Hiking Hightop Mountain

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!

HIKE INFO

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

Hightop Mountain 2017
Henri taking in the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Hightop Mountain.
GETTING THERE

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.

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Henri getting ready to cross Skyline Drive to the AT marker on the opposite side, near the end of the overpass.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Standardsville, VA on 28 January 2017
standardsville-weather

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.

Hightop Mountain 2017
Lots of “needle ice” along the trail on this day.
OUR PREP/GEAR

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.

Hightop Mountain 2017
The first vista overlook you come to is lovely, if somewhat obscured compared to the 2nd one at the top.
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.

Hightop Mountain 2017
Henri starting out on the AT, headed UP.

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.

Hightop Mountain 2017
Climbing the boulder outcropping…just because it was there.

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.

Hightop Mountain 2017
This way to spectacular views! [turn off from main trail to ‘summit’ vista]
OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • VIEWS!
  • proximity to great Virginia barbecue and vineyards

Hiking Buck Hollow/Mary’s Rock

A really pretty day-hike in Shenandoah National Park, with lots of varied terrain and killer views at the top of Mary’s Rock. Popular (read: crowds) at the top, but combining the Buck Hollow loop along with it makes up for the lack of solitude at Mary’s Rock itself.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 15 January 2017
Shenandoah National Park, Near Sperryville, VA
10 miles (with our improvisational detour…see our Hike Notes, below)
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

Henri atop Mary's Rock
Henri perches atop Mary’s Rock and enjoys the view.
GETTING THERE

Sperryville has been one of our favorite hiking destinations for years, starting when Old Rag used to be our go-to hike. It’s near the beginning points for several great trails in or near the Shenandoah National Park system, an easy hour and 15 minute drive from our base camp in Fredericksburg, VA (though we usually tack on 15 more minutes to stop at a Wawa on the way for coffee, breakfast and hiking snacks).

Parking for the Buck Hollow loop is a bump-out off Rte 211 that accommodates probably up to a dozen cars (depending on how economically people park). There were 7-8 cars there when we arrived at 10AM this Sunday, though we didn’t see very many of their drivers on the Buck Hollow portion of the trail.

Parking Area at Buck Hollow trailhead
The parking area at Buck Hollow trailhead was busy…the trail wasn’t. Where’d they all go?!
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Sperryville, VA on 15 January 2017
sperryville-weather

As we drove out to Sperryville, we noted a pervasive haze and began to despair that we wouldn’t get great views (or photos) on this hike. We should have realized that it would dissipate by the time we were on trail. But it’s good that we worried for a bit, because that was how we discovered SNP’s Air Quality Webcam and Air Quality Information Page on our smart phones. What a great real-time weather/visibility tool! As it happened, we were concerned for no good reason. By the time we had parked and were hitting the trail, the haze had cleared and the sun came though. It turned out to be a gorgeous day to hike, with great visibility at the top of Mary’s Rock.

View from Mary's Rock
Every time we hike in Virginia, we feel lucky to live near these views!
OUR PREP/GEAR

The usual day-hike prep: Henri’s orange Osprey Daylite pack and Fergus’ trusty North Face, filled with a few snacks, water in Nalgenes, basic first-aid supplies, and space to pack layers if we needed to shed them. We figured on a 5.5 hour hike (with half an hour stop for snacks and photos at the top).

We think it’s inevitable that we’ll have to do a detailed “our gear” informational post soon, because hikers like to hear what other hikers wear and use. In brief, for now: Henri’s go-to hiking pants are REI Sahara (over leggings when it’s colder out), a Smart Wool base layer top, and a Sierra Designs Elite Drydown hoody. Her hiking shoes are Merrell Moab. Her ultralight trekking poles are from Paria Outdoors. Fergus wears an Eddie Bauer Cirruslite jacket.

On this hike, we played the Layers Game, wherein it started off cool, but then we found ourselves quickly warming up and stripping off down jackets and beanies in favor of sweatshirts and ball caps…then putting the warmer layers back on again as the wind picked up and the temperature went down toward the top.

Buck Hollow trail Shenandoah National Park
Henri’s William & Mary sweatshirt got a couple of positive comments from fellow hikers (sadly, no one mentioned her Detroit Tigers ball cap).
OUR HIKE NOTES

There are a couple of much shorter routes to get to Mary’s Rock, if that is a visitor’s main focus. Mary’s Rock is quite popular and rates pretty low in our “solitude” category. Though not quite as crowded as Old Rag can be, Mary’s Rock tends to be crawling with people on weekends. That’s not typically something we love, but we’d never checked it out before, so figured it would be OK to do a busier hike, if we coupled it with Buck Hollow loop — known to be somewhat less popular.

