Hawksbill Summit Loop
The Hawksbill Summit is a fairly easy, 2.9 mile trail that takes you to the highest peak of Shenandoah National Park at 4,049 feet.
We really had one of those almost perfect days in Shenandoah National Park. We made it up to the park before 7AM. There was a lot of fog on the mountains that made for tough visibility, so we decided to grab breakfast at Skyland Resort before setting out on our hike. While we were eating breakfast, our waitress pointed out a black bear right outside the dining room window. It stayed out there for several minutes while people photographed it (they got really close – within 10-15 feet of the bear). While Christine made an attempt to grab her camera from the car for her own photo opportunity (which she missed), I noticed the AT thru-hiker we met on the Loft Mountain Loop had just sat down to dive into a hearty breakfast. I talked to him about how we were thinking about him braving the thunderstorms the last few days. He said that the Tuesday night storms had indeed been brutal.
After breakfast, we drove south from Skyland to start our hike on Hawksbill Summit. The posted trail board listed an out-and-back hike of 1.7 miles and a loop hike of 2.8 miles. We decided to do the loop and were very glad that we did!
At around the half mile mark, we heard some screeching up ahead and above. We came up to the first of three talus slopes and sure enough there were a pair of peregrine falcons swooping around. We tried to get some pictures of them flying, but they swooped by way too quickly for the camera to lock focus. When we came to the second talus slope, one of the falcons had landed about 15 feet in front of me, gave me a quick cry, and darted off at eye level from us. We’ve never had an opportunity to see these birds up close. We usually vacation in Acadia National Park every summer. The park’s Precipice Trail is a great place to view falcons; however, this trail is closed off during much of the summer for falcon nesting and we have had to resort to viewing them through binoculars.
Once we arrived at the Byrd’s Nest Day Shelter near the summit, we ran into a SNP Volunteer who has been monitoring falcon activity in the area. Shenandoah National Park has been working with the College of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology to help reintroduce these birds to the park ecosystem. It was fascinating to learn about these birds of prey. He pointed out the cliff-side hack box that currently houses six falcon chicks. Students find falcons nesting around Williamsburg and Norfolk, grab the babies when they’re a few weeks old and deliver them to SNP for rehoming.
The volunteer feeds the falcon chicks twice per day, giving the birds quail through a slot door in the hack box. The chicks never actually see the person. The goal is to keep the chicks completely unaware of the human intervention.
The feeder told us a funny story about his time on the mountainside. He was on his way to feed the birds that morning when he was charged by a deer. He reached for a slingshot he had in his pocket, but the deer was too close. He ended up using the slingshot as a club and thumping the doe lightly on the head. It just stared at him like he was crazy. He realized as he looked down that he had almost stepped on her newborn fawn.
The volunteer told us that there was a belief that the peregrine falcon pair that we saw was moving over from their established nest site on Old Rag. They have been observing the Old Rag falcons for a while, and are hoping they stay put. If the Old Rag falcons relocate to Hawksbill, the hack box holding the chicks will have to be moved to a new location. The volunteer was trying to read numbers on the bands of the falcons swooping by to see if he could identify them as the same pair from Old Rag.
After a bit more chatting, we left the volunteer and proceeded on to the summit. When we came back to the shelter, we noticed that there were now three falcons swooping around near the summit. We found the volunteer and told him. He told us that seeing the three falcons might help prove that these birds might not be the pair from Old Rag. We felt proud to have been able to provide some useful information for their research.
It’s kind of ironic, but Adam really didn’t want to go to the park at all on this particular morning. He thought the trails would be sloppy-muddy from all the rain. Also, he was longing for a morning of sleeping in, followed by loafing on the couch and possibly even some video games. But, being the insanely cruel morning person I am, I dragged him out of bed and told him that I wanted to hike Hawksbill. After all was said and done, he ended up declaring this to be “one of our best days in the park ever!”
At the trailhead, Adam lobbied for the shorter out-and-back, but I really wanted to do the longer loop. It’s more scenic and there are many more opportunities to see wildlife along the way. Besides, the out and back is a tough, boring, uphill climb – straight up the side of Hawksbill Mountain. You don’t see anything special – you just climb.
A quarter mile into the hike, we saw three impressive bucks. Even this early in the season, these guys were already displaying large, velvety racks of antlers. During the summer months, it’s not uncommon to see groups of big bucks hanging out in mini-herds like this. I think they’re planning strategies on how to get the girls in the fall. :-) They were completely indifferent to our presence, so we stayed and watched them for a few moments. I wish it hadn’t been so dark in the forest. I would have loved to get some better photos of these handsome guys.
Seeing the falcons near the talus slopes was simply amazing. I’ve never seen peregrines so close in the wild before. They’re truly expert aerial acrobats. I also really liked talking to the naturalist at the summit. No matter how much time I spend in the park, I still feel like I see and learn new things on every visit.
Our view at the CCC-established summit was largely obscured by clouds and fog, but it was still a beautiful, breezy day. Hawksbill gives full views in every direction. You get a nice look at Skyline Drive winding its way through the forest and a wonderful, distant view of magnificent Old Rag Mountain. Hawksbill Mountain actually has four excellent viewpoints along the summit. You only see two on the out and back hike. Typically you can see all four on the loop hike, but on this particular day one viewpoint was closed off for the falcons.
The hike back down is pretty steep, but the trail is well-maintained and covered with gravel. My knees always ache climbing down Hawksbill – there are no switchbacks to gentle the grade. It’s straight down the mountainside. Hikers should be careful to follow the correct trail back down the mountain! There are trails leading back to Upper Hawksbill and Lower Hawksbill parking lots. There is also a fire road. If you don’t pay attention to the cement marking posts, you may end up on the wrong trail and have an extra mile or so of hiking to do along Skyline Drive to make it back to your car. We saw a couple who had made that exact mistake walking along the road when we finished our hike. They didn’t look too happy.
- Distance – 2.9 mile loop. A 1.7 mile strenuous out-and-back is one option, but the loop is recommended for it’s scenic beauty and wildlife viewing potential.
- Elevation Change – 800 ft
- Difficulty – 1.5. If you do the loop. The out and back may be shorter, but it’s more strenuous.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The AT portion is well-maintained. The trail down from the summit is covered with small gravel.
- Views – 4. The view from the summit is impressive on a clear day.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. No streams on this trail.
- Wildlife – 4. We did hit some great luck this day, but we saw several deer including three bucks and you have some decent chances of spotting peregrine falcons in the summer.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. There are a couple turns, but the directions are well-marked on cement posts. Pay attention on your way back down the mountain. There are several descents to choose from.
- Solitude – 2. The hike is fairly popular and featured often with SNP handouts, but we never seem to run into many people up there. I hear the summit gets very crowded on pleasant weekend afternoons.
Directions to trailhead:
Park at the Hawksbill Gap parking lot which is located around mile marker 45.6 in the Central Section of Skyline Drive. The trail can be done as an out-and-back hike taking a steep trail to the summit, but we recommend that instead of going straight up to the summit, take the spur trail to the Appalachian Trail and follow the signs to the Hawksbill Summit.