This nine mile hike is not very well-known, but it’s truly one of the park’s most scenic summits. Past fire damage has left the summit open, with views in every direction. We hope sharing this post won’t spoil the solitude we enjoyed on this hike.
How has this hike escaped us before? We’ve covered most of what Shenandoah National Park has to offer, but this was a hidden gem that we are so glad we did. While this hike is about 9 miles, the elevation gain feels fairly minimal considering the distance you are covering. We were getting ready to do a multi-day backpacking trip in a couple of weeks and we wanted to get some training in before we hit some bigger miles with heavy packs. Christine had seen a few photos from the viewpoint and mapped out this possibility of a hike.
The hike starts at Browns Gap (the sign reads “Brown Gap”, but maps of the area show “Browns Gap”), at mile marker 83 of Skyline Drive. We parked our car and found the Appalachian Trail post from the parking lot and headed north on the white-blazed AT. The trail climbs a bit from the beginning and parallels Skyline Drive. At .5 miles, you come to the junction with the Big Run Loop Trail. Take a left here to join the blue-blazed Big Run Loop Trail. At 1.1 miles, you come to a four-way junction where the Big Run Loop Trail breaks off to the right and the Madison Run Spur Trail heads to the left. You will just stay straight. At 1.5 miles, the trail reaches another junction with the Austin Mountain trail bearing to the left; bear to the right to join the Rockytop Trail. Around 2.3 miles, you will pass along a rockier section of trail as it passes through some large talus slopes. At 3.4 miles, you reach the Lewis Peak Trail junction. Take a left at this junction to make your way to Lewis Peak. The trail descends at this point, At 3.6 miles, you reach a great viewpoint off the trail to the right. There is a large talus slope here that opens up into views of a valley between two mountains and Massanutten Mountain perfectly framed at the center in the distance.
The trail continues to descend from this viewpoint until you reach 4.0 miles and then the trail begins to climb again. At 4.2 miles, you reach the junction with the Lewis Peak Summit Trail. Take this trail to the right and you will climb rather steeply to the summit through a series of switchbacks that will eventually wind around until the trail reaches its end and the summit at 4.5 miles. A forest fire from 2006 has destroyed a lot of the taller trees in the area, but it has created a very nice viewpoint from the summit.
We stopped here and ate a snack while enjoying the expansive views all around us. Clouds were starting to roll in, but we had the stunning panoramic views all to ourselves. When reflecting upon this hike, Christine and I both think that it may arguably have the best views from the southern district of Shenandoah National Park. We made our way back the way we came. There is some steep climbing on the way back, but most of the steep stretches are short-lived. If you can handle the distance, put this on your upcoming hiking agenda.
For the last week of March and the first three weeks of April, I was bed-ridden from a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. I burned with fever, my skin blistered and peeled, I itched all over, and struggled with excruciating nerve pain. As the weeks passed, I thought I would never be well enough to hike again. When I finally started feeling better, I went for short, easy walks around my neighborhood. But pretty soon, I felt a strong draw to get back to the ‘real’ trail. I don’t know what made me think a nine mile hike with 1500′ of climbing was a good idea for a ‘first hike back’.
I’m not going to lie – I really struggled on this hike. My endurance definitely took a hit from spending a month in bed. On top of that, it was a hot, humid day. My doctor had directed me to fully cover up with long sleeved Capilene, long pants, a hat, and sunscreen to protect my healing skin. I felt like I was sealed in plastic wrap. I just couldn’t cool off. The whole hike, I had a mantra… ‘just take the next ten steps.’ Fortunately, taking ten steps over and over again eventually adds up to a nine mile hike.
Despite the physical challenge, there were some memorable high points on this hike. When we first set out we met a neat retired couple – Swallow and Blind Pig. They were section hiking Virginia’s Appalachian Trail. They were from Oregon and had previously finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. We talked to them about the park, the AT, gear, food, and wildlife. I hope when Adam and I are retired we’ll still be having adventures like Swallow and Blind Pig.
I also really enjoyed all the signs of spring emerging in the park. Most of the high elevation trees were still leafless, but we could see the brilliant green of emerging leaves creeping up the mountainsides. There were a few azaleas starting to bloom, spring beauties were abundant, and we passed several large patches of dwarf irises. Spring is my favorite season. I love seeing color and life waking back up after dull winter.
A significant part of this hike followed a ridge, so we enjoyed views through the trees. The open vista of Massanutten from the Lewis Peak trail was simply spectacular. The mountains in the foreground perfectly framed the distinct peak of Massanutten.
When we started making switchbacks toward the summit of Lewis Peak, I knew we were going to have even more amazing views. The entire summit climb was open and there were wide open looks at mountains and the valley in every direction. The summit itself is sharper and pointier than almost any other peak in Shenandoah. The end of the trail has a wide sweep of rock to sit upon while you enjoy the view. There were berry bushes growing all over the place. In mid to late summer, this would be a good place to pick wild blueberries.
We enjoyed the view and a couple snacks before heading back the way we came. The hike back had a couple steep climbs that challenged me. I hadn’t remembered any of the downhills feeling step on the outward hike, so the uphill climbs surprised me on the way back!
I was quite glad when we got back to the Appalachian Trail and the final gentle descent back to the parking area. After our hike, we stopped for lunch at the Loft Mountain wayside – grilled cheese sandwiches and our first blackberry milkshakes of the season. It was great to be back on the trail!
- Distance – 9.1 miles roundtrip
- Elevation Change – 1527 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. The mileage is a little long for most people for a day hike, but with moderate climbs if you take your time it should be doable by most.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape. There was one larger blowdown on the Rockytop Trail we encountered, but otherwise was well maintained.
- Views – 4.5. Amazing views from the summit and the viewpoint over the talus slopes just .5 miles from the summit.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. non-existent.
- Wildlife – 3.5. This area is a bit remote, so you may see some deer and bears on your hike. Watch out for rattlesnakes, especially if you venture onto any of the talus slopes.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. There are a number of turns to get to Lewis Peak on this hike, but all of the junctions are marked with concrete posts.
- Solitude – 5. We didn’t see anyone on this hike.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: Located in Shenandoah National Park (fees apply). You will park at MM 83 on Skyline Drive at the parking lot marked “Brown Gap”. Parking coordinates are: 38.240652, -78.710379