This 9.8 mile circuit hike offers all the best of Shenandoah – panoramic views, bubbling streams, a swimming hole and even a nice final stretch along the Appalachian Trail. It comes close to our 10 mile limit for a day hike, but it’s definitely well worth the effort.
The Riprap trail has long been on my list of hikes to tackle in Shenandoah National Park. Last Friday, we finally got around to it. I have to admit, the nearly ten-mile length and over 2,300 feet of elevation gain intimidated me just a little. The hikes we’ve completed that are close to that length (i.e. McAfee Knob or Mount Rogers) both have substantially less elevation gain. But, we had a free day and beautiful weather, so we decided to go for it. I’m so glad we went because the scenery on this trail showcased everything I love about Shenandoah. And, honestly… hiking 9.8 miles really wasn’t that hard.
We started the hike from the Riprap parking area at mile marker 90. We turned right at the end of the parking lot and followed the Appalachian Trail uphill for about a third of a mile. At the intersection with the Riprap trail, we turned left. The trail went alternately downhill and uphill for about three-quarters of a mile. We passed around a talus slope and came out to a viewpoint near Calvary Rocks. This was a great place to pause and take in the panoramic scene of the valley below. About a third of a mile downhill past Calvary Rocks, we arrived at Chimney Rock. I found this to be the prettier of the two views – but they were both very nice. The trail was especially pretty in late May because of all the blooming mountain laurel, wild azaleas and rhododendron. There were some sections that were so lush, I felt like I was walking through a tunnel of flowers.
From Chimney Rock, the trail follows a ridge for a while, with many nice views between the trees. There is still quite a bit of evidence of forest fire damage from the late 1990’s in this area. The mountainside is still rather barren and charred stumps are visible. Slowly, the trail descends into Cold Springs Hollow. We passed through some of the densest mountain laurel along this section. We saw and heard so many beautiful birds – everything from American Redstarts to Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks.
Near the bottom of the hollow, we started to pick up the stream. It started off as a trickle, gaining volume and speed as we climbed continually downward. There were a few small, unremarkable waterfalls in the gorge, but we didn’t stop walking until the first stream crossing. Adam and I sat on a couple big boulders in the middle of the stream and ate a few handfuls of trail mix.
We stopped again just a couple tenths of a mile later at my very favorite spot along the trail – a wide, green swimming hole shaded by the forest canopy. We sat along the pool for a long while. We watched colorful brook trout lolling in the water. Every now and then, one would splash up and break the quiet surface of the water. The water was so clear. We could see reflections of the rhododendron on the surface and big, round stones at the bottom of the pool. The spot is made even more beautiful by the gentle slide waterfall that cascades down and fills the pool.
After leaving the pool, we had almost about three-quarters of a mile of level walking and a couple more stream crossings. A post marks the intersection with the Wildcat Ridge Trail. We turned left, and enjoyed our last little bit of flat walking for a while. We decided to stop and eat lunch before the big uphill climb began. We had ham and cheese on crackers, chips and some candy – perfect to give us lots of energy!
Climbing along Wildcat Ridge is a steady uphill for almost three miles, but the grade is generally moderate. There were several more decent views through the trees along this section of trail. And of course, more mountain laurel! I think I must have said “This is SO PRETTY!” to Adam a dozen times as we walked through the flowers. This section is where we saw our only other hikers of the day – a young couple hiking the loop in the opposite direction. We got to the junction with the Appalachian Trail faster than we thought we would. We were anticipating another .7 miles of uphill climbing when we reached the marker post. It’s always such a pleasant surprise when an uphill climb ends earlier than you thought it would.
We took a left onto the AT for the final 2.8 miles of the hike. This section was typical Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah – rolling hills, nothing too steep. We saw a brief glimpse of a bear diving into the mountain laurel about a mile into this stretch. After about an hour of walking on the AT, we arrived back at our car. My feet were a little sore and tired, but other than that I still felt pretty energetic. Riprap now claims the spot for the longest hike I’ve ever done in a day! The 9.8 mile circuit took us just under six hours – including our very frequent snack and photography stops. On the way home, we stopped and rewarded ourselves with Lime Cream Slushes from Sonic – my favorite post-hike treat.
