This five mile loop features a fun rock scramble and a view from atop one of Virginia’s most interesting rock formations. It’s considered part of the ‘Triple Crown’ of Virginia hiking that also includes McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs.
When Adam proposed doing Dragons Tooth, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I eventually want to hike every bit of the Appalachian Trail – especially the most famous and scenic parts. But, I’m a bit fearful on rock scrambles and precipitous drops. From reputation, Dragons Tooth is called by some ‘the toughest mile’ of AT south of Mahoosuc Notch. The section includes slick stone slabs, narrow ledges, and even iron rungs affixed to the rocks to aid with the traverse. With my come-and-go vertigo, terrain like that typically isn’t my cup of tea. I also heard the trail was extremely crowded and nothing feels worse that freaking out on a rock scramble with a huge crowd of people watching you and waiting to traverse behind you. In the end, I psyched myself up and we chose a quiet cloudy Wednesday to visit this well-known landmark.
We got an early start and arrived at the parking lot around 9:00 a.m. It was practically empty, just a couple cars and a forest service truck. We started up the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth Trail. About a quarter mile in, we passed the junction with the Boy Scout Trail. Bearing right, we continued a 1.2 mile moderate ascent of the Dragons Tooth Trail.
When we gained the ridge, we found ourselves at a beautiful, large (dry) campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap. This is where the Dragons Tooth Trail meets up with the Appalachian Trail. We turned right and continued south on the Appalachian Trail. We soon passed a sign warning ‘CAUTION: The next mile of trail is rocky and steep’.
They were not kidding! Almost immediately, we found ourselves climbing stone stairs and clambering over roots. As we climbed, the rocks turned to boulders and the hike turned to a scramble. White blazes and directional arrows were painted onto the rocks to direct your route through the jumble. Every now and then, we would get a nice view of the valley through the trees. We came to one spot that was basically a sheer 20 foot cliff-face to climb. There were ledges, each several inches wide, that traversed the cliff and could be used as toe holds. (see a detailed shot of this cliff – notice the arrow pointing straight up!) I definitely panicked and hyperventilated a little bit at this pass, but I made it through with minimal drama.
After the cliff face, there were lots more rocks and a couple sections with iron rungs fastened to the rocks, but nothing as fear-inducing as that cliff. Finally we made it to the top of Cove Mountain and were just a short easy stroll from the actual Dragons Tooth.
The ‘Tooth’ is an impressive quartzite monolith that juts from a clearing in the woods. The views from the bottom are nice, but to enjoy Dragons Tooth in all its glory, you need to climb to the top. Of course, if you don’t feel physically able or have a fear of heights, it’s probably better to skip the crawl to the top. But, I thought the climb was easier than it looked, and was glad I did it.
To get to the top, look for a footpath that circles behind the Tooth. There is a large crack in the middle that allows you to make your way up a fin of rock that leads up the backside of the Tooth. You’ll duck under a boulder that’s wedged in the crack and then pull yourself up to the top. Once at the top, we enjoyed magnificent views! The nice thing about hiking it on a weekday was that we had the entire place to ourselves. We saw very few people the entire day and sat atop Dragons Tooth alone for almost half an hour.
After we sufficiently enjoyed the view, we made our way back down. At first, the hike back follows the same route. This meant doing the entire rock scramble again! Going down, I felt much more confident and didn’t have any problems. However, not everyone was feeling as secure and happy as me. Near the top of the scramble, we came across a mother/daughter pair of section hikers. They had started in Georgia and were aiming to make it to Pennsylvania. The mother had suffered a bad fall with injuries earlier on the trail, and was paralyzed with fear on the first set of iron rungs. I’ll let Adam share the story in his write-up, but I will say that he played the role of a true Trail Angel for them that day.
We eventually arrived back at Lost Spectacles Gap. Instead of taking the Dragons Tooth Trail back down to the parking lot, we continued north on the Appalachian Trail. This involved a little more climbing, but gave us access to several more beautiful views. We followed the AT for almost a mile until it met up with the yellow-blazed Boy Scout Trail. We took a left onto the Boy Scout Trail and followed it for about a quarter mile where it crossed the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth trail. It was just another quarter mile back to the parking area. What a great hike! Even though I’m not a fan of rock scrambles, I thought this hike was fun and very rewarding.
Well, Christine has pointed out some of the rough parts and why this hike may be scary for some people. Part of the reason that we both do write-ups for each post is because we have different perspectives. I would probably put Dragons Tooth in my Top 10 Favorite View Hikes in Virginia That Everyone Should Do. What else makes that list (in no particular order), you ask? Mt. Rogers, Old Rag, Three Ridges, The Priest, Sharp Top, McAfee Knob, Mary’s Rock, Strickler Knob, and Big Schloss. I remember hiking Dragons Tooth when I was in my later high school years and I have been bugging Christine to do it for years. Christine has some real vertigo issues and nobody likes to see their spouse go through fearful moments, but I knew she could get through this. We had planned to do a week of AT hiking in June, but our dogs have been getting older and leaving them behind for a week is getting harder and harder to do. So, I did a stay-cation that week at home and Christine took a day off work to join me for this day hike, we drove down in the morning and were back home in time for dinner.
For our plans for a week on the AT, we had thought about hiking the section that included Virginia’s Triple Crown, which includes Dragons Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and McAfee Knob. Since we changed our plans, we picked out this loop which provided us with Dragons Tooth, but also gave us some time to try out a few of the side trails that connect close to the summit of Dragons Tooth.
We arrived before 9AM and during the week, so I’m sure this parking lot gets packed on beautiful weekends. We made a pit stop at the toilets located at the elevated section above the parking lot and then proceeded to the trailhead, located by a kiosk at the back end of the parking lot. The beginning of this blue-blazed section of trail is very level and flat. At .25 miles, we crossed a small bridge and came to an intersection with the Boy Scout Trail (your return trip on the loop). We noticed a few nice spots for camping on this section of trail. You cross the creek bed a few times, but the next 1.4 mile section is a very gradual, uphill climb. At 1.65 miles, you reach the Lost Spectacles campsite and the junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail . Take a right (heading south on the AT) to start your climb up to the top. Christine talked a lot about this terrain. I agree that it is an extremely tough stretch of trail. You will find yourself watching where you place every foot and it will be slow-going as you have to scramble up a few rocky sections. The roughest spot was the one Christine mentioned where you have to zigzag up a cliff-face on rock that is only as wide as your feet. You have to be very careful through navigating these rocks at times, so if you are not comfortable with this type of terrain this may not be the best choice of hike for you.
Eventually we got to the top of the ridge around 2.25 miles up. There is a nice viewpoint a few feet to the right of the trail, but you will head left to take the side summit trail to reach Dragons Tooth. There are a few side trails to the left that lead to other views, but the best view is at Dragons Tooth. At 2.4 miles, you reach Dragons Tooth. You will see a cleared-out area and a small view between Dragons Tooth and a lesser tooth. There aren’t any good signs pointing how to climb up to the top, but if you head to the right side, you will see a small trail that leads to the base on the right side of the tooth. The fun part for me was trying to figure out how to climb up this. At 45, I am not the most flexible of human beings and I tried climbing up other ways, feeling like I needed to do the splits to get up one way. I then ducked under the small rock “pedal” Christine is pictured under below. Ducking under that, I was then able to stand up and using rock holds, pull myself up to the top. The views from the summit were phenomenal. I told Christine I could help her figure out how to navigate and I am proud of her for summoning the courage to do it. We took some pictures from the top and enjoyed the views for a few minutes before climbing down. We found it hard to believe we had this Virginia treasure all to ourselves. We climbed down and ate a snack at the area between the two teeth and enjoyed the views from a less precarious spot. Another couple arrived at the summit and we made our way back down to allow them the privacy we enjoyed.
