Porters Creek to Fern Branch Falls (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This 4 mile out-and-back follows beautiful Porter Creek to a small waterfall at Fern Branch.  The waterfall itself was barely a trickle when we visited, but the lush Smoky Mountain forest was especially beautiful here.  This hike also takes you by a historic barn and an old hiking club cabin.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Fern Branch Falls
Fern Branch Falls was running low, but it was still beautiful! Below: Pretty rapids on Porters Creek; Tall trees provided a wonderful canopy of shade; The Messer Barn.

Porters Creek Tall Trees Messer Barn

Christine Says…

With our week in the Smokies winding down, we wanted to hike something special and something we had never hiked before.  I found myself referring to the ‘Hiking In the Smokys‘ website again.  They have a list of their personal top 10 favorite hikes.  We didn’t want anything over 10 miles, so that ruled out Gregory Bald, Rocky Top and Mt. Cammerer.  We had already hiked six of the others (LeConte, Charlies Bunion, Andrews Bald, Chimney Tops, The Jump Off, and Alum Cave).  So that left just one from the favorites list – Porters Creek.  It sounded like a lovely trail – old growth forest, streams, a waterfall and lots of history.

Before setting out on our hike, we got donuts from The Donut Friar.  This made me exceedingly happy and was the perfect start to the day.  There is something magical about their chocolate crullers.  After donuts, we were on our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies.  We’d never hiked anything in that area before, so we were excited to try someplace new.

The road into Greenbrier is mostly gravel, but is well-maintained and easy to drive.  It’s also very scenic and follows the Little Pigeon River.  The trailhead is about 4 miles down the road.  It’s clearly marked and there is plenty of parking.

Lush Green Woods
Adam hikes along the early parts of the Porters Creek Trail. Below: Porters Creek Trailhead – it ties into the larger trail system in the park; Overhead view of Porters Creek; Old stone walls.

Trailhead Porters Creek from Above Old Stone Wall

The trail starts off as a wide, gravel road through the woods.  Porters Creek runs along the trail, offering plenty of scenic water views. About .6 of a mile along the way, you’ll see signs of old stone walls and stairs on the right side of the trail.   The remnants date back to the early 1900’s when Elbert Cantrell built a farm in this area.  Immediately past the farm, you’ll pass the Ownby cemetery.  Adam and I walked around the cemetery and noticed that most of the graves belonged to very young children.  Sad – it really makes one appreciate modern medicine and vaccinations.

About a mile into the hike, you’ll cross a log footbridge over the creek and come to a Y-junction in the gravel road.  The trail to the right goes to more historical structures, but we’ll cover those on the way back.   We took the trail to the left and arrived almost immediately to another trail junction – continue bearing left on the Porters Creek Trail.  At this point, the gravel road ends and becomes a ‘real’ trail.

This section of the hike is beautiful – lots of big old, trees.  It’s so green, shady and peaceful. At 1.6 miles we crossed another log footbridge.  This one was much longer and crossed the stream crookedly.  From there, the trail ascended gently until we reached Fern Branch falls at 2 miles.  The falls are on the left side of the trail and set back a bit in the woods.

Log Foot Bridge
The first log foot bridge you come to is short and easy to cross.  Below: The Ownby Cemetery; Adam at the trail junction before the path goes from old road to real trail; Little cascades on the creek.

Ownby Cemetery Junction Pretty Porters Creek

When we visited the falls were not flowing very heavily.  It was still a beautiful spot – especially with the sunlight filtering into the woods at the crest of the falls.  We took some photos and then headed back the way we came.

On the return arm of the trip, we stopped at the Y-junction and visited the John Messer farm site.  The cantilevered barn is in excellent condition.  Just past the barn, you can visit a springhouse and an old cabin built by the Smoky Mountain Hiking club.  Overnight stays at the cabin are no longer permitted.

After visiting the barn and cabin, we made our way back to the car and headed back into town for lunch.  We ended up at Hungry Bear Barbecue.  It was great and definitely deserves the top ratings it has online.

Porters Creek was definitely beautiful and we would recommend the hike for a low-key, easy day. It would also be our last new hike of our 2014 spring trip. The next day, we chose to re-hike an old favorite – Charlies Bunion.

Adam Says…

Staying in Gatlinburg, TN for a few days, we wanted to explore some different sections of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We decided to check out the Porters Creek after reading about Fern Branch Falls and the wildflowers on the trail.  When we got out of our car, we could tell from the wetness of the area and the humidity that it would be a good idea to douse ourselves in bug spray.

We crossed the gate and started along the wide fire road.  As Christine mentioned, during the first mile you do get some stream views, ruins of an old farm, and a family cemetery.  The trail does ascend, but very slowly, so it is not very challenging.

Trail After Junction
After the trail junction, the path became narrower and steeper.  Everything was so green!  Below: The second log foot bridge was segmented and much longer; wildflowers; Adam at the base of Fern Branch Falls.

Crooked Foot Log Wildflowers Fern Branch Falls

At the .9 mile mark, there is a small footbridge you can use to cross a small stream (or you can rockhop across).  At the 1.0 mile marker, you reach a large junction.  There is a side trail to the Messer Barn and hiking club cabin and also a junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail.  Take the left Porters Creek Trail.  At 1.5 miles, you come to a large footbridge that crosses Porters Creek.  This footbridge was much longer and can be a little unsettling since it is fairly high above the creek in some points.  The railing for me was also below my hip in some spots, which didn’t give me the feeling that it would protect me if I did slip.  After you cross the footbridge, the trail seems to change environments as you walk through a large area of wildflowers and fern.  The forest floor was exploding in green!  The trail then becomes steeper, narrower, and rocky through this portion until you reach the falls.

As we were walking along, we could hear a waterfall off to our right and got a faint glimpse from a distance, but this was not Fern Branch Falls.  Instead, at 1.8 miles, we reached the large waterfall on our left.  The trickle from the waterfall wasn’t overly impressive, but it was a nice scenic spot.  We made our way back the way we came.

Hiking Club & Spring House
The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club used this cabin as an overnight camp until 1981.  Below: Crossing the bridge on the return trip; The Messer barn is well-preserved example of a cantilevered barn; Adam checks out the interior of the hiking club cabin.

Crossing Messer Barn Inside the Hiking Club

When we returned to the junction with the Brushy Mountain Trail, we took the short side trail that led to the barn.  Behind the barn, you cross a small stream and then can find the hiking cabin and springhouse.  Both the cabin and barn are open, so we enjoyed exploring the abandoned buildings.

We made our way back to our car and found several cars that were arriving to hike this trail.  With the cabin, farm, ruins, and graveyard, this hike really does give you a glimpse into the life and environment of families that lived in this area and used these facilities in the late 1800s through the early 1900s.  The hiking cabin actually permitted members to stay here until 1981.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4 miles
    MapMyHike Stats
  • Elevation Change – About 800 ft.
  • Difficulty – 2.  The climbing is gradual and gentle.
  • Trail Conditions –  3.5.  The section from the trailhead to the Messer farm is essentially a road.  The section from the farm to the falls is trail, but it’s in good shape.  The only part that may challenge some hikers are the two log footbridges.
  • Views – 0. None
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  Porters Creek is lovely.  Fern Branch falls would probably be more impressive in wetter weather.  It was fairly small when we visited. 
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw a couple salamanders and a big black snake.  There are bear sightings in all parts of the Smokies.
  • Ease to Navigate –  4.  Trails are well-marked and easy to follow.  You may miss some of the historical remnants if you’re not paying attention.
  • Solitude – 3.  We hiked on a pretty Thursday in late May and only saw a few other people.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:   From Gatlinburg, go east on 321 for 6 miles.  Take a right at the Greenbrier entrance to GSMNP.  The road will turn to gravel.  The road will fork at 3.1 miles, but continue straight at the fork to reach the Porters Creek parking area at about 4 miles.

Rich Mountain Loop (TN)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This 8.7 mile loop didn’t offer much in the way of natural scenery – no great views, no plunging waterfalls, but we did see a bear!  Apparently, this is a great trail to spot bears, as all ten hikers we spoke to on the loop saw at least one bear over the course of their hike.  This trail also passes the historic John Oliver cabin.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

View Into Cades Cove
There was one decent view into Cades Cove on the Rich Mountain Loop. Most views were obscured by trees.

Adam Says…

The Cades Cove section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a lot to offer – camping, drives around the loop to view wildlife, biking (covered in a previous post), and a historic view into the way people lived and farmed in this area.  Honestly, I have a little love/hate relationship with this section.  The biking and wildlife viewing can’t be beat around this area.  However, the traffic is so incredibly slow through this area.  Expect people to go WAY below the posted speed limit, so getting to Cades Cove can take a lot longer than expected.  I think most of the way traveling from the Sugarlands Visitors Center, multiple people were driving about 10-15 mph for the entire 17 miles, so it was a drag getting there.  Christine and I typically like to get out early in the morning to beat traffic and heat through the day, so I would recommend the same if visiting Cades Cove.

Since we had biked the loop and hiked Abrams Falls (also on the Cades Cove loop) before, we looked for some other options for hikes.  Our book Day Hikes in the Smokies (by Carson Brewer) had this listed as a nice option for a hike.  According to the description, there was a waterfall, some views, and a historic homestead so we felt this would be a nice option to take.

The open meadows and mountain backdrops define Cades Cove.
The open meadows and mountain backdrops define Cades Cove.  Below: Adam at the trailhead; A meadow view early in the hike; Stream crossings were shallow and easy when we hiked.

Trailhead Meadow View Stream Crossing

We parked in the lot past the information kiosk as you enter the Cades Cove loop.  There was plenty of parking in the lot, as most people either park their car to bike the loop or just ask the rangers at the kiosk some questions about the area.  We parked at one of the furthest parking spots and then crossed the road.  In a short distance, the trailhead appeared and we started off on the Rich Mountain Loop trail.  This trail was relatively flat.  It was mostly wooded, but there were a few spots where it opened up to views of meadows.  In .5 miles, the trail reached a junction with the Crooked Arm Ridge trail.  We took a right here to start the Crooked Arm Ridge trail.  At .8 miles, you reach the Crooked Arm Cascade, which was no more than a small trickle when we viewed it.  This trail is the steepest section of the hike, as you are climbing up the entire trail gaining close to 1800 feet by the time you reach the end of the trail at mile 2.7.  The humidity this day was very high and there was no breeze, so we felt like we were pouring buckets of sweat on our relentless climb through many switchbacks along the trail.

