Adam Says… We were so pleased to find this hidden gem of a hike in Virginia! This hike has some jaw-dropping views, an interesting “cave” to explore, and great camping with not a lot of elevation difference.
The parking area has space for about four cars to park. From the parking area, head down about 10 yards further down the road and you will see two trails on the opposite side of the road from where you park on the right. Both of these spur trails connect to each other, so it doesn’t matter which one you pick. Climb up the short spur and the trail goes off to the left. The trail starts off hiking on a ridgeline. From .2 miles to .4 miles, you will notice a few short spur trails to the left. Climbing up these short spur trails leads to some amazing views that shouldn’t be missed. We always enjoy views without many signs of civilization and you get that here as you can soak up views of Big and Little House Mountains. I imagine that a lot of people could come to this trail to get such an amazing view with so little effort – great place for a sunrise view! We soaked in the view for a short time but decided we would get better pictures when we weren’t looking into the sun, so we picked a favorite overlook to return to at the end of the hike to reward ourselves.
Once the section of views is done, the trail moves into a more wooded area. At .5 miles, you see the only trail sign for the hike at a trail intersection with a small fire road (maybe used by bikes or hunters?) through the woods. Continue on the main trail. Pay attention to red blazes marking private property.
The trail from this point is mostly a flat walk through the woods with only some occasional rises or falls in elevation. The trail is not as well-blazed as many others, so we found it a bit difficult at times to make sure you were still on the trail. If you do this during the fall, this could be especially tricky if leaves have covered a lot of the trail. However, you are mostly walking on a ridgeline, so you likely won’t stray too far. There are a few stretches where we found the trail could use some maintenance since there were taller areas of knee-high brush that you were walking through. You do also get a few glimpses of obstructed views to the east.
At 3.2 miles, you come to a great couple of campsites that have some open views to the east. While there isn’t a nearby water source, this would be a great campsite if you lug your own water in for an overnight trip.
Continue on the trail past the campsite and at 3.4 miles you come to some stone steps that lead to the area known as Pete’s Cave. The rocks in this area remind me of rows of shark teeth that probably need to go to a dentist. This is an interesting area to explore, but please know your limits! This is a dangerous area with cracks and holes you could fall into or get an ankle stuck or hurt. We crawled through one area that had a cave-like feel to it, but there was a skylight that let some light in so you didn’t feel too claustrophobic. At the top of this “cave”, there was one area where I was able to scramble up to the top of a large boulder and got some incredible views to the west, but getting back down was a bit more sketchy. Again, be careful in this area if you choose to explore.
The trail climbs steeply up the other side which also leads to some nice views to the west. Go back the way you came to get back to your car and make sure to reward yourself with more of those views close to the finish line.
Christine Says… I really enjoyed this hike. The views were outstanding, there were very few people on the trail, and the “cave” at the end was fun to explore. There are several paths to the rocky outcroppings above the cave. Don’t miss checking those views out – they’re as nice as the views earlier in the hike. The trail continues beyond the caves, but apparently it’s just a walk in the woods – nothing noteworthy to see. It eventually descends back into the valley.
Distance – 6.8 miles
Elevation Change – 1000 ft.
Difficulty – 2. There are rolling hills all along this hike, but generally it is easy terrain.
Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was overgrown in some parts, but overall easy to follow and walk.
Views – 4.5. Spectacular panoramic views of Big House and Little House Mountains to the east and just past Pete’s Cave, there are views to the west.
Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent and no water sources.
Wildlife –3. We saw some deer and a few birds from the overlook.
Ease to Navigate – 3. We didn’t have a lot of difficulty, but needed to mark it down some due to the lack of blazing and some of the trail was overgrown which made it a bit more difficult.
Solitude – 4. We did this trail early and didn’t see many people, but I would expect it would be busier on most weekends. The viewpoints generally have a few places to spread out and soak in the scenery.
Yes, we have been slacking at Virginia Trail Guide. We’ve been hiking a fair amount, but we’ve either been doing repeat trails that we’ve already posted on the site – or we’re hiking in faraway places (Wyoming, Idaho) that we have mixed feelings about sharing on Virginia Trail Guide. Also, both of our jobs have also been more demanding than usual, and we haven’t had as much time to hike or create new content. We’re really hoping to have a productive spring and have some more regular new content to share.
A couple weeks ago, we had a sunny and unusual warm Sunday, so we decided to head out toward Charlottesville for a field trip. We’ve never visited the Ragged Mountain Reservoir before and thought it would be a fun, easy hike. We started out at the lower parking area. If I were to do this hike again, I would skip this bit and just park at the upper lot. The spur from lower parking just added a pointless climb, with no extra scenery. The upper lot starts right on the reservoir’s edge and makes a true loop.
The loop itself was pretty and peaceful. There were rolling ups and downs the entire route, so while it was easy hiking, I still felt like I was getting a decent workout. Benches are posted roughly every mile and there are several neat wooden sculptures tucked into the woods. There are lots of unmarked side trails, but eventually they connect back to the main loop around the lake. So, while the trail system is a little bit confusing, it would be hard to get truly lost. You can download a full map of the trail network from the City of Charlottesville’s website.
The only real challenge of this hike was not slipping in the mud. The trail had some very slick and sloppy spots, so we were glad to have trekking poles for extra balance. All things considered, it was a nice walk on a perfect late winter day. We hiked the loop counter clockwise, so we ended the route crossing the dam.
After the hike, we stopped for lunch at Crozet Pizza and then grabbed a beer at Pro Re Nata.
We have been having some unseasonably warmer winter days in 2020, so it has been a good year to get out and do some hiking in more pleasant and non-snowy conditions. We opted to check out the Ragged Mountain trail system, since it had been on our list of things to do for years. This trail system is very popular with local people from the Charlottesville area. You will likely see families with younger children walking around, trail runners, and maybe even a mountain biker. There are gradual ups and downs on the trail, but it makes for easy walking/running/hiking if you want to cover some miles without a ton of elevation changes. Prior to 2014, there used to be two reservoirs, a pump house, and a slightly different trail system.
