Back in January, we planned a little section hike along the Appalachian Trail with a group of friends. However, icy conditions closed the Blue Ridge Parkway, leaving us scrambling for an alternate plan. We stumbled across the Kepler Overlook on Hiking Upward and decided it would be a good ‘plan B’. Our group met for breakfast at Mr’ J’s Bagels (yay carbs!) in Harrisonburg before heading up to the trailhead.
We expected to have to park about a third of a mile from the official trailhead, but we found the forest service gate open and were able to leave our cars right at the hike’s start point. From the parking area, there are trails and forest service roads leading in several directions. This was probably the most confusing part of the hike. You want to go straight up the forest road with the permanently closed gate. If you don’t reach the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail within the first .3 mile of your hike up the road, you’ll know you’ve gone the wrong way!
At the junction with the Tuscarora trail, go left. You’ll pass another closed gate before coming to Cedar Creek. The crossing of Cedar Creek is fairly wide and might be tricky in wet conditions. We were able to negotiate the crossing with some careful rock hopping. Shortly after the crossing, you’ll come to one of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve seen. Someone has taken the time to build wide benches, a large fire pit, and even a high counter-top for cooking. It would be a great group campsite with easy access to water.
From the campsite, continue to follow the blue-blazed trail. There was one place that the trail appeared to go straight, but actually turned. We all missed the turn and had to backtrack a few hundred feet where the trail crosses the stream again using a footbridge made of branches.
After crossing the stream, the trail climbs Tea Mountain. It’s never a tough climb, but it’s a steady uphill. The trail alternates between narrow footpath and wider road-like conditions. The trail follows along several switchbacks. At about 1.9 miles into the hike, you should see an unmarked side trail on the left. If you follow this side trail for a few hundred feet, you’ll reach a large rock jumble. From the top of the rock jumble you get a great view of the mountains beyond.
After taking in the view, return to the Tuscarora trail and continue uphill for about another mile or so until you reach the saddle between Tea and Little North Mountains. Along this ridge, there are several nice viewpoints and lots of open, flat space for camping. We took some time to explore a couple different vistas. The views were nice, but the sky conditions were really hazy.
After enjoying the mountaintop, we descended the way we came up. On our way home, we decided to check out a new farm brewery near Edinburg. Swover Creek is a working farm – they grow fruit and hops, raise chickens, and make sausage from locally produced meat. They’ve recently started a brewery and are working on building a tasting room in their old barn. We all tried a flight of their four beers (the persimmon ale was my favorite). We also had their house-made soft pretzels and mustard and enjoyed a sampling of their different sausages. It was a fun stop and I definitely recommend checking them out if you’re in the area!
The Kepler Overlook hike was one that we had been wanting to do since we heard about it from our friends at Hiking Upward. This hike leads to nice views as you climb up to Little North Mountain.
The trail started off as we went past the closed gate up the fire road. There is a sign just past the gate showing the inter-connected trail system. Continue up the fire road for about .3 miles and then take a right on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail. The Tuscarora Trail leads down to Cedar Creek. Cross a small stream at .5 miles and you will reach a nice campsite. Continue along the trail and the trail takes another stream crossing (this time over a small log bridge with a branch handrail). The trail turns quickly to the left as you begin your climb up Tea Mountain. At 1.9 miles on a switchback, you reach an unmarked side trail. Following this for about .1 miles will take you to a rock outcropping with some views to the west. Backtrack to rejoin the Tuscarora Trail.
At 2.5 miles, the trail reaches a Saddle between Tea Mountain and North Mountain. From here, climb up North Mountain. The trail levels out at 3.0 miles at a large area for backcountry camping. From here, you have two options for views. Cut through the campsite to the right along the ridge for a nice view. You can also go to the left and make your way again towards the ridge to get more views to the east.
We enjoyed our hike with friends and dogs. You can check out Clark’s YouTube video below. We were amazed at how much he was enjoying the hike and even took some time to enjoy the view himself.
After the hike we hit Swover Creek Farm to try out their brewery. Since the tasting room is not yet built, we enjoyed our beer in the farmhouse. I have described this when talking to friends as if you were to go over to your grandmother’s house and drink beer. We got our flight of beers from the small room downstairs and then took them upstairs to the larger “living room”. There were some large tables and older furniture, so it really felt like a visit to your grandmother’s. All of the people that were there were local people and one man brought a thermos to fill with beer instead of a growler. They brought out samples of their sausage they made on the farm and we ended up buying some to take home. It was such a warm, home environment and we thought they did a great job with the small-batch beers they had made. This was a perfect post-hike stop.
Clark and Maia Say…
Our friends brought their lab (Clark) and shepherd (Maia) along on the hike! They were great trail dogs to have along for the day!
Clark was fitted with a GoPro — so don’t miss seeing the hike from his point of view! 🙂
Distance – 6 miles (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
Elevation Change – 1120 ft.
Difficulty – 3. A pretty easy hike with a bit of steady, moderate climbing.
Trail Conditions – 4. Trail was in great shape.
Views – 3.5. Nice, but slightly obstructed by trees.
Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Cedar Creek is pretty and a solid water source.
Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything, but there are plenty of deer and bear in the area.
Ease to Navigate – 2. There are a couple places where it’s easy to lose the trail. Also, there are several trails and fire roads from the parking area that can easily be confused.
Solitude –4. We saw only a small handful of people on a nice, sunny, winter weekend day.
Directions to trailhead: Take exit 291 on I-81 heading west on SR 651. Go 1.5 miles and take a left on SR 623. Go 4 miles and take a right on to SR 600. Go 4.4 miles and take a left on SR 603/Van Buren Road. Continue on Van Buren Road for 2.7 miles and you will see parking on the left. There are two parking areas here, but pass the first parking area to get to the second parking area which is on the lefthand side. Park here and retrace your path a short distance to see the closed gate and the fire road where your hike will start.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 3.8 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail completed a short 1.9 mile gap in unbroken Appalachian Trail mileage we left after hiking the Three Ridges circuit in 2012. After you cross the scenic Tye River footbridge, the hike doesn’t boast any views or unique scenery. It’s a moderate uphill climb to a junction marker in the woods.
We have been working on section hiking some of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia. Hopefully one day, we will have the entire section that crosses Virginia on here. In doing it in sections, we have ended up with a few small gaps between sections. This gap was created when we hiked Three Ridges and did it as a loop trail that included a return trip on the Mau-Har trail. I got a text from my friend Bryce from Hiking Upward that mentioned he was going to try and hike Spy Rock the next day. I mentioned that we were trying to get this section done as well, so he agreed to accompany us on this section also. It was January 1st and we wanted to start the year off right with a great day of hiking.
We parked our cars at the lot on 56 where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Tye River. We crossed the road and almost immediately you come upon a large suspension bridge that crosses the Tye River. We knew this was probably the highlight of the trip, so we took some time to get some pictures across the bridge and of the Tye River from under the bridge.
After crossing the bridge, the trail takes a few switchbacks and then starts a fairly steep uphill through the woods. Looking back from the trail, we were able to see some obstructed views of Pinnacle Ridge and The Priest, but when spring hits these views will likely be more obstructed. On our climb up, we saw a dog come racing towards us. As it turns out, it was a bear-hunting dog, as it had a large radio collar around his neck. The dog barely stopped at all and barreled past on a mission to try and find a bear. We continued our hike up and came up to the sign post that marked the trail junction with the Mau-Har trail. From this point, you could continue on the Appalachian Trail to the right to reach Chimney Rock and Three Ridges or take a left on to the Mau-Har Trail, to reach the Maupin Field Shelter. We tapped the post to mark that we had completed this section and made our way back.
After our hike, we got in our cars and stopped by Crabtree Falls, which had frozen water on the sides. This iconic waterfall is always a nice place to visit any time of year. Our next stop was to hike up to Spy Rock. When we first arrived, the parking lot was full of cars and vans. We felt defeated and were about to make the decision to not do the hike, when someone came down the trail and mentioned that a few car loads were getting ready to leave. We waited just a couple of minutes and two parking spaces opened up. We hiked up to Spy Rock, which was covered in snow in some parts. At the top of the trail, Bryce decided he wanted to bushwhack to another rock outcropping that would look back on Spy Rock. So, we set a plan to try and take pictures of each other from the different summits. The climb up Spy Rock was pretty dangerous, since the water that falls into the cracks that your normally use to help pull yourself up was frozen, making it very treacherous. When we got up to the top of Spy Rock, the wind was blowing so hard and the temperatures from the wind chill put it way below freezing. We waited for a few minutes at the top. We eventually saw Bryce making his way to the rock outcropping. We took a quick photo of him and then made our way off Spy Rock, since we felt we could get frostbite fairly quickly up there. We reconvened where we had split up and then made our way back down the mountain. We got back to our cars and headed to Staunton for lunch.
This area where we hiked is a real sweet spot for Virginia hiking. You have The Priest, Three Ridges, Crabtree Falls, and Spy Rock all within a few miles. If you want a place to get a few great days of Virginia hiking, this is a great destination. We were glad to reconnect again with Bryce and getting another AT section checked off our to-do list.
I don’t really have anything to add about the hike! It was just a pleasant walk in the woods that finished a hole in our continuous AT miles. It was great to see Bryce (Hiking Upward) and spend the first day of 2015 on the trail!
After a couple little hikes, we all went for a decadent lunch and beers at Byers St. Bistro in Staunton. They have great sandwiches and a nice variety of beers on tap. Check it out if you’re in the area.
Distance – 3.8 miles (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
Elevation Change – 1100 ft.
Difficulty – 3. The climbing is steady and moderate the entire way up.
Trail Conditions – 4.5. Well maintained, smooth trail.
Views – 0. No views other than a few glimpses through bare winter trees.
Streams/Waterfalls – 0. The stream and waterfalls are a little further up trail from this spot.
Wildlife – 0. We did see a hunting dog – that probably scares wildlife away.
Ease to Navigate – 4. There’s really no place to go wrong here.
Solitude –2. This trail leads up from a very popular AT access point. You can expect to see a good number of people.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 213A to head on to US-11 South towards Greenville. Go 8.2 miles and take a left on to US-56. Go 16.6 miles down US-56 and you will come to a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail on the right-hand side of the road. Park here and then cross the road to start hiking on the Appalachian Trail heading north.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Throughout fall 2014, our employer (and alma mater), James Madison University, participated in the Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge. Basically, students and employees accrued points for outdoor activities. The school that compiled the most points in the end won a prize of cash and outdoor gear. One component of the competition was completing a collection of eight local hikes. The list included many hikes we had already done (Old Rag, Humpback Rock, Fridley Gap, High Knob Fire Tower). Veach Gap was one of the only hikes on the list we hadn’t done, so we decided to check it out.
From the end of Veach Gap Rd. in Fort Valley, the hike begins along the Veach Gap Trail (blazed in gold), which is an old road bed. Supposedly, this trail is what remains of the historical Morgan’s Road. General George Washington requisitioned the road during the Revolutionary War. It was built to be used as a path of retreat from Yorktown. As we all know from history, the war went America’s way, and the retreat route was never needed. The road was still used locally for many years before falling into disuse and transitioning into a trail.
