The Priest is a wonderful segment hike along the Appalachian Trail in the George Washington National Forest’s Glenwood & Pedlar Ranger District. The northbound trail access may be a little tough for some people to reach (4WD vehicles are strongly recommended), but if you can get there, you’ll be treated to magnificent views of the Tye River Valley.
This was hike number two for us on a three-hike-day. This was our first trip up The Priest, and it was well-worth the bumpy drive to get to the trail. See the directions to trailhead (below) for some special precautions to take when approaching the trailhead. On route 826, we decided to go a little further than Crabtree Meadows, but didn’t make it all the way up by car to the AT junction. We ended up parking at a campsite and hiking up the fire road for .3 miles. Many people will want to park at Crabtree Meadows, but that will add one mile to the overall distance. Route 826 can be quite steep. In fact, some sections of the road are much steeper than anything you’ll see on the actual trail. We saw a Jeep brigade coming down the steepest section of road, but they looked like seasoned off-roaders.
When you reach the junction (you’ll see painted rocks indicating north/south) of the Appalachian trail, head north (left). You will come across the Priest Wilderness sign and trail map. When I was telling someone earlier about doing this trail today, they were wondering about the origin of the name “The Priest”. The true origin is unknown, but there are a few myths. The first is that it was named after the DuPriest family that lived in the area. The second is that a minister in the area gave some of these nearby mountains religious names. The Cardinal and The Friar are both close to The Priest.
We found that the trail was a steady incline, but nothing too strenuous. There was supposed to be a side trail to The Little Priest at .7 miles, but we didn’t see it (but we weren’t looking too hard). At .9 miles, you will see a blue-blazed spur trail to an Appalachian Trail shelter. We definitely recommend taking the extra .2 mile round trip to visit the shelter. These shelters are a great place for all of the AT hikers to get together and have a roof over their head for a night. At most of the shelters, you can find a journal in which the hikers will write about their day or plans, leave notes for other hikers, etc. Since this hike is The Priest, the theme of this logbook was to make a confession. It was a lot of fun to read through the journal entries. These confessions ranged from eating two Poptarts, to taking drugs, to not paying for supplies. If you happen to be hiking the trail in June when most of the AT thru-hikers are passing through, consider bringing along some treats to share. It’s a form of “trail magic” and is always appreciated. (read the guidelines – there are some tips for dispensing good magic on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Site) We did see a few thru-hikers on the trail today, but we hadn’t thought ahead to bring anything.
Around 1.3 miles, you will see some overhanging rocks to the north that lead to some marvelous views. Take some time to enjoy the views. The summit is only .1 mile further, but there are no views at the summit. We really enjoyed this hike and hope to do this one again as well as the nearby Spy Rock.
The Priest was probably my favorite of the three hikes we did on this particular day. Discovering a new hike is always a real treat, especially when it turns out to be as nice as this one.
There are actually two different ways to access the summit of The Priest. The southbound ascent is longer and much tougher – it follows the AT along a series of forty switchbacks with just over 3000 feet of elevation gain. It might be the hike with the most elevation gain in all of Virginia. One hiker remarked in the journal that the southbound climb “made him realize that he’s not the man he thought he was.” I guess that’s one way of saying that the hike was a long, tough haul!
We chose the northbound ascent primarily based on our limited time. The hike was listed in our book as strenuous, but I did not find it to be tough at all. The uphill grade was constant, but gentle. Adam and I were easily able to carry on conversation without any huffing and puffing uphill.
The terrain on this hike was so pretty! Along the first part of the trail, forest floor was blanketed with lush ferns. Every now and then, we could catch glimpses through the trees of the valley below. The summit of The Priest is 4,063 feet, so we were pretty high up (by Virginia standards, anyhow).
When we finally gained the ridge, there was a perfect (and obviously popular) campsite. Encircling the area was a collection of huge boulders arranged in an almost Zen-like natural sculpture. Amidst the boulders, there was a fire pit and a large smooth, open place to set up tents. If I were to spend a night along the trail, this would be my ideal kind of campsite.
Shortly after the campsite, the trail split. One arm headed down to the shelter and the other continued along the AT up to the summit of The Priest. This section of trail was lined with mountain laurels and wild azaleas in full bloom. Several places along the trail were covered with a carpet of pink and white flower petals that had been blown from the bushes. It was almost dreamlike to walk through all the flowers. In the tree tops, we heard the constant sweet sound of warblers singing. We even caught a few glimpses of the birds. The ridge is fairly level, so this walking was very easy and pleasant.
I had read that the summit of The Priest was a lovely shady place, but didn’t offer much in the way of panoramic views. So, it was much to my surprise and delight to find a worn path through the woods that led to an amazing outcropping of rocks with spectacular views of the entire valley below. Even though it was close to high noon, I loved photographing this spot along the trail. The sky conditions were a photographer’s dream – cerulean blue punctuated with both swishes and puffs of white cloud.
Adam and I sat on this spot for a good, long while. We shared a chocolate donut and some water, watched the hawks soar below and took in the valley view. Afterwards, we made the short walk to the actual summit. There was a fat toad sitting right along the trail at the summit. I like to think of him as the official summit marker.
The hike back down to the car was fun – all downhill – just the way I like it!
- Distance – 2.8 miles out-and-back. We also recommend adding the .2 mile trail down to the AT shelter. If you park at Crabtree Meadows, add a mile on to the trail’s total length.
- Elevation Change – 1,000 feet
- Difficulty – 2. While the trail does have a moderate elevation change, the uphill is not too tough. If you have to hike up the fire road from Crabtree Meadows to get to the trailhead, that will be much tougher than anything along the AT.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Like most of the AT in Virginia, this section is nicely maintained.
- Views – 4. Gorgeous views of about 150 degrees of views out into the Tye River Valley
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. None, but there is a small spring-fed water source near the shelter.
- Wildlife – 1.5. We didn’t see much, but this is wilderness area. There are lots of nice birds for any ornithologists. We saw a cerulean warbler, which has such a gorgeous song.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. Just stay on the AT.
- Solitude –4. Since it is difficult to get to, you may run across some backpackers or AT thru-hikers, but not many others.
Directions to trailhead: The best access to this trail is via VA-826. If you are approaching from I-81, take exit 205 towards Steeles Tavern. Take a left on to Rte. 11 and then a quick right on to VA-56 heading east. Follow this past the Blue Ridge Parkway (near BRP Mile Marker 30) and then take a right shortly after the Fish Hatchery on to VA-826. There is a sign at the entrance that you need to have four-wheel drive to travel on this road. It is a bumpy gravel road where you have to cross several small streams. Once you reach Crabtree Meadows, it is .5 mile before you can reach the AT trailhead to start The Priest trail. Many cars should be able to get up to Crabtree Meadows, but the last .5 mile should be taken cautiously and done only if you have a confident driver and appropriate vehicle.