At 2.7 miles, we passed the junction with the Scott Mountain Trail, but the junction wasn’t clearly marked to let you know it was the Scott Mountain Trail (Note: This might be because the Scott Mountain Trail is closed from campsite #6 to Schoolhouse Gap.  However, Campsite #6 is still open.  Check park information for the latest updates on trail closures.)  Staying straight, the trail turns into the Indian Grave Gap Trail.  It continues to climb gradually, and there are some occasional obstructed views from the ridge.  You finally reach the peak of climbing around mile four,  near Cerulean Knob (3686 ft. – no views).  We continued walking the ridge for a while, then the trail then starts its descent.   At 5.3 miles, the Indian Grave Gap Trail reaches a junction.  Continue on the Rich Mountain Loop trail.

Crooked Arm Falls
Our hiking guide said that Crooked Arm Falls ‘was no Niagara’. They really weren’t kidding!  Below: The trail was eroded and had a deep chute in the middle; The ridge walking was pleasant and breezy; We saw several of these cute toads.

Eroded Trail Ridgewalking Cute Toad

The trail continues to descend and you do get some nice views along the way of a branch that leads to Abrams Creek.  Around 7.2 miles, the trail leads to the John Oliver Place, a historic cabin.  If you are interested in learning more about the Oliver family and life in the 1800’s in Cades Cove, I would recommend checking out the history of the Olivers and the cabin and what pioneer life was like in Cades Cove.  We paused to check out the cabin and as you face the house, take the rightmost trail behind the house (there are several small paths here) to continue on to the Rich Mountain Loop.  You will have a few stream crossings (minor rock hopping is required) until you reach the first junction you met at mile 8.2.  Continue straight to take the Rich Mountain Loop trail to arrive back at your car at mile 8.7.

As mentioned in the short description at the top, we kept coming across people that had seen bears along the trail.  Until we started the descent from Cerulean Knob, everyone we crossed told us they had seen various bears across the trail.   Of course everyone also said they watched the bears and then they ran off.  Always excited to see bears, we felt like everyone else had chased them away.  As we were descending we were convinced that we probably wouldn’t see anything, but as soon as we voiced this doubt, Christine spotted a bear right off the side of the trail.  The bear just watched us indifferently while it ate some leaves.  Then it took a slow walk and then squatted to do what bears do in the woods.  As soon as it was done, it shot through the woods at a breakneck pace like its poop had scared him.  I guess that is why they call it “bear scat”, because he really did scat after doing his business.

One lesson that I quickly learned on this trail was that humidity is relative.  While we were doing the tough climb up to the ridgeline, we came across another couple (who of course were telling us about a bear they saw).   Feeling that I was quite the sight from all the sweat coming off my body, I commented on how hot and humid it was.  They said, “Wow.  We haven’t been sweating at all today.”  They then explained they were from Mississippi so they were more accustomed to the heat and humidity and thought it was quite comfortable.  Of course this reminded me on some of our trips to Maine and talking to people that couldn’t handle the heat of 85 degrees without humidity and we thought it was quite pleasant.

While we felt the hike wasn’t overly impressive based on the description we originally read, we felt grateful that we saw a bear in the Smokies.  If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge and some variety of terrain in this area of the Smokies, this is a hike to consider.

Christine Says…

After a third day of shorter, easier hikes, I was finally feeling better and we were on the move from Bryson City to Gatlinburg for the remainder of our week in the Smokies. We decided it was time to hike something a little longer/tougher. We considered a few trails on the northern side of the park, including Gregory Bald, Ramsey Cascades, and Rich Mountain. In the end, we settled on Rich Mountain because our guidebook said it had views, a waterfall and a historic cabin. I like trails with a variety of attractions, so it seemed like the perfect choice for the day.

Another perk of the Rich Mountain loop is that the trailhead can be accessed at the head of Cades Cove, before the start of one-way traffic.   The Cades Cove loop is something every GSMNP visitor should drive (or bike) at least once. It’s a great place to spot wildlife and it showcases the park’s fascinating human history. But, if I’m being fully honest, the traffic in Cades Cove can be insufferable when you just want to get to a trailhead and start your hike. On this particular day, I was very happy to be avoiding the gridlock!

We followed the Rich Mountain Loop trail for about half a mile to our first junction. At the marker, we took a right onto the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. Most people seem to hike the trail clockwise, but we decided to go the other way for to get the climbing done a little earlier and a little faster in the loop.

One of the first landmarks we passed was Crooked Arm Falls, which our hiking guidebook described as ‘not Niagara, but still very nice’. That turned out to be quite the understatement! The ‘waterfall’ was barely a trickle of water over a short rock shelf. Maybe it’s more impressive when there has been a ton of rain!

Bear
We spotted an adolescent bear along the trail!  Below: Adam checking out trail distances at one of the junctions; Flame azalea; Mountain laurel.

Trail Junction Flame Azalea Mountain Laurel

After passing the waterfall, our climb began in earnest. Neither of us was used to hiking in the heat and humidity. Virginia had been having lots of cool, pleasant days that spring, so it was very tough going. When we got back to the car and had smartphone access again, I checked the temperatures and real feel estimates – it had been about 88 degrees with a real feel of 95. Honestly, that’s kind of the outer limit of heat in which I’m willing to hike.

We slogged along uphill for a couple miles. The air was really still and steamy, with any chance of a breeze blocked by the shoulder of the mountain. The trail was deeply eroded in several sections, with the middle of the footpath looking like a chute in the ground. The views promised by our guidebook were mostly closed in by the leaves on the trees and we started to think we may have picked a dud of a hike. I was feeling really overheated and crabby.

Eventually we reached the junction with the Indian Grave Gap Trail. At this point, the climbing became easier and we felt a breeze across the ridge. We started to see more wildflowers – mountain laurel and flame azalea. We spotted several cute toads hopping across the trail. We stopped for a snack near an opening in the trees. We had a decent view into Cades Cove. Along this section of trail, we passed two other hiking parties – both mentioned that they’d had bear sightings before the junction with the Rich Mountain Loop. One group had spotted an adolescent bear and the other a mother bear with two cubs.   Between the breeze, the wildflowers, and the likelihood of a bear spotting; my attitude turned a little more positive. Adam was more skeptical than I was, saying ‘If all these people already saw bears, we’ll probably be the only ones who don’t!’

We walked along, trying to stay quiet for the wildlife. We reached the junction of the Indian Grave Gap Trail and the Rich Mountain Loop Trail without spotting a bear. I figured that we were out of luck, and started chatting with Adam again. As we were descending toward a stream bed, I caught a shuffle of movement through the trees. I stopped abruptly, waved my hand up to stop Adam behind me and whispered ‘BEAR!’ Ten feet from the edge of the trail, we spotted a handsome yearling bear foraging for food. He knew we were there, but continued to move along at a normal pace. Other than once upward glance, he completely ignored us. Suddenly, he broke into a full gallop and went crashing deeper into the woods and out of view. It was a GREAT sighting and made the hike totally worthwhile.

John Oliver Cabin
The John Oliver Place is the oldest cabin in Cades Cove. Below: A friendly yellow warbler we spotted along the trail; Adam descends the Rich Mountain Loop Trail; The woods shortly before reaching the Oliver cabin were very pretty.

Warbler Descent Woods

The rest of the hike between the bear and the John Oliver cabin was downhill, steeply at times. For a couple hundred yards, we were followed by a cute yellow warbler. The bird hopped from tree to tree right alongside us before finally flying off. We had a couple easy, shallow stream crossings on the section of trail.

We reached the Oliver cabin and were met with crowds of Cades Cove tourists. Most people visiting the cabin park along the loop road and then walk a short distance up to the house. I think this cabin is the oldest structure in the Cove.   After spending a little time exploring the cabin, we headed back onto the Rich Mountain Loop trail.

After the cabin there wasn’t anything remarkable left on the trail to see. I don’t think I took a single photo! It was just an easy walk for about a mile back to our first junction of the day, followed by a half mile stretch back to the parking area on the loop road. It felt great to be back in the air-conditioned car!

On our way out of Cades Cove, we stopped by the snack bar at the campground. I got a gigantic Gatorade and a bag of generic Cheetos. The Gatorade tasted miraculous after miles of drinking lukewarm Camelbak water! About an hour later, we were checking into our hotel in Gatlinburg. After showering, we headed out to the Smoky Mountain Brewery. On the way, we got caught in one of the biggest downpours I’ve ever experienced. We ate dinner soaked, but the beer and steak were so good I didn’t care.

So, I guess in closing… would I recommend the Rich Mountain Loop? Probably – it seems like a great place to hike if you want good odds of seeing a bear in the wild, but don’t go expecting great views and waterfalls.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.7 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1800 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.5  The hike up the Crooked Arm Ridge trail was tough.
  • Trail Conditions –  3.  The trail was clear, but there were some eroded parts on the climb up the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail.  On the hike down, there was some loose rock also.
  • Views – 2.  There were some obstructed views from the ridgeline.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  The Crooked Arm Cascade was a disappointment with little water, but the streams on the back end of the loop were nice. 
  • Wildlife – 4.5.  We did see a bear and it looked and sounded like a lot of bear activity here.  We also saw some deer along the way.
  • Ease to Navigate –  1.5.  Trails were not marked very clearly, especially at junctions.  Also, there is confusion around the John Oliver place on which way to go to complete the loop back.
  • Solitude – 2.5.  Cades Cove is a very popular area.  I would expect to see some people on the trail most days, but less in the upper elevations.  There will also be lots of people that will park on the main road to check out the John Oliver Place. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:   From the Sugarlands Visitor Center in GSMNP, follow signs towards Cades Cove. Follow Little River Road for about 17 miles.  At the intersection near Townsend, the road will become Laurel Creek Road.  Follow Laurel Creek road for 7.4 miles to the parking area at the head of Cades Cove.  Park in the lot on the left hand side of the road right before the traffic becomes one way.  The trail starts about 25 yards ahead on the opposite side of the road from parking.

Chasteen Creek Falls (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This 4 mile out-and-back is an easy hike to one of the Smokies’ lesser visited and under-appreciated waterfalls.  The walk begins from the Smokemont Campground and follows a lovely stream and eventually reaches a pretty 25′ waterfall.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Chasteen Creek Cascade
Pretty Chasteen Creek Cascade spills from the forest into a small pool below.  Below:  The trailhead at the end of Smokemont Campground.  Adam tucked his pant legs in to avoid ticks;  Mountain laurel along Bradley Fork; The trail is an old logging road.

Trailhead for Chasteen Creek Cascade Bradley Fork Lush and Green Bradley Fork Trail

Christine Says…

For the first few days of our trip, I wasn’t feeling great.  Even after easy hiking days on Mt. Pisgah and Wesser Bald, I still wasn’t myself.  Mentally, I had big hiking plans for every day of our trip, but in the end, my body dictated that we hike shorter, less strenuous trails.

On our second day in Bryson City, we woke up to lightning, rumbling thunder and torrential downpours.  The local weather said that the heavy rain would clear out and leave us with a hazy, mostly cloudy, unsettled day.  We decided that an easy waterfall hike would be perfect for those conditions.  After breakfast at Mountain Perks (probably my favorite breakfast spot in Bryson City), we drove into the park.

