Blackrock Summit

This easy 5.1 mile hike takes you to the magnificent viewpoint at Blackrock Summit.  Most people access the view by a .5 mile walk from Blackrock parking area, but this route lets you spend a little more time enjoying the beautiful Appalachian Trail.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Black Rock Summit
Blackrock Summit has spectacular views!

Christine Says…

Most of the time, we opt to hike the shortest and most direct route to any nice viewpoint. However, in the case of Blackrock Summit, the traditional one-mile round trip route from the Blackrock parking area is not enough of a hike to make the drive into the park worthwhile.  Without a doubt, Blackrock is one of the most expansive views in the park, and starting the hike at Brown Gap (a couple miles north) is one of the best ways to reach the vista!

We set out on this hike on a particularly hot and humid late April morning.  We parked at Brown Gap (near mile marker 83 on Skyline Drive).  From there, we crossed the road and followed the Appalachian Trail south. The first three tenths of a mile ascend gently uphill before reaching a mostly flat ridgeline.  Everything in the park was bright, spring green and the native pink azaleas were just starting to bloom.  At .7 miles, we passed the Dundo Group Campground.  The campground has water and restrooms (seasonally).

A Pleasant Walk on the Appalachian Trail
This hike is essentially a pleasant, easy walk on the Appalachian Trail. Below: Parking at Brown Gap; Walking the AT; The boulder pile comes into view.

Browns Gap Walking Along Arriving at Blackrock

At 1.3 miles, we passed the parking area for Jones Run. Another tenth of a mile after that, we crossed Skyline Drive a second time, and began a gradual uphill climb toward Blackrock Summit. In April, the trees along this stretch of trail had not fully leafed out, so we were able to catch views of the valley to the west.  At 1.9 miles into the hike, we passed Blackrock Parking area. After the parking area, the trail becomes a moderately steep uphill climb for .6 of a mile.

Near the top, the giant boulder pile comes into view through a tunnel of leaves. It’s impressive to see such a tall jumble of rocks! We took some time to climb up the pile for a loftier view.  Even if you choose to skip the climb, the views from this summit are spectacular. The Appalachian Trail skirts the western edge of the summit. At the far end of the rock pile, we reached the spur to the Trayfoot trail. If you want even more views and a chance to explore some interesting rock formations, follow the spur downhill for a couple tenths of a mile.  There are views in every direction and an interesting alley of boulders to pass through.

Once you’ve explored, head back the way you came for a hike of just over five miles.  It’s really a great way to see this popular summit!

Adam Says…

On a clear day like we had, you just have to pick a hike with views.  While we have done Blackrock many times, we decided to try a different approach that added a few miles and made it feel like we did something to earn the views.  With very little elevation gain on this hike, it is an easy hike that most people could handle.  This section of the AT is very well-maintained and traveled.  We enjoyed walking through the tunnel of trees with just a small brown path dividing all the green around us.

Climbing the Rock Pile
Climbing the rock pile at Blackrock Summit is fun.  Below: Adam passes through the boulders on the spur trail; More views of distant fog and clouds; Walking back on the Appalachian Trail.

Spur to Trayfoot Trail Low Fog Headed Back

Christine did a great job describing the path and turns above.  We didn’t really see anyone on the trail since we started the trail fairly early in the morning.  When we arrived at the summit, we had it all to ourselves.  The summit gives you the opportunity to climb around on the large pile of boulders if you prefer (but watch out for timber rattlesnakes) or you can enjoy taking a moment to enjoy the views from down below.  Our favorite spot is to travel down the Trayfoot trail because you get panoramic views on both sides of the trail.  We paused for a quick snack before heading back.  On our way back, we saw several others that had parked at the closest parking lot, but we were glad we had added a few extra miles.  If you have a clear day in the forecast and are looking for an easy hike with a big payoff in the southern section of Shenandoah National Park, put this on your list.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5.1 miles roundtrip
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 636 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.5.  This was an easy hike with gentle climbs and descents.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail is smooth and well-maintained.
  • Views  5.  Blackrock Summit is one of the nicest views in the park.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  There are no scenic water features on this hike.  But there is an in-season source of drinking water at Dundo Group Camping.
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw lots of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks along the walk.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 2.  Blackrock is a popular viewpoint and can be accessed by a short .5 mile walk. You’ll likely see others.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Located in Shenandoah National Park (fees apply).  The Brown Gap Parking lot is located around Mile Marker 83 in the Southern Section on Skyline Drive.  Park in this lot.  Cross the road and come to the cement marker marking the trail.  Head south on the Appalachian Trail.  GPS Coordinates: 38.240676, -78.710687

Lewis Peak

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Lewis Peak
This beautiful view is about half a mile from the true summit, but it was too beautiful to pass up!  Below: The hike starts northbound on the AT at Browns Gap; Pink azaleas were just starting to bloom; Adam hiking on the Big Run Trail.

Appalachian Trail at Brown Gap  Adam on Big Run

Adam Says…

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.

Dwarf Iris
We saw a ton of these Dwarf Irises on the hike.  Below: Early spring on the Rockytop Trail; Adam crossing talus slopes on Rockytop; Everything in bloom!

 Talus Slopes on Rockytop Trail Everything is Blooming

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.

Beautiful Views on Ridge
The ridgeline on the Rockytop Trail provided nice views.  Below: Mountain view from the ridgeline; Spring blooms; Junction of the Rockytop and Lewis Peak trails.

 Spring Blooms Turning onto the Lewis Peak Trail

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.

Christine Says…

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’.

View from the Lewis Peak Trail
This spectacular view is just a short distance from the junction of the Rockytop and Lewis Peak trails.

Talus Slopes Spur to Lewis Peak Summit Rocky Trail to the Summit

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.

The Summit of Lewis Peak
Lewis Peak is steeper, rockier, and pointier than most mountains in Shenandoah. This are was burned out by a forest fire in 2006. Below: Views from the Lewis Peak summit are amazing! Clouds moved in on our hike, but on a clear day, you can see for miles!

Lewis Peak Summit Lewis Peak Summit 

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.

Summit of Lewis Peak
A great view from the Lewis Peak summit.  Below:  The views descending Lewis Peak were excellent, too!  The area is so cleared out that you can see views in almost every direction.

 Descent Descent

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 steep on the outward hike, so the uphill climbs surprised me on the way back!

Pretty Hike Back
The hike back was beautiful!

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!

Trail Notes

  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

Appalachian Trail – Catawba to Daleville

IMPORTANT: Please read these important regulations and helpful tips before hiking in this area

This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail segment crosses the most photographed spot on the entire trail – McAfee Knob.  Even though the view from McAfee is fantastic,  there are great views all along the section.  In fact, we think the view from Tinker Cliffs rivals the majesty of McAfee.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

McAfee Knob
Goofing off on the iconic McAfee Knob ledge!

Day One (11 miles)…

Last fall, I told Adam I wanted to backpack McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs for my birthday. We planned our mileage, picked our meals, and hired a shuttle driver. When the Friday of our hike arrived, it was forecast to be blazing hot. The area was also experiencing a prolonged drought. The water sources along this stretch are typically reliable and we thought being on a high mountain ridge would cool things off a bit, so we loaded up and headed out.

On the way to our start point at Catawba, our shuttle driver (Homer Witcher – we’ve used him before and he’s a fantastic part of the Appalachian Trail community) told us that just a few days earlier, a woman and her daughter were crushed under a falling tree at one of the campsites along the route. He had assisted EMTs with the rescue operation. Fortunately, the daughter escaped with minor injuries and the mother recovered after a hospital stay. Scary!

Rocky Climb Early in the Hike
The climb was a little steep and rocky in the beginning.  Below: Parking on Route 311; Johns Spring Shelter; Catawba Mountain Shelter.

McAfee parking Johns Spring Shelter Catawba Mountain Shelter

Homer dropped us off at Catawba parking around 9:30 a.m. Despite it being early(ish) on a Friday, there were already numerous cars in the lot. This is an extremely popular area for hiking and the lot frequently fills and overflows by mid-morning, especially on the weekends. There are strict regulations for where you can park, and cars are frequently towed from this area. Take these rules seriously! You can read more about parking issues in the Roanoke Times article.

The northbound Appalachian Trail starts on the other side of route 311.  We crossed and immediately began an ascent over dry, dusty terrain.  Just a mile into the hike, we passed Johns Spring Shelter.  It’s a typical AT shelter and has space for six people.  There are a few tent sites and a privy nearby.  The water source near this shelter is usually small, but it was bone dry on the day we hiked.

In another mile, we passed the Catawba Mountain Shelter.  It’s a similar set-up to Johns Spring in terms of space. There are also several nice campsites with metal fire pits just north of this shelter. After passing this shelter, there is a steady 1.7 mile climb to the view at McAfee Knob.  On the way to the top, you’ll cross a fire road.  Stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  Near the top, you’ll pass through an impressive jumble of truck to cabin sized boulders.  The overlook is a couple hundred feet to the left of the trail and is marked by a small sign.

McAfee Knob
The view from McAfee Knob is gorgeous! Below: Before you reach the knob you pass under powerlines;  Rock formations before McAfee Knob; It’s a tradition to sit on the edge of the overhanging rock.

Crossing the Powerlines Boulders Sitting on McAfee Knob

Views from the overlook are majestic and expansive. The long ridge on the the right carries the Appalachian Trail over to Tinker Cliffs. On a clear day, you’ll see the cliffs shimmering in the distance. When you’re at McAfee, don’t miss the opportunity to sit on the ledge with your feet dangling into the abyss. It’s a tradition and isn’t as scary as it looks.

After leaving the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply into a maze of giant boulders. There are narrow openings in the maze, making it a fun place to explore. A half mile later, there is an open meadow under powerlines and a nice view of the distant mountains. The descent continues for about 1.2 miles. At the bottom, you’ll reach the Pig Farm Campsite and shortly after that – Campbell Shelter. The shelter is on an elevated platform and there is a privy, picnic table, and bear locker at the site.  The water source, located about 150 yards to the left of the shelter, was also dry!

Rock Formations
After leaving McAfee, you descend through a maze of boulders. There are many interesting rock formations on this section. Below: An eastern fence lizard; Campbell Shelter; The weeds were hip to shoulder high along the trail; A nice shady spot to rest; We got one distant look at the reservoir on the first day; After descending into this grassy area, you begin the tough climb to Tinker Cliffs.

Eastern Fence Lizard Campbell Shelter Tall Goldenrod Along Trail
A Shady Spot to Rest First Reservoir View Tinker Climb

After the shelter, the trail follows rolling terrain for 3.1 miles until you reach a grassy opening at Brickeys Gap. There is a trail to the left, but you’ll stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail and begin a steep uphill climb toward Tinker Cliffs. The ascent goes on for 1.8 miles.  On this particular day, the climb was especially rough. We were both tired from the heat and running low on water.

Navigating the trail as it heads up Tinker Cliffs is a bit tricky. Look carefully for white blazes and arrows. There will be openings in the rocks that look like trail, but they’re not. Most of these openings are blocked by branches dragged across the ground, but if you’re not paying attention you might head the wrong way. When we finally made it to the top of the cliffs, the views made all the effort worthwhile. We had the entire overlook all to ourselves! I thought the views from Tinker Cliffs were even better than McAfee Knob.  I took off my shoes and socks and let myself bake for a few minutes in the late afternoon sun.  It was probably still in the low 90s – such a hot day for late September!

