This short ‘lollipop loop’ hike takes you across high cow pastures offering great views of the valley below. Eventually you climb to the summit of Rocky Knob and enjoy visiting a former Appalachian Trail hut. The views from the hut and the rocky outcropping on the summit are excellent!
A couple years ago we visited the Virginia Highlands area and did some hiking at Hungry Mother, biked the Virginia Creeper and climbed Mount Rogers. We had such a great time, that we decided a return trip was in order. We stayed in the small town of Hillsville – right off I-77. It was the perfect spot to use as a base for a number of activities in the area.
The first thing we decided to do was head up to the Meadows of Dan to explore that area of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We settled on a visit to Chateau Morrisette to sample wine, a short hike in the Rocky Knob area and a photo shoot at Mabry Mill.
Normally, I wouldn’t drink a bunch of wine before hiking in 95 degree weather, but it was the only way the schedule would allow us to fit everything into one evening. So… off I went to drink fourteen different kinds of vino! Chateau Morisette was such a great place! Their winery is right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, nestled into the rolling Virginia countryside. They have a large tasting room with a friendly staff. A variety of adorable and friendly dogs hang out and roam freely around the winery. Outside, there are pavilions and gazebos where people can lounge and enjoy their wine. I enjoyed every single wine I tasted – especially their Chambourcin. I also like that they donate part of the profit from their Liberty wine to support the training and placement of service dogs. We spent about an hour at the winery, purchased some bottles of the wines I liked best and headed on our way to the Rocky Knob area – just a few miles north on the Parkway.
We parked at the Rocky Knob campground and crossed the road to find the trailhead. To access the trail, you can either go through the gate or squeeze through the zig-zag. The first part of the trail climbs across open meadow, The views were amazing… rolling mountains in every direction. The sun was really beating down on us. I was so hot and thirsty (probably from the wine!) that I drank nearly two liters of water in the first half hour of hiking.
At the crest of the hill, we passed through another zig-zag fence opening and entered the woods. The forest was full of wildflowers, azaleas and mountain laurel. Some of the flowers were different than anything we have in the Shenandoah, and the azaleas were predominantly orange (instead of the pink ones we have near us). In the shade, it was much cooler and more comfortable for hiking.
We passed out of the woods briefly to cross the parking lot at the Saddle Overlook. At the south end of the overlook, we entered the woods again and began an uphill climb. At the trail junction, we followed the right arm of the loop and ascended to the Rocky Knob Shelter. The shelter used to sit along the Appalachian Trail and served as an overnight stop for thru-hikers. The AT was re-routed much further west a long time ago, but the shelter was left intact. In front of the building, a small descent takes you down to a rocky ledge with a spectacular view (the view is almost as good from the shelter itself.) The hillside was covered with mountain laurel – so gorgeous.
We hiked a little bit past the shelter. There was one more nice view, but after that the trail started to descend toward the picnic area, so we turned around. The return trip follows the steeper arm of the loop downhill. As we walked back, the views from the trail were even prettier. The sun was dropping in the sky, making the light softer and warmer.
When we got back to the pasture area, the cattle had come out from the shady areas they had been hiding. They looked at us curiously and trotted off when we got too close. We made it back to the car a good while before sunset, but early enough that I had enough time to shoot Mabry Mill.
It was a great, short hike! I wish it hadn’t been so hot, but it was otherwise a perfect evening.
We got checked in around 2:00PM and decided that we should try and make the best of the afternoon. Christine has been wanting to photograph Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a while, so we thought it would be best to hit that closer to sunset. We decided to try and squeeze in a hike beforehand. We debated about going to Fairy Stone State Park, but opted for this short hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just north of Mabry Mill. We drove past Mabry Mill and saw the signs for Chateau Morrisette winery. After Christine went through a quick wine-tasting, we made our way up to the Rocky Knob trail.
There are many ways to approach this hike. We consulted our Falcon Guide, which just got us confused on which was the best way to go. They list about three different hikes for this one, but don’t really provide appropriate directions for all three.
We started the trail, by parking our vehicle right outside the Rocky Knob campground. Directly across the parkway road from the campground entrance, there is a fat-man squeeze leading in to a field. This is to keep the cows that occupy this field , so don’t try to open any gates. After crossing through, head right following the blazed posts through the grassy fields. You will slowly ascend this hillside. At .6 miles, the trail leads to another fat-man squeeze that leads into the woods. At .75 miles, you will come out of the woods and reach the Saddle Overlook area. Keep going straight and go back into the woods. At .83 miles, you will reach a junction. This is the beginning of the lollipop loop section of the trail. Take the right branch. Just about another 150 feet, you will reach another junction. Take the left to start the red-blazed trail. This trail leads uphill fairly steeply with a switchback. At 1.0 miles, you will reach the end of this trail, which leads to the Rocky Knob shelter and joins back with the blue-blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail. Head up the trail (north) just about 150 feet up the trail and you will come to the Rocky Knob overlook. Backtrack and go back to the cabin to enjoy the views and explore the cabin. Head down the Rock Castle Gorge Trail (south), passing by the Saddle Overlook and making your way back to your vehicle.
The temperature for the day was over 90 degrees and the sun was beating down on us relentlessly, but the views that you get from the field, the Saddle Overlook, and the shelter were truly breathtaking. It was a clear day, with no threat of rain, and even in the haze we felt like we could see for fifty miles around us. The shelter was impressive too. The Appalachian Trail used to run through this area and this was once used by thru-hikers. I can just imagine how wonderful of a shelter this would be – the sunrise from this spot must have been amazing.
Christine and I were both impressed with the landscape along the way. There is a longer 10.6 mile hike through the Rock Castle Gorge that will be something to add to our “must hike” list on a day when we have more time.
- Distance – 2.3 miles
- Elevation Change – 480 feet
- Difficulty – 2. The uphill is nice and gradual.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is nicely maintained with a few rocky spots.
- Views – 4.5. The views from the meadow and the Rocky Knob summit were beautiful!
- Waterfalls/Streams – 0. None
- Wildlife – 1. Maybe the cows count?
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. Some of the maps and descriptions are a little confusing.
- Solitude – 3. It’s hard to judge this. We visited on a weekday evening. I assume this area is heavily trafficked on weekends.
Directions to trailhead: The Rocky Knob campground is located around mile 168 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Park your car just outside the campground, cross the parkway, and begin the hike by going through the fat-man squeeze and going right up the meadow.