Our hike started at the far end (section D) of the Smokemont Campground.  For the first 1.2 miles, we followed the Bradley Fork Trail.   It went gently uphill along the stream.  The morning rain paired with the emerging sun made for a hot, muggy and buggy hike!  Whenever we stopped for photos or to take in the scenery, we were swarmed by gnats and mosquitoes.  Nonetheless, the trail was beautiful – so lush and green.

Adam Enjoys the Bradley Fork. Below: A marker for the Benton MacKaye trail along the shared portion of the hike; Someone built a ‘fairy house’ along the Bradley Fork; Trail junction with Chasteen Creek Trail; Campsite 50.

Benton MacKaye Trail Fairy House Junction with Chasteen Creek Campsite 50

The trail along Bradley Creek is popular with horseback riders.  In fact, the National Park Service concessionaire offers a trail ride from Smokemont Stables to the waterfall.  I bet it’s a wonderful, scenic ride!  The trail is also shared with the Benton MacKaye Trail – a 300 mile trail across the southern Appalachians.  Almost 100 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail passes through the Smokies.  MacKaye, a forester from Massachusetts, is noteworthy because he came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail… what a legacy to leave behind!

At 1.2 miles, the Bradley Fork Trail intersects with the Chasteen Creek Trail.  At this junction, take a right and follow the trail toward Chasteen Creek.  Almost immediately, on the right, you’ll pass Backcountry Campsite 50.  It’s a pretty streamside spot with a fire ring and bear cables.  The campsite can only be used if you have secured a paid permit. Evidently, permits in the Smokies can be hard to come by, so plan early!

After the campsite, walk another half mile along the Chasteen Creek Trail.  Shortly after crossing a footbridge, you’ll come to a split in the trail.   On the left side of the split, you should be able to see a hitching rail and mounting step for horseback riders – go in this direction.

From the clearing for horses, you’ll see a narrow footpath following the creek.  In just about a tenth of a mile, you’ll come out at Chasteen Creek Cascade.  It’s about a 25 foot waterfall.  It’s not the kind of waterfall that plunges dramatically; rather it slides over the rocks into a pretty pool below.  We had the waterfall all to ourselves and enjoyed the spot for about twenty minutes. Afterwards, we headed back the way we came and back into Bryson City for lunch at the Bar-B-Que Wagon.  They have great Carolina-style barbecue with all the expected sides.

Chasteen Creek Trail
Christine walks along the Chasteen Creek Trail.  Below: The split in the trail that leads to the falls; Hitching post and mounting block; Adam at the falls.

Trail Split Hitching Posts Chasteen Creek Cascade

Adam Says…

When we talk to people about the Smokies, they seem to be surprised that some of the best highlights of the park are the waterfalls.  In talking with the locals of the area, April and May tend to be very rainy seasons for the area.   Storms move in and out quickly through the park, but they typically expect a little rain most days during this season.  Rainy days are prime days for waterfall viewing and photography.

We started off our hike from the Smokemont Campground in the D section of the campground.  In the winter, this may be blocked off and you may have to park and leave from the C section.  The trailhead starts from a large gate near the designated parking area at the end of the campground.  We doused ourselves with bug spray and moved on.

Butterfly Swarm
We saw a swarm of butterflies on the trail. Below:  After lunch, we visited impressive Mingo Falls.  It’s probably the tallest waterfall in the area;  Nantahala Brewing Company and Anthony’s Pizza were the perfect way to end our time in Bryson City.

Mingo Falls Beers Anthony's

The trail was gradually uphill, but it mostly felt flat.  In fact, we were surprised to see the elevation gain on the hike afterwards.  The trail started off on a gravel road alongside Bradley Fork.  The forest was lush with green from all of the rain, so it was a pleasant stroll through the woods.  Because of the width of the trail, Christine and I could also walk side-by-side along the trail.  At 1.1 miles, we crossed a large footbridge and at 1.2 miles we came to the intersection with the Chasteen Creek Trail.  We took a right there and continued to walk on a wider trail, passing Campsite 50 at 1.3 miles.  At 1.9 miles, we reached the side trail to the left with the horse hitching area.  It was a short walk to get to the waterfall from there.  We headed back the way we came for an easy, scenic hike.

If you wanted to make this a longer hike, after you visit the waterfall, return back the way you came.  You could take a right at the junction with the Bradley Fork trail and connect to the Smokemont Loop Trail.  This would make the grand total of distance about 8 miles, but would loop back to a different section of the campground.

You may see people fishing for rainbow trout along the Bradley Fork or Chasteen Creek.  I can imagine many campers at the Smokemont Campground spend some time fishing in hopes of cooking some fish from the water.

After the hike, we had lunch then headed into Cherokee to check out the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual.  Their traditional work is fascinating and beautiful.  We always enjoy visiting.  After that, we stayed on the reservation and visited Mingo Falls, one of the tallest and most impressive waterfalls in the Appalachians.  It was a short walk, but there were many stairs!

Our wrap up for the day was a visit to Nantahala Brewery followed by pizza from Anthony’s.  We consider those two stops to be ‘must-do’ in Bryson City!  On to Gatlinburg tomorrow!

Trail Notes

  • Distance –  4 miles
    MapMyHike Stats
  • Elevation Change –  490 ft.
  • Difficulty – 1.5.  This is an easy walk along a very gently graded trail.
  • Trail Conditions –  4.5.  The trail is mostly wide and road-like.  It’s only narrow and muddy at the base of the falls.
  • Views – 0.  None.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5.  Bradley Fork, Chasteen Creek and the falls are all beautiful!
  • Wildlife – 3.  We didn’t see anything, but the Smokies have wildlife everywhere!
  • Ease to Navigate –  3.5.  The trail is easy to follow if you read the junction markers.  The shared/intersecting trails might be confusing if you’re not paying attention.
  • Solitude – 3.  Chasteen Creek Falls is not one of the park’s more popular trails.  You may see horses and occasional hikers from the campground, but generally this trail has less foot traffic than many others.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:   From Newfound Gap Road (Route 441), follow signs to Smokemont Campground.  The campground is located 3.5 miles north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and 26 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  Park in the hiker parking area at the end of section D of the campground.

Strickler Knob – via Massanutten Trailhead

This 9.1 mile hike is challenging, but offers wonderful view payoffs and a fun rock scramble.  There is a shorter option for this hike for people wanting to skip the toughest part of the climb.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Crowds on Strickler Knob
Crowds gather on one of Strickler Knob’s perches. One person we met at the summit had a Cavalier King Charles spaniel in her backpack.  If you look closely at the photo, you can see the dog’s head sticking out of the pack.  Cute! Below: The Massanutten Trailhead on Crisman Hollow Rd.; Adam, Suzanne and Anthony begin the hike; Native pink azaleas.

Massanutten Trail Happy Hikers Pinkster

Christine Says…

Strickler Knob was the second hike we posted on Virginia Trail Guide… way back in May of 2009. In the years since we first did this hike, there was a bad forest fire in the vicinity, the Forest Service painted over the purple/pink blazes to the knob (and then someone put them back), and the trail became vastly more popular.

On this particularly beautiful morning, we were planning a hike in Shenandoah National Park, but at 7:45 a.m. a text popped up on my phone. It was from our friends, Suzanne and Anthony (we met them at PATC’s Backpacking 101 workshop several years ago). They had made a spur of the moment decision to drive down from Maryland to hike Strickler Knob and wondered if we might want to join them. We don’t see them often enough, so the answer was clearly YES!

However, I had a few concerns going into the hike. The first was the possibility of swift/deep streams and run off from the deluge of rain we had received a day earlier. Roads and bridges were washed out all over the area. The second was the fact that the MMT 100 was being run that weekend. I wasn’t sure if the trail would be crowded or have limited access due to the race. We decided to put those concerns aside and go for it.

We met our friends at the defunct Massanutten Visitor’s Center on Rt. 211 near Luray. From there, we proceeded in one car to the Massanutten Trailhead on Crisman Hollow Rd. Right as we arrived, a carload of six was also unloading at the trailhead. We ended up playing leap frog with them along the trail all day long.

Lady's Slipper
We spotted this beautiful pink lady’s slipper orchid along the trail. Below: Anthony and Suzanne make the steep descent of Waterfall Mountain; Mountain laurel is starting to bloom; Streams were running high.

Waterfall Mountain Descent Mountain Laurel Stream

The trail initially crossed a flat, open area and a view into the valley. But soon, the trail dropped very steeply downhill on Waterfall Mountain. I’m not really sure why it’s called Waterfall Mountain. We didn’t see any waterfalls along the way – maybe they’re someplace else, or maybe ‘waterfall’ just refers to the extremely quick drop in elevation. Along this section of trail, we all joked about what a tough climb uphill this would be at the end of the day. I enjoyed the flowers blooming along the trail. We spotted mountain laurel starting to bud and even a pink lady’s slipper!

Eventually the trail leveled out near a stream. We passed a large campsite near the water just before coming to our first stream crossing. The water was pretty high and fast, but some well-placed logs made the crossing doable. From there, the trail followed a series of ascents and descents with lots of little stream crossings along the way. Most of the small stream crossings are probably dry under normal circumstances. We soon came to a second large stream crossing. After that crossing, the trail followed the stream – literally. Due to the 4-5 inches of rain the area experienced, the trail was completely underwater. It didn’t even look like a trail, and the only way we were sure it was the trail was the presence of a blaze on a tree about 50 yards ahead. We walked for more than a mile in ankle deep water. It was fun, but it was also wet, sloppy and muddy!

We reached trail junction 408. This is where the folks coming up from Scothorn Gap join the trail. At this point, we turned right and followed the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail uphill in the direction of the Gap Creek Trail. This part of the trail is really easy – wide and very gently graded.  There were lots of pink native azaleas on one side of the trail. On the other side, the area burned out by a forest fire stood, charred – but slowly growing back.

Stream Crossing
Anthony makes his way across the logs traversing the stream. Below: Adam walks along one of the only flat sections of the trail.  It was a really short section; Suzanne walks along the under-water trail; This is the trail junction that trips a lot of people up.  Make sure you go uphill, remaining on the Massanutten trail, in the direction of Gap Creek.

Flat Stream Walking Tricky

When we reached the ridge, there was an obstructed view where the trail continues over the crest and then downhill. If you find yourself going downhill on the orange-blazed trail, you’ve passed the turn to Strickler Knob! At the top of the ridge, look carefully for purple/pink blazes on rocks and a reddish disk stapled to a tree. This is the way to Strickler Knob.

The walk to the knob starts off as a rocky but easily passable trail. But gradually the rocks become bigger, more jagged and trickier to traverse. It’s easy to lose the blazes as you pick your way along the rocks. You’ll come to one stunning viewpoint and think you’ve reached the end, but you still have the most intense part of the scramble to go! There are several steep, tall rock faces to negotiate before you finally come to a collection of towering rock stacks overlooking the Page Valley, Fort Valley and the Shenandoah River. The view from the knob is majestic!

