If you’re looking for a fun, easy hike to see the sunset over spectacular views of the hills and valleys of Shenandoah National Park, this is the ticket. If you’re looking for privacy, seclusion, and solitude…search elsewhere. This hike is easy and short, with BIG pay-off. That means that lots of people do it, year-round.
hiked on 8 July 2017
Near Syria, VA
difficulty rating, access information, terrain map & more: Alltrails Link
This is one of the easiest short hikes to access. We entered Shenandoah National Park at the Thornton Gap entrance and drove to the parking area at around MP 45.6 on Skyline Drive. The drive itself is very pretty!
It was a really moderate evening for July in Virginia, which is one of the reasons we headed out for a hike. Temp at the start of the hike was about 70° F. It was pretty darned windy at the summit, however, and it got much cooler as the sun went down.
Our actual motive in choosing this short hike was to get to Sperryville to try the new Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen at Thornton River Grille. What a gem! We heartily recommend stopping there if you do any of the hikes that begin and end near Sperryville (there’s a cute little bar/pub attached to the store now, too…though we didn’t stop in there on this visit).
OUR HIKE NOTES
This was intended to be, and met the expectation of, a short and easy hike. We came with the goal of doing no more than 2 miles in search of a beautiful sunset…and Hawksbill delivers on both.
If you want a secluded summit experience, this is not the one for you. Lots of people head here to take in the views each evening because there is such huge pay-off for such little effort. We marveled at one young college woman who arrived in a sundress and sandals. So, you know, this isn’t exactly a difficult hike.
From the parking lot, it goes up at quite an incline immediately. There’s some climb to it. The trail is pretty and well marked. No fear of getting lost in the short distance from car to sunset. There’s a little shelter just before the summit with a place for a fire and no small amount of graffiti (thankfully, most of it is done with charcoal and not permanent).
There is a stone “observation deck” at the summit, but also some rocks to scramble around on or nestle into as you watch. Kind of a perfect place to take a date, actually. Expect lots of sunset photographers to show up, vying for the best spot. Perhaps you can see why:
Three days and two nights in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area over spring break turned out to be a fantastic WV mini-vacation! The incredible thing about Dolly Sods is how varied the terrain becomes over the course of a 20 mile loop — meadows, forests, rock scrambles, crashing waterfalls, jungle-like greenery, marshy bogs. We walked through just about everything but desert in just 3 days.
Day 1: WIND! But otherwise, lovely. Night 1: RAIN! (20% precipitation prediction became 100%) Day 2: Rain in AM (played cards in tent until it passed), LOVELY in PM for continued hike Night 2: Clear but very cold in the wee hours Day 3: Gorgeous.
Fergus has a 70 liter REI pack. Henri has a 50 liter Kelty. We didn’t exactly plan to be “ultralight” overall, but we own several key lightweight pieces of gear (notably: tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats). These items helped us stay comfy and easily divide our total pack weight so that neither of us carried more than 18% of our respective body weight. Henri’s pack came in at about 11.5 kg (25 lbs) with 3 liters of water in a Camelbak. Fergus’ pack, also with water and with tent strapped to it, weighed about 15.4 kg (34 lbs).
We used just about everything we packed, given the changes in weather and temperature over the 3 days. Really, in reflecting, we couldn’t come up with much that we would have left behind if we did this trip again (except Fergus’ stupid Javadrip…but that didn’t really add weight). What we would add: One more pair of dry socks, each.
Stand-Out Pieces of Gear — Stuff We LOVED:
REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent — Super easy to put up/take down and kept us dry even in a major prolonged downpour the first night.
GravityWorks Platypus 2 liter water filter system — We each packed in 3 liters in our Camelbaks, but then relied on the Platypus to filter stream water for cooking and drinking after that was gone. This thing was FAST and effective. We can’t say enough good things about it. Literally life-sustaining, easy-to-use, and easy to pack in and out.
JetBoil Minimo Cooking System — This has been a favorite of ours for a long time. Light & fassssst.
Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried foods. Light to pack several meals, easy to rehydrate, packaging keeps food piping hot. Plenty of food: when they say “2 servings” in a package, they mean it. Flavors & consistency very good on all the meals we brought. No ill effects in terms of tummy/intestinal trouble. Fergus is particularly a fan of the crème brûlée (yes, you read that right).
campsite on night #1 (pre-rain)
LOVE the Platypus!
HATE the JavaDrip
Home Sweet Tent
Home Sweet Tent
Home Sweet Tent
campsite night #2
OUR HIKE NOTES
We pretty much followed the Hiking Upward 3-Day hike plan, with only minor deviations related to user error. We’ve re-published thosehike directions here (somewhat abbreviated and with Henri’s punctuation editing). Our notes are added in GREEN, plus our photos.
