Robertson Mountain

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

Limberlost Stream Along the Fire Road Old Rag Fire Road

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

Gnarled Trees Descending Robertson Mountain Back Up to Skyline Drive

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Located in Shenandoah National Park (fees apply).  The Limberlost Parking lot is located around Mile Marker 43 on Skyline Drive.  Park in this lot.  Head left on the Limberlost Trail loop at the end of the parking lot.  Coordinates: 38.580055, -78.381473

Old Rag – via Berry Hollow

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

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

Berry Hollow Parking Golden Trees Old Rag Day-Use Shelter

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

Old Rag Views Old Rag Views Old Rag Views

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

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

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

Old Rag Views Descent Byrds Nest Day Use Shelter

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

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

Trail Notes

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

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

Trayfoot Mountain – Paine Run Loop

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

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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.

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.

Little Devils Stairs

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

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

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallen Hemlocks Wildflower Along Little Devils Stairs Keyser Run Fire Road

Christine Says…

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

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

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

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

Why Are the Mountains Blue - Bolen Cemetery Indian Pipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

The Devil’s Marbleyard

This 8.1 mile hike passes an impressive boulder field then climbs along the Gunter Ridge trail for some nice (but obstructed) views.

Devil's Marbleyard Scramble
Adam scrambles around the Marbleyard. Below: The hike begins on the Belfast Trail; Entrance to the National Forest is marked by a placard. The two stone pillars mark an old Boy Scout camp that used to be located in this area. You can still see the footprint of the swimming pool and a few building foundations along the Belfast Trail. The camp was named after Chief Powhatan; Catawba Rhododendron were in bloom everywhere!

Start of the Belfast Trail National Forest Marker Rhododendron on Gunter Ridge

Christine Says…

We keep a list of hikes we want to do stuck with a magnet to the side of our refrigerator. The Devil’s Marbleyard hike had been on that list for nearly three years. It kept getting delayed for closer hikes or hikes with better views or taller waterfalls.  We finally decided it was time to knock it off the list.

We got up early Sunday morning, grabbed donuts, bagels and coffee en route and made our way down the Blue Ridge Parkway. We got to the trailhead parking area around 10:00 and thankfully found only a couple other cars there.  Evidently, cars that overflow the official parking lot are frequently towed.  So, if you hike this trail, make sure your car is in the lot or that all four wheels are off the road and not on private property.

Belfast Creek
The beginning of the trail takes you over Belfast Creek. Below: The bridge over the creek;  Adam crossing a small stream early in the hike; All the recent rainy weather made conditions ideal for snails.

Belfast Trail Bridge Second Stream Crossing Snail

After crossing a small bridge over a stream, the trail passes through an old stone gateway that used to mark entry to a Boy Scout camp called ‘Camp Powhatan’.  You immediately come to a National Forest/Wilderness placard.  At this point, you’re only a little over a mile from the Devil’s Marbleyard.   (The sign says one mile, but our GPS and most trail guides seem to say it’s about 1.4 miles to reach the Marbleyard).  The trail meanders through the woods, crossing shallow spots on the creek a couple times.

I really enjoyed seeing the blooming azaleas, Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel.  The laurel bloomed so early this year!  What I did not enjoy were the locusts!  The Blue Ridge Brood of the seventeen-year cicada is currently emerging in our area, and they were everywhere along the Belfast Creek trail. They were screaming overhead in the trees — I likened the sound to the one made by a failing belt tensioner on our SUV a few years ago.  It’s a squeal mixed with an undertone of hiss.  Not only are the locusts noisy – they’re CREEPY!  Sometimes they fly into you.  They have red eyes.  And worst of all, they leave yellowish-clear, crunchy, empty husks everywhere when they molt.  I will be very glad when locust season is over and I can have seventeen years of peace again!

Blooming Along the Trail
So much stuff was blooming along the trail.  Below: Christine checks out the large boulders that make up the Devil’s Marbleyard;  Adam climbs back down the Marbleyard to rejoin the trail; A creepy locust husk.

Christine on the Marbleyard  Adam Climbing Down Gross Locust Husk

As we came upon the Marbleyard, we crossed paths with the hikers from the two other cars we had seen in the lot.  The first was a nice guy from Virginia Beach who was at the tail end of a week-long hiking vacation along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We enjoyed chatting with him and sharing information and tips about favorite hikes.  The second was a pair of local kids who warned us of muddy/slippery conditions on the trail ahead.  Adam had a little incident there, but I’ll let him share that tale in his portion of the post.