As soon as we were descending down from the ridge at the AT junction, we came across a thru-hiking mother and daughter. They were incredibly cautious on the trail and after talking to them a bit, the mother told us about how she had fallen in Tennessee and this terrain was making her terrified. They had to take a few weeks off for her to recover. The mother had talked about quitting the trail, but they decided to press on. The mother developed the trailname of “Bad Ass” after her ability to keep fighting. After seeing Bad Ass’ apprehension and tears on the easier parts of the hike down from Dragons Tooth, we began to wonder how she would get through the next .7 miles. I turned around and did the only thing I could think of and offered to carry her pack down to the Lost Spectacles camp. I can understand this terrain would be scary with a lot of extra weight. She eventually agreed this was a good idea, so I hoisted on her backpack (probably about 35 pounds) and then wore my backpack on my chest, making it a little difficult to see over the top where my feet were at all times. I pressed on quickly while Christine stayed with them for a while on the trail. There were a few times I struggled as well with both packs on, but I was able to keep my feet under me and navigate through some of the tough sections. I arrived at the Lost Spectacles camping area at 3.3 miles and waited. Christine came down about 15 minutes later and it was probably another 15-20 minutes before Bad Ass and her daughter met up. They thanked me profusely, but I was just glad to help out. We all have to lift each other up when we have down times, so hopefully I was able to give them a bright spot in a tough day.
From the Lost Spectacles site, we continued along the Appalachian Trail heading north. This section started off steep as well and did have just a couple small scrambles around some more rocky sections. But there were several nice views along this section of the AT and I’m so glad we did this as a loop instead of an out-and-back hike. This section of the AT, walks along a ridge and descends slightly, but you will have several opportunities to take in more views. Eventually the trail descends into the woods. At around 4.3 miles, we arrived at a junction with the Boy Scout Trail. We took this yellow-blazed trail and found it very steep as you are basically going straight down without any switchbacks. The trail didn’t have anything overly scenic on it worth mentioning, but it provided a quick return to the Dragons Tooth trail at 4.7 miles. We took a right at the junction and were back at our car around 5 miles.
Once we got back to our car, we got on the interstate and headed north. We had heard about Three Li’l Pigs Barbecue in Daleville, VA as being a favorite spot for thru-hikers so we decided to check it out. The food there was magnificent and we saw a couple of thru-hikers there enjoying the big quantities of food. After stuffing my face, I was tempted into also ordering some banana pudding for dessert but I found a way to fit it all in. As we were leaving, we quickly saw some fast-moving thunderstorms moving in quickly. Near Three Li’l Pigs in the same shopping center we stopped in Outdoor Trails – an outdoor outfitter store. This shopping center had the bulk of what every thru-hiker would need for a zero day (a day where they would do zero miles). A barbecue spot, an outfitter, a grocery store, a coffee shop, and a hotel directly across the street. If you’re doing a section of the Appalachian Trail, Daleville would be a great place to stop and resupply.
We got stuck in terrible thunderstorms on our drive home. We were thankful that we did the hike earlier and weren’t stuck in the deluge. While some of the hiking was a bit frightening for Christine, we ultimately had a wonderful day on the hike! If you are comfortable with rock scrambles and open ledges and haven’t done this hike yet, put it on your must-do list and it may make your top 10 list for Virginia as well.
This section of Appalachian Trail has such varied terrain. Below: More views along the AT; The Boy Scout Trail; Three Li’l Pigs BBQ.
- Distance – 5 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
- Elevation Change – 1215 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. The rock scramble provides a bit of challenge on an otherwise solidly moderate hike.
- Trail Conditions – 2. The scramble is mostly sandstone, so it can be slick with grit/sand. It’s also very slippery when there’s been recent rain.
- Views – 5. There are viewpoints all along the hike and you can’t beat the view from the top of the tooth!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There is a small stream that could be used as a water source near the trailhead.
- Wildlife – 1. The trail is heavily traveled and wildlife seems to steer mostly clear of the area.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail signs are easy to follow and blazes are abundant.
- Solitude – 1. We hiked this early on an overcast weekday morning, so we enjoyed quite a bit of solitude. However, expect crowds and significant trail traffic at more popular times.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for the parking area are: 37°22’44.5″N 80°09’22.1″W. From I-81, take exit 141. Turn left onto VA-419 N. Follow for .4 mile. Turn right onto VA-311 N. Follow for 9.5 miles. The parking area will be on the left.
This 5.6 mile hike offers a great scenic viewpoint, a cool rock formation to explore, and a chance to stroll around historic Shrine Mont. While the hike is generally moderate, almost 1,150 feet of the the ascent occurs in just over a mile of trail.
Tony and Linda from Hiking Upward had suggested we tackle this hike together from Shrine Mont. We met up on the porch of the Virginia House. Since Christine and I got there a little early, we went inside this main lodge building and found a copy of their trail map at the front lobby. Most of the people there were there for a church retreat. When we got together, we walked down the road and found a sign directing us to the shrine. We walked up to the shrine, which was a cute outdoor chapel made of stone, reminding me of an old historical spanish mission church where the congregation would meet up in an outdoor location to worship.
At the shrine, you will see a kiosk and sign pointing to the cross and north mountain, which will start the main hike. Along this part of the trail, you will pass by signs along the way that depict the Stations of the Cross. The trail leads along a side of a large hill. Once the trail switches back, you arrive at the large cross and Cross Observation Deck at 1.1 miles. You can climb up a few flights to an observation deck. We were hoping for a nice view at the top – maybe there was at one time, but the overgrown trees have taken away most of the view.
Continuing along, the trail walked a ridgeline for a short time before descending again. At 1.75 miles, we reached a junction and took a left to start the trail up North Mountain. You quickly pass a forest road and at 1.85 miles, you will arrive at another junction (the Bradford Trail branches off to the left). Stay straight on the North Mountain Trail, which follows a gravel road for a short distance, before turning left to stay on the trail. The trail is a constant uphill from this point, with some of the trail being quite rocky and steep. Around the 2.6 mile mark, we reached a large cliff. I decided to explore a little further and found on the left side of the cliff, there was a way up that allowed me to walk along the shelf of the cliff as the rock sloped upward. Of course, I wasn’t the first to get this idea as I found a fire ring and lots of graffiti on the cliff shelf. I could see this being an interesting spot for rock climbers.
