loop trail
  • Elevation Change – 380 feet
  • Difficulty – 2.5. This is short and not strenuous, but if you’re not in good shape , you’ll find it more challenging.
  • Trail Conditions – 2. While the rest of the trail is in good shape, the rock scramble definitely brings this score down. (however, if you’re like us and love to scramble, this trail rates a 5!)
  • Views – 3.5. (usually)  Today was foggy.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent
  • Wildlife – 1.5. We saw a deer up here and heard that a bear has been spotted along the AT on this mountain.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5. During the rock scramble you’ll need to look for the blue blazes, but it’s not very difficult to follow.
  • Solitude – 1.5. Expect to see people due to the short distance.  Also, plan on being held up by others through the rock scramble if you’re a faster hiker.

Directions to trailhead: The trail is located on Skyline Drive at mile marker 56.4.  Park at the the Bearfence Trail parking lot, cross Skyline Drive and begin the hike up, following the blue blazes.  Once you complete the rock scramble, you can continue up to the summit or turn right on to the Appalachian Trail to make your way back down. (the trail crosses the AT twice, so you can make your hike even shorter than 1.2 miles if you like)

34 thoughts on “Bearfence Mountain

  1. Anita

    This has to be one of the most memorable trails I’ve been on in Shenandoah. Absolutely gorgeous views, especially on clear days !


  2. Allen Loser

    My ex-wife and I first hiked this trail during our honeymoon in August 1981. Our honeymoon trip started in Waynesboro, PA and went to Waynesboro, VA via the Skyline Drive. It took us a week to drive the 105 miles of the drive, staying at least one night in a tent in every campground except Big Meadows.

    The first time my daughter was in a backpack carrier the first time she made the trip up Bearfence Mountain. That required considerable care on my part to navigate the rock scramble. Of course, I was much younger and more limber then.

    We returned when she was about 5 or 6 years old. I showed her the paint stripes and told her that she was to be the trail leader. She followed the trail markers easily until the beginning of the rock scramble at which point she stopped, not immediately spying the next marker and confused by the apparent dead end. Then, she spied the next marker on a rock above her head. A big grin spread across her face as she realized the meaning of the location of the marker. You could just see “Do you mean I get to climb up there?” running through her mind.

    I stayed close behind her but allowed her to pick her own route. I knew that, if left alone, she would pick a route within her capabilities – not attempting a route too difficult by following an adult. Her mother tried to insist that I hold our daughter’s hand. My response was that she needed her hands free to climb safely.

    On our first trip up Bearfence, my ex-wife and I discovered a spot at the summit where it is possible for a person to safely stand on a ledge with an outcropping of rock in front, making it look like one is precariously attempting to avoid loosing one’s grip and falling. A photo taken from the correct location shows nothing but sky behind the person on the ledge.

    It has become a ritual to take photos of each other from this vantage point on each hike up Bearfence. If there are three or more in the party, the photo may show a second person on the close side of the outcropping stretching out a hand in a staged attempt to “save” the person who is pretending to be falling.

    My 57th birthday is coming up at the end of August. My daughter is 26 years old. We plan to return again soon to celebrate my birthday. I’m sure that we will take the “Help, I’m falling” pictures again.

    I’ll be greatly disappointed when I become too feeble to make this climb.


  3. Amy

    Our family loves Shenandoah! We hiked this trail today since my husband had been on it as a child. It was fun and all was fine until we had to maneuver the area of rocks over the drop-off. I’m not sure how we could have gone up without my husband to help pull us from the top. We are casual hikers so this was a little scary for me and our 11 year old daughter.


  4. Rebecca

    WOW! Certainty not for anyone with a fear of heights. I am scared to death of heights & even had panic attack at one point but I pulled myself together & did something o NEVER imagined I would do! This was an amazing experience & I would never take my children on it. If you have never been hiking in the mountains DO NOT choose this for your first one. We were a group of 8 girls who lift heavy in the gym & wanted a different type of workout. We range from bikini competitors to 380lbs 6ft women who are making a vow to a healthy lifestyle. We have not ever hiked before & it was a challenge for us but we did it & cherish the most memorable day & views! Literally blood, sweat & tears went into this hike for us!


  5. Sandy

    This hike was so worth the view when we got to the top. It was simply beautiful and the mountain ridges seemed to go on endlessly. I loved that it offered a few challenges going up. There was ice and snow still on the trails and we had to practice extra caution climbing up, but when we made it to the top and I looked out…the effort was so worth that view. We managed to get some unbelievable photographs. Perfection is all I could say.