On this particular day, Strickler Knob was packed. There were so many people at the overlook, it was hard to find a spot to sit. I think part of it was because the presence of two hiking clubs. But in addition to the clubs, there were also a number of couples and foursomes. Honestly, I’m shocked that this trail has become so popular! The crowds rivaled what I expect to see on a nice day on trails like Dark Hollow Falls or Hawksbill Mountain (in SNP).

We spent some time at the overlook eating lunch and taking photos. The hike back went really quickly. We walked in the water, we crossed the streams, we did all the little ascents and descents… and then we came to the base of Waterfall Mountain.

That climb was every bit as brutal as we all expected – gaining over 800 feet in about half a mile. The section isn’t climbed with mediating steps or switchbacks – it’s pretty much straight up the mountainside. We were all pretty glad when we got back to the flat, grassy section again!

When we got back to the car, the parking lot was much more crowded than when we had left it. We made the short drive back to the Massanutten Visitor’s Center and bid farewell to Anthony and Suzanne. It was a great hike and great to see them!

Burned Area
This area was burned by a forest fire several years ago. There is still a lot of black char, but new growth is starting to emerge. Below: The beginning of the Strickler Knob trail; Adam enjoys the first nice view; The scramble begins!

Strickler Trail First View Scrambling

Between the two routes to Strickler Knob, I would probably recommend the shorter route from Scothorn Gap to most hikers. You get all of the excellent scenery, and only miss the extremely challenging descent/ascent of Waterfall Mountain. The section on Waterfall Mountain doesn’t really offer any remarkable scenery, but it’s a great training hike if you’re looking for a cardio challenge or practice on elevation change. We probably benefited from the longer, tougher ascent to prepare for our upcoming Smokies Trip.

Adam Says…

Normally, when I describe the hike to Strickler Knob, I tell people that it’s an introductory rock-scrambling hike to see if you are ready for Old Rag.  While there is not as much rock-scrambling and navigating as Old Rag, there are a few spots towards the summit that will test you enough to see if you can pull yourself up some of the rocks and let you gauge your comfort-level with scrambling over some drops.  If you’ve already done Old Rag, this should be easy, but if you are intimidated by Old Rag from stories you’ve heard, try Strickler Knob first.  I would agree with Christine that this hike has become more popular over recent years.  When we had done the hike five years ago on a beautiful day, we only ran into one other couple on the entire trail; this time, it was crawling with people.

This is also a hike where people often get lost.  You won’t find the purple-blazed summit trail on any maps currently, so I would suggest bringing a copy of the map I’ve provided below.  I had a co-worker that tried to find the trail a few years ago (possibly when the blazes were still removed) to no luck.  We also came across a larger hiking group from Northern Virginia that had missed the trail completely.  When we gave them better directions, they turned around to attempt it again.  Part of this also has to do with what few blazes are actually on the trail.  You’ll know you are on a trail, you may just not be entirely sure which trail.

Scrambling
The group negotiates the rock scramble. Below: Adam makes his way through the rocks; Lots of rocks to climb; A nice perch on Strickler Knob.

Scrambling Rocks to Climb Adam on the Scramble

We started off the hike from the small parking area on Crisman Hollow Road.  The orange-blazed Massanutten trail starts off on nice, level terrain through a wooded area.  The trail soon opens up to more of a brushy, open field.  As the trail winds around through this area, there is even one spot that has a view into the valley below at .2 miles.  Shortly after this point as the trail winds around, the trail begins its very steep descent down Waterfall Mountain at .5 miles.  The entire time that we were hiking down, I was thinking this was going to be a pain to hike back up at the end of the hike.  The trail does have a few switchbacks, but the overall descent is tough on the knees as you descend about 800 feet in that half mile.  At the 1.0 mile marker, we finally reached the bottom of the descent and a junction with the Massanutten Connector Trail.  Take a left at this junction to stay on the main, orange-blazed Massanutten trail.  The trail begins to climb slightly at this point and at 1.2 miles, you will reach a nice back-country campsite along the side of the Big Run stream.  You’ll soon cross the stream (usually by balancing yourself along logs that have been laid across) and continue your climb.  After the second stream crossing, the trail begins a steeper climb with a large switchback to help ease the elevation gain.

Summit Crowd
The summit was very crowded, but the views were still fantastic!

Eventually the trail met the stream again and due to the heavy rains, the trail was completely submerged.  We ended up hiking what felt like almost a mile through a submerged trail by rock-hopping or just getting our feet wet and muddy.   The trail finally separated from the water and leveled out and we reached the junction with the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap trail at 3.0 miles.  Take a right at this junction to stay on the orange-blazed Massanutten trail.  The trail feels more like a fire road at this point, as you’ll climb up slightly.  We were able to see a lot of the fire damage to the trees around, so there is little more than some lower brushy, understory on the trail at this point.  At 3.6 miles, you reach the crest of the trail and can see some obstructed views straight ahead.  At this point, look around to your right.  We found a small cairn on the ground and were able to see some red and purple blazes higher than eye-level on a few trees to mark the beginning of the purple-blazed trail to the summit of Strickler Knob.  The purple blazes at this point are typically marked on the rocks where you step.  The trail is very rocky at this point and you will be walking the ridgeline until you reach the summit.  The trail can also be a little hard to follow, but if you keep looking for the blazes and just remember you are walking the crest of the ridge, you should be fine.

At 4.2 miles, you reach a very nice viewpoint where you can get great views to the west.   Keep pressing forward and you’ll soon need to climb up a larger rock wall and then pass by a primitive campsite.  Just a few 100 feet away, you will reach the larger boulders of Strickler Knob at 4.5 miles.   You’ll see a large rock overhang that you’ll climb under.  There is a small area to take in a few views to the right.  For those that are most adventurous, the best views are to the left where the overhang is.  If you feel comfortable, you will need to navigate a crack between the two larger rock formations and hoist yourself up to the top of the rocks.  The views from both rock formations are absolutely breathtaking as you have 360-degree views from all around the valley.

Climbing Down
The climb down is as challenging as the climb up!  Below: More views from the top; The hike down; One final stream crossing.

View of the Valley Descent Stream Crossing

After eating a packed lunch, we made our way back the way we came.  We did have to face the waterlogged trail again.  We came across several groups on our way back that were also looking for directions.  One girl asked me if there was any other way back to the car other than going back up Waterfall Mountain.  I suggested that they make their way back through Scothorn Gap and then walk Crisman Hollow Road back.   We all definitely wished we didn’t have that steep trek back up Waterfall Mountain to do.  It is a very steep trail almost straight up the mountain and it takes quite an athlete to do this without taking a breather at some point on the return.  When we finally reached the top, we congratulated our success and then made the last .5 miles back to our car.

When we were hiking the trail, I kept thinking about the MMT 100 racers that were running this trail.  We had come across one of the race-workers and he told us that most of the fast runners were coming through this area near Waterfall Mountain around 8 p.m.  So, if you were a little slower than that you would be running this trail in the dark with a headlamp.  I can’t even imagine how tough this would be and how any of them would escape injury from running into a tree, twisting an ankle, or falling down the trail.

Brutal
The brutal ascent back up Waterfall Mountain at the end of the hike.

I would also recommend for most people to do the hike from Scothorn Gap instead of the route we took.  It is a lot of extra effort with nothing overly impressive to see along the way.

It was great to see our friends again.  We were all getting ready to head to the Great Smoky Mountains soon, so this was great training before we had to handle some of the tougher terrain that the park had to offer.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 9.1 miles
  • Elevation Change – About 2250 ft.
  • Difficulty – 5. This rating is earned by both the hike length, the scramble to the knob, and the ascent of Waterfall Mountain that comes right at the end of the hike.  For an easier version of this hike, start at Scothorn Gap.
  • Trail Conditions –  2. No switchbacks, soggy streambeds, a couple crossings that can be challenging in wet weather, and a tough scramble.  This is not a beginner’s hike.
  • Views –  5.  Views from the knob are spectacular.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.5.  The usually low streams were beautiful and running high when we visited, but they’re probably usually less impressive.
  • Wildlife – 0.  This trail is popular enough to scare away most wildlife.
  • Ease to Navigate –  2. Trails are sporadically blazed and can be hard to follow.  The junctions for trails leading to to the knob do not mention Strickler Knob.  We suggest bringing a map on this hike.
  • Solitude – 2.  This trail has become extremely popular!

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From I-81, take exit 264 heading east through New Market.  Head east on West Old Cross Road for .2 miles.  Turn left on to US-11/N. Congress Street.  In .3 miles, turn right on to US-211/Lee Highway.  Go 3.6 miles and turn left on to Crisman Hollow Road (it is right before the green building on your right that is the Massanutten Visitors Center).  Follow Crisman Hollow Road for 2.2 miles (passing by the parking lot for the Massanutten Storybook Trail) until you reach where the orange-blazed Massanutten Mountain Trail crosses the road and the small parking area.  Park here, cross the road and start the trail.

Appalachian Trail – Hog Camp Gap to the Tye River

This 19.1 mile overnight backpacking trip has amazing views and pretty stream scenery.  The terrain is relatively easy, so it’s a great stretch if you’re looking to cover higher miles without a ton of uphill climbing. Since this is a longer post, Adam is going to cover day one, and Christine will cover day two.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

First Views
The first views on our hike came within about a mile! Notice Christine’s new purple backpack! She upgraded from her Gregory Z55 to an Osprey Viva 65. It has a lot of useful features – her favorite: the hydration sleeve is on the outside of the pack, which is very convenient!  Below: Parking at Hog Camp Gap; Adam climbs out of the gap; Old stone walls.

Parking at Hog Camp Gap Climbing Out of the Gap Old Farm Wall

Day One (10.4 miles)…

This hike had a very rough start and almost became the hike that never happened.  The morning of our trip, we loaded up our cars and headed out.  We needed to take two cars since we were doing a shuttle.  About ten minutes into the drive, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Christine turning back around and heading home.  She had forgotten her hiking shoes and was only wearing flip-flops in the car – not the best idea for a backpacking trip.  We made a quick return home. When I pulled into the driveway, black metallic smoke started rolling out from underneath our hood.  Not good at all!  But we didn’t want to throw in the towel yet.  We took the smoking car to Bob Wade Auto World (the Subaru dealership where we bought the car), but found they weren’t open yet.  So, we decided to fill up on a big breakfast at Cracker Barrel and stop by again when they opened at 9:00.  We got to the dealership and explained the problem.  They have great customer service! We ended up with a free loaner car to use while our Outback was in the shop. They were so quick with the paperwork and processing that we were back on the road in less than 15 minutes. Saved!!

