This 10.2 mile hike in the George Washington National Forest has nice views of Strasburg. It also has rocks – lots and lots of pointy rocks.
Picking day hikes is getting challenging for us – we’ve done most of the popular ones in the area. Yet, somehow, Signal Knob had repeatedly escaped our notice. We figured a pleasant Sunday in early June was a perfect day to tackle something new!
We started our day early with a big breakfast in Harrisonburg. Then we stopped for donuts at Holy Moly in Strasburg. We decided to save the donuts for post-hike, but Holy Moly is so popular (especially on the weekend) that we didn’t want to take the risk of them selling out.
Parking at the Signal Knob trailhead is abundant and completely off-road. When we arrived there was a small handful of other cars there. We started out from the trail on the north side of the parking area – look for orange blazes (Massanutten Trail) and a GWNF information board. The trail climbed steadily right away. We passed a really neat stone cottage right along the trail very early in our hike. It was in great condition and still looked in-use. Right after the cottage, we stepped over a small stream and continued uphill. The lower parts of the trail were lined with wild roses and sweetpeas. As we climbed higher, mountain laurel became abundant. The trail was openly exposed to the sun and offered some nice views along the way.
At 1.5 miles, we reached an opening in the trees which gave a backlit view of Buzzard Rocks on the other side of the valley. I can’t look at Buzzard Rocks without recalling the horrible ankle sprain I suffered there several years ago! We chatted with an older gentleman at the overlook – he warned us that the trail was about to get rocky! He wasn’t kidding! For the next 1.25 miles, the trail was a loose jumble of pointy, shifting rock.
At about 2.5 miles, we passed the marked Fort Valley Overlook. The view was mostly overgrown, but I can imagine it lovely when the trees were smaller! Gradually the rockiness tapered off; and so did the climbing. The trail became a pleasant stroll through the woods. We passed several nice campsites and passed the junction of the Meneka Peak trail at about 3.5 miles. The last .8 of a mile to Signal Knob was ever-so-slightly downhill.
When we reached the WVPT building, we thought the open vista behind the building might be the view. We chatted with a pair of hikers there and asked ‘Is this the only view up here?’ Both of them said ‘Yes… it’s the only view we’ve ever seen and we’ve hiked here lots of times.’ We took them at their word and felt a little underwhelmed by the view – it was obstructed by powerlines and disrupted by a steady buzz from the broadcast tower. Not wanting to doubt them directly, I whispered to Adam ‘This can’t be it… there’s no view of Strasburg and there’s supposed to be one!’ We decided to explore further before hiking down the fireroad. I’m glad we did!
Leaving the WVPT tower, do not follow the fire road downhill. Go past the tower and look for a trail than runs parallel to the ridge. If you follow it a short distance, you’ll come to a marked overlook – Signal Knob. We spent some time at the knob relaxing and enjoying a bit of breeze. Signal Knob is a nice overlook, but not a spectacular one. It’s a bit closed in and overgrown. And, if I’m being 100% honest, looking down into Strasburg with its housing developments, water towers, and roads just isn’t as breathtaking as looking out into raw wilderness. I did also enjoy our ‘company’ at the summit – for whatever reason, Signal Knob was hopping with toads. We saw dozens of them! I’ve never seen so many together!
After enjoying the view, we followed the trail slightly downhill past the overlook. A trail marker directed us toward the Tuscarora Trail. We soon merged onto the fire road we had seen near the broadcast tower. We followed it downhill for almost a mile before reaching another trail junction.
The turn onto the Tuscarora trail is marked with another national forest information board. There is also a nice bench at the junction – probably an Eagle Scout project! Turning onto the Tuscarora Trail, you’ll immediately cross Little Passage Creek. It was a very easy rock hop. From there the trail climbs uphill for a little less than a mile. This section was a bit steeper than what was required to reach Signal Knob, but still squarely moderate.
Along the ridge, we passed the other side of the Meneka Peak trail. Looking at how these trails interconnect is interesting and definitely opens up some longer loop options. At about 6.4 miles, the trail passed through a small grassy area and began to descend steadily. There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the rest of the hike. It was just a walk through the woods. We saw a big bird’s nest of some sort. We saw tons of ripening blueberries. We passed some boy scouts on a weekend backpacking trip. We passed the pink blazed Sidewinder trail at 8.1 miles. We crossed a stream. At around 9.5 miles we passed a spur trail to Elizabeth Furnace. At this point the blazes went back to orange.
We found this part of the hike a bit confusing. Our maps and GPS disagreed on distances for waypoints late in the hike. There was also a lot of trail construction and rerouting going on. New paths were cut into the woods all over the place. Fortunately they all went in the same general direction. We tried to follow the most established paths. A little over a half mile past our last trail marker, we spotted a parking lot through the trees. Adam thought it was a different one from where we started, but our MapMyHike app indicated we made a full loop and we popped out on the south side of the lot where we had started our hike several hours earlier.