This may also be the longest hike I have done but it was well worth it! This hike really does have it all and we hit it at a great time of year. The mountain laurel and rhododendron were at peak on this trail and we often felt like we were in some type of fantasy land while being surrounded by pink flowers.
The views from Calvary Rocks and Chimney Rock give you some great 180 degree views to the north of the mountains. I was a little worried that the payoff for this hike was going to be over in the first couple of miles of the hike, but I was glad to be wrong. After we continued the descent from Chimney Rock, there were still some open views along the way. Once we reached the bottom of Cold Springs Hollow, we saw a glimpse of a waterfall along the way. For a side option trail, you will eventually see a wooden sign on the left that denotes “Riprap Trail” with an arrow. Behind this sign is a trail that leads down to the stream if you have some extra time and energy. Shortly after the falls and after crossing the stream you come to the beautiful swimming hole that Christine mentioned above. This was a great spot to relax and enjoy seeing the fish, or you could take a quick, refreshing dip.
Once we were done with relaxing, we took the hike up the Wildcat Ridge Trail. This is a constant uphill for about three miles and does include a couple of switchbacks on the trail. However, we felt that the terrain wasn’t too steep. You continue to observe nice views as it hugs closely to the side of the mountain. Once we met up with the AT, the trail didn’t have a lot of elevation gain/loss. I do suffer from plantar fasciitis, so my feet were quite sore on the rocks of this section of the trail.
Alternate routes: When we were wondering if we could do this entire hike, I did a lot of research to figure out alternates to make it shorter.
- To just shorten the trip by 2.7 miles, you could leave one car at the Riprap Parking Lot and another car at the Wildcat Ridge Parking Lot (around mile marker 92) or the Moormans River Overlook across the street. Since the Wildcat Ridge Parking Lot was closed, we did leave a car at Moormans River Overlook. However, we decided we felt good enough to continue on the AT for the loop. The hard work is done at this point, but it gives you an “out” if you can’t make the distance.
- To cut off the uphill climb, you could leave one car at the Riprap Parking Lot and another car at the end of the Riprap Trail (which continues at the sign for Wildcat Ridge – about .6 miles from the swimming hole). To park at the end of the Riprap Trail, you would need to drive on Rte 340 to Crimora. Head east on 612 and then take a left on Black Bear Lane and another left onto Wild Turkey Lane. At the end of the road should be a sign for the Riprap Trail. This would give you about a 4.7 mile hike with the shuttle.
For those interested in geocaching, I did place an earthcache at the overlook for Calvary Rocks. This is a way to learn about the geology of the area and there are a few steps to get credit for the cache:
- Calvary Rocks geocache
I definitely enjoyed my first trip of the Riprap trail, but I know it won’t be my last. This would also be a great place to do a backpacking trip, since there is a reliable water source at the bottom of the trail. We really felt like it was one of the prettiest trails we have done in all of Shenandoah National Park. Part of that largely is due to the abundance of blooming wildflowers, but another part was the views. The Riprap trail really has it all!
- Distance – 9.8 miles
- Elevation Change – Around 2300 feet. The hike is a mix of uphill and downhill, with one long, steady uphill stretch of about three miles.
- Difficulty – 4.5 While the elevation gain is substantial, the trail is rarely steep. Grades are moderate. We scored the hike a 4.5 mainly due to the length.
- Trail Conditions – 4 Nice trail to walk along! The stream crossings are easy.
- Views – 4. You get the best views from the Chimney Rocks and Calvary Rocks overlooks.
- Waterfalls/streams – 3 The stream was on the low side when we hiked, but was still pretty. The swimming hole at the bottom of the hollow is very beautiful.
- Wildlife – 4 We saw lots of brook trout, a little toad, many bird species and we even caught a glimpse of a black bear’s rear end diving into the laurel thicket.
- Ease to Navigate – 2 A few turns to make along the way. There are a few false trails leading away from the main trail and also one tricky turn after a creek crossing.
- Solitude – 3 We saw only two other people on the entire loop. We hiked it on a beautiful Friday in late spring. I imagine the trail is much more crowded on weekends. It’s a very popular short backpack loop.
Directions to trailhead:
From Skyline Drive, park on the western side at mile marker 90. There is a parking lot specifically for Riprap hikers.