NOTE: Parking at Edith Gap was greatly restricted starting in fall 2020. If you attempt to park there, be sure to pay attention to the the new ‘No Parking, Tow Away’ signs. Unless you are very certain you are legally parked, we suggest following the updated route outlined below, starting from the horse trailer parking area for the Stephens Trail about a mile lower on the mountain.
Kennedy Peak is an beautiful seven-mile out-and-back hike in the Lee District of George Washington National Forest. It gives hikers gorgeous views of the bends in the Shenandoah River.
I love this hike. We’ve hiked it in winter and fall before, but this was the first time we’ve hiked it in the spring. Sunday afternoon was the kind of day that is custom made for hiking. It was dry, sunny, breezy and in the low 70’s. The trail was lined with brilliant, pink rhododendrons. All the trees were covered with new, spring green leaves and/or blossoms. Butterflies were fluttering all around the trail, taking pauses on the blooming trees and wildflowers. It was, in a word, idyllic.
We began in the Stephens Trail/horse trailer parking area on VA675. The Stephens Trail departs from the back of the parking area. You should look for the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail at the head of the parking lot. The trail climbs moderately uphill for .9 miles. At the top of the climb, you’ll exit onto VA675 at Edith Gap (the old parking area). On the road, take a sharp left, staying on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail.
The part of the trail starts off as a wide, almost road-like track. This part of the hike is extremely easy – climbing just a couple hundred feet over the next 1.75 miles.
At around mile 2.65, the trail takes a sharp, hairpin turn and begins to climb more steeply over increasingly rocky terrain. At this sharp switchback, you may be tempted to continue straight along a visible path, but be careful to make the turn and follow the orange blazes uphill. This slightly tricky misdirection has been blocked off by logs and rocks, but enough people have missed the turn that the false path remains well-trodden. We once followed it out of curiosity and it doesn’t lead anywhere. It eventually fades out into the forest.
After the switchback, the trail continues uphill for another half mile. There is a small outcropping on the left with a obstructed views and a tiny campsite (room for a hammock or a one-person tent). After you pass this spot, continue a couple tenths of a mile to the junction with the Stephens Trail. (Note: If you want to make a longer day, adding about two more miles to your route, you can descend back to your car via the Stephens Trail. We’ve heard it’s not very scenic and is often muddy and manure-covered, so we chose the out-and-back.)
At the junction, you will turn right and follow the signs toward the fire tower. The tower is a little over .2 miles from the junction. The last stretch to the fire tower is steep and rocky. It’s really the only challenging section of the hike. The tower is a sturdy one-story structure with great views looking into the valley and Shenandoah National Park beyond.
When we got to the summit, we had the observation tower all to ourselves. We watched birds in the treetops, spotted lizards climbing around on the rocks and took in a fantastic view of the Shenandoah River and the Page Valley. It was one of the least hazy days we’ve had in a while, so we could clearly see Shenandoah National Park from this summit. Lots of vultures were soaring overhead, and even though they’re kind of creepy, they were casting cool bird-shaped shadows onto the mountain top. I always like it when they do that.
Sunday was the only time we’ve hiked Kennedy Peak in the afternoon. Adam and I tend to be morning hikers — it helps us avoid the crowds. But, the light is definitely prettier in the afternoon on Kennedy Peak. If you hike it in the morning, the sun shines right in your face at the summit. That makes it hard to appreciate the great view, and makes it nearly impossible to get any decent photos.
This is one of our favorite hikes. This hike is not very steep and the payoff is wonderful. This is a good multi-use trail, since there are campsites and good footing for horses. There are a couple of campsites at the beginning of the trail, near the road. The nicest campsites are further up the trail. Once you are on the fire tower trail, you will find a couple of places where you can have some nice lookouts over the valley and the Shenandoah River. From some points, you can see several bends in the River. Once you reach the top, there is an observation tower where you can chill for a while before heading back down.
If you are into geocaching, there are a few in the area:
Be sure to visit Camp Roosevelt a little north further on the road. This is a great spot for a picnic.
- Distance – 7 miles round-trip
- Elevation Change – 1300′
- Difficulty – 3. The trail for the first miles is moderately uphill. The next two miles are either flat or gentle rolling terrain. The last third of a mile up to the observation tower is steeper, but very manageable.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail is well-maintained, but there are a lot of rocks, so you’ll need to watch where you step.
- Views – 4. You can really see some nice views close to the top.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. This trail is dry as a bone.
- Wildlife – 2. Seems like a great bird-watching area. We saw an Indigo Bunting, Goldfinch, Wood Thrush, and Eastern Towhee. Also spotted a box turtle and Eastern fence lizard. We saw a bear when we hiked it in spring 2017.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Other than the one tricky spot at the switchback, it would be nearly impossible to get lost.
- Solitude – 2. This trail is well-loved by a lot of locals, but the bulk of area tourists stick to the trails in Shenandoah National Park. You may see a few groups of hikers along the way, but it’s rarely a crowded trail.
Directions to trailhead: The parking lot is the Stephens Trailhead on VA675. Coordinates: 38.72795, -78.51536