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

Robertson Mountain

This 6.0 mile hike follows fire roads and trails to the summit of Robertson Mountain – one of Shenandoah’s less visited, more interior peaks.  It’s a moderate hike with fantastic views!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Summit of Robertson Mountain
The summit of Robertson Mountain is less visited than many peaks in Shenandoah.

Christine Says…

Our traditional Thanksgiving day begins with a hike and ends with homemade pizza and beer.  I know it’s not the normal way to celebrate this holiday, but it’s what we’ve done for years now. Eating turkey would just be weird for us!  Last year, Skyline Drive was closed for weather, so we had a beautiful short hike along the Appalachian Trail in half a foot of fresh snow. I still remember losing the trail multiple times because branches were so heavily bowed over the path. Thanksgiving of 2015 was quite different! It was so warm and sunny that it felt more like early fall. Even with a brisk breeze, we were able to hike comfortably in t-shirts.

We wanted to hike something new, so we settled on Robertson Mountain. It’s not as well-known or popular as many other Shenandoah trail, but we heard it had nice views of Old Rag and the valley. The hike isn’t listed in any of our hiking guidebooks and most of the online information approaches Robertson Mountain from the Old Rag parking area. That route is known as one of the steepest climbs in the park.  We didn’t want to drive all the way around to Weakley Hollow, so we consulted our maps to find a route approaching the summit from Skyline Drive.

Buildings Along the Fire Road
This cluster of buildings is sometimes used for training events or ranger accommodations.  It was empty when we visited. Below: The hike started out on the Limberlost Trail; A pretty stream along the way; Most of this hike is walking on a fire road.

Limberlost Stream Along the Fire Road Old Rag Fire Road

We decided our best option was to park at Limberlost and follow that trail to the junction with the Old Rag fire road.  From there, we just followed the Old Rag fire road all the way down to its junction with the Robertson Mountain Trail.  At first, the route seemed a little confusing because the fire road and the Big Meadows Horse Trail shared course for a while.  Adam will give more specific details about benchmarks and distances in his portion of the post.  Most of the walking along the fire road was mundane.  We passed a pretty stream early on the route.  We also came across a cluster of backcountry cabins.  There wasn’t a sign marking them, but apparently they are used for training activities and ranger accommodations.   As we descended the fire road, eventually Robertson Mountain came into view.  Through the leafless trees, we could see it’s cone-like shape through branches.

We took a left onto the Robertson Mountain trail.  It’s the only ‘real’ section of trail on this hike – the majority is fire road and the graded path of Limberlost.  We climbed steadily for about three-quarters of a mile until we reached the top.  A side path made it’s way to a rocky outcropping.  We had the summit all to ourselves.  We enjoyed a light lunch and spectacular views of the mountains.  After leaving the summit, we explored a mountain-top campsite.  There was definitely enough room for a couple tents, but no water source.  Someone had recently put an illegal fire ring in at the site, so we dispersed the rocks before heading back down.

The hike back retraced our steps and was primarily an uphill climb back to Limberlost.  If you’re looking for the less steep, easier way to visit Robertson Mountain – this is your route!  The approach from Weakley Hollow is about the same total distance, but is a much steeper climb! All in all, this was a pleasant and moderate six mile hike.  The route wasn’t very exciting, but the great views more than made up for it. It was the perfect way to spend our Thanksgiving morning.

Approaching Robertson
We could see Robertson Mountain looming in the distance.  Below: Climbing the Robertson Mountain Trail; A campsite with remnants of an illegal fire near the summit; Arriving at the viewpoint.

Robertson Mountain Trail Campsite Near the Robertson Summit Arriving at Robertson Mountain Summit

Adam Says…

Robertson Mountain is one of those hikes that doesn’t get much publicity, but treats you with a serene view over a mountainous landscape with barely a glimpse of civilization.  Because of this, on most days, you will find that you can have this slice of serenity all to yourself.

We started our hike from the Limberlost Trail parking lot.  The Limberlost Trail is a small loop, but start heading on the left, clockwise from the parking lot.  There are several spurs that lead away from the Limberlost Trail and all of the junctions aren’t easily marked.  After going just a couple tenths of a mile, we came to a sign that states “Horse Trail” with arrows to Skyland and Big Meadows (the next trail that comes off the Limberlost Trail Loop is the White Oak Canyon Trail – this is not the trail you want).  Take this trail off the Limberlost Trail which is the Old Rag Fire Road.  The Old Rag Fire Road starts off mostly flat until the one mile mark.  At this point, it will start a steeper downhill.  At 1.7 miles, you reach a junction with the Indian Run trail, but stay on the Fire Road.  At 2.2 miles, you reach the bottom of the steep decline and reach another junction with the Corbin Hollow Trail. Stay on the Old Rag Fire Road and at 2.3 miles, you will see a small post on the left of the road that marks the beginning of the Robertson Mountain trail.

Robertson Mountain Summit
No one else to be seen on the trail on this day! Below: Gnarled trees near the summit; Descending Robertson Mountain; Returning to the junction of the Robertson Mountain Trail and the Fire Road.

Gnarled Trees Descending Robertson Mountain Back Up to Skyline Drive

Take this trail, which starts off through some thicker underbrush.  This trail is much steeper but it is a short climb of .6 miles.  The Robertson Mountain trail was very rocky and you think several times that you have reached a false summit, but the trail continues up.  At this 2.9 mile marker, there is a small side trail to the right that leads to the summit.   From the summit, you will see lots of nice rock outcroppings to enjoy the view.  Continue back the way you came to make this about a 6 mile out-and-back hike.

For those that want to bag a few different peaks from this hike, you can reach Old Rag from here also.  You could go back down the Robertson Mountain trail and then take a left at the Old Rag Fire Road.  Taking this and then joining the Saddle Trail would take another 4 miles to reach the summit of Old Rag.  This would give you about a 15-mile hike, so it could make a decent route for an overnight backpacking trip (but there isn’t really a water source) or a very long day hike for those that are very fit.  Shenandoah provides a nice, free trail map of this area on their website.

This was a great way to spend a day on a hidden gem of a hike.  While the fire road is not overly thrilling to see, it makes for some easy footing.  We feel we have done so much of Shenandoah National Park, so we were pleasantly surprised at how this tucked-away hike gave us some of the better views in the park.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6.0 miles roundtrip
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1250 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.5.  This was an easy to moderate hike.  The climbing was mostly gentle and well-graded.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Most of the hike was along accessible trail or fire road.  The Robertson Mountain trail was typical Shenandoah single-track.
  • Views  4.5.  Beautiful and fairly expansive!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There was one pretty stream early in the hike.
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw deer and birds.  I am sure some hikers cross paths with bears in this area too.  We saw some scat along the fire road.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The junction of Limberlost and the Old Rag Fireroad is not well labeled, but it’s also hard to miss something as wide as a fire road.
  • Solitude – 4.  We saw some people around Limberlost, but nobody after that!

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 Limberlost Parking lot is located around Mile Marker 43 on Skyline Drive.  Park in this lot.  Head left on the Limberlost Trail loop at the end of the parking lot.  Coordinates: 38.580055, -78.381473

Signal Knob

This 10.2 mile hike in the George Washington National Forest has nice views of Strasburg.  It also has rocks – lots and lots of pointy rocks.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Christine on Signal Knob
Christine takes in the view on Signal Knob.  Below: Adam checks out the GWNF information board; The stone cottage; Wild rose.

Trail Sign at the Beginning of Signal Knob Hike Stone Cottage Along the Trail Wild Rose

Christine Says…

Picking day hikes is getting challenging for us – we’ve done most of the popular ones in the area. Yet, somehow, Signal Knob had repeatedly escaped our notice.  We figured a pleasant Sunday in early June was a perfect day to tackle something new!

We started our day early with a big breakfast in Harrisonburg.  Then we stopped for donuts at Holy Moly in Strasburg.  We decided to save the donuts for post-hike, but Holy Moly is so popular (especially on the weekend) that we didn’t want to take the risk of them selling out.

Parking at the Signal Knob trailhead is abundant and completely off-road.  When we arrived there was a small handful of other cars there.   We started out from the trail on the north side of the parking area – look for orange blazes (Massanutten Trail) and a GWNF information board.  The trail climbed steadily right away. We passed a really neat stone cottage right along the trail very early in our hike.  It was in great condition and still looked in-use.   Right after the cottage, we stepped over a small stream and continued uphill.  The lower parts of the trail were lined with wild roses and sweetpeas.  As we climbed higher, mountain laurel became abundant.   The trail was openly exposed to the sun and offered some nice views along the way.

Views Along the Climb to Signal Knob
There were some pretty views through the trees on the climb to Signal Knob. The higher we climbed, the prettier the mountain laurel became. Low elevation laurel had already gone to seed. Below: A neat tree before the Buzzard Rock Overlook; Buzzard Rock Overlook; Fort Valley Overlook.

A Cool Tree on Signal Knob Hike View from Buzzard Rock Fort Valley Overlook

At 1.5 miles, we reached an opening in the trees which gave a backlit view of Buzzard Rocks on the other side of the valley.  I can’t look at Buzzard Rocks without recalling the horrible ankle sprain I suffered there several years ago!  We chatted with an older gentleman at the overlook – he warned us that the trail was about to get rocky!  He wasn’t kidding!  For the next 1.25 miles, the trail was a loose jumble of pointy, shifting rock.

At about 2.5 miles, we passed the marked Fort Valley Overlook.  The view was mostly overgrown, but I can imagine it lovely when the trees were smaller!  Gradually the rockiness tapered off; and so did the climbing.  The trail became a pleasant stroll through the woods.  We passed several nice campsites and passed the junction of the Meneka Peak trail at about 3.5 miles.  The last .8 of a mile to Signal Knob was ever-so-slightly downhill.

When we reached the WVPT building, we thought the open vista behind the building might be the view.  We chatted with a pair of hikers there and asked ‘Is this the only view up here?’  Both of them said ‘Yes… it’s the only view we’ve ever seen and we’ve hiked here lots of times.’  We took them at their word and felt a little underwhelmed by the view – it was obstructed by powerlines and disrupted by a steady buzz from the broadcast tower.  Not wanting to doubt them directly, I whispered to Adam ‘This can’t be it… there’s no view of Strasburg and there’s supposed to be one!’  We decided to explore further before hiking down the fireroad.  I’m glad we did!