Before proceeding up the trail, we took some time to explore the Marbleyard.  Basically, it looks like an immense stone mountain exploded and collapsed into thousands of boulders of every shape and size.  If you want to climb to the top of the Marbleyard, you have to do so by scrambling up the rocks. It looks like the trail alongside the Marbleyard reaches the top, but in reality the trail turns slightly away from the boulder field and climbs upward to the Gunter Ridge trail. I imagine most hikers visit the Marbleyard and then head back to their car, making this a short 2.8 out and back.  We considered doing this, but since we had already driven so far, we decided to do the full 8.3 mile loop.

After playing on the rocks for a while, we headed along… climbing uphill for a while until we reached the junction of the Belfast trail and the Gunter Ridge trail. At this spot there is a spacious (but dry) campsite.

Steep Trail Alongside the Marbleyard
Christine climbs the steep trail that runs alongside the Marbleyard. Below: The junction of the Belfast and Gunter Ridge trails;  Adam spotted a black widow spider along the trail; Christine walks past an especially pretty stand of mountain laurel.

Top of the Ridge Black Widow Christine Walking Through the Laurels

The Gunter Ridge trail was easy walking, but was quite overgrown.  Because of the heat and humidity, I had decided to hike in shorts and a t-shirt, so I started to worry about ticks climbing onto my legs from the tall grass.  Adam, on the other hand, hiked in long pants tucked into his socks.  I’m getting ahead of myself, but guess who came home with six ticks crawling on his clothes – and guess who came home with none crawling on her.  I always joke that my husband is a real ‘tick magnet’.

The trail along this section really opens up and provides some nice, but slightly obstructed, views.  A forest fire that swept through this area about a decade ago is still very evident.  There are no tall trees and charred stumps can be seen peeking up through the brushy vegetation in many places.

After walking along the ridge for a while, you come to a seemingly endless series of switchbacks climbing down the mountain. Eventually you reach a wooden horse gate, and cross out of designated wilderness into standard National Forest.  Almost immediately after passing through the gate,  you will encounter a stream.  We stopped here for lunch.  I had been wanting to eat for almost an hour, but this was the first place that really had an opening to sit and eat since the campsite at the junction of the Gunter Ridge and Belfast trails.

Mountain View on Gunter Ridge Trail
A hazy mountain view from the Gunter Ridge Trail.  Below: Damage from a forest fire about ten years ago is still very evident;  A view of mountains and clouds along the trail.

Old Forest Fire Damage on Gunter Ridge Mountains and Clouds on Gunter Ridge

After lunch, we still had a couple miles of walking along the Glenmont Horse trail.  It was easy hiking, but also really boring.  It’s the part of the hike where you know you’ve seen all the cool stuff, but you still have several miles of walking along a featureless road/path.  It reminded me a lot of all the fire road/paved road walking at the end of the Old Rag hike.

All in all, the hike to Devil’s Marbleyard made for a pleasant day. But, if I were to recommend the hike to others, I’d suggest just hiking to the Marbleyard as an out-and-back.  If the rhododendron, laurel and azaleas hadn’t been blooming, I don’t think there was much to see on the rest of the loop.

Adam Says…

It has been about 20 years since I last hiked the Devil’s Marbleyard trail.  Those that know me personally or have read this blog for a while know I grew up in Lynchburg.  Some of the hikes that are most popular with people around there are Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Devil’s Marbleyard.  The first two have great views and are close to Peaks of Otter, a popular picnic area.  The last time I did this hike I was with with a group of friends from home.  I remember the boulder field seemed so impressive.  While there are similar slopes of rock along Furnace Mountain and Hawksbill summit (among others), these boulders are much larger.  My friends and I climbed up the boulders from the bottom of the field.  One of my friends almost stepped on a rattlesnake that was sunning itself on the rocks.  I’m sure a number of rattlesnakes make their home in the cracks between the rocks, so be careful.  The climb up to the top takes longer than you would expect and requires a lot of energy to navigate the scramble.  Since we planned on hiking a long loop, we opted to just climb around a while on the bottom.

