On this eight-mile adventure, we visited a beautiful outcropping on Church Mountain. The hike had some steady climbing, a little bit of rock scrambling, some unfortunate bushwhacking, and a beautiful view at the top!
We did this hike back in early April with our friends, Tony and Linda, of HikingUpward fame. (View their write-up for this hike) Tony noticed that this hike appeared for the first time on a recent edition of a PATC map and suggested we all go out and explore the relatively unknown area. He had heard rumor that there were two viewpoints to enjoy. We met them at a parking area along the forest service road (FR482). We could see the outcropping we were planning to hike to from the road below. Adam was still getting over an awful chest cold, so the distant view of the cliff-face made me worry for him. It looked very faraway and pretty high above us.
The first mile of walking followed the mile of FR482 that lies beyond a locked gate. During hunting season, you might find this gate open and be able to shave a couple miles off the total distance of the hike. At the end of a mile, you’ll find yourself at the start of the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail. There are no signs or trail markers – just blazes – so be careful to follow along. The trail crosses one shallow stream near the beginning of the trail. It also crosses several old road cuts (apparently there used to be TV towers on this mountain, or so I’ve heard). The climbing is fairly steady and unrelenting as you climb Church Mountain. The use of ten switchbacks makes the grade feel manageable, though I can see this feeling like a really tough climb on a hot day. There were some decent views of the rocky summit of Church Mountain from the trail.
As you climb, the forest gets thinner and more open – almost meadow-like. When you reach the ridgeline at three miles, the trail is just a faint footpath through the grass. Look for a tree with a double set of white and yellow blazes. There should also be a small cairn slightly uphill of the two-blazed tree. This is the junction with the Talc Trail. From here, take a left and follow the white blazed Talc trail as it meanders over gentle terrain toward the summit of Church Mountain. This part of the trail was sparsely blazed and there were a couple significant blow-downs across the trail. I have a feeling that the vegetation along this stretch may get taller and thicker as the growing season progresses. I had permethrin-treated clothes and Repel spray on my exposed skin, but I still managed to pick up a tick somewhere along the Talc Trail. I noticed it already attached to my calf on the return leg of our hike. Gross!
The Talc Trail comes into a saddle about 3.6 miles into the hike. There is a large, very littered campsite in the saddle. There was an old tarp, several pots, old cans, shell casings, a satchel, and some other odds and ends laying around. It looked like hunters maybe used this spot as a base camp sometime in the last year or two. After passing the campsite, there’s a nice view of the valley off the left side of the trail. Once you pass this view, it’s time to start scrambling. The way to the top had a couple hard-to-see blazes and was pretty overgrown with brambles and thorns. I had capri length pants on, so my lower legs got scraped up quite a bit. Between the prickly vegetation and the ticks, I definitely suggest long pants for this hike.
Once at the top, there were lots of openings in the woods to explore different spots along the outcropping. There were several spots that offered beautiful, slightly obstructed views to the valley beyond. The slanted cliffside on the adjacent mountain was a unique feature to behold in the viewscape. I found two different geodetic markers on the outcropping – one with an arrow marking the direction of the true summit and another for the summit itself. We spent a bit of time enjoying and photographing the view, but I wouldn’t say this is a outcropping that would be good for a crowd or a lunch break. The space on the rocks is limited and most of the larger rock surfaces lie at precipitous angles. When I took photos of Adam standing on the pointy, blade-like rocks in the photo at the top of this post, my knees were knocking a bit. I don’t like looking through a camera lens when my feet are uneven ground – it gives me vertigo.
After scrambling down from the summit of Church Mountain, we headed back along the Talc Trail. On this particular day, we decided to pass the junction for the trail down and continue to explore the other side of the white-blazed Talc Trail. It probably wasn’t a good idea. There was a tree with a mysterious blaze that sort of looked like it was trying to mark a campsite on a sidetrail, but we didn’t really find anything. Passing there, the trail dipped steeply down into an area that was badly overgrown with thorns and blocked by many blowdowns. There was clearly a trail there, but it was not maintained to the point it was worth following.
During the extra bit of exploration, my GPS said that we had come almost five miles. We were running low on snacks and water, so we opted to end our quest for a second vista and make our way back down. The return hike went by pretty quickly – all downhill, the same way we had hiked up. The beer and pizza at Swover Creek Farm Brewery were calling loudly. Refreshment was needed!
As Christine mentioned, I was just getting over being sick. This was the fourth time I had been sick over the last 2.5 months (cold, sinus infections,etc.), so my cardio and ability to breathe well was still getting back to normal. Exploring a “new to us” trail when there isn’t any information about it online makes us feel like we are conquering uncharted territory. We had no idea how long the hike would be and we could vaguely guess at what elevation we would be climbing.