At one mile in, the Veach Gap trail crosses Mill Run. This is really the only potentially confusing spot to navigate on the hike. The trail crosses at a diagonal, so look carefully for the gold blazes on a tree slightly upstream. Shortly after crossing the stream, you may notice a rock formation in the shape of an upside down ‘U’. This is called an anticline, and it’s a very unusual geological feature in our area. I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but we didn’t even stop to look at the anticline. I forgot it was there, and my mind was more focused on fall colors, lofty views, and potential wildlife sightings. But, if you’re a geology buff – don’t miss this feature!
A short distance after crossing the stream, the Veach Gap trail merges and becomes jointly blazed with the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail and the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail. The three trails share the route for (at most) a couple tenths of a mile. AT 1.2 miles, you’ll come to another trail sign. To the right, the trail heads in the direction of the Little Crease Shelter. Stay to the left (blazed orange and blue), headed up Little Crease Mountain and toward Sherman Gap. About a half mile after this intersection, you’ll pass a marked group campsite on the right.
Continue meandering uphill along a gentle grade. At three miles, the trail becomes a bit steeper with switchbacks. There was a significant forest fire here in 2012, so the canopy is thin and allows nice views along the climb. We saw lots of charred stumps and blueberry bushes along the increasingly rocky trail. Eventually, the trail leveled out along the ridge. We soon reached The Point Overlook – a small outcropping of rocks overlooking a sweeping bend on the Shenandoah River.
We had a snack, took a few photos, and spent some time chatting with a fellow hiker (Hi, DJ!) before heading back down the way we came. Veach Gap was really a lovely hike to enjoy at the peak of fall foliage season. After getting back to our car, we made the short drive into Front Royal so we could enjoy burgers and shakes at Spelunkers. Great day!
When we were reviewing the peakbagging hikes that were listed for JMU students/faculty to try for the Outdoor Nation competition, we were surprised to see this one on there. My guess is the coordinators looked up hikes that were close to Harrisonburg without thinking of what would be seen on the hike. We initially thought this wouldn’t be that nice of a hike, since we hadn’t heard anyone mention it before to us, but the views made this a pleasant surprise.
When we pulled up to the parking lot, we saw a few cars already in the parking lot and a group getting ready to hit the trail when we did. Of course, we saw vehicles for hunters, so we were a little worried about how this trail was being used overall. We were glad that we had brighter clothes on, which is always a precaution to consider during hunting season. We started off on the gold-blazed Veach Gap trail by crossing through the gate and walking on the fire road. The trail was very flat and passed through some younger forest. We were greeted with sights and sounds of Mill Run to the left of the trail.
We soon came across two bow hunters, that seemed to be milling around, more about enjoying the outdoors than they were about hunting. At .35 miles, the fire road turns into trail. At 1.2 miles, take a left at the junction and join the blue and orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. The trail continued a slow, gradual climb heading northeast. At 3.0 miles, the trail takes a sharp, southern route and at 3.2 miles, it switches back to the normal northeastern direction. On our climb up, we passed by a large group of boy scouts that were covering some miles over the weekend, but were looking to camp near the crossing at Mill Run. The slightly-obstructed views of the mountains beside us were so colorful in this peak fall setting.
As you climb up to the ridge, you start seeing a lot of the forest fire damage. Since this happened in 2012, you start seeing some of the plants starting to grow in place of those that burned. We reached the ridge and followed it for about .15 miles. At 3.5 miles, we found a pile of rocks marking a short climb to the overlook where we stopped. The true highlight of the view is seeing the bends of the Shenandoah River from this rocky perch. There wasn’t a ton of room at the top that was unobstructed, but it was enough for a few people to take in the view.
If you feel like you would like a view hike with a good amount of solitude, this may be a great selection.
Distance – 7 miles (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
Elevation Change – 1100 ft.
Difficulty – 2. This is an easy hike to a nice viewpoint.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape in most places. Dry, fallen leaves made some of the descents slippery.
Views – 3.5. The view of the bends of the Shenandoah River is nice, but slightly obstructed.
Streams/Waterfalls – 2. The stream along the early part of the trail is really pretty.
Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything but a few birds and squirrels.
Ease to Navigate – 3. There are a few junctions and a few unmarked trails that cross the route, but you should be fine if you follow the blazes.
Solitude –4. We did see a troop of Boy Scouts and a handful of others hiking in this area on a perfect fall weekend near peak foliage color, but generally this area is very quiet.
Directions to trailhead: From Luray, VA, take SR 675/Camp Roosevelt Road. Go .8 miles and take a left to stay on SR 675. In 2.2 miles, take a right to stay on SR 675. In 7.8 miles, take a right on to SR 678/Fort Valley Road. Follow this for 9.7 miles and then take a right onto SR 774/Veach Gap Road. Follow this about .75 miles to the end of the road, where you arrive at a parking area. The trail starts after you walk around the gate.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 17 mile overnight backpacking trip had beautiful views from Cole Mountain within the first two miles of the hike. The rest of the hike was less scenic – mostly walking through quiet woods and along seasonally low streams. The Lynchburg Reservoir and the swinging bridge over the Pedlar River were noteworthy features on the second day. Adam will cover day one and Christine will take over with day two!
We started off our trip by leaving one car where the AT crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Punchbowl Mountain overlook. From the lot, we could see the AT southbound, but we didn’t see where we would return to our car from the north. It turns out it was just below us on the other side of the parking lot, but the morning fog made it a little hard to spot. We dropped our car off and then headed to Hog Camp Rd, to start our journey.
From Hog Camp Gap, we headed south on the Appalachian Trail. The trail started off through a wooded section uphill, fairly steeply in some parts. Around 1.1 miles, the trail opened up to the beautiful, wide-open bald clearing that is Cole Mountain. We have hiked Cole Mountain before as a loop and I do think it is one of the more under-appreciated hikes in Virginia. The panoramic vistas make this look like something you would picture in an outdoors magazine. You can’t help but want to stop and take a look at the scenery around you. The way we split this section might not have been the best plan for enjoying vistas. We knew we had the best views of the trip done in the first 1.5 miles of the hike. But that is one of the biggest lessons I learned from hiking this section – you have to hold on to what you may have just seen, because there is no certainty about what is to come ahead.
After reaching the summit of Cole Mountain, the trail descends and again enters the forest. Around 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a spur trail that led to the Cow Camp Gap overnight shelter and a water source. We continued on the trail which starts an ascent up Bald Mountain. We reached the summit at 3.5 miles and were hoping for some nice views at the top, but found that Bald Mountain wasn’t very bald (there were a few obstructed views through the trees). We found a clearing and camp spot and had our lunch there before continuing on. The rest of the day, the trail was a descent so our climbing was done (at least until tomorrow).
We crossed over USFS 507 at 5.5 miles and eventually came to US 60 and the Long Mountain wayside at mile 6.3. We stopped at one of the picnic tables and took a break to eat a snack and give our backs a relief from the weight. Local people just park on the roadside here and have a picnic at this spot. It is also a way to do a longer out-and-back to Cole Mountain without parking or driving on a rough, gravel road. After resting, we crossed US 60, spotting a sign for the continuation of the Appalachian trail to the right. We continued our descent and at 7.1 miles, we reached Browns Creek, a reliable water source for a good stretch of trail. At 8.2 miles, we reached the Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, our stop for the night.
The Brown Mountain Creek area is interesting from a historical/archaeological standpoint. Much of the land along the creek was part of a large plantation predating the Civil War. After the war, the land was primarily a settlement for freed African-Americans. Houses, farms, orchards and even a gristmill could be found along the creek. You can still see stone walls/stairs, pieces of metal, and other artifacts along the creek.
When we first got to the shelter, there was still a smoldering fire in the fire pit, so we realized someone had been there recently. We also noticed a large pile of fresh bear scat next to the shelter. While we didn’t think a bear had been roasting marshmallows by the fire, we felt it may be wise to not set up camp directly at the shelter. We found a nice campsite right by the creek and decided that would be a better spot. There was a boy scout troop that was camping on the other side of the creek. We worried about them being too loud over the course of the night, but they were fairly well-behaved (except for trashing the privy – but that’s another story). We set up our tent, filtered water for tonight and tomorrow, and began to unwind.
We cooked dinner up at the shelter (Good To-Go Herbed Mushroom Risotto)* and played Zombie Fluxx, a card game where the rules and objectives for winning constantly changed. I always enjoy bringing a card game along the trail – the weight isn’t too bad for the entertainment it can provide. We played a few hands (I recall Christine being better at killing zombies than I was) and then went back to our campsite after I hung our bear bag. We started off reading books by headlamp outside our tent (continuing with the zombie trend I was reading Night of the Living Trekkies), but the bugs were awful. We retired to our tent probably around 7:30, read for a little while longer, and went to bed very early. We always typically go to bed around nightfall when backpacking, but hiking with the extra weight always makes you feel a little more physically exhausted.
* Good to Go is a new backpacking food manufacturer. They use healthy ingredients and much less sodium. We thought it was one of the best dehydrated meals we’ve had on the trail! We added a foil packet of chicken breast to our dinner.
Day Two (9.1 miles)…
Day two started earlier than expected (and with the added bonus of a huge, swollen mosquito bite on my eyelid – I looked like I’d been punched!) Like most Boy Scout troops we’ve met along the trail, the one camping near us on this trip was awake, packed up, and on their way before sun-up. This had pros and cons. One con was all the crunching boots and headlamps moving around our tent in the dark. A pro was the opportunity we had to enjoy the creekside in peace and solitude before starting our hike for the day. The solitude also meant I could find a place to dig a cat hole in complete privacy without having to worry about Boy Scouts spotting me! I would have used the privy near the shelter, but let’s just say the privy turned out to be another con of camping near a big scout group. One of them had completely defiled the privy and there was no way I was going in there!
Breakfast was instant oatmeal, honey buns and coffee. I’ve learned the hard way after running out of gas on past backpacking trips that one packet of instant oatmeal (140 calories) is not enough to fuel me across nine miles. The Little Debbie Honey Bun has been a revelation for me. I think it has the magical balance of fat and sugar I need to power through my morning miles. They also hold up great in my pack – no smushing and no crumbling. Some people like a healthier, protein-packed breakfast, but give me a honey bun!
The first five miles of our second day were easy. The terrain was a very gradual overall descent with a couple brief uphill climbs. The first mile or so followed Brown Mountain Creek. The trail followed roughly parallel to the stream for much of the way. I kept thinking how beautiful this area would be when water levels were higher. We eventually crossed the creek via a wooden footbridge. At this spot there was a small, but pretty, waterfall cascading into a plunge pool. The flow was down to a trickle, but it was still a lovely spot.
Departing Brown Mountain Creek, we walked through serene, quiet forest for a couple more miles. There were two small stream crossings along the way. The first didn’t seem to have a name, but the second was Swapping Camp Creek. Both of these creeks end up flowing into the Lynchburg Reservoir. At around 3 miles into our hike, we started seeing glimpses of the reservoir through the trees. We followed an off-trail footpath steeply down to the shores of the water for a couple photos. We saw several herons hunting in the mud. There were ‘no camping’ signs posted everywhere, but there were also several well-used fire rings. I’m guessing there are quite a few people that ignore the regulations and attempt to stealth camp in this area.
