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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.