High Knob & Hoover Ridge
This 5.75 mile hike takes you to an old fire tower sitting atop a high peak on the border of West Virginia and Virginia. After visiting the tower, you can either head back to the parking area (which would cut the distance and make this a 3 mile total round-trip hike), or continue to explore the Shenandoah Mountain trail with a walk over to Hoover Ridge.
First of all, I’m not sure whether to call this a Virginia hike or a West Virginia hike. While you park in West Virginia, the Shenandoah Mountain trail meanders right along the states’ borderline. I believe the High Knob fire tower sits on the Virginia side of the line, but views look out into both states. This is definitely a hike worth doing!
Our first attempt to hike High Knob was on April 7th, 2013. That hike started off well enough, but within the first half mile the trail turned into a veritable luge track. It was a smooth, slick, well-polished chute of ice! Had we planned more extensively, we would have packed Yaktrax, but after a week of warm, sunny weather, we simply didn’t expect to see so much ice! We watched a couple on the trail ahead of us falling down, over and over and over again. The girl literally fell ten times in about two minutes. She couldn’t make a single step of forward progress. Adam and I looked at each other and said ‘Nah… we’ll come back and do this some other time.”
The very next weekend, we headed back and ended up with much better hiking conditions. The trail to High Knob is pretty basic – it follows the Shenandoah Mountain trail until a junction with a spur trail that leads directly to the tower. The way is well marked with double yellow blazes and has nice footing. The path passes through dense stands of mountain laurel. From the number of flower buds on the laurel, it looks like it’s going to be a spectacular bloom this year!
About .8 mile into the hike, we reached the junction – hikers can turn uphill and take the spur trail to the fire tower, continue on the Shenandoah Mountain trail, or head downhill to the Brandywine Recreation Area. We decided to visit the fire tower first, mainly because it was early and we wanted to avoid Sunday afternoon hiking crowds. The spur to the High Knob tower is probably the steepest climbing of the entire hike. While the section is steep, it’s also fairly short. At the top of the climb, the trail comes out on a fire road that leads pretty much the rest of the way up to the tower (there is one other very short section that cuts through the woods). We were surprised how heavily the area was marked with ‘Private Land – No Trespassing’ warnings. There were dozens of signs and trees spray-painted red. I’m guessing the public land abuts private land that is heavily used for hunting, and the landowners are trying to protect hikers/bikers from getting shot. Regardless, the area is very thoroughly and clearly marked – you shall not pass!
As we arrived at the fire tower, we passed a foursome of hikers headed down. We had the tower all to ourselves for about twenty minutes. We enjoyed the views in every direction! I especially enjoyed looking down on Switzer Lake. It brought back lots of memories from my days as a college student at JMU. On warm spring days, my sorority would load up in cars and make the drive to Switzer for an afternoon of swimming (and perhaps some beverage consumption). Swimming is no longer allowed in the lake (maybe it was never allowed?), as it’s used as a public water source. Even though you can’t swim in the lake, it’s still a great place for scenery and birding. A friend of mine has even seen bald eagles at Switzer!
After enjoying the views and eating a snack, we climbed back down to the junction. It was around 11:15 a.m. and we were torn – do we continue to explore Shenandoah Mountain or do we call it a day and get a nice lunch in Harrisonburg? We didn’t have a coin, so Adam flipped his pass-case – card side up, we hike on – card side down, we go home. The pass-case dictated a longer hike.
We followed the Shenandoah Mountain trail over to Hoover Ridge. If I were to make a recommendation, I would tell people to skip this part of the hike. In the end, the views weren’t worth the climb. The trail is narrow – too narrow to ever be level. You hike most of the way with your uphill foot much higher than your downhill foot. It’s also covered with tons of loose stone and slate that shifts under every step. On the early spring day we hiked, the trail was still under a foot of dry leaves. The footing was treacherous. I was so glad for my trekking poles.
There are several steep climbs on the way to Hoover Ridge. Once the trail meets the ridge, it comes out on the fire road again. Walking along the ridge is pleasant. The terrain is open and grassy and there are obstructed views of mountains in every direction. You can even catch a glimpse of the fire tower off in the distance. On Hoover Ridge, we decided we’d hiked enough for the day and turned back to make our return to the parking area.
Since it was mostly downhill, the walk went quickly. We were back at our car by 1:15 and back in Harrisonburg for lunch a half hour later. It was a great day to be out hiking after such a cold and snowy March! We’ll definitely make a return hike to the fire tower… Hoover Ridge, not so much.