It was clear that many people had camped at the top of Tinker Cliffs,  camping is strictly prohibited on top Tinker Cliffs. We made our way along the open cliffside for about half a mile before descending back into the trees.

Tinker Cliffs
The view from Tinker Cliffs was as nice as McAfee. Below: On the climb up you get a nice meadow view; The trail is a little tricky so pay attention to signage and look for logs blocking the wrong way; It was still around 90 degrees when we got to the top of Tinker (notice the beet red face); Adam walks along the cliffside; Descending beneath Tinker Cliffs; the final mile into camp was easy terrain.

View on the Climb Pay Attention to The Turn So Stinking Hot
Tinker Cliffside Descending Under Tinker Approaching Lambert Meadow

The trail passes beneath the cliffs and then rambles downhill for about a mile until it reaches Scorched Earth Gap and the junction with the Andy Layne Trail. From there, we had an easy .6 mile stroll to our campsite at Lamberts Meadow Shelter. When we arrived, there was one other section hiker already there. We picked a campsite across the ‘stream’ from the shelter. Note, I put stream in quotes because when we visited it was nothing but a series of shallow muddy pools.

We got the tent set up and changed into camp clothes. It took us a full hour to filter four liters of water! First, we had to scoop water into our bucket. It was full of mud, pebbles, mosquito larvae, and algae, so we had to filter that water through a bandanna into our Sawyer bags. The we squeezed the water through the Sawyer into our Camelbaks.  It was the color of weak tea, so I chose to treat it with Aquamira on top of the filtering.  It was nasty!

We Made It to Camp
We made it to camp at Lamberts Meadow Shelter! Below: We set up camp on the opposite side of the stream; The lousy, dank water source.

Camp Dank Water Source

We set aside a couple cups of the water to make dinner, leaving us each with just under two liters of water for the next day. It took so long to deal with water, that it was almost dark when we headed up to the shelter to cook. By then, a couple other section hikers had arrived at the shelter. They were former military and had done a lot of the trail. We chatted about gear and favorite spots along the AT. They told us a tale about finding a body near Tinker Cliffs on a hike fifteen years earlier. They had become lost on the trail headed up the cliffs and found a body from the 1940s or 50s in the woods under the cliffs. It was a crazy story!

After dinner, we headed back down to the tent. It was still too hot to make a fire and we were both pretty tired, so we turned in early. It was a stuffy, fitful night in the tent. It’s hard to get comfortable when you’re sweaty and stuck to your sleeping pad. Still… it had been a beautiful day with lots of amazing scenery.

Day Two (9.5 miles)…

We woke up at daybreak and knew it was going to be a hot day.  The temperature was already in the mid-70s. We didn’t have much water to drink or cook with, so we opted to eat some Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies for breakfast. They are good calorie bombs for some fast energy and didn’t require any water. This was definitely the scariest water source we have had to use, so conserving water until we found something else was our plan. We packed up camp quickly and then made our way back on the Appalachian Trail, heading north to make our way back to our car.

In .3 miles, we came across the Lamberts Meadow Campsite, which also had no water in the stream next to the campsite. We saw the fallen tree that had smashed through the picnic table. Homer had told us that if that picnic table hadn’t been there, it would have likely fallen directly on the tent.  He was planning in another week to build and bring another table down there to replace the one that had been smashed. Since there isn’t great access to this area except for a long hike, I can’t imagine hauling a big table through the woods like this, especially at Homer’s age (in his 70’s). Homer is the true definition of a trail angel and has helped so many AT thru-hikers and others along the way.

Pretty morning light
We set off early. The morning was already hot and humid. Below: This huge tree fell and injured two hikers the weekend before we hiked; A beautiful farmland view on day two; There was not a lot of climbing on day two, but the terrain was rockier.

Blowdown Farm Views Rocky Terrain

From the campsite, we continued on the AT.  At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a blue-blazed trail that led to a nice viewpoint to the west.   The trail began to slope downwards and at 4.3 miles we reached Angels Gap.  The heat continued to increase and we were already extremely thirsty. We drank when we felt we needed to, but we both were already running low on water.  The sun was beating down since the area was more open. At 4.7 miles, we first heard the buzzing of a powerline and soon it came into view.  At 5.5 miles, we reached Hay Rock.  We skipped climbing up the rock, since we were already getting good views of Carvins Cove Reservoir all along the trail. Many people do Hay Rock as a day hike coming from Daleville.

The trail stayed relatively flat, but was rocky and exposed us to the sun for a bit. We crossed over an open field with tiny little seed pods that were blowing in the hot wind.  It looked like snow that was coming down, but the temperature told us otherwise.  We had just watched Stranger Things on Netflix and it reminded us of something supernatural or alien that was happening in this area. We came to another powerline at 6.7 miles, but this one gave us wonderful views.  We didn’t stay long since we wanted to get out of the direct sun. Christine had run out of water, but I had saved a bit for her to have.

Enjoying a View
Christine enjoys a view on day two.  Below: Adam approaches Hay Rock.  There’s a nice view of the reservoir from the top, but we skipped climbing it; More rocky terrain; Carvins Cove reservoir.

Hay Rock More Rocks Carvin Cove Reservoir

Shortly after we left these views from the power lines, the trail finally ducked back into the woods and began a descent. We ran into a Ridge Runner on the trail that was talking to hikers and seeing if they were alright with the heat and lack of water. Ridge Runners are paid to monitor the trail and assist hikers. I would have loved some water, but we knew we could make it just a few more miles. We told him about the lack of water on the trail, so hopefully they came across others that were in bigger need. We crossed powerlines again at 7.5 miles, 8.3 miles, and 8.9 miles. Shortly after this last powerline, we crossed over some railroad tracks and a bridge.  It was only a few more tenths of a mile and at 9.5 miles we made it back to our car exhausted and thirsty.

Carvin Cove Reservoir
A beautiful view of the Carvins Cove Reservoir.  Below: A lot of day two was unshaded; We passed through a meadow with seed pods flying everywhere in the breeze – it was like being in a snowglobe; The descent was welcome as the day got hotter; We crossed railroad tracks; A pretty section of pines; We met this blacksnake.

More Powerlines Pollen Storm Descending
Tracks  Pines Black Snake

When we got back to our car, our first order of business was to get something to drink.  We hopped in our car and jumped into a gas station across the street and downed some Gatorades in record time. We decided we wanted to eat some barbecue and drink some beer to celebrate. Since we had made an early start to our day, it was just a little after noon when we got off the trail. We made our way to Flying Mouse Brewery (this brewery closed at the end of 2018) and our Maps app on our phones said that it would be closed when we arrived.  We thought we would give it a shot anyway in the off chance it was open.  As we were driving up, I saw signs for Virginia Momentum and saw runners.  Virginia Momentum is a company started by a friend of mine that holds races across Virginia that helps support local charities. When we got to Flying Mouse Brewery, they were hosting a brewery-to-brewery race there, so it was open. We felt that someone was looking out for us and went inside to get a flight of beer samples and enjoyed talking to our friends that were participating. While running these long races is impressive, we did earn some props by just having come off the trail carrying some heavy weight.  After some tasty beverages, we made our way to Three Li’l Pigs BBQ, which always has amazing food and is perfect for a post-hike stop.

This backpacking trip had some other significance to us as well. While it was Christine’s birthday, McAfee Knob was one of the first posts that started Virginia Trail Guide. We’ve learned a lot along the way about how to tell our story of the trails.  If you’re looking for one of Virginia’s most famous hikes to serve as a backpacking route, try this one out.  McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail.  We enjoyed taking the ceremonial pictures at the top.  We even mimicked the A Walk in the Woods movie poster shot of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte to show how the scale was wrong for that poster. While we had hiked McAfee Knob before, this was our first trip to Tinker Cliffs and we both thought this was something not to be missed.  This route makes up two-thirds of Virginia’s Triple Crown (with the other third being nearby Dragon’s Tooth) and it is definitely worth the hype.  Just go on a cooler day and pray for better water sources.

Beers
You have to finish with a cold beverage!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 20.5 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
  • Elevation Change – 3400 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.  Day one is the tougher day with about 2500 feet of climbing.  Day two is significantly easier with just over 900 feet of elevation gain.  
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in great shape and beautifully maintained by the RATC (Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club).
  • Views  5.  The views here are iconic, magnificent, and they just keep coming!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There are small springs and streams adequate for a water source for cooking/filtering, but there was nothing really scenic. 
  • Wildlife – 4.  A yearling bear hung out between Lamberts Meadow shelter and Lamberts Meadow campsite for much of the evening. We also saw fence lizards and deer in a couple places.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well-marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 1.  This is one of the most popular stretches of trail in the area, so expect to see many people – especially if you go in fair weather. Campsites can be crowded and parking is an issue on the Catawba side.  Note: Parking regulations were recently changed.  Do not park along the road, or you will be towed.

Special regulations for this area:

  • Maximum group size, day hikes: 25
  • Maximum group size, backpacking/camping: 10
  • No alcohol
  • Dogs must be kept on leash at all times
  • No camping or campfires outside of seven designated areas (north of Va 624/Newport Rd, the only legal campsites are Johns Spring Shelter, Catawba Shelter and campsites, Pig Farm campsite, Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter and campsites)
  • No camping or campfires on McAfee Knob or Tinker Cliffs

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for the parking area to start this hike are 37.380125, -80.089694.  You will park at the McAfee Knob trailhead parking area on Rt. 311 in Catawba.  You must park in the lot.  Roadside parking is prohibited and cars will be towed.

Mt. Eisenhower (NH)

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This 6.6 mile route is one of the fastest, easiest ways to get above treeline in the Presidentials. The trail is rocky (like everything in this area), but the climb is very moderate by White Mountain standards. Trivia: This peak was named Mt. Pleasant until after President Eisenhower’s death in 1969.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Summit of Mt. Eisenhower
The Summit of Mt. Eisenhower.  You can see Mt. Monroe and Mt. Washington off in the distance.

Adam Says…

We have made it up to New Hampshire the last several years. Each year we try to do at least one of the Presidential peaks – big, granite mountains named after our country’s past presidents. This year, we decided to tackle Mt. Eisenhower by way of the Edmands and Crawford Paths. We read in our Falcon Guide to Hiking New Hampshire that this trail route had a moderate grade and the footing was “pleasant”

We have learned to not trust New Hampshirite descriptions with regard to grade or footing. From a Virginian’s standpoint, most of the hiking in the White Mountains is so much tougher than anything we experience in our state. Your body will pay a price and you may end up cursing the granite you walk upon.

They Said It Had Pleasant Footing
So, they said the grades were moderate and called the footing pleasant. The rock jumble pictured above is the actual trail.  Below: Adam makes his way along the easy old road grade seen early in the hike; The climbing got much rockier and steeper as we went along.

Mt. Eisenhower Hike Mt. Eisenhower Hike Mt. Eisenhower Hike

Over the first 1.4 miles of the Edmands Path, you gain about 650 feet of elevation, but in the last 1.5 miles, you gain 1750 feet. The first half of the outgoing hike is a steady climb, but the steeper grade and bigger steps on rock and gnarled roots take over pretty quickly!

As we huffed and puffed up the mountain, we eventually got some views through the trees and knew that our hard work was going to pay off.  Through some of the openings we could see the red roof of the grand Mount Washington Resort below, which gave some perspective of how far we had come.

First Views
It’s always fun to get your first views from the trail.  You can see the red roof of the Mt. Washington Omni between the trees.  Below: Scenery as we reached the treeline.