We jumped back on the trail and continued our climb up. The trail was very steep and rocky in some of these next sections, making for a slow pace to the summit. Eventually, you will skirt an edge where you get some obstructed views along the way and you won’t have much further. We eventually made it at 3.3 miles to a campsite and the summit. When you arrive, you will be at the back side of the views. Go around to the right of the rocks and you will find some rocky ledges that you can climb up about 15 feet to get to the shelf of rocks for an outstanding view. This climb up the rocks should only be done if you feel comfortable and I wouldn’t recommend this for families. Once you climb over the top, you are on a sloping downward piece of rock covered with some slippery lichen. There is a small area that you can sit and enjoy the views, but could be hard to accomplish if a lot of people are at the top at once.
Tony had brought along his drone to try and get some good photos of the scenery around us. I helped him launch it and it got some great shots of us and the views all around. When Tony was bringing it back in, he mixed up the controls and it came crashing down on the rockface and into the trees below. We both made a path along the side of the rockface and scrambled through a ton of briars to retrieve the drone. It turned out that it was still operational and we enjoyed watching the video of the crash and retrieval.
We made our way back down retracing our steps for most of the hike. At 4.85 miles, when we reached the junction that would have led us back to the Cross Observation Deck, we instead stayed straight and followed the signs back to Shrine Mont. The trail winds back down the mountain and goes behind some of the cabins of Shrine Mont. We got back to the main road and the parking area at 5.6 miles. We took a few minutes to explore the Shrine Mont area before making our way on to Woodstock Brewery for some food and drinks.
We always enjoy a chance to meet up with our friends from Hiking Upward. Tony and Linda suggested meeting at Shrine Mont and hiking to a rocky outcropping on Great North Mountain.
We thought we were doing an easy 3-4 mile hike, but it turned out to be a bit longer and much more challenging than expected. I think most of the challenge was due to two factors: 1) the heat/humidity and 2) most of the ascent was stacked into just a mile and a half of the hike.
I got my first hint that I wasn’t going to have an easy day on the trail when we started climbing to the Cross Observation Tower. The trail to the cross is short but fairly steep. I trudged along, thinking to myself ‘I feel really hot. I’m sort of lightheaded. I hope I don’t barf!’ By the time we got to the cross, I had to sit down and cool off. This was one of the first really hot and sunny days we hiked this summer and I just wasn’t used to it. It didn’t help that my Camelbak was full of <gag> tepid tap water.
For a while after the tower, the way was easy going. The trail was moss-covered and followed a gentle grade. We heard millions of cicadas singing in the trees. It was a constant, other-worldly static sound. We saw a few of the large insects clinging to branches, dead on the ground, or buzzing lazily around in the air. One of them even flew right into my face and bounced off my forehead. I was too hot to care. I didn’t even manage a half-hearted swat.
Eventually the Ridge Trail intersected with the North Link Trail. We followed that for a short distance to the North Mountain Trail. At first the North Mountain trail was deceptively easy. I was feeling better and cooling off. Then the trail started getting rockier. We had to constantly watch our footing on the shifty rocks beneath our feet. After a couple tenths of a mile, the trail started to climb rather steeply uphill through stands of dense mountain laurel and rhododendron. It felt close – the air was sweltering with no hint of a breeze. I started to feel woozy again. Eventually, we reached the towering cliffside/cave in the middle of the woods. We all took a break, cooled off, and some time to explore the rock formation.
After the break, the climbing got even steeper. I’d hike a quarter mile and then need to rest. I almost never take breaks unless there is something interesting to see. In this case, I just thought it would be interesting not to pass out. I found myself sitting on the ground with my head between my knees. I was so hot – I felt like a furnace was stoked up in the core of my body. The lukewarm water in my pack wasn’t doing anything to cool me off. So, I took lots of breaks and trudged until we finally reached the ridgeline. At that point, the climbing moderated and we only had a few more tenths of a mile to go. But, we were also in more direct sun, so it was even hotter. Adam was really the only one of us hiking at a quick pace. Tony and Linda were behind me a bit, and I kept watching the space between Adam and I get bigger and bigger. I started seeing stars, and proclaimed to nobody in particular ‘I NEED TO SIT DOWN NOW OR I WILL PASS OUT!’ In a minute or two, Tony and Linda caught up and Linda poured ice water on my neck and head. They were both hiking with frozen bottles of water and Gatorade.
After another rest, I was able to make the final push to the summit and its rocky outcropping. I scrambled to the top of the rock and found a nice breezy spot to lie down and enjoy the magnificent view. I ate a Larabar and watched Adam and Tony play with (and crash!) the drone. After a pleasant stay at the top, we made our way down. The downhill hike was much faster and easier, and I felt completely normal again. I’m not sure why I struggled so much with this hike. Yes – it was hot and the climbing was stacked into one small section, but I’ve certainly done harder hikes on hotter days. The only thing I can guess is that I was fatigued from doing a lot of hiking in the days leading up to the Shrine Mont hike. I’d done a 16 mile, a 4 mile, and an 8 mile hike and was already pretty depleted. In the hikes since this one, I’ve started making gigantic ice cubes for my Camelbak. I have plastic mason jars that I fill and freeze. The jars are just small enough that they just fit through the circular opening in the bladder, but they’re big enough to not melt quickly.
Our hike down followed the same route we came up for most of the way. We were planning on turning onto the Bradford Trail, which would have added another mile or two to our hike. But everyone was hot, tired, and thinking about beer – so we opted to follow the much shorter route down the North Link Trail back to Shrine Mont.
We got back to the cars, cleaned up, and made our way for an afternoon at Woodstock Brewery. They had excellent barbecue and we all enjoyed their vanilla porter.
- Distance – 5.6 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
- Elevation Change – 1545 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. Some of this trail is quite rocky and steep making for a hard climb at the end.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail was well-maintained and traveled with very few blow-downs, but the rocky terrain makes for some tough steps.
- Views – 4. If you aren’t bold enough to climb up the rock outcropping, this score would be a lot lower. You are treated with a nice panoramic view if you do.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There are some small stream views, but nothing substantial.
- Wildlife – 1. This is a popular trail, so wildlife tends to stay away.
- Ease to Navigate – 2.5. The trail system is tricky. Some of the junctions are not well-marked and labeled on the printed map. Download both of the maps from this page and you should be fine. On our way back, there were several options leading down to Shrine Mont, which could bring some confusion as well.
- Solitude – 3. We ran into some people that were staying for a retreat as well as locals.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: Coordinates for parking are 38.795500, -78.815932
From Woodstock, VA, head southwest on VA-42 for 13.8 miles. Turn right on State Route 720 and in .7 miles, stay straight to join State Route 721. Go 1.5 miles and then stay straight (right fork) to join State Route 722. Go .5 miles and turn right on to VA-263West. Follow this for 3.7 miles and it will lead to Shrine Mont. Park in the parking lot behind the pavilion and the main Virginia house. Walking from the parking lot, take a left at the main road walking in front of the Virginia house and follow the road until you see signs directing you to the Shrine.
This is an easy 4.25 mile hike that take you to visit two special spots – a beautiful waterfall and one of the most popular swimming holes in the Smokies.
On our third day of the trip, we decided to head into the national park and explore an area we hadn’t visited before – Big Creek in Cataloochee. This area is known for its population of elk, and for being much quieter than other parts of the park, like Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome.
The drive was a bit further than our previous two hike, but we had heard that Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole were both beautiful, worthwhile destinations. As usual, we got an early start and beat the crowds to the trailhead.