As Christine mentioned, this was a second attempt at High Knob, since it was too ice-covered to walk up previously. We hate having to bail on a hike, but we want to feel that it is something we can accomplish and still enjoy. We’re glad that we waited for the snow to melt to enjoy this trek up to the fire tower. Our friends at Hiking Upward covered this hike from the Brandywine Recreation Area, but this is a shorter way to accomplish the hike up to the top. If you’ve purchased National Geographic’s Staunton/Shenandoah Mountain Trails Illustrated Map 791, you will see High Knob Fire Tower on the cover.
From the parking lot on 33, we took off down the stone steps. The parking lot and surrounding areas has a lot of trash thrown around, so if you can, bring a trashbag and help to carry out some of the litter. Once you join the Shenandoah Mountain trail at the bottom of the stone steps, the trail will be clear of litter. The trail starts off fairly level and then gradually ascends up the mountain. In .85 miles, you do reach a large junction that includes the spur trail to the High Knob Tower. Take this spur trail up the mountain. At about 1.1 miles, you will reach a fire road (FR 85-3). Take a right on the road and continue to follow the signs to the High Knob Tower. For some reason, the trail crosses briefly into the woods and then rejoins the fire road again shortly. Continue your ascent up the fire road until you reach the High Knob Tower at 1.4 miles.
We retraced our steps until we returned back at the junction at 2.0 miles. At this point, we took a left to continue on the Shenandoah Mountain trail. This part of the trail was not well-maintained and we were constantly worried about turning our ankles on loose rocks that were hidden underneath the leaf-covered trail, crossing over tree blowdowns, or catching ourselves from falling off the narrow trail with our trekking poles. The trail in most places along this section felt more like a narrow animal path than an actual trail. The rough trail and the steepness in some sections really made us question how far we were going and if it was worth it. At 3.1 miles, we rejoined the fire road (FR 85-3) and took a right. From behind you, you should be able to catch some glimpses of High Knob Tower through the trees. The fire road allowed for easier walking. We made our way a little further uphill but we weren’t fighting rough terrain the whole way. We reached the crest of Hoover Ridge at 3.5 miles, which gave us some obstructed views of the areas to the south. After taking a few minutes to explore the open fields and campsites on Hoover Ridge, we made our way back. We rejoined the Shenandoah Mountain Trail at 3.8 miles, reached the large junction at 5 miles, and reached our car again at 5.8 miles.
As Christine stated, I would agree that I probably wouldn’t add on Hoover Ridge to this hike unless you would like to get some extra hiking accomplished. Of course, you could also make a long hike or an overnight trip to Bother Knob and this hike would allow you to enjoy some campsites from the top of Hoover Ridge. This was also the area that we saw the best wildlife. We saw a deer in the distance take off when we were spotted and a grouse jumped out of some brush when we were walking by that caused us both to nearly jump out of our hiking shoes.
The hike up to High Knob is one that I think would be a perfect hike if your goal was to see great views from all directions. On a clear day, you should be able to see several layers of mountain ranges. I’m sure the foliage scenery in the fall is breathtaking. I can see this being a great hike to take some out-of-town visitors to show the splendor of the rolling Virginia and West Virginia mountains.
If you are into Geocaching, there are three that you can find on the trail:
- Tip Top Cache – a traditional cache, but I was unable to find it
- What’s the Buzz – a traditional cache, that could take a little time to find
- Back in Time – a virtual cache that requires you to answer something about the fire tower to receive credit for finding it
- Distance – About 5.75 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – 1168 ft
- Difficulty – 3.5. This is a moderate hike in terms of elevation change. On the day we hiked, the Shenandoah Mountain trail was still covered with deep, slick leaves and quite a few fallen trees. These challenges increased the difficulty level somewhat.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail to High Knob is in great shape, but the Shenandoah Mountain trail is narrow and rocky.
- Views – 5. Views from the High Knob fire tower are spectacular and panoramic. Views from Hoover Ridge are obstructed.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. There are no streams on this hike.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a deer and a grouse, but I think hunters scare off most wildlife in this area.
- Ease to Navigate –3. Trails are generally well-marked/blazed, but there are a few mildly confusing spots on the walk to Hoover Ridge. There were a few worn paths in the woods that looked like old trails or animal paths. As long as you still to the most well-worn pathway, you should be fine.
- Solitude –2. You will likely see quite a few people on the walk to the fire tower, but few along the way to Hoover Ridge.
Directions to trailhead:
Head on 33 West from Harrisonburg, VA. In about 10 miles, you will enter into George Washington National Forest. In 12 more miles, you will reach the parking lot on the left right after you see the “Welcome to West Virginia” sign. A large kiosk with a map of the area gives some general information and you will see a break in the girders that will lead down to start your hike.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.