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Hawksbill Summit Loop

June 8, 2009

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.

This is the first of the four summit views you'll come to along the Hawksbill Loop Trail.

This is the first of the four summit views you’ll come to along the Hawksbill Loop Trail. Pictured below (left to right): The third viewpoint – the hack box for the falcon chicks is along this rock shelf; The CCC constructed summit; Adam climbing around the rock jumble at the summit.

Hawksbill Summit Hawksbill Summit - Shenandoah National Park Adam on Summit

Adam Says…

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!

Peregrine Falcons are such fast flyers. Adam took this shot and felt lucky to have even part of the bird, in-focus and in the frame.

Hawksbill Mountain is a great place to watch birds of prey.  While I was photographing the scenery, Adam took this shot of a bird soaring overhead. He felt pretty lucky to have even part of the bird, in-focus and in the frame.  He sometimes feels overwhelmed by all the controls on the dSLR, but I think he does a great job whenever he takes photos.

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.

The Byrd's Nest #2 Shelter is available for day use only. It's a three-sided structure.

The Byrd’s Nest #2 Shelter is available for day use only. It’s a three-sided structure.

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.

Christine Says…

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.

I bet this magnificent buck gets a lot of female attention in the fall.

I bet this magnificent buck gets a lot of female attention in the fall. The photo below is another of the bucks from the group.


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.

This is the talus slope where we first spotted the peregrine falcons.

This is the talus slope where we first spotted the peregrine falcons.

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.

Although you can't tell in the photo, the trail back down Hawksbill Mountain is quite steep.

Although it’s relatively level here, the trail back down Hawksbill Mountain is quite steep.

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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.
  • Solitude2.  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.

37 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle Shuman permalink
    May 26, 2018 4:23 pm

    I am trying to squeeze a camping overnight into a trip from DC to Charlottesville…ideally I will leave DC on the Saturday afternoon, hike, and set up camp in time to catch the sunset and then wake up early enough Sunday morning to catch the sunrise before hiking out and getting on the road to Cville. Do you have any thoughts on how the views/campsite potential of Hawksbill compares to Bearfence? I’m open to other suggestions too, but want a shorter distance for the sake of time.


    • May 26, 2018 6:17 pm

      They’re both good options. Both have nearby backcountry campsites – Rock Spring Hut and Bearfence Hut. I think Hawksbill probably has better views – almost a full 360.


  2. Mark permalink
    October 18, 2017 3:07 pm

    I was up on Bearfence recently. It’s a tough hike with camera equipment, including a tripod, but it’s a magnificent 360 degree view. It seems like I’ve read that Hawksbill is also a 360 view, but can’t verify that. So, two questions: is Hawksbill 360? How does the view compare to Bearfence?
    Ha! I guess a third: I wanted to do Bearfence for either a sunrise or sunset photo, but hiking that in the dark doesn’t seem wise. What’s your take on that for Hawksbill?
    Love your site!!


    • October 18, 2017 4:13 pm

      Hawksbill is nearly 360 – maybe with some minor obstruction to the southeast. It’s an easy hike and one of the best views in the park.


    • October 18, 2017 4:17 pm

      A couple panos I took with my phone might help you better assess the view:


    • Mark permalink
      October 19, 2017 9:23 pm

      Thanks Christine! I’m going to go check out Hawksbill soon.


  3. ashley permalink
    September 13, 2017 11:33 am

    Is there an entrance fee for this hike?


  4. June 26, 2017 10:26 am

    Can you camp anywhere along the trail?


    • June 26, 2017 11:12 am

      Yes – the Rock Spring Hut is just .3 miles south of the junction of the AT and the Salamander Trail. It has a privy, a water source, and good tent sites.


  5. Robins permalink
    January 27, 2017 7:21 am

    How far of a hike is to the top of Hawksbill Mountain?


  6. Olivia permalink
    November 22, 2016 2:00 pm

    Would this be a good hike for a dog? My black lab loves to hike, but I try to avoid hikes where there are lots of sharp rocks that he could step on and/or chasms he could fall in.


    • November 23, 2016 10:56 am

      I think every dog is different, so I hesitate to make any blanket statements! The talus slopes you’ll cross may have some pointy rocks, but they’re brief and the only place any dog might have trouble on this route. And, for what it’s worth, my pug was easily able to handle the terrain. 🙂


  7. Rick Weber permalink
    April 6, 2016 5:35 pm

    Taking my sister to the summit this weekend. She has leg swelling from cancer treatments what is the easiest way in and out?


  8. April 1, 2016 9:57 pm

    I’ve been on this hike one other time; but can’t remember if the forest allows dogs on this particular trail, or not. I wouldn’t want to drive all the way up there with my dog; only to be turned away. A heads up would be great before we plan this Hike again with a new dog. We would appreciate some input; anybody????


  9. cindy permalink
    September 17, 2014 12:43 pm

    Can we get here (hawksbill) from the Sperryville area? We are heading through to Farmville and hoped we could get there from that side?


  10. May 16, 2014 12:41 pm

    Wonderful site! How generous of you to post in this detail with pics and commentary. Thank you.


  11. Victoria permalink
    October 29, 2013 10:40 am

    Awesome pictures! About how long did it take to do the whole trail? We are arriving at Skyline in the afternoon on Saturday and wanted to do a hike before dark. Not sure if we will have enough time to do the 2.9 or just stick to the 1.7. Thanks!


    • October 29, 2013 1:12 pm

      Hi Victoria… this hike took us about an hour and a half, and we even lingered on some of the overlooks. We’re probably a bit faster than the average hikers, but I think most people should be able to finish in 2 hours, even going at a slower pace.


  12. June 8, 2009 11:35 am

    I love your wildlife shots. The best part though, has to be the announcing that you were right and Adam was wrong and you had a lovely day. Does he regret those sorts or admissions?


    • June 8, 2009 11:44 am

      LOL – I actually think he was so happy about all the stuff he saw, that he didn’t even care that he was wrong about the day. He said to me on the way home “I didn’t think this morning would be much fun at all – but this was an AWESOME day in the park!”


  13. June 8, 2009 11:10 am

    Wow, those bucks are impressive! This sounds like a great hike, except for the whole uphill part 🙂


    • June 8, 2009 11:46 am

      Yeah – I just wish the forest hadn’t been so dark with only dappled light. I had to shoot with a shallow DoF at ISO 1600 to even get photos that were usable for the blog. They were such big bucks!



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