Mayapples
Beautiful green mayapples! Spring is finally here!  Below: Trillium along the trail;  Lunch stop!; A perfect swallowtail.

Trillium Lunch Butterfly

We dropped our first car at our finish line where the Appalachian Trail crosses VA Route 56.   We then headed to the starting point.  It took us about 50 minutes to get to Hog Camp Gap, since there is no direct road that parallels the AT.  The last piece of road to get to Hog Camp Gap is very rocky and filled with potholes, but we made it there safely.  The parking lot was already crowded as this is a great starting point for many hikes, whether you’re going to Mt. Pleasant, Cole Mountain, Spy Rock, or camping near Cow Camp Gap shelter.  We got all of our gear together quickly and walked through the large break in the fence to start our hike on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading north.   The trail began to climb up a hillside and within 1 mile, we were blessed with astonishing views, looking over the Tar Jacket Ridge to catch views of the bald on Cole Mountain, Mount Pleasant, and Pompey Mountain.  I knew at this point our luck was turning for the best.  I found it hard to pry myself away from the views, but knowing that we had a lot of distance to cover,  we pressed on.  The trail then begins to gradually descend from the ridgeline and we crossed USFS 62 and Salt Log Gap at 2.2 miles.

Stream Crossing
One of the few, small stream crossings on the hike.  Below: Seely-Woodworth Shelter; Christine filters water at Porters Field; Porters Field has space for lots of tents; Through the trees, we could see the ascent still ahead of us after dinner; Christine ascends the trail near Spy Rock; Finally at camp!

Seely Woodworth Shelter Filtering Water Porters Field
Mountain Ahead Spyrock Trail Camp

The trail was relatively flat for a good stretch of the trail going forward.  There were some views through the trees occasionally as we walked on, but the true treat was all the trillium that was on the trail.  This is by far Christine’s favorite wildflower.  She was hoping to see some along the trail and we were pleased to find entire hillsides filled with these flowers in perfect bloom.  We crossed USFS 246 at mile 3.6, Greasy Spring/USFS 1176A at mile 4.1 and reached the crossing of the North Fork of Piney River at mile 5.9.  We stopped and ate our lunch on the side of the trail.  The only excitement along this piece of trail was Christine swore she saw a bear, but it was just a person (dressed all in black) taking a lunch break far uphill from the trail (which we thought was an odd place to stop).  We pressed on along the trail and finally reached the Seely-Woodworth Shelter at mile 7.4.  When we arrived at the shelter there were several backpacks at the shelter, but no sign of people anywhere.  We took a long break and rested our feet.  We were joined shortly by Christine’s “bear man” who was doing a longer section hike and covering a lot of Virginia.  We shared some hiking stories (like how he never purifies water but has only got sick once).  Knowing that we had more miles to cover today, we strapped our heavy packs back on and continued.

We reached a junction with Porters Field (a fire road that used to be a railroad trail) at mile 8.4.  We had read on the hiking blog of a friend (thanks, Wandering Virginia), about a water source near this junction.  We took this short side trail past a campsite and then headed downhill towards the sound of water.  Water was coming out steadily from under a large rock.  We decided to cook some dinner here.  While we both weren’t overly starving since we had eaten lunch not too long ago, this seemed like the best place to cook some dinner and refill water.  We were shooting to camp at Spy Rock, which is a dry camp, so we needed to carry enough water for breakfast After dinner, we made our way back to the AT.  Christine typically doesn’t like hiking with a full stomach, but because we needed to get to our camp site for the night, we pushed on.  We crossed over the Fish Hatchery Road at Montebello at 9.6 miles.  On the other side of the road, we saw the steep ascent up to Spy Rock.  The trail climbed up about 400 feet in .5 miles, but when we reached the top of the hill, we found our perfect campsite at the base of Spy Rock.

NOTE:  Hikers are no longer allowed to camp at the base of Spy Rock. Usage rules for this area were changed in 2019.  We camped there long before the rule change, and we’re thankful we had that opportunity!

Spy Rock View
Spectacular views from Spy Rock. Below: Getting to the top takes some scrambling; Christine reaches the dome; Beautiful evening light on Spy Rock.

Climbing Climbing Beautiful Spot

We took off our packs and began to set up camp.  There were already a few campsites already claimed, but we found a nice flat spot with no rocks or protruding roots.  We had just bought a new two-person tent, the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2, which was much lighter than our 3-person tent, and we were excited to try it out.  We set the tent and fly up and then made our way to check out the views from the summit of Spy Rock.  There is a little rock scramble up to the top of Spy Rock, but the 360-degree views from this spot are not to be missed.  We stayed up there a while to soak in as many views as we could, before making our way back to camp.  We had a long, tiring, day that started off stressful, so we were ready to go to sleep before the sun fully set.  We both read books for a while and then went to sleep.  Or rather, tried to go to sleep.  Right after sunset, the wind started to pick up.  At first it was an occasional rustle across the treetops, but by midnight it was moaning and howling over the mountains.

Beautiful Spot
Adam enjoying a beautiful spot! Below: Reflecting pools on Spy Rock;  Sunset is ‘hiker midnight’.  By the time the sun went down, it was already cold and windy.  Christine was glad for the hood on her sleeping bag!

Spy Rock Bedtime

Day Two (8.7 miles)…

That was a rough night to spend in a tent!  Even with it staked and guylined, it rattled and shook all night long.  The wind continually caught under the fly and funneled through the tent’s mesh.  Even in long pants, a hat, and layers of fleece, I was cold in my 35 degree bag.  It wasn’t even that cold outside – the wind was just really brutal!  Neither Adam nor I got much sleep.  I found myself wide awake when the first hints of dawn light started to brighten the tent.

NOTE:  Hikers are no longer allowed to camp at the base of Spy Rock. Usage rules for this area were changed in 2019.  We camped there long before the rule change, and we’re thankful we had that opportunity!

Sunrise on Spy Rock
I had some canine companionship at sunrise. This beautiful dog is half German shepherd, quarter Malamute and a quarter wolf! Below: Day Two got off to a very cold start; Spy Rock has several spacious, flat campsites; Adam checks out the few from Maintop Mountain.

Cold Camp Maintop

I told Adam I wanted to climb Spy Rock again to watch the sun come up.  He decided to stay back.  I grabbed my camera, scaled the rock and found a perch facing east.  It was a beautiful, though cloudless, sunrise.  I thought I was alone on the top of the rock, but suddenly a huge white dog we had met the night before came bounding across the rock and decked me.  He was friendly, and I was fine, but his owner was embarrassed and came chasing after the dog.   I stayed on Spy Rock watching the sun come up until I couldn’t take the wind and cold anymore.

When I came down, Adam was already in the process of breaking down camp.  We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and were back on the trail by around 7:30.   Day two of this trip had a bit more climbing than the first day.  Our first ascent was that of Maintop Mountain.  It was a moderate ascent with one nice view near the summit. I started the morning in a fleece jacket and gloves.  By the time we reached the summit, I had stripped them off.  Climbing really warms you up!

Confessions
Adam writes his confession in the Priest Shelter journal.  Below: Adam approaches FR826; Adam checks out the distance covered at the information board marking the beginning of the Priest Wilderness; The Priest Shelter.

Approaching the Fire Road Priest Wilderness Priest Shelter

From there, we descended into Cash Hollow.  We passed a southbound section hiker and a group of Boy Scouts.  We crossed a couple gravel roads – 826 and 526.  Off-roaders really enjoy these roads – they’re very rugged and tough to drive unless you have a serious 4WD vehicle.   After the second road crossing, signs and an informational board informed us that we had just entered The Priest Wilderness.

We had about a mile of climbing to reach the Priest shelter and the ridgeline of the mountain.  The climbing is really pretty moderate, but it seemed tough to my tired legs and sleepy mind.  We stopped at The Priest shelter for a snack and rest.  I changed into shorts – the day was warming very quickly!  Adam and I both made our ‘confessions’ in the Priest journal.  It’s one of the funniest we’ve seen along the AT – reading everyone’s confessions is definitely worth a stop!

Priest Summit
Christine enjoys the view near the Priest summit. Below: Spring slowly creeps up the mountainsides; Trillium were everywhere; Adam approaches a nice view from the Priest.

Priest Trillium Descending

From there, we completed our last couple hundred feet of ascent to the top of the Priest.  Near the top, we enjoyed amazing views of the valley and had a chance to see an adult bald eagle soar by on the wind.  The rest of our hike was a long, 4-mile, 4,000 foot descent to the Tye River.

We took it slowly, enjoying wildflowers along the way! The trail was abundantly lined with trillium, wild violets, and wild geraniums. Both of us remarked that we were glad to not be climbing up this side of the mountain! Southbound AT hikers experience one of Virginia’s toughest climbs when they encounter the Priest!

The first mile of the descent was the steepest.  As the grade moderated, we came to another outstanding overlook.  The opening in the trees revealed lush Virginia countryside – farms and ponds.  At this elevation, the trail was much greener.  Leaves were opening in the canopy and the ground cover was brilliant green.  We crossed Cripple Creek in several places.  The rain a couple days earlier had filled the stream and created several beautiful waterfalls.  We enjoyed walking through the woods and listening to the sounds of falling water.  We saw even more wild flowers – a hillside of scarlet catchfly was especially beautiful!

Priest Views
Classic Virginia terrain! Below: Walking alongside Cripple Creek; The latter part of the descent was smooth and gentle; Scarlet Catchfly wildflowers; Post-hike at Devil’s Backbone.  Is it totally horrifying that we go out to eat without showering?  Nah!

Cripple Creek Descent
Scarlet Catchfly Devil's Backbone

Eventually, we could see the sunlight catching on car windshields through the trees.  We were both pretty tired and happy to be back at the car!  We had covered almost 20 miles in roughly 24 hours.  It’s the furthest we’ve ever hiked in that time period, so we felt pretty accomplished.