First Views Mt. Eisenhower Climb Mt. Eisenhower Climb

We eventually came across a U.S. Forest Service Alpine Zone sign warning us that we were entering an area with some of the worst weather in the world. This is definitely a sign to heed on rough weather days, but we had a gorgeous day of mostly clear skies above us. We arrived above treeline and were soon on a rocky path that skirted the shoulder of Mt. Eisenhower. At 2.9 miles, we reached the junction with the Crawford Path (the name given to the Appalachian Trail through these parts) and took the first right on the Eisenhower Loop Trail, which leads to the summit. The views from the junction were phenomenal as we were looking right at Mt. Monroe with Mt. Washington in the distance behind it. The path to the summit zig-zagged up some switchbacks on a skinny path that mostly had nice footing and in about .4 miles we had reached the summit.

Climbing to the Junction with the Crawford Path
Climbing to the junction with the Crawford Path.  Below: The junction of the Edmands Path and the Crawford Path; More open views.

Junction With the Crawford Path Mt. Eisenhower Mt. Eisenhower

When we got to the top, we found lots of people that had hiked over from Lakes of the Clouds Hut or Mizpah Spring Hut. We ate our snack while taking in views in all directions. We took a ton of photos to capture the vast landscapes and beautiful partial cloud coverage.

We made our way back down the same way we came up, reaching the Crawford Path junction quickly. We then took the Edmands Path back down to our car.  We paused for a few moments before ducking back in below treeline to soak up some last views of the majesty of mountains and valleys below us. It is moments like this that we revisit in our minds to help us get through the stress of work and life through the rest of the year.

Climbing Mt. Eisenhower
On our way up Mt. Eisenhower.  The Eisenhower loop trail branches off the Crawford Path to give you an opportunity to see the summit.  Below: Scenery climbing up to the summit of Mt. Eisenhower.

Mt. Eisenhower Climbing Mt. Eisenhower Climbing Mt. Eisenhower

If you’re interested in visiting these high peaks, you can do a multi-day backpacking trip that is called a “Presidential Traverse”. The route connects Mt. Jackson, Mt. Pierce, Mt. Eisenhower, Mt. Monroe, Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Adams, Mt. Quincy Adams, and Mt. Madison. Hikers typically stay at the AMC huts along the way. This route is nice, because you only have to climb up from the valley floor once! The rest of the traverse is tough, but the bulk of the big climbing is done on the first day. The Presidential Traverse entails additional perils because the constantly changing weather can put you at risk for getting lost in the fog or pinned down by storms. We hope to do a Presidential traverse someday to take in the full experience, but for now we have settled for day hikes. We’ve enjoyed the majestic views, but we have had to work a little harder for each one (climbing all the way from the bottom to reach each summit).

Christine Says…

Mt. Eisenhower was a great choice for our 2016 Presidental climb! We had gorgeous, clear views and the mountain’s lofty elevation gave us a little bit of relief from the brutally hot summer day in the valley below.  The area broke a heat record on August 11 – close to 100 degrees at the base of the mountain. The normal high is usually closer to 80.

We got an early start and arrived at the Edmands Path parking area before the crowds.  We paid $3.00 for our WMNF one-day parking pass and set out on our way up the mountain. (There is a self-service parking fee station at one end of the lot.)

Like Adam said, nothing in Virginia really compares to the rigors of a New Hampshire climb, but this route was definitely a more moderate climb than others we’ve tackled. Today’s hikers can thank revolutionary trailbuilder J. Rayner Edmands for many of the gradual, meandering trails in the White Mountains. Edmands, one of the founding members of the Appalachian Mountain Club, modeled his eastern trails after the livestock trails he had climbed as a young man in the Rockies. He believed in the philosophy of “always climbing, never steeply” when it came to trail design.

On the Summit of Mt. Eisenhower
There were a lot of people on the summit of Mt. Eisenhower.  Below: Summit scenery.

On the Summit of Mt. Eisenhower On the Summit of Mt. Eisenhower On the Summit of Mt. Eisenhower
On the Summit of Mt. Eisenhower On the Summit of Mt. Eisenhower  Descending Mt. Eisenhower

He spent time surveying each mountain to find the best grades and the most favorable terrain to reach the summit. He built each trail like a puzzle; using large boulders, extensive cribbing, and selective tree clearing. His philosophy differed greatly from other well-known New Hampshire trail builders of the time; most of them opting for the shortest routes, regardless of steepness or terrain. Built in 1909, the Edmands Path was one of the last trails Edmands built before dying of a stroke at the age of 60 in 1910.

If we’re being completely honest, we have to say that there’s no truly easy way to hike to mountain summits in the Presidentials. Even with Edmands’ thoughtful design, you’re going to get a solid cardio workout climbing to the summit of Mt. Eisenhower.

Descending Mt. Eisenhower
Great views occur everywhere above treeline. Below: Making our way back down the mountain.

Descending Mt. Eisenhower Descending Mt. Eisenhower Descending Mt. Eisenhower

Since it was a hot day, we took many water breaks as we worked our way uphill.  Despite the effort, I still thought the tough climbing over boulders and roots went by quickly.  I was actually surprised when we reached the alpine zone sign… “Here? Already?”  The last bit of the Edmands Path before we reached the junction with the Crawford Path was almost flat and passed through a lush bed of alpine mosses and wildflowers.  After we cleared that last swath of green, the view gave way to a theater of bare granite mountains.

The last tenth of a mile before the junction with the Crawford Path was a jumble of football-sized rocks along an exposed cliffside. When it’s wet, a stream flows over these rocks, but on this day it was thankfully bone dry. In the winter, this particular spot is known for being treacherously icy and windy. I’m glad we only visit New Hampshire in the summer. Virginia winters are tough enough for me!

Descending Mt. Eisenhower
We saw interesting Alpine plants. Below: More scenery on the descent: Lunch afterwards at Moat Mountain Brewery & Smokehouse.

Alpine Plant Descending Mt. Eisenhower Post-Hike Meal at Moat Mountain

The last .4 miles of trail from the Crawford Path junction to the summit of Eisenhower follows the Eisenhower loop – essentially a spur trail that detours people from the Crawford Path over the summit. Most of the mountains in this area have an “over or around” option.  No matter which option you pick, you’re going to have SPECTACULAR views if you hike on a clear day. The majesty of the Presidentials is without compare – so much rugged beauty. It takes my breath away every time!

The hike down simply retraced our steps.  As we descended, we could feel the heat and humidity of the lower elevations closing in around us. I was glad we finished hiking rather early in the afternoon, as it gave us time to make a couple more stops before heading back to my parents’ house. First we detoured into Jackson. We stopped at a great bakery for cold drinks and cookies and paid a visit to the White Mountain Puzzle Company. If you enjoy working jigsaw puzzles, they make a great variety!  After Jackson, we hit one of our favorite lunch spots in the area – Moat Mountain Brewery and Smokehouse. A tasty lunch and cold craft beer made the perfect ending to another excellent New Hampshire day.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6.6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2800 ft
  • Difficulty –  4.5.  The hiking may be moderate by New Hampshire standards, but it is a tough hike and you should be in decent hiking shape to tackle it.
  • Trail Conditions – 2.  While the trail was well maintained, the boulders of rock that you have to climb in the last 1.5 miles of the Edmands Path makes it tough climbing. 
  • Views –  5.  The 360-degree views from the Presidential Range is hard to beat anywhere on a clear day.
  • Waterfalls/streams 1.  You cross over a small stream early in the hike, but otherwise there wasn’t much water to see.  However, we visited in drought conditions.  In a normal to wet year, stream crossings may be more numerous and/or more difficult.
  • Wildlife – 1.5  Squirrels scampering and birds chirping will give you sounds along the way, but don’t expect anything once you go above treeline. 
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  There is just one turn from the Edmands Path to reach the summit, so it should be very easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 3.  We didn’t come across many on the Edmands Path, but on a beautiful summer day, the summit had a lot of people. 

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Parking Coordinates: 44.248988, -71.391665.  The trailhead is on Mt. Clinton Road, off U.S. 302 near the AMC Highlands Center. The parking area requires a White Mountain National Forest parking pass.  You can buy an annual pass or use the self service station to pay the $3 day fee.  For more information about parking passes, visit the national forest website.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information

Mt. Cube (NH)

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This is a beautiful section of Appalachian Trail with spectacular views from the two-summit peak of Mount Cube (2,909′).  The round-trip is  just over seven miles and traverses moderate terrain (by New Hampshire standards).   It’s a worthwhile day hike in the area, especially if you want to escape the crowds.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Christine Enjoys the North Summit of Mt. Cube
Christine Enjoys the North Summit of Mt. Cube – views look toward Upper Baker Pond and Mt. Moosilauke.

Adam Says…

As we slowly work on trying to cover the entire Appalachian Trail, piece by piece, we are always looking through our AWOL AT Guide to come up with day hikes when we are near the trail.  The AWOL guide is a great handbook to get elevation profiles, campsites, water sources, and local amenities for places along the Appalachian Trail.  The AWOL guide uses camera icons in the book to denote great view places that are worth taking pictures.  The guide tends to be pretty stingy with giving out these icons, so seeing two camera icons on this trail, we knew it would be worth checking out.   We had a gorgeous summer day to do this hike and we had a feeling the scenery would be stupendous, but we were even more surprised when we reached the top.

We parked alongside the road of NH-25A and then found the AT trailhead marker heading south (see directions below).  The first .4 miles of the hike are relatively flat.  We passed a campsite fairly early on.  After .4 miles, the trail begins to climb at an easy climb and at .6 miles, we crossed a forest road.  At .8 miles, we crossed a mostly-dry stream and at 1.7 miles we crossed over Brackett Brook, which was the only reliable water source we found on the trail.  After crossing the brook, the trail really begins to increase elevation and will get your heart going.  We always find that conversation tends to die down on the big uphill climbs.

Nice Campsites
There were several nice campsites along this stretch of Appalachian Trail. Below:  Trail signage; Crossing what would be a marshy area;  Forest road crossing.

Trail Signage Appalachian Trail Near Mt. Cube Appalachian Trail Near Mt. Cube

It was a tough slog for the next 1.5 miles of switchbacks up the mountain, but at 3.3 miles the climb levels and we reached a sign at an intersection.  We took a right to check out the northeast summit of Mount Cube first.  The trail is a little tough to follow to the summit.  Follow the sparse blazes through the woods and the trail opens up to above treeline.  Walking on the rocky surfaces made it hard to find the proper path, but we would pick up a blaze eventually and knew we were on the right path.  At 3.55 miles (just .25 miles from the junction), we reached the northeast summit.  The views were phenomenal and we found ourselves surrounded by wild blueberries on the shrubs around us, which made for a snack among the majestic views.  We spent a long time on the rocky ledges overlooking the valley, with views of Mt. Moosilauke in the far distance.

We were impressed we had the views entirely to ourselves, but we made our way back to the intersection to see what the southern main summit of Mt. Cube would give us.  At 3.8 miles, we reached the intersection and continued on the AT to the summit of Mt. Cube just .1 mile away from the intersection.  At the main summit, there were several people at the top.  While we found these views nice, we were at tree level and we felt if we were just about 10 feet higher the views would be more impressive.  We talked with a few people at the top and told them they shouldn’t miss the views from the northeast summit.  We ate a snack here and then made our way back to the intersection and back down the mountain the way we came.