Leaving the WVPT tower, do not follow the fire road downhill.  Go past the tower and look for a trail than runs parallel to the ridge.  If you follow it a short distance, you’ll come to a marked overlook – Signal Knob.  We spent some time at the knob relaxing and enjoying a bit of breeze.  Signal Knob is a nice overlook, but not a spectacular one.   It’s a bit closed in and overgrown.  And, if I’m being 100% honest, looking down into Strasburg with its housing developments, water towers, and roads just isn’t as breathtaking as looking out into raw wilderness.   I did also enjoy our ‘company’ at the summit – for whatever reason, Signal Knob was hopping with toads.  We saw dozens of them!  I’ve never seen so many together!

The Signal Knob Trail is Very Rocky
The trail up Signal Knob is extremely rocky.  Below: Once you reach the ridge it’s a bit less rocky; WVPT broadcast; A view behind the tower.

Walking Along the Signal Knob Ridge WVPT View From WVPT

After enjoying the view, we followed the trail slightly downhill past the overlook.  A trail marker directed us toward the Tuscarora Trail. We soon merged onto the fire road we had seen near the broadcast tower.  We followed it downhill for almost a mile before reaching another trail junction.

The turn onto the Tuscarora trail is marked with another national forest information board.  There is also a nice bench at the junction – probably an Eagle Scout project!   Turning onto the Tuscarora Trail, you’ll immediately cross Little Passage Creek.  It was a very easy rock hop.  From there the trail climbs uphill for a little less than a mile. This section was a bit steeper than what was required to reach Signal Knob, but still squarely moderate.

Along the ridge, we passed the other side of the Meneka Peak trail.  Looking at how these trails interconnect is interesting and definitely opens up some longer loop options.   At about 6.4 miles, the trail passed through a small grassy area and began to descend steadily.  There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the rest of the hike.  It was just a walk through the woods.  We saw a big bird’s nest of some sort.  We saw tons of ripening blueberries.  We passed some boy scouts on a weekend backpacking trip. We passed the pink blazed Sidewinder trail at 8.1 miles.  We crossed a stream. At around 9.5 miles we passed a spur trail to Elizabeth Furnace.  At this point the blazes went back to orange.

We found this part of the hike a bit confusing.  Our maps and GPS disagreed on distances for waypoints late in the hike.  There was also a lot of trail construction and rerouting going on.  New paths were cut into the woods all over the place.  Fortunately they all went in the same general direction.  We tried to follow the most established paths.  A little over a half mile past our last trail marker, we spotted a parking lot through the trees.  Adam thought it was a different one from where we started, but our MapMyHike app indicated we made a full loop and we popped out on the south side of the lot where we had started our hike several hours earlier.

The day had become hot, humid, and overcast, so we were glad to be back at the car! We shared just one of the donuts (Peach Bellini!) so we could save room for a big lunch at Spelunker’s in Front Royal.  On the way to lunch, we talked about the hike a bit.  We both agreed that it wasn’t one of our favorites.  I think it’s popular because of its vicinity to northern Virginia, but of the knobs in the Massanutten/Fort Valley area – I like Strickler and Duncan quite a bit more!

Adam Says…

We have had many people recommend Strickler Knob to us over the years.  Knowing of its popularity, we thought it would be a good idea to get an early start.  When we arrived, there were not many cars there, but from the size of the parking lot we knew it was a matter of time.

We started out on the north (right) side of the parking lot.  The orange-blazed Massanutten trail started off our loop hike.  The trail starts uphill and soon passes a large stone cabin on the left, while you can see a stream below to the right.  You cross over the stream and then loop back in a northerly direction.  At 1.5 miles, we reached Buzzard Rocks overlook.  We talked there to an older man who was out for some morning exercise.  He warned us of about a mile of pointy rocks ahead.  Since he was hiking solo, he told us he doesn’t want to risk hurting himself and just goes to this overlook and back.

The trail takes a sharp left turn and then within a few minutes, we found the rocky area we had been warned about.  Wear comfortable shoes, as the rocks were pointy and you always had to look at your feet to navigate through safe footing.

The View from Signal Knob
You can see the town of Strasburg from Signal Knob. We weren’t terribly impressed with the view.  Below: Toads everywhere; The fire road; The information board at the junction with the Tuscarora Trail; A glimpse of a view.

Cute Toad The Fire Road Descending Signal Knob
Junction of the Massanutten and Tuscarora Trails View from the Tuscarora Trail

At 2.4 miles, we arrived at the sign for the Fort Valley overlook.  The trees and leaves have this very obstructed now, but you can get a glimpse of the valley below.  At 3.4 miles, we arrived at the junction with the white-blazed  Maneka Peak trail, but continue on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail.  The trail leveled out at this point, giving us a nice forest walk until we reached the broadcast tower at 4.3 miles.   We walked behind the building on a small path and saw nice views on the backside of the tower.  We were feeling disappointed when the two girls had said this was the view.  My idea of views doesn’t include power lines cutting through the landscape.  There were lots of bugs flying around us, so we didn’t stay here long.

We pushed on from the tower and saw that there was a huge fire road leading down, but the trail blazes seemed to continue forward back into the woods.  We decided to take this route and then within a short distance came to the real view.  We both felt bad that these girls, who had been up here several times, had always missed the real view up here.  The view here did give us nice views of Strasburg below.  I noticed that one of the rocks had a plaque below it that was put in here for a couple that loved coming up here.

Walking the Tuscarora Trail
Adam walks along the Tuscarora Trail. Below: Stream crossing near the end of the hike; Pretty butterfly; Holy Moly!

Crossing Little Passage Creek Pretty Butterfly Holy Moly Donuts

The trail then loops back and does join the fire road very shortly.  We walked down the steep fire road and came upon another hiker who had just hiked up the fire road to the summit.  The fire road was a fairly steep descent and had nice wildflowers along both sides.  At 5.5 miles, we came across a bench and a junction with the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail.  We took this trail to start our return trip.  The Tuscarora Trail was more overgrown and the climb up Meneka Peak was the steepest climb on this hike.  We were finally finished with the uphill at 6.4 miles and then the trail descends on the other side of the ridgeline just as steeply.

The trail descends for a good distance.  At 8.1 miles, we passed by the pink-blazed Sidewinder trail and the trail leveled out a little more.  We continued on and the trail became orange-blazed again at 9.5 miles.  We followed the orange-blazed trail through the tricky section mentioned above and then arrived back at a lower section of the parking lot at 10.2 miles.

Overall, I was underwhelmed on this hike.  The views were nice, but I have seen a lot better view hikes.  I can imagine that in a few years, the trees and bushes may obstruct the main view even further.

Because of the inner-connectivity of all the trails in this area, there are many options for backpacking loops through this trail system.  The loop that we chose didn’t have a lot to offer after the summit.  If I was doing this again, I would likely do just an out-and-back hike to the summit, making this an 8.6 hike.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 10.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2159 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  The climbing on this trail is all easy to moderate, but the distance and loose/rocky footing increase the difficulty rating.
  • Trail Conditions – 2.5.  The trail is rocky and shifty – especially the middle part.
  • Views  3.  There are descent views from Signal Knob and the WVPT broadcast facility.  While other reviews give the vistas on this hike top marks, we thought they were just OK.  The WVPT view had powerlines and the Signal Knob view is starting to get a bit overgrown and looks out toward an suburban area. 
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There were a couple small streams that could be used as water sources.  We believe they dry out pretty quickly based on the fact that they were already on the low side after a week of rainy days.
  • Wildlife – 3. We saw lots of cute toads hopping around, and supposedly this is a good place for a potential bear sighting.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5. The blazing in this area is very thorough, but trail junctions are inconsistently marked.  As of June 2015, it appears the forest service is working on a reroute of the last .5-.75 miles of the hike.  There are lots of unmarked trails that criss-cross the established, blazed trail.
  • Solitude – 3.  We saw a good number of couples and solo hikers out for a day hike.  We also saw a group of college students and a boy scout troop out backpacking.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From I-66, take exit 6 for US-340/US-522 for Front Royal/Winchester.  Turn on to US-340S/US-522S/Winchester Road.  Go 1.2 miles and take a right on to VA-55W/W Strasburg Road.  Go 5.1 miles and take a left on to State Route 678/Fort Valley Road.  Go 3.4 miles until you reach the large parking lot on the right.  Park here.  The trail starts on the right side of the lot.  You will see the wooden information board that will mark the beginning of your hike. Parking coordinates: 38.93503, -78.31956

Furnace Mountain – Austin Mountain Loop

This 12-mile loop combines numerous park trails into one great route!  You’ll pass by several gorgeous viewpoints, walk along pretty Madison Run, and cross massive talus slopes.  It’s a challenging hike with about 3,000 feet of climbing.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

On the Shoulder of Austin Mountain
Adam crosses one of the large talus slopes on the side of Austin Mountain.

Christine Says…

The Austin Mountain – Furnace Mountain Loop has the reputation of being one of the park’s toughest and longest day hikes.  Not only is the terrain rocky and rugged, there is also a serious amount of climbing involved.  Essentially, you climb up from the valley floor, traversing several mountains along the way – Furnace, Trayfoot, Blackrock, and Austin. While you don’t technically reach the summits of Austin or Trayfoot, you come within a couple hundred feet of these viewless/inaccessible summits.

Most sources begin this hike from the Browns Gap parking area on Skyline Drive.  For us, it’s a much shorter drive to start down in the valley, at the park perimeter near Grottoes.  We parked along the roadside where Browns Gap Rd meets the Madison Run fire road.  This is a popular park entry point for hikers and equestrians alike.  It can get crowded if you don’t get an early start on the day.

Crossing Madison Run
Adam crosses Madison Run. Below: Pretty sun rays on the fire road; Walking up Furnace Mountain; Small talus slopes and views on the Furnace Mountain trail.

Browns Gap Fireroad Climbing Furnace View from the Furnace Mountain Trail

After walking up the Madison Run fire road for a short distance, the Furnace Mountain trail begins on the right with a rock-hop crossing of Madison Run.  For a little over a mile, you’ll ascend Furnace Mountain before coming to a cement post that marks the spur trail to the summit of Furnace Mountain.  The spur trail is about half a mile and leads to a fantastic viewpoint.  You can see Skyline Drive if you look carefully.  If you look across the gorge, you’ll see the huge talus slopes of Austin Mountain that you’ll cross later in the hike.  On this particular day, we skipped the side trail to the summit of Furnace.  We had hiked Furnace Mountain just a few weeks earlier and knew we had many miles to go and other views to enjoy along the way.

The ascent continues in earnest along the Furnace Mountain Trail.  Eventually, you’ll come to a junction with the Trayfoot Mountain trail.  Take a left and descend.  This trail is an old road bed, so it’s wide and nicely graded.  After a few tenths of a mile, you’ll come to another cement marker post.  Follow the trail to the right in the direction of Blackrock Summit.  This rocky jumble will be your best view on the hike!  We chose to eat lunch at this spot.  That probably wasn’t the best of ideas, because the strong wind made the summit bitterly cold.  It’s no fun to eat PB&J with your teeth chattering and while you’re wearing gloves.  Needless to say, we ate quickly!

