Fun, pretty, easy, water-feature hike near Charlottesville that offers big pay off for low effort. Excellent low-key hike for when you want some pretty Virginia scenery and fresh air, without all that pesky UP.
hiked on 5 March 2017
Moorman’s River Hike, Near Charlottesville, VA
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more: Hiking Upward Link
The start of this hike is located just outside of Charlottesville, by the Sugar Hollow Reservoir. The parking directions provided by Hiking Upward are pretty good, but they don’t mention the gate at the start of the trail.
This is said to be a really popular hike (read: low on solitude) because of its river, waterfalls, and swimming holes; however, on this early March day the parking area was only partially full when we started out (though a bit more crowded as we were leaving). We didn’t see more than a dozen other hikers on the trail mid-winter…but we can imagine the trail is bustling in the spring, summer, and fall.
White Hall, VA on 5 March 2017
We’ve had such a crazy warm winter in Virginia that we worried about this hike being cold by comparison. It was actually pretty perfect — sunny, not too much wind, and temperatures that allowed us to take off our jackets when we got warmed up.
OUR HIKE NOTES
We were looking for a short hike today because our ulterior motive was to head into Charlottesville to check things out there when we finished. This hike was selected because of its shortness, its proximity to C’ville, but also because it promised lots of water along the way. Henri is a sucker for river hikes and waterfalls. She knows you’re not supposed to go chasing them, but she does anyway. And she’s gonna have it her way, or nothin’ at all.
Hiking Upward mentions “the yellow-blazed North Fork Moorman’s River trail” as you start out, but the first blazes you actually see will be orange. The yellow blazes pick up after you’ve walked north a bit.
We’d had some storms in the week preceding our hike and they appear to have affected trail access quite a bit! Soon after we started out, we came upon a perplexed family of hikers (with a wee little one in back carrier) trying to figure out whether it was worth it to scramble their way through the downed trees that were blocking the trail. Henri forged ahead to do some recon, and convinced them that it cleared up soon and wasn’t too hard to pass. The storm had evidently hit this small area hard. We counted 7 trees across the trail, ripped out of the earth at the roots, and many more downed in the same space, but not inhibiting the trail.
This is an out-and-back hike that leads to Big Branch Falls, though you could easily extended it to a longer hike if you (unlike us) weren’t already hearing the call of a brewery in Charlottesville. It’s one of those “lots of reward for just a little effort” hikes that make it popular and also make it a good hike if you’re taking friends who don’t hike often. There’s virtually no UP, at just 500 feet elevation gain. It’s just lots of fun and pretty…hard to beat when you want a low-key hiking day.
The trail winds next to and over Moorman’s River, allowing plenty of access to play/climb on some boulders, check out the clear trout-stocked river waters, and appreciate the prettiness of the cascades. The waterfalls weren’t in full-flow on the day we visited, but still very pretty! It’s easy to see why people head here during hot summer days to dip in the many easily-accessed swimming holes and play at the base of the falls.
Because it was winter, we got to experience the magic of ice. Check out this short video Henri took on the way up to the top of the second (bigger) falls — it’s water seeping under a sheet of ice, though it almost looks sinister (in a beautiful way):
When our hike was over, we stopped for a bit at the Sugar Hollow Reservoir, which is just beautiful and got Fergus all worked up about coming back to do some trout fishing. Not only is the reservoir stocked with brook and rainbow trout as part of the VDGIF’s “put and take” trout program, but a section just below the dam is a special regulation area stocked by the Thomas Jefferson chapter of Trout Unlimited for fly fishing only.
OUR FAVORITE BITS
boulders to climb on
proximity to Charlottesville
solitude level…on THIS day…we may not be so pleased with the crowd in peak season
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new favorite day-hike in Shenandoah National Park! This little gem has all the things: cascading rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes, boulders to climb, places to fish, cabins to visit, and gorgeous views — all with lots of solitude. We saw maybe 4 people on the trail all day long, and had the top completely to ourselves.
hiked on 5 February 2017
Bear Church Rock, Near Syria, VA
8.5 miles (out and back), with a 1-mile side jaunt to Jones Mountain Cabin
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more: Hiking Upward Link
About an hour and 15 minutes from our home in Fredericksburg, VA, this hike starts at Graves Mill trailhead. It’s easy to find. The parking area is right next to the clearly marked trailhead where VA662 (Graves Road) dead-ends next to the lower Rapidan River. Once you park, just walk through the boulders that keep the trailhead free of motor vehicles. There were about half a dozen cars there the morning we hiked, but we didn’t see very many people on the trail. It could be that some folks were fishing rather than hiking.
