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Spy Rock

June 22, 2010


November 2, 2017:  Per the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Cub – New signage is posted and right-of-way to the Appalachian Trail/Spy Rock is supposedly open to hikers.  Please be respectful of private landowners if you hike to Spy Rock via this route. There may still be active landowner disputes for this hike.  Be prepared with a Plan B if you find access closed.

This 3.1 mile out-and-back takes you up a steep and rocky road and along the Appalachian Trail.  After a short scramble up a nearly sheer rock face, hikers are treated to what is arguably one of the best views in central Virginia.

Adam Explores Spy Rock

Adam Explores Spy Rock.

Christine Says…

Adam and I had a great hike up to Spy Rock.  The route is kind of uneventful for the first mile, as it follows a steep, blue-blazed, rocky forest road.  Hikers gain about 1000 feet in elevation over this mile, so it’s pretty tough climbing.  There wasn’t much scenery worth mentioning along this stretch, but there was one interesting tree (pictured below) that you can’t miss!  I thought it looked like a gnarled Ent.  We saw a few Appalachian Trail hikers descending the road.  They were probably on their way to the Montebello Post Office or the Dutch Haus. (this bed and breakfast is well-known for providing free lunch to thru-hikers).  Note: As of 2014, Dutch Haus is closed.

This tree looks like an Ent.

This tree looks like an Ent. Below: The parking for the Spy Rock hike is well marked; Adam makes his way up the forest road; atop Spy Rock you get a great view of “The Religious Range” (the Priest, the Friar and the Cardinal)

Parking for Spy Rock Walking up Spy Rock Road The Religious Range

At right around the mile mark, the road comes a junction with the Appalachian Trail.  Go left at the junction and head north on the trail. Along the AT, the way continues rather steeply uphill.  The terrain moderates a little after about a tenth of mile, but this is definitely an all uphill haul.  We felt really lucky to do this hike on such a cool, pleasant morning.  The forecast in the valley called for highs near 90 and excessive humidity.  Up in the mountains, it was humid, but the temperature never quite made it to 70.

We quickly reached the spur trail, on the right, to Spy Rock.  It passes through a lovely, open section of woods.  The area around Spy Rock is flat and grassy.  It would be a perfect place to camp, as long as you haul in enough water.

Wildflowers and Berries

The trail had lots of wildflowers and berries along the way. Below: We also saw lots of butterflies


Spy Rock is a bit of a challenge to climb.  The trail leading to it abruptly ends at the base of the giant boulder.  There is no clear path up the rock,  rather you pick and choose your own route based on what you think you can cling to or balance upon.  I definitely got a bit of vertigo climbing up, so I focused on taking some deep breaths and looking at the rock immediately beneath me.  Once I cleared the edge of the boulder, the head-spins I felt were made immediately worthwhile.  What a spectacular view!  The top of Spy Rock is enormous and flat – pitted with small pools of water.  There are mountain views in every direction.

We shared the rock with a couple more thru-hikers.  (there are still quite a few in Virginia – although I think the bulk of the pack is north of here, headed into Pennsylvania and beyond).  This pair didn’t seem to be having the best day on the trail, so we left them to their conversation.  We enjoyed the view for a short while and then hiked back – thankfully, all downhill.

Adam Says…

Spy Rock really provides some of the most amazing views in Virginia.  There are so many hikes in this area (like The Priest, Cole Mountain, and Mount Pleasant) that I think get missed by a lot of people, but I would definitely recommend taking a few days to visit this area of Virginia.  Traveling along the curvy roads to get to this hike defines to me what Virginia is all about – rolling hills, farmland, and mountains.

The trail starts off near the Montebello State Fish Hatchery.  You start the trail across from the parking lot.  You go around the road gate and up the gravel fire road.  The road is flanked by wildflowers and blackberries along each side and provides a steady uphill climb.   You will see blue blazes sporadically placed on trees or telephone poles up the side of the road.  You stay on this road for one mile (you will see lots of side roads to residential cabins, but stay on the main blue-blazed road/trail).  At this point, you will reach a junction with the Appalachian Trail.  Take a left to head north on the AT for another .5 miles.  You will then reach several well-established campsites and a sign pointing to Spy Rock.  You will need to scramble up the rock, so you may want to leave your trekking poles/hiking sticks at the bottom.  The scramble up the rock leads to amazing 360-degree views all around you.  Return the way you came.  For a longer option, The Priest is about four miles from Spy Rock, which would make for an 11 mile trip to two great views.