Overlook on Furnace Mountain
The view from Furnace Mountain. Below:  From Furnace Mountain you can see the massive talus slopes on Austin Mountain; Looking back at Furnace Mountain; Junction of Furnace Mountain and Trayfoot Mountain trails.

View of Austin Mountain from Furnace Mountain Looking Back at Furnace Mountain Furnace-Trayfoot Junction

Rounding Blackrock Summit leads you to the Appalachian Trail.  To continue this route, head north on the AT for a couple miles until you reach the Browns Gap parking area on Skyline Drive.  This section of AT is fast going – it’s practically flat and uncomplicated.  You’ll pass the Dundo picnic area along the way.  If you run out of water, there is a clean tap at the picnic area.

From the Browns Gap parking area, follow the fire road downhill for .8 of a mile.  A cement post on the right marks the Madison Run Spur Trail.  This trail will go steeply uphill to a junction with the Rockytop and Big Run trails.  Bear to the left on the Rockytop trail.  Follow the Rockytop trail for several tenths of a mile until you reach another cement marker for the Austin Mountain trail. If you hike when leaves are off the trees, you’ll get some great ridge views in this area.

Once you turn left onto the Austin Mountain trail, you’ll have a little over 3 miles to go before you hit fire road again.  The terrain starts off easily enough, following a lovely ridge overlooking Dundo Hollow and Furnace Mountain (from earlier in your hike).   The views are really nice, and it’s impressive to look back on all the distance you’ve traversed!

Adam on Blackrock Summit
Adam takes in the view from Blackrock Summit.  Below: View from the Trayfoot Mountain trail; Arriving at Blackrock summit; Playing on the rocks.

View from Trayfoot Trail Blackrock Summit Blackrock Summit

But a little over a mile along the Austin Mountain trail, the talus slopes begin.  From there, it’s an endless field of loose rocks for nearly a mile.  When you think you’re done with rocks, surprise… there are more rocks!  Don’t miss looking up and behind you – the cliff-like wall of Austin Mountain looks like a crenulated castle wall. After you cross the last talus slope, you have a steep, knee-grinding descent back to the Madison Run fire road.

Once you reach the fire road, you just have a easy .6 mile road-walk back to your start point.  The stream is especially scenic along this stretch.  After getting back to the car, we decided we had earned milkshakes!  It was a fun day and a great challenge!

Adam Says…

We decided to try and tackle this loop since we wanted to get some good training for some longer hikes.  While we were able to get out and do a few good hikes over the winter months, this was definitely a challenging hike to do before we (or at least I) had gotten my “summer trail legs”.  This particular hike did a toll on me, especially the last couple of miles.

Junction of Trayfoot with the Appalachian Trail
The junction of the Trayfoot Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Below: Hiking the AT; Arriving at Browns Gap and the fire road; The junction with the Austin Mountain Trail.

Appalachian Trail Spur Trail Junction of Big Run & Austin Mountain Trails

The water across Madison Run was running a little higher and faster than normal, but we were able to rockhop across and begin our hike.  The hike up Furnace Mountain is a steady uphill, but does lead to some nice views along the way.  There is one section that has a small talus slope that we thought was impressive, but little did we know what Austin Mountain would bring later in the day.  At the junction of the spur trail, we met a couple that was doing the same loop but camped along Madison Run that morning.  They had started from the Browns Gap parking area in Shenandoah National Park, but had a day of mostly uphill climbing this day.  As Christine mentioned, we decided to skip the overlook and made our way to Blackrock Summit.

Talus Slopes
Huge talus slopes on Austin Mountain.  Below: Views from the Austin Mountain Trail; Talus slopes and a view of Furnace Mountain; Descending Austin Mountain.

Walking the Austin Mountain Trail Looking at Furnace Mountain from Austin Mountain Steep Descent of Austin Mountain

At Blackrock, the wind was incredibly strong and cold.  There was still ice in the crevices between the rocks in most places.  We sat out to eat some lunch, but our hands were trembling in the cold, which made for challenging and rushed eating.  We quickly got out of there and joined the Appalachian Trail, heading north.  We made quick time on this flatter section of trail and crossed Skyline Drive.  The trail stays close to Skyline Drive until you reach the Dundo picnic area (which does have bathrooms if you need it).

Passing the picnic area, we crossed Skyline Drive again after 6.5 miles.  After crossing the road, we made our way through the parking lot and crossed the gate blocking the fire road.  Heading down the fire road was easy walking.  At mile 7.3, we spotted the cement post on the side of the road, leading up the Madison Run Spur Trail.  This section was steep but short as we reached the crest and junction with the Rockytop Trail.  We took a left here which continues uphill and reaches the junction with the Austin Mountain Trail around 8.2 miles.  Bear to the left and the trail begins to go downhill finally.

Madison Run
Pretty Madison Run.  Below: Crenulations on Austin Mountain; Adam coming down to the fire road; Walking the fire road back to the car.

Spires on Austin Mountain Return to Fire Road Walking the Fire Road

Right before this junction, my IT bands near my right knee began to hurt.  Sometimes when one knee begins to hurt, you tend to overcompensate with the other.  We came across a hiker that was hiking up and he warned us there was a mile of loose rock to walk on.  We soon reached the huge talus slopes.  When you have one leg giving you pain, the last thing you want to see is loose rock footing for as long as you can see.  The views of the slope were impressive, as well as looking across the mountainous valley to see Furnace Mountain, but the pain was keeping me from having the best of times.  With vultures ominously circling above my head, I felt they didn’t have much faith I would make it.  Just when we thought we had reached across the slopes, the trail turns back and works it way down the mountain, giving us lower parts of the slopes and more rocks.  We finally reached the bottom of the trail and joined the Madison Run Road at 11.2 miles.  It was a flat walk along the side of a picturesque creek until we made our way back to the car in .8 miles.

While this was a tough hike, it was rewarding.  This hike has great views, unique geology, and a picturesque creek.  If you don’t want to tackle it in one day, it would make a nice backpacking loop, but I would recommend starting at Brown’s Gap to split the hike and leave you camping by the water source of Madison Run.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 12 miles  Add .5 mile, each way, if you take the spur trail out to the overlook atop Furnace Mountain.  You can make a shorter, easier loop if you descend via the fire road and skip Austin Mountain)
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2900 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.5.  The length and amount of climbing make this tough.
  • Trail Conditions – 2.  While the trail was well-maintained, the footing on the talus slopes brings this score down due to the challenge of walking on loose rock for over a mile of the trail.   
  • Views  4.  You have nice views from Furnace Mountain if you add that spur, but Blackrock Summit and views along the Austin Mountain Trail make it worthwhile.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Madison Run is a nice wide stream and reliable water source year-round.
  • Wildlife –2.  We didn’t see much, but there have been bear sightings along the Austin Mountain portion of the trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5.  There are lots of trails that cross, so pay attention to the signs.  The trickiest is around the Blackrock Summit area.
  • Solitude – 3.  You will likely see people at Blackrock summit, but not a lot of activity elsewhere. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From I-81, take exit 256 heading east towards Weyers Cave.  Go 6.6 miles and take a left on US-340/Augusta Avenue.  Go .1 miles and take a right on Cary Street.  In .2 miles, continue on to VA-663/Brown’s Gap Road.  In 1.9 miles, turn right on to the dirt fire road.  Follow this 1.1 miles and you will reach the parking area.  Look for the concrete post for Furnace Mountain which will have you instantly rock-hopping across Madison Run to start your hike.

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

Kepler Overlook

This easygoing 6-mile hike offered solitude, great backcountry campsites, and nice views at the top! It was a perfect hike to tackle with a group of friends and dogs.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam takes in the beautiful ,but hazy, view from the top.
Adam takes in the beautiful, but hazy, view from the top. Below: Walking to the trail from the parking area.  This was really the only confusing part of the hike; Crossing Cedar Creek; Right after crossing the creek there is a superb campsite with hewn benches and a high hewn counter-top for cooking.

Start of Hike Crossing Cedar Creek Nice Campsite

Christine Says…

Back in January, we planned a little section hike along the Appalachian Trail with a group of friends. However, icy conditions closed the Blue Ridge Parkway, leaving us scrambling for an alternate plan. We stumbled across the Kepler Overlook on Hiking Upward and decided it would be a good ‘plan B’. Our group met for breakfast at Mr’ J’s Bagels (yay carbs!) in Harrisonburg before heading up to the trailhead.

We expected to have to park about a third of a mile from the official trailhead, but we found the forest service gate open and were able to leave our cars right at the hike’s start point.   From the parking area, there are trails and forest service roads leading in several directions.  This was probably the most confusing part of the hike.  You want to go straight up the forest road with the permanently closed gate.  If you don’t reach the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail within the first .3 mile of your hike up the road, you’ll know you’ve gone the wrong way!

Hiking Along
The group hikes along the trail. Below: Crossing a small footbridge: Clark and Maia on the trail; Adam makes his way uphill.

Stream Crossing Clark & Maia Adam Climbs Uphill

At the junction with the Tuscarora trail, go left.  You’ll pass another closed gate before coming to Cedar Creek.  The crossing of Cedar Creek is fairly wide and might be tricky in wet conditions.  We were able to negotiate the crossing with some careful rock hopping.  Shortly after the crossing, you’ll come to one of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve seen.  Someone has taken the time to build wide benches, a large fire pit, and even a high counter-top for cooking.  It would be a great group campsite with easy access to water.

From the campsite, continue to follow the blue-blazed trail.  There was one place that the trail appeared to go straight, but actually turned.  We all missed the turn and had to backtrack a few hundred feet where the trail crosses the stream again using a footbridge made of branches.

After crossing the stream, the trail climbs Tea Mountain.  It’s never a tough climb, but it’s a steady uphill.  The trail alternates between narrow footpath and wider road-like conditions.  The trail follows along several switchbacks.  At about 1.9 miles into the hike, you should see an unmarked side trail on the left.  If you follow this side trail for a few hundred feet, you’ll reach a large rock jumble.  From the top of the rock jumble you get a great view of the mountains beyond.

Spur Trail
Adam enjoys the first view of the hike. Below: A light dusting of snow on the shady side of the mountain; There were plenty of nice campsites along the ridge; The view was pretty but very hazy.