The route we took followed Hiking Upward’s trail notes almost exactly, except for a one-mile detour that we took when Henri was in the lead and not really paying attention to signage or blazes (it happens). All-in-all, we hiked about 10 miles this day. The hike is usually about 9 miles, split more-or-less evenly: 3 miles on Buck Hollow Trail up to Skyline Drive, 3 miles up to Mary’s Rock and back down to Skyline (includes a short stretch on the Appalachian Trail), and 3 miles down on Buck Ridge Trail to the parking area.

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From Hiking Upwards’ website.

The Buck Hollow trail up to Skyline Drive is gorgeous, and we don’t mean just the scenery and views (though they are). The actual trail is just…well, pretty. Often a trail is merely dirt and rocks, but the Buck Hollow trail can be described as idyllic, kind of lovely with moss, rocks, and roots conspiring to create the sort of underfoot pathway usually reserved for Disney films. It doesn’t hurt the ambiance that you spend a good deal of the first 3 miles following a stream with burbling cascades.

Buck Hollow trail Shenandoah National Park

As you turn away from the stream on Buck Hollow trail, things go up steeply. The first three miles of this loop are definitely UP. You’ll reach a parking area on Skyline Drive at the top of the trail, which is one place a lot of people park and hike up to Mary’s Rock. The trail gets more populated from here on. We saw maybe 3-4 hikers on Buck Hollow. By the time we were at the top of Mary’s Rock, we had lost count of our trail mates.

It’s more UP from Skyline Drive to Mary’s Rock, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which is rewarded with some gorgeous views along the way. Altogether, the elevation gain for this hike is about 2,600 feet. We stopped along the way to take a photo for two young women hiking together, and they returned the favor. It’s sort of rare to get a couple shot of Fergus & Henri to share in a post!

Fergus &  Henri at Mary's Rock
By the time we were approaching Mary’s Rock, we’d begun to put back on the outer layers. Brrr.

Mary’s Rock, itself, offers some stellar views. There’s a ridge of boulders that you can climb to see the valley and hills from various angles and heights. The top was pretty busy with visitors on this Sunday, reminding us quite a bit of climbing Old Rag, but it’s easy to see why it’s popular. Shorter hikes with closer parking areas can bring you to these vistas with little effort, the pay off is just stunning, and the boulder climbing is comparably easy.

Hikers at the top of Mary's Rock
Lots of folks in VA find Mary’s Rock a great introductory hike/climb, with amazing views.

Leaving Mary’s Rock, Henri took the lead and — not paying careful attention — followed the crowd headed along the AT connector trail steeply down toward the Thornton Gap parking area for about half a mile before Fergus noted the discrepancy. Whoops! Back up we went to the AT itself, and back on true trail the rest of the way. We tacked on about a mile and maybe 30 minutes to our hike, but it was still pretty and the views were great, so no complaints.

Old Homestead near Mary's Rock
An old homestead about halfway between Skyline Drive and Mary’s Rock is obviously a favorite picnicking site for the many hikers who visit.

Back at the Skyline Drive parking area, you’re faced with a decision about how you’d prefer to return to the Buck Hollow trailhead. You can go left and follow the same trail you took up to this point, or you can go right and follow the Buck Ridge trail to the trailhead. Because this was our first time on the loop, we opted to see what Buck Ridge had to offer.

This 3-mile portion of the hike is mostly down, quite steeply so in the last half mile, and features some cool boulder formations and pretty trail flora. We noted quite a bit of scat that was unmistakably bear…but also unmistakably several days old. No fresh scat and no bear sightings for us on this trip. As with Buck Hollow, the ridge trail had only a couple of other hikers on it, returning us to relative solitude. You miss out on the pretty stream going back this way, but the variety of terrain and vegetation makes it worthwhile, along with the views from the ridge.

Stairs cut into trail at Buck Ridge
A seemingly interminable winding stairway cut into the hill returns you down to the parking area (or up to Buck Ridge if you’re headed the other direction).

Hiking Upward says “the last 0.5 miles of the Buck Ridge Trail is very steep on loose rock,” but we’re not sure when that was written. The last half mile IS steep, but rather than loose rock, we found it to be made up of a well-maintained winding stairway that had been meticulously cut into the hillside. It’s quite something to see and we marveled when thinking of the process it must have taken to construct it. The stairs wind down in a series of tiny “switchbacks” from the ridge to the hollow, where we crossed back over Thornton River to the parking lot at the trailhead.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • Varied terrain that both held our interest & provided some challenge.
  • Views, stream, scenery!
AFTER THE HIKE

We planned this day’s hike to end at Sharp Rock Vineyards in Sperryville.