The day had become hot, humid, and overcast, so we were glad to be back at the car! We shared just one of the donuts (Peach Bellini!) so we could save room for a big lunch at Spelunker’s in Front Royal. On the way to lunch, we talked about the hike a bit. We both agreed that it wasn’t one of our favorites. I think it’s popular because of its vicinity to northern Virginia, but of the knobs in the Massanutten/Fort Valley area – I like Strickler and Duncan quite a bit more!
We have had many people recommend Strickler Knob to us over the years. Knowing of its popularity, we thought it would be a good idea to get an early start. When we arrived, there were not many cars there, but from the size of the parking lot we knew it was a matter of time.
We started out on the north (right) side of the parking lot. The orange-blazed Massanutten trail started off our loop hike. The trail starts uphill and soon passes a large stone cabin on the left, while you can see a stream below to the right. You cross over the stream and then loop back in a northerly direction. At 1.5 miles, we reached Buzzard Rocks overlook. We talked there to an older man who was out for some morning exercise. He warned us of about a mile of pointy rocks ahead. Since he was hiking solo, he told us he doesn’t want to risk hurting himself and just goes to this overlook and back.
The trail takes a sharp left turn and then within a few minutes, we found the rocky area we had been warned about. Wear comfortable shoes, as the rocks were pointy and you always had to look at your feet to navigate through safe footing.
At 2.4 miles, we arrived at the sign for the Fort Valley overlook. The trees and leaves have this very obstructed now, but you can get a glimpse of the valley below. At 3.4 miles, we arrived at the junction with the white-blazed Maneka Peak trail, but continue on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. The trail leveled out at this point, giving us a nice forest walk until we reached the broadcast tower at 4.3 miles. We walked behind the building on a small path and saw nice views on the backside of the tower. We were feeling disappointed when the two girls had said this was the view. My idea of views doesn’t include power lines cutting through the landscape. There were lots of bugs flying around us, so we didn’t stay here long.
We pushed on from the tower and saw that there was a huge fire road leading down, but the trail blazes seemed to continue forward back into the woods. We decided to take this route and then within a short distance came to the real view. We both felt bad that these girls, who had been up here several times, had always missed the real view up here. The view here did give us nice views of Strasburg below. I noticed that one of the rocks had a plaque below it that was put in here for a couple that loved coming up here.
The trail then loops back and does join the fire road very shortly. We walked down the steep fire road and came upon another hiker who had just hiked up the fire road to the summit. The fire road was a fairly steep descent and had nice wildflowers along both sides. At 5.5 miles, we came across a bench and a junction with the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail. We took this trail to start our return trip. The Tuscarora Trail was more overgrown and the climb up Meneka Peak was the steepest climb on this hike. We were finally finished with the uphill at 6.4 miles and then the trail descends on the other side of the ridgeline just as steeply.
The trail descends for a good distance. At 8.1 miles, we passed by the pink-blazed Sidewinder trail and the trail leveled out a little more. We continued on and the trail became orange-blazed again at 9.5 miles. We followed the orange-blazed trail through the tricky section mentioned above and then arrived back at a lower section of the parking lot at 10.2 miles.
Overall, I was underwhelmed on this hike. The views were nice, but I have seen a lot better view hikes. I can imagine that in a few years, the trees and bushes may obstruct the main view even further.
Because of the inner-connectivity of all the trails in this area, there are many options for backpacking loops through this trail system. The loop that we chose didn’t have a lot to offer after the summit. If I was doing this again, I would likely do just an out-and-back hike to the summit, making this an 8.6 hike.
- Distance – 10.2 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2159 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. The climbing on this trail is all easy to moderate, but the distance and loose/rocky footing increase the difficulty rating.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The trail is rocky and shifty – especially the middle part.
- Views – 3. There are descent views from Signal Knob and the WVPT broadcast facility. While other reviews give the vistas on this hike top marks, we thought they were just OK. The WVPT view had powerlines and the Signal Knob view is starting to get a bit overgrown and looks out toward an suburban area.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There were a couple small streams that could be used as water sources. We believe they dry out pretty quickly based on the fact that they were already on the low side after a week of rainy days.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw lots of cute toads hopping around, and supposedly this is a good place for a potential bear sighting.
- Ease to Navigate – 2.5. The blazing in this area is very thorough, but trail junctions are inconsistently marked. As of June 2015, it appears the forest service is working on a reroute of the last .5-.75 miles of the hike. There are lots of unmarked trails that criss-cross the established, blazed trail.
- Solitude – 3. We saw a good number of couples and solo hikers out for a day hike. We also saw a group of college students and a boy scout troop out backpacking.
Directions to trailhead: From I-66, take exit 6 for US-340/US-522 for Front Royal/Winchester. Turn on to US-340S/US-522S/Winchester Road. Go 1.2 miles and take a right on to VA-55W/W Strasburg Road. Go 5.1 miles and take a left on to State Route 678/Fort Valley Road. Go 3.4 miles until you reach the large parking lot on the right. Park here. The trail starts on the right side of the lot. You will see the wooden information board that will mark the beginning of your hike. Parking coordinates: 38.93503, -78.31956