Dusting of Snow Campsite on the Ridge Hazy View

After taking in the view, return to the Tuscarora trail and continue uphill for about another mile or so until you reach the saddle between Tea and Little North Mountains.  Along this ridge, there are several nice viewpoints and lots of open, flat space for camping.  We took some time to explore a couple different vistas.  The views were nice, but the sky conditions were really hazy.

After enjoying the mountaintop, we descended the way we came up.  On our way home, we decided to check out a new farm brewery near Edinburg.  Swover Creek is a working farm – they grow fruit and hops, raise chickens, and make sausage from locally produced meat.  They’ve recently started a brewery and are working on building a tasting room in their old barn.  We all tried a flight of their four beers (the persimmon ale was my favorite).  We also had their house-made soft pretzels and mustard and enjoyed a sampling of their different sausages.  It was a fun stop and I definitely recommend checking them out if you’re in the area!

Adam Says…

The Kepler Overlook hike was one that we had been wanting to do since we heard about it from our friends at Hiking Upward.  This hike leads to nice views as you climb up to Little North Mountain.

The trail started off as we went past the closed gate up the fire road.  There is a sign just past the gate showing the inter-connected trail system.  Continue up the fire road for about .3 miles and then take a right on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail.  The Tuscarora Trail leads down to Cedar Creek.  Cross a small stream at .5 miles and you will reach a nice campsite.  Continue along the trail and the trail takes another stream crossing (this time over a small log bridge with a branch handrail).  The trail turns quickly to the left as you begin your climb up Tea Mountain.  At 1.9 miles on a switchback, you reach an unmarked  side trail.  Following this for about .1 miles will take you to a rock outcropping with some views to the west.  Backtrack to rejoin the Tuscarora Trail.

Nice View - Kepler Overlook
One of the rocky outcroppings along the ridge. Below: Time for a group selfie; Kris takes in the view; Descent.

Selfie More Views Descending

At 2.5 miles, the trail reaches a Saddle between Tea Mountain and North Mountain.  From here, climb up North Mountain.  The trail levels out at 3.0 miles at a large area for backcountry camping.  From here, you have two options for views.  Cut through the campsite to the right along the ridge for a nice view.  You can also go to the left and make your way again towards the ridge to get more views to the east.

We enjoyed our hike with friends and dogs.  You can check out Clark’s YouTube video below.  We were amazed at how much he was enjoying the hike and even took some time to enjoy the view himself.

Van Buren Furnace
Van Buren Furnace sits near the trailhead. Below: Post-hike beers at Swover Creek;  Pretty farm chicken!

Beers at Swover Creek Swover Creek Chicken

After the hike we hit Swover Creek Farm to try out their brewery.  Since the tasting room is not yet built, we enjoyed our beer in the farmhouse.  I have described this when talking to friends as if you were to go over to your grandmother’s house and drink beer.  We got our flight of beers from the small room downstairs and then took them upstairs to the larger “living room”.  There were some large tables and older furniture, so it really felt like a visit to your grandmother’s.  All of the people that were there were local people and one man brought a thermos to fill with beer instead of a growler.  They brought out samples of their sausage they made on the farm and we ended up buying some to take home.  It was such a warm, home environment and we thought they did a great job with the small-batch beers they had made.  This was a perfect post-hike stop.

guestdogsClark and Maia Say…

Our friends brought their lab (Clark) and shepherd (Maia) along on the hike!  They were great trail dogs to have along for the day!

Clark was fitted with a GoPro — so don’t miss seeing the hike from his point of view!  🙂

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1120 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  A pretty easy hike with a bit of steady, moderate climbing.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Trail was in great shape.
  • Views  3.5.  Nice, but slightly obstructed by trees.  
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Cedar Creek is pretty and a solid water source.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything, but there are plenty of deer and bear in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.  There are a couple places where it’s easy to lose the trail.  Also, there are several trails and fire roads from the parking area that can easily be confused.
  • Solitude –4.  We saw only a small handful of people on a nice, sunny, winter weekend day.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  Take exit 291 on I-81 heading west on SR 651.  Go 1.5 miles and take a left on SR 623.  Go 4 miles and take a right on to SR 600.  Go 4.4 miles and take a left on SR 603/Van Buren Road.  Continue on Van Buren Road for 2.7 miles and you will see parking on the left.  There are two parking areas here, but pass the first parking area to get to the second parking area which is on the lefthand side.  Park here and retrace your path a short distance to see the closed gate and the fire road where your hike will start.

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

Old Rag – via Berry Hollow

This is a great alternative to the ‘classic’ ascent of Old Rag.  You still get the same stunning summit, but this 5.4 mile route lets you bypass all the road walking, lessens your vertical gain, and skips the famous rock scramble (which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about rock scrambles!)

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Old Rag Summit
Adam takes in the view from the Old Rag Summit.  Below: Berry Hollow Parking; A golden forest: You reach the Old Rag Day Use Shelter shortly after the fire road junction.

Berry Hollow Parking Golden Trees Old Rag Day-Use Shelter

Adam Says…

Old Rag is one of those classic Virginia hikes that most avid hikers in the state want to do at some point.  The views are truly spectacular, but the most popular route up Old Rag includes a technical rock scramble with exposed ledges and big drops.  Some people might have a fear of heights or not be fit enough to tackle the scramble.  The route via Berry Hollow is perfect for people wanting a ‘low key’ route to the peak.

We were on our way to hike White Oak Canyon, but the parking lot was completely full.  Not wanting to give up for the day, we consulted our maps and noticed we were right next to Berry Hollow and the alternate route up Old Rag.

We arrived at the small parking lot at Berry Hollow and also found a very full lot.  However, after waiting just a few minutes, some hikers came down the trail and said about 3-4 cars would be leaving in the next ten minutes as they were returning from an overnight/sunrise hike.  So, we waited and sure enough, several spaces cleared up.  I would recommend arriving at the lot early in the morning, because there is only space available for about 12 vehicles.

You begin the hike by making your way past a closed gate. You can see the path marked on the kiosk to the right of the trail.  This route starts on the wide Berry Hollow fire road, which goes along the Berry Hollow stream for a while.  Hiking the trail during a peak fall day, we were surrounded by brilliant yellows from fallen leaves on the trail and up above.  At .8 miles, you reach a junction with the Saddle Trail.  Take a right on to the Saddle Trail, which you will take all the way to the summit.

Berry Hollow Fire Road
Adam walks the fire road on a perfect fall day.  Below: Ascending the Saddle Trail; Large boulders as we climbed; The first viewpoint along the Saddle Trail.

Ascending the Saddle Trail Ascending the Saddle Trail First Views from Old Rag

The Saddle Trail is more narrow and rocky, but is mostly a moderate climb.  The steepest part of this trail comes between 1.2 and 1.5 miles as you gain about 300 feet of elevation in .3 miles.  At 1.4 miles, you will pass by the Old Rag shelter which is only available for day use.  At 2.15 miles, the trail gets another steep push to the summit.  Continuing up the trail, you will also pass the Byrds Nest Shelter at 2.25 miles, another day use shelter.  The trail does start to open up to some views along the way as you’ll pass a couple of rock outcroppings that give you nice views or a good excuse to stop if you need a breather.

You arrive at the base of the summit which is marked by a sign.  A short path leads up to the rocky summit.  At this point, you can decide how adventurous you want to be at the summit.  There are lots of nice ledges to enjoy the views, but some will want to scramble up the boulders to try to get even higher vantage points.  Be very careful at this summit, especially if you have kids.  People get injured often on this trail, most often at the rock scramble or at the summit.

The wind was incredibly strong on this day at the summit.  It is usually quite windy at the summit, but with the colder temperatures, it was freezing at the top.  We ate some snacks at the top, trying to shelter us from the wind, but decided quickly to get away from the exposed ledges to try and stay a little warmer.

We headed back the way we came.  When we arrived back at our car, the lot was still at capacity, so we did luck out with a spot.  After our hike, we went to one of our favorite places to eat, The Barbeque Exchange, in Gordonsville, VA and then hit Horton Vineyard for wine sampling on our way back home.

We were so pleased with this alternate route up Old Rag. I think we will probably use this as our go-to route for future hikes up the mountain.

Christine Says…

I make no secret of the fact that I am not a huge fan of the Old Rag Ridge Trail.  Scrambling is not my favorite, but my primary issue is simple trail overuse.  I think the park lets too many people hike the trail each day and that the mountain is becoming damaged beyond repair. We’ve hiked Old Rag on days that people are queued up all across the ridge, waiting in line for the people ahead of them to tackle obstacles.  I wait in line in daily life enough that I’m simply not willing to wait in line on a mountain trail. It feels wrong! I also don’t prefer the significant amount of road walking necessary to complete the route via Weakley Hollow. In the end, more than half the trail is road walking.  That said, I did really enjoy this ascent via Berry Hollow.

It was our anniversary weekend, peak fall color, and a perfect bluebird day to boot.  We were sort of nuts to try hiking any of the park’s most popular trails, but somehow we were lucky enough to score a parking spot.

Old Rag Summit
The summit of Old Rag offers spectacular views. Below: Views and crowds!

Old Rag Views Old Rag Views Old Rag Views

The walk up Berry Hollow fire road was gorgeous.  The sun filtering through the fall leaves made a canopy of warm golden light.  The road was carpeted with leaves of every color.  We really didn’t see many people at all until we reached the junction of the fire road and the Saddle Trail.

The Saddle Trail is a moderate ascent.  There are rock steps and interesting boulder jumbles to admire along the way.  Through the trees we could see the rocky summit looming ahead. As we climbed the views became more impressive.  After passing the second shelter (Byrds Nest), the trail passes out of tall hardwood forest into stand of stunted, windblown trees and tangled rhododendron.

Golden Trees
All we had to do was look up to see all the fall glory!  Below: One last view before descending; Trees near the top were already bare from the brisk wind; The shelter closest to the top – Byrds Nest – is also day-use only.

Old Rag Views Descent Byrds Nest Day Use Shelter

There are a couple nice views from the trail before you reach the actual summit.  We took time to enjoy each of them.  At the summit, there was a large crowd already congregating.  Most people posed for photos and then found places behind the boulders to shelter from the wind.  We stayed and enjoyed the summit until it became too crowded.