As Christine said, we started from the lower parking area and headed to the right (counter-clockwise) from the kiosk to start the trail. We printed out the trail map that we have linked to above, which may be handy to see how all the side loops of the trail connect to make sure you are covering the terrain just the way that you would like. One thing to also note that you will see on the map is there are benches at the numbered locations on the map; on these benches are mile markers showing how far along the loop from the dam you are but we found these mile markings not to be completely accurate with mileage. The trail began to wind uphill rather steeply for the first .25 miles until we reached the top of the trail where it joins up with the dam and road to the upper parking lot. From the viewpoint that we had from the first picture below, we decided to do the Ragged Mountain Loop Trail counter-clockwise, which ended up starting sharply behind us and to the right. At .35 miles, we reached the first junction, which was the Roundtop Mountain Loop. We avoided taking that spur loop since it just looked like an unnecessary uphill climb. Continuing forward, we passed the other end of the Roundtop Mountain Loop and came to the carved Mountain Man marker at .65 miles. These wood-carved statues that are placed in a few places are well done and nice to serve as good markers where other trail junctions also occur. From this marker, we had an option to take a longer loop to the right that led to a water tower or just to push forward. We decided to skip the water tower and headed straight on the trail to reach the Bear marker at the 1 mile mark. From this point there are also other options to take different loops around (we told you the trail map would be handy), so we took the route that looped closest around the reservoir. We were glad we chose this, since we got some nice views of the reservoir and could see some nice reflections as we made our way around.
After a bit further, we reached the Eagle marker and passed over a small bridge to continue our loop staying close to the reservoir. This part of the trail wound uphill slightly and we ended up on an elevated part of the trail that paralleled the reservoir. Parts of this section were a bit muddy and slick, so be careful following rainy days. Eventually, we reached the last wood carvings on the trail of owls. From here, there is a short trail down to the water’s edge. The trail takes a sharp right turn away from the reservoir, but does wind back to follow along the reservoir once again. After more walking, we soon came upon views of cars on the highway, but then the trail turned down and led to a floating bridge across the reservoir. On the other side, the trail climbed up steeply and then wound around an emergency spillway. It was only a short distance after we passed the spillway that we ended up reaching the dam. We saw lots of canoes and kayaks parked on the hillside near the dam. We passed over the dam and then crossed the road to join back to the spur trail to the lower parking lot and back to our car.
Overall, the trail system here is a nice place to go out and stretch your legs. It has some interesting features with views of the reservoir and the wood carvings provide a nice touch to the experience. It would be nice to see how this looks in the fall, as I can imagine the trees along the waterside could make for some nice colorful reflections in the water. Expect a lot of people on your walk during a nice day.
Distance – 6.1 miles
Elevation Change – 1,000 ft
Difficulty – 2. There are rolling hills all along this hike, but generally it is easy terrain.
Trail Conditions – 3. The dirt trails were very slippery and muddy when we hiked.
Views – 3. The lake is pretty and blue.
Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There are just a few small feeder streams along the way.
Wildlife – 2. We saw lots of near bird species along the water.
Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail signage is adequate, but there are some unlabeled trails that could lead you temporarily off course.
Solitude – 1. When we arrived at 9 a.m. on a pretty Sunday, we had it all to ourselves, but by the time we finished a couple hours later, it was packed.
Directions to trailhead: The lower parking lot is located off County Rd 702. GPS coordinates: 38.02692, -78.55583
This 56-mile backpacking trip traverses some of Virginia’s very best Appalachian Trail scenery! There are panoramic vistas, windswept balds, meadows full of wildflowers, pretty streams, and even wild ponies. We were lucky enough to have six days of nearly perfect weather and not a single drop of rain!
Day One – South Fork Holston River to Hurricane Creek Campground (9 miles) – Christine
Bright and early on Monday, May 20, we piled into our car and made the three and a half hour trip down to Damascus, Virginia. Town was busy with many thru-hikers still lingering after Trail Days (the huge, annual hiker festival and party hosted by the town.) Knowing we had six days of oatmeal and trail mix ahead of us, we enjoyed a fresh lunch at Mojo’s Trailside Cafe. Their food is excellent and the place has such a cool hiker vibe. After eating, we drove over to Mt. Rogers Outfitters to meet our ride. Our shuttle driver turned out to be a local woodworking artist named Matthew Newman (he has a gallery in town.) He was right on time and the trip to our start point flew by as he shared stories about the area’s history and geology. The Appalachian Trail crossing of the South Fork of the Holston River is in the middle of nowhere – just a tiny one-car pullout along a lonesome back road. We crawled out of his van, made sure we had all our stuff, and hit the trail. It was already 1:30 and we had nine miles to go before we reached our first camp stop.
We signed the wilderness-area logbook and crossed the wooden footbridge over the Holston River. We immediately started a gentle climb uphill through the woods. Eventually we reached a gravel road that paralleled a farm field. We climbed over a stile into a livestock pasture. The cows were completely indifferent to us, grazing and swinging their tails to swat flies away. The trail climbed steadily across the open terrain. We had some nice views of mountains behind us, but the sun felt hot and strong. We were glad to get to the stile on the south end of the pasture and duck back into the shade. After leaving the pasture, we had almost four miles of non-stop climbing. It wasn’t terrible uphill, but it was steady. Kris and I took a detour and visited Trimpi Shelter about a mile into the climb. It was a cute shelter with a center aisle, indoor stone fireplace, and abundant flat space for tenting around the shelter. Even though it was only a bit after 2:00, there were already a few hikers stopped for the day.
We climbed for another three miles. At the end of the ascent, we had a gorgeous, flat ridgewalk through lush fern. We trekked along until we reached the junction with a blue-blazed side trail that leads down to the forest service campground at Raccoon Branch. We stopped at the junction for a snack and gave Kris a chance to check on her feet. She was feeling a few hot spots in her new hiking boots and was dismayed to find several big blisters already forming just several miles into our hike! From there, we had a long meandering downhill to Dickey Gap. We passed lots of blooming flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons – and even a few early mountain laurels. We got to Dickey Gap a bit after 4:30. We chatted with a couple thru-hikers sitting in the shade under kiosk at the road crossing. They asked about the terrain headed north and indicated that they were going to try and make it to Marion (which was still 14 miles away!) You really have to admire thru-hikers’ ability to crush big miles like that.