We had a long car shuttle to get back to Hog Camp Gap.  After picking up the other car, we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Reed’s Gap so we could have lunch at Devil’s Backbone.  It’s always great to eat a HUGE plate of food after a big hike – fries, a grilled brat and beer for me!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 19.1 miles [Day One] [Day Two]
  • Elevation Change – About 3172 ft.
  • Difficulty – 4.  Mostly for distance.  This section of the AT has little climbing uphill overall, but the hike down The Priest is quite steep. 
  • Trail Conditions –  3.5.  The trail is well maintained and in good shape.  We did feel the hike down from The Priest was really rocky and hard on the feet and ankles. 
  • Views – 5.  This hike has AMAZING views from Tar Jacket Ridge, Spy Rock, and The Priest.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  The best views are along Cripple Creek, near the end of the hike, where you can see a small waterfall and a scenic creek surrounded by wildflowers.   There are options for filling up water near Greasy Spring, Porters Field, the Seeley-Woodworth Shelter, and Cripple Creek.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see much wildlife other than birds along the trail.  We did have a great encounter with a male black-headed grosbeak, who was singing beautifully along the side of trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Just keep following the white-blazes and pay attention to junctions to stay on the Appalachian Trail. 
  • Solitude – 3.  We didn’t run into too many people on our trip.  Spy Rock had a decent number camping at the top.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  Requires a shuttle.  Park one car at the finish.  From the Blue Ridge Parkway, head east on VA-56/Crabtree Falls Highway for 11.2 miles.  Park car in large parking lot where the AT crosses the road.  From this point to reach Hog Camp Gap with your second car to start the route, continue east on VA-56/Crabtree Falls Highway for 6.9 miles.  Turn right on to VA-151S/VA-56E.  In 10.5 miles, take a right on to US-29 South.  In 3.1 miles, take the US-60 exit towards Amherst.  Take a right at the exit ramp to go on US-60 heading west.  In 18 miles, take a right on to State Route 634.  In 1.6 miles, take a right on to State Route 755/Wiggins Spring Road.  This road turns to gravel with large pot holes.  Follow this for 2.7 miles until you reach the parking lot where the Appalachian Trail crosses.  Park your second car here.  Go through the wooden fence and pick up the Appalachian Trail, heading north.

Appalachian Trail – Jenkins Gap to Front Royal (Route 522)

This 8-mile hike completes our Appalachian Trail mileage in Shenandoah National Park.   There isn’t much to see along this section of trail – the views aren’t great and the stream is fairly run-of-the-mill, but we’re still happy to say we’ve walked every step of the AT in Shenandoah!

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Adam Finishes
Adam coming off the trail on Route 522 in Front Royal.

Christine Says…

We finally finished hiking the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah!  For two years, less than 5 trail miles were keeping us from that distinction.  It’s really quite silly, but this final stretch of trail has been somewhat of a mental burden for me! The reason was sort of two-fold.  The first sticking point – in order to most efficiently cover the miles, we needed to do a car shuttle. I didn’t want to spend the gas money, and honestly, I just don’t like to drive by myself.  Shuttles are just a pain when both cars are yours! The second problem was that this stretch of trail just seemed… boring. I will admit that a bad day hiking is still better than a good day doing many other things, but I had a hard time getting myself psyched-up to hike this stretch.

Finally, faced with a beautiful spring day and a lack of plans, I acquiesced.  We dropped our first car off in a small AT parking lot on the side of 522.  Then we headed into the park and left a second car at Jenkins Gap –where we came off the trail after our last section of the AT in SNP.

From Jenkins Gap, we had a steady uphill to the summit of Compton Peak.  At the summit of Compton, there are blue-blazed trails leading to viewpoints on both the east and west sides of the mountain.  Each viewpoint lies .2 miles off the AT.  We decided to only visit the west summit (it has better views.)  The east summit has some interesting columnar rock formations.  If you’re into geology, they’re definitely worth a peek!

Compton Peak
The summit of Compton Peak offers two viewpoints – each about .2 miles off the AT. We went to to just the western view. Below: Ascending Compton Peak on the Appalachian Trail; Adam passes one of several large boulders on the trail; After Compton Gap, the trail is blazed both white (AT) and yellow (horse trail) for a while as it follows a fire road.

Ascending Compton Descending Compton Appalachian Trail at Compton Gap

After the summit, we descended for almost a mile into Compton Gap.  After Compton Gap, the AT is shared with the yellow-blazed Compton Gap trail for about 1.7 miles.  The hiking is along this section is wooded trail without many distinguishing features – no streams or overlooks to speak of.  The trail is wide, flat and very easy to walk.  You’ll likely pick up a lot of speed along this stretch!

At roughly 4.9 miles into the hike, we reached the park boundary.  There is a sign marking the beginning of private land.  Just south of the park boundary, there is also a backcountry permit station.  Permits are free and self-service in Shenandoah.  If you’re going to camp in Shenandoah’s backcountry, all you need to do  is fill out a tag and tether a copy to your pack.  It’s really easy!

Right after we departed the park, we came to the one viewpoint from this stretch of Appalachian Trail.  Possums Rest has a decent, but slightly obstructed view, of rolling foothills.  It’s worth a stop, but there are definitely many better views along the AT in Shenandoah.

From Possums Rest, the trail descended briefly but steeply through a jumble of rocks.  In about another .7 miles, we reached the Tom Floyd Wayside – the first backcountry shelter located north of the park.  It’s a nice spot with a nearby water source.  We chatted with a section hiker from Washington, DC.  He had completed a thru-hike the year before, but evidently the trail called him back!

Possums Rest
There is one obstructed viewpoint, called Possums Rest, shortly after passing out of the park boundary. Below: Just inside the boundary, there is a backcountry permit registration station; Park boundary; Descending a short, rocky section after Possums Rest.

Permit Station Park Boundary Descent from Possums Rest

After Tom Floyd, the trail continued very gradually downhill.  As we walked along, we could see the advance of spring on the lower elevations.  Redbuds were blooming, tiny green leaves were opening in the canopy and the grass along the trail was growing quickly.  We crossed Rt. 601, and a little over a mile later, Moore Run and then Rt. 602.   The stream was crossing was just an easy rock-hop.

After crossing 602, we had a short uphill before one final descent to Rt. 522 in Front Royal.  The last part of the hike followed a chain link fence for over a mile.  I’m not sure if the fence was just marking private land, or if it was part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  Either way, it is one of the less scenic parts of the AT.

The last quarter mile of the hike passed between fenced pasture land and a residential neighborhood.  After crossing a small wooden footbridge, we found ourselves back at the car.  On our way out, we saw a few of the Smithsonian’s animals walking down a hillside.  They appeared to be some type of antelope – kind of neat!  Before going back to pick up our second car, we stopped at Spelunker’s in Front Royal for lunch.  They make fantastic burgers and milkshakes!  I was thrilled to see gingersnap was their shake flavor of the day!

While this hike didn’t provide much reward with views or waterfalls, I’m still really glad we did it.  I’m happy to be officially and technically finished with Shenandoah’s AT miles!

Adam Says…

It was great to finally finish the AT section through Shenandoah National Park!  With the entire trail being 2180 miles from Georgia to Maine, the section through Shenandoah National Park is less than 5% of the entire trail.  Daunting to say the least, but we still feel we have accomplished something measurable.  There are about 550 miles of the AT through Virginia, making it the longest section through any one state.  Virginia is also a state where a lot of thru-hikers quit, feeling that they will never get through the state (often called the “Virginia Blues”).  The section through Shenandoah is more like 19% of the AT through Virginia.  Most of the thru-hikers fly through Shenandoah National Park, averaging over 20 miles per day.  The climbs are not as tough as in many sections and they have worked into their “trail legs”, gaining the strength to cover many miles per day.

Tom Floyd Wayside
Tom Floyd Wayside is outside the park boundary and is the last shelter before reaching Front Royal.  Below: Redbuds blooming at the lower elevations; Christine crossing Moore Run; The last mile or so of the trail followed a long, chain link fence.

Redbuds Moore Run
Fenceline Fenceline

After we dropped our car off at the trail crossing of Route 522, we made our way into the park and parked at Jenkins Gap.  While you will drive about 12.4 miles on Skyline Drive, the trail through the park and out is a lot shorter.  From the parking lot, you join the Jenkins Gap Trail for just about 100 feet and then take a right to join the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading north.  The trail took us through some storm-damaged areas of trees, leading us through one of the two ascents on this trail.  We gained about 500 feet up to Compton Peak.  At 1.4 miles, we reached a post which pointed out to two short blue-blazed trails that lead to views from Compton Peak.  Since we knew there wasn’t going to be many views on this trail, we decided to take a left and check out the West Compton Peak view.  This side trail of .2 miles was a rocky uphill trail that led to a small, but scenic viewpoint.  We made our way back the way we came to reach the post and then took a left to continue on the Appalachian Trail heading north.  The trail descended again, as we dropped 500 feet in about .8 miles.  If you did the side trail to Compton Peak, add another .3 miles to any of the distances given from this point forward.  At 2.2 miles on the AT, you cross over Skyline Drive at Compton Gap.  At 2.4 miles, you reach a junction with the Dickey Ridge Trail and at 2.7 miles, you reach a junction with the Springhouse Trail.  The Springhouse Trail allows for horses and actually shares the next section of the AT, which is why you will see both yellow and white blazes.  The trail is fairly level at this point.

At 3.8 miles, you reach a junction with the Compton Gap Trail.  This is where horse-riders would come off the AT, since they are not allowed further on the trail.  Take a left here to stay on the white-blazed AT.  You will soon come across an area where backpackers can fill out paperwork for backcountry camping permits and continuing further, you will reach the Shenandoah National Park boundary at 4.0 miles.  Within a short distance, you reach the area known as Possums Rest, a very small overlook that has some views.  The trail at this point goes down a very steep and rocky area as you go below Possums Rest.  The trail descends for most of the rest of the way At 4.7 miles, you reach the Tom Floyd Wayside shelter, which also has tent sites, a privy, and a nearby spring.  Continuing from the Tom Floyd Wayside, you descend further, passing by other signs for the spring.  At 5.1 miles, you reach a junction with a side trail to VA-601.  From here, you have a couple of stream crossings over Moore Run and at 6.5 miles, the trail crosses VA-602.  The trail at this point goes up a steep upgrade, as you gain over 300 feet in .4 miles.  Once you reach the crest of the hill at 6.9 miles, the trail descends again as you go through a grassy area.  You walk along a long fenceline and behind some people’s houses before reaching the boardwalk which takes you back to your car at 7.7 miles.

Spelunkers
Decadent lunch at Spelunker’s in Front Royal – cheeseburger and a gingersnap milkshake!  Below: The Smithsonian National Zoo has a conservation facility in Front Royal; If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the animal – we saw some kind of antelopes; A sweaty selfie at the finish line.

Smithsonian Antelope Selfie

Once we made our way back to the car, we stopped at Spelunkers.  There was a large bike ride being conducted nearby, so the place was quite crowded.  One of the great things about hiking for us is that it allows us to eat whatever we want after a hike and not worry about the calories.  We made our way from there back to our first car and then headed out of the park.  It was a gorgeous day for a hike with perfect temperatures.