We climbed back up to the Appalachian Trail and continued south, skirting the eastern side of the reservoir. At around 4.8 miles we came to the lowest elevation point of our hike – the Pedlar River crossing. The trail crosses the river on a picturesque, bouncy suspension bridge. From the middle of the bridge, we could see early fall colors reflecting from the trees onto the water’s surface. After crossing the bridge, we came out on gravel-surfaced Reservoir Road. We followed that briefly until we spotted another white blaze for the Appalachian Trail.
At this point, we began our toughest climb of the whole 17 miles. The 2-mile ascent of Rice Mountain begins pleasantly enough. The trail follows parallel to Little Irish Creek (which was running low and barely noticeable) and passes through a small plot of old growth forest. There is an extremely weather-beaten sign explaining tree sizes in the area and how the area is used to study the local watershed. Early parts of the climb are well-graded and moderate, but about .75 mile in, the trail pretty much goes straight up the mountain without the moderating benefit of switchbacks. I wanted to push through the climbing and put it behind me, but Adam was ready for a snack. We found some big rocks about 1.5 miles up the mountain and took a candy break. After a half mile more climbing, we reached the ridge of Rice Mountain. The forest was especially pretty along the top of the mountain – very open with lots of nice shade trees.
On the descent of Rice, we had one nice view through the trees. We also saw more brilliant red fall colors and a lot more thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel. There really wasn’t anything remarkable to see or say about our last couple miles of hiking. The terrain was rolling – there was a general uphill trend, but with small downhills as well. There were no views or streams to speak off. The lack of scenery gave me lots of time to fret over my feet. Two toes on my right foot had dislocated earlier in the day and were becoming increasingly painful. With each step, it got a little harder to bear my weight plus the weight of my pack. I think if there had been waterfalls or great views, I would have been more easily able to distract myself. But on this particular day, all I could think was ‘Ouch – when will this hike be over?’
At almost the end, we had one final road crossing at the junction of Robinson Gap Rd. and Panther Falls Rd. After just another third of mile, we came up a small hill and found ourselves back at the parking area for Punchbowl Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to end a hike. It felt great to take my boots off and change into a pair of Oofos. While I enjoyed the great weather, the opportunity to be out, and the nice views from Cole Mountain, this wasn’t one of my favorite backpacking trips.
Difficulty – 4. Mostly for distance, but the descent of Bald Mountain is a real knee-grinder and the climb up Rice Mountain (Day 2) is surprisingly challenging.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is in nice condition all across this stretch of AT.
Views – 5 (for Day 1) – The views from Cole Mountain are indisputably spectacular. Enjoy them early in your hike… they’ll be the last real views of the trip.
Streams/Waterfalls – 3. This was hard to judge because of the unusually dry late summer/early fall. I think under normal circumstances, Brown Mountain Creek would be beautiful with lots of small cascades and rapids.
Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see any wildlife beyond a cute bullfrog in the creek. But, there was LOTS of bear scat around Brown Mountain Creek Shelter.
Ease to Navigate – 4. Just keep following the white-blazes and pay attention at road crossings/trail junctions to stay on the Appalachian Trail.
Solitude – 3. We saw quite a few people around Cole Mountain and spent the night at Brown Mountain Creek with a Boy Scout Troop. We saw only one person along the trail on the second day.
Directions to trailhead: Requires a shuttle. We parked one car where the AT crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway near Punchbowl Mountain. This is mile 51.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 6 miles south of where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets with US 60. From this point, we drove our other car back north on the Blue Ridge Parkway for 6.0 miles and took the exit leading us to US-60 East. We headed 4.3 miles on US 60 E before taking a left on SR 634/Coffeytown Road. Follow this for 1.6 miles before taking a right on SR 755/Wiggins Spring Road. Follow this gravel, bumpy road for 2.7 miles until you reach the parking area where the AT crosses the road. Follow the white-blazed Appalachian trail heading south.
Strickler Knob was the second hike we posted on Virginia Trail Guide… way back in May of 2009. In the years since we first did this hike, there was a bad forest fire in the vicinity, the Forest Service painted over the purple/pink blazes to the knob (and then someone put them back), and the trail became vastly more popular.
On this particularly beautiful morning, we were planning a hike in Shenandoah National Park, but at 7:45 a.m. a text popped up on my phone. It was from our friends, Suzanne and Anthony (we met them at PATC’s Backpacking 101 workshop several years ago). They had made a spur of the moment decision to drive down from Maryland to hike Strickler Knob and wondered if we might want to join them. We don’t see them often enough, so the answer was clearly YES!
However, I had a few concerns going into the hike. The first was the possibility of swift/deep streams and run off from the deluge of rain we had received a day earlier. Roads and bridges were washed out all over the area. The second was the fact that the MMT 100 was being run that weekend. I wasn’t sure if the trail would be crowded or have limited access due to the race. We decided to put those concerns aside and go for it.
We met our friends at the defunct Massanutten Visitor’s Center on Rt. 211 near Luray. From there, we proceeded in one car to the Massanutten Trailhead on Crisman Hollow Rd. Right as we arrived, a carload of six was also unloading at the trailhead. We ended up playing leap frog with them along the trail all day long.
The trail initially crossed a flat, open area and a view into the valley. But soon, the trail dropped very steeply downhill on Waterfall Mountain. I’m not really sure why it’s called Waterfall Mountain. We didn’t see any waterfalls along the way – maybe they’re someplace else, or maybe ‘waterfall’ just refers to the extremely quick drop in elevation. Along this section of trail, we all joked about what a tough climb uphill this would be at the end of the day. I enjoyed the flowers blooming along the trail. We spotted mountain laurel starting to bud and even a pink lady’s slipper!
Eventually the trail leveled out near a stream. We passed a large campsite near the water just before coming to our first stream crossing. The water was pretty high and fast, but some well-placed logs made the crossing doable. From there, the trail followed a series of ascents and descents with lots of little stream crossings along the way. Most of the small stream crossings are probably dry under normal circumstances. We soon came to a second large stream crossing. After that crossing, the trail followed the stream – literally. Due to the 4-5 inches of rain the area experienced, the trail was completely underwater. It didn’t even look like a trail, and the only way we were sure it was the trail was the presence of a blaze on a tree about 50 yards ahead. We walked for more than a mile in ankle deep water. It was fun, but it was also wet, sloppy and muddy!
We reached trail junction 408. This is where the folks coming up from Scothorn Gap join the trail. At this point, we turned right and followed the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail uphill in the direction of the Gap Creek Trail. This part of the trail is really easy – wide and very gently graded. There were lots of pink native azaleas on one side of the trail. On the other side, the area burned out by a forest fire stood, charred – but slowly growing back.
When we reached the ridge, there was an obstructed view where the trail continues over the crest and then downhill. If you find yourself going downhill on the orange-blazed trail, you’ve passed the turn to Strickler Knob! At the top of the ridge, look carefully for purple/pink blazes on rocks and a reddish disk stapled to a tree. This is the way to Strickler Knob.
The walk to the knob starts off as a rocky but easily passable trail. But gradually the rocks become bigger, more jagged and trickier to traverse. It’s easy to lose the blazes as you pick your way along the rocks. You’ll come to one stunning viewpoint and think you’ve reached the end, but you still have the most intense part of the scramble to go! There are several steep, tall rock faces to negotiate before you finally come to a collection of towering rock stacks overlooking the Page Valley, Fort Valley and the Shenandoah River. The view from the knob is majestic!
On this particular day, Strickler Knob was packed. There were so many people at the overlook, it was hard to find a spot to sit. I think part of it was because the presence of two hiking clubs. But in addition to the clubs, there were also a number of couples and foursomes. Honestly, I’m shocked that this trail has become so popular! The crowds rivaled what I expect to see on a nice day on trails like Dark Hollow Falls or Hawksbill Mountain (in SNP).
We spent some time at the overlook eating lunch and taking photos. The hike back went really quickly. We walked in the water, we crossed the streams, we did all the little ascents and descents… and then we came to the base of Waterfall Mountain.
That climb was every bit as brutal as we all expected – gaining over 800 feet in about half a mile. The section isn’t climbed with mediating steps or switchbacks – it’s pretty much straight up the mountainside. We were all pretty glad when we got back to the flat, grassy section again!
When we got back to the car, the parking lot was much more crowded than when we had left it. We made the short drive back to the Massanutten Visitor’s Center and bid farewell to Anthony and Suzanne. It was a great hike and great to see them!
Between the two routes to Strickler Knob, I would probably recommend the shorter route from Scothorn Gap to most hikers. You get all of the excellent scenery, and only miss the extremely challenging descent/ascent of Waterfall Mountain. The section on Waterfall Mountain doesn’t really offer any remarkable scenery, but it’s a great training hike if you’re looking for a cardio challenge or practice on elevation change. We probably benefited from the longer, tougher ascent to prepare for our upcoming Smokies Trip.
Normally, when I describe the hike to Strickler Knob, I tell people that it’s an introductory rock-scrambling hike to see if you are ready for Old Rag. While there is not as much rock-scrambling and navigating as Old Rag, there are a few spots towards the summit that will test you enough to see if you can pull yourself up some of the rocks and let you gauge your comfort-level with scrambling over some drops. If you’ve already done Old Rag, this should be easy, but if you are intimidated by Old Rag from stories you’ve heard, try Strickler Knob first. I would agree with Christine that this hike has become more popular over recent years. When we had done the hike five years ago on a beautiful day, we only ran into one other couple on the entire trail; this time, it was crawling with people.
This is also a hike where people often get lost. You won’t find the purple-blazed summit trail on any maps currently, so I would suggest bringing a copy of the map I’ve provided below. I had a co-worker that tried to find the trail a few years ago (possibly when the blazes were still removed) to no luck. We also came across a larger hiking group from Northern Virginia that had missed the trail completely. When we gave them better directions, they turned around to attempt it again. Part of this also has to do with what few blazes are actually on the trail. You’ll know you are on a trail, you may just not be entirely sure which trail.
We started off the hike from the small parking area on Crisman Hollow Road. The orange-blazed Massanutten trail starts off on nice, level terrain through a wooded area. The trail soon opens up to more of a brushy, open field. As the trail winds around through this area, there is even one spot that has a view into the valley below at .2 miles. Shortly after this point as the trail winds around, the trail begins its very steep descent down Waterfall Mountain at .5 miles. The entire time that we were hiking down, I was thinking this was going to be a pain to hike back up at the end of the hike. The trail does have a few switchbacks, but the overall descent is tough on the knees as you descend about 800 feet in that half mile. At the 1.0 mile marker, we finally reached the bottom of the descent and a junction with the Massanutten Connector Trail. Take a left at this junction to stay on the main, orange-blazed Massanutten trail. The trail begins to climb slightly at this point and at 1.2 miles, you will reach a nice back-country campsite along the side of the Big Run stream. You’ll soon cross the stream (usually by balancing yourself along logs that have been laid across) and continue your climb. After the second stream crossing, the trail begins a steeper climb with a large switchback to help ease the elevation gain.