The way down was quick and easy!  We even did our traditional ‘Old Rag Jog’ – it’s basically a slow run to make the fire road terrain pass quicker.  On our way out, we stopped by Graves Mountain to get apples, pumpkin, and cider.  Then we headed for a big barbecue feast and a wine tasting.  It was a perfect fall day and a great way to celebrate our anniversary.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5.4 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1725 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  This is a solid, moderate hike.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in great shape in most places.  There were a few muddy, mucky places between Byrds Nest and the Old Rag Shelter.
  • Views  5.  Gorgeous views at the top and several nice views along the way.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There is one small stream along the fire road.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything but squirrels, but there is apparently a nuisance bear near the Old Rag shelter.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  There is just one well-marked junction.
  • Solitude –0.  It’s Old Rag… expect to see many, many people.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From Madison, VA on Route 29, take US-29 Business Route into Madison, VA.  Turn on to VA-231 north. In 5.4 miles, take a slight left on VA-670.  Follow this for 3.6 miles and take a slight right on to state route 643/Weakley Hollow Road.  Follow this road for about 5 miles, which becomes a gravel, fire road and ends at the parking lot for the trailhead.

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

Trayfoot Mountain – Paine Run Loop

This 9.5 mile loop in the southern district of Shenandoah National Park offers vistas, streams and quite a bit of solitude!  We think it would make a great short backpacking loop with a beautiful stream-side campsite along Paine Run.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam Enjoys the Blackrock Summit
Adam Enjoys Blackrock summit. Below: Adam hikes the Appalachian Trail just north of Blackrock Gap; Christine climbs on the rock pile; Adam spots the spur trail that leads to the Trayfoot Mountain Trail.

Adam Hikes the AT Christine on Blackrock Summit Spur Trail

Christine Says…

Every weekend this April has provided glorious hiking weather! I’m feeling so grateful that we’ve been able to get out so often and take full advantage of the warm, sunny days. On the Saturday before Easter, we chose to hike the challenging 9.5 mile Trayfoot Mountain – Paine Run loop.

This hike begins at the Blackrock Gap parking area (not to be confused with Blackrock summit parking). From the lot, cross to the eastern side of Skyline Drive and make your way north along the Appalachian Trail. After a couple tenths of a mile, the trail crosses back over the drive and heads steadily uphill for a little over a mile. As you climb, you’ll come to a junction – stay on the white-blazed AT, the turn to the right goes to the Blackrock shelter.

At 1.3 miles into the hike, you’ll reach a cement marker for the Trayfoot Mountain Trail. Do NOT take this turn unless you want to miss the splendor that is Blackrock Summit! Continue another tenth of a mile to the massive jumble of boulders and jagged rocks that makes up this impressive summit viewpoint. We took some time to enjoy the views and climb on the rocks. The views from this spot are probably the best on the entire hike, although there are a couple more nice spots yet to come.

Christine in the Maze
The trail passes through a corridor of rock. Below: Adam passes through the narrow opening; Climbing Trayfoot Mountain; From the ridgeline of Trayfoot there are several openings in the trees that give you views of a distant Skyline Drive.

Rock Corridor Climbing Trayfoot Skyline Drive

The Appalachian Trail skirts around the front edge of the summit before coming to a spur trail that leads down to the Trayfoot Mountain trail. The spur descends through a corridor of flat-sided slabs. When spur reaches the junction with the Trayfoot Mountain trail, turn right and follow the trail uphill along an old fire road.

The uphill climb along this section is steady going! Near the top, you’ll pass another marker pointing toward the Furnace Mountain trail. Pass this and continue on the Trayfoot Trail until you reach the cement post marking the summit and high point of your hike. There are no views from this summit, but this starts the beginning of a lovely, easy ridge walk.

The ridge rolls gently along, offering nice views of the Paine Run valley and a distant glimpse of Skyline Drive. The trail eventually begins a long gradual descent to Paine Run. Your last sweeping vista on this hike comes at a pretty outcropping of rocks overlooking pointy Buzzard Rock.

Switchbacks take you swiftly down to Paine Run.   Near the first stream crossing, a cement marker points you left onto the yellow-blazed Paine Run Trail, which is essentially an old roadbed. There were several stream crossings on this section of trail. All of them but the second crossing were easy. We found the stream wide and flush with water. Most of the stones people use to cross were underwater. Instead of trying to attempt the rock-hop, we took off our shoes and waded across. Refreshing!

Buzzard Rock View
You get a nice view of Buzzard Rock before descending to Paine Run. Below: Some interesting rock formations along the trail; Lunch stop; Glimpses of farm land.

Rock Walls Lunch Spot Farmland

The Paine Run trail is very pleasant for a couple miles – sounds of running water and mountain views through the trees. When we hiked, the stream was flowing with lots of rapids and tiny waterfalls. I imagine it will run low and dry later in the summer. The path climbs so gradually you hardly notice you’re ascending! Eventually, you leave the streamside and head back toward Skyline Drive. After one final sharp switchback, you have one more moderately steep ascent back to your car.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with both the views and streams on this route. We had a great time!  MapMyHike said this hike is only 9.3 miles, but all other sources put it at 9.7-9.8… so who knows!

Adam Says…

We feel like we have covered so much of Shenandoah National Park on our blog, but it seems there is always another trail or loop that you can try.  We talked about  a hike to Blackrock summit before in our coverage of an AT segment, but this is a longer loop version that offers a few additional views and a stream to enjoy.  Other than the Blackrock summit, you will likely not see a lot of people on this trail.  We only saw a few people the entire day, which was a little shocking for a beautiful weekend day that happened to also be a free National Park entry day.

As Christine mentioned, you could skip the Blackrock summit trying to follow the signage, but you don’t want to miss the best part of the hike.  When we hiked previously, our route bypassed the spur trail that leads to the Trayfoot Mountain Trail.  This spur immediately gives you some additional views and some interesting rocks to scramble around.  Most people that are doing an out-and-back just to the summit from the northern approach will miss this area also.

First Attempt
Adam makes a first attempt to cross (with shoes). The second (successful) attempt was barefoot. Below: Adam descending to Paine Run; The shoeless crossing attempt, The trail goes right through the middle of the stream.

Descent to Paine Run Shoeless Trail

One thing that Christine and I both mentioned throughout the day is how this would make for a great overnight backpacking loop.  If you choose to do so, I would tackle all of the tough uphill climbing the first night, making your way through the Trayfoot Mountain trail and camp somewhere near Paine Run.  This will provide a great water source and there were some nice campsites near the water.  The following day, you’ll just have a steady, but not too strenuous hike back uphill to your car.

When we started walking the ridgeline of the Trayfoot Mountain trail, I felt like we stumbled across the best place I’ve ever seen to spot grouse.  We encountered three along our walk.  A couple of years ago, while hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we encountered our first grouse on a trail.  The beating of its wings created a strange echoing syncopation in our chest which made us both wonder if our heartbeats were going haywire.  Seeking sources online, we found it was a common sound for mating grouse.  We actually spotted several on this trail and when they took off in flight, we could briefly hear that same noise that perplexed us before.  What a relief to actually spot the culprits this time.

Paine Run Trail
Christine walks the wide, gradually ascending Paine Run Trail. Below: We found several blown-down bird’s nests along the trail; Pretty Paine Run; Another stream crossing.

Birds Nest Paine Run Another Crossing

Further along the Trayfoot Mountain Trail, we climbed up on a few rocks to enjoy our lunch and get some views.  I managed to pick some rocks which were not in the least bit contoured to our bodies, which made for an uncomfortable sitting.  It reminded me of how fast food chains design their seating area so the chairs are only comfortable for a short amount of time to prevent loitering.  We quickly ate and moved on.

Around the 4.0 mile marker, the ridge line ends at a nice rock outcropping which gives you some last views before descending towards Paine Run.  Some local families like to park on the western outskirts of the park and hike up to this area for views.

When we reached Paine Run, the water was a little high from the recent rains.  There were a few places to rock-hop across.  In one spot, we did have to shed our shoes to make our way across.  Christine said I looked like a hobbit with my pantlegs pulled up halfway as I crossed.  I responded back in my geekiest way, “May the hair on my toes never fall off.”  I will say the water was very cold, but it felt so refreshing to my feet.  The sensation of the freezing water made me feel as if I had just received a nice massage on my feet.  After the refresher, I felt I could hike a lot longer.

The Paine Run Trail is popular with horseback riders. Below: The final ascent to the parking area; We spotted a bear on the drive home; Before we went home, we stopped for famous Shenandoah blackberry ice cream.

Final Ascent BearIce Cream

The stretch on the uphill Paine Run trail was very gradual.  While some people may think this was more of a boring stretch, I enjoyed the views of Paine Run along the side.  There were even a few very small waterfalls to enjoy since the water level was high.  We also came across a group horseback riding along the trail.  All yellow-blazed trails, like the Paine Run trail, in Shenandoah National Park allow horses on the trails.  This would be a great trip to take down to the water and let the horses rest and get a drink before returning.

We got back to our car and then heading north along Skyline Drive.  Within a few miles, I spotted a young black bear on the side of the road.   We were excited to have our first bear sighting of the year.  The bear quickly ran away once it knew it was spotted, but we hope we get to see many more this year.  We stopped at the Loft Mountain wayside to get our first blackberry milkshake of the year.  Appalachian Trail thru-hikers talk about these treats for days in advance of getting to Shenandoah and the hype is worth it.  However, their milkshake machine was broken and we had to settle for blackberry ice cream.  It was still a just reward for a long hike.

While we realize this hike is longer and not as popular as some of the others in the park, this hike really has some nice gems along the trail.  I was pleasantly surprised at what this had to offer!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 9.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 2200 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.5.  The climbs to Black Rock summit and Trayfoot Mountain can be a little steep, but the climb from Paine Run back to the parking area is very pleasant and gradual.  The length adds to the difficulty rating of this hike.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was clear and in great shape!
  • Views – 5.  The views from Black Rock summit are spectacular.  While the summit of Trayfoot Mountain has no view, there are other nice views from the Trayfoot Mountain trail – especially the outcropping that overlooks Buzzard Rock.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Paine Run was surprisingly pretty and broad in the early spring.  As we hiked up the Paine Run trail, we had many stream crossings and nice views of the water.
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw deer and lots of grouse on the trail.  We also saw a black bear shortly after leaving the parking area to come home!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  There are only a few, well-marked turns on this hike.
  • Solitude – 4.  We saw a few people near the stream that had come in from the western perimeter of the park, a few people on Black Rock Summit, and a trio of women on horses.  All-in-all, we enjoyed a lot of solitude for a long stretch of trail on a pretty ‘free park entry’ day!

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Located in the Southern Section of Shenandoah National Park.  Park at the Blackrock Gap parking lot around MM 87.3.  Cross the road and find the cement post for the Appalachian Trail.  Take a left, heading north, to start your hike.

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

Fridley Gap Loop

This six-mile loop hike in the Fridley Gap area of George Washington National Forest has everything – views, waterfalls, beautiful stream scenery, rugged climbing and great backcountry camping.  It’s a perfect hike to get away from the crowds in Shenandoah National Park.