The hike up Big Creek really couldn’t be much simpler or easier. It follows a wide, old road bed the entire way. At first, you can hear the rushing sounds of the creek in the distance, but within several tenths of a mile, the trail begins to closely follow the water.
Like most creeks in the Smokies, Big Creek is a jumble of big boulders that create lots of cascading rapids and small waterfalls – so beautiful! We saw a serious photographer hiking back from the falls with a large pack of gear and a heavy tripod. He visited the falls on a perfect day for waterfall photography. It was overcast and windless, which allows the opportunity for long exposure images. I always love the silky misty effect a slow shutter speed lends to the water, and I was pretty happy with the shots I got on this hike!
On the hike up, we skipped Midnight Hole. We figured we’d see the waterfall first, and then stop at other pretty spots on the hike back. The falls were indeed lovely, though the mosquitoes and biting flies were abundant and aggressive! This was the first and only time on the trip that I had to use bug spray. We took tons of waterfall photos, and then made our way back down the trail.
On the way back, there were many more people out and about. Lots of them were dressed in swimsuits and had water-wings and innertubes. Apparently, this creek is one of the areas favorites for mountain swimming. When we reached Midnight Hole, there was a family of five there. The two youngest sons were taking turns plunging off rocks into the pool below. It was a cool, cloudy day, so they squealed each time they hit the icy water. The pool itself is deep and brilliant green – really an idyllic spot for a swim.
After leaving Midnight Hole, we stopped at a couple more pretty rapids along the stream for more photos. When we were on the trail, we jogged to outrun the mosquito assault! It was so buggy!
After this hike, we decided to drive into Asheville (yes… filthy and covered with bug spray) so we could visit a few breweries and get some lunch. We also managed stops at Vortex Donuts and French Broad Chocolates.
Mouse Creek Falls is an easy family hike that everyone can enjoy. With the distance being only a little over two miles to the waterfall and very little change in elevation, it is a hike that even small kids won’t complain too much to do.
We started off early and had most of the trail to ourselves. We saw there were lots of places to step off the side of the trail to get views of rocky rapids down Mouse Creek, but we decided to make a beeline for the main waterfall. The trail had a slight incline, but never felt like a steep walk. We arrived at Mouse Creek Falls and made a climb down to near the base of the falls to get some photos of the stream and the falls together. If you don’t feel like climbing to the base, you can still get a distant, yet unobstructed view of the falls from the top. When another family arrived, we decided to leave to give them the solitude that we enjoyed, but we were equally pressured by all the mosquitoes at the water. We didn’t feel a ton of mosquitoes on the way up, but the entire trip back we were swarmed.
About .5 miles back on our return trip, we stopped to enjoy Midnight Hole. A pond is created here by two small waterfalls that dump water into this serene swimming hole. We lingered a bit at this spot before making our way back to our car, chased by a cloud of mosquitoes who seemed to not mind the bug spray we used. We made it back to our car quickly at a little over four miles and saw many people making their way up. I’m sure this is an extremely popular hike and swimming hole spot for many people. If you want to miss the crowds, go as early as possible.
On our way out, we passed by several buses that were unloading people for whitewater rafting along the Pigeon River. We saw probably a hundred people on the river in rafts and it looked like a great way to spend the day. We headed into Asheville, NC from our hike to sample some beers. It was Asheville Beer Week, so all of the breweries in the area were doing special events. We started off with lunch at Wicked Weed, where we enjoy the food as much as the beverages. From there, we stopped by a few more breweries to try one small sample at each – Green Man, Burial, and Hi-Wire. While we were there, there was a disc golf competition where event organizers moved a portable basket and the competitors threw their discs down the streets and alleyways as they moved from one brewery to the next. Luckily, the competitors were very accurate and I didn’t see any spectators beamed in the head.
- Distance – 4.25 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 635 ft.
- Difficulty – 1.5. This is an easy walk along a gradually climbing path.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. The path is wide and well-graded.
- Views – 0. This is a waterfall walk, there are no views along the way.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5. The falls are small but pretty. Big Creek and Midnight Hole are also lovely.
- Wildlife –3.5. People regularly see elk and bears in the area. We didn’t see any on our hike.
- Ease to Navigate – 5. You really can’t go wrong on this hike. It’s a straight shot up the path.
- Solitude – 1. This area is popular with swimmers and families. Expect lots of people.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.751094, -83.109993. From Asheville, NC take I-40 West for 46 miles before taking exit 451 toward Waterville Road. Turn left onto Green Corner Road at the end of the exit ramp which merges onto Tobes Creek Road. Take the first left to cross a bridge and stay on Tobes Creek Road. Once you cross the bridge, take the first left onto Waterville Road. Follow this for two miles and you will then enter the Big Creek Entrance Road. Follow this for about a mile and you will reach the Big Creek Campground. You will find a large parking lot on the right and just before entering the parking lot, you will pass the trailhead for the Big Creek Trail, which is your starting point. This parking lot fills up quickly, so you may have to park along the roadside.
Hiking from Wayah Gap to Wayah Bald is a fun, moderate 8.5 mile hike. The view from a top the stone observation tower has to be among the best in the area.
This hike was a true gem! When you are just reading text about a hike, you can’t get a great idea of how wonderful a hike will be (hopefully this write-up and pictures will help). What we couldn’t believe through the day was how uncrowded this trail was, especially at the fire tower. We went on a perfect weekend day and you can even drive up to the very top if you want to skip the hike but still get the views. Having a spot like this to yourself just doesn’t seem right.
“Wayah” comes from the Cherokee word for “wolf”, since red wolves were once part of this area. The tower was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and used as a lookout for fires in the area.
As we were driving on Wayah Road making our way to the top, we were both thankful that the drive up would take a lot of feet off the elevation. The road winds around the mountain as it is taking many switchbacks to get up to the top. At the crest was the sign for the Wayah Bald Fire Tower and a small parking lot to the side. We started on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail going north (the same side as the sign and the parking lot). You climb up a few water-bar stairs and then come to a sign for Wayah Gap. The trail runs parallel to a national forest road on the left for the first portion of the trail (this is the same forest road you can drive to get to the top without hiking).
The trail was filled with wildflowers and greenery everywhere you looked and overall the uphill climb was quite manageable. At 1.75 miles, you make a steeper climb up to a forest road (the same forest road leading to the top). The trail picks up on the other side, but there is a spring to the right of the trail if you need to refill water. Crossing the road, you head up some stairs and up a steeper section looking down on the fire road, before it resumes the gradual climb.
At 2.15 and 2.35 miles, you will see junctions with the yellow-blazed Bartram Trail (a 110 mile trail that goes from Northern Georgia into Southwest North Carolina) and a forest road on the left side. This trail loops around for an extra 5.4 miles, but stay on the main white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Since the Bartram Trail joins the AT through this section, you will often see yellow and white blazes together. At 2.5 miles the trail levels out and then starts to descend.
Descending through the forest, the trail then begins to skirt along the mountainside. The trail became narrow and overgrown as you walk through some high grass and brush. But, you do get some more open, yet obstructed views of the valley between the mountains. At 3.5 miles, the trail reaches its bottom and then begins to ascend again. At 3.8 miles, you cross the forest road again and at 4.15 miles, you reach the final junction with the paved forest road. Going to the right leads to a picnic area with nice views (and a bathroom if you need it). Heading to the left from the junction, leads to the Wayah Bald fire tower which we reached around 4.3 miles.
