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Appalachian Trail – Skyland to Big Meadows

June 6, 2010

This pleasant section 7.9 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail takes you between Shenandoah National Park’s two large, historic lodges.  You can eat breakfast at Skyland, do the hike, and then have lunch at Big Meadows.

View from Timber Ridge

This hike offers a great mix of open views and passages through deep, fern-carpeted woods. Below: Hikers pass three talus slopes on Hawksbill Mountain; The forest floor was covered with abundant ferns; The trail is clear and well-maintained, but can be rocky.

Talus Slope on Hawksbill Ferns Christine on the Trail

Christine Says…

Most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park lead away from the Appalachian Trail – down into the hollows or up to Shenandoah’s taller peaks.  The AT is usually relegated to being used as a connector trail or the return arm of a loop hike.  Many hikes on our blog include segments along the AT, but we’ve never posted a hike exclusively along the trail.  We decided it was time to change that.

On Saturday, we decided to do a “lodge-to-lodge” section hike – taking the Appalachian Trail from Skyland to Big Meadows.  It’s a 7.9 mile section, with an optional .2 mile spur trail to visit the Rock Spring Cabin and Hut.  Our original plan was to eat breakfast at Skyland, do our hike, and then eat lunch at the Big Meadows Wayside. But, we woke up hungry and ended up having bagels and fruit before we left the house in the morning.

We left one car parked at the Big Meadows amphitheater and proceeded to the Stony Man parking area at the north entrance of Skyland to set out on our hike. The trail initially cuts through the patch of forest between Skyline Drive and the lodge.  Recently, we’ve been seeing a bear with three new cubs along the road running parallel to this patch, so we were hoping we would come across the family.  No such luck.

After about a half-mile, we crossed the road at the south entrance of Skyland (you could also park here and cut a small amount of distance off the hike).  The trail passes the Skyland Stables and descends into the woods.

The terrain along the Appalachian Trail is varied and diverse.  Some sections are smooth dirt, others are jagged and rocky.  The vegetation along the trail is beautiful – alternating between lush expanses of fern, thick stands of mountain laurel and majestic groves of trees.  Occasionally, the trail passes beneath a scenic overlook on Skyline Drive.   Uphill from the trail, you can see families taking in park scenery from the comfort of their cars.  Most of them never even notice us hiking below.  I always wonder how many people visit the park and never leave the scenic byway.  The best of Shenandoah is off the road, and so many people miss that.

Rock Spring Hut

We took the short spur trail off the Appalachian Trail that leads to the Rock Spring Hut and the Rock Spring Cabin. Below: The view of the valley from the front porch of the Rock Spring Cabin; We checked out the journal in the hut and found entries from the thru-hikers we met a couple weeks ago;  Although we didn’t see any fawns on the hike, we saw a few on the ride back to pick up our second car.

View from the Rock Spring Cabin Rock Spring Hut Trail Journal Newborn Fawn

The trail skirts around the western side of Hawksbill Mountain – Shenandoah’s tallest.  Shortly after passing Hawksbill, a spur trail leads .1 miles down to two structures maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).  The Rock Spring Cabin is rented out by the PATC and is available to the general public.  The cabin has a beautiful view of the valley beyond.  We were lucky to run into a woman renting the cabin for the weekend, and she was kind enough to let us take a peek inside.  The cabin was quite cozy and well equipped.  The other structure in the area is the Rock Spring Hut.  It’s a three-sided building with an elevated sleeping platform.  A spring for fresh water and a privy are located close by.  The hut was put in place to provide shelter to thru-hikers and section hikers along the Appalachian Trail.  We took a few minutes to check out the journal at the shelter, and were able to find entries from the thru-hikers we met a few weeks ago.

After leaving the Rock Spring area, we saw a HUGE increase in traffic along the trail – Boy Scout troops, a busload of day hikers out for a leg-stretcher and various other parties. There are lots of easy access points to the trail in this area, so the traffic wasn’t completely surprising.  This stretch of trail passes several nice overlooks from rocky ledges.  By this point of the trail, clouds had really started to roll in.  The weather was really odd on this hike.  Skies went from perfect blue to stormy very quickly and the winds varied from dead calm to very brisk.  The temperature stayed pleasantly cool – in the low 70’s, even though it was close to 90 in the valley below.

After walking across the Fisher’s Gap Overlook, the trail takes a distinct uphill turn toward the Big Meadows area.  In the last mile, hikers ascend almost 700 feet in elevation.  It’s the only tougher climb on the entire hike – most other ascents and descents are 200 feet or less.  Near the end of the climb, the trail passes very close to the Big Meadows Campground.  We were literally 25 feet or less from people’s tents and campers.  After passing the campground, the trail levels out for the last few tenths of a mile before arriving back at the amphitheater.