Eventually the trail met the stream again and due to the heavy rains, the trail was completely submerged. We ended up hiking what felt like almost a mile through a submerged trail by rock-hopping or just getting our feet wet and muddy. The trail finally separated from the water and leveled out and we reached the junction with the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap trail at 3.0 miles. Take a right at this junction to stay on the orange-blazed Massanutten trail. The trail feels more like a fire road at this point, as you’ll climb up slightly. We were able to see a lot of the fire damage to the trees around, so there is little more than some lower brushy, understory on the trail at this point. At 3.6 miles, you reach the crest of the trail and can see some obstructed views straight ahead. At this point, look around to your right. We found a small cairn on the ground and were able to see some red and purple blazes higher than eye-level on a few trees to mark the beginning of the purple-blazed trail to the summit of Strickler Knob. The purple blazes at this point are typically marked on the rocks where you step. The trail is very rocky at this point and you will be walking the ridgeline until you reach the summit. The trail can also be a little hard to follow, but if you keep looking for the blazes and just remember you are walking the crest of the ridge, you should be fine.
At 4.2 miles, you reach a very nice viewpoint where you can get great views to the west. Keep pressing forward and you’ll soon need to climb up a larger rock wall and then pass by a primitive campsite. Just a few 100 feet away, you will reach the larger boulders of Strickler Knob at 4.5 miles. You’ll see a large rock overhang that you’ll climb under. There is a small area to take in a few views to the right. For those that are most adventurous, the best views are to the left where the overhang is. If you feel comfortable, you will need to navigate a crack between the two larger rock formations and hoist yourself up to the top of the rocks. The views from both rock formations are absolutely breathtaking as you have 360-degree views from all around the valley.
After eating a packed lunch, we made our way back the way we came. We did have to face the waterlogged trail again. We came across several groups on our way back that were also looking for directions. One girl asked me if there was any other way back to the car other than going back up Waterfall Mountain. I suggested that they make their way back through Scothorn Gap and then walk Crisman Hollow Road back. We all definitely wished we didn’t have that steep trek back up Waterfall Mountain to do. It is a very steep trail almost straight up the mountain and it takes quite an athlete to do this without taking a breather at some point on the return. When we finally reached the top, we congratulated our success and then made the last .5 miles back to our car.
When we were hiking the trail, I kept thinking about the MMT 100 racers that were running this trail. We had come across one of the race-workers and he told us that most of the fast runners were coming through this area near Waterfall Mountain around 8 p.m. So, if you were a little slower than that you would be running this trail in the dark with a headlamp. I can’t even imagine how tough this would be and how any of them would escape injury from running into a tree, twisting an ankle, or falling down the trail.
I would also recommend for most people to do the hike from Scothorn Gap instead of the route we took. It is a lot of extra effort with nothing overly impressive to see along the way.
It was great to see our friends again. We were all getting ready to head to the Great Smoky Mountains soon, so this was great training before we had to handle some of the tougher terrain that the park had to offer.
Distance – 9.1 miles
Elevation Change – About 2250 ft.
Difficulty – 5. This rating is earned by both the hike length, the scramble to the knob, and the ascent of Waterfall Mountain that comes right at the end of the hike. For an easier version of this hike, start at Scothorn Gap.
Trail Conditions – 2. No switchbacks, soggy streambeds, a couple crossings that can be challenging in wet weather, and a tough scramble. This is not a beginner’s hike.
Views – 5. Views from the knob are spectacular.
Streams/Waterfalls – 2.5. The usually low streams were beautiful and running high when we visited, but they’re probably usually less impressive.
Wildlife – 0. This trail is popular enough to scare away most wildlife.
Ease to Navigate – 2. Trails are sporadically blazed and can be hard to follow. The junctions for trails leading to to the knob do not mention Strickler Knob. We suggest bringing a map on this hike.
Solitude – 2. This trail has become extremely popular!
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 264 heading east through New Market. Head east on West Old Cross Road for .2 miles. Turn left on to US-11/N. Congress Street. In .3 miles, turn right on to US-211/Lee Highway. Go 3.6 miles and turn left on to Crisman Hollow Road (it is right before the green building on your right that is the Massanutten Visitors Center). Follow Crisman Hollow Road for 2.2 miles (passing by the parking lot for the Massanutten Storybook Trail) until you reach where the orange-blazed Massanutten Mountain Trail crosses the road and the small parking area. Park here, cross the road and start the trail.
This 19.1 mile overnight backpacking trip has amazing views and pretty stream scenery. The terrain is relatively easy, so it’s a great stretch if you’re looking to cover higher miles without a ton of uphill climbing. Since this is a longer post, Adam is going to cover day one, and Christine will cover day two.
This hike had a very rough start and almost became the hike that never happened. The morning of our trip, we loaded up our cars and headed out. We needed to take two cars since we were doing a shuttle. About ten minutes into the drive, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Christine turning back around and heading home. She had forgotten her hiking shoes and was only wearing flip-flops in the car – not the best idea for a backpacking trip. We made a quick return home. When I pulled into the driveway, black metallic smoke started rolling out from underneath our hood. Not good at all! But we didn’t want to throw in the towel yet. We took the smoking car to Bob Wade Auto World (the Subaru dealership where we bought the car), but found they weren’t open yet. So, we decided to fill up on a big breakfast at Cracker Barrel and stop by again when they opened at 9:00. We got to the dealership and explained the problem. They have great customer service! We ended up with a free loaner car to use while our Outback was in the shop. They were so quick with the paperwork and processing that we were back on the road in less than 15 minutes. Saved!!
We dropped our first car at our finish line where the Appalachian Trail crosses VA Route 56. We then headed to the starting point. It took us about 50 minutes to get to Hog Camp Gap, since there is no direct road that parallels the AT. The last piece of road to get to Hog Camp Gap is very rocky and filled with potholes, but we made it there safely. The parking lot was already crowded as this is a great starting point for many hikes, whether you’re going to Mt. Pleasant, Cole Mountain, Spy Rock, or camping near Cow Camp Gap shelter. We got all of our gear together quickly and walked through the large break in the fence to start our hike on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading north. The trail began to climb up a hillside and within 1 mile, we were blessed with astonishing views, looking over the Tar Jacket Ridge to catch views of the bald on Cole Mountain, Mount Pleasant, and Pompey Mountain. I knew at this point our luck was turning for the best. I found it hard to pry myself away from the views, but knowing that we had a lot of distance to cover, we pressed on. The trail then begins to gradually descend from the ridgeline and we crossed USFS 62 and Salt Log Gap at 2.2 miles.
The trail was relatively flat for a good stretch of the trail going forward. There were some views through the trees occasionally as we walked on, but the true treat was all the trillium that was on the trail. This is by far Christine’s favorite wildflower. She was hoping to see some along the trail and we were pleased to find entire hillsides filled with these flowers in perfect bloom. We crossed USFS 246 at mile 3.6, Greasy Spring/USFS 1176A at mile 4.1 and reached the crossing of the North Fork of Piney River at mile 5.9. We stopped and ate our lunch on the side of the trail. The only excitement along this piece of trail was Christine swore she saw a bear, but it was just a person (dressed all in black) taking a lunch break far uphill from the trail (which we thought was an odd place to stop). We pressed on along the trail and finally reached the Seely-Woodworth Shelter at mile 7.4. When we arrived at the shelter there were several backpacks at the shelter, but no sign of people anywhere. We took a long break and rested our feet. We were joined shortly by Christine’s “bear man” who was doing a longer section hike and covering a lot of Virginia. We shared some hiking stories (like how he never purifies water but has only got sick once). Knowing that we had more miles to cover today, we strapped our heavy packs back on and continued.
We reached a junction with Porters Field (a fire road that used to be a railroad trail) at mile 8.4. We had read on the hiking blog of a friend (thanks, Wandering Virginia), about a water source near this junction. We took this short side trail past a campsite and then headed downhill towards the sound of water. Water was coming out steadily from under a large rock. We decided to cook some dinner here. While we both weren’t overly starving since we had eaten lunch not too long ago, this seemed like the best place to cook some dinner and refill water. We were shooting to camp at Spy Rock, which is a dry camp, so we needed to carry enough water for breakfast After dinner, we made our way back to the AT. Christine typically doesn’t like hiking with a full stomach, but because we needed to get to our camp site for the night, we pushed on. We crossed over the Fish Hatchery Road at Montebello at 9.6 miles. On the other side of the road, we saw the steep ascent up to Spy Rock. The trail climbed up about 400 feet in .5 miles, but when we reached the top of the hill, we found our perfect campsite at the base of Spy Rock.
NOTE: Hikers are no longer allowed to camp at the base of Spy Rock. Usage rules for this area were changed in 2019. We camped there long before the rule change, and we’re thankful we had that opportunity!
We took off our packs and began to set up camp. There were already a few campsites already claimed, but we found a nice flat spot with no rocks or protruding roots. We had just bought a new two-person tent, the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2, which was much lighter than our 3-person tent, and we were excited to try it out. We set the tent and fly up and then made our way to check out the views from the summit of Spy Rock. There is a little rock scramble up to the top of Spy Rock, but the 360-degree views from this spot are not to be missed. We stayed up there a while to soak in as many views as we could, before making our way back to camp. We had a long, tiring, day that started off stressful, so we were ready to go to sleep before the sun fully set. We both read books for a while and then went to sleep. Or rather, tried to go to sleep. Right after sunset, the wind started to pick up. At first it was an occasional rustle across the treetops, but by midnight it was moaning and howling over the mountains.
Day Two (8.7 miles)…
That was a rough night to spend in a tent! Even with it staked and guylined, it rattled and shook all night long. The wind continually caught under the fly and funneled through the tent’s mesh. Even in long pants, a hat, and layers of fleece, I was cold in my 35 degree bag. It wasn’t even that cold outside – the wind was just really brutal! Neither Adam nor I got much sleep. I found myself wide awake when the first hints of dawn light started to brighten the tent.
NOTE: Hikers are no longer allowed to camp at the base of Spy Rock. Usage rules for this area were changed in 2019. We camped there long before the rule change, and we’re thankful we had that opportunity!
I told Adam I wanted to climb Spy Rock again to watch the sun come up. He decided to stay back. I grabbed my camera, scaled the rock and found a perch facing east. It was a beautiful, though cloudless, sunrise. I thought I was alone on the top of the rock, but suddenly a huge white dog we had met the night before came bounding across the rock and decked me. He was friendly, and I was fine, but his owner was embarrassed and came chasing after the dog. I stayed on Spy Rock watching the sun come up until I couldn’t take the wind and cold anymore.
When I came down, Adam was already in the process of breaking down camp. We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and were back on the trail by around 7:30. Day two of this trip had a bit more climbing than the first day. Our first ascent was that of Maintop Mountain. It was a moderate ascent with one nice view near the summit. I started the morning in a fleece jacket and gloves. By the time we reached the summit, I had stripped them off. Climbing really warms you up!