Hiking Sky Meadows

It’s amazing what you can learn by hiking — about yourself, about the area in which you live, and about the history of people and place. Sky Meadows is not a difficult hike, but it’s a rich one.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 8 January 2017
Sky Meadows State Park, Near Paris, VA
Our Loop: North Ridge > Ambassador Whitehouse > AT > North Ridge (about 4 miles)
access information & trail guide:  Sky Meadows State Park Trail Guide

Sky Meadows State Park
There was a time when Hunter was shorter than his mother. That time is long past.
GETTING THERE

This was Hike 6 of our 2017 52 Hike Challenge. Though it was a beautiful day, it was also bitter cold and would be our first hike of 2017 to occur after a snowfall. So our criteria for selecting a hike were (A) picturesque, (B) not too terribly long, and (C) not too far away from home. We opted for an old favorite: Sky Meadows State Park. It takes us just a bit over an hour to get there from Fredericksburg, VA. Parking is plentiful near the visitor center. Entry fee is just $4 (bring cash), and there are a number of trails to choose from to create whatever hike you want, in terms of length and difficulty. And, of course, we knew the views would be gorgeous on this clear, cold day.

There were very few cars there and we only saw 3-4 people out on the trails all afternoon. When we were gearing up to head out, someone pulled into the visitor lot, looked at us, and quipped, “Boy, you’re brave!” What we heard: “Boy, you’re dumb!” The weather information below may explain his reaction to seeing us heading out to the trail.

Sky Meadows State Park

WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Paris, VA on 8 January 2017

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We hiked from 1PM to 3:30PM. The temperature as we set out from the parking area was reading at about 18° F, and we read reports later that the windchill made it feel somewhere between 1-5° F during those afternoon hours. To be honest, we were dressed well and so felt fairly comfortable for most of the afternoon, with the exception of a couple of times when we were exposed to full-on gusts of 25 MPH or more. There were moments we felt pretty silly being out there.

Sky Meadows State Park
In exposed areas, the cold wind was truly a force to be reckoned with.
OUR PREP/GEAR

Prep for this hike was mostly centered on making sure we’d have fun, which meant staying warm enough. Hunter was happy to rock the new fur-trimmed parka he had gotten from Santa a couple of weeks ago, as well as the new Timberland boots he’d gotten for himself. Henri happily sported her new Sierra Designs Elite Dridown Hoody (under a Patagonia shell that belongs to Fergus). For his part, Fergus was snug in his Eddie Bauer Cirrus Lite down jacket under another shell. Of course, everyone had on balaclavas, hats, gloves, and a good base layer.

This was also Henri’s first hike using new Paria ultralight trekking poles, a Christmas gift from Grandpa Frank. Her early assessment is that they are a terrific value for the price point (about $50). Tri-fold, collapsible to about 13″ (small enough to carry in even a modest day pack), weighing in at just 7 oz. apiece, and strong with a comfortable grip. Super easy to assemble and disassemble.

Sky Meadows State Park
Sure it was cold. But those views!
OUR HIKE NOTES

A quick look a the Trail Guide shows a variety of choices when it comes to hiking routes. On this day, we headed northwest from the visitor center on North Ridge Trail for about half a mile, headed back east a bit on the Piedmont Overlook to catch the pretty views there, then doubled back to the North Ridge where it meets the Ambassador Whitehouse Trail and took that for about a mile (that was the windiest portion of our trek….brrrr). Then we swung southwest on the Appalachian Trail for a short time before heading back east to the visitor center on the North Ridge trail. We didn’t use our GPS (mostly because our phones said it was too cold to come out and play…and none of us had thought to wear a Garmin), but we estimate that we did about a 3-4 mile hike, altogether.

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Terrain on this self-selected loop varied. The hike to Piedmont Overlook and through Ambassador Whitehouse trail could best be described as “open,” offering beautiful views of the surrounding farmland and scenery. The trail itself is mostly a dirt path through fields, with some forest hiking, until we got to the return arm of the North Ridge trail. This is where it gets much more rocky underfoot, and heavily wooded. The North Ridge trail is marked on the park’s map as “difficult,” but really it’s just “more difficult than a dirt path through a field,” not really all that tough. We were on a downward slope for most of it. If you were coming up the trail the other way, it might feel somewhat more taxing. It was both fun and a little scary to listen to some of those big ol’ trees creaking ominously in the cold as we hiked past.

Sky Meadows State ParkSky Meadows State Park

One of the most interesting points at Sky Meadows is the hilltop memorial you’ll find halfway through Ambassador Whitehouse trail. An article in the Piedmont Environmental Council’s newsletter for Summer 2012 explains the memorial:

On May 20, about 75 people gathered for the dedication of the Piedmont Memorial Overlook…The site overlooks the Crooked Run Valley—one of the best protected privately owned landscapes in America—and will be a memorial for those who were dedicated to protecting the health and beauty of the Piedmont…..Nestled in the rock, a bronze plaque reads “May the winds carry our ashes to the fields we fought to protect.” Across the meadow, another plaque honors those whose remains lie elsewhere but whose lives reflect a commitment to preserving this landscape. “Protectors of the Piedmont, we are here in spirit.”

Click on any of these photos to enlarge it.