The trail sign on the other side of the road said we had about 2.5 miles to go to reach our first campsite of the trip. About a mile later, we found ourselves at the base of Comer Creek Falls. The bridge across the creek was partially sealed off with yellow hazard tape. A sign indicated that the bridge was closed and hikers should backtrack and follow the detour indicated on the map. Well… we were all tired, Kris’s blisters were excruciating, and Adam was having back spasms. We just wanted to get to camp. We made a joint judgment that the bridge looked sturdy enough and decided to cross it one by one. Clearly, since I’m now writing this post — we lived! It really wasn’t all that dangerous. And, I guess sometimes you have to break the rules and live on the edge.
A mile later, we found the spur trail down to Hurricane Creek Campground – one of the USFS campgrounds in the area. We had already paid for a site ahead of time, but found the entire campground pretty much empty. We easily could have claimed any of the walk-in, first-come-first-served sites. I chatted briefly with the campground host. He handed me a pamphlet and told me a bear had been opening car doors and stealing food. He recommended we store our food in the locked trunk of our vehicle. Hmmm… I guess he didn’t really notice that we all showed up on foot!
One of the perks of staying at the campground instead of an AT shelter was the fact that the campground had hot showers. I don’t need a shower every day on the trail, but any time I can get one, it’s a nice morale boost. It feels good to be clean when I crawl into my sleeping bag at night. We made a campfire, cooked dinner, and did our best to dodge the thick clouds of mosquitoes swarming around. Adam wrote a hilarious rap tune for our section hike, and each night during the trip he added and performed a new verse about our adventures for the day. After discussing the bear issues in the area, we ended up storing our food inside the vault toilet building across from our campsite. The door to the bathroom latched securely and the campground was empty, so it seemed like the best option. We ended up staying up until almost 10:00 – way past typical hiker midnight. Eventually, we headed to our tents and drifted off to sleep.
Download DAY ONE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Two – Hurricane Creek Campground to Old Orchard Shelter (8.7 miles) – Adam
We started off day two from the campground, following the spur trail for about .7 mile back to the junction with the Appalachian Trail. Most of the day consisted of uphill climbing, but fortunately there were many water sources, so we didn’t have to carry a large (and heavy) amount of water.
About 1.5 miles into our walk, we passed through a beautiful section of trail surrounded by blooming rhododendron and azaleas. For a while, the trail was rolling and easy, but at the junction with the Hurricane Creek Trail, the trail took a turn steeply uphill along a wide, road-like section. Around the 3.9 mile mark, we took the .1 mile side trail on the right that led us to Hurricane Mountain Shelter. It was a nice place to eat a snack and stretch out our legs and backs (and tend to our feet). After the shelter, we had just over a mile more of steep climbing to reach an area known as Chestnut Flats. We had climbed about 1400 feet already; this wasn’t that bad over a long stretch, but there were some short steep sections along the way. At this top bump, the AT also reaches a junction with the Iron Mountain trail. We passed lots of hikers sitting trailside, using their phones. This was one of the few spots on the hike that actually had cell reception. Lots of people were catching up with texts, calls, and social media. We also came across a thru-hiker that told us there was some great trail magic ahead. That is always a motivator to any backpacker – you want to move quickly so you don’t miss out.
It was a steep downhill for the next mile and a half, but we soon reached Fox Creek, VA 603. As soon as I crossed the road and parking lot, I saw a sign in the tree pointing to Trail Magic. When I walked into the area, I was blown away by the setup. There were two guys, Greybeard and Been There, that had set up a large trail magic area. They said all hikers – thru and section – were welcome. They had grilled hot dogs, marinated chicken, a tub of fruit, homemade pie, cold sodas, and tons of snacks to take with you. They had a table filled with medical supplies for the taking and a handwashing station. They even had camp chairs (with backrests – a true luxury) and a campfire. Greybeard has been setting up here for years on the week after Trail Days. He runs a GoFundMe page for contributions to buy all of the food and supplies. Been There was helping out with cooking and making sure everyone was in good health and spirits. It truly restores your faith in humanity to see people out there caring for other hikers and it was great to relax and talk trail with everyone there. Greybeard left camp while we were there because he found a stuff sack of food that one of the thru-hikers had left behind. He went further up the trail to leave it at a shelter the hiker would find – it would stink to leave days worth of food behind. They also told us the previous night they had a bear come into camp. After not getting food near the tents and campfire, he ambled over to the nearby parking area and broke into a trailer. Apparently, he made off with a full case of hot cocoa packets before moving on to steal feed from the horse camp across the road.
While it was tempting to stay near the trail magic camp, we pressed forward to our planned stop. We had another steep climb to reach our endpoint, but we felt renewed from our brief respite. At 8.7 miles, we reached Old Orchard Shelter. We were one of the first groups to arrive for the day, so we staked out a prime spot on in a flat grassy area – taking care to avoid the abundant poison ivy. Over the course of the evening, more than 20 people arrived and set up their own tent sites. The water source was a bit of a walk from the right side of the shelter, but was flowing nicely. We set up camp and then began to make some dinner – PackIt Gourmet Kickin’ Chicken Wraps. There was an odd-acting person at the shelter, so we ended up having about 14 people come sit at our campfire. We joked that we felt like the “cool kids” since everyone came to hang out with us. You always meet interesting people on these hikes. We met a Texas acupuncture doctor (who I discovered knew a mutual friend), a woman that was flying home to get married in just a few days, a woman from Germany out with a guide, a college professor hiking with her niece, and a couple of fire fighters from New York that drove down to do a section. It’s crazy how so many different people can come together over a fire that all share a passion for hiking. We had a great night talking with everyone and were excited about the next couple of days on the trail.