From there, we descended into Cash Hollow. We passed a southbound section hiker and a group of Boy Scouts. We crossed a couple gravel roads – 826 and 526. Off-roaders really enjoy these roads – they’re very rugged and tough to drive unless you have a serious 4WD vehicle. After the second road crossing, signs and an informational board informed us that we had just entered The Priest Wilderness.
We had about a mile of climbing to reach the Priest shelter and the ridgeline of the mountain. The climbing is really pretty moderate, but it seemed tough to my tired legs and sleepy mind. We stopped at The Priest shelter for a snack and rest. I changed into shorts – the day was warming very quickly! Adam and I both made our ‘confessions’ in the Priest journal. It’s one of the funniest we’ve seen along the AT – reading everyone’s confessions is definitely worth a stop!
From there, we completed our last couple hundred feet of ascent to the top of the Priest. Near the top, we enjoyed amazing views of the valley and had a chance to see an adult bald eagle soar by on the wind. The rest of our hike was a long, 4-mile, 4,000 foot descent to the Tye River.
We took it slowly, enjoying wildflowers along the way! The trail was abundantly lined with trillium, wild violets, and wild geraniums. Both of us remarked that we were glad to not be climbing up this side of the mountain! Southbound AT hikers experience one of Virginia’s toughest climbs when they encounter the Priest!
The first mile of the descent was the steepest. As the grade moderated, we came to another outstanding overlook. The opening in the trees revealed lush Virginia countryside – farms and ponds. At this elevation, the trail was much greener. Leaves were opening in the canopy and the ground cover was brilliant green. We crossed Cripple Creek in several places. The rain a couple days earlier had filled the stream and created several beautiful waterfalls. We enjoyed walking through the woods and listening to the sounds of falling water. We saw even more wild flowers – a hillside of scarlet catchfly was especially beautiful!
Eventually, we could see the sunlight catching on car windshields through the trees. We were both pretty tired and happy to be back at the car! We had covered almost 20 miles in roughly 24 hours. It’s the furthest we’ve ever hiked in that time period, so we felt pretty accomplished.
We had a long car shuttle to get back to Hog Camp Gap. After picking up the other car, we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Reed’s Gap so we could have lunch at Devil’s Backbone. It’s always great to eat a HUGE plate of food after a big hike – fries, a grilled brat and beer for me!
Difficulty – 4. Mostly for distance. This section of the AT has little climbing uphill overall, but the hike down The Priest is quite steep.
Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail is well maintained and in good shape. We did feel the hike down from The Priest was really rocky and hard on the feet and ankles.
Views – 5. This hike has AMAZING views from Tar Jacket Ridge, Spy Rock, and The Priest.
Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. The best views are along Cripple Creek, near the end of the hike, where you can see a small waterfall and a scenic creek surrounded by wildflowers. There are options for filling up water near Greasy Spring, Porters Field, the Seeley-Woodworth Shelter, and Cripple Creek.
Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see much wildlife other than birds along the trail. We did have a great encounter with a male black-headed grosbeak, who was singing beautifully along the side of trail.
Ease to Navigate – 4. Just keep following the white-blazes and pay attention to junctions to stay on the Appalachian Trail.
Solitude – 3. We didn’t run into too many people on our trip. Spy Rock had a decent number camping at the top.
Directions to trailhead: Requires a shuttle. Park one car at the finish. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, head east on VA-56/Crabtree Falls Highway for 11.2 miles. Park car in large parking lot where the AT crosses the road. From this point to reach Hog Camp Gap with your second car to start the route, continue east on VA-56/Crabtree Falls Highway for 6.9 miles. Turn right on to VA-151S/VA-56E. In 10.5 miles, take a right on to US-29 South. In 3.1 miles, take the US-60 exit towards Amherst. Take a right at the exit ramp to go on US-60 heading west. In 18 miles, take a right on to State Route 634. In 1.6 miles, take a right on to State Route 755/Wiggins Spring Road. This road turns to gravel with large pot holes. Follow this for 2.7 miles until you reach the parking lot where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Park your second car here. Go through the wooden fence and pick up the Appalachian Trail, heading north.
This has been quite the harsh winter for snow and cold temperatures. And when it hasn’t been too cold, it seems to have been raining. So, we were glad to get out on a nice day to get a little exercise outdoors for a change.
Sherando Lake is a multi-purpose recreation area. In nice weather, you will see people swimming, fishing, camping, and hiking. To visit, there is a fee per vehicle – check out their fee schedule. The area is officially open from early April through October. The road gates are often closed during the off season based on weather. There is camping available if you wanted to make a nice weekend trip, but reservations should be made in advance.
We started off our hike from the Fisherman’s Parking Area. There were a few other vehicles there also, but they were all there for the fishing. The lake is stocked with trout throughout the year. Facing the lake, we started our hike on the left by heading up the Cliff Trail. This trail was a short gradual climb with a few switchbacks before the trail levels out. About .4 miles into the hike, there is a small outlook to the right from a rock that gives you a few obstructed views from the lake. Continuing on the trail, it begins to descend and the lake gets back into view. At .8 miles, you reach the lakeside and see the sign that shows the junction with the Lakeside Trail (a trail that wraps around the lake). We took a few minutes to go out onto the sand and enjoy the views of the lake. I saw a wood duck escorting a few ducklings on the far banks of the lake.
We walked back behind the large building/gift shop, crossed a couple of bridges and rejoined the trail on the northwestern side of the bank. We took the blue-blazed Blue Loop Trail, leading us past a few campsite areas before climbing up into the woods. The trail is rockier, especially in the beginning, than the Cliff Trail and is steeper. The trail climbed through a few switchbacks. At 1.5 miles, you reach a junction shortly after a switchback with the Dam Trail. This will be your return route. Continue up the Blue Loop Trail, which begins to take an uphill climb to the left up the mountain. At 1.75 miles, you reach Lookout Rock. We took some time there to enjoy the view and then went back the way we came until we reached the junction with the Dam Trail. We took this trail to the left, which leads steeply down the mountain. You begin to see the lake through the trees again and we reached the lakeside around 2.25 miles. We continued on the trail until it reached a small bridge that crossed over the dam stream and led back to the parking lot.
One thing that was going through my mind during the hike is this would be great for a family outing. Grab your family for a quick hike followed by a picnic by the lake. Make a weekend of it if you want to do some camping, swimming, and fishing.
I enjoy playing in the snow, but I’m very ready for warmer weather. I want to see flowers blooming. I want to feel warm sunshine on my face. I’m so ready to see a canopy of green across the mountaintops. I have spring fever. So, I was especially thankful for a particularly warm and sunny Saturday because it gave us a chance to get out and hike.
We chose Sherando Lake, mainly because it was nearby and easy. It would have been a great day to go on a longer hike, but Adam was still getting over a bad cold. And I was not willing to spend more than an hour in the car. I had spent the past two weekends in a 12-passenger van, making a 15 hour ride to and from the Florida panhandle and was still a bit road weary.
My trip to Florida was a service-learning trip with a group of nine JMU students. We traveled to a Nature Conservancy preserve – Apalachicola Bluffs & Ravines to do a week’s worth of environmental work. We camped, we hiked, we learned about the local ecosystem, and most importantly – we planted 90,000 plugs of native wiregrass seed that will be used to restore the natural habitat of that part of Florida. It was hard work, but I think we made a difference. We even had one free day on our trip. We chose to spend it spotting manatees, gators, and other wildlife at Wakulla Springs State Park. If you want to see more photos and read more about my service trip, I’ve uploaded a large set of captioned photos to my Flickr account.
Now, back to Sherando Lake! I had been to the lake a couple times before, but had never actually taken the time to hike any of the trails in the area. I was pleasantly surprised by the trail system. There is something for everyone – a practically flat trail that goes along the lake shore, a steeper trail around the lake that offers a couple nice views, and a connection into the larger, longer trail system along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I liked sitting on the sand and enjoying the pretty lake view, and I really enjoyed climbing up to Lookout Rock on the Blue Loop Trail. The rocky outcropping provides a nice view of the lake and the mountains beyond. Although the snow was gone on the trails we walked, we could still see plenty of snow on the distant, higher ridges.
The walk back down from Lookout Rock was really steep and slick, especially with the thick bed of dry, fallen leaves. Once we reached the bottom of the descent, we crossed a concrete bridge beneath the spillway and returned to our car. We finished hiking a little bit before noon, so we decided to make the short drive to have lunch at Blue Mountain Brewery (near Afton Mountain). They have great food and great beer. Adam enjoyed a flight of nine different beers and I tried their Daugava Baltic Porter. I think everyone in central Virginia had the same idea to visit the brewery for an outdoor lunch. The place was packed, but it was a perfect ending to the day.
Directions to trailhead: From I-64, take Exit 96 just east of Stuarts Draft. Go south on State Route 624, which becomes State Route 664 at Lyndhurst. Continue south on State Route 664 approximately 8 miles to the entrance to the Sherando Lake Recreation Area on the right. The gatehouse is approximately 0.5 miles ahead which will take the fee for your vehicle. Past the gatehouse, you’ll take a right to the fisherman’s parking lot. Park there and make your way to the left for the Cliff Trail.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 13.2 mile circuit can be done as a day-hike, but we recommend extending the beauty and wildness into an overnight backpacking loop. Take your time, and you’ll be treated to panoramic views, lovely mountain streams, demanding climbs and peaceful campsites.
We had long been planning a three-day backpacking trip across Mt. Rogers, but as the day of the trip drew closer, we started seeing the term ‘Appalachian soaker’ thrown around in weather forecasts. We’re fine with passing showers and fleeting thunderstorms, but we didn’t want to get pinned down on Mt. Rogers on a wet and stormy night.
Fortunately, the weather in central Virginia was far more favorable, so we ditched our Mt. Rogers plan, and decided to hit another backpacking circuit on our list – Three Ridges. This route, which makes use of the Appalachian Trail and the Mau-Har Trail, is known as one of Virginia’s most rugged hikes. Everything we read about the circuit in advance of our trip emphasized the hike’s strenuous nature. With roughly 6,800 feet of elevation change, you’re almost never walking on flat trail. It’s a constant onslaught of heart-pounding climbs and knee-grinding descents. But along with the challenging terrain, you get spectacular views, beautiful streams and lovely campsites.
We started out early Saturday morning. The first stop was fuel… for ourselves. We had a huge breakfast at The Chuckwagon in Harrisonburg. If you have a chance, stop by and indulge in one of their homemade 4-inch biscuits (Adam’s favorite is ‘The Round-Up’) or a stack of their amazingly fluffy pancakes. (Sadly… Chuckwagon closed in January 2013) With full stomachs, we made our way to Reed’s Gap at mile marker 13.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When we got to the parking area, the lot was already jam-packed, mostly with heavy-duty construction vehicles left idle for the weekend. Just as we were about to give up and find a parking spot further down the parkway, one car pulled out and left an opening for us!
We started the Map My Hike app on Christine’s phone, hoisted our packs, and headed south along the Appalachian Trail. From the parking area, the trail hugs the edge of a meadow, which was full of blooming yellow ragweed and purple thistle. It was such perfect weather for backpacking – sunny skies, low humidity and a crisp breeze. The trail almost immediately began to climb uphill over Meadow Mountain. The climbing was steady, but never difficult, for about .8 of a mile.