While this hike isn’t the most scenic, this was definitely one I will remember since it was our “finish line” though SNP.  I’m so grateful to have a wonderful hiking partner to share all of these experiences.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8 miles (includes a visit to the Compton Peak viewpoint)
  • Elevation Change – About 1900 ft. but mostly downhill.
  • Difficulty – 2.5.  There are really only two climbs on this hike – one up Compton Peak and one shorter one near the end of the hike.  All in all, it’s a moderate, mostly downhill hike.
  • Trail Conditions –  4.  Nicely maintained section of the Appalachian Trail.  In fact, we saw a crew member trimming grass back when we hiked.
  • Views – 2. The view from Compton Peak is decent, but it’s not actually on the trail.  Possums rest is small and a bit obstructed.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  Moore Run was flowing nicely when we visited.
  • Wildlife – 2.  You may get to catch a glimpse of zoo animals at the Smithsonian facility at the end of this hike!
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  There are lots of trail junctions and shared paths.  Just make sure you follow the white blazes and you’ll be fine.
  • Solitude – 2.  We saw many dayhikers and backpackers on this stretch of trail.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  We parked one car at the parking lot on US-522 in Front Royal, which is 4.7 miles from where US-340 intersects with US-522.  We then drove to northwest on US-522 for 2.8 miles.  Take a left on E. Criser Road.  In .7 miles, take a left on US-340.  In .2 miles, take a left to enter Shenandoah National Park.  Drive 12.3 miles to park at the Jenkins Gap parking lot on the right.  Join the Jenkins Gap Trail from the parking lot for a short distance, before taking a right on to the Appalachian Trail, heading north.

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.

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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.

Horses
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.

Fortune’s Cove Loop

This 5.1 mile loop hike is deceptively challenging.  Views and pleasant ridge walking are paired with some steep ascents and descents.

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Fortune's Cove Views
Views from the Fortune’s Cove trail. Below: The preserve at Fortune’s Cove is operated by the Nature Conservancy; The trails are all well-marked and carry the Conservancy logo; Informational panel at the trailhead.

Nature Conservancy Nature Conservancy Trail Info

Christine Says…

Wow – the first weekend of April 2014 was GORGEOUS!  I think we (and every other hiker in Virginia) decided to hit the trails.  We tossed around the idea of going backpacking, but we just didn’t get our act together.  We perused our hiking book collection, a bunch of maps and several websites.  We settled on a hike we found on Hiking Upward – Fortune’s Cove.  It wasn’t a long drive from our house and looked like a good choice for early-season hiking.

We got to the trailhead parking lot right around 10:00 and found it jam-packed. There was one group of about 15 hikers getting ready to depart. I feel a little bad saying this, but I’m always a little deflated when I get someplace and find that we’re going to have lots of company on our hike.  We set out immediately, in hopes of putting a little distance between ourselves and the large group.  We hike quite a bit faster than most social groups, but the self-inflicted pressure to keep moving made me feel like I couldn’t pause to take photos.  I took most of my pictures while still walking, so they might be a little blurry or random.

Small Waterfall
We passed this small, but pretty, waterfall early in the hike.

We hiked the trail in the opposite direction of Hiking Upward.   In retrospect, I think I’d go the way their directions suggested – the ascent is longer, but more gradual.  We started our hike at the end of the parking lot with the informational bulletin board.  The trail actually starts from the main road, right before the turn-off to the parking lot.  Initially, the hike rambled along over rolling hills, climbing gradually uphill above the cove.  After crossing a small wooden footbridge over a creek, we were treated to a small but pretty waterfall.  After the waterfall the hike followed a series of switchbacks uphill. We eventually crossed a fire road and continued a short flat section of trail.  Soon, we  reached a junction.  At this point, you can take the shorter, easier Lower Loop around the cove, or follow the challenging, longer Upper Loop.  We wanted views, so we went with the Upper Loop.  From the junction to the cell towers atop the high knob, the climbing was pretty brutal – I’m not going to lie.  Sometimes there were switchbacks to ease the ascent, but other times the trail went straight up the mountainside.  We were still hiking hard to stay ahead of the group, so I was very relieved when the towers came into view through the trees. The climb was almost DONE!

Near the towers, the trail comes to another junction.  One spur leads to the tower and several decent views (although – the presence of towers really does detract from the beauty of the views).  The other direction continues to follow the Upper Loop trail around the perimeter of the cove. The remainder of the loop is rolling hills and ridge walking. There are several big descents and a couple short, steep ascents, but all the tough uphill is behind you at this point.  We chose to have lunch at the first little rocky outcropping with views.  It was nice to see Wintergreen and The Priest through a few (still bare) trees.  There was a ton of mountain laurel on the back half of this hike.  It should be beautiful in late May – early June!

Steep Uphill
Adam traverses steps on one of the steeper uphill sections. Below: the trail junction of the Upper and Lower Loop Trails; Adam approaches the towers at the high point of the hike; The views from the tower area are decent, but a little obstructed by trees.

Well-Marked Junction Cell Towers Views Near Tower

Some of the downhill on the back loop was very steep and covered with deep, slick, dry leaves.  We were both really thankful to have trekking poles.  We continued to enjoy occasional views, mostly looking into the cove, as the hike progressed.  At one point, we were hiking along in companionable silence, when suddenly a large German Shepherd bounded in our direction, barking loudly – fortunately he was friendly.  It turned out that a couple of hikers had two unleashed dogs on the trail.  We love dogs, but they’re not allowed in Fortune’s Cove. The restriction is clearly marked at trail entries and the rules are posted online, so please leave your dog home!

Eventually the Upper Loop and Lower Loop met back up at the final trail junction of the hike.  The last bit of the hike was fairly consistent, knee-grinding downhill. Adam asked me to hike in front of him, so he could ‘grimace in pain’ in the rear.  I was hiking along, when out of the blue, Adam bellowed and shouted.  At first I thought he hurt himself, but it turned out that a gigantic black snake had just slithered across his feet.  The thing was easily five feet long. I love snakes – Adam is less fond.

Through the trees, we could see our car in the parking lot drawing closer and closer.  We walked the last little bit of trail, enjoying the budding and blossoming trees at the lower elevations.  We saw cherry, redbud and pear all starting to flower.  It was a great hike for a pretty spring day.

Views on the Descent
There were nice views through the trees on the descent. Below: Our lunch spot; Abundant mountain laurel, Nice mountain views.

Lunch Spot  Abundant Mountain Laurel Mountain Views

Adam Says…

Fortune’s Cove Preserve consists of 755 acres that was donated by Jane Heyward to The Nature Conservancy.  The staff and volunteers help maintain this land and hiking trails.

As Christine mentioned, when we arrived at Fortune’s Cove, there were a ton of cars in the parking lot and a bunch of hikers ready to hit the trail.  I told Christine “Grab your stuff quickly and let’s get going.”  We didn’t want to experience this hike with a larger group and having to play leapfrog up the trail as we stop to take pictures.  I know that some people like to meet new people and enjoy the outdoors as a group, but we tend to hike with just the two of us or just another couple of people.  When we took our first pause for photos, we could see the group approaching, so we rushed ahead.  In fact, I would say we ascended the trail much faster than normal so we could stop to take photos at all.  Since this was one of our first hike with real elevation change in a while, we probably pushed ourselves harder than we wanted.

Looking into the Cove
From the ridge, you could see the winding road through the cove. Below:  More views on the way down; Blooming bloodroot; Redbuds are started to bloom, too!

Downhill Views Wildflowers Blooming Redbuds

From the parking lot and behind the large trail map of the preserve, we walked up the road about 20 yards and then saw the trail sign on the right of the road that marked the start of the trail.  The yellow-blazed trail starts off on a small ascent through a serene, wooded area.  You can see glimpses of the farmland to the right of the trail as you skirt around the property.  Eventually you will cross a couple of bridges over some creek beds and see a small, yet picturesque waterfall along the lefthand side of the trail around .75 miles.  Continuing from this point, the trail starts a more steady ascent.  At 1.1 miles, you reach the intersection with the white-blazed lower loop trail.  We took the upper loop trail, which had a warning sign for the steepness of the trail.  This truly was no joke as the trail had us slogging up the mountainside.   At 2.25 miles, we finally reached the top summit.  There was a small trail (only a tenth of a mile) to the left which led to the top of High Top Mountain, which had a large cell tower at the top.  The view was obstructed around us and being near a large tower didn’t make us feel like we were getting away to nature.  We rejoined the upper loop trail and continued on our hike.  We were now doing ridge-walking, so the toughest bit of climbing was behind us.  We took a brief rest to eat our packed lunch while seeing the obstructed views of The Priest and Wintergreen across the valley in front of us.

We pressed along the ridge hike, which quickly began to lead back down the mountain.  We were pleased to see there were several spots along the trail that led to some outcroppings of rocks with open views.  The views below sum up what I picture when I think of Central Virginia – rolling mountains and farm houses.  We continued down the steep trail, which had my knees feeling some pain.  At 4.4 miles, you reach another intersection with the white-blazed lower loop trail.  We continued down the mountain and made our way back to our car at 5.1 miles, passing through two blue posts before reaching the road and parking lot.

Fortune's Cove
The cove from the parking lot at the bottom. Below: Pear trees blooming; Blue Mountain Barrel House is just a few miles down Rt. 29; Beers!

Pear Blossoms Blue Mountain Barrel House Blue Mountain Barrel House Beers

After the hike, we decided we had earned a trip to the nearby Blue Mountain Barrel House to sample some beer and get a snack from the food truck located outside.  We enjoyed sitting outside with a few beers and were able to look out into the mountains on a gorgeous spring day.  If wine is more of your thing, you can get samples from March-November on Wednesday-Sunday afternoons at Mountain Cove Vineyards, Virginia’s oldest vineyard.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5.1 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1700 ft. (the big climb is about 1450, but once you add in all the little ups and downs, it’s closer to 1700)
  • Difficulty –  4.  There is some pretty serious climbing on this hike.  It surprised us how challenging it was!
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in great shape in most places.  There were a couple mucky spots near drainage, and dry, fallen leaves made some of the descents slippery.
  • Views  3.  From the cell towers atop the High Knob to the junction with the Lower Loop, there are nice views in many spots along the trail.  Even though there are many views, we’ve marked this down to a 3 because most of the viewpoints are partially obstructed. 
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There is a small waterfall that probably only runs part of the year on the early part of this hike.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything but a few birds and squirrels.  DOGS ARE NOT ALLOWED ON THIS PRESERVE!
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.  The trails on this preserve are more abundantly marked/blazed than almost any other place we’ve been.
  • Solitude –1.  We had heard this place wasn’t well known or popular, but on the day we went, we encountered a large group people hiking together (shout out to the PATC – Charlottesville Chapter) , plus about a dozen groups of 2-4 people.  It was a very busy day on the trail.  We’re not sure if this is the norm, but we’d give this hike low marks for solitude.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From Charlottesville, head south on US-29 for 28 miles.  Take a right on State Route 718.  Follow this for 1.6 miles and take a right on to State Route 651.  Follow this for 1.6 miles, passing Mountain Cove Vineyards on the right and then reaching the small parking lot.  The way we approached the route, was walk on the road past the large trail map board about 20 yards.  You’ll see the trail post to mark the start of the trail on the right side of the road.