Graves Mill, VA on 5 February 2017
What a beautiful day to hike! We simply couldn’t believe this was February in Virginia. Mid 50s (F), sunny, clear. We kept marveling at what a perfect day it was to be outdoors. Though we’d both love some snow, we’re taking advantage of the temperate days to get out and explore Virginia as much as possible. We got warm enough on this hike to pack away the jackets pretty quickly…until nearing the top, where cold wind forced us back into colder weather layers and nearly blew us off Bear Church Rock.
This was a leisurely hiking day. We got up, had coffee and breakfast and putzed around the house until almost 9:30 AM before heading out. The usual day-hike prep: throw snacks, water, and basic first aid in our day packs and head out the door. Made sure there was plenty of space in our packs to shed layers because temperature was predicted to be over 50° F.
OUR HIKE NOTES
Henri loves any hike that has a good ‘water feature,’ and this one certainly fits that description. You start out at the lower Rapidan River and then pick up the Staunton River. There’s all sorts of cascades and waterfalls, including some great trout fishing pools and at least one swimming hole we want to come back to visit when it’s warmer out. On this weekend, there was a bit too much ice to make it seem quite friendly enough for a dip! The presence of the rivers enhances the hike quite a bit, but beware — we found ourselves playing around on the boulders and checking out the cascades a lot on the way up, slowing our hike considerably. If you’re in a hurry to put in mileage, this is a hard trail because there’s so much to check out!
Fergus found a UVA water monitoring station along the Staunton River that begged for investigation:
The Hiking Upward notes mention that the trail becomes steeper when you reach Jones Mountain Trail. What it fails to mention is that the half-mile trek from the Jones Mountain Trail junction up to the top of Bear Church Rock is MUCH steeper. It’s quite a good climb (though beautiful and worth it) to get to the top. The first 3 miles of the hike lulled us into a bit of complacency, but there’s definitely some “up” to this hike, after all.
Before you head to the top, you may want to visit the primitive Jones Mountain Cabin by turning down the Jones Mountain Trail about 3 miles into the hike (at the junction mentioned above). This is a deviation from your route, and you’ll have to double-back after visiting the cabin, but Hiking Upward‘s notes are totally correct in saying that the side trail to visit the cabin is “well worth the extra distance.” At the same time, there were a couple of things about that deviation we would add: We were delighted to find an unanticipated boulder outcropping to our left, very shortly after starting down Jones Mountain Trail toward the cabin. Stepping out onto those boulders provided a spectacular view.
It’s worth the trip down the trail for that alone. The other thing Hiking Upward neglects to mention is that the trail goes pretty steeply downward to the cabin, which of course means that returning from it is a fairly steep climb up. Hiking Upward does mention that Jones Mountain Cabin is available for rent; however, they don’t note that the cabin may be rented out on the day you want to go see it…and that the people renting it might like their privacy. We got close to the cabin to find a handwritten note politely asking hikers not to continue further. So, we didn’t get to check out the cabin very closely — which was a disappointment. We’d recommend that you check the cabin’s reservation status at this link before heading to it, just so you know what to expect.
Our hike back down went very quickly, partially because we didn’t stop to play as much as we did on the way up and partially because of, well, gravity. All-in-all, the hike took us about 4.5 hours, including fooling around a lot on the way up, some time climbing around the boulders at the top, time gaping and marveling at the gorgeous views, and even time to make a cup of coffee with our Jetboil and have a snack before heading back down.
We’ve agreed that this became one of our favorite day-hikes in the Shenandoah National Park. We want to come back to hammock and do some fly-fishing along the rivers…and maybe rent out Jones Mountain Cabin!
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.
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
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.
Sperryville, VA on 15 January 2017
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
Luray, VA on 27 March 2016
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Camping by the riverside and making plans to backpack & camp along the trail soon
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.
Saw the sun for a short time. We got some brief snow flurries up at the top!
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.
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
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.