At the top of the ridge, there was a small dry campsite with obstructed views. Department of the Interior boundary markers were all along the ridge. We spotted at least three or four right next to the trail. After walking briefly along level ridge, the trail descended to Maupin Field Shelter. The shelter site had tons of space for tents (many of the tent sites were flat, soft and grassy), a typical AT three-sided hut, a metal bear-hang post and a picnic table. The area also had an informational kiosk with trail notes and wilderness-usage policies. There was also a child’s orthodontic retainer tucked into a Ziploc and pinned to the board. We’re guessing there is now one retainer-less Boy Scout and a less than happy mother!
After Maupin Field Shelter we began climbing again, over Bee Mountain. The climbing was slightly more strenuous, but definitely manageable. In several places, rock steps were set into the trail to make the climbing easier. Along the way, we started playing ‘Categories’. It’s pretty basic – each player designates a category, then players take turns naming items that fit within that category. For example, categories might include Movies Based on Comic Books or Items You Need on a Backpacking Trip. It’s pretty mindless, but it kills time. Whoever successfully names the last item for the given category wins the round. The best category of the day was Complaints Uttered When Hills Are Steep. We won’t share the specifics of our trail talk here, but it was pretty funny to reflect on this topic! Bee Mountain didn’t offer any views and was followed by a short descent before tackling the more serious climb up Three Ridges Mountain.
The climb up Three Ridges consisted of several steep pushes, with nice stops for views all along the way. The first view, Hanging Rock, was very impressive, so we decided to break for lunch and enjoy the amazing vista. As we ate our Panera bagels (Cherry-Vanilla with Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter for Christine and French Toast with Peanut Butter for Adam), we noticed two dogs fitted with radio collars – doubtlessly bear hunting dogs set loose in the woods for pre-season practice. Both dogs were female; both were emaciated and showed signs of over-breeding. We hate to cast aspersions or generalizations on any group of people, but we are not fans of hunters that use this type of technology to hunt bears. Both of the dogs were pretty persistent about trying to steal our food. The bolder dog, who was heavily perfumed by a skunk encounter, came within inches of snatching Christine’s bagel right out of her hand.
While we sat at the overlook, we had a chance to chat with three Southbound AT hikers – Happy, Fats and BeeSting. All three had started in Pennsylvania in August and were making their way toward Georgia. Happy was already there when we arrived, so we got to talk with him for a good bit while he waited for his companions to show up. He was from Las Vegas and on his first long-distance hike. He told tales of his shoes breaking down on the Pennsylvania rocks, getting caught in a vicious cold-front driven storm on Bearfence Mountain, and his epic weight loss (40 pounds in less than a month!). He was a nice kid and we enjoyed talking to him and telling him about some of the things he has to look forward along the trail in Virginia – The Priest, Spy Rock, Cove Mountain, McAfee Knob the Grayson Highlands. He told us the friendliest place he’d stopped on the trail was the town of Waynesboro.
After a while, Fats and BeeSting came along. They were a young couple from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. We didn’t talk to them as much, because we wanted to press on and make our way to camp by mid-afternoon. Happy left a few minutes ahead of us, and we were sure we wouldn’t see him again. Thru-hikers are known for keeping a blistering pace!
Upon leaving the vista, there was quite a bit more uphill climbing before we finally reached the true summit/highpoint of Three Ridges Mountain. At the highpoint, we ran into a group of three women out on the same circuit we were hiking. We chatted briefly about the great weather before leaving them to enjoy their lunch.
After the high point, the long, seemingly endless descent to Harper’s Creek began. It wasn’t always super-steep. Sometimes it almost leveled off. As we were walking along, we saw a bear dash off through the brush. We were both glad that the bear hunting dogs hadn’t pestered the bear into a tree. A few steps later, we heard an exuberant voice shouting into the wind – ‘Woooooo!’ ‘Yeaaaaaah’! ‘Echo Echo Echo’ and ‘I’m on TOP of the WORLD’. As the voice drew nearer, we guessed it was Happy having a ‘mountain moment’. Sure enough, he called to us through the trees so we could share the nice view spot he had found a little ways off the trail.
We left the spot before he did, knowing that there would be more views along the way. One unnamed view on the left side of the trail was especially beautiful. We stopped for photos and a pack-less rest. A bit further along, we saw a huge flat, upright rock that looked just like a tombstone. Immediately past that, we noticed a faint trail that climbed up steeply through the woods to a jumble of rock. We guessed correctly that we had found Chimney Rock. It was a great place to sit, and every bit as scenic as the very first overlook on Three Ridges. We enjoyed looking down into the valley, dotted with homes, streams and a large Christmas tree farm. The Priest, one of Virginia’s most beautiful and distinct mountains, loomed impressively across the way.
After Chimney Rock, the last real vista was a wide flat shelf of rock overlooking the scene below. After that, the downhill got pretty bad. It was the bone-jarring, steep, type of downhill that makes your knees beg for mercy! We both slipped a couple times on the descent. It was probably all the fallen acorns – if your boot hits them just right, they sort of function like tiny roller-skate wheels. Adam managed to hyperextend his knee on one slip, and hiked in a significant amount of pain the rest of the day. Christine hit a loose flat rock and rode it like a surfboard until she finally landed hard, but unharmed, on her rear end.
Honestly, the uphill on this hike is moderately hard, but the downhill is brutal. Anyone in reasonable condition should be able to handle the physical demands of the ascents along the trail, but if you have bad knees, the descents are nothing short of punishing. We both tried to keep our packs on the light side for this trip. Christine’s pack was 22 pounds and Adam’s was 29… but that was before water. After a dry week, we weren’t sure if Harpers Creek would be flowing, so we both carried quite a bit of extra water – 3.5 liters for Christine and 4 for Adam. We knew there was a chance we wouldn’t need it, but when it comes to water it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
After over two miles of switchbacks, dangerous acorns and tricky rocks, the colorful domes of tents came into sight. We had reached Harpers Creek Shelter – our stop for the evening. We found the shelter itself empty, but most of the tent sites adjacent to the shelter had already been claimed by a large group of Boy Scouts from Fluvanna County.
We found a mostly flat and smooth tent site across the creek, about 50 yards south of the shelter. We figured it was a perfect spot – we were close to the shelter and could use it for a ‘kitchen’. Also, the privy was on our side of the stream, but far enough from the tent that it wouldn’t be annoying when people went to use it.
For the most part, Harpers Creek wasn’t flowing. There were several shallow pools in the streambed, which gave us plenty of access to water, but also provided a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Christine immediately noticed bites forming welts on her legs, so she quickly changed out of her shorts and into long pants. She tried to change behind a large boulder, but she’s pretty sure the Boy Scouts saw her in her underpants, but hey… modesty sort of goes out the window in the backcountry.
Within twenty minutes, the tent was up, the sleeping pads were inflated, and sleeping bags were in place. We set aside all the food, cooking implements, water filter and bear bags to take over to the picnic table at the shelter. The Harpers Creek shelter was small and kind of dingy. There was no shelter log. Actually, the only thing in the shelter was a sodden pair of ‘tighty-whiteys’.
Adam set about collecting water. We recently picked up a very handy collapsible bucket made by Sea to Summit. It folds down to about the size of a deck of cards and weighs just a few ounces. But, it allows us to collect up to nine liters of water at once. Typically, we pump water through our Katadyn straight into the bucket. Then we cover the bucket with a bandanna and usually have plenty for dinner, breakfast and bottle refills.
While Adam filtered water, Christine worked on collecting wood for a campfire. It was already starting to get chilly, so it was a perfect night for a fire. As is the case at most shelters, good firewood is hard to find. There is always plenty of tinder/kindling, but the larger, long-burning pieces of wood are at a premium. In the backcountry, we only use downed wood that we can break by hand.
Christine made a teepee-style campfire with larger pieces of wood on the outside, and a tinder-packed center. All of the wood collected from the forest floor was cold and damp, so the fire had a hard time catching at first. A little squirt of alcohol-based hand sanitizer took care of that problem, and within a few minutes a small fire had sprung to life.
With the campfire going, water collected and the campsite set, it was time for dinner! We keep saying we’re going to prepare our own fancy homemade backpacking meals, but when the time comes we always seem to find ourselves reaching for Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry. It’s just easier, and for the most part, the packaged food is really tasty (notable exception – Natural High’s Banana Cream Pie – worst dessert EVER.) Our menu for the evening included Chili Mac with Beef as the entrée and Cheesecake for dessert. Christine brought several sticks of cheddar cheese to mix into the chili and single-serving plastic bottles of Merlot. It was quite the feast!
After dinner, we put up our bear hang. Oddly, this shelter did not have a metal post like most AT shelters in this part of Virginia. We had to find a tree with a free branch. After the food was secured, we settled into our camp chairs and enjoyed the fire. Some people we’ve met along the trail think the camp chairs are a waste of pack space, but they fold down to about the size of a water bottle and weigh just about a pound. We find them well worth the extra weight for the back-resting comfort they provide. We might not carry them on a long multi-day trip when every bit of pack space counts, but for a weekend trip, we like having creature comforts.
As we sat by the fire, we watched a little piece of comedy unfold on the other side of the stream. A couple of the older Scouts had been assigned the task of hanging the group’s food. We watched as they missed getting the rock and rope over the tree branch, dozens and dozens of times. The boys took turns making fun of one another for their off aim. Eventually, they got the rope over a branch. They celebrated with a high-five and a ‘Woot!’. But, the branch snapped off the tree as soon as they tried to hoist the weight of many food bags. Eventually they went for help and settled on a less-than-perfect, but still functional tree. All in all, it took them over an hour to get their food hung.
Our campfire died around 9:00, so we headed back to the tent. Adam read by headlamp and Christine listened to a book on her iPod. For one of the first times ever, we both fell asleep quickly and slept soundly through the night. We were actually awoken by voices and headlamps at what seemed like the middle of the night. Christine rolled over and asked Adam ‘Is it around midnight and these kids are up late or is it morning already?’ It turned out that the Scouts were awake and cooking/packing up at 5:30 a.m. We lazed around in the tent for another hour until the sun came up.
The Scouts actually hiked out around 7:00, just as we were getting breakfast together. Usually, we’re the early risers and the first out of camp! We made maple-brown sugar oatmeal with freeze-dried bananas and coffee and hot chocolate for breakfast. We both ate two packs, knowing that we had a tough day of hiking on the Mau-Har Trail.
After breakfast, we broke down camp. Adam’s hyperextended knee was still pretty sore, so Christine stowed some of his gear in her pack to make his load a little lighter. While she was transferring gear, she noticed that a mouse had chewed through the little mesh compartment on the hipbelt of Adam’s pack! The only thing in the compartment was a set of car keys, so we’re really not sure why it was appealing to a mouse. It reminded Adam of one of his favorite books as a kid – The Mouse and the Motorcycle. He thought this mouse was trying to make a sequel with their car.
