Saddleback Mountain Loop
The Saddleback Mountain Loop is a hike for people that are looking for a convenient day hike of moderate length – about six miles. There aren’t any great views, but it is an enjoyable walk.
Sorry it has been awhile everyone. We’ve had a crazy fall and haven’t been able to get out as much as we had hoped.
We have had a plan this winter to try and do sections of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. We thought we would start with a shuttle trip to cover the section from Swift Run Gap to Lewis Mountain. We made our way up to the Swift Run Gap entrance to Shenandoah Park and talked to the ranger at the gate. He told us that the entire drive was closed, but we could do some day hikes around the area. He said there was snow and ice on the road and they were also worried about more bad weather moving into the area later that night. Boooo! We went back to the car, upset that our plans couldn’t work out the way we wanted. Rather than admitting total defeat, we decided to try a loop hike that included Saddleback Mountain. It was close enough to the entrance gate that we could walk into the park from Route 33.
Throughout the hike we got a few glimpses of Skyline Drive through the woods and we never saw any snow. I talked to a friend of mine who is married to a ranger and he said that often they close the road because they don’t want to have people get trapped up there. Then, the rangers have to deal with them, since they typically close during hunting season at 5PM. I also found out they send one ranger north to inspect the Central section and one ranger drives up from Waynesboro to view the Southern section. We found out later that the Southern section ended up remaining open all day, so we could have done a different hike. Oh well, at least we were able to cover something we hadn’t done yet for the blog.
The hike starts where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road at the border between the Southern and Central Districts of Shenandoah National Park. Heading north up the white-blazed trail, the trail ascends steadily. After a few tenths of a mile, you will see an unmarked path to the right that leads to an old family cemetery. It was nice to pay some respects to the families that lived and died here on the mountain. Continuing back on the AT, the trail continued to slowly ascend. At 1.4 miles, you reach a junction with the blue-blazed Saddleback Mountain Trail. Take a right on this trail to make this hike a loop. The Saddleback Mountain Trail goes around the mountain, which was a nice break from climbing uphill. We saw a few nice icy formations and some heavier patches of snow on this shadowy side of the mountain. At 2.6 miles, you will come to a PATC maintenance hut. These huts are scattered throughout the park that serve as places where PATC volunteers can have access to some tools to help repair sections of the trail. There is an open outhouse here and a spring nearby, but we found that the spring was mostly dry. We continued past the PATC maintenance hut for .2 miles on a fire road until we met the junction with the AT. Head south on the AT and you will have 2.7 miles until you reach the original trailhead. As I mentioned before, the Saddleback Mountain goes around the mountain, so when you start the trail you will again be heading uphill until you reach the summit. The summit was not marked, but it was nice to have a downhill trip back to the car.
On our way back downhill, we ran into two hikers that were there hoping to catch up to the Valley Hikers group that were evidently doing that hike to South River Falls. They got a late start but said there was a note on a car telling them where they went. We talked to the couple for a while before parting ways. When I got back home, I checked my email and it looks like the Valley Hikers changed their itinerary completely and were not doing the South River Falls after all. I hope the couple didn’t get too discouraged on their trip. Valley Hikers is a great group to join if you are interested in meeting up with some other people in the Shenandoah Valley that enjoy hiking. Members are of all skill levels and they do a good variety of hikes and an occasional backpacking trip. I do belong to the group, but I have yet to meet up with them to do a hike.
When Skyline Drive is open, you can also do a shorter version of the Saddleback trail, starting from the South River Falls picnic area. From that direction, you would have just a few tenths of a mile of an uphill hike to the summit area.
I’m glad we were able to get out and do a hike after our hiatus. Even though this trail doesn’t have a lot of great views, it is a nice walk in the woods and it was good to get some exercise outdoors on a cool winter day.
With our original plans foiled, we sat in the car for a few minutes and deliberated our options – go home or figure out an alternate hike route that allowed us to walk into the park from outside the pay station. I’m really glad we decided to go for the latter, because the hike (while rather uneventful) turned out to be a pleasant way to spend the morning. It was great to get back out on the trail after a month of sloth (the flu and three weekends of art shows severely limit the ability to hike!)
As we started up the Appalachian Trail, I couldn’t help but remember that this was the exact spot we met our friends from The Traveling Circus back in May. The trail looks pretty different now than it did back then – bare trees and fallen leaves instead of a lush tunnel of green. While the woods might be prettier in the spring, summer and fall, there is still something I really enjoy about winter hiking. I like the lack of bugs, the fact that I don’t get sweaty, the solitude and the glimpses of views through the trees that you miss the rest of the year.
A few tenths of a mile up the trail, we took a short spur to take a look at an old cemetery. Headstones we saw dated back to the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the people buried here lived in the park throughout the 1800’s up until they were forcibly removed in the early 1900’s by the US Government. I think there were many older unmarked graves as well, but we took a few minutes to read each of the headstones still left standing.
After leaving the cemetery, the trail climbed gently, but endlessly, uphill to the junction of the Saddleback Mountain Trail. There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the trail to this point – no amazing scenery, just the occasional peek through the trees at the valley and Skyline Drive below. Adam and I laughed at how bare of the snow the drive was every time it came into view. We really don’t understand why it was closed at all.
We turned onto the Saddleback Trail and enjoyed a relatively flat walk skirting around the shoulder of the mountain. Near the end of the trail, we passed a PATC maintenance cabin and a pit toilet.
We stopped to rest a few minutes. I noticed a thermometer on the hearth outside the cabin and saw that it read 40 degrees – pretty balmy for a winter hike! The morning we hiked, a bit of a southerly air flow arrived. The warmer air came in aloft, creating the rare phenomenon that it was much warmer in the mountains than it was down in the valley.
From the PATC cabin, we passed the South River spring (a boxed spring intended as a water supply) and headed up a short fire road to meet back up with the Appalachian Trail. We turned south, and walked along the AT, climbing up to the summit of Saddleback Mountain. The summit of Saddleback is covered with trees and does not offer a view.
After crossing the summit, the hike was an easy, all-downhill stroll back to the car. Even though we didn’t get to hike the route we originally planned, this Saddleback loop made a great substitute and we had a fun morning.
- Distance – 5.9 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – about 1080 feet
- Difficulty – 2 There is some steady uphill, but it is manageable.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. Since most is on the AT, the trail is very well-maintained, but rocky and steep in spots.
- Views – 1. We only had a few views through the trees, that I’m sure would not be there when leaves are on the trees.
- Waterfalls/streams – 1. Two springs near the shelter.
- Wildlife – 3.5. We did see deer and heard the echoing sounds of a pileated woodpecker. There was also fresh bear scat in the area and possible tracks in the snow.
- Ease to Navigate –4. This is fairly easy to follow if you read the concrete posts at the junctions.
- Solitude –4. You may see some hikers on the AT due to the proximity to the South River picnic area.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: Once you go through the Swift Run Gap entrance station, park your car across the street from the stop sign. The Appalachian Trail sign is straight ahead and head north.