Thru Hikers on Spy Rock

Thru Hikers on Spy Rock.  Below: a marker at the trail junction; a nice camp site near Spy Rock; The view is beautiful in every direction

Trail Marker Nice Campsite View from Spy Rock

If you have a compass with you and a map, this is a great spot to test out your ability to follow the map and name the peaks around you.  Among others, you should have good views of Maintop Mountain, The Priest, The Cardinal, The Friar, and Painter Mountain.

For any geocachers out there, there is one geocache, Spy Rock Geocache, that is easily accessible from the summit.

I could have spent a long time up there staring into the distance and enjoying the scenery.  I can only imagine how gorgeous this must look in the fall with the leaves changing color.  I highly recommend this hike to everyone!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3.1 miles, out-and-back
  • Elevation Change – 1260 feet
  • Difficulty – 3
  • Trail Conditions –4.  The forest road leading up the mountainside is rocky, but still east to walk on.  The half mile section of the Appalachian Trail is well-graded.  Spy Rock itself might be slight challenge to climb for some.
  • Views5.  Amazing, breathtaking and expansive.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0. None.
  • Wildlife –3. We saw a couple deer and lots of butterflies.
  • Ease to Navigate –4. Just follow the forest road up the mountain and turn left on the Appalachian Trail. Unless you follow one of the drives off the forest road or miss the Spy Rock spur, there’s no way to get lost.
  • Solitude – 2. We saw a few groups of thru-hikers and a group of dayhikers.

Directions to trailhead:
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 the road, passing under the Blue Ridge Parkway.  In Montebello, follow signs to the Fish Hatchery (Fish Hatchery Ln.)  Pass the signs for the hatchery’s nature trail and proceed until you see the signs for Spy Rock/Appalachian Trail parking.  There is a large parking area at the trailhead.

35 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunter permalink
    August 3, 2018 11:37 am

    Have done Spy Rock NOBO and SOBO as a part of longer overnighters with friend. However, got a wild idea to drive there after work tonight with 6 year old and wanted thoughts. Iv always done the fire road that is at the Crabtree Meadows lot on the backside of Crabtree. That hike (I think) would be 3 miles each way. It looks like if I did the Hatchery route, it would be 3 RT. This makes it more manageable for him – and will give more time to enjoying Spy Rock. Any thoughts on safety at that location? We will getting in late tonight, just sleeping in the back of my explorer, didn’t know about that spot.

    Thanks in advance guys!


  2. June 3, 2017 10:11 am

    Any new updates on this hike? Specifically I am trying to find out if the parking described above is currently open. I am reading conflicting reports online. Thank you!


    • June 3, 2017 5:21 pm

      I have not heard anything about the parking area being closed. But, if it is, follow the parking directions on The Priest hike and access Spy Rock by hiking south on the AT.


  3. April 8, 2016 11:36 pm

    At the base of Spy Rock before the scramble there are some camp sites – do you need a permit to stay there? Is it considered dispersed camping in the National Forest? We’re going soon and I don’t want to go without a permit


  4. virginiatrailsadam permalink*
    November 28, 2015 8:54 am

    Thanks for the suggestions Mike! Spy Rock is one of our favorite spots.


  5. Ken permalink
    November 25, 2015 11:58 pm

    Hiked to Spy Rock day before Thanksgiving. What fantastic views at the top – best ever. Trail is a constant climb going up, this 62 yr old had to stop occasionally to catch my breath. Going back down was easy. Once trail ends at base of rock, no obvious way to climb up it and no markings either. Coming down off rock, did slip and fall getting a nasty road rash of my thigh – be careful coming down from top of rock as it is steep and rocky in places with no obvious path. The trail itself is not technically difficult.


    • November 28, 2015 9:45 am

      Glad you had such a good hike, Ken! I think climbing the rock itself is a little scary. Last year on New Year’s Day, we climbed it when it was covered with ice. That was probably stupid of us!


  6. Notes from the Scenic Route permalink
    June 15, 2015 1:05 pm

    Just combined this hike with a visit to the Bold Rock tasting room (inspired by a recent post of yours). What a perfect day! Thanks for so many detailed posts here. 🙂


  7. June 17, 2012 10:40 am

    Thanks for the recommendation. I combined Spy Rock with Crabtree Falls and The Priest, resulting in a monster day hike of 16+ miles. Although it rained most of the day, I still had a blast. The best part was scrambling to the top of Spy Rock. Even in wet conditions, just take it slow and you’ll be fine.