We left Harpers Creek around 8:00. On our way out, we passed four or five other groups that had been tenting near the shelter. All told, there were probably somewhere between 25 and 30 people camped along the creek that night. Quite a tent city!
After leaving the shelter site, we followed the Appalachian Trail for almost a mile, largely uphill, to its junction with the Mau-Har Trail. The odd trail name is a combination of Maupin and Harpers – the names of the two shelters the trail runs between. The Mau-Har was designed by a man named Angelo Filippi. One funny review we read of the hike evidently thinks ‘designed’ is too kind a word for the trail. The review states:
“We started from Reeds Gap and heading down the Mau-Har, cussing Angelo Philippe [sic] the whole dang way. I swear he unfolded a map, put it on the ground, pulled out a piece of string, dropped the string onto the map and said “There! That is where the trail should go!” What a jerk!”
To be fair, the trail was clearly designed to follow scenic Campbell Creek as closely as possible and following a creek that goes tumbling through a deep gorge is going to require some rugged climbing. The Mau-Har trail descended very steeply to the creek. Adam grimaced in pain from his knee injury on every downhill step. The weight of his pack, combined with the steep trail was almost more than he could bear. This was some of the gnarliest downhill we’ve ever done.
Eventually, we got to the spur trail that leads to a series of small waterfalls. Adam decided to stay put and rest his knee while Christine explored the falls. She took off with the camera, hoping to get a few documentary shots for the blog. A few minutes later, Adam decided to follow. He had heard there was a geocache hidden by the falls (known as “firedogs fishbowl”), but he had forgotten to input coordinates into his GPS. He looked for it, but without coordinates it was pretty close to impossible to find. The waterfalls were all very small due to low water flow. In spring, with snowmelt and heavier rain, the creek is probably spectacular!
From the waterfall spur trail to the Maupin Field shelter, the Mau-Har climbs very steeply uphill. At first, the trail is very rocky as it passes through the canyon. You wind your way between and over boulders. Sometimes you have to stow your trekking poles in one hand to pull yourself up over a big step. It reminded us very much of hiking the gorge at Little Devils Stairs. The terrain was very similar. After leaving the canyon, the trail becomes less rocky, but no less steep. A series of sweeping switchbacks carry you relentlessly uphill. Eventually the grade becomes more moderate in the last half mile before you arrive at the Maupin Field shelter.
Near the end of the climb, Adam announced that he was going to stop at the shelter and ‘eat every single bit of anything edible left in his snack bag’. Two packs of oatmeal, bananas and hot chocolate burn off pretty fast when the climbing is tough! He proceeded to eat a Luna Bar, ShotBlox, a bag of cashews and a bunch of mini candy bars. He reined himself in and skipped eating a dry packet of cocoa mix.
At Maupin Field, we read the shelter log. Entries talked about the skunky, food-nabbing bear dogs (someone had named them Bagels and Muffins). A southbounder left a warning to northbounders about 20-30 miles of dry hiking. Someone even left a really nice pair of ladies LaSportiva for someone to claim.
The last 1.6 miles retraced our route from the morning before. We had a gradual climb up and over Meadow Mountain and then back to our car at Reeds Gap. We drove back toward home along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at Humpback Rocks to wash our hands with soap and running water. Our last stop was the Sonic in Waynesboro for more ‘refueling’. We definitely earned some tater tots and CreamSlushes!
Three Ridges turned out to be a great alternative to our planned Mt. Rogers trip! While the terrain was challenging, we think most people accustomed to backpacking/hiking would be up for the challenge and would enjoy the beautiful and wild scenery offered by this loop.
The one issue we would like to bring up is a discrepancy about the length of this hike. Most sources list the loop at 14.4 miles. Based on our information (maps, GPS, trailer marker posts), here is how we would break down the segment distances on the trail.
0.0 miles – Start from parking lot on Reeds Gap, heading south on the Appalachian Trail and begin your ascent. .8 miles – The trail reaches the first ridge and shortly begins to descend through some switchbacks 1.6 miles – Reach the junction with the Fire Road (which heads to Love Gap). Take a left to stay on the Appalachian Trail and pass a few side trails that lead to campsites at the Maupin Field Shelter. The trail begins to climb again. 2.0 miles – Reach the summit of Bee Mountain 3.7 miles – Reach some great views from Hanging Rock. Continue to climb further up through the woods. 4.2 miles – Reach the summit of Three Ridges 5.8 miles – Great viewpoint of the eastern ridge 5.9 miles – Reach the tombstone and take an immediate right up the path to reach Chimney Rock and the best views on the trail. Rejoin the trail and descend steeply. 7.5 miles – Arrive at Harpers Creek Shelter across the creek and your stay for the night. The next morning, cross back over the creek and continue on the Appalachian Trail. 7.6 miles – Cross Harpers Creek and the trail begins to ascend very steeply. 8.5 miles – Reach the junction with the blue-blazed Mau-Har trail. Turn right and follow the trail that parallels Campbell Creek. 10.0 miles – Reach a sign designating a short yellow-blazed trail to a few waterfalls. The waterfalls are only a few hundred feet off the Mau-Har trail. Retrace your steps and continue on the Mau-Har trail. 11.5 miles – Reach the Maupin Field Shelter. Continue straight past the shelter to rejoin the Appalachian Trail. 11.6 miles – Take a left on the Appalachian Trail to retrace your steps back to your vehicle. 13.2 miles – Return to the Reeds Gap parking lot.
Distance – 13.2 miles (Check out the stats from MapMyHike [Day One] [Day Two])*
Elevation Change – About 3900 feet
Difficulty – 5. This hike is no joke. The downhill areas are steepest on the Appalachian Trail coming down from Chimney Rock and the uphill on the Mau-Har trail is equally brutal.
Trail Conditions – 2.5. The trail starts off quite nicely, but once you reach Three Ridges, expect a rocky slide downhill and loose footing uphill for much of the hike. The Mau-Har Trail was pretty overgrown in places.
Views– 5. Absolutely amazing. Chimney Rock and Hanging Rock provide some of the nicest views.
Streams/Waterfalls – 3. You’ll be near a stream most of the second day and there are a few small waterfalls. The water wasn’t flowing too strongly though.
Wildlife –3. We did see a bear. Oh yeah, and the mouse ate through part of Adam’s backpack, so there is some wildlife out there.
Ease to Navigate – 4. The trails were fairly well marked and signs were at the junctions.
Solitude – 2. This is a tough hike, but it is popular for backpackers, trail runners, and day visitors to the shelters.
Directions to trailhead: On Blue Ridge Parkway, south of Humpback Rocks. Park at mile marker 13.7 at Reeds Gap in the large lot. Head south on the Appalachian Trail, marked with white blazes on a tree near the left of the open field.
This 8.3 mile hike takes you past two nice overlooks and gorgeous Emerald Pond. After some significant climbing early in the hike, most of the terrain is pleasant and easy ridge walking.
I don’t think anyone will argue – this has been a tough summer weather-wise. It’s been hotter, stormier, muggier and buggier than usual. There really haven’t been many weekend days that I would label ‘nice hiking weather.’ So when we finally had a day that was a little less hot and humid, we took full advantage of the opportunity and headed out to hike Bird Knob.
Bird Knob, like our last hike – Little Devils Stairs – had been on our list for quite a while. The trailhead is relatively close to our home. The distance and terrain – slightly over 8 miles and around 1600 feet of climbing – fall right in the ‘perfect hike’ range by our standards. Still, it wasn’t a hike I was looking forward to with a lot of excitement and anticipation. This was mostly due to middling/negative reviews I saw on another hiking site we read. People complained that the views weren’t that great, that part of the hike looked like a construction site, that it was too easy and that it was nothing but circling under the trees. None of the descriptions made the hike sound particularly appealing. Even the photos posted from the hike led me to believe that it would be rather mundane and lacking in scenery.
But – wow… when we got out there, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice the hike turned out to be. The trail started off from the defunct Massanutten Visitors Center on Route 211. We descended from the parking lot along the Wildflower Trail until its junction with the Massanutten Ridge Trail. The first mile and a half had some steep climbing. We hiked past and over lots of large and interesting rock formations. Once we gained the ridge, we were treated to two magnificent views overlooking the valley to the west. We had both of the rocky outcroppings all to ourselves, so we spent some time goofing off and taking silly photos. I’m definitely a more graceful leaper. 🙂 Also, after several years of struggling with chronic vertigo, my balance seems to finally be returning to normal.
After leaving the second overlook, the trail followed the ridge for a while. Eventually we came to a large clearing in the woods. The trail wasn’t clearly marked, so we explored the open meadow and eventually found that the trail continued on the near-side, downhill corner. Shortly after passing the clearing, the trail branched in a couple directions. Right at one of the junctions, we saw an odd animal that looked like a goat leap across the trail and dive into the woods. I’m 100% certain it wasn’t a deer, raccoon, possum or bobcat – so we’re sticking with goat. We never saw it again.
We followed the first spur trail off to the left so we could explore the swimming hold that we had read about. It was a very pretty spot – much more inviting than we had been led to believe. Mountain ponds are a rarity in Virginia, so visiting this one was a nice treat. There was a heavily used campsite next to the water, and despite a sign imploring people to ‘Enjoy the Place, Leave No Trace’, we found the area was thoroughly trashed. We had brought an empty garbage bag in one of our packs, so we spent some time picking up cans, bottles, food packaging and cigarette boxes. People can be so gross!
After leaving the pond, we had a short climb to where the trail met up with a forest service road. We turned left and hiked uphill along the road for about half a mile. At a hairpin turn near the top of the mountain, a locked gate marked the spot where we got off the road, and hopped back onto the Massanutten Ridge Trail. This was the only spot along the hike that we saw other people – one truck passed us on the road and we caught a glimpse of two trail runners headed downhill. Honestly, this trail offered more solitude than I’ve seen anywhere lately. It was really nice.
Once we were back on the ridge trail, the hiking was flat again. The trail made a nice, wide corridor through the woods. We passed some HUGE anthills. When I stopped to take a closer look, I found myself bitten by ants almost immediately. We also saw lots of ripening blueberries. I enjoyed popping handfuls into my mouth as we walked along. I love wild blueberries!
Eventually, we came back to the junction of the Bird Knob and the Massanutten Ridge trails. At this point, we retraced our steps past the overlooks. We stopped to take in the view once again. A lot of the haze had cleared off and the view was much better.
After the overlooks, we climbed steeply downhill back to the junction with the Wildflower Trail and then back to our car. It was a fantastic hike, and definitely worth doing!
About a year ago, I had someone that I was talking to during a workday that recommended that we needed to hike up Bird Knob. They said the views were absolutely gorgeous and it wasn’t too long of a hike. Since that point, I’ve been wanting to try this hike out.
We made this hike into a longer stretch to include the swimming hole, but you can make this about a 3 mile out-and-back if you just wanted to get to the views. The hike starts off from the Massanutten Visitor Center parking lot. The Visitor Center has been closed for a while, but access to the hiking trails is still open. There is also plenty of parking. Towards the entrance of the parking lot, you will take the white-blazed Wildflower Trail that leads downhill. You will come across several interpretive signs along the way that describe some of the flora around you. Continue down .3 miles until you reach a bench.