From the parking area on FR75, pass the trailhead sign and start down the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522). Note that none of the trails in the Dolly Sods area are blazed, however they are well marked with signage.
“Well-marked” is half true. There’s a lot of trail markings up to mile 7 of this hike, and then again after mile 15. Between 7-15, the trail is only marked at intersections. There are no blazes to let you know you’re on the right trail. Most of the time, this is not a problem.
Mile 1.0 – The Bear Rocks Trail becomes narrow, passing through a boggy section and over a wooden walkway before arriving at the crossing for Red Creek. The trail continues on the left and climbs steeply for 0.2 miles then makes a sharp turn right into a fern field. Walk over another wooden footpath, entering a wooded area where the trail climbs towards the first meadow. Exit the woods and pass over the first open meadow. The Bear Rocks Trail will descend through a hollow and climb over another rise, then end at the intersection of the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521).
Mile 2.3 – Continue straight uphill on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) then, in 0.2 miles, reach the intersection of the Beaver View Trail (TR523).
Mile 2.5 – Continue straight on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) as it leaves the meadows, then makes a sharp left hand turn into a wooded area. Exit the wooded area and shortly arrive at the intersection of the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524).
Mile 3.8 – Turn left on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524) then, in 0.3 miles, reach one of the best overlooks of the hike into Canaan Valley. The next 1.4 miles on the Rocky Ridge Trail passes the area where most of the windswept boulders are located.
SUPER crazy windy the first 4 miles, and — at mile 3.5 — some brief rain. We found the perfect little protected spot nestled in some trees to wait it out and have a snack, then continued on our way. The “windswept boulders” and view of Canaan Valley are spectacular!
Mile 5.5 – Reach the intersection of the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526). Stay right on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524), climbing over Harman Mountain, then arrive at the intersection of the Harman Trail (TR525).
Mile 6.4 – Continue on the Rocky Ridge Trail (TR524) for another 0.5 miles to the intersection of the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511).
Mile 6.9 – Continue downward for 0.2 miles to the 4 way intersection of the Breathed Mountain Trail (TR553), Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513), and Forestry Road that leads down to Canaan Valley.
Mile 7.1 – There are 2 information boards at this intersection with maps of the area. Take the narrower Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) directly ahead as it descends into the woods. This section of Dolly Sods is more wooded, with heath and sphagnum bogs. Pass several good campsites as you descend gradually along Stonecoal Run.
OK. So. At about mile 8, we deviated from the Hiking Upward plan (unintentionally). We sort of missed the part about “pass several good campsites” and made camp at what we thought was mile 9.4 (where directions say “on the opposite bank is a small campsite in a sandy area”) when Fergus saw a “campsite on the opposite bank” with a sort of sandy-ish area. [We were actually about a mile and a half north of where we thought we were. But we were tired and it looked so inviting!] No complaints, even though the early stop made Day 2 a bit confusing (see below). They really ARE good campsites! We turned in somewhere between 8:30-9 PM, and the rain started shortly after…came down hard throughout the night and didn’t let up until mid-day on Day 2.
We waited out the rain until late morning, then packed camp just as it was letting up. We were prepared to hike in the drizzle, but the timing was remarkable. By the time we set off, the sun was coming out and the day stayed beautiful.
Because we had camped earlier on the trail than we thought, there was some confusion at the start of Day 2. We had crossed a little stream, thinking it was Stonecoal Run (see mile 9.4 below), but it was really just some little tributary. Not knowing this, it took a mile or so of hiking and back-tracking before we figured out that we hadn’t been where we thought we were and got ourselves re-oriented.
“This section of Dolly Sods is more wooded, with heath and sphagnum bogs.”
Yeah, true. It is filled with those things. What it is NOT filled with is any kind of blaze or trail marking. Between the “several good campsites” we were supposed to pass at mile 8ish and the campsite noted at mile 9.4, there is a turn in the woods that isn’t marked and is difficult to see. If you continue straight on the most visibly obvious path, you’ll walk right into a bog. (The worn footpath through the bog leads us to believe we are not the only hikers to have made this mistake).
The only help we can offer is (A) note the turns on the map even if they aren’t marked on the trail, and (B) before you get to the bog you will see a really big, twisted, dead tree in the forest that looks sort of either magical or maybe even sinister…like it really doesn’t belong there. The trail turns left just past that weird dead tree and continues up a hill through the woods for about a mile and a half. Do not go straight into the bog, no matter how much clearer that trail seems than the one going uphill through the trees (trust us).