Brackett Brook
Brackett Brook was the only water source still running along this stretch of trail.  Below: Crossing the brook; Scenes from the steeper part of the climb.

Crossing Brackett Brook The Climb to Mt. Cube The Climb to Mt. Cube
The Climb to Mt. Cube The Climb to Mt. Cube The Climb to Mt. Cube

When we got back to the road, we saw an older hiker waiting at the bottom of the trail.  Christine had thought it was Warren Doyle, a well-known AT hiker and supporter of others on the trail.  I told her I would find out and asked the gentlemen if he needed a ride.  He declined, since he was waiting for a friend to pick him up and I slipped the name “Warren Doyle” cleverly into the conversation to see if he would react.  He said that he knew Warren and he was actually going to get some help from him a little further up the trail and had been part of one of Warren’s fabled AT hikes years ago.  So, while we were wrong, it was still interesting to make that connection.

Mount Cube was a wonderful pick and the camera icons didn’t lie.  This is definitely worth doing on a nice spring/summer/fall day, but the ripe blueberries in August made this for a classic day in New England.

Christine Says…

While Mt. Cube isn’t a 4,000-footer, it still offers lofty views from two distinct summits.  It’s a great dayhike if you’re in the area and looking to escape the thicker crowds around the Presidential peaks. We hiked Cube on an absolutely gorgeous Sunday morning, and saw just a handful of other hikers – most of them Appalachian Trail thru-hikers nearing the end of their long voyage north. We hiked southbound on the AT, starting from the road-crossing near Orford, NH.

The Climb to Mt. Cube
There were many beautiful birch trees on the climb. Below:  The rocky, rooty climb continues; The junction for trails to the north and south summits.

The Climb to Mt. Cube The Climb to Mt. Cube The Climb to Mt. Cube

The first mile and a half of hiking was beautiful and easy.  We climbed gently uphill and passed through a mixed hardwood and pine forest.  The overhead canopy kept the trail shady and cool, even on this rather warm summer day.  Our guidebook marked a stream about 3/4ths of a mile into the hike.  When we got there, we found a southbound section hiker filtering what amounted to a mud puddle.  He was worried about running out of water and didn’t want to pass any source without gathering what little he could.  Last summer, New Hampshire experienced serious drought conditions.  Many streams that normally flow year-round were reduced to a trickle, so I understood his concern.

We reached the second stream marked in our guide, Brackett Brook, and found it was still flowing with clear, clean water.  Side note: I love how New England has brooks and notches instead of creeks and gaps. As a southerner, they just sound more exotic and picturesque. After crossing the brook, the climb became a bit steeper, but remained uncharacteristically smooth and uncomplicated.  We stopped to chat briefly with another thru-hiker.  I said something to him about how nice the terrain had been along this stretch of trail and he just replied ‘Ugh‘ and shook his head.  I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm… maybe there’s something I don’t know?’

Soon after that, the trail went from mostly dirt tread to a steep mix of roots, rocks, and log steps built into the earth. It still was pleasant terrain compared to most of what you see in the Whites, but I get the origin of the thru-hiker’s Ugh!  Near the summit, the trail leveled out through a stretch of hemlocks and pines. The footing was a mix of fallen needles and granite sand.

North Side Summit of Mt. Cube
North Side Summit of Mt. Cube.  Below: More of the north summit

Exploring the North Summit of Mt. Cube Exploring the North Summit of Mt. Cube mt-cube19

At the top, we decided to check out the north summit first.  To get to the north summit, you follow a spur trail that departs the AT.  It was gorgeous – ledges and blueberries and views for miles and miles!  Upper Baker Pond added a lovely water feature to the vista. The pond is home to vacation cottages and a summer camp called Camp Moosilauke.  We spent lots of time enjoying the solitude, taking photos, and eating our lunch.  Eventually we made our way back to the junction and followed the trail a few tenths of a mile to the south summit.

It was also beautiful, but lacked the majesty of the north summit.  We chatted with a few fellow hikers, including two women from the area. They gave us some hiking recommendations, but it turned out we had already hiked most of them.  The one we hadn’t yet hiked was Mt. Chocorua.  They told us it was a ‘must hike‘. (so, we hiked it – and it will be our next post).

South Summit of Mt. Cube
The South Summit of Mt. Cube. Below: South summit scenes; The return hike to the start point.

South Summit of Mt. Cube South Summit of Mt. Cube
The Hike Down Mt. Cube mt-cube24

After leaving the summit, we made quick work of the descent. With about a mile and a half left, I started having horrible foot and toe cramps.  I hobbled along for as long as I could before I finally sat down in the middle of the trail and told Adam I had to take my shoe off immediately.  Once I massaged it a bit and did some foot stretches, I was able to continue.  The injury has continued to plague me ever since this hike.  It stinks, but I’ve been able to manage the pain and hike through it.

After we got back to the car, I kicked off my trail runners and switched into my Oofos flip flops.  They’re the best for sore feet!  On the way home, we found a little country store that had a dozen different flavors of whoopie pies.  I tried a gingerbread-lemon pie that was so delicious.  It was the perfect way to wrap up another excellent day of New England hiking!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 7.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2025 ft
  • Difficulty –  4.  Everything is a little tougher in New Hampshire, but we were able to take our time and enjoy it.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was well-maintained and not very overgrown.  We didn’t experience any blowdowns.
  • Views –  4.5.  The expansive views from the northeast summit of Mt. Cube are not to be missed.
  • Waterfalls/streams 1.5.  We did find a water source on Brackett Brook, but most of the streambeds we saw were bone dry in the summer. 
  • Wildlife – 1.  We didn’t spot anything other than some squirrels and chipmunks.  There were a few juncos and chickadees at the summits.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5.  Overall, the trail was easy to follow, but we are marking it down due to the lack of blazes leading to the northeast summit.
  • Solitude – 3.  We were pleased to find nobody on the northeast summit, but there were several at the southern summit.  There is room to spread out, so if you want to avoid people, you can.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates: 43.9013  -71.9838   Take Route 1 25A East out of Orford, NH. Pass through Orfordville in 2.5 miles and continue up the northern shoulder of Mount Cube, whose summit ledges are visible above the trees. After 8.3 miles, at the height-of-land, pass Mount Cube Farm and former governor Mel Thompson’s famous pancake house. Continue on Route 25A and descend steeply to Upper Baker Pond. Just before crossing a steel highway bridge, 10.2 miles from Orford, the AT south leaves from the right hand side of the road. Park in the parking lot across the bridge.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Appalachian Trail – Elk Garden to Buzzard Rock

If you like high meadows and spectacular vistas all-around, this easy 7.2 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail is a perfect fit!  The hike meanders through lovely forest and then takes you across open balds on two of the state’s tallest mountains. It’s a majestic hike!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The Appalachian Trail Near Whitetop Mountain
The Appalachian Trail Near Whitetop Mountain.  Below: Hiking the Appalchian Trail; Wildflowers; A buck and a fawn.

The Appalachian Trail Near Elk Garden Flowers on the AT A Buck With a Fawn Friend

Adam Says…

On our trip to southwest Virginia, we did three hikes in three days and they were all very distinct.  We explored the slot canyons of the Great Channels, we discovered the serene waters of Devils Bathtub, and then we took in majestic views from a high bald on this trip to Buzzard Rock.  All of the experiences on these three hikes were memorable in different ways and when we were talking about our favorite, is was hard to pick one.  The day we did this hike was my birthday and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.

The trail starts from the Elk Garden parking lot by entering the woods behind the parking lot and heading south on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  The trail ascends mostly over the first two miles, but we never found it too difficult (you only gain about 700 feet of elevation over those two miles).  The trail bisected a sea of fern and short understory with tall trees above, painting a beautiful forest walk.

The AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
A twisted old tree along the AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Below: Appalachian Trail scenes.

Pretty Open Forest Along The AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Pretty Open Forest Along The AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

At 1.7 miles, a small trickle of a stream passed over the trail, but it was quite dry and not a reliable water source.  At 2.4 miles, we passed by a series of campsites to the left of the trail and crossed over Whitetop Mountain Road  and came into an open field.  The views around us were quite hazy, but we know on a clear day you would have some magnificent views.  At 2.5 miles, we walked pass a small spring that was on the eastern (left) side of the trail.  We talked briefly to a couple of AT section hikers were pausing to eat lunch and refill water bottles here.   The trail descends slightly, dips into the woods again, and then emerges into the open bald leading up to Buzzard Rock.   The views are outstanding along the open bald and the trail leads you right to the only outcropping of rock nearby at 3.3 miles, known as Buzzard Rock.  From the summit you can also see another trail leading up to Whitetop Mountain Road.  According to peakery.com, Buzzard Rock is the fourth highest peak in Virginia at 5,095 feet.  You can see the Whitetop Mountain peak and Mount Rogers from the rock, which are the third and first highest peaks respectively.

At Buzzard Rock and the open bald surrounding area, you have panoramic views to both the east and west.  There were a large bank of clouds moving our way, so we knew some rain was likely.  We ate some lunch and talked to a couple at the summit.  The man we talked to had been visiting this spot since he was in high school in the early 1960s.  He told me that when he first visited nearby Whitetop Mountain, there used to be cabins at the top.  Whitetop Mountain Road used to have a toll gate where they would charge $2 per person in the car to drive to the top and $2 per person to stay in the cabins.  He and his friends would hide in the trunk to keep from paying and climb in the windows to avoid the extra charges.  He told us how they would knock on the cabins to inspect who was staying there and they would have to jump out the window to avoid being caught.  They also charged $1 per person to take the hike down from Whitetop Mountain to Buzzard Rock.  So, he was enjoying doing this hike for free these days.  Many people that visit Buzzard Rock tend to drive up Whitetop Mountain Road and then hike down from the road, for a short but easy out-and-back.  Another interesting piece of trivia about Whitetop Mountain is that they used to hold a folk festival in the 1930s here and Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1933, during her first year of being First Lady, which drew 20,000 visitors to the mountain.

Rocky Steps Along the Appalachian Trail
Rocky Steps Along the Appalachian Trail. Below: Campsites near the road crossing; Entering the high meadows; Foggy view looking at christmas tree farms.

Campsites Near Whitetop Mountain Open Meadow Walking Near Whitetop Mountain View from the Appalachian Trail of Christmas Tree Farm

We decided to head back the way we came (make sure you stay on the AT trail and don’t take the path to Whitetop Mountain Road) and almost as soon as we ducked into the woods, it started to rain.  We made a quick choice to put on our rain gear and within minutes we were in a full downpour.  We made haste along the trail on our return.  While this would have ruined some people’s spirits, we enjoyed walking through the rain.  We saw a few tents on our way back from people that had quickly set them up to escape the downpour.  About a mile from the end of the hike, the rain stopped and we reached our car at 6.6 miles.

After seeing it listed in our AWOL Appalachian Trail guide, we decided to continue on the AT to check out another view from Elk Garden.  We dumped some of our wet gear, crossed the road, and made our way up a steep hill for an added on .3 miles to another plateau.  We did see more views from this hill summit and saw a large herd of cows in the valley below us (we had seen humongous cow patties on our way up the hill, so we thought we may encounter some).  We took a few minutes checking out the views. We then descended the hill and returned to our car yet again.  It was a great day on the trail and we were surprised at how great the views were on this hike!