View the full album of photos from this hike

Adam at the Overlook
If you miss spotting the faint side trail behind one of the many backcountry campsites along this loop, you’ll miss the best view of the hike! Below: Adam crosses the stream; A small waterfall on the stream; This loop has many choices for backcountry camp sites.

Adam Crossing Fridley Run Smal Waterfall Backcountry Site

Adam Says…

Last year, we made an attempt to do this Fridley Gap loop hike, but we had trouble finding one of the trails.  We bushwhacked for a while, but finally gave up.  This time when we returned, we had better directions and the blazes had recently been repainted on much of the loop.

From the top end of the parking lot, we started on the trail.  We saw both purple and blue blazes early on, and started to worry.  (Fortunately, it turned out that this was the only section of the trail that hadn’t been recently re-blazed.)  Early parts of the trail traverse large rocks, and it’s sometimes tough to see exactly which way the trail goes. We saw faded red Xs painted on the surface of some of the rocks which let us know that we were going the right way.  The trail is uphill but not too steep.  In .2 miles, you come to a fire road.  Take a right here and continue on the fire road.  You will pass by some small falls and Mountain Run to the right and a large boulder slide to the left.  The trail actually follows the streambed, and you will need to rock-hop to continue on.  At .45 miles, you will reach another falls area and you will cross over Mountain Run until you see the trail junction cement post.  This is also the point that Mountain Run and Fridley Run join.  It was at this point that we failed last time trying to find the orange-blazed Massanutten South trail.  Looking at the cement post as you approached it, look back around 4:00.  You will see the orange blazes on the Massanutten South trail as you will cross the water again (this time it is Fridley Run) and climb up the hillside.  These weren’t painted on the trees before (they look fresh now), so you should be able to find your way more easily.

Walking in the Streambed
Early in the hike, the trail traverses the streambed. There are plenty of rocks, so it’s fairly easy to hop from spot to spot and avoid getting your feet wet. Below: Adam climbs up the trail shortly after the parking lot; A rockslide early on the hike; Blooming redbuds.

Adam Hiking Fridley Gap Trail Rock Slide Redbuds Blooming

The climb up the Massanutten South trail is quite steep and you may need to stop a few times along the way to catch your breath.  This trail is also narrow and you may have to cross over a few blown-down trees, but the trail wasn’t too hard to navigate with the recent re-blazing.  At 1.85 miles, you will reach a campsite area.  Look closely and you will see a path that leads to a rock outcropping called Grubbs Knob Overlook.  Take this path up to the overlook to get the best views along the hike.   You will see the top of Grubbs Knob to the left from the overlook and views to the west.  After taking in the view, go back to the campsite and continue along the Massanutten South trail.  At 2.05 miles, the trail reaches its peak and then you will start to descend, as the trail takes a steep turn to the left.  You will make your way back down this very narrow path and cross Fridley Run at 2.70 miles.

After crossing Fridley Run, you will begin to ascend on the trail again (turning again into a wider fire road) until you reach a rocky slide that gives you views of Fridley Gap and North Mountain at 3.25 miles.  Continue to ascend as you walk around part of Third Mountain. The fire road stops ascending at 3.5 miles.  The trail then descends and you reach another cement junction post at 3.84 miles.  Take a left on the purple-blazed Fridley Gap trail, which follow another wide fire road.  You will likely see lots of burned trees from a fire in 2010 that covered a big portion of this area.  At 4.5 miles, you will reach another junction. The purple-blazed Fridley Gap trail ascends to the left and continues through the woods.  Take this trail and begin a steep ascent across some switchbacks.  At 4.85 miles, you will reach the top of your climb and there are a few stones that you can rest on for a few minutes if you need to catch your breath.

Christine at the Small Waterfall
This small waterfall feeds one of the most popular swimming holes in the area. Below: More pretty cascades.

Mountain Run

The trail now begins to descend very steeply.  We were so glad we had our trekking poles since the rocks under the leaves were often loose and it helped to lower ourselves down the steep steps.  We were also glad we did this hike this direction rather than the clockwise version of the loop.  At 5.5 miles, we reached another junction with the Massanutten South trail.  Take a left on the orange and purple-blazed fire road (don’t go the way that crosses the bridge) and you will reach the junction that closes the loop at 5.65 miles.  Take a right here, crossing Mountain Run again and make your way back down the fire road.  Be sure to catch the rocky path at 5.8 miles that leads back to the parking lot at 6 miles.

A funny moment happened along the hike.  Christine had programmed her phone to use the MapMyHike app.  In a recent upgrade, it now includes some vocal updates along the way, usually at the mile increments.  One time, we heard the voice say “Don’t stop now.  Walgreen’s is behind you.”  (Walgreen’s is now advertising on MapMyHike.)  While this is meant to be a word of encouragement to keep hiking strong, I was thinking of it as “Walgreen’s is chasing us.”  As I sometimes do, I started thinking of a parody song to the tune of the Road Runner Show TV theme song.  So for your enjoyment, here are my lyrics: “Fridley hiker, Walgreen’s is after you. Fridley hiker, if he catches you, you’re through.  That Walgreen’s is really a crazy store.  They have pharmaceuticals, toiletries, and so much more.  Fridley hiker, never, never, never slow down.  Fridley hiker. Walgreen’s is after you.  Fridley hiker.  If he catches you, you’re through.

There is one geocache along the trail, Fridley’s Cache, a normal-sized cache near the swimming hole.

It is always a good feeling to know that we redeemed ourselves by covering a hike that we had previously failed to navigate.  If you are looking for good views of streams or a swimming hole, along with a challenging hike to get some views, this may be a great hike to try out some time.

Rocks at Grubbs Overlook
The rocks at Grubbs Overlook might trick people into thinking there isn’t an open view. Below: Views from Grubbs Overlook and the campsite that sits adjacent to the overlook.

View from Grubbs Adam at Grubbs
A View Into the Valley
Campsite at the Grubbs Overlook

Christine Says…

Hallelujah for freshly painted blazes!  I was so frustrated last year when our attempt to hike the Fridley Gap Loop ended in failure.  The failure was mostly my fault.  I tried to map out the hike based on a course I saw on someone’s Runkeeper page.  There were no directions, just the route overlaid on a rudimentary map of the area.  I thought we’d be able to figure things out on our own with a NatGeo map of the area.  It turns out that faded blazes and a large group of people camping in the middle of the trail are insurmountable challenges to my ability to navigate.  We’ll let bygones be bygones and get on to the successful version of our Fridley Gap hike.

Let me start by saying, I loved this hike!  It was even better than I expected.  The stream was running beautifully, the views of the valley ‘greening up’ below were lovely and the weather was perfect (sunny, cool and breezy enough to keep the bugs away).  I really enjoyed the little rock-hop as the trail followed the stream bed.  The small waterfall and swimming hole were so pretty.

The climb up the Massanutten South trail to Grubbs Knob was steep enough to be challenging, but not so steep that we had to stop for a breather.  On the way up, we could see all the little signs of spring creeping back into the forest – tiny buds on trees, tightly curled ferns and the occasional early season wildflower poking up through the leaves.  The overlook at Grubbs Knob is rather easy to miss.  It lies at the top of a faint footpath above a campsite.  When you first climb to the top of the footpath, vertical, spine-like plates of rock obstruct any possibility for a view.  But if you climb along the rocks, eventually you come to a few footholds that allow you to scramble to the top of the rocks.  Once you’re there, the valley below spreads out as far as the eye can see – farms dotted with red barns; small country towns; and wide, green fields make up most of the vista.

Downhill Through Dense Laurel
The climb downhill after Grubbs Knob takes you through dense mountain laurel. The harsh light makes for an ugly photo… but you get the idea.  Below: Adam approaches the stream; Crossing Fridley Run.

Approaching Fridley Run Crossing the Stream Again

After leaving the Grubbs Overlook, we ascended a few more moments before taking a sharp downhill turn.  The trail passed through dense mountain laurel, with occasional peeks toward the next ridgeline.  Eventually, we heard the sound of water again.  For a short way, the trail followed Fridley Run.  But soon, we had to cross the stream and head back uphill along a wide fire road.  From the fire road, we caught our second open viewpoint of the hike.  It was a nice view, but nowhere nearly as lovely as the one from Grubbs Overlook.  It’s one thing to slog uphill and come to a magnificent rocky outcropping with a sweeping vista to appreciate.  It’s a little less stirring to stop along a roadside and take in a view of a couple mountain ridges.

Eventually, the fire road met up at a four-way trail junction.  One direction headed toward the Boones Run shelter, another toward Cub Run Road, another continued along the Fridley Gap trail in the direction of Martins Bottom, and of course the fourth headed back in the direction from which we arrived.  Seeing this junction made me think of all the different ways these trails cross and connect.  There are definitely multiple possibilities for overnight backpacking loops in this area.

Second Overlook
The second overlooks comes at a spot along the fire road. Below: Adam checks out the map at this four-way trail junction; Continuing along the fire road before our climb up Third Mountain; Charred trees from the 2010 fire.

Four-way Junction Hiking Along the Fire Road Charred Trees

We followed the fire road to another junction.  Heading straight would have taken us toward Martins Bottom, but to stay on course we turned left and started very steeply uphill along the purple-blazed Fridley Gap trail.   By this point of the hike, I was pretty hungry and my energy was starting to flag.  If I were smarter, I would have eaten a snack before tackling the climb.  But I’m not smart, so I spent most of the climb complaining that I was hungry!

After a short break (and snack) atop the tree-covered peak of Third Mountain, we began a crazy-steep descent.  For three-quarters of a mile, we carefully picked our way down the craggy, leaf covered mountainside.  Through the trees, we could see some really fascinating rock formations on the shoulder of the next mountain over.  I kept trying to appreciate the view, but every time I did, I lost my footing a bit.  This climb down definitely makes the case for paying attention and using your trekking poles.

Steep Uphill Over Third Mountain
The ascent of Third Mountain may not look steep in this photo, but it is!  Below: Descending Third Mountain – you can see rock formations through the trees; A bridge not taken on the Massanutten trail; Adam once again crosses the stream we crossed early in our hike.