  8. Mike Yankovich permalink
    April 29, 2012 4:06 pm

    Trail update: The Campbell family has moved into a nursing home so the farm is now being taken care of my family members. If you are interested in a loop trail while up at Spy Rock, continue north on the AT trail for about 500 yards and you will see a blue blazed trail break off to the left and uphill (this was the old AT trail). This trail takes you up and over maintop mountain and rejoins the AT trail on the other side of the mountain. Total distance for the detour is 0.26 nm. If you are camping and the area below Spy Rock is occupied, there is a nice flat area to camp on top of maintop mountain (as long as there is not much wind). If you like to go for a GeoCatch, there are two of them that are close to the trail “Black Rock overlook” and “Montebello overlook”. Drop me a line if you have any questions about the area….


    • April 29, 2012 6:19 pm

      Thanks for the trail info, Mike! Good tip for the loop.


    • Mike Yankovich permalink
      August 1, 2014 12:26 pm

      Trail update: The fish hatchery hikers parking lot has been expanded so there is more room to park cars. The old AT loop trail north of Spy Rock has been closed by the Natural Bridge AT club, please do not use the old AT trail.


  9. January 2, 2012 1:13 am

    Hiked this trail on New Years Eve. I agree with your account. The trip up is not noteworthy, but the view from the summit makes the trip worthwhile. Looked for the tree…missed it.

    Great blog and great photos!


    • virginiatrailsadam permalink*
      January 2, 2012 10:28 am

      The tree was right near the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. I’m glad you enjoyed the views from Spy Rock!


  10. The Nunes Family permalink
    April 7, 2011 9:07 am

    My sister and I hiked up Spy Rock April 4 2011 with our 5 kids ages 9-12. I went up to the top several months ago and remembered how spectacular the view is!! I wanted my daughter to see it this time. She is 9. It was NOT easy for either of us to get up there. But we DID IT!! We hiked up the trail this time to find the GeoCache! We punched the coordinates in to my sister’s Garmin GPS watch and it took us to within a foot of our destination. We found it!!! We were all so excited! But…… we didn’t think to bring a pen to sign the game piece. Ugh! We replaced the cache and came back down.


  11. sunshine permalink
    January 16, 2011 4:51 am

    I am a Nelsonian and have been up there several times and never have seen that tree. Guess I’ll be going in the spring. Whoever added horse riding to the trail sucks though, to many deposits and flies.


    • January 16, 2011 2:19 pm

      The tree is on the left side of the trail as you’re walking up! Personally, I don’t mind horses on trails – maybe because I’ve spent my entire life around horses and know that while horse poop might stink, at least it doesn’t stick to your shoes! 🙂


  12. Mike Yankovich permalink
    January 5, 2011 2:55 pm

    I have hiked this trail about 50 times in the last 30 years. I like the area so much I bought 23 acres of land above the hikers parking lot in 85 and just completed a cabin. A few notes on the hike. The hiking trail used to run directly thru my property but the AT club moved the blue blazed trail over to the current “forest road” in 1985. The hikers parking lot was put in the 90’s because the hike became so popular that parked cars would block the road. Sometimes hikers still get confused and hike up the driveway next to the parking lot. Remember to look for the blue blaze and the Spy Rock road sign. The entire area up to the AT trail and down in the hollow below is private property so wait until you get up and onto the AT trail before you camp. The entire area used to be populated in the early 20th century. At one point, over 200 people lived back in “Cash Hollow”, there was even a single room school house back there as well. The main industry at the time was lumber. You can still see some of the old rail road beds that were used up into the 60s to haul lumber out of the mountains (one of them is near the Ent tree). When the chestnut trees died out in the late 30’s, most of the people moved down into the Montebello area except for the Campbell family. They still live back in the hollow with no electricity just like in the old days (a phone line was put in a few years ago because both of them are in their 90’s and their relatives wanted to be able to check on them in the winter). If you go down the south side of Spy rock you can see their farm down in the hollow. Please don’t go and visit them since they are very sensitive to people trespassing. This year, I put a Geocach on Black Rock overlook. This is the group of rocks slightly above and to the North of Spy Rock up on Maintop mountain (you can go to the Geocaching site to look up the hiking directions).


  13. The Craving Chronicles permalink
    June 22, 2010 3:59 pm

    That tree really does look like an Ent!


  14. Jim Hopkins permalink
    June 22, 2010 10:27 am

    Now this is my kinda hike! Beautiful photos!!!
    Thanks for this and again, all the previous posts, and info!
    It is appreciated…


    • June 22, 2010 2:11 pm

      Thanks for the visit, Jim! Spy Rock is nice because it’s such a surprise. When you’re at the bottom of the boulder, you can’t even begin to imagine how great the view is from the top.



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