Christine Says…

This hike was the perfect finish to our four-day visit to southwest Virginia!  We aren’t terribly familiar with the trails in this area, so when I was looking for another hike to do on our trip, I turned to our AWOL guide.  The guide is a detailed resource outlining the entire Appalachian Trail from end to end.  It includes elevation profiles, distances, camping options, water sources, and scenic stops along the way.  Each noteworthy view is marked in the book with a camera icon.  For this stretch, there was just one marked viewpoint – near the parking lot at Elk Garden. I figured we would get one nice view from Elk Garden, and then walk a few additional miles along the Appalachian Trail.  I didn’t expect to get such amazing views from both the flank of Whitetop Mountain and from the rocky outcropping atop Buzzard Rock Mountain.  Neither of those spots were marked with a camera icon in the AWOL guide, so the additional views turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Wildflowers in Meadows Near Whitetop Mountain
Wildflowers in Meadows Near Whitetop Mountain. Below: High meadow walking; Loads of blueberries; Back into the woods

Meadow on the Appalachian Trail So Many Blueberries on the Appalachian Trail Saddle in the Woods

The first couple miles of the hike climbed gently through pretty, open forest.  The trail was mostly soft dirt with just a few rocky spots.  About a mile into the hike, we saw a buck hanging out with a tiny spotted fawn.  It was unusual to see a young fawn hanging out with an adult male instead of his mother.  They were cute and watched us suspiciously from a safe distance.

At 2.4 miles we crossed Whitetop Mountain Road and stepped out into an open meadow.  There were tons of wildflowers in every color, bees buzzed busily collecting pollen, and there were tons of wild blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.  The view was gorgeous and a little misty.  The thin fog obscured a bit of the vista’s majesty, but since we weren’t expecting a view at all, it was a treat.  The trail continued through the open meadow for a few tenths of a mile before reentering the woods.  I wondered aloud to Adam if there would be more views.  He thought the woods looked like they cleared in the next half mile and that Buzzard Rock sounded like it could be something worth checking out… and he was right!

Buzzard Rock Near Whitetop Mountain
Buzzard Rock Near Whitetop Mountain.  Below: Enjoying the top of Buzzard Rock Mountain.

Approaching Buzzard Rock Ferns and Views Adam Takes in the View

We stepped out of the woods again into another mountaintop bald.  The Appalachian Trail climbed the hill like a dark ribbon through a sea of grass.  Off in the distance, athe top of the hill, we could see a rocky outcropping.  There were big, fast-moving, banks of clouds, so the valley below came in and out of view as we climbed.

We reached the rocky pinnacle and stopped to take in everything around us.  It was spectacular! Little bits of clear blue skies opened through the clouds and the view below came and went as the clouds moved.  The wind rustled the tall grass all around us.  We wook lots of photos and ate our lunch.  After a while, I noticed that the clouds were starting to darken and gather.  It was time to head back!

Christine Enjoys the Views
Taking in the views near Whitetop Mountain. Below:  Storms approaching; Back into the woods right before the rain.

A Look Back at Buzzard Rock Views from WhitetopHiking Back

We made it back into the woods just as the rain started.  At first, it was just a few drops and we thought it might blow over.  But instead, it picked up becoming a steady rain and then a torrential downpour.  I packed my camera away and got out my freebie JMU poncho.  I prefer a cheap plastic poncho to my Marmot rain jacket in the summer.  The poncho covers my backpack and my clothes without trapping in any of the body heat from hiking.  The rain relentlessly poured down for almost 2.5 miles of hiking.  The trail was running like a stream.  It might be some of the hardest rain we’ve ever hiked in.

A couple tenths of a mile before we got back to Elk Garden, the rain tapered off and the sun came out.  I didn’t feel like stopping, so I hiked on in my poncho.  We passed the car in the parking lot, crossed the highway and made our way uphill to the Elk Garden view. To climb the hill, you have to open a farm gate.  Be sure you securely latch it after crossing, as it keeps the cow herd safely enclosed. And yes… you may have some close encounters with BIG cows on this part of the hike.

The storm had cleared out the mist and the low clouds and the sky was blue and the view was clear.  We took in the views of the cow herd and Mount Rogers off in the distance.  After the hike, we headed into Damascus for ice cream and a stop at the outdoor outfitters.  It was a great way to celebrate Adam’s birthday!

Elk Garden Views
After the storms stopped, we got great views from Elk Garden. The little black dots are cows. Below: Thankful for cheap ponchos; Campsite with a view toward Mount Rogers.

Cheap Poncho Cheap Poncho Campsite at Elk Garden

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 7.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1225 ft
  • Difficulty –  2.5.  This was an easier hike that had a huge payoff for minimum effort.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was well-maintained and we didn’t have any issues.  I imagine it could be overgrown somewhat in the spring. 
  • Views –  5.  You have great views from Buzzard Rock and Elk Garden. 
  • Waterfalls/streams 0.  Non-existent.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We did see deer along the trail.  You likely won’t see much on the bald areas, but the woods and elevation add to some wildlife possibilities.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  Just follow the white-blazed AT markers.
  • Solitude – 3.5.  This is a popular spot for locals, but because of the vastness of the bald, you can find your own solitude for the summit if you desire.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Parking lot GPS directions are N36 378.769 W 82 34.992  From Damascus, VA take US-58 East for 10.5 miles.  Instead of turning right to stay on US-58, go straight on 603/Konnarock Road for 2.7 miles.  Turn right onto 600/Whitetop Road and follow that for 5.2 miles until you reach the parking lot for Elk Garden on the right.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Dragons Tooth

IMPORTANT: Please read these important regulations and helpful tips before hiking in this area

This five mile loop features a fun rock scramble and a view from atop one of Virginia’s most interesting rock formations.  It’s considered part of the ‘Triple Crown’ of Virginia hiking that also includes McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Atop the Dragons Tooth
Adam climbs on Dragons Tooth. Below: Trail signage; The trail starts off as a wide, gentle path; Most of the climb to the junction with the AT is moderate.

Dragons Tooth Signage Dragons Tooth Trail Dragons Tooth Trail Stream Crossing

Christine Says…

When Adam proposed doing Dragons Tooth, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I eventually want to hike every bit of the Appalachian Trail – especially the most famous and scenic parts. But, I’m a bit fearful on rock scrambles and precipitous drops. From reputation, Dragons Tooth is called by some ‘the toughest mile’ of AT south of Mahoosuc Notch. The section includes slick stone slabs, narrow ledges, and even iron rungs affixed to the rocks to aid with the traverse.  With my come-and-go vertigo, terrain like that typically isn’t my cup of tea. I also heard the trail was extremely crowded and nothing feels worse that freaking out on a rock scramble with a huge crowd of people watching you and waiting to traverse behind you.  In the end, I psyched myself up and we chose a quiet cloudy Wednesday to visit this well-known landmark.

We got an early start and arrived at the parking lot around 9:00 a.m.  It was practically empty, just a couple cars and a forest service truck.  We started up the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth Trail.  About a quarter mile in, we passed the junction with the Boy Scout Trail.  Bearing right, we continued a 1.2 mile moderate ascent of the Dragons Tooth Trail.

When we gained the ridge, we found ourselves at a beautiful, large (dry) campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap.  This is where the Dragons Tooth Trail meets up with the Appalachian Trail.  We turned right and continued south on the Appalachian Trail.   We soon passed a sign warning ‘CAUTION: The next mile of trail is rocky and steep’.

Adam Negotiates the Rock Scramble
The climb to Dragons Tooth has quite a bit of rock scrambling. Below: The campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap (right before the scramble begins); A warning sign about the terrain; Christine scrambles.

Campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap Warning - Rocks Ahead Hmmm...

They were not kidding!  Almost immediately, we found ourselves climbing stone stairs and clambering over roots.  As we climbed, the rocks turned to boulders and the hike turned to a scramble.  White blazes and directional arrows were painted onto the rocks to direct your route through the jumble.  Every now and then, we would get a nice view of the valley through the trees.  We came to one spot that was basically a sheer 20 foot cliff-face to climb.  There were ledges, each several inches wide, that traversed the cliff and could be used as toe holds. (see a detailed shot of this cliff – notice the arrow pointing straight up!)  I definitely panicked and hyperventilated a little bit at this pass, but I made it through with minimal drama.

After the cliff face, there were lots more rocks and a couple sections with iron rungs fastened to the rocks, but nothing as fear-inducing as that cliff.  Finally we made it to the top of Cove Mountain and were just a short easy stroll from the actual Dragons Tooth.

The ‘Tooth’ is an impressive quartzite monolith that juts from a clearing in the woods.  The views from the bottom are nice, but to enjoy Dragons Tooth in all its glory, you need to climb to the top.  Of course, if you don’t feel physically able or have a fear of heights, it’s probably better to skip the crawl to the top.  But, I thought the climb was easier than it looked, and was glad I did it.

Rocks with Rungs
Some of the rocks had iron rungs to help with climbing. Below: Scenery along the scramble.

Stairs in the Rock Views Along the Scramble Another Set of Rungs

To get to the top, look for a footpath that circles behind the Tooth.  There is a large crack in the middle that allows you to make your way up a fin of rock that leads up the backside of the Tooth.  You’ll duck under a boulder that’s wedged in the crack and then pull yourself up to the top.  Once at the top, we enjoyed magnificent views!  The nice thing about hiking it on a weekday was that we had the entire place to ourselves.  We saw very few people the entire day and sat atop Dragons Tooth alone for almost half an hour.

After we sufficiently enjoyed the view, we made our way back down.  At first, the hike back follows the same route.  This meant doing the entire rock scramble again!  Going down, I felt much more confident and didn’t have any problems.   However, not everyone was feeling as secure and happy as me.  Near the top of the scramble, we came across a mother/daughter pair of section hikers.  They had started in Georgia and were aiming to make it to Pennsylvania.  The mother had suffered a bad fall with injuries earlier on the trail, and was paralyzed with fear on the first set of iron rungs.  I’ll let Adam share the story in his write-up, but I will say that he played the role of a true Trail Angel for them that day.

Arriving at Dragons Tooth
The tooth sits like a solitary fang rising from the ground. Below: The path leads behind the Tooth and to a crack in the rock; An opening in the rocks on the climb up Dragons Tooth; A boulder to cli,b under.

Go This Way Scrambling to the Top of Dragons Tooth Ducking Under the Suspended Boulder

We eventually arrived back at Lost Spectacles Gap. Instead of taking the Dragons Tooth Trail back down to the parking lot, we continued north on the Appalachian Trail.  This involved a little more climbing, but gave us access to several more beautiful views. We followed the AT for almost a mile until it met up with the yellow-blazed Boy Scout Trail.  We took a left onto the Boy Scout Trail and followed it for about a quarter mile where it crossed the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth trail.  It was just another quarter mile back to the parking area.  What a great hike!  Even though I’m not a fan of rock scrambles, I thought this hike was fun and very rewarding.

Adam Says…

Well, Christine has pointed out some of the rough parts and why this hike may be scary for some people.  Part of the reason that we both do write-ups for each post is because we have different perspectives.  I would probably put Dragons Tooth in my Top 10 Favorite View Hikes in Virginia That Everyone Should Do.  What else makes that list (in no particular order), you ask?  Mt. Rogers, Old Rag, Three Ridges, The Priest, Sharp Top, McAfee Knob, Mary’s Rock, Strickler Knob, and Big Schloss.  I remember hiking Dragons Tooth when I was in my later high school years and I have been bugging Christine to do it for years.  Christine has some real vertigo issues and nobody likes to see their spouse go through fearful moments, but I knew she could get through this.  We had planned to do a week of AT hiking in June, but our dogs have been getting older and leaving them behind for a week is getting harder and harder to do.  So, I did a stay-cation that week at home and Christine took a day off work to join me for this day hike, we drove down in the morning and were back home in time for dinner.

