Appalachian Trail – Skyland to Thornton Gap
The Appalachian Trail from Skyland to Thornton Gap follows ten miles of trail and includes no fewer than four spectacular panoramic views.
Monday was a real treat – a day off work, an out-of-town friend and an amazing hike along the Appalachian Trail. My friend, Jason, came to visit for a day while his wife attended a conference in Washington D.C. He’s from Seattle and lives surrounded by three of our most spectacular national parks (Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades.) I was a little worried that Shenandoah would disappoint him. We don’t have dramatic peaks, towering waterfalls or the quiet, sapphire blue glacial lakes that western parks have. Our mountains are old and roll gently down into the valley. The streams and waterfalls are typically small and ponds/lakes are uncommon. At this time of year, we don’t even have foliage. The forests in our area are largely deciduous, and are still bare and brown from the winter. Considering all these factors, I wanted to pick a hike that would still show Jason a nice ‘snapshot’ of what Shenandoah has to offer.
After tossing around a number of ideas, we settled on the ten mile section of the Appalachian Trail between Skyland Resort and Thornton Gap. The hike includes four great views (Stony Man, Little Stony Man, the Pinnacle and Mary’s Rock) and passes an AT hiker hut (Byrd’s Nest). I thought Jason would especially enjoy the fact that the hike traverses a (albeit small -.45% to be exact) section of the storied Appalachian Trail.
We met at Thornton Gap and shuttled back up to the north entrance of Skyland Resort to begin our hike. We climbed up along the trail until it joined with the Stony Man spur-loop. Although Stony Man is not technically on the AT, the view from the summit is well worth adding the extra .3 onto the total mileage. The wind was fierce atop Stony Man – backpacks blew open, hats had to be held and we had to shout to hear one another. We stopped to take a few photos, but we didn’t stay long. We got a later start than we anticipated, so we had to be quite business-like about our pace.
We hiked downhill from Stony Man to our next viewpoint from Little Stony Man. We stopped again to have some water and give Jason a chance to eat some lunch. Of the two views, I actually think Little Stony Man is a bit nicer. After a few more photos, we climbed down a few hundred more feet into a saddle between the mountains. This section of trail is fairly level and follows closely to Skyline Drive. Without leaves on the trees, we were able to enjoy many open views along the trail. The lack of leaves allowed the sun to beat down strongly on our heads. It was an unseasonably warm day – a bit humid and around 80 degrees. Jason and I both struggled a bit with the heat. I’m definitely not acclimated to warm weather hiking yet!
After the low point of the saddle, we began a slow, long uphill climb to the Pinnacles picnic area. We rested there and gave everyone a chance to refill their water bottles with cold mountain water. I had my 3 liter CamelBak so I still had plenty to drink. I love my CamelBak! We took a few minutes to chat with a couple section hikers resting at the picnic area. They mentioned that they were on their way to Pennsylvania and were hoping to get into the town of Luray for a night off the trail. I hope they made it, because the thunderstorms were crazy later that night!
After the Pinnacles picnic area, the remainder of the hike followed pretty much the same route we use for Mary’s Rock. The climb up to the Pinnacle gains about 550 feet of elevation. It wasn’t hard climbing, but we were all pretty tired, so we stopped to eat brownies.
The climb up to the Pinnacle passes lots of huge, lichen-covered boulders. Eventually, we arrived at the view. I like the Pinnacle because you can see the entire route all the way over to Mary’s Rock. While we were enjoying the view, Jason remarked that the end of the hike still looked a good distance off. It was! We still had about five miles to go at this point, so we had to start keeping an eye on the sun’s level in the sky. Adam kept checking our distance and walking pace on his GPS to keep us on track to be out of the woods before nightfall.
After leaving the Pinnacle, we dipped down into another saddle between mountains. At the bottom of the saddle lies Byrd’s Nest #3 – one of the long-distance hiker huts along the AT. I had hoped we would have time to let Jason read some of the hiker log book and poke around the shelter, but we only had a few minutes to stop and chat with a hiker who had settled in for the evening.
Our last uphill climb was relatively easy and led us to our final viewpoint – Mary’s Rock. The viewpoint lies about .1 mile off the Appalachian Trail, but you don’t want to miss taking this short spur trail!
Once we were at the summit, Jason took some time to scramble around on the giant boulders and take some photos. I stayed off the boulders because climbing on them always gives me vertigo. The light wasn’t great, but I’m sure he was still able to get some nice shots of the valley below. One of the prettiest things I noticed from the view was the evening sun shining on all the little farm ponds down in the valley below. Each pond glowed golden-orange in the evening light.
By the time we left Mary’s Rock, we had about 25 minutes of light and 1.8 miles to go. Because it was all downhill, we didn’t have any problem making it back to the parking lot before total darkness.