The views from the fire tower were amazing! Some fire towers are rickety and you wonder if all the bolts have been screwed and tightened in the last few decades. This structure was a nice stone fire tower with a few steps to the top. From the top of the tower are maps that will help you identify the mountains in the ranges around you. If you go on a clear day, you should be able to see for quite a distance.
We stayed at the top for quite a while and this was definitely my top hike from this trip. We ate our packed lunch and talked to the few people we saw at the top, but it was hard to pull me away from the stunning landscape around me. If you aren’t capable of doing the hike, this is still a place to visit on a trip in North Carolina.
This was another hike I mapped out using my AWOL Guide for the Appalachian Trail. You can practically drive up to the tower, but we wanted to put in longer trail miles, so we opted to start at Wayah Gap, about four miles south of Wayah Bald.
It turned out to be a beautiful hike! There were tons of blooming wildflowers, a crisp breeze, abundant sunshine, and pleasant temperatures. I was thrilled to see the last few red trillium blooms and the first of the flame azaleas lighting up the forest. The hike was perfectly timed to see lots of wildflowers.
We started early and had most of the trail to ourselves. Just a few tenths of a mile after starting, we passed a very early-season southbound thru-hiker. I didn’t know it at the time, but we learned later that he was Mountain Man – possibly the oldest person to ever complete a winter thru-hike. He finished about ten days after our paths crossed.
The terrain on the way to Wayah Bald was pretty gentle – moderate climbs and descents and lots of easy walking. We passed several really nice campsites along the way, with the largest and nicest being located at the junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail.
We walked through an area that was recently burned, leaving behind some open views and lots of fast-growing tall grass to wade through. Most of the sunny spots on the trail were pretty overgrown.
When we arrived at Wayah Bald, we took a wrong turn and ended up walking up to the picnic area. It was a lucky mistake, because the picnic area offers a second beautiful vista. Once we realized we were in the wrong place, we turned around an walked the opposite way up to the tower.
There were only three or four other people at the tower, despite it being a beautiful holiday weekend. We climbed to the top and ate a snack. We loved looking at and identifying the other mountains that made up the panoramic vista. One of the most recognizable was Siler Bald – identified by the wide grassy swath leading to the summit. We spent a bit more time enjoying the spectacular view before making our way back.
After the hike, we decided to go to one of our favorite places – the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The place was hopping with Memorial Day activities, but we were still able to find a parking spot and a table at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ.
- Distance – 8.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1613 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. The length makes this rated a 3, but the overall climb was manageable.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was well-maintained, but very overgrown from the junction with the Bartram Trail leading up to the summit. There weren’t many rocky sections, so it made for nice footing most of the trail.
- Views – 5. Panoramic, 360-degree views from the Fire Tower on a clear day.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There were two adequate springs to use as water sources along the way.
- Wildlife – 2. Nothing spotted on this trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.0. As long as you follow the white blazes for the Appalachian Trail, you should be in good shape.
- Solitude – 4. Maybe we hit this on an odd day, but we had a lot of solitude on a “should have been busy” day and even had the fire tower to ourselves for about 15 minutes.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.153662, -83.580462. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W. Follow 64W for 3.7 miles. Take a right on Patton Road. Follow Patton for .3 of a mile and then turn left on Wayah Road. Follow Wayah Road for 9 miles until you reach the well-marked trail crossing. Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.
Standing Indian is a pleasant five mile (round trip) hike along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina’s Southern Nantahala Wilderness. There is plenty of camping and a beautiful viewpoint at the summit.
When we visited the Smokies this year, we decided to spend the entire trip – an unfortunately short four days – on the southern side of the park. On our last few trips to the area, we enjoyed exploring the Appalachian Trail corridor just before it enters GSMNP. We thought Wesser Bald and Siler Bald were both fun hikes with spectacular views, so before we traveled, I spent some time perusing my AWOL Guide to see if there were other nice view hikes close to easily accessible road crossings. One of the hikes I came up with was Standing Indian Mountain.
By the miles, the drive to the trailhead was pretty short, but the last six miles to get to Deep Gap were along a narrow, steep, and winding forest/logging road. It took about 25 minutes to reach the road’s dead-end at Deep Gap Primitive Campground. There were some really nice campsites available, but the largest and flattest of the sites was closed for reforestation/restoration. Quite a few of the overused backcountry tent sites in this area have been closed to allow them to return to their natural state.
We picked up the northbound Appalachian Trail at the end of the road. It was sunny and humid when we started hiking. The trail climbed steadily and gently the whole way on this hike. Just under a half mile into the hike, we passed a piped spring coming out of the mountainside. We passed a couple more closed campsites before arriving at the spur trail to Standing Indian Shelter at 1.1 miles. The shelter is barely a tenth of a mile off the trail. It had room for about eight people and was equipped with benches and a large fire pit. There were lots of flat, grassy tent sites behind the shelter. Supposedly there is a stream/water source 70 yards downhill of the shelter, but we didn’t take the time to explore. We signed the shelter log and continued our hike up the mountain.
Shortly after the shelter, sun gave way to fog. We figured it was just leftover moisture from storms the night before or a passing cloud. At 5,499′, Standing Indian is the tallest peak along the Nantahala River and often gets different weather than the valley below. We hiked on and the fog gave way to occasional raindrops. We assured one another it was just a passing shower and pressed on. By the time we reached a tunnel of rhododendron, the light shower had become a downpour. Adam wanted to put on our rain gear and stay sheltered under the canopy of rhododendron, but I was getting cold and wanted to push on. In the end, we decided to wait a little bit; hoping the storm would pass and allow us to enjoy the view that was to be the main point of the hike.
After about 20 minutes, the rain still hadn’t slowed so I suggested we hike back to the shelter and wait a bit there. On our way down, the rain stopped, so we turned around and climbed back up. It started pouring again almost immediately after we turned around, so we admitted defeat and decided to just roll with whatever nature threw our way.
So, we hiked to the summit of Standing Indian in a deluge! The summit was completely socked it, but after waiting about ten minutes the fog moved enough to give us a cloudy, misty view of the mountains beyond. We enjoyed every second of the three minute vista before the fog fell back around. The hike back was really quick – all downhill over easy terrain. And wouldn’t you know it… the sun came back out as soon as we got to the parking lot!
As Christine mentioned, this may not have been the best day for this hike. The weather forecast predicted some late afternoon storms, so we really thought we could get in a hike before things turned for the worse. It was quite humid from the recent rain. After we left the shelter, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker, but we pressed on hoping we could beat any rain. We made it to a large rhododendron tunnel and what started off as sprinkling rain quickly became a downpour. The rain was unrelenting. We talked about going to the top, but with all the rain, we didn’t think we would see anything, so we decided to turn around before reaching the summit.
As we made our way down, we came across a Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. She looked college-aged and was carrying a pack that looked like it weighed 60 pounds. The rain had soaked a bandana she was wearing as headband and the dye from the fabric was bleeding blue streaks all down her face.