For our plans for a week on the AT, we had thought about hiking the section that included Virginia’s Triple Crown, which includes Dragons Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and McAfee Knob.  Since we changed our plans, we picked out this loop which provided us with Dragons Tooth, but also gave us some time to try out a few of the side trails that connect close to the summit of Dragons Tooth.

The View From Dragons Tooth
Nice views from the top of Dragons Tooth. Below: More scenes from the top of Dragons Tooth.

Dragons Tooth Dragons Tooth Dragons Tooth

We arrived before 9AM and during the week, so I’m sure this parking lot gets packed on beautiful weekends.  We made a pit stop at the toilets located at the elevated section above the parking lot and then proceeded to the trailhead, located by a kiosk at the back end of the parking lot.  The beginning of this blue-blazed section of trail is very level and flat.  At .25 miles, we crossed a small bridge and came to an intersection with the Boy Scout Trail (your return trip on the loop).  We noticed a few nice spots for camping on this section of trail.  You cross the creek bed a few times, but the next 1.4 mile section is a very gradual, uphill climb.  At 1.65 miles, you reach the Lost Spectacles campsite and the junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail .  Take a right (heading south on the AT) to start your climb up to the top.  Christine talked a lot about this terrain.  I agree that it is an extremely tough stretch of trail.  You will find yourself watching where you place every foot and it will be slow-going as you have to scramble up a few rocky sections.  The roughest spot was the one Christine mentioned where you have to zigzag up a cliff-face on rock that is only as wide as your feet.  You have to be very careful through navigating these rocks at times, so if you are not comfortable with this type of terrain this may not be the best choice of hike for you.

Eventually we got to the top of the ridge around 2.25 miles up.  There is a nice viewpoint a few feet to the right of the trail, but you will head left to take the side summit trail to reach Dragons Tooth.  There are a few side trails to the left that lead to other views, but the best view is at Dragons Tooth.  At 2.4 miles, you reach Dragons Tooth.  You will see a cleared-out area and a small view between Dragons Tooth and a lesser tooth.  There aren’t any good signs pointing how to climb up to the top, but if you head to the right side, you will see a small trail that leads to the base on the right side of the tooth.  The fun part for me was trying to figure out how to climb up this.  At 45, I am not the most flexible of human beings and I tried climbing up other ways, feeling like I needed to do the splits to get up one way.  I then ducked under the small rock “pedal” Christine is pictured under below.  Ducking under that, I was then able to stand up and using rock holds, pull myself up to the top.  The views from the summit were phenomenal.  I told Christine I could help her figure out how to navigate and I am proud of her for summoning the courage to do it.  We took some pictures from the top and enjoyed the views for a few minutes before climbing down.  We found it hard to believe we had this Virginia treasure all to ourselves.  We climbed down and ate a snack at the area between the two teeth and enjoyed the views from a less precarious spot.  Another couple arrived at the summit and we made our way back down to allow them the privacy we enjoyed.

Boulder Lodged in Tooth
To climb up and down, you have to duck under this boulder. Below: Scenery at the base of Dragons Tooth; Views near the top; Adam carries an extra pack.

View From the Bottom of Dragons Tooth Views Near the Top An Extra Backpack

As soon as we were descending down from the ridge at the AT junction, we came across a thru-hiking mother and daughter.  They were incredibly cautious on the trail and after talking to them a bit, the mother told us about how she had fallen in Tennessee and this terrain was making her terrified.  They had to take a few weeks off for her to recover.  The mother had talked about quitting the trail, but they decided to press on.  The mother developed the trailname of “Bad Ass” after her ability to keep fighting.  After seeing Bad Ass’ apprehension and tears on the easier parts of the hike down from Dragons Tooth, we began to wonder how she would get through the next .7 miles.  I turned around and did the only thing I could think of and offered to carry her pack down to the Lost Spectacles camp.  I can understand this terrain would be scary with a lot of extra weight.  She eventually agreed this was a good idea, so I hoisted on her backpack (probably about 35 pounds) and then wore my backpack on my chest, making it a little difficult to see over the top where my feet were at all times. I pressed on quickly while Christine stayed with them for a while on the trail.  There were a few times I struggled as well with both packs on, but I was able to keep my feet under me and navigate through some of the tough sections.  I arrived at the Lost Spectacles camping area at 3.3 miles and waited.  Christine came down about 15 minutes later and it was probably another 15-20 minutes before Bad Ass and her daughter met up.  They thanked me profusely, but I was just glad to help out.  We all have to lift each other up when we have down times, so hopefully I was able to give them a bright spot in a tough day.

From the Lost Spectacles site, we continued along the Appalachian Trail heading north.  This section started off steep as well and did have just a couple small scrambles around some more rocky sections.  But there were several nice views along this section of the AT and I’m so glad we did this as a loop instead of an out-and-back hike.  This section of the AT, walks along a ridge and descends slightly, but you will have several opportunities to take in more views.  Eventually the trail descends into the woods.  At around 4.3 miles, we arrived at a junction with the Boy Scout Trail.  We took this yellow-blazed trail and found it very steep as you are basically going straight down without any switchbacks.  The trail didn’t have anything overly scenic on it worth mentioning, but it provided a quick return to the Dragons Tooth trail at 4.7 miles.  We took a right at the junction and were back at our car around 5 miles.

View from the Appalachian Trail
There are several more nice views along the Appalachian Trail portion of the hike. Below: Following the AT north; Climbing some of the rock slabs on the Appalachian Trail; Berries

Trail Junction Appalachian Trail Blueberries

Once we got back to our car, we got on the interstate and headed north.  We had heard about Three Li’l Pigs Barbecue in Daleville, VA as being a favorite spot for thru-hikers so we decided to check it out.  The food there was magnificent and we saw a couple of thru-hikers there enjoying the big quantities of food.  After stuffing my face, I was tempted into also ordering some banana pudding for dessert but I found a way to fit it all in.  As we were leaving, we quickly saw some fast-moving thunderstorms moving in quickly.  Near Three Li’l Pigs in the same shopping center we stopped in Outdoor Trails – an outdoor outfitter store.  This shopping center had the bulk of what every thru-hiker would need for a zero day (a day where they would do zero miles).  A barbecue spot, an outfitter, a grocery store, a coffee shop, and a hotel directly across the street.  If you’re doing a section of the Appalachian Trail, Daleville would be a great place to stop and resupply.

We got stuck in terrible thunderstorms on our drive home. We were thankful that we did the hike earlier and weren’t stuck in the deluge.  While some of the hiking was a bit frightening for Christine, we ultimately had a wonderful day on the hike!  If you are comfortable with rock scrambles and open ledges and haven’t done this hike yet, put it on your must-do list and it may make your top 10 list for Virginia as well.

Appalachian Trail

This section of Appalachian Trail has such varied terrain. Below: More views along the AT; The Boy Scout Trail; Three Li’l Pigs BBQ.

More Views The Boy Scout Trail Three Li'l Pigs BBQ

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
  • Elevation Change – 1215 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  The rock scramble provides a bit of challenge on an otherwise solidly moderate hike. 
  • Trail Conditions – 2.  The scramble is mostly sandstone, so it can be slick with grit/sand.  It’s also very slippery when there’s been recent rain.
  • Views  5.  There are viewpoints all along the hike and you can’t beat the view from the top of the tooth!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There is a small stream that could be used as a water source near the trailhead.
  • Wildlife – 1.  The trail is heavily traveled and wildlife seems to steer mostly clear of the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail signs are easy to follow and blazes are abundant.
  • Solitude – 1.  We hiked this early on an overcast weekday morning, so we enjoyed quite a bit of solitude.  However, expect crowds and significant trail traffic at more popular times.

Special regulations for this area:

  • Maximum group size, day hikes: 25
  • Maximum group size, backpacking/camping: 10
  • No alcohol
  • Dogs must be kept on leash at all times
  • No camping or campfires outside of seven designated areas (north of Va 624/Newport Rd, the only legal campsites are Johns Spring Shelter, Catawba Shelter and campsites, Pig Farm campsite, Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter and campsites)
  • No camping or campfires on McAfee Knob or Tinker Cliffs

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for the parking area are: 37°22’44.5″N 80°09’22.1″W.  From I-81, take exit 141.  Turn left onto VA-419 N.  Follow for .4 mile.  Turn right onto VA-311 N.  Follow for 9.5 miles.  The parking area will be on the left.

Wayah Bald (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Hiking from Wayah Gap to Wayah Bald is a fun, moderate 8.5 mile hike.  The view from a top the stone observation tower has to be among the best in the area.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Wayah Bald
The view from Wayah Bald is majestic! Below: The Appalachian Trail cuts like a ribbon through the green of the forest; Adam looks at the rhododendron tunnel; Stairs climb back up to the trail after crossing a forest road.

Walking the Appalachian Trail Tunnel of Rhododendron Stairs on the AT

Adam Says…

This hike was a true gem!  When you are just reading text about a hike, you can’t get a great idea of how wonderful a hike will be (hopefully this write-up and pictures will help).  What we couldn’t believe through the day was how uncrowded this trail was, especially at the fire tower.  We went on a perfect weekend day and you can even drive up to the very top if you want to skip the hike but still get the views.  Having a spot like this to yourself just doesn’t seem right.

“Wayah” comes from the Cherokee word for “wolf”, since red wolves were once part of this area.  The tower was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and used as a lookout for fires in the area.

As we were driving on Wayah Road making our way to the top, we were both thankful that the drive up would take a lot of feet off the elevation.  The road winds around the mountain as it is taking many switchbacks to get up to the top.  At the crest was the sign for the Wayah Bald Fire Tower and a small parking lot to the side.   We started on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail going north (the same side as the sign and the parking lot).  You climb up a few water-bar stairs and then come to a sign for Wayah Gap.  The trail runs parallel to a national forest road on the left for the first portion of the trail (this is the same forest road you can drive to get to the top without hiking).

Red Trillum
There were many wildflowers and blooming trees along the trail. We enjoyed seeing red trillium, even though they were fading. Below: Flame azalea; Mountain Laurel; Something white?

Flame Azalea Mountain Laurel White Flower

The trail was filled with wildflowers and greenery everywhere you looked and overall the uphill climb was quite manageable.  At 1.75 miles, you make a steeper climb up to a forest road (the same forest road leading to the top).  The trail picks up on the other side, but there is a spring to the right of the trail if you need to refill water.  Crossing the road, you head up some stairs and up a steeper section looking down on the fire road, before it resumes the gradual climb.

At 2.15 and 2.35 miles, you will see junctions with the yellow-blazed Bartram Trail (a 110 mile trail that goes from Northern Georgia into Southwest North Carolina) and a forest road on the left side.  This trail loops around for an extra 5.4 miles, but stay on the main white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  Since the Bartram Trail joins the AT through this section, you will often see yellow and white blazes together.  At 2.5 miles the trail levels out and then starts to descend.

Bartram - AT Share a Course
The Bartram Trail shares course with the Appalachian Trail for a while. We though the joint blazes looked like a beer with a foamy head. Below: The junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail; There is a nice campsite near the junction; Views from the trail from an old burn.