It was a fun hike, and really quite easy for an 8-miler!  We were also lucky to finish our hike before the thunderstorms roared across the mountains.

Adam Says…

Since Saturday was National Trails Day, we felt it was absolutely necessary to do a hike in one of our favorite places to hike – Shenandoah National Park.  Since we’ve recently met a few thru-hikers, Christine suggested hiking the Appalachian Trail from Skyland to Big Meadows.  June is a heavy month to encounter Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in Shenandoah National Park, since most start their trip in March or April.  We ended up seeing nine thru-hikers on their way North to Maine.  The few that we spoke to were looking forward to a big breakfast at the Skyland Lodge.  Christine mentioned how crowded the trail was this day.  This was mostly due to thru-hikers, boy scout groups, and tour groups.  The boy scout group consisted of several parents that were along for the trip.  The parents looked much more miserable than the scouts did themselves.  In the bus group, one lady whispered to us as she passed, “I envy your freedom”, meaning that she wasn’t enjoying hiking in such a large group.  As you near the Big Meadows Lodge and campground, you will likely see lots of people that are going for a hike, so travel on the AT nearby is one of the closest options for a hike.  There was another pair of couples that were doing the lodge-to-lodge hike heading northwards, but I feel going from Skyland to Big Meadows does save you a little on the elevation gain (though the southbound route does save your largest uphill climb for last).

One of my highlights on the trail was walking along the talus slopes near the Hawksbill parking lot.  We had completed a hike through the same area almost exactly one year ago to Hawksbill summit.  It is impressive to view the talus slopes and watch out for peregrine falcons.  We saw several swooping overhead from this point and we also saw some from the Franklin Cliffs overlook.  If you are a bird lover, you will likely see some of the closest views of peregrine falcons in Virginia from here.

Due to the big storms we have had in the last few days, there was running water in a few spots on the trail.  I wouldn’t expect this normally, but it could give some people an opportunity to fill up water bottles and treat the water if you are running low.

Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel was still abundant all along the trail.  Below: The Appalachian Trail passes right by the Skyland Stables; Adam enjoys the view from Timber Hollow; There is quite a bit of construction going on along Skyline Drive and the AT has been marked with warning signs; There are several nice rocky ledges along the trail a couple miles north of Big Meadows.

Timber Ridge Construction Along the Trail View Along the Trail

We ended the trip by stopping at the Big Meadows wayside for lunch.  It was the most crowded I have seen the dining room in a while.  We topped our lunch off with a dish of blackberry ice cream.  This is something most thru-hikers have heard about and they can’t wait to try (especially the blackberry milkshakes).  We then went over to talk to the volunteers at National Trails Day.  There was an exhibition on two-person lumber sawing, information on safety, gear demonstrations and sign-ups for guided hikes.  We talked to a few of the leaders from the Backpacking 101 course that were there on behalf of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.  We had signed up to join the PATC last year at Trails Day.  We were able to talk to our leaders for next weekend’s backpacking trip, so we were able to find out where we are going next week for our first backpacking trip.  We’re quite excited! (more about that later)

On our way home, we saw a few fawns with their mothers.  Most of the deer give birth in late May/early June, so they are quite tiny at this point in their lives.  You will likely see hordes of photographers in Big Meadows trying to get pictures of the fawns, but I encourage people not to harass the wildlife by approaching too closely.

While this wasn’t the entire Appalachian Trail distance of 2175 miles, we enjoyed our small portion of the trail.  We are hoping that we can hike the entire 105 miles of the AT that runs through Shenandoah National Park next summer.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 7.9 miles as a shuttle trail.
  • Elevation Change – Constant ups and downs, but the longest uphill climb is about 650 vertical feet at the very end of the hike.
  • Difficulty – 2. This is an easy hike for eight miles.  The Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah is never very steep.
  • Trail Conditions – 3. There are some rocky sections, but overall the trail is in great shape.
  • Views3.5 – There are nice views from Timber Hollow, Hawksbill, Spitler Knob, and Franklin Cliffs.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0.
  • Wildlife – 2. We know there is a lot of wildlife in this area, but we only saw the peregrine falcons soaring over Hawksbill Mountain.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  As long as you’re following the white blazes, you can’t go wrong.
  • Solitude –1. We hiked this trail on a pleasant June morning.  We saw *many* people – literally dozens and dozens.

Directions to trailhead:
On Skyline Drive, park at the Stony Man trailhead (located at the northern entrance to Skyland – near mile marker 42).  You will see an Appalachian trail marker near the parking lot.  You will see two AT cement posts, but the one that starts the trail is further away from Skyline Drive.  Follow the trail south from this point.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    August 27, 2010 6:31 pm

    Christine you rock! Thank you .