The newsletter features a photograph of the PEC president at the time, Chris Miller, speaking at the memorial’s dedication alongside the “visionary and spearhead for the memorial project,” Mr. Bill Backer. On this hiking trip, we noted that Mr. Backer’s own plaque had been added to the memorial in 2016. Despite whatever Mad Men fans would like to believe about Don Draper and the invention of the iconic advert, it turns out that Mr. Backer was — in addition to being a tireless conservationist for the Piedmont — the actual advertising genius behind the famous 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coca-cola advertising campaign.

Sadly, Mr. Backer passed away almost 4 years to the day after dedicating the beautiful Piedmont memorial that now bears his own name. He had eventually become the president of the PEC, himself. We have now decided that each time we visit Sky Meadows, we will come home and research a different name from the memorial until we know more about each conservationist represented there.

AFTER THE HIKE

Though we didn’t head there on this occasion, one of our favorite things to do after hiking Sky Meadows is head to Delaplane Cellars for a bottle of wine and some relaxing music.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • The views are always lovely at Sky Meadows.
  • Being able to select whatever length hike we preferred.
  • North Ridge Trail portion offered some nice terrain variety.
  • The memorials atop the Ambassador Whitehouse trail

Hiking Duncan Knob

Sometimes hikes don’t go 100% according to plan. This was one of those times. Still, we recommend this hike to most of our outdoorsy friends who have enjoyed trails like Old Rag and are looking for similar experiences without the crowds. Despite the unplanned bits, this stands out as one of our favorite Virginia hikes and we’d like to pair it with Strickler Knob as an overnighter someday soon.

HIKE INFO

hiked on March 27, 2016
George Washington National Forest, near Luray, VA
14 miles-ish*
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

*Soooo…when you read our Hiking Notes below, you’ll discover that this is one of those hikes where we sort of deviated from the original plan. What started out in our mind as an 8-9 mile hike became closer to 14. So it goes, sometimes.

Henri stands atop Duncan Knob, checking out the view.
“Pensive Henri” stands atop Duncan Knob. That’s Fergus’ trusty North Face day pack (he’s had & used for something like 20 years).
GETTING THERE

It’s an easy 2 hour drive from our home in Fredericksburg, VA to Crisman Hollow Road between Luray and New Market, VA, which is the starting spot for several great Virginia Hikes in the George Washington Forest Park (a particularly easy drive for Henri, who almost always falls asleep on the way while Fergus drives).

PARKING NOTES: So, Crisman Hollow Road says it is “closed to vehicles from Feb. 1 to the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season in April.” Two things to note here: (1) We did not actually know these parameters before setting out to hike, we only vaguely knew that the road may or may not be fully open and simply hoped for the best as we started out, and (2) March 27 was actually earlier than “the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season” in Virginia — something neither of us even knew existed — which began April 9 in 2016 (meaning April 1 should have been the “Friday before.”) To be 100% honest, we had to figure out if “Youth Spring Turkey Season” referenced youth turkeys, youth hunters, or both. Turns out, it means youth hunters.

This is all to say that the road turned out to be closed when we got there, anyway. We had to park in the little parking area near Story Book Trail, then walk past the ‘no parking beyond this point’ cable and up the road a good three miles before reaching our trailhead at Scothorn Gap Trail. So, 8 miles became 14 right away with this added walking there and back.

The reward at the top of Duncan Knob is a great view!
The reward at the top of Duncan Knob is a great view! (including Fergus’ feet?)
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Luray, VA on 27 March 2016
luray-weather

This was our Easter hike for 2016, the first time in many years that we decided to break our annual Old Rag tradition and opt to try new trails each year on this holiday. Easter hikes can vary when it comes to Virginia weather. We’ve had some where it was close to 70° F and some where it was south of 30° F. The temp on this day hovered around 55°, with some chilly wind at the top of the Knob.

This hike rated super high on our "SOLITUDE" scale.
This hike rated super high on our “SOLITUDE” scale.
OUR PREP/GEAR

This was planned as a day-hike coupled with 1 night of car-camping at a Luray campground called Outlanders. So the hike itself wasn’t much additional prep than we’d do for an Old Rag hike or any 8-10 mile day-hike — day pack with snacks, lunch, water, basic first-aid stuff, and layered clothing in case of weather changes along the way. We only took 1 pack (Fergus’ old North Face) and traded off with it throughout the day (typical for us on a day-hike, really).

The weekend prep, however, included planning for & packing our camping stuff (including what we call the Big Tent, camp stove, camp chairs, etc.) in the back of Fergus’ MINI Countryman and making sure we had all the fun food and drink for a luxurious one-nighter at a campground filled with amenities (read: picnic tables, tent pads, toilets and showers). The Big Tent is an inexpensive 4-person tent we bought years ago from Bass Pro Shops when the kids were still living at home. It’s great for car-camping even when it’s just the two of us because it’s easy to put up and yet has plenty of room if we need to pull in the gear (or the dogs) due to weather.