We did have a bit of a road walk through to get to the trailhead since the gate was closed. We walked on an open road that looks like had been heavily forested before. The scenery was open which made it more enjoyable than most fire road walks we have done. We eventually came to the upper parking lot and the trailhead. Once we started on the trailhead, we noticed the trail split after a few feet. There was an unblazed trail that went straight and then the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail took off to the right. Take this right and the trail starts a long gradual climb. Eventually, the switchbacks start and this is where you really begin to gain some elevation. There were a few times where we spotted the Church Rock cliff face through the trees and we were excited to see that the trail would eventually guide us to that impressive cliffside. The trail winds through several switchbacks until you eventually get to a part where the top of the hillside opens up into a grassy area and you follow sparse blazes up to the top of the hill.
Eventually the trail comes to a junction with the white-blazed Talc trail. Take a left here to get to Church Rock. We paused at the junction for a bit to allow me to gain my breath and we ate some trail mix. Soon, a turkey hunter came up along the trail in full camo. This was the only person that we saw the entire day. Starting on the Talc Trail, we found the trail was very poorly blazed. You stay walking on this ridge for a bit and can see some views along the way. Eventually the Talc Trail descended and led us to an open meadow area where we saw the remains of a campsite with tarp and other items stowed here. We weren’t sure if these are things someone has just left behind to use the next time they camp up here or just someone that was littering heavily. Shortly after the campsite, the trail leads back up and you can see Church Rock sticking out. If I were to rename this rock jutting out, I would call it Young Man of the Mountain. It reminded me of Old Man of the Mountain that was a prominent rock feature in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that you may have seen prominently on New Hampshire license plates. The Old Man rock face fell off in 2003 which we regret never seeing. The profile of the rockface does look similar to it but it is much smaller. We got to the rock scramble just below Church Rock. Be very careful through here, because we commented how this would be a great place for snakes to hide in between all the cracks between the rocks or possibly sunning themselves on a warm day. There weren’t any clear blazes that really guided you up to the top, but we were able to find our way through the boulders and then were able to climb up a steep section to get to the top.
At the top, there were two areas where you could take in the view – and what an impressive view it was! On a clear day, you can see for miles at mountain ranges all around you. We found a couple of USGS markers at the top which named it Church Rock. If you do take in the view, be careful! There isn’t much space and the wind blowing at the top can make you feel uncomfortable. Falling from here would be deadly. When we left, I said that these may be some of the best views in Virginia and I will stick to that claim. The climb wasn’t terribly tough and we felt this is something that is probably best done during the year with fewer leaves as it opens up other views along the way. With this trail being fairly unknown (at least for now), the solitude made us feel like we had stumbled across a secret gem of Virginia. We headed back the way we came and explored a bit down the other side from the junction with the Talc Trail. That ended up being just a slog through the woods. There may be some views to be had with some heavy bushwhacking, but we didn’t feel like exploring that too long with all the blowdowns and briars on the trail.
When we got back to the car, we drove to Swover Creek Brewery for some great pizzas and beer. The owners have some dogs that roam around and beg a bit for pizza, but they were sweet companions. One of the owners was prepping to do a chain saw sculpture for the early evening, but we needed to head home so we missed out. The outdoor scenery at Swover Creek capped off a great day on the trail with friends.
- Distance – 8 miles This hike could be shortened 7.5 miles if you skip exploring to the right after the junction on the ridge. It could also be shortened to 5.5-6 miles if the lower forest service gate it open.
- Elevation Change – 1,800 – 2,100 ft (depending on how far you explore)
- Difficulty – 4. This hike’s climbing is never terribly steep, but it’s still three miles of unrelenting climbing. The scramble at the end is a bit challenging.
- Trail Conditions – 2. We hiked in early spring and found the first couple miles of the trail in relatively good shape. There was some overgrowth, but it was still easy going. On the ridge, the blazes are harder to follow and there isn’t much of a trail. Hikers will mostly meander blaze to blaze. I also think this area will become very overgrown as the growing season progresses.
- Views – 4. These views were spectacular! They would warrant a five star rating, but there is no real place to sit and take in the view with a second person. The view rocks are narrow and precipitous. Adam and I were both nervous standing on them.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There is one small stream shortly after you come off the forest service road and start walking the actual Church Rock trail.
- Wildlife – 3. There was so much scat from various animals along the trail. We didn’t see anything, but animals are definitely out there.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. Generally, blazes and trail were easy to follow. The yellow blazed trail was in great shape, the white blazed ridge trail was less clear.
- Solitude – 5. Until all the fine, adventurous readers of Hiking Upward and this site get out there, this trail is truly an unknown gem.
Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 38.73325, -78.8732. The parking area is along a gravel forest service road. If you find the gate open, you can drive another mile closer to the actual trailhead. When we hiked in spring 2019, the lower gate was locked and the road beyond it was blocked by a large blowdown.