Bartram Junction Campsite Log Views from the Trail

Descending through the forest, the trail then begins to skirt along the mountainside.  The trail became narrow and overgrown as you walk through some high grass and brush.  But, you do get some more open, yet obstructed views of the valley between the mountains.  At 3.5 miles, the trail reaches its bottom and then begins to ascend again.  At 3.8 miles, you cross the forest road again and at 4.15 miles, you reach the final junction with the paved forest road.  Going to the right leads to a picnic area with nice views (and a bathroom if you need it).  Heading to the left from the junction, leads to the Wayah Bald fire tower which we reached around 4.3 miles.

The views from the fire tower were amazing!  Some fire towers are rickety and you wonder if all the bolts have been screwed and tightened in the last few decades.  This structure was a nice stone fire tower with a few steps to the top.  From the top of the tower are maps that will help you identify the mountains in the ranges around you.  If you go on a clear day, you should be able to see for quite a distance.

We stayed at the top for quite a while and this was definitely my top hike from this trip.  We ate our packed lunch and talked to the few people we saw at the top, but it was hard to pull me away from the stunning landscape around me.  If you aren’t capable of doing the hike, this is still a place to visit on a trip in North Carolina.

Christine Says…

This was another hike I mapped out using my AWOL Guide for the Appalachian Trail.  You can practically drive up to the tower, but we wanted to put in longer trail miles, so we opted to start at Wayah Gap, about four miles south of Wayah Bald.

It turned out to be a beautiful hike!  There were tons of blooming wildflowers, a crisp breeze, abundant sunshine, and pleasant temperatures.  I was thrilled to see the last few red trillium blooms and the first of the flame azaleas lighting up the forest. The hike was perfectly timed to see lots of wildflowers.

View From the Wayah Bald Tower
The view from the Wayah Bald Tower is almost 360. Below: The views are also nice from the Wayah Picnic Area; The tower; Inside the Wayah Tower.

View from Wayah Picnic Area Wayah Tower Inside Wayah Tower

We started early and had most of the trail to ourselves.  Just a few tenths of a mile after starting, we passed a very early-season southbound thru-hiker.  I didn’t know it at the time, but we learned later that he was Mountain Man – possibly the oldest person to ever complete a winter thru-hike.  He finished about ten days after our paths crossed.

The terrain on the way to Wayah Bald was pretty gentle – moderate climbs and descents and lots of easy walking.  We passed several really nice campsites along the way, with the largest and nicest being located at the junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail.

We walked through an area that was recently burned, leaving behind some open views and lots of fast-growing tall grass to wade through.  Most of the sunny spots on the trail were pretty overgrown.

When we arrived at Wayah Bald, we took a wrong turn and ended up walking up to the picnic area.  It was a lucky mistake, because the picnic area offers a second beautiful vista.  Once we realized we were in the wrong place, we turned around an walked the opposite way up to the tower.

Layers of Mountains
We never get tired of looking at our beautiful, velvety rolling mountains. Below: No idea why there were so many worms/grubs in a pile. It was gross and fascinating; We liked this lone tree in a small meadow we passed; Post-hike lunch at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ at the Nantahala Outdoor Center – one of our favorite riverside lunch stops.

Worms Meadow and Tree Lunch at Nantahala Outdoor Center

There were only three or four other people at the tower, despite it being a beautiful holiday weekend.  We climbed to the top and ate a snack. We loved looking at and identifying the other mountains that made up the panoramic vista.  One of the most recognizable was Siler Bald – identified by the wide grassy swath leading to the summit. We spent a bit more time enjoying the spectacular view before making our way back.

After the hike, we decided to go to one of our favorite places – the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The place was hopping with Memorial Day activities, but we were still able to find a parking spot and a table at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1613  ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  The length makes this rated a 3, but the overall climb was manageable.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail was well-maintained, but very overgrown from the junction with the Bartram Trail leading up to the summit.  There weren’t many rocky sections, so it made for nice footing most of the trail.
  • Views  5.  Panoramic, 360-degree views from the Fire Tower on a clear day.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were two adequate springs to use as water sources along the way.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Nothing spotted on this trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.0. As long as you follow the white blazes for the Appalachian Trail, you should be in good shape. 
  • Solitude – 4.  Maybe we hit this on an odd day, but we had a lot of solitude on a “should have been busy” day and even had the fire tower to ourselves for about 15 minutes. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.153662, -83.580462. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W.  Follow 64W for 3.7 miles.  Take a right on Patton Road.  Follow Patton for .3 of a mile and then turn left on Wayah Road.  Follow Wayah Road for 9 miles until you reach the well-marked trail crossing.  Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.

Standing Indian Mountain (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Standing Indian is a pleasant five mile (round trip) hike along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina’s Southern Nantahala Wilderness.  There is plenty of camping and a beautiful viewpoint at the summit.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Standing Indian Mountain
The view from Standing Indian was almost completely socked in by fog. We did get a couple moments of partial clearing that let us enjoy the view. Below: Camping along the road crossing is closed in Deep Gap, but signs point to nearby sites; Camping around the shelter has also been closed to allow reforestation; Adam makes his way up the Appalachian Trail. This was all before the downpour started.

Standing Indian Designated Campsites No Camping Restoration Standing Indian Before the Rain Started

Christine Says…

When we visited the Smokies this year, we decided to spend the entire trip – an unfortunately short four days – on the southern side of the park.  On our last few trips to the area, we enjoyed exploring the Appalachian Trail corridor just before it enters GSMNP.  We thought Wesser Bald and Siler Bald were both fun hikes with spectacular views, so before we traveled, I spent some time perusing my AWOL Guide to see if there were other nice view hikes close to easily accessible road crossings. One of the hikes I came up with was Standing Indian Mountain.

By the miles, the drive to the trailhead was pretty short, but the last six miles to get to Deep Gap were along a narrow, steep, and winding forest/logging road. It took about 25 minutes to reach the road’s dead-end at Deep Gap Primitive Campground.  There were some really nice campsites available, but the largest and flattest of the sites was closed for reforestation/restoration.  Quite a few of the overused backcountry tent sites in this area have been closed to allow them to return to their natural state.

Standing Indian Shelter
Standing Indian Shelter – there were tent sites behind the shelter. Below: The Appalachian Trail winds through the ferns; We saw dozens of these snails; Signage for the Southern Nantahala Wilderness.

Tons of Ferns Along the AT Snail on Standing Indian Southern Nantahala

We picked up the northbound Appalachian Trail at the end of the road. It was sunny and humid when we started hiking.  The trail climbed steadily and gently the whole way on this hike. Just under a half mile into the hike, we passed a piped spring coming out of the mountainside.  We passed a couple more closed campsites before arriving at the spur trail to Standing Indian Shelter at 1.1 miles.  The shelter is barely a tenth of a mile off the trail.  It had room for about eight people and was equipped with benches and a large fire pit.  There were lots of flat, grassy tent sites behind the shelter.  Supposedly there is a stream/water source 70 yards downhill of the shelter, but we didn’t take the time to explore.  We signed the shelter log and continued our hike up the mountain.

Shortly after the shelter, sun gave way to fog.  We figured it was just leftover moisture from storms the night before or a passing cloud.  At 5,499′, Standing Indian is the tallest peak along the Nantahala River and often gets different weather than the valley below.  We hiked on and the fog gave way to occasional raindrops.  We assured one another it was just a passing shower and pressed on.  By the time we reached a tunnel of rhododendron, the light shower had become a downpour.  Adam wanted to put on our rain gear and stay sheltered under the canopy of rhododendron, but I was getting cold and wanted to push on.  In the end, we decided to wait a little bit; hoping the storm would pass and allow us to enjoy the view that was to be the main point of the hike.

Bluets on Standing Indian
We saw lots of bluets on the hike up. Below: The forest was lush with ferns; A tunnel of mountain laurel gave us a little shelter from the rain; The trail soon was flowing like a stream.

Lush Ferns on Standing Indian Rain and Rhododendrons on Standing Indian Rain on the Appalachian Trail

After about 20 minutes, the rain still hadn’t slowed so I suggested we hike back to the shelter and wait a bit there.  On our way down, the rain stopped, so we turned around and climbed back up. It started pouring again almost immediately after we turned around, so we admitted defeat and decided to just roll with whatever nature threw our way.

So, we hiked to the summit of Standing Indian in a deluge! The summit was completely socked it, but after waiting about ten minutes the fog moved enough to give us a cloudy, misty view of the mountains beyond.  We enjoyed every second of the three minute vista before the fog fell back around.  The hike back was really quick – all downhill over easy terrain.  And wouldn’t you know it… the sun came back out as soon as we got to the parking lot!

Adam Says…

As Christine mentioned, this may not have been the best day for this hike.  The weather forecast predicted some late afternoon storms, so we really thought we could get in a hike before things turned for the worse. It was quite humid from the recent rain.  After we left the shelter, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker, but we pressed on hoping we could beat any rain. We made it to a large rhododendron tunnel and what started off as sprinkling rain quickly became a downpour.  The rain was unrelenting.  We talked about going to the top, but with all the rain, we didn’t think we would see anything, so we decided to turn around before reaching the summit.

As we made our way down, we came across a Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.  She looked college-aged and was carrying a pack that looked like it weighed 60 pounds.  The rain had soaked a bandana she was wearing as headband and the dye from the fabric was bleeding blue streaks all down her face.

The trail heading back was more like walking through a small stream in some spots as the heavy rain looked for a place to escape the steep slope of the mountain.  The rocks on the trail were slippery from the rain.  After making it back about halfway to the shelter, the rain slowed considerably so we changed our mind and decided to give the summit another go.

Campsite on Standing Indian Summit
What a great campsite on the summit of Standing Indian. Below: Standing Indian summit marker; Rhododendrons blooming near the summit; Christine checks out a cool, gnarled, old tree.

Standing Indian Summit Marker Rhododendron Blooming on Standing Indian Summit Big Gnarled Tree

At 2.45 miles, the trail comes to a junction with the Lower Ridge trail.  You will see a sign for Standing Indian Mountain.  Take a right off the Appalachian Trail to follow a path through a campsite area which leads to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain in just a tenth of a mile.  There was a large fire pit at the top and a small nook to catch a view of the mountains around you.  When we arrived, we were able to catch a quick view before the fog and clouds enveloped everything in a sea of gray.  We were at least thankful to be up there to appreciate the view for a few minutes.

The name “Standing Indian Mountain” comes from Cherokee myth.  An Indian warrior had been sent to the summit to watch for a winged monster that came from the sky and stole children.  The monster was captured and destroyed with thunder and lightning from the Great Spirit.  The Cherokee warrior had become afraid and ran away from his post and was turned into stone for his cowardice.  The Cherokee referred to Standing Indian Mountain as “Yunwitsule-nunyi”, meaning “where the man stood”.

Fog and Rain Along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian
Fog and rain along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian Mountain. Below:  A Blue Ridge two-lined salamander (we think); A black-chinned red salamander (we think): Post-hike beers at The Lazy Hiker (we know for sure!)

Blue-Ridge Two-Lined Salamander Black Chinned Red Salamander Lazy Hiker Brewery

The rain continued for most of the hike down.  But one treat the rain provided was the chance to see several salamanders hanging out on the trail.   We first spotted a Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, but the real treat was seeing a black-chinned red salamander.  The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”, so we were glad to catch a few species on this hike.  We have yet to spot a hellbender salamander (which range from 12-29 inches long) in the wild there, but maybe one day we will.