    One more question, Our plan is to do two nights out 8-10 miles South of Big Meadow one night at the lodge then two nights out from Big Meadow to Skyland which you already covered.

    Do you have any idea what might be a good starting point/trail 8-10 miles south of Big Meadow?

    Thanks again!

    Like

    • August 28, 2010 7:01 am

      You could start at the Lewis Mountain Campground and have a 7.8 mile walk to Big Meadows. Or, you could start where the Pocosin Mission Fireroad crosses the AT for 9.7 mile walk. Both of these entry points onto the AT are pretty close to the road and make east drop-off points.

      Like

  2. Matt permalink
    August 27, 2010 3:21 pm

    I’ll be doing the reverse hike from Big Meadow to Skyland in Oct and was wondering if you think Hammock Camping is going to be a problem on this trail, we are going to stretch it out to two nights between the lodges. Any help is greatly appreciated!

    Best, Matt

    Like

    • August 27, 2010 5:38 pm

      Hi Matt…

      I can’t imagine you’ll have any trouble finding places to string up your hammock. We have lots of friends who prefer hammocks to traditional tents, and all of them have said Shenandoah is one of the easiest places to find suitable hammock sites. If you stretch the hike out to two nights, I would highly recommend camping near the base of Hawksbill Mountain and climbing the blue-blazed trail to the summit to catch sunset. It’s an easy walk to the summit of Hawksbill from the AT. I hope you have a great trip, and thanks for the visit.

      Christine

      Like

  3. Jean permalink
    July 31, 2010 1:18 pm

    What a great description of that section. Thanks!

    We’re going to stay at Big Meadows campground but will only have one car. Do you have any suggestions for getting a ride over to Skyland (to start there and then hike back to Big Meadows)?

    Like

    • July 31, 2010 8:17 pm

      We see lots of hikers hitching rides in the park. I’m not sure if Shenandoah has an official policy on hitchhiking, but we’ve definitely picked up our share of hikers along the road. I know there is also a hiker shuttle service working out of Luray. They cater to a lot of longer distance hikers, but I can’t imagine they couldn’t help you out with a shuttle. This is their website: http://www.mvshuttle.com/

      Like

  4. Dan Ireland permalink
    June 12, 2010 10:15 pm

    What a great site! Your trail descriptions go beyond what most hiking sites share. I love the personal narrative. I’ll be visiting Shenandoah with my wife and two children (9 and 12) in July. I am an avid backpacker and have hiked in Smoky Mountain NP but never Shenandoah. My kids have hiked since they were little, but are just beginning to do overnights with us in the backcountry. We are planning to spend two nights with them in Shenandoah. I’m looking for a hike that would be appropriate… a short route where we can hike 2-3 miles each day. Is there a place you would recommend? I’d like to take them past some streams/waterfalls if possible. My kids are strong hikers, but are just getting used to hiking with a pack on their back.

    Thanks for any advice you can give. I’m going to take a look at some of your other trail descriptions. Thanks for this great site!

    Like

    • June 13, 2010 3:11 pm

      Hi Dan… I would love to recommend the Rose River loop to your family. It starts across the drive from the the Fisher’s Gap overlook. It’s a four mile loop that passes two of the park’s best known waterfalls (Dark Hollow and Rose River) and many other small, unnamed falls. There is good camping near where the Hog Camp Branch and Rose River meet (and of course, water access is close and easy). On the hike, you also pass an old copper mine and a cemetery with graves dating back to the Civil War. The hike would be great for kids just getting used to carrying a pack weight. Rose River hike: https://virginiatrailguide.com/2009/05/16/rose-river-loop/

      Another option for a shorter out-and-back backpack trip would be to hike down to the Rapidan Camp. It’s President Hoover’s old presidential retreat. The house and several other building have been restored to historical accuracy. There is nice camping down there along the Laurel Prong. You have to camp a half mile away from the Rapidan site, but again, there are many nice campsites and good water access. Big Run Falls on the hike is pretty, too. Rapidan Camp hike: https://virginiatrailguide.com/2009/05/31/mill-prong-rapidan-camp-trail/

      Like

  5. June 7, 2010 9:50 am

    Nice writeup of a trail section that I never found that interesting! Makes me want to go back sometime. Note that the Rock Spring Cabin, like all cabins within the boundaries of SNP, can be rented by the general public and not just members of the PATC.

    Like

    • June 7, 2010 10:48 am

      Thanks for the visit! I had forgotten some of the PATC cabins were available to the public, and have corrected the statement in our post.

      I would agree that this section of the AT isn’t wildly interesting, but it is lovely and pleasant. And some days, I just really enjoy a pleasant walk in the woods.🙂

      Like

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