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).
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.
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.
- Views, stream, scenery!
AFTER THE HIKE
We planned this day’s hike to end at Sharp Rock Vineyards in Sperryville.