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We forgot cups, but necessity is the mother of invention (and we hadn’t forgotten Rex Goliath ‘juice boxes’).
OUR HIKE NOTES

Here is where we tell you that this hike was super fun and offered a lot of beauty, but didn’t go exactly as planned. The first half was fine. We knew that we might have to hoof it from the parking area to the trailhead if Crisman Hollow Road wasn’t open, so we were mentally prepared for the added 6 miles that tacked on when we found it closed. When the hike immediately changed from 8 to 14 miles, we didn’t blink too much. The first three were just walking up a road to the trailhead, and the last three would just be walking back down it to the car.

The hike to Duncan Knob went without a hitch, also. The Hiking Upward route directions are perfect, and the trail is varied and interesting — with some good steep hiking, and several good campsites along the way that we noted for future reference. We really enjoyed the Class 3 rock scramble to get to the top, pretty akin in terms of difficulty with Old Rag’s rock scramble, but not the same type of experience/feel because Duncan Knob’s is more a big pile of rocks to surmount rather than boulders to get over and through.

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Henri heading up the big pile o’ rocks to reach the top of Duncan Knob.

We enjoyed the views and lunch at the top of Duncan Knob, despite some pretty chilly wind, then headed back down. The “fun” began when we reached the junction with Scothorn Gap Trail once again. Henri felt that it might be best to just hike back out the way we came in (walk back down Crisman Hollow Road to the parking area); however, Fergus noted the sign to “Massanutten Trail Connector” and figured it wouldn’t add any extra miles to go that way instead. Henri deferred to Fergus, who turned out to be right…BUT.

The return hike along the Massanutten Trail was beautiful and the terrain was varied and interesting, and well worth the time and effort. It included lovely views as it wound pretty steeply down to the creek. It was when we had to hike back up to Crisman Hollow Road that Henri realized the folly of listening to Fergus. What goes down, it turns out, must come up.

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This stream is a pretty feature of the Massanutten Trail hike.

The climb up the Massanutten Connector Trail to Rte 211 is steep. Had it been the end of an 8-9 mile hike, Henri may have been a bit less whiney about it, but facing that Unrelenting Up at the tail-end of 14 miles was just plain hard work. She says it felt like doing 30 minutes of lunges after running a half-marathon. Let’s just say that it’s very good that the trail offered so much solitude because some of the words coming out of Henri’s mouth weren’t meant for family-friendly hiking.

By the time we got to the Outlanders campground for our overnight car-camping, Henri was thrilled with our spot (literally right next to the Shenandoah River), but somewhat less than excited to find that we were required to park on a hill above the river and hand-carry our gear down (and then back up the next day) rather than being able to pull right up, unload, and start relaxing.

These are the moments when you know your relationship is solid. No matter how tired and grimy we were (and we were), no matter that the sun had set already…we sucked it up and helped each other take the Big Tent and all our comfy-camping accoutrements down that hill and cooperated to set up camp without a single fight. That’s love, people.

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In the morning, rested, we were happy to have tromped down the hill with our stuff the night before. What a great spot.

As it turned out, being “off season,” the tent camping sites by the river were ALL vacant except for ours. Henri noted that she probably wouldn’t love camping here during busy season because the pads are very close to one another. Unless we decided to group camp, we might not enjoy having neighbors just a few feet away. As it turned out, though, we had the riverside to ourselves. We woke up early and enjoyed coffee in our make-shift wine-box coffee cups (even when car camping, we sometimes forget stuff) and enjoyed the views, breakfast, and each other’s company for a few hours before tearing down the Big Tent, hauling all our stuff back up the hill, and heading homeward.

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Relaxing next to the Shenandoah on a beautiful spring morning.

It should be noted that we have learned a lot about hiking and about this area, in particular, in the months following this hike. There are half a dozen things we would do differently if we were to hike Duncan Knob again. Having said that, we both had a really good time and remember this as a terrific Easter hike.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • Rock scramble: always a favorite on a hike
  • SOLITUDE: we saw only 2 other people on the trail all day long (a couple of mountain bikers who were even less pleased than Henri when they discovered the steep climb back to Rte. 211)
  • Views!
  • Camping by the riverside and making plans to backpack & camp along the trail soon

Hiking Strickler Knob

This quickly became our new favorite hike in Virginia, to date. Although not a loop hike, this one had all of the features we both love: water, cool camping areas, rock scrambling/climbing, varied terrain, solitude, and enough distance & difficulty to feel like a physical challenge. If you enjoy hiking Old Rag, we think you’d enjoy this one.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 27 December 2016
George Washington National Forest, Near New Market Gap & Luray Valley
10 miles
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

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view of New Market Gap from the summit stack
GETTING THERE

It took about 2 hours to drive to the parking area/trailhead from Fredericksburg, VA.
IMPORTANT PARKING NOTE: We were glad that the Crisman Hollow Road was open for us to get to the parking area at the trailhead. That’s not true year-round; it was closed when we went to hike Duncan Knob last Easter, adding a 3 mile walk up the road to our trailhead [“Crisman Hollow Road is closed to vehicles from Feb. 1 to the Friday before Youth Spring Turkey Season in April” …now we know!]