The other bit of helpful advice we can offer: You will be traveling south with Stonecoal Run on your left (you’re on its right bank). The Hiking Upward directions don’t mention that you must cross Stonecoal Run to its left bank at about mile 8.5 — an easy crossing, for the most part — to continue on TR513. It’s on the map, but not the written directions. When they say “cross Stonecoal Run” at mile 9.4…that’s a second and more significant crossing from the left bank back to the right bank.
Mile 9.4 – Cross Stonecoal Run. On the opposite bank is a small campsite in a sandy area. Continue downstream on the Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) [on the right bank!] and in 0.2 miles pass the intersection of the Dunkenbarger Trail (TR558).
When we hiked it, there was NO good place to “cross Stonecoal Run” from the left to the right bank where the campsite is located. And, Stonecoal Run turned out to be a couple of feet deep. Maybe the previous night’s rain had something to do with that, and perhaps other times it’s much easier to cross. There were some downed logs that Henri crossed with moderate success (read: only one foot got soaked). Fergus just forged the stream.
We will say this: We discovered that you really MUST cross Stonecoal Run to find the trail and move forward. It’s not optional. You can try to follow a trail on the left bank, but it will quickly dead-end into the brush. Unless you want to bushwhack (we suppose you could), you need to cross Stonecoal Run near that campsite and turn left to follow the right-bank trail (clear and easy) for about a quarter mile.
Mile 9.6 – Continue on the Big Stonecoal Trail (TR513) for 0.6 miles crossing Stonecoal Run…
“Crossing Stonecoal Run” again to regain TR513 on the left bank is not as easy as just stepping across some rocks or downed limbs, and you should prepare to get wet feet. We looked up and down the bank, but found no way to cross without wading through the water. It’s not deep, but it’s not dry either. (Note that this is the third time you cross Stonecoal Run to stay on TR513. The crossings are R to L bank at about mile 8.5, L to R bank at about mile 9.5, R to L bank again just before mile 10).
…then entering a section of dense Rhododendron, pass a waterfall, and arrive at the intersection of the Rocky Point Trail (TR554).
This section of the hike is just GORGEOUS. It feels as if you’re hiking through a dense jungle. The waterfall is breathtaking. The views are amazing. It’s a great section.
Mile 10.4 – Stay left on the Rocky Point Trail (TR554), arriving at a vista to the south. At the point where the trail heads back to the north, look closely for an unsigned trail with no blazes and marked with occasional rock cairns, that leads left uphill. This is a rock scramble that leads to the Lion’s Head rock formation. After exploring, return to the Rocky Point Trail (TR554) and continue north towards Red Creek.
It was easy to find the rock scramble to Lion’s Head. Previous hikers had marked it by tying orange flags to a couple of trees. We figured it was either a warning to stay away or a hint that this was the right place. Luckily, it turned out to be the latter.
Rocky Point Trail is aptly named. It’s not so much a trail as…rocks. Just lots and lots of ankle-twisting, foot-pummeling rocks with no real soil to be seen. For about 2 miles, the views are gorgeous…but those rocks are punishing. The trail then becomes a mix of rocks and soil and tree roots, which provides some relief but you’ll want to stay alert to keep from tripping, stubbing a toe, or twisting an ankle too badly. Note: Good hiking shoes or boots are pretty much required unless you want super sore feet.
It was along this section that Fergus discovered lots of WV ramps growing in the wild. A crazed ramp-lover, he was thrilled! Ramps are a type of wild leek with an onion-y, peppery kick. He picked several for us to enjoy at camp – raw, cooked in the JetBoil, and roasted on the fire. Turns out, ramp festivals or ramp dinners are a huge thing in WV in April and May. We’ll do a separate blog post to tell you more about it!
Mile 13.2 – The Rocky Point Trail (TR554) ends at the intersection with the Red Creek Trail (TR514). Continue straight on the Red Creek Trail (TR514)…
This part goes UP. Not the steepest up we’ve ever upped….but worth mentioning.
…for 1.4 miles to the intersection with the Breathed Mountain Trail (TR553). Continue straight on TR514 and shortly arrive at the Forks of Red Creek. There are numerous campsites at ‘The Forks.’
Mile 14.6 – Cross the Left Fork of Red Creek and stay to your left as the Red Creek Trail (TR514) passes through a camping area then re-enters the woods on the left.
This crossing is much easier than the Stonecoal Run crossings from the previous day. Depending on how high the water is, you should be able to step across rocks to get to the other side. On this day, one or two of the rocks were underwater. Waterproof boots help. Fergus just took off his shoes & socks and forged the water. Henri rock-hopped with little trouble.
From this point the Red Creek Trail (TR514) becomes steeper…
This is probably the steepest sustained climbing you do during the entire loop. It’s also very rocky…but also very pretty!