Beautiful Mountain Laurel
Beautiful mountain laurel along the ridge hike.  Below: Stopping to enjoy the mountain laurel; Passing out of the designated wilderness area; Lunch by the stream.

Christine and Mountain Laurel Leaving the Wilderness Area Lunch by the Stream

With every interesting geological feature, there seems to be a legend that has been passed down over the years and Devil’s Marbleyard is no different.  In the local tale, this area was occupied by Native Americans and the land was supposedly very green and lush.  There was a large stone altar at the top of this hill that was used for worship on full-moon nights.  A white couple met the Native Americans and they were thought to be spirits since they looked so different than the local tribes.  The couple said they were not spirits but they worshiped a higher power.  They converted the Native Americans to Christianity.  However, the next year brought about a great drought and the Native Americans felt the new God and the missionaries were to be held responsible.  They burned the couple alive on the altar.  As the flames reached high into the sky, a storm formed.  Lightning struck down upon the altar and exploded the rock over the mountainside.

Christine and I talked about this legend on the hike.  I guess there can be a few different morals to the story depending on your perspective.  From the perspective of the white missionaries, it may be best to not spread your religion to others if you want to stay alive.  From the perspective of the Native Americans, it may be to either believe your own gods or keep faith in your new God.  It is an interesting thing to think about on this hike, even if there may not be much truth to the origin of the boulder slope.

The Glenmont Horse Trail
Walking along the Glenmont Horse Trail gets tedious.

To complete the full loop hike, begin in the parking lot and cross the bridge and take the blue-blazed Belfast Trail.  At .2 miles, the trail splits.  Bear right to stay on the blue-blazed trail.  The trail is a rocky, uphill climb that leads to the Devil’s Marbleyard boulder field at 1.4 miles.  Continue up the trail which follows parallel to the right of the boulders up a steep section (which can also be very slippery if there has been recent rain – as I found out with a hard fall onto slick rock).  After you near the summit of the boulder field, the steepness of the trail lessens.  At 2.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and a small campsite.  The Gunter Ridge Trail heads off to the left heading down the mountain slightly, but you are mostly following along a ridge line.  Eventually, this trail begins to open up to some obstructed but nice views on the ridge.  The trail then descends quickly through a series of switchbacks.  At 5.8 miles, you will exit the James River Face Wilderness boundary through a gate and cross Little Hellgate Creek.  At the 6.0 mile mark, you will reach the orange-blazed Glenwood Horse Trail, a large fire road.  Follow this to the left and make your way along this trail that does go slightly uphill until reaching the junction with the Belfast Trail at 7.9 miles.  Take a right on the Belfast Trail to reach the parking lot at 8.1 miles.

If you are interested in geocaching, there is one geocache that can be found on the scramble up the boulders at the Devil’s Marbleyard – Devils Marble Yard Cache.

Like Christine, I would probably recommend that if you were coming here to see the best features of the trail, I would just do this as a 2.8 mile out-and-back to the Marbleyard and back.  The views from the top of the Gunter Ridge Trail are more obstructed and doesn’t seem necessary when there are many other nice view hikes nearby on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Trail Notes

  • Distance8.1 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1510 feet
  • Difficulty – 3.  The climb up past the Marbleyard to the Gunter Ridge trail is steep, but once you gain the ridge it’s most level or downhill.  The Glenmont horse trail is wide open and slightly uphill.
  • Trail Conditions – 3The trail is in decent shape in most places.  It was very slick, steep and muddy climbing alongside the Marbleyard.  The Gunter Ridge trail was easy to follow, but very overgrown with tall grasses and brush.
  • Views– 2. There are plenty of obstructed views on the Gunter Ridge Trail, but nothing spectacular.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.5.  The stream running along the Belfast Trail is small but lovely.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw a ton of fence lizards but not much else (unless you want to count the seventeen year locusts)
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  There are a few turns and trails here are not as well marked as trails in the national park, but if you pay attention, finding your way should be easy.
  • Solitude – 3  You will likely share the Marbleyard with other hikers, but the rest of the loop does not seem heavily traveled.

Directions to trailhead:  From the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile 71, you will see a small road (FSR 35) that is on the western side of the road at a curve.  Take this road which leads past the Petites Gap AT parking area.  At 4.2 miles, you will see the parking area on the right (just after you start seeing more houses on the road).  Make sure you either park in the lot or make sure you park completely off the road or your vehicle may be towed.