After we made it back to the car, we decided to drive over to Franklin, NC for the afternoon.  We stopped in a wonderful outfitter store called Outdoor 76.  When we had stopped to take pictures of the salamanders, I realized my backpack was completely soaked inside which ruined our copy of our AWOL guide.  So we purchased those as well as a couple of Pelican cases for our phones.  They even have several beers on tap at the back of the store.  It wasn’t until later that I thought about how my daypack has a built-in rain cover – ugh.  We then went to grab some lunch at Motor Company Grill (just an average 50s-style burger and sandwich place) and then went to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company.  Since a lot of AT thru-hikers will spend a day off the trail to eat and resupply in Franklin, this place is a popular spot.  They had great trail and hiking information posted inside and had some of the coolest hiking-related pint glasses I have seen.   It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1300 ft.
  • Difficulty – 2.5.  The climbing on this trail is all very gradual and well-graded. We were surprised it even came out to 1300 feet!
  • Trail Conditions – 4.   The local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is working hard on restoration projects in this area and their work was definitely evident.
  • Views  4.  We are giving this the score it deserves on a nice day with good visibility.  We still had a pretty view, but it could have been much nicer if the rain had held off.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were a couple small springs (at least one was piped) that could be used as a water source.
  • Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple unique salamanders along the trail in the rain. They were both species we hadn’t seen before.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is well blazed.  The view at the top is hidden behind a spur trail through a bunch of campsites.  If you don’t know to cut through the campsites, you would miss the view completely.
  • Solitude – 3.  There were a ton of cars parked at Deep Gap, but we only saw a handful of people on the trail – probably because it was *pouring*!

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.039847, -83.552506. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W.  Follow 64W for 14.5 miles.  Take a left on Deep Gap Road.  It will become a gravel forest service road almost immediately.  Follow the forest road for almost 6 miles until you reach Deep Gap.  Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.

Double Bear Rocks

This 8.3 mile hike follows the Pass Mountain Trail from the route 211 trailhead up to the Pass Mountain Hut.  From there, you’ll follow the Appalachian Trail north to the beautiful viewpoint at Double Bear Rocks.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Double Bear Rocks
The view from Double Bear Rocks looks in the direction of Strickler Knob, Kennedy Peak, and Duncan Knob.

Christine Says…

The first weekend in April, we met up with Tony & Linda (of Hiking Upward fame) for a day of exploring a new trail and a new brewery. When we were discussing route options, Tony tossed out the idea of climbing the Pass Mountain trail for a visit to the same-named Appalachian Trail shelter.  The route was about five miles with 1,300 feet of climbing – perfectly moderate for my recovering ankle injury.

We initially planned to hike on Saturday, but sleet, rain, and high winds compelled us to postpone for Sunday’s more pleasant forecast.  We met at the trailhead along Route 211, just a little bit west of Sperryville.  The trail begins at the cement marker post across the road.  211 can be very busy and its twists and turns are often traveled at speed, so be extremely careful crossing the road from your car to the Pass Mountain trail.

The Pass Mountain trail was beautifully maintained – blowdowns were cleared, branches were trimmed back, and it looked like someone had put a lot of time installing new water bars.  The hike began with a meandering series of switchbacks that climbed steadily but gently uphill. At about the one mile mark, we reached another cement marker.  At the marker, you’ll notice a defunct, unlabeled fire road; stay to the left and follow the blue-blazed Pass Mountain trail uphill.  The trail continues uphill for almost a mile before leveling out on the ridge.  If you happen to hike this trail in winter or early spring, you’ll get great views of Marys Rock through the trees.

Pass Mountain Trail
Our hike started from a trailhead on route 211 near Sperryville. Below: A trailmarker in the middle of the woods.  It appears there used to be another trail or fireroad at the marker that is no longer maintained; Our hiking entourage; A view of Marys Rock through the trees.

Trail Junction Hiking Entourage Mary's Rock Through the Trees

At 2.8 miles, the trail ends at Pass Mountain Hut – one of the park’s nine Appalachian Trail shelters.  The shelter is a typical structure with a nearby spring and privy.  The unusual thing about Pass Mountain Hut that sets it apart from other AT shelters in the park is that it has a fairly new bear locker instead of a bear pole.  A couple years ago, the Pass Mountain Hut was closed due to aggressive bear activity.  In late summer, a young, extremely thin black bear destroyed the tent of an ATC Ridgerunner.  She was out on patrol and came back to a flattened, saliva-covered tent.  Park authorities closed the shelter area until the bear could be trapped and relocated to a less populated part of the park.

We spent a few minutes at the shelter debating the rest of our hike.  I mentioned to Tony and Linda that I remembered a nice vista just north of the Pass Mountain summit.  My ankle felt OK and even though I wasn’t sure exactly how far it was to the viewpoint, I thought I would be OK pressing on.  We all agreed that a view always makes extra miles worthwhile.  We followed the blue-blazed spur trail from the hut to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.

We headed north on the AT for about a mile, reaching the rocky but viewless summit of Pass Mountain.  This summit does not have a cement marker.  You’ll know you crossed the summit only because you start descending again.  When we crossed the summit, we were still vaguely guessing about how much further we needed to hike to reach the view.  We explored off-trail a little on rocky outcroppings, but they all turned out to be closed in by trees.  Adam jogged ahead to scout for the view. Tony, Linda, and I were all several hundred yards back when we heard Adam shouting ‘BEAR, BEAR, BEAR(S)’.  We all raced ahead, too – because who wants to miss a bear sighting?

Pass Mountain Hut
Shortly before reaching the junction with the Applachian Trail, we passed the Pass Mountain Hut. Below: The hut’s water source; Shelter log; Adam hiking the AT.

Water Source at Pass Mountain Shelter Log Walking the AT

We got there just in time to see two big, furry rear ends disappearing into the brush.  Adam, however, got a great close-up view of the bears.  Lucky!  Just a couple tenths of a mile past the bears, we spotted the side path to the view – Double Bear Rocks, named for the high population of bears in this area.  The view itself is quite nice, but what I remember most about this rocky outcropping is its seasonal abundance in blueberries!  Last time we hiked by this spot, it was July and there were berries everywhere!  In the short time we sat and enjoyed the view, clouds moved in, so we decided to be on our way.

The hike back simply retraced our steps coming up.  Since it was mostly downhill, it went by really quickly.  Before we knew it, we were back at our cars for a total hike of 8.3 miles with 1,750 feet of climbing.  We were all quite ready to make our way into Sperryville for some post-hike refreshments.  We decided to pick up a  to-go order from the Creekside Deli.  It’s a humble-looking building painted bright yellow, but there is nothing humble about their baked goods.  They make top-notch sandwiches on homemade bread, cookies, brownies, and other pastries.   We took our food over to Pen Druid brewery to enjoy a couple beers with lunch.  The brewery doesn’t have a kitchen, so they follow picnic rules. The guys at Pen Druid do small batches of interesting beers – most featuring wild yeast strains.   We had great conversation and agreed that we really must get out together more often.  Great day with friends!

Adam Says…

We always enjoy hiking with Tony and Linda.  When you get people together that have done a lot of hiking, our conversations always quickly go through talking about different trail systems.  We can all talk through different routes as if we were following a map along in our heads.  I’m not sure if it is dull conversation for others, but we enjoy talking about the places we have been or have been hoping to go.  Both Hiking Upward and our site were created to share our experiences.  We may have different approaches to the content, but we do this because of our love of nature and the ability to share hiking ideas with others.  We consider ourselves lucky to live where we live and to be able to have all of these experiences so close by – and we hope you enjoy it as well.

With Christine nursing an ankle injury, we picked a route that she thought would be a decent test with a little elevation but not overly challenging.  This route isn’t well-traveled and is accessed from outside of Shenandoah National Park on US-211, in between Luray and Sperryville, VA.  We arrived a few minutes before Tony and Linda, so we parked where we felt was the correct spot – a gravel pull-off at the bottom of a steep curve.  I consulted a map of the area and felt we were correct, but we didn’t see a signpost to designate the beginning of the trail.  I got out of the car and crossed the road near the sharp curve in the road and found the trail marker.

Two Bears on the AT
We saw a mama bear and her yearling cub not far from the viewpoint. Below: Tony scales a rocky lump near the summit of Pass Mountain.

Rocky Portion

The trail starts as the Pass Mountain trail.  While we felt this isn’t a heavily-traversed trail, we were surprised at how well this small section has been maintained.  The hike on the Pass Mountain Trail is a steady uphill climb, but the conditions of the trail made for easy footing.  On the way up, we caught up with what was going on with our lives  – from aging parents to worrisome dogs to trail sections to hiker rescues to beer.  Around the 2.75 mile mark, we reached the Pass Mountain Shelter.  We stopped and ate a snack and checked out the hiking log.   Christine’s ankle was feeling decent, so we decided to press further up the trail.  At the shelter, there is a junction with the fire road (Pass Mountain Hut Road), but the trail ascends up to the left of the shelter as you are facing it.  We continued up the trail until we reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail at 3.0 miles.

We remembered we found a nice overlook on Pass Mountain that was off the trail and we didn’t think it was too terribly far so we decided to try and find it again together.  We took a right, heading north on the white-blazed AT.  The trail continued to go slightly uphill, but the grade wasn’t as steep as most of the Pass Mountain Trail.  When we carried onward for about a mile, I decided to scout ahead a bit since I didn’t want Christine to put a lot of undue pressure on her ankle.  Trekking up ahead at a brisk speed, I came across a mother bear and a yearling bear cub ambling close to the trail.  They were both curious about me, so I said a few “Hey, bears” to let them know I wasn’t a threat.  They slowly were walking away, paying me little mind so I shouted back at the rest of the group “BEAR, BEAR” to let them know I spotted one.  I wondered if the group thought I was shouting for beer instead, but they understood.  When they caught up, they were able to see the bears not too far off but they had moved away from their comfy spot.

The Descent of Pass Mountain
The trail down is nicely graded with switchbacks. Below: Green plants were just beginning to reappear; Parking area – the road crossing can be very treacherous.

Descent of Pass Mountain Parking

Right around the corner from where we spotted the bear, we saw the jumbled rocks on the left of the trail that we remembered as being the viewpoint.  We cut off the trail and out onto the rocks to enjoy a nice view to the west.  There are nicer views in the park, but on a clear day you can see ridges of mountains for miles.

After taking in the view for a few minutes, we made our way back to our cars.  We continued our trip to Creekside Deli and then Pen Druid Brewery for some delicious food and drink before parting ways.  We look forward to our next adventure with them!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.3 miles roundtrip
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1730 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  This was a nice, moderate hike with steady but well-graded climbing.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  The trail was in fantastic shape – very well maintained and tended to by the PATC. 
  • Views  3.5.  There’s a beautiful, but not quite panoramic view on the northern flank of Pass Mountain.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  There isn’t any stream scenery, but there is a spring behind the Pass Mountain Hut.
  • Wildlife – 4.  We saw bears – a yearling cub and mama!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 4.  We saw one couple at the hut, but no one else at all during the entirety of the 8+ mile hike.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: The trail is located off of US-211 about 12 miles east of Luray, VA and 2.8 miles east of where US-211 crosses Skyline Drive.  The gravel lot is located at 38.66855, -78.28999.   Cross the road (be careful as this is a blind curve and cars may not see you easily) and at the bottom of the steep, sharp curve you will see the signpost for the Pass Mountain Trail.