A great short-to-moderate length day hike on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park with a ton of visual payoff at the top for very little work. If you’re looking to introduce friends to hiking, this would be a great starter trail!
hiked on 28 January 2017
Hightop Mountain, near Standardsville, VA
5.6 miles (moderate version), 2.5 miles (short version)
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more: Hiking Upward Link
About an hour and a half from our Fredericksburg, Virginia home, this trail starts very close to the Shenandoah National Park Swift Run Gap entrance point. As you enter the park on Skyline Drive, you just about immediately cross a bridge passing over Rte. 33. The parking area for where we started is a bump-out on the road that you see to your left just as you cross that bridge into the park. Do a U-turn and park in the bump-out, then cross Skyline Drive to the Appalachian Trail marker on the opposite side of the road, just at the bridge end point. (Don’t worry if you drive past the parking lot for a bit, the worst that will happen is that you will have to look at some spectacular views along Skyline Drive until you decide to double-back).
Another option, if you want a shorter hike, is to drive on past this first parking area, up Skyline Drive to another parking lot. It’s clearly designated with a sign that says, “Hightop Mountain Parking Area.” Once you park there, you can walk across Skyline Drive and pick up the AT there. This will abbreviate your hike by almost 3 miles, as it cuts off the 1.3 miles from the bridge parking area to the Hightop Mountain parking lot and back. We wanted a hike of 5-6 miles on this day, so we opted to pick up the AT near the park entrance rather than at the one closer to the trail end.
Standardsville, VA on 28 January 2017
While the temperature wasn’t all that low at about 45° F, the wind was whipping pretty strongly. Henri wished she had brought her balaclava, but alas had not. A bit of a sting to the cheeks and lots of needle ice crunching underfoot belied the lovely sunshine and reminded us that this was, after all, a late January hike in Virginia. The wind was particularly powerful once we stepped out onto the rocks at the top, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley.
Standard day-hike preparation/gear. Fergus with his North Face day pack, Henri with her Osprey. Just some water, snacks, and basic first aid. Down shells. As noted above, Henri bemoaned having forgotten her balaclava for a bit until she got moving and warmed up some. Otherwise, this short hike and easy terrain didn’t require any special prep.
OUR HIKE NOTES
The entire hike is on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail; there’s no getting lost because you have no “turn or not turn” decisions to make, no intersecting blazes. Hiking Upward rates this out-and-back hike as a 3 out of 6 in terms of difficulty. We’ll agree, in that it’s uphill a lot of the way out; however, we remarked that this would actually be a nice beginner trail to introduce friends to hiking (especially since it can be shortened to less than 2.5 miles if you choose to start at the higher parking lot). From the Rte. 33 overpass bridge, you immediately climb steeply, but that becomes a much more gentle climb after the first few yards. Total elevation gain is only 1,480 feet. There is a stream along the start of the trail, but it was moving along at little more than a trickle on this day.
At about 1.5 miles, you’ll come across the parking lot at Skyline Drive and need to cross over to the clearly-visible AT marker, and keep going up. From there, the trail gets a bit more interesting. Big boulders line the trail and there’s a nice outcropping of boulders and rocks that we decided to stop and climb — just for the hell of it. You could certainly do this entire out-and-back trail without doing any rock scrambling at all, if you wanted to avoid it. We just like to climb stuff and see how things look from up top. The trail, itself, changes from soil to rock for a short stretch. It’s certainly a well maintained trail.
Despite Hiking Upward’s claim that this is “one of the lesser known summit hikes,” we saw plenty of fellow hikers this day — many with dogs — and both parking areas were quite full. It wasn’t quite squirming with people like Mary’s Rock or Old Rag can be, but it was absolutely less secluded that other hikes we’ve done, like Strickler Knob or Duncan Knob. We’d call it busy, but not annoyingly so. This was a pleasant hike for saying “How’s it goin’?” to a half dozen or so fellow hiking couples and a few gaggles of outdoorsy college kids.
We had the vistas (there are 2 good look-out points along the trail) pretty much to ourselves. No mob of swarming tourists competing for the best view or camera angles. This meant that, as long as we could endure the wind, we could look far out over the valley and into the Blue Ridge Mountains and contemplate the stunning beauty of Virginia.
OUR FAVORITE BITS
- proximity to great Virginia barbecue and vineyards