The trail heading back was more like walking through a small stream in some spots as the heavy rain looked for a place to escape the steep slope of the mountain. The rocks on the trail were slippery from the rain. After making it back about halfway to the shelter, the rain slowed considerably so we changed our mind and decided to give the summit another go.
At 2.45 miles, the trail comes to a junction with the Lower Ridge trail. You will see a sign for Standing Indian Mountain. Take a right off the Appalachian Trail to follow a path through a campsite area which leads to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain in just a tenth of a mile. There was a large fire pit at the top and a small nook to catch a view of the mountains around you. When we arrived, we were able to catch a quick view before the fog and clouds enveloped everything in a sea of gray. We were at least thankful to be up there to appreciate the view for a few minutes.
The name “Standing Indian Mountain” comes from Cherokee myth. An Indian warrior had been sent to the summit to watch for a winged monster that came from the sky and stole children. The monster was captured and destroyed with thunder and lightning from the Great Spirit. The Cherokee warrior had become afraid and ran away from his post and was turned into stone for his cowardice. The Cherokee referred to Standing Indian Mountain as “Yunwitsule-nunyi”, meaning “where the man stood”.
The rain continued for most of the hike down. But one treat the rain provided was the chance to see several salamanders hanging out on the trail. We first spotted a Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, but the real treat was seeing a black-chinned red salamander. The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”, so we were glad to catch a few species on this hike. We have yet to spot a hellbender salamander (which range from 12-29 inches long) in the wild there, but maybe one day we will.
After we made it back to the car, we decided to drive over to Franklin, NC for the afternoon. We stopped in a wonderful outfitter store called Outdoor 76. When we had stopped to take pictures of the salamanders, I realized my backpack was completely soaked inside which ruined our copy of our AWOL guide. So we purchased those as well as a couple of Pelican cases for our phones. They even have several beers on tap at the back of the store. It wasn’t until later that I thought about how my daypack has a built-in rain cover – ugh. We then went to grab some lunch at Motor Company Grill (just an average 50s-style burger and sandwich place) and then went to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. Since a lot of AT thru-hikers will spend a day off the trail to eat and resupply in Franklin, this place is a popular spot. They had great trail and hiking information posted inside and had some of the coolest hiking-related pint glasses I have seen. It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
- Distance – 5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1300 ft.
- Difficulty – 2.5. The climbing on this trail is all very gradual and well-graded. We were surprised it even came out to 1300 feet!
- Trail Conditions – 4. The local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is working hard on restoration projects in this area and their work was definitely evident.
- Views – 4. We are giving this the score it deserves on a nice day with good visibility. We still had a pretty view, but it could have been much nicer if the rain had held off.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There were a couple small springs (at least one was piped) that could be used as a water source.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple unique salamanders along the trail in the rain. They were both species we hadn’t seen before.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is well blazed. The view at the top is hidden behind a spur trail through a bunch of campsites. If you don’t know to cut through the campsites, you would miss the view completely.
- Solitude – 3. There were a ton of cars parked at Deep Gap, but we only saw a handful of people on the trail – probably because it was *pouring*!
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.039847, -83.552506. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W. Follow 64W for 14.5 miles. Take a left on Deep Gap Road. It will become a gravel forest service road almost immediately. Follow the forest road for almost 6 miles until you reach Deep Gap. Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.
This 11 mile loop has everything – stunning views, scenic streams, a clear mountain pond, and even a small waterfall. You could hike it as a long(ish) day hike, but there is so much great camping along the way that it’s ideal for an easy overnight backpacking trip!
Day One (4 miles)…
One thing that was true about May in 2016 was we had a TON of rain in Virginia. It was hard to find a time to actually go for a hike in good weather. We had been itching to try and do an overnight trip, but the threat of drenching downpours and storms was standing in the way. We had some very stressful days at work, so getting out and finding some peace away from the hustle of everyday life was just what the doctor ordered. In looking at the weather closely, we decided we may be able to get a short, overnight trip in if we timed it just right. We decided to do something very close by to our home to allow us to get on the trail quickly to get in a few miles before it started to get dark. We had called our friend, Kris, who was going to accompany us, and told her to be ready anytime during the Saturday afternoon. We felt like Doppler radar experts as we were tracking the storm movement and finally around 2:30PM, we felt the rain was going to stop to allow us to hike.
We got to the Massanutten Visitor Center and saw a lot of cars in the parking lot. We were thinking there was no way that others were on the trail at this same time due to all the rain we had in the last few days. A large camper was at the front and I talked to one gentleman out front. As it turns out, it was the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 race that weekend, a 100-mile race along the Massanutten Mountain range that covers 16,200 feet of ascent. We were a little worried about the trail conditions and how many runners we may see along the way, but nothing was stopping us now.
From the parking lot, we took the white-blazed Wildflower trail (do not take the Nature trail at the end of the parking lot). This trail leads downhill and passes some comical information plaques along the way. At .3 miles, when you reach an intersection with the Massanutten South trail, take a right to start on the orange-blazed Massanutten South trail. The trail goes up a steep ascent and we found with the recent rain the footing was slippery and mucky in a few parts. On the ascent, we found that Kris’ new trekking poles weren’t locking properly, so we paused to get some duct tape to try and make a repair (not long after we realized that our fix didn’t hold up and she lost part of her pole somewhere along the trail). The uphill was quite steep and had us breathing heavily with our heavy packs, but this is the toughest part of the entire hike. We passed a hiker who was doing the reverse route and he told us right near the summit there were about 100 pink lady’s slippers along the trail. We decided to count what we had saw; while we didn’t see 100 of these rare wildflowers, we did count close to 60 over the weekend which may be the most we’ve ever seen on a trail. We came to the first overlook around the 1.6 mile mark (the second is just shortly ahead), took our packs off for a few minutes and enjoyed the panoramic views. The clouds after the recent storm blanketed the sky. We stopped at the second view also before continuing on. At 2.5 miles, the trail splits; head to the right to join the Bird Knob trail.
The Bird Knob trail is a ridge walk and is quite flat, which was a nice change from climbing. But, the sky began to get dark and we started hearing thunder in the near distance. Within five minutes, we started to feel rain. We decided to put on our pack covers and rain gear and it was just in the nick of time, as the clouds unleashed a downpour mixed with pea-sized hail. We kept marching through the hailstorm and within about 20 minutes, the storm had passed.
At 3.8 miles, we reached a large open field with a campsite. We decided to press on to get a spot at Emerald Pond, so we skirted the left side of the field to stay on the trail. The trail then turns into an old logging road going downhill. About halfway down the road, we came across a couple of rain-soaked college-aged guys. They were asking if there were any campsites up ahead and they told us all the spots were taken at Emerald Pond. We mentioned the big field with lots of room and they left the way they came to go get the rest of their group and their packs. Since we heard there were no spots, we decided to turn around and get a nice spot in the open field. Christine scouted around and saw there were also sites in the woods next to a small hidden pond, but the bear scat around the site was a deterrent. We decided to camp near the fire pit we saw at the top of the field. One thing that was nice about camping in this grassy field was we knew we would have a comfortable floor bed to pitch our tent. We set up in a short amount of time and we were soon joined by about eight others in the field that night.