Download DAY TWO Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Three – Old Orchard Shelter to Massie Gap (8.7 miles) – Christine
Our miles for the day started with a thousand foot climb to the summit of Pine Mountain. At the top of the mountain, we passed through a gate and followed the edge of a sunny meadow for a short distance before going through another gate where the trail went back into the woods. We descended through pretty forest for about a mile – there were pine roots, ferns, and abundant yellow flowers. As the trail leveled out, we found ourselves walking in a cloud. The sunshine we’d had back at the top of Pine Mountain had given way to low clouds settling between mountains. Through the mist, we could see a small building on a hillside off in the distance. At first I thought we were coming up on Wise Shelter, but I soon figured out the shelter was still miles away. What I actually saw was the vault toilet building at Scales Livestock corral. It has to be the most scenic privy in Virginia!
After Scales, we had a short but steep uphill to the top of Stone Mountain – the four mile mark for our day. The long, pleasant ridge-walk should have offered beautiful views, but we were still socked in by heavy clouds. It was cold and windy along the summit walk. After a gradual descent of Stone Mountain, we entered Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. It was lovely and green. At 6.2 miles, we reached Big Wilson Creek and the junction with the horse trail. We crossed the stream on a wooden footbridge and went over another stile. I was paying close attention to my footing as I crossed a rocky area. Adam looked back at me from ahead and nonchalantly said, “Hey… I’m going to stop here and take photos of some ponies.” PONIES! I thought he was kidding at first. I didn’t expect to see ponies until day four. But sure enough… there was a band of six ponies grazing in marshland along the trail. Adam stepped slightly off trail to get a better view when suddenly a tiny black foal popped out of the deep grass. He couldn’t have been more than a week old and he was beautiful! The three of us all greatly enjoyed spending time watching these wonderful animals. The ponies eventually wandered deeper into the marsh, and we continued another .2 mile to Wise Shelter – our lunch stop for the day.
We decided to take a long break and enjoy a hot lunch. We had some extra food to use up since we had a trail magic lunch the day before. Kris made a salmon pesto meal and Adam and I shared a package of Good To Go Mushroom Risotto (one of our favorites!). We had delightful lunch companions – two women from Sweden, a man from Kentucky, and a British guy – all thru-hikers. After they hiked on, we were joined by a man who was less-than-pleasant company, so we packed up and made our way into Grayson Highlands State Park. The park’s boundary is just south of the shelter.
From the shelter, we just had about 1.5 miles of climbing to reach the spur trail to the parking area at Massie Gap – our end point for day three. That 1.5 miles was incredibly scenic. The area is covered with only low shrubs and small pine trees, so the views are open in every direction. There are rock formations, wide meadows, ponies grazing, and (if you’re lucky like we were) blooming rhododendrons. We took tons of photos, watched ponies frolic, and enjoyed the magnificent views. It was everything we hoped the trip would be!
Around 2:30, we made our way down to Massie Gap where we were meeting the owner of the Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn. We had called him from the junction of the AT and the spur trail down to parking. After about 15 minutes of waiting, Dennis came along in a truck and whisked us away for a night of hiker-luxury. We had reserved the inn suite for the three of us. We also sent a resupply box with food for the second half of our trip. Carrying a full week of food is very heavy (backpackers typically carry 1 – 1.5 pounds of food per day), so it’s a treat to be able to resupply every 3-4 days. At the inn, we enjoyed pizza, beer/wine, and ice cream! Our suite had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and even a washer/dryer. We were all able to shower and wash our sweaty clothes. We spent most of the evening relaxing and repacking our bear canisters. It was nice to sleep in a queen size bed – so spacious compared to the floor space in our tiny tent! I would highly recommend the Grayson Highlands General Store for anyone who wants a night off-trail in the area. The accommodations are simple, but they’re very clean, affordable, and comfortable. Also, the staff at the inn takes great care of hikers! We really enjoyed our stay.
Download DAY THREE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Four – Massie Gap to Whitetop (10 miles) – Adam
Day four was the highlight of the entire trip. It turned out to be the toughest day physically, but everything we saw helped make the pain bearable. We started off our morning with breakfast at the inn. Kris and I had french toast with bacon and Christine had a grilled bacon and cheese sandwich. We also got some deli sandwiches to pack for lunch on the trail. Dennis, the inn’s owner, gave us a shuttle ride back to Massie Gap parking. We had about a mile walk back up to where we rejoined the Appalachian Trail.
We took a left and headed south on the AT. The climb was steep and slow going at the beginning, but we were soon greeted with expansive views all around. It was quite easy to just say that you were stopping to take photos when you really needed to catch your breath. The terrain was relentlessly rocky and rugged. The clouds that were hanging above the mountains added to the visual drama. We thought we were going to get stormed on, but luckily the rain held off all day. The one thing that amazes me about this area is how fitting the word “Highlands” is to describe the terrain – in this area you may feel like you are walking in Scottish Highlands.
At about the 1.5 mile mark, we reached the southern edge of Grayson Highlands State Park, marked by a turnstile to an open field. From here we went back onto national forest land. The trail climbs up steeply and we reached a spot called ‘Fatman Squeeze’ at 2.2 miles. It is an interesting rock formation that you can climb through. It wasn’t that much of a squeeze, but if you don’t want to risk humiliation or don’t like the claustrophobic feel there is a path that loops around the feature.
After the Squeeze, we reached Wilburn Ridge at 2.5 miles. As we crossed over the bump, we spotted another band of ponies lounging next to the trail. While they call these “wild” ponies, they are accustomed to people and may try to grab some food from an unattended backpack. The ponies all have such interesting markings and we talked about which one was our favorite. The trail had another short uphill bump before we came to Rhododendron Gap and a junction with the Pine Mountain Trail. On the ground, someone had arranged rocks into “500” noting the 500 mile mark of the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers. There is another bit of fairly easy walking on this ridgeline – and the views keep coming if you’re lucky to visit on a clear day.
At 4 miles, we reached the Thomas Knob shelter. As I approached the shelter, I paused to take a photo and startled a retired police officer eating lunch there. Just a minute before I arrived, a bear had come right up to the shelter where she was sitting. She thought I was the returning bear. We stopped to eat lunch and heard more from the woman about the bear. The shelter log said that at night, gleaming bear eyes can be seen in the nearby trees, watching the open shelter.