Steep Descent of Third Mountain Bridge on Massanutten Trail Final Stream Crossing

At the bottom of Third Mountain, we had just a short walk back to our original junction – the one where everything went wrong when we tried to hike Fridley Gap last year!  I was quite pleased to see that marker again and be 100% certain that we had actually found our way successfully this time around.  From the last junction, we retraced our steps through the streambed, past the rockslide and back to our car.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change –  1850 ft
  • Difficulty – 3.5.  The trail goes up and down several times. 
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail had blowdowns, loose conditions, and narrowness, but there were also sections that followed a fireroad.  It gets an overall average rating. 
  • Views3.  The views from the Grubbs Knob overlook are the best on the trail, but if you miss the path from the campsite you’ll miss the best view on the loop.  The views along the path at 3.25 miles are nice, but not remarkable.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 4. The trail goes along (and through) Mountain Run and Fridley Run on several occasions.  The small falls and swimming hole gives it a bonus. 
  • Wildlife – 2. This may be a good hike for bird watching.  We saw a peregrine falcon soaring above at the Grubbs Knob overlook and enjoyed hearing the song of the eastern towhee along the way.
  • Ease to Navigate2.  If we got lost before, we have to give this a low rating.  The path to start the trail from the parking lot could be better blazed and there are several turns to make.
  • Solitude – 4.  You may see some people at the swimming hole or camping alongside the junction with Mountain Run and Fridley Run.  However, we only saw one other group after this point on a nice spring weekend day. 

Directions to trailhead:

From Harrisonburg, VA, head east on 33.  Take a left onto VA-620 North/Indian trail Road and continue for 1.7 miles.  The road will turn into Rt. 717.  Go 3.4 miles and take a right on Minie Ball Ln.  Go 1.1 miles.  At this point, the road will turn back into Rt. 620.  Go 2.7 miles and take a right, continuing on 620 for about half a mile.  Take a right onto Armentrout Path.  Take the first left onto Airey Ln.  Parking is a lot at the end of this gravel lane.  If you pass the lot, you are on private property. The directions to this trailhead are a little confusing, and we recommend putting the coordinates on the map below into your phone/GPS.

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

High Knob & Hoover Ridge

This 5.75 mile hike takes you to an old fire tower sitting atop a high peak on the border of West Virginia and Virginia.  After visiting the tower, you can either head back to the parking area (which would cut the distance and make this a 3 mile total round-trip hike), or continue to explore the Shenandoah Mountain trail with a walk over to Hoover Ridge.

SPECIAL NOTES:  Please be conscientious and respectful when hiking in this area. Hiking trails near High Knob are adjacent to private land. Please honor posted ‘no trespassing’ signs and stay on official forest service trails.  Please do not tamper with posted private land signage.

High Knob Fire Tower
The High Knob Fire Tower provides panoramic views into both Virginia and West Virginia. Below: Adam looks at trail information in the kiosk in the parking area; The Shenandoah Mountain Trail is often lined with dense mountain laurel; Trail junction – one way climbs up the fire tower, another continues on the Shenandoah Mountain trail, and the third descends to the Brandywine Recreation area.

Parking Areas for High Knob Trail Dense Mountain Laurel Along High Knob Trail Trail Junction on Shenandoah Mountain Trail

View a 30 second video of the panoramic view from the High Knob fire tower.

Christine Says…

First of all, I’m not sure whether to call this a Virginia hike or a West Virginia hike.  While you park in West Virginia, the Shenandoah Mountain trail meanders right along the states’ borderline.  I believe the High Knob fire tower sits on the Virginia side of the line, but views look out into both states.  This is definitely a hike worth doing!

Our first attempt to hike High Knob was on April 7th, 2013.  That hike started off well enough, but within the first half mile the trail turned into a veritable luge track.  It was a smooth, slick, well-polished chute of ice!  Had we planned more extensively, we would have packed Yaktrax, but after a week of warm, sunny weather, we simply didn’t expect to see so much ice!  We watched a couple on the trail ahead of us falling down, over and over and over again.  The girl literally fell ten times in about two minutes.  She couldn’t make a single step of forward progress.  Adam and I looked at each other and said ‘Nah… we’ll come back and do this some other time.”

Mountain Laurel is Getting Ready to Blook
Fetterbush is blooming!  Below: Trails are marked with a double yellow blaze; Occasionally views opened up through the trees.

Yellow Blazes on Shenandoah Mountain Trail Views Along the Shenandoah Mountain Trail

The very next weekend, we headed back and ended up with much better hiking conditions.  The trail to High Knob is pretty basic – it follows the Shenandoah Mountain trail until a junction with a spur trail that leads directly to the tower.  The way is well marked with double yellow blazes and has nice footing.  The path passes through dense stands of mountain laurel.  From the number of flower buds on the laurel, it looks like it’s going to be a spectacular bloom this year!

About .8 mile into the hike, we reached the junction – hikers can turn uphill and take the spur trail to the fire tower, continue on the Shenandoah Mountain trail, or head downhill to the Brandywine Recreation Area.  We decided to visit the fire tower first, mainly because it was early and we wanted to avoid Sunday afternoon hiking crowds.  The spur to the High Knob tower is probably the steepest climbing of the entire hike.  While the section is steep, it’s also fairly short.  At the top of the climb, the trail comes out on a fire road that leads pretty much the rest of the way up to the tower. We were surprised how heavily the area was marked with ‘Private Land – No Trespassing’ warnings.  There were dozens of signs and trees spray-painted red.  I’m guessing the public land abuts private land that is heavily used for hunting, and the landowners are trying to protect hikers/bikers from getting shot.  Regardless, the area is very thoroughly and clearly marked – you shall not pass!

As we arrived at the fire tower, we passed a foursome of hikers headed down.  We had the tower all to ourselves for about twenty minutes.  We enjoyed the views in every direction!  I especially enjoyed looking down on Switzer Lake.  It brought back lots of memories from my days as a college student at JMU.  On warm spring days, my sorority would load up in cars and make the drive to Switzer for an afternoon of swimming (and perhaps some beverage consumption).  Swimming is no longer allowed in the lake (maybe it was never allowed?), as it’s used as a public water source.  Even though you can’t swim in the lake, it’s still a great place for scenery and birding.  A friend of mine has even seen bald eagles at Switzer!

Steep Climb on High Knob Spur Trail
Adam makes the steep climb between the Shenandoah Mountain trail and the fire road that leads to the High Knob Fire Tower. Below: Private land in the area is very thoroughly and clearly marked. A bird’s eye view of the private land from the fire tower.  I think those might be hunting camps/blinds.

Marked Private Land View of Private Land Approaching the Fire Tower

After enjoying the views and eating a snack, we climbed back down to the junction.  It was around 11:15 a.m. and we were torn – do we continue to explore Shenandoah Mountain or do we call it a day and get a nice lunch in Harrisonburg?  We didn’t have a coin, so Adam flipped his pass-case – card side up, we hike on – card side down, we go home.  The pass-case dictated a longer hike.

We followed the Shenandoah Mountain trail over to Hoover Ridge.  If I were to make a recommendation, I would tell people to skip this part of the hike.  In the end, the views weren’t worth the climb. The trail is narrow – too narrow to ever be level.  You hike most of the way with your uphill foot much higher than your downhill foot.  It’s also covered with tons of loose stone and slate that shifts under every step.  On the early spring day we hiked, the trail was still under a foot of dry leaves.  The footing was treacherous.  I was so glad for my trekking poles.

There are several steep climbs on the way to Hoover Ridge.  Once the trail meets the ridge walking along is pretty pleasant. The terrain is open and grassy and there are obstructed views of mountains in every direction.  You can even catch a glimpse of the fire tower off in the distance.  On Hoover Ridge, we decided we’d hiked enough for the day and turned back to make our return to the parking area.

Since it was mostly downhill, the walk went quickly.  We were back at our car by 1:15 and back in Harrisonburg for lunch a half hour later.  It was a great day to be out hiking after such a cold and snowy March!  We’ll definitely make a return hike to the fire tower… Hoover Ridge, not so much.

Adam Says…

As Christine mentioned, this was a second attempt at High Knob, since it was too ice-covered to walk up previously.  We hate having to bail on a hike, but we want to feel that it is something we can accomplish and still enjoy.  We’re glad that we waited for the snow to melt to enjoy this trek up to the fire tower.  Our friends at Hiking Upward covered this hike from the Brandywine Recreation Area, but this is a shorter way to accomplish the hike up to the top.  If you’ve purchased National Geographic’s Staunton/Shenandoah Mountain Trails Illustrated Map 791, you will see High Knob Fire Tower on the cover.

Christine Enjoys the Fire Tower View
Views from the fire tower look out in every direction. Below: You can see Switzer Lake from the fire tower; More views; Adam enjoys a snack (Trader Joe’s Monkey Business trail mix) on the fire tower.

Switzer Lake Views from the High Knob Fire Tower Enjoying a Snack on the Fire Tower

From the parking lot on 33, we took off down the stone steps.  The parking lot and surrounding areas has a lot of trash thrown around, so if you can, bring a trashbag and help to carry out some of the litter.  Once you join the Shenandoah Mountain trail at the bottom of the stone steps, the trail will be clear of litter.  The trail starts off fairly level and then gradually ascends up the mountain.  In .85 miles, you do reach a large junction that includes the spur trail to the High Knob Tower.  Take this spur trail up the mountain.  At about 1.1 miles, you will reach a forest road.  Take a right on the road (taking a left will put you on private land) and continue to follow the signs to the High Knob Tower.  Continue your ascent up the fire road until you reach the High Knob Tower at 1.4 miles.

We retraced our steps until we returned back to the junction of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail and High Knob Trail at 2.0 miles.  At this point, we took a left to get back on the Shenandoah Mountain trail.  This part of the trail was not well-maintained and we were constantly worried about turning our ankles on loose rocks that were hidden underneath the leaf-covered trail, crossing over tree blowdowns, or catching ourselves from falling off the narrow trail with our trekking poles.  The trail in most places along this section felt more like a narrow animal path than an actual trail.  The rough trail and the steepness in some sections really made us question how far we were going and if it was worth it. We made our way a little further uphill but we weren’t fighting rough terrain the whole way.  We reached the crest of Hoover Ridge at 3.5 miles, which gave us some obstructed views of the areas to the south.  After taking a few minutes to explore the open fields and campsites on Hoover Ridge, we made our way back.

Shenandoah Mountain Trail Cairn
One of the few tricky spots on the Shenandoah Mountain trail. The cairn indicates that hikers should take the lower trail, and not follow the trail partially blocked by branches. Below: Sign on Hoover Ridge

Signage on Hoover Ridge 


As Christine stated, I would agree that I probably wouldn’t add on Hoover Ridge to this hike unless you would like to get some extra hiking accomplished.  However, this was also the area that we saw the best wildlife.  We saw a deer in the distance take off when we were spotted and a grouse jumped out of some brush when we were walking by that caused us both to nearly jump out of our hiking shoes.