Strickler Knob Hike
Fergus got to park right by Massanutten trailhead.
WEATHER/CONDITIONS

New Market, VA on 27 December 2016
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Absolutely GORGEOUS, unseasonably warm day (the reason we decided to venture out on this hike, really). Our iPhone weather apps were telling us it was about 62-65° F during most of our hike. Nearby Luray, VA weather reports suggest that temps topped out there at 70° F for the day, so it’s possible that once the sun was beating down on us, we may have moved higher than 65°. Both of us ended up stripping off layers and hiked in short sleeves most of the day (until the windy summit). Unbelievable that it was 2 days after Christmas.

Had to add the wind speed information here because once we got to the summit, we’re pretty sure we were feeling some of those 32 mph gusts. Henri was legitimately afraid to climb to the unprotected summit because the wind seemed strong enough to blow her right off!

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“THAT is where we’re headed.”
OUR PREP/GEAR

The usual day-hike prep, although each time we head out we get a little smarter about adding safety and “what if” items. Because the description of this hike included mention of possible bushwhacking towards the summit, Fergus sharpened his machete and we carried it in with us…didn’t end up needing it, but were glad to have it just in case. Henri also packed her headlamp this time. Didn’t use it, but if we’d been even 30 minutes slower or lingered 30 minutes longer at the vistas, we would have.

As usual, Henri carried in her Go Girl, but this is the first hike where she actually used it in the wild. She says, “Ladies, let me just tell you that stand-up peeing is a REVELATION on the trail. Aside from the views, it was the most magnificent part of the hike. Took a little finessing to make sure there wouldn’t be any mess, but once I got it figured out…I was sold. I will never squat again.”

This was Henri’s first hike in brand new Merrell Moab hiking shoes (Christmas present from Fergus) and she was very happy not to have accidentally peed on them. She’s been hiking in Merrell’s Azura Carex mid boots for the past few years and has loved them, but wanted a low hiking shoe instead of a boot. Really pleased with the Moab’s performance on the trail, and comfort.

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Henri’s new Merrell kicks!
OUR HIKE NOTES

This is not a loop. It’s an out-and-back. Usually, that would deter us (boring), but the terrain on this hike is so varied and interesting that we actually wanted to hike back the way we came just to see/experience it again. There is a way to exit to Crisman Hollow Road along Scothorn Gap Trail which would have made for an easy trek back down the road to the parking area, and we thought about it, but opted for the tougher Massanutten Trail hike out instead. This is our 2nd time on this stretch of the Massanutten Trail. Last time was at Easter 2016, when we took an un-planned detour along this stretch after hiking up to Duncan Knob. You could do a loop that includes both Knobs, but we don’t think we’d want to do that unless we were planning an overnighter.

As usual, the Hiking Upward description of the hike was pretty spot on and super useful….except…distance. Our GPS showed that we reached the summit in about 5 miles, making the entire out-and-back hike a good 10 miler (as opposed to the 8.6 miles listed in the description). We did not deviate from the trail outlined in the description, follow any tangents, or get lost. It was legit 10 miles out and back.

The blazes on the Massanutten and Strickler Knob trails appeared really fresh/recent. Although the Hiking Upward description stated that the pink blaze at the Knob trail might be gone or hard to see, we found the opposite. Trail markings were bright, frequent, and easy-to-spot. We did not need to bushwhack to get to the summit at all.

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Henri trying not to get blown off the rocks, climbing to the summit.

There is a shorter version of the hike coming in from Scothorn Gap trail, but we wanted a challenging hike on this day…and we got it! Having read descriptions of the hike a couple of places online and having hiked the Massanutten Trail in the past, we knew this one was going to be grueling in places (most notably, climbing steeply back out the last mile to the trailhead).

Saw (very nearly stepped in) LOTS of scat on the trail. Fergus was convinced much of it was bear. Henri was equally convinced it was not. Some of it was definitely big cat or coyote. Horse hoof prints and horse scat definitely present on the orange-blazed Massanutten, before we turned off for Strickler Knob itself. Impressive because the trail along the ridge was super narrow. The only wildlife we ran across was a toad trying desperately to pretend to be some dry leaves, and a couple of buzzards in a dead tree at the very summit (our welcoming committee, as it were).

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“Nothing to see here, folks. Just some leaves.”

The first mile heads dowwwwwn, very steeply so. As you enter the trail, you just know that hiking back up that ridge is going to absolutely suck, but it’s beautiful and so you tell yourself it will all be worth it.

The Massanutten Trail to Strickler Knob turn off is a nice mix of up and down (mostly up) and levels off in enough places that you get a respite from the climb. Beautiful stream and light rock scrambling along the way. The trail is nicely varied in terms of terrain. Once you reach the turn off to the pink-blazed Strickler Knob trail, there’s a lovely view, and from there to the summit it’s pretty much view-after-view-after-view.