The area has been extremely problematic for aggressive bears over the last couple years. In 2018, several miles of AT in this area were closed to camping after tents were shredded and over 70 hikers’ food bags were taken by a bear. Now, there are bear lockers installed near the shelter, so be sure to store food and other ‘smellables’ securely if you decide to stay near Thomas Knob. Despite the addition of bear lockers, some hikers are still continuing to sleep with food in their tents and in the shelter, so bear problems have persisted into the 2019 season. After lunch, we continued on and just a short distance along the trail we reached a junction with a spur trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Rogers (we wrote about this in another post – no views but something worth doing if you want to bag the highest peak in Virginia).
After the Mt. Rogers junction, the trail descends steeply over rocky terrain until you reach Deep Gap at 6 miles. We saw dozens and dozens of northbound thruhikers coming the opposite direction as we descended from Grayson Highlands. More than a few mentioned that they were not enjoying the big climb and asked if the scenery ahead was as amazing as reputed. We assured everyone that the big climb was totally worth the payoff at the summit.
We took off our packs for a break, but we knew we still had more miles to cover. Continuing on, we kept descending and reached the beautiful mustard fields of Elk Garden. It was hot in the open sun. We crossed VA 600 at 8 miles and ran into a grandfather that was hoping to meet his thru-hiking granddaughter along the trail. We hadn’t seen her yet (we would the next day), but we rested again for a bit as we reentered the woods.
The day had already been tough and we had a big climb ahead of us. We debated stopping there for the night, but decided to camp where we had originally planned. We summoned what little strength we had left and pressed on to the end. We had 2.4 miles of an uphill climb to make it to the end of our day and it was all fairly steep. We hiked separately, setting our own paces, with Christine in the lead.
When we got to the high point on Whitetop Mountain, almost all the campsites had been taken, but Christine managed to grab the last decent one when she arrived. It was probably the worst of the campsites that we had for the trip, but it was still fine. Lots of other hikers ended up squeezed into tilted rocky sites that couldn’t have been comfortable.
Water was quite a distance from camp, but on our way to the source we enjoyed great views along an open ridge. The water source was a piped spring that came out of the mountainside. It gushed ice cold water and might be one of the nicest water sources we’ve ever seen. Christine and I both doused our heads and splashed our faces and rinsed away a lot of the day’s salty sweat. We made PackIt Gourmet All American Cheeseburger Wraps for dinner – maybe our new favorite backpacking meal. They were delicious! After brushing our teeth and finding a good place to wedge our bear canisters, we watched sunset from the open ridge, and then went to bed before 9:00. We were all exhausted. It had been an amazing, but tiring, day.
Download DAY FOUR Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Five – Whitetop to the Virginia Creeper Junction (8.5 miles) – Christine
Day five dawned with our high-elevation campsite blanketed in fog. We hoped enough of the mist would lift to allow us to enjoy the views from Buzzard Rock, but with only a mile to cover, we were at the vista about twenty minutes after hiking out of camp. At the viewpoint, we found ourselves still standing in the middle of a cloud. Luckily, we could still make out faint views of the valley below. Even veiled, Buzzard Rock is a gorgeous spot – and also our last opportunity to enjoy the highlands on this trip. Shortly after the viewpoint, the trail takes a steady 3.8 mile downhill drop from 5,080′ all the way down to 3,160′. At the beginning of the descent, we saw the fading final red trillium of spring and at the bottom of the descent, we saw abundant pink lady’s slippers. The drop in elevation let us see both early and later bloomers on the same day!
At the bottom of the descent, we crossed Route 58 and made our way back uphill for a mile to reach Lost Mountain Shelter. The lower elevation brought on the extra heat and humidity. Paired with the exertion of climbing, we were all pretty hot and tired when we arrived at the shelter for lunch. The area was crowded with a crew of volunteer maintainers from the local trail club and about ten thru-hikers in for a mid-day break. The trail club kindly carried out everyone’s garbage! It’s such a small thing, but to have a day hiker offer to take your trash out is true trail magic! We collected water and decided to make our PackIt Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. It’s a really delicious meal, but I think everyone was too hot to really be hungry. We couldn’t finish everything, so we passed our leftovers on to a thru-hiker from Colorado.
After lunch, we had a tiny bit more uphill climbing before the trail switchbacked downhill for 1.8 miles to its junction with the Virginia Creeper Trail. The Creeper is and old railroad grade converted to a multi-use trail. It’s most heavily used by bikers, but also by equestrians, hikers, runners, and even the occasional dog-sledder in the winter! Kris was about fifteen minutes behind us, so Adam and I sat on the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge and waited for her to catch up. While we waited, we noticed that there were several really nice streamside campsites under the bridge.
When Kris caught up, we had a team meeting and decided to camp under the bridge instead of hiking another 2.3 (mostly uphill) miles to our planned campsite. We were all hot and tired, and the campsite ahead sounded not-so-great (stagnant, mosquito-laden pond nearby) according to accounts in our Guthooks AT App. We set up camp, waded in the stream, played cards, and had a relaxing evening at camp. We even met a couple guys fishing nearby, and they kindly shared a couple cold beers with us.
Over dinner, we discussed altering our plan for days six and seven. We tossed around the idea of finishing in one day instead of two and following the Creeper Trail instead of the AT. We agreed to sleep on the plan and make a decision in the morning. It was really a fantastic campsite and everyone slept so well with the sound of rushing water nearby.
Download DAY FIVE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Six – Virginia Creeper Junction to Damascus (11 miles) – Adam
We woke up early and discussed our plan for the day. Kris’ feet were in pain and we knew the elevation gain and rough terrain were going to be hard on her blisters. The initial thought was that I would stay on the AT, while Christine and Kris would walk back along the Creeper Trail, but meet up along a spur between the two trails to camp together. After looking at our AWOL guide and the Guthooks app, there was no solid information on how the spur trail would connect or how far it would be. I ultimately made the call to stick together and finish in one day via the Creeper Trail back to Damascus. I am probably more of an AT purest and want to hit every blaze, but Christine was fine just getting to Damascus another way. But, she promised to come back together and do the AT miles to appease my desire to see every white blaze. Sticking together was definitely the best call for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.
The AT parallels the Creeper Trail for a good portion, but it is much higher in elevation and there aren’t really any easy access points between the two trails. Going back the way of the Creeper Trail also meant that the entire hike was either flat or downhill and the footing for trail conditions was much easier on injured feet (the AT section would have added about 1800 feet of climbing and a couple more miles).