  6. Karen Mirabella

    great post about bearfence! it’s my favorite hike and I’ve done it at least five times in the past six months. I took some friends from out of state on a particularly windy day and that plus their fear of heights made it a real challenge.
    however, I have also taken my five kids (14, 13, 9, 6 and 6) and they did it with no problems on a sunny day. the ledges are a real concern for the little kids…thankfully mine are pretty cautious although I felt pretty stressed while we were on the summit just hanging out when they were wandering around.
    do you know of any hikes similar to bearfence that has some rock scrambling? I know that old rag is one and we’ve done that and loved it….looking for a shorter hike than that and just a different hike than bearfence.


  7. Toni

    I visited in September and on a whim pulled into this lot because another visitor at Stony Man suggested it. I was in flip flops and the sun was setting so I only did part of the scramble (or it is possible I did none of the scramble and I have no idea what awaits… maybe what those of us in Cuyahoga Valley NP consider a scramble is just a walk in the park compared to SNP) I am returning in May and really want to see the view from the top. I understand that May is the wettest month in Shenandoah Valley. Obviously I want to do the scramble BUT if it’s slick we will probably forgo it. You mention that it crosses the AT twice and that there is an “easy way back to where you started.” Does this mean you can still reach the summit/view while avoiding the scramble?

    I just found this page today and I appreciate the trail overviews. I’m a casual hiker so I like how these are written for people like me. I also think it is important that you don’t make the hikes sound easier than they are. I live just a few miles from CVNP in Ohio and what they rate as difficult hikes in my park are similar to what I found in the little Easy Hikes on the AT in SNP guide. I didn’t find any of the hikes I tried hard, but the elevation change is a surprise for a trail rated “easy” if you’re from a different area.

    I can’t wait to get back there.


    • virginiatrailschristine

      Hi Toni – You do have to do the scramble to reach the top, no matter which route you go. One route back to the car is just significantly shorter and is all downhill. May does have a fair amount of rain, but also a lot of beautiful, sunny days. I think it’s a great month to hike in the park. If you want views similar to Bearfence and want to avoid scrambling, there are lots of other trails! (Mary’s Rock, Loft Mountain Loop, Millers Head)


  8. HikingMama

    I have hiked this with my children (at ages 8 and 10), but would not recommend it for younger children. It isn’t that the trail is challenging (kids love a good scramble), but the drop-off from the ridge could be fatal. You don’t realize how high it is until the trail takes you along the bottom of the cliffs – I’m guessing at least 60 feet. I waited until my children had gained a little self-control and understanding of consequences before taking them on this one.


  9. SK

    I love Shenandoah.. I live North in Maryland but drive down at least twice a month. I’ve been on every mile of the skyline drive and have hiked at least 50 different hikes (from Bearfence at 1.8 miles to Jeremy’s Run at 14.7 miles to the Brown Mountain loop at over 18 miles). Old Rag is my favorite hike in Shenandoah. This probably doesn’t surprise most of you who go to Shenandoah often,

    The only problem I have with this post is that it attempts to make Bearfence look more challenging than it actually is. Wear good boots, take your time on the rocks and you’ll be fine. This isn’t Mt. Rainier folks.. and yes, I’ve climbed to the summit of that also. Other than that, good article.


    • virginiatrailschristine

      Thanks for the visit, SK! We try to cater our ratings to casual/non-hikers. You are right, Bearfence is not a difficult hike – especially for fit people who readily tackle hikes like Old Rag and Jeremy’s Run – and climbs like Mt. Rainier. I think you would have to agree that your fitness level is a bit higher than the average park visitor. We have seen far too many people turn back or panic on the Bearfence rock scramble to not mention that the trail is not for everyone and will include some challenges, despite being one of the shorter hikes in the park. If we rated trails based on our experiences as regular hikers, I think we would probably put some people into situations they’re not ready to handle. We definitely don’t want to do that! It’s best to err on the conservative side when rating terrain and difficulty.


  10. Dana S.

    Hi. I live in Ruckersville and I really enjoy the easy hiking trails, especially the ones to the waterfalls. I decided to up the ante and bit and did hike Bearfence mountiantoday. I’m not in the best of shape and I have to admit, I only made it about 1/2 way before I had tot turn around due to time constrainst. The rock scramble is challenging for me. But I now have yet ANOTHER goal and that’s to actually FINISH that trail.


  11. Walt and Jonathan

    My son Jonathan and I hiked Bearfence on Saturday for the first time. We frequent SNP and have for many years but Bearfence was by far the best hike we have done! We saw our share of kids successfully doing the rock scramble but the woman in open-toed sandals trying to make it to the 360 degree viewpoint was quite something to see. She made it!


  12. Tracie

    This is one of my favorite hikes in the park. Mark and I hiked it pre-kids. Not sure if I’d tackle it with them now, but hopefully when they’re older! Great pictures.


    • virginiatrailschristine

      Yeah – I think your kiddos are probably still a little too small for the scramble. They’d have a hard time traversing some of the boulders with their little legs. You and Mark would have to physically pass them along the scramble. 🙂


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