Bird Knob – Emerald Pond
This 8.3 mile hike takes you past two nice overlooks and gorgeous Emerald Pond. After some significant climbing early in the hike, most of the terrain is pleasant and easy ridge walking.
I don’t think anyone will argue – this has been a tough summer weather-wise. It’s been hotter, stormier, muggier and buggier than usual. There really haven’t been many weekend days that I would label ‘nice hiking weather.’ So when we finally had a day that was a little less hot and humid, we took full advantage of the opportunity and headed out to hike Bird Knob.
Bird Knob, like our last hike – Little Devils Stairs – had been on our list for quite a while. The trailhead is relatively close to our home. The distance and terrain – slightly over 8 miles and around 1600 feet of climbing – fall right in the ‘perfect hike’ range by our standards. Still, it wasn’t a hike I was looking forward to with a lot of excitement and anticipation. This was mostly due to middling/negative reviews I saw on another hiking site we read. People complained that the views weren’t that great, that part of the hike looked like a construction site, that it was too easy and that it was nothing but circling under the trees. None of the descriptions made the hike sound particularly appealing. Even the photos posted from the hike led me to believe that it would be rather mundane and lacking in scenery.
But – wow… when we got out there, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice the hike turned out to be. The trail started off from the defunct Massanutten Visitors Center on Route 211. We descended from the parking lot along the Wildflower Trail until its junction with the Massanutten Ridge Trail. The first mile and a half had some steep climbing. We hiked past and over lots of large and interesting rock formations. Once we gained the ridge, we were treated to two magnificent views overlooking the valley to the west. We had both of the rocky outcroppings all to ourselves, so we spent some time goofing off and taking silly photos. I’m definitely a more graceful leaper. 🙂 Also, after several years of struggling with chronic vertigo, my balance seems to finally be returning to normal.
After leaving the second overlook, the trail followed the ridge for a while. Eventually we came to a large clearing in the woods. The trail wasn’t clearly marked, so we explored the open meadow and eventually found that the trail continued on the near-side, downhill corner. Shortly after passing the clearing, the trail branched in a couple directions. Right at one of the junctions, we saw an odd animal that looked like a goat leap across the trail and dive into the woods. I’m 100% certain it wasn’t a deer, raccoon, possum or bobcat – so we’re sticking with goat. We never saw it again.
We followed the first spur trail off to the left so we could explore the swimming hold that we had read about. It was a very pretty spot – much more inviting than we had been led to believe. Mountain ponds are a rarity in Virginia, so visiting this one was a nice treat. There was a heavily used campsite next to the water, and despite a sign imploring people to ‘Enjoy the Place, Leave No Trace’, we found the area was thoroughly trashed. We had brought an empty garbage bag in one of our packs, so we spent some time picking up cans, bottles, food packaging and cigarette boxes. People can be so gross!
After leaving the pond, we had a short climb to where the trail met up with a forest service road. We turned left and hiked uphill along the road for about half a mile. At a hairpin turn near the top of the mountain, a locked gate marked the spot where we got off the road, and hopped back onto the Massanutten Ridge Trail. This was the only spot along the hike that we saw other people – one truck passed us on the road and we caught a glimpse of two trail runners headed downhill. Honestly, this trail offered more solitude than I’ve seen anywhere lately. It was really nice.
Once we were back on the ridge trail, the hiking was flat again. The trail made a nice, wide corridor through the woods. We passed some HUGE anthills. When I stopped to take a closer look, I found myself bitten by ants almost immediately. We also saw lots of ripening blueberries. I enjoyed popping handfuls into my mouth as we walked along. I love wild blueberries!
Eventually, we came back to the junction of the Bird Knob and the Massanutten Ridge trails. At this point, we retraced our steps past the overlooks. We stopped to take in the view once again. A lot of the haze had cleared off and the view was much better.
After the overlooks, we climbed steeply downhill back to the junction with the Wildflower Trail and then back to our car. It was a fantastic hike, and definitely worth doing!
About a year ago, I had someone that I was talking to during a workday that recommended that we needed to hike up Bird Knob. They said the views were absolutely gorgeous and it wasn’t too long of a hike. Since that point, I’ve been wanting to try this hike out.