We packed up camp and were on our way. We crossed the Hassinger bridge, where the AT and Creeper begin to share trail for about .7 miles until the AT takes a hard right up the mountainside. We stayed on the Creeper Trail, crossing 21 trestle bridges and enjoying gorgeous stream scenery along the way. When we biked this section many years ago, it was raining which forced us to rush along the trail, so it was nice to take in the sights at a leisurely pace. Much of the Creeper Trail follows Whitetop Laurel Creek – one of Virginia’s largest and most pristine trout streams.
There were a good number of bikers out for the Memorial Day weekend, so we got used to hearing “ON THE LEFT” as they sped past. A few cyclists paused and gawked at us carrying our gear. For some of these casual family bikers I guess we seemed like hardcore professional athletes. People randomly applauded and one woman said she was ‘in awe of us.’ It was funny!
Overall the Creeper Trail is fairly shady, but we also passed by farm houses and through wide pastures. The sun was quite hot in open areas. After finishing a long sunny stretch, we stopped in the shade along a roadside. A father and son were fishing nearby. When they saw us, they offered us a cold Mountain Dews and homemade cookies from their truck. We never stop being amazed by the kindness of strangers. We eventually managed to motivate ourselves to get back up and shoulder our heavy packs.
As we drew closer to town, there were billboards on the side of the trail advertising places to eat and drink in Damascus – they helped motivate us to finish. We ended up crossing US-58 on the outskirts of Damascus. The Appalachian Trail comes down a steep set of stairs on the right and rejoins the Creeper Trail again as it passes through town. We finished our hike walking alongside the road in the blazing sun. Kris had a near brush with danger as a kid on a bike carelessly ran her off the side of the trail. That was a real issue near the congested town section, since many bikers may not be as well-trained on etiquette or skilled enough to avoid others. We talked to another couple that had been hit twice by inexperienced cyclists on their run.
We made it back into town and ate at Wicked Chicken Winghouse & Tavern. There was a guy outside singing and playing guitar and a ton of people enjoying the music, food, and ice cream. We ate inside the air-conditioned restaurant and had some great wings and beers from Damascus Brewery. When we were finished eating, I walked a few tenths of a mile back into town (following the Creeper Trail further into town and then going down Shady Ave to get back to Mount Rogers Outfitters) to pick up our car. Christine and Kris stayed at the restaurant and finished their beers before I picked them up. Before we headed home, we stopped and got some souvenirs from Sun Dog Outfitter.
We had an amazing trip and shared a lot of good memories together while covering a bunch of miles. Everything isn’t always easy when you do a longer section of trail like this, but we felt very accomplished and glad to have each other to help us get through.
Download DAY SIX Maps and Elevation Profiles
Distance – 56 miles
Elevation Change – 11,095 ft. (daily gain is included on each profile download)
Difficulty – 3. Most of the terrain is moderate and uncomplicated.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was clear and easy to follow. Bridges and footing were mostly in passable condition. The bridge at Comer Creek Falls was technically closed when we hiked. We had one tough blowdown to negotiate in Little Wilson Creek Wilderness.
Views – 5. We had spectacular views on three of the six days of the trip.
Streams/Waterfalls – 4. There were many beautiful cascading streams along the route. Comer Creek Falls was small, but lovely.
Wildlife – 5. High chances of seeing bears along this section. Even though the ponies aren’t technically wild, we count them as wildlife.
Ease to Navigate – 5. The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
Solitude – 0. This is a very popular section of Appalachian Trail. We maximized crowds by 1)Joining the thru-hiker bubble 2) Starting the day Trail Days ended 3) Hiking over a holiday weekend. If you choose a different time of year, you might have significantly more solitude.
Directions to trailhead: We left a car in Damascus at Mt. Rogers Outfitters. We used their shuttle service to drop us off at the Appalachian Trail Crossing at the South Fork of the Holston River. GPS coordinates for our start point are: 36.7631, -81.4939.
Are you looking for a short hike with great views? This 3.2 mile route takes you through fire and storm-damaged terrain to a stunning vista on Rocky Mountain (not to be confused with Rocky Mount – another nearby hike in Shenandoah).
We were trying to find a new hike to cover and I started looking through a PATC map of the southern section of Shenandoah National Park. I noticed there was a trail off one of the overlooks that we hadn’t done before and then I was sold when I saw the icon they use for views. Due to some of the twists and turns, it was hard to tell how far the trail was going to be before we got to the views, but we felt this was definitely worth exploring.
We started off from the Brown Mountain overlook, close to mile 77 on Skyline Drive. This Brown Mountain trail starts at a break of the rock wall. The trail winds down and provides some instant views (and you can actually see the rocky outcropping you will reach). The trail soon ducks down into some more wooded areas and winds down on a steeper descent – keep in mind you have to hike back up at the end of this out-and-back hike. You will see a lot of the fire damage that hit this area a couple of years ago with charred logs along the way, but nature has bounced back nicely. At .6 miles, you reach the bottom of your descent and soon reach a junction with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail which takes off to the left (you could make this a larger 10+ mile loop by coming back this way). Stay on the Brown Mountain Trail and you will begin to ascend again. The ascent will ultimately take you close to the elevation you started on this hike, but you will have close to one mile to gain that elevation, so you will find the trail more manageable of an ascent at this point.
Around the 1.4 mile mark, the trail will begin to level out and become rockier. You will also be treated to some obstructed views along the way. At a little over the 1.5 mark, we reached the rocky outcropping of aptly-named Rocky Mountain. From the stunning viewpoint here, I was able to scramble up carefully up the main rock. While Christine held Indy, I also ventured a little further along the outcropping to get to another viewpoint, but that was a more treacherous path consisting of stepping on knife-edge footing while finding hand and footholds along the way – definitely not recommended or very safe. I came back to Indy to let Christine explore a little further. Indy enjoyed the views and enjoyed a nice bowl of water to quench his thirst before the return hike. We went back the way we came descending back to the saddle and climbing up the last .6 miles back to the car. The climb at the end was steep, but short. We had a great time exploring this area and were surprised to only see two people on the trail. Since I don’t think this hike is covered very often on hiking websites or books, this has remained a hidden gem (at least until now).