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

Sherando Lake Loop

This relatively easy 2.5 mile loop goes around Sherando Lake and follows a short spur to a great mountain view!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Sherando Lake
Sherando Lake is a popular camping/swimming area for locals. It’s just several miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Adam Says…

This has been quite the harsh winter for snow and cold temperatures.  And when it hasn’t been too cold, it seems to have been raining.  So, we were glad to get out on a nice day to get a little exercise outdoors for a change.

Sherando Lake is a multi-purpose recreation area.  In nice weather, you will see people swimming, fishing, camping, and hiking.   To visit, there is a fee per vehicle – check out their fee schedule.   The area is officially open from early April through October.  The road gates are often closed during the off season based on weather.   There is camping available if you wanted to make a nice weekend trip, but reservations should be made in advance.

We started off our hike from the Fisherman’s Parking Area.  There were a few other vehicles there also, but they were all there for the fishing.  The lake is stocked with trout throughout the year.  Facing the lake, we started our hike on the left by heading up the Cliff Trail.  This trail was a short gradual climb with a few switchbacks before the trail levels out.  About .4 miles into the hike, there is a small outlook to the right from a rock that gives you a few obstructed views from the lake.  Continuing on the trail, it begins to descend and the lake gets back into view.  At .8 miles, you reach the lakeside and see the sign that shows the junction with the Lakeside Trail (a trail that wraps around the lake).   We took a few minutes to go out onto the sand and enjoy the views of the lake.   I saw a wood duck escorting a few ducklings on the far banks of the lake.

Dam End
The fisherman’s parking lot is located at the dam end of the lake. It is where our hike begins. Below: The trail starts off rocky; Overlook View.

Rocky Uphill Overlook Rock

We walked back behind the large building/gift shop, crossed a couple of bridges and rejoined the trail on the northwestern side of the bank.  We took the blue-blazed Blue Loop Trail, leading us past a few campsite areas before climbing up into the woods.  The trail is rockier, especially in the beginning, than the Cliff Trail and is steeper.  The trail climbed through a few switchbacks.  At 1.5 miles, you reach a junction shortly after a switchback with the Dam Trail.  This will be your return route.  Continue up the Blue Loop Trail, which begins to take an uphill climb to the left up the mountain.  At 1.75 miles, you reach Lookout Rock.  We took some time there to enjoy the view and then went back the way we came until we reached the junction with the Dam Trail.  We took this trail to the left, which leads steeply down the mountain.  You begin to see the lake through the trees again and we reached the lakeside around 2.25 miles.  We continued on the trail until it reached a small bridge that crossed over the dam stream and led back to the parking lot.

Enjoying the View
Adam takes in a beach/lake view. Below: Services are typically open April through October; Trails are well marked; Adam hikes the Blue Loop Trail.

Sherando Beach Area trailsystem uphill

One thing that was going through my mind during the hike is this would be great for a family outing.  Grab your family for a quick hike followed by a picnic by the lake.  Make a weekend of it if you want to do some camping, swimming, and fishing.

Christine Says…

I enjoy playing in the snow, but I’m very ready for warmer weather. I want to see flowers blooming. I want to feel warm sunshine on my face. I’m so ready to see a canopy of green across the mountaintops.  I have spring fever.  So, I was especially thankful for a particularly warm and sunny Saturday because it gave us a chance to get out and hike.

We chose Sherando Lake, mainly because it was nearby and easy. It would have been a great day to go on a longer hike, but Adam was still getting over a bad cold.  And I was not willing to spend more than an hour in the car. I had spent the past two weekends in a 12-passenger van, making a 15 hour ride to and from the Florida panhandle and was still a bit road weary.

Lookout Rock
Lookout Rock provides a nice view of the valley, lake and mountains. Below: Adam climbs his way toward Lookout Rock; Checking out the view, Making the descent.

Climb View descent

My trip to Florida was a service-learning trip with a group of nine JMU students.  We traveled to a Nature Conservancy preserve – Apalachicola Bluffs & Ravines to do a week’s worth of environmental work.  We camped, we hiked, we learned about the local ecosystem, and most importantly – we planted 90,000 plugs of native wiregrass seed that will be used to restore the natural habitat of that part of Florida.  It was hard work, but I think we made a difference. We even had one free day on our trip. We chose to spend it spotting manatees, gators, and other wildlife at Wakulla Springs State Park.  If you want to see more photos and read more about my service trip, I’ve uploaded a large set of captioned photos to my Flickr account.

Now, back to Sherando Lake!  I had been to the lake a couple times before, but had never actually taken the time to hike any of the trails in the area. I was pleasantly surprised by the trail system.  There is something for everyone – a practically flat trail that goes along the lake shore, a steeper trail around the lake that offers a couple nice views, and a connection into the larger, longer trail system along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I liked sitting on the sand and enjoying the pretty lake view, and I really enjoyed climbing up to Lookout Rock on the Blue Loop Trail.  The rocky outcropping provides a nice view of the lake and the mountains beyond.  Although the snow was gone on the trails we walked, we could still see plenty of snow on the distant, higher ridges.

Spillway
The hike ends after crossing a cement bridge over the spillway. Below: The stream leading away from the lake; Christine crossing the concrete bridge, Blue Mountain Brewery food and brewery.

Stream Bridge Blue Mountain Brewey Blue Mountain

The walk back down from Lookout Rock was really steep and slick, especially with the thick bed of dry, fallen leaves.  Once we reached the bottom of the descent, we crossed a concrete bridge beneath the spillway and returned to our car.  We finished hiking a little bit before noon, so we decided to make the short drive to have lunch at Blue Mountain Brewery (near Afton Mountain).  They have great food and great beer.  Adam enjoyed a flight of nine different beers and I tried their Daugava Baltic Porter.  I think everyone in central Virginia had the same idea to visit the brewery for an outdoor lunch.  The place was packed, but it was a perfect ending to the day.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 2.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 998 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.  The uphill to the Lookout Rock is a little steep, but overall most people should be able to do it.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  This is well-traveled, so you should find the trail to be in good shape. 
  • Views  3.  Nice views of the lake from Lookout Rock and mountains around.  Some obstruction, but overall a decent view. 
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There is a small man-made water dam that creates a nice fall look.  The lake creates a picturesque setting. 
  • Wildlife – 2.  You shouldn’t expect a lot of larger wildlife.  We saw a pileated woodpecker swooping across our car when we arrived.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The only place you may need to figure out is where to pick up the trail after going to the other side of the lake.
  • Solitude –1.  On a nice day, you’ll see plenty of people here.  Most will be near the lake, but expect some people at Lookout Rock. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From I-64, take Exit 96 just east of Stuarts Draft. Go south on State Route 624, which becomes State Route 664 at Lyndhurst. Continue south on State Route 664 approximately 8 miles to the entrance to the Sherando Lake Recreation Area on the right. The gatehouse is approximately 0.5 miles ahead which will take the fee for your vehicle.  Past the gatehouse, you’ll take a right to the fisherman’s parking lot.  Park there and make your way to the left for the Cliff Trail.

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

Elk Run Trail

We walked a beautiful two-mile snowshoe loop on this lovely network of trails in Elkton, Va.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam Snowshoeing
Adam walks along the Elk Run Trail.

Map  Barn

Christine Says…

We finally got a significant snowfall!  The first day of the storm, we were snowbound at home.  We spent the day digging out and hanging out.  But early the next morning, after the snowfall stopped, we headed over to the Elk Run Trails. The trails, maintained by the Hurricane Running Club, are primarily intended for cross country running and walking.  However, under a heavy bed of snow, they’re simply perfect for snowshoeing.

We parked our car at the Elkton Community Center and set out from the trailhead on the west side of the center.  For much of the first mile, the trail follows parallel to Elk Run Stream.  While you can see houses on the far bed of the stream, the trail still offers a lovely wooded setting.  On this particular day; the deep, soft snow made for slow, arduous progress.

The only climbing on the walk comes as you approach the back side of the Kite Mansion.  One short climb takes you past an old spring house.  Then a shorter, but steeper, ascent brings you up to the east side of the house.  We walked across the columned front of the house and picked the trail back up on the other side.

Snowshoeing
Adam makes his way across the meadow behind the community center.

Elk Run Christine Snowshoeing

A brief descent brings you back to a dirt road that parallels Route 33.  The trail is completely flat and passes through a tunnel of hemlocks and pines.  Eventually you come out on the road, just east of the community center.  From there, we popped off our snowshoes and walked the brief 10th of a mile back to our car.

It was a wonderful morning in the snow!

Adam Says…

When the weather wants to dump a lot of snow on the ground and you feel like you couldn’t hike anytime soon, grab some snowshoes and hit the trail.  We have been on this Elk Run trail system before in dry conditions, but this trail seems made for snowshoeing.

The only map you can find of this trail system is on the photo link above.  You can pick up a copy yourself at the Elkton Community Center during normal business hours.  Our trip consisted of doing the entire orange trail starting from the west end, but included the green loop trail that takes you up to the Kite house.  We parked at the Elkton Community Center and went behind the building.

We spotted the orange blaze across the field behind the building that denoted the start of the trail system.  The trail was untouched (minus a few squirrel tracks) when we hit the trail and we quickly realized how tough snowshoeing over a foot of fresh snow could truly be.  After a short time, we decided to shed some layers since we were working up a sweat from the effort.  The trail started off with a long scenic walk alongside the Elk Run.

The Kite Mansion
The Kite Mansion.

Christine Approaches  Adam and the Stream

At about .9 miles, the trail begins to start up an ascent and you can then join the green-blazed trail.  Take this up a steep but short hill and at the top of the hill take a right.  This will lead you to the front of the Kite House.

Continue to cross in front of the Kite House and you will see the trail pick up again, going steeply downhill.  At the bottom, you come to a larger trail junction.  We took the orange-blazed trail again, which takes you through a wooded section behind Elkton Middle School.  After about .5 miles, the trail widens and then eventually leads to a road.  Take a right here and follow this back to Elkton Community Center, where you parked.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 2 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 100 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.  The trail is almost completely flat.  However, in deep, unbroken snow, you should expect more of a challenge.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  Wide, flat and well groomed – may be muddy.
  • Views  0.  You’re in the woods the whole time.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  Elk Run is pretty, but is often obscured by brush.
  • Wildlife – 1.  You’ll likely see a variety of birds and possibly deer.  We saw a beautiful red fox when we walked the trail on Thanksgiving day.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5.   There are tons of inter-connected trails.  They’re blazed but unnamed.  Everything loops back, so it would be hard to get lost.
  • Solitude – 4.  Typically, you’ll only see a few people on this trail.

Directions to trailhead:  From I-81, take exit 247 towards US-33E heading towards Elkton, VA.  Follow this 15.6 miles before taking the ramp to the right to US-340N.  Take the first right and you will see the Dairy Queen to the right.  Directly across the road from Dairy Queen is the Elkton Community Center.  Park your car here.  Behind the building, you will see the orange blaze which signifies the start of the orange-blazed trail.

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