We made this hike into a longer stretch to include the swimming hole, but you can make this about a 3 mile out-and-back if you just wanted to get to the views. The hike starts off from the Massanutten Visitor Center parking lot. The Visitor Center has been closed for a while, but access to the hiking trails is still open. There is also plenty of parking. Towards the entrance of the parking lot, you will take the white-blazed Wildflower Trail that leads downhill. You will come across several interpretive signs along the way that describe some of the flora around you. Continue down .3 miles until you reach a bench.
Uphill to the right, the orange-blazed Massanutten Ridge Trail climbs steeply. Take the Massanutten Ridge Trail and begin your climb. This is the steepest part of the entire hike and you will be climbing without many switchbacks and gaining about 800 feet through a large field of boulders until you reach the top of the ridge at 1.0 miles. Continue along the ridge climbing slightly. At 1.5 miles, you reach the first viewpoint and the second viewpoint is only about 200 feet away from the first one. On a clear day, you should be able to see magnificent views of the valley for miles to the west from both points. Take some time to enjoy the views and then continue your hike along the ridge.
The trail continues to be relatively flat as you are continuing along the ridgeline, but then begins to descend slightly. At 2.3 miles, you will reach an intersection with a sign for the Bird Knob Trail. Take the white-blazed Bird Knob Trail to the right. You will pass a few unmarked trails along the way, but continue on the main trail as it slowly descends. At mile 4.2, the trail reaches an open field. Take a left, heading downhill, when you come to the field. You will join an old fire road that will continue to descend. When the road begins to ascend, you will see a branch of the fire road head off to the left. Take this fire road just .1 mile which dead-ends as you reach the large swimming hole. After hanging out at the swimming hole or taking a dip if you dare, rejoin the fire road and continue up.
In about 350 feet you reach a gate, leading you to a gravel forest service road at 4.7 miles. This is also marked as orange-blazed as it is part of the Massanutten Ridge Trail. Take a left here and head up the steep road. At 5.1 miles, you will see another gate, but the road continues to the right sharply. Go through this gate to stay on the orange-blazed Massanutten Ridge Trail. At 5.5 miles you reach another intersection, taking a right to stay on the orange-blazed trail and continue to ascend. At 6 miles, you reach the junction again with the Bird Knob Trail. This time, take a right to retrace your steps and you should reach your car at 8.3 miles.
For most people, they will do this as a 3.2 mile out-and-back to the nice views. On a beautiful, clear day you may spot some people enjoying the views at the top. The rest of the hike, we saw very few people. The Massanutten Ridge Trail is very popular with long-distance trail runners and we did see a pair of guys running by when we were near the swimming hole. I have a co-worker that does some of those insane 100 mile trail runs with some friends and I know this is a popular spot for them. I’m sure this ridge trail is great for covering long distances and there are plenty of views along the entire ridge trail. There are a few of these ultra-marathons that are held here each year, most famously the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 run.
Christine and I enjoyed jumping around for the cameras at the vistas. We did some jumping mid-air photos, yoga poses, and I even tried my hand at the old Karate Kid crane technique. After making one of the pictures my facebook profile picture, one of my friends said it reminded them of the old Toyota commercials (Oh, what a feeling!). While the photos do look a little scary, we were about 8 feet from the edge. Please watch over any younger children as there is a sharp drop.
This hike was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t know the views would be so remarkable after reading reviews, but I know we will plan to make a return trip here sometime in the future.
- Distance – 8.3 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 1650 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The initial climb is steep and challenging, but most of the hike is easy ridge walking.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail is in good condition. There were some overgrown parts, but it was obvious people had been out working recently to clear blowdowns and trim back brush.
- Views– 4.5. The two views early in the hike are beautiful!
- Streams/Waterfalls –2.5. No streams or waterfalls, but we’ll give this a better score because of the pretty pond.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw plenty of deer, a goat (?) and bear scat.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. Trails are not consistently blazed and marked. Some areas have lots of blazes and are easy to follow. Other spots you may have to guess, or better yet… consult a map!
- Solitude – 5. We only saw a couple people on the forest service road. We didn’t see another soul on the trail. Our car was alone in the parking lot both before and after the hike.
Directions to trailhead: The trailhead starts at the Massanutten Visitor Center. This is located on US-211, 5 miles east of New Market and west of the town of Luray and the intersection with 340-S. Park in the gravel lot. The Wildflower Trail is marked by a sign near the entrance to the parking lot.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.