The wind had picked up as the storm front had moved through and I felt unprepared in terms of clothing. I switched out of my damp clothes, but I didn’t bring enough warmer clothes for that evening. We made a quick meal and were even able to start a fire at camp despite the wetness of the wood. After dinner, I was getting a little colder each minute, so I decided to call it an early night and get in my down sleeping bag while Kris and Christine talked until nightfall. It was a crazy day on the trail, but one thing I like about hiking is it is always an adventure.
Day Two (7 miles)…
The morning dawned sunny but frigid! Adam had been cold all night, so I let him stay curled up in his sleeping bag while I went to take down the bear hang. No one else who camped in the meadow was stirring, but the three of us quickly cooked breakfast and packed up camp. On our way out of the meadow, we all got a good chuckle over one of the tents set up nearby. It was technically pitched, but in no way like it was supposed to be. We’re guessing someone borrowed a tent and couldn’t figure out how to set it up. I love a backpacker’s ability to improvise!
After walking downhill to the bottom of the meadow, we picked up the old logging road for a few tenths of a mile until we reached an unmarked gravel road on the left. The gravel road led to Emerald Pond – a beautiful, spring-fed mountain pool. The last time we visited, we had the pond all to ourselves and very much enjoyed the peace and solitude. This time, the pond was crawling with other campers. They had big tents, tons of gear, and were dressed in jeans and work boots. We’re guessing that they parked on the nearby forest service road and walked the tenth of a mile to the prime campsite on the pond. I guess it’s worth noting that the early bird gets the worm when it comes to staking a claim on an Emerald Pond campsite! We didn’t want to intrude, so we just took a few photos from the near-side of the pond. The campsite side is prettier, so don’t miss visiting if the spot is open.
We left the pond and continued a tenth of a mile to the forest service road. There was a locked gate where the trail met the road. At that point, we took a right and hiked downhill along the road (orange blazed) for a few tenths of a mile until we reached the junction with the Roaring Run Gap trail. The trail is on the left side of the forest road and is marked by a wooden post with two sets of blazes – light purple and pink. The climb up Big Mountain via the Roaring Run Gap trail (blazed purple) was our last big climb of the trip. For a little less than half a mile, the trail climbs steeply uphill over rocky terrain. At the top, we passed a small/dry campsite. On the descent, which came almost immediately, we glimpsed beautiful views through the trees. There were switchbacks and quite a few muddy spots along this stretch of trail. We cheered on the last few runners on the Massanutten 100 Miler race. Even if you’re finishing at the back of the pack in a race like that, you’re still tougher than we’ll ever be! We also met the sweeper who was jogging the course behind the last racer to pick up reflective hang-tags that helped keep runners on course during the night.
After about a mile of walking along the purple-blazed Roaring Run trail, we reached an unmarked junction with the pink-blazed Browns Hollow trail. The trail is a left turn from the Roaring Run Gap trail. Over four miles of the hike on day two follows this Browns Hollow trail – so look for the pink blazes.
The Browns Hollow trail starts off passing through pretty forest. There are stretches of trail that pass through impressive blueberry bushes. Eventually, you descend to Browns Run. Along the way, you’ll pass a couple nice campsites suitable for one or two small tents. Both sites had fire rings and easy access to water.
There are several beautiful rapids and a small, but lovely, waterfall on this section of trail. We all enjoyed walking through the verdant green forest, while listening to the sounds of bubbling water. It was gorgeous and peaceful. If you look around you’ll notice the stream runs through a pretty deep and dramatic gorge. The far side of the stream goes upward quickly and steeply. There were even a couple places that looked like there had been recent landslides. All the trees and dirt slid straight down the mountainside and ended in a jumble at the bottom. This part of the hike was gentle and easy, so we made great time and enjoyed chatting along the way. We counted more pink lady’s slippers and admired other spring blooms along the trail.
At a little over the five mile mark of day two, you’ll cross Browns Run. I imagine most of the time this is a shallow, easy stream crossing. We hiked the trail after weeks of rain, and still found the crossing very doable. The stream was only 12-18 inches deep and there were enough large rocks to rock hop most of the way. There were a few places I had to submerge the toe of my boot on an underwater rock, but all three of us crossed without any trouble. Right after the crossing, there is a fantastic group campsite. The area is large and clear with space for multiple tents.
We continued to follow the Browns Hollow trail as it became a wide old road. We passed lots of blooming mountain laurel along this part of the hike. Eventually we came upon a picnic area with a shelter. At that point, we took a left onto the marked Wildflower Trail at this point. It passes a series of interpretive signs before eventually leading back to the Massanutten Visitors Center (closed) where we started out the prior morning.
It was still before noon when we wrapped up, so we decided to drive back into Harrisonburg for lunch. We enjoyed burgers at Jack Brown’s and then headed over to Brothers Craft Brewing to enjoy their new Verdure series. They’ve done a tart Berliner-Weisse beer infused with all kinds of seasonal/summer fruits. They had Blackberry Verdure on tap. It was the perfect reward for a fun weekend of hiking.
- Distance – 11 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
- Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
- Difficulty – 2.5. The toughest stretch is the initial push up to the viewpoints.
- Trail Conditions – 3. There were a couple of blowdowns, some muddy patches due to the heavy rain, and a stream crossing, but footing was overall very good.
- Views – 4. The two viewpoints provide some nice panoramic views.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Browns Run is a nice stream and a good water source. While not a stream or waterfall, Emerald Pond is extremely picturesque and would make a nice swimming hole.
- Wildlife – 3. The start of the Wildflower Trail had us surrounded by birds. With bear scat spotted near our campsite, there is some bear activity here.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. There are multiple trails that cross over between Bird Knob and the Massanutten trail. Take a map to make sure you are going the correct way.
- Solitude – 2. While you won’t see many on the trail, we found a lot of locals like to drive in close and visit Emerald Pond.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this hike are 38°38’35.4″N 78°36’43.0″W. From I-81, take exit 264 for US-211 toward New Market/Timberville/Luray. Head east on US-211/W Old Cross Road and go .3 miles. Turn left onto N. Congress St. and go .3 miles. Turn right onto US-211 East and go 4.5 miles. Park at the old Massanutten Visitor Center parking lot on the right. The trail starts towards the front of the lot on the Wildflower Trail.
This 8.3 mile hike follows the Pass Mountain Trail from the route 211 trailhead up to the Pass Mountain Hut. From there, you’ll follow the Appalachian Trail north to the beautiful viewpoint at Double Bear Rocks.
The first weekend in April, we met up with Tony & Linda (of Hiking Upward fame) for a day of exploring a new trail and a new brewery. When we were discussing route options, Tony tossed out the idea of climbing the Pass Mountain trail for a visit to the same-named Appalachian Trail shelter. The route was about five miles with 1,300 feet of climbing – perfectly moderate for my recovering ankle injury.
We initially planned to hike on Saturday, but sleet, rain, and high winds compelled us to postpone for Sunday’s more pleasant forecast. We met at the trailhead along Route 211, just a little bit west of Sperryville. The trail begins at the cement marker post across the road. 211 can be very busy and its twists and turns are often traveled at speed, so be extremely careful crossing the road from your car to the Pass Mountain trail.