…until it enters the first of two large meadows. After passing through the second meadow the trail re-enters the woods and ends at the intersection of the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511).
Mile 15.5 – Turn right on the Blackbird Knob Trail (TR511) passing through several boggy sections, then enter a small meadow and arrive at the intersection of the Upper Red Creek Trail (TR509).
Mile 15.9 – Turn left on the Upper Red Creek Trail (TR509), passing through several large meadows and gently climb towards the north. The trail will cross another tributary of Red Creek then end at the intersection of the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526).
Mile 17.2 – Turn right on the Dobbin Grade Trail (TR526) for 0.1 miles to the intersection with the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521).
We read the directions carefully, but got caught up in the moment and missed this little jag to the right on Dobbin Grade Trail. We had read the warning in the next directions (below) and knew to steer clear of the Dobbin Grade to Bear Rocks trail segment…and in our eagerness to avoid that, got a little ahead of ourselves and accidentally turned left on Dobbin Grade instead of going right on it for a minute before turning left on Raven Ridge like we were supposed to.
It turned out to be a mushy, swampy, boggy mistake…but one that we figured out within .25 mile thanks to some industrious beavers. About a quarter mile along the wrong route, the clear trail turned marshy until we ran right into a beaver-created pond in the middle of the Dobbin Grade Trail. We could see the trail continuing on the other side of the two dams some beavers had built, but there was no way to get to it without literally going through the pond they had created. This made us pause and reconsider where we had gone wrong.
If we hadn’t made that brief error, we would’ve missed seeing this even more spectacular dam nearby:
At any rate, we quickly realized that we had been premature in turning left, backtracked, and found Raven Ridge Trail. Had those stupid beavers not blocked Dobbins Grade Trail, we may have hiked quite a ways in the wrong direction before figuring it out.
Mile 17.3 – Turn left uphill on the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521). WARNING: People look at the map and notice that following the Dobbin Grade Trail back to the Bear Rocks Trail is a shorter route. Don’t do it! The Dobbin Grade Trail is a boggy mess anytime of the year, and offers little scenery. Taking the Raven Ridge Trail (TR521) has much nicer views and is completely dry. So, after turning left uphill onto he Raven Ridge Trail (TR521), pass through several nice meadows and wooded areas for 1.5 miles back to the intersection with the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522) terminus you passed earlier in the hike.
OK, well, “completely dry” is a lie. Because of the rain the night before, lots of sections of TR521 were a muddy, mushy, swampy mess. Having said that, we’re pretty sure it was still much better than the Dobbin Grade Trail after the rain!
Mile 18.8 – Turn right on the Bear Rocks Trail (TR522)…
This is a nice spot for a little rest before completing the last 2 miles or so!
…retracing your earlier steps through the meadows, crossing Red Creek, passing the Dobbin Grade Trail terminus, and climbing back to the parking area.
Mile 21.1 – Arrive back at the Bear Rocks Trailhead and parking area.
For us, it was more like 24 miles because of the couple of user error issues that included not only the map- and direction-following snafus but also…ahem…Henri losing the map at the big waterfall and again on the rock scramble to Lion’s Head…both on Day 2…and having to go back to find it. But who wants a hike that goes 100% according to plan, has no rain, and poses no challenge?
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 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
Amid the Blue Ridge Mountains in the George Washington National Forest, Sherando Lake is the lower and larger of two lakes in a 24-acre recreational area built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s (history buffs can learn more about that here).
It is home to a popular campground with all the amenities for family fun, as well as any number of hiking trails nearby, including Torry Ridge. Today’s Throwback Thursday post remembers a fun, relaxed week of car-camping and hiking we did at Sherando Lake in summer 2014. Click on any of the images below to embiggen it or switch to slideshow mode. (For more fun, refresh your browser tab & the photos will rearrange).
Anyone who hikes in Virginia has likely hiked Old Rag Mountain. It is one of the most popular hikes (if not the most popular) in the Commonwealth. For many Virginians — ourselves included — Old Rag is the “gateway hike,” an accessible but moderately challenging 9 mile trail with a fun rock/boulder scramble and a cool stream on the way back down. It’s no wonder Old Rag gets folks interested in doing more hikes in the Shenandoah area and beyond.
Starting in 2010, Old Rag was our annual go-to Easter morning hike. We liked getting up there in the morning when it wasn’t as crowded and went each year, faithfully, for a few years. We also took friends and the kids a couple of times in between. We’ve since branched out in search of more varied and less crowded hikes, but there’s a soft spot in our hearts for Old Rag still, even if we don’t head that way much anymore. For this TBT post, we offer a montage of photos from various trips over the last few years.
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.
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.
Paris, VA on 8 January 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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