This was a really beautiful hike through a fire and ice-damaged section of the park. Views that were probably closed in a few years ago were open and stunning. It also helped that we hiked in April before leaves fully emerged. I was surprised there were so few people on the trail, because the weather was perfect and this trail connects into the popular Big Run watershed. I expected we would see many people out backpacking, but we only saw two guys. They were both pretty surprised to see a pug on the trail, and one asked if he could photograph Indy to share with his mom. I swear, Indy is always a conversation starter on hikes!
While Adam enjoyed climbing around on the rocks, I hiked along the trail a bit further to see if there was anything worth seeing. The trail started to descend into another saddle, so I decided to save exploration for another day. I think there might be some more views along the trail – but probably not as good as the one we saw here.
I hiked back up to where Indy and Adam were waiting. We all hiked back the way we came in, enjoying the top-of-the world views. In addition to the vistas, this trail had many beautiful wildflowers. In April, the dwarf irises and sessile belwort were abundant. The hike back was as challenging as the hike out, with moderate climbs on both ends. We were all pretty hot and a little sunburned when we got back to the car, so we decided to cool off with blackberry milkshakes at the Loft Mountain Wayside. Wouldn’t you know – their shake-making operation was broken AGAIN. This is the third year in a row that Loft has failed to produce my desired blackberry milkshake! This time it was the soft-serve machine that was down; last time it was the blender; and the time before that they were out of blackberry syrup. Drat! Oh well… it was still a great day.
Distance – 3.2 miles
Elevation Change – 1,168
Difficulty – 3. This hike has climbs going both out and back. They’re moderately difficult, but should be doable for most hikers.
Trail Conditions – 4. PATC volunteers and other trail crews have worked very hard to clear the trail through this heavily damaged part of the park.
Views – 4.5. There were nice views at the start of the hike, along much of the trail, and at the summit. The view is expansive and impressive.
Streams/Waterfalls – 0. There was no water on this hike – it’s mostly high and dry on the ridge.
Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple deer and quite a bit of bear scat.
Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well-marked and thoroughly blazed. There is just one junction to watch for along the hike.
Solitude – 3. All of Shenandoah is popular and busy, but on this beautiful April day, we just saw two backpackers.
Special note about the map below: We use CalTopo to produce maps for this website. The CalTopo map for this area did not match the PATC’s map of the same area for trail naming. The CalTopo map labels the trail as Rocky Mountain Trail, but the park sign posts and the PATC map label the trail the Brown Mountain Trail.
Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 38.292938, -78.657899. Park at the Brown Mountain Overlook on the west side of Skyline Drive. The trail begins through an opening in the stone wall.
On this eight-mile adventure, we visited a beautiful outcropping on Church Mountain. The hike had some steady climbing, a little bit of rock scrambling, some unfortunate bushwhacking, and a beautiful view at the top!
We did this hike back in early April with our friends, Tony and Linda, of HikingUpward fame. (View their write-up for this hike) Tony noticed that this hike appeared for the first time on a recent edition of a PATC map and suggested we all go out and explore the relatively unknown area. He had heard rumor that there were two viewpoints to enjoy. We met them at a parking area along the forest service road (FR482). We could see the outcropping we were planning to hike to from the road below. Adam was still getting over an awful chest cold, so the distant view of the cliff-face made me worry for him. It looked very faraway and pretty high above us.
The first mile of walking followed the mile of FR482 that lies beyond a locked gate. During hunting season, you might find this gate open and be able to shave a couple miles off the total distance of the hike. At the end of a mile, you’ll find yourself at the start of the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail. There are no signs or trail markers – just blazes – so be careful to follow along. The trail crosses one shallow stream near the beginning of the trail. It also crosses several old road cuts (apparently there used to be TV towers on this mountain, or so I’ve heard). The climbing is fairly steady and unrelenting as you climb Church Mountain. The use of ten switchbacks makes the grade feel manageable, though I can see this feeling like a really tough climb on a hot day. There were some decent views of the rocky summit of Church Mountain from the trail.
As you climb, the forest gets thinner and more open – almost meadow-like. When you reach the ridgeline at three miles, the trail is just a faint footpath through the grass. Look for a tree with a double set of white and yellow blazes. There should also be a small cairn slightly uphill of the two-blazed tree. This is the junction with the Talc Trail. From here, take a left and follow the white blazed Talc trail as it meanders over gentle terrain toward the summit of Church Mountain. This part of the trail was sparsely blazed and there were a couple significant blow-downs across the trail. I have a feeling that the vegetation along this stretch may get taller and thicker as the growing season progresses. I had permethrin-treated clothes and Repel spray on my exposed skin, but I still managed to pick up a tick somewhere along the Talc Trail. I noticed it already attached to my calf on the return leg of our hike. Gross!
The Talc Trail comes into a saddle about 3.6 miles into the hike. There is a large, very littered campsite in the saddle. There was an old tarp, several pots, old cans, shell casings, a satchel, and some other odds and ends laying around. It looked like hunters maybe used this spot as a base camp sometime in the last year or two. After passing the campsite, there’s a nice view of the valley off the left side of the trail. Once you pass this view, it’s time to start scrambling. The way to the top had a couple hard-to-see blazes and was pretty overgrown with brambles and thorns. I had capri length pants on, so my lower legs got scraped up quite a bit. Between the prickly vegetation and the ticks, I definitely suggest long pants for this hike.
Once at the top, there were lots of openings in the woods to explore different spots along the outcropping. There were several spots that offered beautiful, slightly obstructed views to the valley beyond. The slanted cliffside on the adjacent mountain was a unique feature to behold in the viewscape. I found two different geodetic markers on the outcropping – one with an arrow marking the direction of the true summit and another for the summit itself. We spent a bit of time enjoying and photographing the view, but I wouldn’t say this is a outcropping that would be good for a crowd or a lunch break. The space on the rocks is limited and most of the larger rock surfaces lie at precipitous angles. When I took photos of Adam standing on the pointy, blade-like rocks in the photo at the top of this post, my knees were knocking a bit. I don’t like looking through a camera lens when my feet are uneven ground – it gives me vertigo.
