This easygoing 6-mile hike offered solitude, great backcountry campsites, and nice views at the top! It was a perfect hike to tackle with a group of friends and dogs.
Back in January, we planned a little section hike along the Appalachian Trail with a group of friends. However, icy conditions closed the Blue Ridge Parkway, leaving us scrambling for an alternate plan. We stumbled across the Kepler Overlook on Hiking Upward and decided it would be a good ‘plan B’. Our group met for breakfast at Mr’ J’s Bagels (yay carbs!) in Harrisonburg before heading up to the trailhead.
We expected to have to park about a third of a mile from the official trailhead, but we found the forest service gate open and were able to leave our cars right at the hike’s start point. From the parking area, there are trails and forest service roads leading in several directions. This was probably the most confusing part of the hike. You want to go straight up the forest road with the permanently closed gate. If you don’t reach the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail within the first .3 mile of your hike up the road, you’ll know you’ve gone the wrong way!
At the junction with the Tuscarora trail, go left. You’ll pass another closed gate before coming to Cedar Creek. The crossing of Cedar Creek is fairly wide and might be tricky in wet conditions. We were able to negotiate the crossing with some careful rock hopping. Shortly after the crossing, you’ll come to one of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve seen. Someone has taken the time to build wide benches, a large fire pit, and even a high counter-top for cooking. It would be a great group campsite with easy access to water.
From the campsite, continue to follow the blue-blazed trail. There was one place that the trail appeared to go straight, but actually turned. We all missed the turn and had to backtrack a few hundred feet where the trail crosses the stream again using a footbridge made of branches.
After crossing the stream, the trail climbs Tea Mountain. It’s never a tough climb, but it’s a steady uphill. The trail alternates between narrow footpath and wider road-like conditions. The trail follows along several switchbacks. At about 1.9 miles into the hike, you should see an unmarked side trail on the left. If you follow this side trail for a few hundred feet, you’ll reach a large rock jumble. From the top of the rock jumble you get a great view of the mountains beyond.
After taking in the view, return to the Tuscarora trail and continue uphill for about another mile or so until you reach the saddle between Tea and Little North Mountains. Along this ridge, there are several nice viewpoints and lots of open, flat space for camping. We took some time to explore a couple different vistas. The views were nice, but the sky conditions were really hazy.
After enjoying the mountaintop, we descended the way we came up. On our way home, we decided to check out a new farm brewery near Edinburg. Swover Creek is a working farm – they grow fruit and hops, raise chickens, and make sausage from locally produced meat. They’ve recently started a brewery and are working on building a tasting room in their old barn. We all tried a flight of their four beers (the persimmon ale was my favorite). We also had their house-made soft pretzels and mustard and enjoyed a sampling of their different sausages. It was a fun stop and I definitely recommend checking them out if you’re in the area!
The Kepler Overlook hike was one that we had been wanting to do since we heard about it from our friends at Hiking Upward. This hike leads to nice views as you climb up to Little North Mountain.
The trail started off as we went past the closed gate up the fire road. There is a sign just past the gate showing the inter-connected trail system. Continue up the fire road for about .3 miles and then take a right on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail. The Tuscarora Trail leads down to Cedar Creek. Cross a small stream at .5 miles and you will reach a nice campsite. Continue along the trail and the trail takes another stream crossing (this time over a small log bridge with a branch handrail). The trail turns quickly to the left as you begin your climb up Tea Mountain. At 1.9 miles on a switchback, you reach an unmarked side trail. Following this for about .1 miles will take you to a rock outcropping with some views to the west. Backtrack to rejoin the Tuscarora Trail.
At 2.5 miles, the trail reaches a Saddle between Tea Mountain and North Mountain. From here, climb up North Mountain. The trail levels out at 3.0 miles at a large area for backcountry camping. From here, you have two options for views. Cut through the campsite to the right along the ridge for a nice view. You can also go to the left and make your way again towards the ridge to get more views to the east.
We enjoyed our hike with friends and dogs. You can check out Clark’s YouTube video below. We were amazed at how much he was enjoying the hike and even took some time to enjoy the view himself.
After the hike we hit Swover Creek Farm to try out their brewery. Since the tasting room is not yet built, we enjoyed our beer in the farmhouse. I have described this when talking to friends as if you were to go over to your grandmother’s house and drink beer. We got our flight of beers from the small room downstairs and then took them upstairs to the larger “living room”. There were some large tables and older furniture, so it really felt like a visit to your grandmother’s. All of the people that were there were local people and one man brought a thermos to fill with beer instead of a growler. They brought out samples of their sausage they made on the farm and we ended up buying some to take home. It was such a warm, home environment and we thought they did a great job with the small-batch beers they had made. This was a perfect post-hike stop.
Our friends brought their lab (Clark) and shepherd (Maia) along on the hike! They were great trail dogs to have along for the day!
Clark was fitted with a GoPro — so don’t miss seeing the hike from his point of view! :-)
- Distance – 6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1120 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. A pretty easy hike with a bit of steady, moderate climbing.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Trail was in great shape.
- Views – 3.5. Nice, but slightly obstructed by trees.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Cedar Creek is pretty and a solid water source.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything, but there are plenty of deer and bear in the area.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. There are a couple places where it’s easy to lose the trail. Also, there are several trails and fire roads from the parking area that can easily be confused.
- Solitude –4. We saw only a small handful of people on a nice, sunny, winter weekend day.
Directions to trailhead: Take exit 291 on I-81 heading west on SR 651. Go 1.5 miles and take a left on SR 623. Go 4 miles and take a right on to SR 600. Go 4.4 miles and take a left on SR 603/Van Buren Road. Continue on Van Buren Road for 2.7 miles and you will see parking on the left. There are two parking areas here, but pass the first parking area to get to the second parking area which is on the lefthand side. Park here and retrace your path a short distance to see the closed gate and the fire road where your hike will start.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.