There must be something about Mary’s Rock and the threat of darkness for us. The last time we hiked up Mary’s Rock, we were threatened with the setting sun and this time was no different. After some discussion on if we thought we could do the ten-mile stretch, we decided it was doable and we drove to the Skyland entrance and the Stony Man parking lot to begin our hike around 2PM. As many of you know, I do carry a GPS with me, which has the ability to track distance and walking speed.
We were surprised at how hot it was when we were hiking. A few days ago, the temperature was in the 40s, but today the sun was beating down relentlessly on us. We kept up a good pace throughout the hike as sweat was dripping from our brows. For some reason, even though we were walking at a good pace, the mileage seemed like it was going slowly. Jason and Christine both were asking me how far had we traveled and when I first answered three miles, it felt like we had gone almost twice as far.
The trail starts near the northern Skyland entrance off Skyline Drive. As soon as you turn into this entrance, the Stony Man parking lot is on the side. You start on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Keep your eye out for black bears if you try this hike during the late spring or summer as we have often spotted bears near the Skyland entrance. In about .5 miles, you will come to a blue-blazed junction with the Stony Man trail. This is a .3 mile loop trail that leads to nice views from Stony Man Mountain. There is an interpretive brochure you can purchase for $1 from the trail start of this loop if you want to learn more about the features along the trail. You can read more about our hike up Stony Man and Little Stony Man here.
Once you rejoin the Appalachian Trail, the trail descends 500 feet until you reach the Little Stony Man overlook at 1.3 miles with more gorgeous views (I believe the Little Stony Man views are nicer than the Stony Man views). At 1.6 miles, you will reach an intersection with the Passamaquoddy Trail, but stay on the white-blazed AT. The trail continues to descend and at 2.3 miles, you have reached the bottom of the saddle and have arrived at the Stony Man overlook on Skyline Drive. The trail begins to climb at this point. At around 4.2 miles you will reach the Pinnacles Picnic area. There are rest rooms right on the side of the trail and a pump behind the rest rooms that provided a nice cooling refill of our water bottles. The trail continues to ascend in the last steep uphill stretch. At 5.5 miles, you will reach the peak of your climb and a nice viewpoint from The Pinnacle. The trail then descends and winds down through the woods until you reach the Byrds Nest No. 3 shelter at mile 6.8. This used to be a day-use only shelter, but recently became an overnight shelter. The trail begins to ascend slightly for the next mile and the footing is a little more rocky as you make your approach to Mary’s Rock. At mile 7.8, you will reach a junction with a short .1 spur trail to lead you to the summit of Mary’s Rock. Once you take in the views from the top, meet back with the AT and continue to follow north through steep switchbacks for another two miles. You will most likely be able to see the Panorama waystation and parking lot when you are almost done. At 9.9 miles, you will see the post that leads to a short walk to the parking lot for Panorama.
We ran into a few long-distance hikers at the Pinnacles picnic area. When I asked where they were heading, they said they were on their way to Pennsylvania. I’m guessing they are tackling the Appalachian Trail in sections. Their goal that night was to make it to the town of Luray. We told them about the thunderstorms that night, but they were hoping to make it down to a hotel and stop by a liquor store. We ran into them again at the Byrd’s Nest Shelter No. 3. My guess is that they stayed their overnight, but I know they were in for a night of torrential thunderstorms, since the lightning and rain woke me up in the middle of the night.
We managed to make it back to our vehicle with about 10 minutes to spare of sunlight. We did keep a steady pace, which was why my calves were quite sore for the next few days. This hike is definitely one of the best hikes for views in all of Shenandoah National Park. I would allow for at least 6.5 hours to do the entire hike, since you will want to take time to enjoy the views.
- Distance – 10 miles. This includes the shorter spur hikes to Stony Man and Mary’s Rock.
- Elevation Change – 2000 feet with two climbs up and down two mountains
- Difficulty –3.5. The distance is the largest reason. It is definitely best to do this section from south to north.
- Trail Conditions – 4. It is well-maintained, but the sections near Little Stony Man and Mary’s Rock are very rocky.
- Views – 4.5. You have lots of views along this hike of the western valley. On a clear day, you can see all the way to West Virginia.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 3.5. You will likely see deer and you may even see some black bears during the warmer months.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. As long as you read the posts at the junctions with other trails, you shouldn’t have any trouble. Just stick with the white blazes.
- Solitude – 2. You will likely see people along the trail and at some of the big draws of Stony Man and Mary’s Rock.
Directions to trailhead: We handled this hike as a shuttle, leaving one car at the Panorama parking lot at mile 31.3 on Skyline Drive. To start the hike, park your other car by turning into the northern Skyland entrance at mile 41.8. The Stony Man parking lot is immediately to your right. You will see the trailhead on the eastern side of the parking lot (along with a box to purchase the Stony Man brochure).