The hike up to High Knob is one that I think would be a perfect hike if your goal was to see great views from all directions. On a clear day, you should be able to see several layers of mountain ranges.  I’m sure the foliage scenery in the fall is breathtaking.  I can see this being a great hike to take some out-of-town visitors to show the splendor of the rolling Virginia and West Virginia mountains.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – About 5.75 miles
  • Elevation Change –  1168 ft
  • Difficulty – 3.5. This is a moderate hike in terms of elevation change.  On the day we hiked, the Shenandoah Mountain trail was still covered with deep, slick leaves and quite a few fallen trees.  These challenges increased the difficulty level somewhat.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail to High Knob is in great shape, but the Shenandoah Mountain trail is narrow and rocky.
  • Views5.  Views from the High Knob fire tower are spectacular and panoramic.  Views from Hoover Ridge are obstructed.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0. There are no streams on this hike.
  • Wildlife – 2. We saw a deer and a grouse, but I think hunters scare off most wildlife in this area.
  • Ease to Navigate –3. Trails are generally well-marked/blazed, but there are a few mildly confusing spots on the walk to Hoover Ridge. There were a few worn paths in the woods that looked like old trails or animal paths.  As long as you still to the most well-worn pathway, you should be fine. Take care to observe posted signs for private land.
  • Solitude –2.  You will likely see quite a few people on the walk to the fire tower, but few along the way to Hoover Ridge.

Directions to trailhead:

Head on 33 West from Harrisonburg, VA.  In about 10 miles, you will enter into George Washington National Forest.  In 12 more miles, you will reach the parking lot on the left right after you see the “Welcome to West Virginia” sign.  A large kiosk with a map of the area gives some general information and you will see a break in the girders that will lead down to start your hike.

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

Little Devils Stairs

We hope you enjoyed our special Great Smoky Mountains Edition!  Now we’re back to Virginia!  Although… honestly, the heat has kept us mostly off the trail lately.

The 5.5 mile Little Devils Stairs hike climbs through an impressive gorge along Keyser Run and loops back past a family cemetery that pre-dates the park.

Canyon Walls Along Little Devils Stairs Hike
it is Adam makes his way past rugged canyon walls on the Little Devils Stairs hike. Below: The parking lot at the end of Keyser Run Rd. provides access to the fire road and the Little Devils Stairs trail; When we hiked in early June, water was still flowing in the stream (but not much); Red columbine bloomed abundantly.

Start of Little Devils Stairs Hike Keyser Run Was Flowing Red Columbine

Adam Says…

To try and beat afternoon rain in the forecast, we decided to hike Little Devils Stairs early in the morning.  To cut back a little on the distance along fire roads, we decided to start the hike from the perimeter of the park (near Sperryville) rather than from Skyline drive.

The trail begins immediately going into the forest from the parking lot and is a very gradual ascent along Keyser Run.  After about .9 miles, the trail then begins to climb more steeply as you are climbing up the “stairs” along the gorge.  The climbing can be quite steep, at times requiring you to use your hands to also help balance or pull yourself up.  Over the next mile, you gain 1000 feet of elevation on your climb.  Along the way up the climb, you will come across several smaller waterfalls and will have to cross over the stream in a few places.  At 1.75 miles, the climb tapers off and the trail moves away from the gorge.  At 2.1 miles, you reach the junction with the Keyser Run Fire Road.  Take a left on this fire road and begin your descent.  The road was fairly uneventful, but it is a good place to spot butterflies and you may see a snake sunning itself on a part of the road.  At 3.9 miles, the road begins to enter the forest again and you will see some more old-growth hemlocks along the road that create a canopy over the road.  At 4.2 miles, you will reach the Bolen family cemetery.  Just ahead is the junction with the Hull School Trail, but stay on the fire road veering to the left.  At 5.4 miles, you will reach the park boundary and at 5.5 miles, you will return back to your vehicle in the small parking lot.

Steep Uphill on Little Devils Stairs
Adam climbs up the steepest part of the Little Devils Stairs hike. Below: There are many tiny waterfalls along the Little Devils Stairs hike; Christine contemplates the rocky climb through the gorge; Adam makes one of the many stream crossings.

Waterfall and Canyon Walls in Little Devils Stairs Pretty Keyser Run Christine Contemplates the Rocky Trail One of Many Stream Crossings on the Little Devils Stairs Hike

The highlight of this hike is definitely the gorge that was created along this geological fault line that eroded quickly.  At one point along the trail, you can see a sheer cliff face of rock.  I can easily imagine people rock climbing up this gorge wall with the proper technical gear.   I have seen Little Devils Stairs and Big Devils Stairs listed in a book about rock climbing in Virginia, so you may luck out and see some people navigating up to the top.

A sadder note along the trail is the Bolen family cemetery.  While we may enjoy the national park that is here, there were many families that were forced to uproot their lives and move out of the area as the government took over the land.  The cemetery of the family still stands and was rededicated in 2002.

Waterfall at the Top of Keyser Run
The largest of the falls was at the very top of the gorge. Below: There are many fallen trees, especially hemlocks in the gorge; We saw a lot of these flowers along the trail;  After exiting the gorge, most of the remainder of the trail is along the Keyser Run Fire Road.

Fallen Hemlocks Wildflower Along Little Devils Stairs Keyser Run Fire Road

Christine Says…

Little Devil Stairs is another hike we’ve had on our list of trails we wanted to add to the website for quite a while.  We’ve hiked it before –  the last time was probably about a year before we started this website. It’s a decent hike, but I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorites in the park.  The section of the hike that passes through the gorge is fun, tough and interesting – but that’s only a little over one mile of the entire five and a half miles.  Way more than half of the hike is along a fire road.  And if you’ve read our site with any regularity, you know how I feel about fire roads (they’re boring!)

The drive to the trailhead was really pretty.  We passed by Luray, over Thornton Gap and down past Sperryville.  There were lots of winding country roads, meadow views and meandering stone walls on the way to the parking area.  When we got there, we were the only car.  I absolutely LOVE having a trail all to myself!

We started off climbing gently uphill through the woods, crossing several spots of dry streambed. The insect activity on this particular day was insane.  I alternated walking like a normal person with walking like a crazy person, arms flailing all around my face, trying to bat away the clouds of gnats and midges.  Between the bugs, the humidity and the heat – summer hiking can be really tough.

Bolen Cemetery
Adam reads headstones in the Bolen Cemetery. Below: The gate leading to the cemetery; A memorial poem from the cemetery’s re-dedication;  We saw lots of indian pipes along the hike.

Why Are the Mountains Blue - Bolen Cemetery Indian Pipes

I had been pretty concerned about the dry streambed crossings, but once we reached the gorge, the water flow picked up a bit.  Little Devil Stairs is definitely a hike you want to do when there has been a significant amount of recent rain.  The primary appeal of the gorge is the constant string of small waterfalls and rapids that pours down the ‘stairs’.  When the weather has been wet, Little Devils Stairs is lovely and wild.  The sound of running water hemmed in by stone walls constantly surrounds you. However, when the weather has been dry, the hike is nothing but steep uphill through a rugged, overgrown and brushy gorge.  The towering rock walls are still impressive, but without running water, something is missing from this hike.

With a thousand feet of elevation gain in just under a mile, the path up can be a real quad-burner if you’re not in decent shape.  It’s mostly walking along trail, but there are several sections where you must scramble up over giant stair-like rocks.  The top of the gorge is marked by the largest of all the waterfalls along Keyser Run.  After you pass the final fall, the trail grade becomes more gentle and passes through pretty, quiet forest.  In a short time, you’ll reach the Fourway Junction.  People hiking Little Devil Stairs from Skyline Drive will come down the trail at this junction.  For us, it was the point where the ‘hike’ ended and the fire road walking began.

We saw lots of butterflies on this hike! Below: I’ve never seen a yellow moth like this one before. I think it’s an Io moth because it had the ‘eye’ marking on it’s wings, though you can’t see them in the photograph; On the drive back through the park we spotted a pair of black bears mid-courtship (this is the male);While eating lunch at Big Meadows we met this cute biker dog.

Yellow Moth in Shenandoah Mated Pair of Black Bears - Boar Harley-Davidson Chihuahua

We considered jogging down the trail to make the distance pass more quickly, but I wanted to keep my camera and telephoto out in case we saw wild flowers, butterflies or bears!  The heavy camera kept bouncing on my hipbone, so I had to slow to a walk (I got a huge bruise anyhow).  And indeed – there were plenty of butterflies and wildflowers to photograph along the way.  We didn’t see a bear on the trail, but we did see one later as we drove back through the park.

The last point of interest along the fire road was the stop at the Bolen Cemetary.  It’s a beautiful spot for a final resting place – surrounded by a stone wall and shaded by elegant maple trees planted by the original property owner.  It’s one of the more meticulously maintained cemeteries in the park.  If you walk amongst the headstones, you can’t help but notice how young most people died.  So many babies, children and young adults rest under these markers.  When I was researching information about this trail, I came across a wonderful feature article from Blue Ridge Country magazine about the family reunions that still take place at the cemetery.  I enjoyed reading all the recollections of Beulah and Mary Bolen about their life in the area before the park existed.

After leaving the cemetery, the remaining distance along the fire road went steeply downhill.  We arrived back at our car fairly quickly and headed to Big Meadows to have some lunch in the park.  After lunch, the skies opened up and it poured down rain the rest of the day.  I’m glad we got a chance to get out before the weather changed!

Trail Notes

  • Distance 5.5  miles
  • Elevation Change – About 1650 feet
  • Difficulty –  3.  The climb up Little Devils Stairs can be strenuous in parts, but the fire road is easy walking.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The climb up the stairs is rocky and you do have to cross Keyser Run as the trail criss-crosses over in several places.
  • Views– 1.  From near the top of the gorge, you may get an obstructed view, but nothing spectacular.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  You are walking along Keyser Run through the first couple of miles of the hike.  The waterfalls are mostly small, but still nice to see.
  • Wildlife – 2. There are signs of bear scat in the area, but we didn’t see much wildlife other than a snake along the fire road.  You will hear lots of warblers and other birds as you enter the hemlock forest near the end of the hike.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5.  The blue blazes for the Little Devils Stairs hike are not as prevalent in some places and may require you to look around for the next one, especially in the fall when leaves cover the trail.  Posts at the trail junctions provide some great direction.
  • Solitude – 3.  Except on weekends, I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of people on this trail.

Directions to trailhead:  Off of 211 north of Sperryville, take a left on County Road 622/Gidbrown Hollow Road.  Follow this road for a few miles and then take a left on County Road 614/Keyser Run Road.  At the end of this road, you will reach a small parking lot.  The trailhead starts to the right of the parking lot, marked by a concrete post.