The rock/boulder climb to the summit is no joke. If you enjoy Old Rag, you should also enjoy this, although this seemed even more challenging (maybe just because we’ve done Old Rag so many times now). It may have also seemed more difficult simply due to the wind. As we neared the summit, the gusts were really, really formidable on the New Market Gap side. It was pretty protected from the wind on the Luray Valley side, where someone had built a fire pit perfect for hanging out and having a snack before heading back down.

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Fergus getting some shots of the Luray Valley.

 

Some ass-clowns had decided it would be a good idea to spray-paint the rocks at the very summit. We couldn’t really read what it said, and we hope the elements take care of erasing it soon.

The camping sites along the path beckon. Someone had stacked firewood near the one about a mile from the trailhead. So inviting! We really want to pack in our hammocks and/or ultralight tent and spend a night down by that stream.

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Great campsite about 1 mile into the hike.

The hike back up the ridge to the trailhead/parking area from the stream…whew. Steep. We knew it would be, but Henri underestimated how tired her legs would be at mile 9. Not for the faint of heart nor the out-of-shape. We stopped quite a few times to catch our breath. The good news is that it was, by this time, sunset. Each time we paused, we looked back out at the pink-orange light illuminating the ridge and the valley and felt glad to stop and see it. We could see the Knob we had just climbed, illuminated in pink, purple, orange sky…just gorgeous…and it was all good.

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Henri & her favorite Osprey day pack.

 

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • The vistas. Holy wow, the views!!
  • SOLITUDE: We literally saw no other people all day long (had the same experience on Duncan Knob hike at Easter).
  • Interesting and challenging terrain, with lots of variation.
  • Climbing. The summit has a fun, challenging rock scramble with some near-vertical climbs.
  • Some great hiking along (and crossing) streams, too.
  • We want to go back and camp at the campsite near the stream. Maybe hammock-camp.

Hiking Overall Run/Beecher Ridge

Nicknamed the “Trail of Many Nicknames” (see hiking notes below), this one goes in the category of half-fantastic, half-dull and tedious. We would do a shortened out-and-back version of this hike again to see the waterfalls in various seasons, but we probably won’t do the entire loop again.

HIKE INFO

hiked on 23 December 2016
Shenandoah National Park, near Bentonville
8.5 miles
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

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View along Overall Run Trail
GETTING THERE

It took us about 1 hr 30 min to drive to the parking area/trailhead from Fredericksburg, VA.

Pay attention to the parking notes on Hiking Upward. There is no “lot” to park in, just a little bump-out in the road at the tail end of 630 at the start of someone’s private drive. You have to walk up that drive (with homeowner’s blessings, we assume from the signage at the base of the driveway) to get to the trailhead. There are lots of “private property” and “keep out” signs on both sides of the drive and at the start of the trail, until you get on the trail proper. SNP is definitely encouraging hikers to honor those signs so that trail access can be preserved amicably with the landowners. The parking area is so small that only maybe 3-4 cars could park there safely, and then only if they cooperated with one another. Two cars parallel-parked filled the area entirely when we were there.

WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Bentonville, VA on 23 December 2016

Saw the sun for a short time just as we reached the bigger waterfall. Beautiful!

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Gratuitous Couple Selfie! (Fergus used his remote & tripod to get the shot)
OUR PREP/GEAR

Just typical day-hike prep…water and snacks in day bags and out the door. Put a little thought into what to wear because it was chilly to start, but we knew we’d get warm as we moved…so, layers. Henri is the cold-weather wimp of the two of us, so she wore fleece-lined tights under hiking pants with a long-sleeve sport-tech tee, a sweatshirt, and a jacket. By the time we were 1/4 way up the first hill, the jacket was unzipped, her beanie was off, and she says she felt pretty comfortable. There wasn’t much wind, so that was good. It was cold enough for the waterfalls to be iced over, which was beautiful.

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Henri with her trusty Osprey Daylite pack, heading up the private drive to trailhead.
OUR HIKE NOTES

Somehow we managed to do the trail backwards (as Hiking Upward has it mapped out, anyway). This had some pros and cons…and the cons, to us, outweighed the pros. Doing the trail backwards meant that we started up Beecher Ridge Trail, which we have now nicknamed “Boring Ridge Trail.” We were super glad that it was December and the leaves were off the trees because were it not for a vague glimpse of the mountain ridges through the branches, there was just about nothing to see for the first 3-4 miles of the hike…which was UP. So we also called that leg of the trail “Unrewarded Up.” No vistas along the way. And, once we were past the stream at the start of the trail, no water feature for the first half of the hike. Didn’t even get to see a black bear (Fergus was so bummed). The other downer of the Up on this part of the loop was that the trail had not been cleared or maintained in a long time, so we were slogging through 6-8 inches of fallen leaves, earning the trail the additional nickname “Ankle Turner.” Lots of hidden rocks and roots and brambles under those leaves! In a couple of spots, branches or small trees had fallen across the trail and we either cleared them ourselves or found a way around them. It wasn’t un-fun, honestly, but it was one of the least maintained trails we’ve seen so far in Shenandoah National Park.