Uphill to the right, the orange-blazed Massanutten Ridge Trail climbs steeply. Take the Massanutten Ridge Trail and begin your climb. This is the steepest part of the entire hike and you will be climbing without many switchbacks and gaining about 800 feet through a large field of boulders until you reach the top of the ridge at 1.0 miles. Continue along the ridge climbing slightly. At 1.5 miles, you reach the first viewpoint and the second viewpoint is only about 200 feet away from the first one. On a clear day, you should be able to see magnificent views of the valley for miles to the west from both points. Take some time to enjoy the views and then continue your hike along the ridge.
The trail continues to be relatively flat as you are continuing along the ridgeline, but then begins to descend slightly. At 2.3 miles, you will reach an intersection with a sign for the Bird Knob Trail. Take the white-blazed Bird Knob Trail to the right. You will pass a few unmarked trails along the way, but continue on the main trail as it slowly descends. At mile 4.2, the trail reaches an open field. Take a left, heading downhill, when you come to the field. You will join an old fire road that will continue to descend. When the road begins to ascend, you will see a branch of the fire road head off to the left. Take this fire road just .1 mile which dead-ends as you reach the large swimming hole. After hanging out at the swimming hole or taking a dip if you dare, rejoin the fire road and continue up.
In about 350 feet you reach a gate, leading you to a gravel forest service road at 4.7 miles. This is also marked as orange-blazed as it is part of the Massanutten Ridge Trail. Take a left here and head up the steep road. At 5.1 miles, you will see another gate, but the road continues to the right sharply. Go through this gate to stay on the orange-blazed Massanutten Ridge Trail. At 5.5 miles you reach another intersection, taking a right to stay on the orange-blazed trail and continue to ascend. At 6 miles, you reach the junction again with the Bird Knob Trail. This time, take a right to retrace your steps and you should reach your car at 8.3 miles.
For most people, they will do this as a 3.2 mile out-and-back to the nice views. On a beautiful, clear day you may spot some people enjoying the views at the top. The rest of the hike, we saw very few people. The Massanutten Ridge Trail is very popular with long-distance trail runners and we did see a pair of guys running by when we were near the swimming hole. I have a co-worker that does some of those insane 100 mile trail runs with some friends and I know this is a popular spot for them. I’m sure this ridge trail is great for covering long distances and there are plenty of views along the entire ridge trail. There are a few of these ultra-marathons that are held here each year, most famously the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 run.
Christine and I enjoyed jumping around for the cameras at the vistas. We did some jumping mid-air photos, yoga poses, and I even tried my hand at the old Karate Kid crane technique. After making one of the pictures my facebook profile picture, one of my friends said it reminded them of the old Toyota commercials (Oh, what a feeling!). While the photos do look a little scary, we were about 8 feet from the edge. Please watch over any younger children as there is a sharp drop.
This hike was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t know the views would be so remarkable after reading reviews, but I know we will plan to make a return trip here sometime in the future.
Difficulty – 3. The initial climb is steep and challenging, but most of the hike is easy ridge walking.
Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail is in good condition. There were some overgrown parts, but it was obvious people had been out working recently to clear blowdowns and trim back brush.
Views– 4.5. The two views early in the hike are beautiful!
Streams/Waterfalls –2.5. No streams or waterfalls, but we’ll give this a better score because of the pretty pond.
Wildlife – 3. We saw plenty of deer, a goat (?) and bear scat.
Ease to Navigate – 2. Trails are not consistently blazed and marked. Some areas have lots of blazes and are easy to follow. Other spots you may have to guess, or better yet… consult a map!
Solitude – 5. We only saw a couple people on the forest service road. We didn’t see another soul on the trail. Our car was alone in the parking lot both before and after the hike.
Directions to trailhead: The trailhead starts at the Massanutten Visitor Center. This is located on US-211, 5 miles east of New Market and west of the town of Luray and the intersection with 340-S. Park in the gravel lot. The Wildflower Trail is marked by a sign near the entrance to the parking lot.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This five mile hike has a fair amount of climbing, one nice view and lots of solitude.
Last weekend, we had a perfect fall day – probably one of the last ones of the 2011 season – bluebird skies, temperatures in the sixties and glorious fall color. We had obligations in Harrisonburg on Sunday morning, so we decided to choose a hike close to town so we wouldn’t miss out on such a nice hiking day. We did some research and decided on the Hone Quarry Ridge Trail. Its five mile length and close proximity to town made it perfect for a quickie hike squeezed into a busy day.
The hike was actually tougher than I expected! The climb went uphill without many switchbacks which was a small part of the challenge, but most of the difficulty came from the tricky footing. Large sections of the trail were covered with loose, pointy, ankle-turning rocks covered with a deep layer of dry autumn leaves. I was so glad to have my trekking poles. I am sure they saved me from turning my ankles multiple times.
The woods were so colorful – reds, oranges, golds mixed in with occasional evergreens. On the climb up, we caught glimpses of views through the thinning trees. We passed a few established backcountry campsites and enjoyed one gorgeous open view from Abbie Point.
Hiking in George Washington National Forest can be a real adventure. Some popular trails like Big Schloss and Kennedy Peak are as navigable and well-maintained as anything in Shenandoah National Park. While other trails, like Hone Quarry Ridge, have very little foot traffic. Not much attention goes into maintaining these trails. The double yellow blazes were spaced pretty far apart. Trail junctions were often unmarked, leaving us to consult a map and compass to decide our direction. The signs that were standing were in relatively poor condition, slowly rotting into the woods. Don’t let this deter you from trying the trail, just be prepared to double-check your navigation.
After enjoying the view from Abbie Point, the remainder of the hike was mostly downhill (with the exception of a few short uphills), along rocky and occasionally narrow trail. We moved pretty quickly, because we were hungry and had exciting late lunch plans. If you’re ever in Harrisonburg, don’t miss trying Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint. They have the best burgers made with American Kobe/Wagyu beef and the fries are always hot and perfectly cooked. They always have plain burgers and one specialty burger on the menu. I got a cheeseburger and a Crispin Hard Cider. We sat on the heated outdoor patio and enjoyed our decadent lunch.
It was another great hike, with one downside. I got the largest, most painful blister I’ve ever had in my life. I really don’t know how it happened. My boots were the same. My socks were the same. I’m pretty sure I laced up the same. I made it through the hike, but the half dollar sized blister on my left heel has been monstrously painful all week. It was so bad, that I ended up at the doctor’s office on Wednesday to make sure it wasn’t infected. I could hardly walk and I couldn’t wear shoes. We were supposed to hike with my parents the weekend before Halloween, but I still wasn’t ready to wear boots again. It’s finally starting to feel better a week later.
As Christine mentioned, this is a hike that I’m glad we have a few modern-day conveniences for hiking since leaves were covering most of the trail. My GPS was handy to make sure we were going the right direction and our trekking poles helped to test the ground out and give some extra support with each step.
The trail started off shortly after the the Hone Quarry campground. After crossing the spillway, we parked our car on the right where there is space for about 3 cars. The trail starts off across the road and you should see a hiking trail marker on a fire road that shortly leads to a wider off-road parking spot. You’ll see the trail marker go over a mound to the left and up the hill to start the hike. In .1 mile, you’ll arrive at an intersection. The left heads towards the Heartbreak trail and the right heads to the Big Hollow Trail. Follow the trail to the right. The trail begins to ascend going up a wider trail that follows a stream along the way. At .8 miles, the trail will hit a switchback and start a steeper ascent up the mountain. At the 1.1 mile mark, the trail will cross a fire road, but keep going straight. At 1.4 miles, the trail rejoins the same abandoned fire road you joined (you’ll see a small firepit to your left).
Take a right here to join the wider fire road. The trail is quite steep at this point as you’re heading straight up the mountain with few breaks in the uphill climb. At 2.1 miles, you will reach the intersection with the Hone Quarry Mountain trail. Take a left on this trail and you will see another firepit immediately on your left. The trail descends into a small saddle and then begins a steep hike up to a rocky overlook on your right at 2.7 miles. This is the best point for views on the entire hike.
The trail from this point is mostly downhill, but quite overgrown. Much of the trail feels like an animal path through the thick vegetation around. Keep your eye out for the yellow-blazed trail markers. At about the 4.0 mile marker you reach another firepit/campsite area and the trail seems like it splits again (There was a log covering the path straight, so I’m not sure if the trail continues at this point or everything goes to the left). Take a sharp left here (this is now the Heartbreak trail). The trail descends rather quickly through the forest, often through loose rocks, so be careful about your footing! The Heartbreak trail was the most difficult to navigate. The blazes were sparse, so we had to keep hoping we were still on the trail, since leaves covered anything that could be called a path below our feet. Eventually the blazes led us closely to the campground area and we crossed the stream and made our way back to the intersection around 5.0 miles. We continued straight and made our way back to the car around 5.1 miles.
I joked with Christine that the Heartbreak trail was aptly named, since I can imagine lots of couples arguing about if they were still on the hiking trail and then breaking up after the hike was over. After we got back to the car, we came across a bunch of Mennonite families that were enjoying a potluck picnic. Several of the families were heading off to another hiking trail. The simpler life does make me think of how families may have done this type of thing often in the past. Seeing people hiking in suits and dresses reminds me of old pictures that I have seen of people hiking many of the national parks when they were first being established. Today we have trekking poles, wicking shirts, hiking pants that unzip to become shorts, GPS systems, camelbaks, etc.
If you are interested in geocaching, there are a few available on this trail.
Gnome Watch – a fun clue that leads you to the nearby cache.
Cache Advance – a standard cache near the picnic area. Not on the hike, but hard to resist since you pass near it on the drive.
While I think this hike was enjoyable, I was expecting more chances to catch some views. You really only get views from the one rocky outcropping. Everything else is obstructed.
Distance – 5 miles
Elevation Change –1480 feet.
Difficulty – 3. The climbing on this hike is actually pretty steep, both uphill and downhill.
Trail Conditions – 1.5. Like many less known trails in the National Forest, the Hone Quarry Ridge Trail is minimally maintained. The trail is extremely rocky, and under a deep layer of fallen autumn leaves it can be downright perilous.
Views–3. One nice, open view and some nice peeks through the trees along the way.
Streams/Waterfalls – 2. The nearly dry stream along this trail has the potential of being quite prettier when there is more rain.
Wildlife – 1. We didn’t see anything.
Ease to Navigate – 1.5. The trail is minimally blazed and signs are far and few between. We recommend bringing a map and a compass. There are several trail intersections where you might go wrong.
Solitude – 4. Hone Quarry is a popular camping and picnic area, but you probably won’t see many people on this hike. On a gorgeous Sunday, at the peak of fall, we saw only three people on the trail.
Directions to trailhead: From 33, head south on SR 613/Clover Hill Road. After passing Paul State Forest, the road comes to an intersection. Stay straight and follow the signs to 257/Briery Branch Road. 257 eventually enters into George Washington National Forest. Take the first right on to Hone Quarry Road. Pass by the picnic area and then a small spillway over a stream. You will see a parking area shortly after on the right and the hiking trail is on the opposite side of the road.