After scrambling down from the summit of Church Mountain, we headed back along the Talc Trail. On this particular day, we decided to pass the junction for the trail down and continue to explore the other side of the white-blazed Talc Trail. It probably wasn’t a good idea. There was a tree with a mysterious blaze that sort of looked like it was trying to mark a campsite on a sidetrail, but we didn’t really find anything. Passing there, the trail dipped steeply down into an area that was badly overgrown with thorns and blocked by many blowdowns. There was clearly a trail there, but it was not maintained to the point it was worth following.
During the extra bit of exploration, my GPS said that we had come almost five miles. We were running low on snacks and water, so we opted to end our quest for a second vista and make our way back down. The return hike went by pretty quickly – all downhill, the same way we had hiked up. The beer and pizza at Swover Creek Farm Brewery were calling loudly. Refreshment was needed!
As Christine mentioned, I was just getting over being sick. This was the fourth time I had been sick over the last 2.5 months (cold, sinus infections,etc.), so my cardio and ability to breathe well was still getting back to normal. Exploring a “new to us” trail when there isn’t any information about it online makes us feel like we are conquering uncharted territory. We had no idea how long the hike would be and we could vaguely guess at what elevation we would be climbing.
We did have a bit of a road walk through to get to the trailhead since the gate was closed. We walked on an open road that looks like had been heavily forested before. The scenery was open which made it more enjoyable than most fire road walks we have done. We eventually came to the upper parking lot and the trailhead. Once we started on the trailhead, we noticed the trail split after a few feet. There was an unblazed trail that went straight and then the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail took off to the right. Take this right and the trail starts a long gradual climb. Eventually, the switchbacks start and this is where you really begin to gain some elevation. There were a few times where we spotted the Church Rock cliff face through the trees and we were excited to see that the trail would eventually guide us to that impressive cliffside. The trail winds through several switchbacks until you eventually get to a part where the top of the hillside opens up into a grassy area and you follow sparse blazes up to the top of the hill.
Eventually the trail comes to a junction with the white-blazed Talc trail. Take a left here to get to Church Rock. We paused at the junction for a bit to allow me to gain my breath and we ate some trail mix. Soon, a turkey hunter came up along the trail in full camo. This was the only person that we saw the entire day. Starting on the Talc Trail, we found the trail was very poorly blazed. You stay walking on this ridge for a bit and can see some views along the way. Eventually the Talc Trail descended and led us to an open meadow area where we saw the remains of a campsite with tarp and other items stowed here. We weren’t sure if these are things someone has just left behind to use the next time they camp up here or just someone that was littering heavily. Shortly after the campsite, the trail leads back up and you can see Church Rock sticking out. If I were to rename this rock jutting out, I would call it Young Man of the Mountain. It reminded me of Old Man of the Mountain that was a prominent rock feature in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that you may have seen prominently on New Hampshire license plates. The Old Man rock face fell off in 2003 which we regret never seeing. The profile of the rockface does look similar to it but it is much smaller. We got to the rock scramble just below Church Rock. Be very careful through here, because we commented how this would be a great place for snakes to hide in between all the cracks between the rocks or possibly sunning themselves on a warm day. There weren’t any clear blazes that really guided you up to the top, but we were able to find our way through the boulders and then were able to climb up a steep section to get to the top.
At the top, there were two areas where you could take in the view – and what an impressive view it was! On a clear day, you can see for miles at mountain ranges all around you. We found a couple of USGS markers at the top which named it Church Rock. If you do take in the view, be careful! There isn’t much space and the wind blowing at the top can make you feel uncomfortable. Falling from here would be deadly. When we left, I said that these may be some of the best views in Virginia and I will stick to that claim. The climb wasn’t terribly tough and we felt this is something that is probably best done during the year with fewer leaves as it opens up other views along the way. With this trail being fairly unknown (at least for now), the solitude made us feel like we had stumbled across a secret gem of Virginia. We headed back the way we came and explored a bit down the other side from the junction with the Talc Trail. That ended up being just a slog through the woods. There may be some views to be had with some heavy bushwhacking, but we didn’t feel like exploring that too long with all the blowdowns and briars on the trail.
When we got back to the car, we drove to Swover Creek Brewery for some great pizzas and beer. The owners have some dogs that roam around and beg a bit for pizza, but they were sweet companions. One of the owners was prepping to do a chain saw sculpture for the early evening, but we needed to head home so we missed out. The outdoor scenery at Swover Creek capped off a great day on the trail with friends.
Distance – 8 miles This hike could be shortened 7.5 miles if you skip exploring to the right after the junction on the ridge. It could also be shortened to 5.5-6 miles if the lower forest service gate it open.
Elevation Change – 1,800 – 2,100 ft (depending on how far you explore)
Difficulty – 4. This hike’s climbing is never terribly steep, but it’s still three miles of unrelenting climbing. The scramble at the end is a bit challenging.
Trail Conditions – 2. We hiked in early spring and found the first couple miles of the trail in relatively good shape. There was some overgrowth, but it was still easy going. On the ridge, the blazes are harder to follow and there isn’t much of a trail. Hikers will mostly meander blaze to blaze. I also think this area will become very overgrown as the growing season progresses.
Views – 4. These views were spectacular! They would warrant a five star rating, but there is no real place to sit and take in the view with a second person. The view rocks are narrow and precipitous. Adam and I were both nervous standing on them.
Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There is one small stream shortly after you come off the forest service road and start walking the actual Church Rock trail.
Wildlife – 3. There was so much scat from various animals along the trail. We didn’t see anything, but animals are definitely out there.
Ease to Navigate – 3. Generally, blazes and trail were easy to follow. The yellow blazed trail was in great shape, the white blazed ridge trail was less clear.
Solitude – 5. Until all the fine, adventurous readers of Hiking Upward and this site get out there, this trail is truly an unknown gem.
Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 38.73325, -78.8732. The parking area is along a gravel forest service road. If you find the gate open, you can drive another mile closer to the actual trailhead. When we hiked in spring 2019, the lower gate was locked and the road beyond it was blocked by a large blowdown.