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Henri doing some trail clearing on Beecher Ridge Trail.

Once we turned down Overall Run Trail, things instantly improved. It was cleared/maintained (though still leafy…which was fine until we started to go down and then we wished we’d brought a sled to slide down the slippery blanket of leaves). This is where we picked up the stream, as well. And, of course, the UP was pretty much over, which meant less physical work to just move forward. It wasn’t long before we came across the top of a lovely waterfall that was partially iced over. Had a snack there and then proceeded down to a REALLY gorgeous vista and waterfall, just as the sun was starting to go down beyond the ridge. Lovely.

 

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Fergus getting some shots from the top of waterfall #1.

In a way, we’re glad we did it backwards because we got the work & boring bit over and ended with gorgeous views and interesting terrain. Had we done it the “right” way, we would have left the cool stuff behind and spent the last 2/3 of the hike trudging/slogging through the boring leaves back to the car. So, maybe we take our “cons outweigh the pros” comment back, after all. We remarked afterwards that it really changes your experience to come across waterfalls from the top rather than the bottom…you hear them, but can’t see them until you’re almost falling over the edge. Kinda cool.

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Oh hey there, Waterfall #2!

We decided we would do this trail again, but probably only hike (the “right” direction) up to the waterfall and then back. We don’t think we’d do the whole loop again, just because so much of it was pretty dull in comparison to that part…and there are so many other trails to try!

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • The waterfalls and vistas on Overall Run Trail
  • SOLITUDE: We only saw 1 other person on the trail the entire day (5 hours of hiking)
  • A few animal encounters: 1 white-tailed deer, 3 pheasant, and a small bear (we think small…it was jussssst on the other side of some brush from us. We heard it moving around, heard what was clearly a bear cub sound, but didn’t get to see it). The audio below wasn’t taken by us, but it’s the same sound we heard.

 

 

Little Devils Stairs

A great little day-hike with lots of UP at the beginning and plenty of time near the burbling stream & pretty waterfalls. You get rewarded with lovely views after the first two miles of steep climbing and criss-crossing the water. The remaining four miles are down, partially on a fire road. The stop at Bolen Cemetery makes this one worth doing.

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Hard to argue with a view like this.
HIKE INFO

hiked on 26 November 2016
Shenandoah National Park, near Sperryville
6 miles
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more:  Hiking Upward Link

WEATHER/CONDITIONS

Sperryville, VA on 26 November 2016
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Saw the sun for a short time. We got some brief snow flurries up at the top!

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Henri’s usual day hike gear: Merrell boots & Osprey pack.
OUR PREP/GEAR

Almost no prep. This was a spur-of-the-moment hike that we decided to do midway through our day, so we pretty much just threw some snacks, water bottles, and minimal gear into day-hike packs and headed out the door. It was a good bit warmer in Fredericksburg than in the hills of Sperryville that day, so Henri was really glad that Fergus had an extra wind-breaker in the car; otherwise, it could have turned out to be a lot less enjoyable!

OUR HIKE NOTES

The Hiking Upward notes/directions were spot on for this hike. No real danger of getting lost. It’s just about all UP for the first 2 miles — some of it pretty steep — with some fun rock scrambling and criss-crossing back-and-forth over the stream until you get to the top. To us, that was the best part of the hike. The remaining 4 miles are mostly down, 2 of them on a fire trail and then 2 on hiking trail. The 6-mile hike is kind of cool in that it’s divided neatly into three 2-mile segments: 2 miles up with rocks and stream, 2 miles down fire trail (a nice rest after all the climbing, and a good chance for conversation, if a bit bland in terms of view in most places), and then a stop at Bolen Cemetery before turning through some forest for 2 more miles down to the parking area.

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Learning about the history of the hills was worth this stop.

We were on the trail from about 1PM to about 5PM, pushing the amount of daylight left towards the end…so we didn’t stop to eat, hammock, or hang out for more than few brief moments to catch our breath (on the way up!) and get some photos.

OUR FAVORITE BITS
  • The climb up at the beginning…love the rock scrambling and the water!
  • Bolen Cemetery, which appears to have a really interesting history and features a plaque with a poem that pays homage to the story

This hike caused us to learn more about the history of the beautiful Shenandoah National Park that we enjoy so much. It’s a story worth learning, if you haven’t yet.

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Henri for scale.
AFTER THE HIKE

We stopped for an early dinner at Thornton River Grille in Sperryville, then headed to the real reason we picked this hike  —  our ulterior motive for the day: a visit to Copper Fox Distillery to buy some white dog whiskey for Aaron to age in his at-home barrel kit.