The Pass Mountain trail was beautifully maintained – blowdowns were cleared, branches were trimmed back, and it looked like someone had put a lot of time installing new water bars. The hike began with a meandering series of switchbacks that climbed steadily but gently uphill. At about the one mile mark, we reached another cement marker. At the marker, you’ll notice a defunct, unlabeled fire road; stay to the left and follow the blue-blazed Pass Mountain trail uphill. The trail continues uphill for almost a mile before leveling out on the ridge. If you happen to hike this trail in winter or early spring, you’ll get great views of Marys Rock through the trees.
At 2.8 miles, the trail ends at Pass Mountain Hut – one of the park’s nine Appalachian Trail shelters. The shelter is a typical structure with a nearby spring and privy. The unusual thing about Pass Mountain Hut that sets it apart from other AT shelters in the park is that it has a fairly new bear locker instead of a bear pole. A couple years ago, the Pass Mountain Hut was closed due to aggressive bear activity. In late summer, a young, extremely thin black bear destroyed the tent of an ATC Ridgerunner. She was out on patrol and came back to a flattened, saliva-covered tent. Park authorities closed the shelter area until the bear could be trapped and relocated to a less populated part of the park.
We spent a few minutes at the shelter debating the rest of our hike. I mentioned to Tony and Linda that I remembered a nice vista just north of the Pass Mountain summit. My ankle felt OK and even though I wasn’t sure exactly how far it was to the viewpoint, I thought I would be OK pressing on. We all agreed that a view always makes extra miles worthwhile. We followed the blue-blazed spur trail from the hut to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.
We headed north on the AT for about a mile, reaching the rocky but viewless summit of Pass Mountain. This summit does not have a cement marker. You’ll know you crossed the summit only because you start descending again. When we crossed the summit, we were still vaguely guessing about how much further we needed to hike to reach the view. We explored off-trail a little on rocky outcroppings, but they all turned out to be closed in by trees. Adam jogged ahead to scout for the view. Tony, Linda, and I were all several hundred yards back when we heard Adam shouting ‘BEAR, BEAR, BEAR(S)’. We all raced ahead, too – because who wants to miss a bear sighting?
We got there just in time to see two big, furry rear ends disappearing into the brush. Adam, however, got a great close-up view of the bears. Lucky! Just a couple tenths of a mile past the bears, we spotted the side path to the view – Double Bear Rocks, named for the high population of bears in this area. The view itself is quite nice, but what I remember most about this rocky outcropping is its seasonal abundance in blueberries! Last time we hiked by this spot, it was July and there were berries everywhere! In the short time we sat and enjoyed the view, clouds moved in, so we decided to be on our way.
The hike back simply retraced our steps coming up. Since it was mostly downhill, it went by really quickly. Before we knew it, we were back at our cars for a total hike of 8.3 miles with 1,750 feet of climbing. We were all quite ready to make our way into Sperryville for some post-hike refreshments. We decided to pick up a to-go order from the Creekside Deli. It’s a humble-looking building painted bright yellow, but there is nothing humble about their baked goods. They make top-notch sandwiches on homemade bread, cookies, brownies, and other pastries. We took our food over to Pen Druid brewery to enjoy a couple beers with lunch. The brewery doesn’t have a kitchen, so they follow picnic rules. The guys at Pen Druid do small batches of interesting beers – most featuring wild yeast strains. We had great conversation and agreed that we really must get out together more often. Great day with friends!
We always enjoy hiking with Tony and Linda. When you get people together that have done a lot of hiking, our conversations always quickly go through talking about different trail systems. We can all talk through different routes as if we were following a map along in our heads. I’m not sure if it is dull conversation for others, but we enjoy talking about the places we have been or have been hoping to go. Both Hiking Upward and our site were created to share our experiences. We may have different approaches to the content, but we do this because of our love of nature and the ability to share hiking ideas with others. We consider ourselves lucky to live where we live and to be able to have all of these experiences so close by – and we hope you enjoy it as well.
With Christine nursing an ankle injury, we picked a route that she thought would be a decent test with a little elevation but not overly challenging. This route isn’t well-traveled and is accessed from outside of Shenandoah National Park on US-211, in between Luray and Sperryville, VA. We arrived a few minutes before Tony and Linda, so we parked where we felt was the correct spot – a gravel pull-off at the bottom of a steep curve. I consulted a map of the area and felt we were correct, but we didn’t see a signpost to designate the beginning of the trail. I got out of the car and crossed the road near the sharp curve in the road and found the trail marker.
The trail starts as the Pass Mountain trail. While we felt this isn’t a heavily-traversed trail, we were surprised at how well this small section has been maintained. The hike on the Pass Mountain Trail is a steady uphill climb, but the conditions of the trail made for easy footing. On the way up, we caught up with what was going on with our lives – from aging parents to worrisome dogs to trail sections to hiker rescues to beer. Around the 2.75 mile mark, we reached the Pass Mountain Shelter. We stopped and ate a snack and checked out the hiking log. Christine’s ankle was feeling decent, so we decided to press further up the trail. At the shelter, there is a junction with the fire road (Pass Mountain Hut Road), but the trail ascends up to the left of the shelter as you are facing it. We continued up the trail until we reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail at 3.0 miles.
We remembered we found a nice overlook on Pass Mountain that was off the trail and we didn’t think it was too terribly far so we decided to try and find it again together. We took a right, heading north on the white-blazed AT. The trail continued to go slightly uphill, but the grade wasn’t as steep as most of the Pass Mountain Trail. When we carried onward for about a mile, I decided to scout ahead a bit since I didn’t want Christine to put a lot of undue pressure on her ankle. Trekking up ahead at a brisk speed, I came across a mother bear and a yearling bear cub ambling close to the trail. They were both curious about me, so I said a few “Hey, bears” to let them know I wasn’t a threat. They slowly were walking away, paying me little mind so I shouted back at the rest of the group “BEAR, BEAR” to let them know I spotted one. I wondered if the group thought I was shouting for beer instead, but they understood. When they caught up, they were able to see the bears not too far off but they had moved away from their comfy spot.
Right around the corner from where we spotted the bear, we saw the jumbled rocks on the left of the trail that we remembered as being the viewpoint. We cut off the trail and out onto the rocks to enjoy a nice view to the west. There are nicer views in the park, but on a clear day you can see ridges of mountains for miles.
After taking in the view for a few minutes, we made our way back to our cars. We continued our trip to Creekside Deli and then Pen Druid Brewery for some delicious food and drink before parting ways. We look forward to our next adventure with them!
- Distance – 8.3 miles roundtrip
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1730 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This was a nice, moderate hike with steady but well-graded climbing.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. The trail was in fantastic shape – very well maintained and tended to by the PATC.
- Views – 3.5. There’s a beautiful, but not quite panoramic view on the northern flank of Pass Mountain.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. There isn’t any stream scenery, but there is a spring behind the Pass Mountain Hut.
- Wildlife – 4. We saw bears – a yearling cub and mama!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
- Solitude – 4. We saw one couple at the hut, but no one else at all during the entirety of the 8+ mile hike.
Directions to trailhead: The trail is located off of US-211 about 12 miles east of Luray, VA and 2.8 miles east of where US-211 crosses Skyline Drive. The gravel lot is located at 38.66855, -78.28999. Cross the road (be careful as this is a blind curve and cars may not see you easily) and at the bottom of the steep, sharp curve you will see the signpost for the Pass Mountain Trail.