Washington, D.C., Area Hikes

Massanutten Mountain and Shenandoah River
By Paul Elliott
  |  Gorp.com
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Key Info
Length : About 12 miles each on trail, river
Configuration : Out by trail and back by river
Difficulty : Difficult to extremely difficult
Scenery : Upland woods, Shenandoah Valley vistas and peeks, river views
Exposure : Mostly shady on trail, less so when trees shed; shadeless on river
Traffic : Usually very light on trail, river
Trail Surface : Mostly dirt, with long rocky stretches plus unpaved road; moving water, with rapids, rocks
Hiking Time : 4.5 to 5 hours at above-average pace; plus 3-5 hours on river
Access : No restrictions on trail; outfitter's rules on river
Maps : USGS Bentonville, Rileyville; PATC Map G
Facilities : Toilets, water, phone, camp store at trailhead (outfitters, when open); toilet at Seek Ford Landing

In Brief
Well west of Washington lie scenic Massanutten Mountain and the Shenandoah River's lovely South Fork. They're so well arranged that a hike on one can be paired with a canoe trip on the other.

From Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) in Merrifield, Virginia, take Exit 49 onto I-66 heading west. Proceed for about 56 miles and take Exit 13, at Linden, onto VA 55 heading west. Proceed for 5.3 miles to Front Royal. There, turn left and south onto US 340 and drive 9.3 miles to Bentonville. There, just past a post office (on left), turn right onto VA 613 (Indian Hollow Road) and drive 0.8 miles to either of two outfitters at Bentonville Landing.

This out-and-back outing is grandly distinct from all of this [article's] other hiking excursions, and not just because it dents the [60 Hikes Within 60 Miles series'] titular perimeter. As created by Springfield Cliff, it consists of a 12-mile trek along a rocky mountain ridge, followed by a 12-mile canoe ride on a beautiful, rapids-dotted river.

The ridge is a lofty one atop Massanutten Mountain, a massive, free-standing range in the Shenandoah Valley some 65 crow-miles west of Washington. The river is the Shenandoah River's unspoiled South Fork, meandering northward along the eastern foot of the range. The transfer point is Seek Ford Landing, where, by arrangement, the trekkers ford the river to switch to canoes (or kayaks) delivered by a trailhead outfitter.

The hike-and-paddle combo is a long day's journey into delight, especially when organized as a group activity. It provides a strenuous and satisfying workout for both the upper and lower body, as well as for the senses. And it's best suited for people who can hike fairly fast for close to 5 hours while enduring about 4,100 feet of elevation change—and then paddle for 3 to 5 hours.

Plan on doing the outing when the weather is warm, the river level is right, the outfitters are open, hunters are absent (the Massanutten is part of George Washington National Forest), and you are well prepared.

The best weather is usually from June through September, although the two outfitters at the trailhead operate from April through October. They are Shenandoah River Trips, (800) 727-4371 or www.shenandoah.cc, and the Downriver Canoe Company, (800) 338-1963 or www.downriver.com. Contact them to discuss your plans and options, and to make reservations. Also check with the Lee District on the hunting situation.

Check with the outfitter on river conditions and schedules. Very low water isn't good because the river is naturally shallow, and very high water is dangerous. But as Cliff says, "Ninety percent of the time, the water level's just fine." That's why you're likely to have an exhilarating and current-aided ride downstream, over rapids that even novices can negotiate safely. One possible scenario is to get there around 7:30 a.m. to sign in, get fitted with a paddle and lifejacket, obtain a river map, and learn the river's secrets; to be on the trail by 8. a.m.; to be on the water by 1 p.m.; and to finish by 6 p.m. You may want to spend the previous night in nearby Front Royal or Luray.

Prepare for the outing's posthike phase: Take along wading footgear (or plan to canoe in wet boots), plus sunblock or protective clothing; put valuables in waterproof bags; and remember to tie down everything when you're in the boat.

To get started, leave the outfitter's and head for the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail (formerly the Big Blue Trail), which happens to pass right by as VA 613 (Indian Hollow Road). Cross the low causeway spanning the South Fork. Keep going, and bear left at a fork about 50 yards down the road. Walk a third of a mile and then bear right at a fork onto Panhandle Road (which takes over as VA 613). Go straight through the junction after that.

Passing through an area of fields, as the road curves away from the river, you'll begin to ascend and be hemmed in by scrubby woods. At a clearing, turn left—or roughly west—to stay on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail. Coming up next will be a second clearing, a "Road Closed" sign, and a gate across the trail (roughly 1.75 miles into the hike). Walk past the gate and head up a dirt trail amid oaks, maples, and mountain laurels. You will still be on the Tuscarora Trail, but the path gets steeper, the pines more prevalent, and the sky more visible.

Continue on a long, straight, steep, rocky, open trail. Savor the panoramic views to the south and east, and look for the curlicue South Fork 1,000 feet below and Shenandoah National Park spread across the horizon. Look more closely and try to discern your trailhead, some 2 crow-miles away. And search the sky for hawks, turkey vultures, ravens, and crows.

Trekking upward, you'll finally slide into a shady area and a trail junction. There, say goodbye to the Tuscarora Trail and turn left onto the orange-blazed Massanutten Mountain East Trail. At that point, you'll be done with the hike's most arduous uphill, over half of its elevation gain, and almost a third of the way to the river.

Staying on or close to the crest of a long ridge, the trail extends south for almost 5 miles as one of the finest and wildest stretches of mountain trail in this book, if not the metro area. It has beguiling scenery that's more rockscape than landscape as well as some distracting vistas. The trail bumps up and down quite a bit and the surface ranges from rocky to very rocky, but you won't face any stiff climbs.

Be especially attentive at four places along the ridge trail. First, at a trail fork about 2 miles down the trail, swing left, as the blazes do. This rocky, below-the-crest trail has gorgeous views to the left. After that, emerge onto the crest and look through the trees for your first views of the Massanutten's western ridges.

Second, thread your way carefully through the intersection at Milford Gap, the hike's 7-mile mark. There, the ridge trail crosses an old road that was once part of a stagecoach route across the Massanutten. That road—now the Milford Gap Trail—slides downhill at the intersection. But you should follow the orange blazes uphill and south.Third, heading downhill out in the open, stop at a huge rock and take in what I think is one of the ridge trail's best vistas.

Finally, after negotiating the hike's rockiest stretch, watch for a small oak coated with lichen and daubed with orange and purple blazes. There, turn left onto the purple-blazed Indian Grave Ridge Trail to follow the hike's last segment.

The 2.5-mile Indian Grave Ridge Trail follows a wooded side ridge that pushes east between two loops of the river (as is visible on a map, but not on the trail). The reputed burial mound is said to be somewhere in the woods and well plundered.

Initially, the trail is steep and rocky. But the pitch slackens as the trail traverses a wet, muddy, and ferny area near the head of a small stream. It then veers to the right, away from the stream, and proceeds along a rocky hillside, where it's reassuring to see purple blazes again.

After going steeply downhill again, the trail becomes flatter, wider, and less rocky. It then passes through an unattractive, dishevelled area and reaches a gate and "Road Closed" sign. Walk around the gate and across a clearing. Proceed for about 40 yards on an old unpaved road, and then turn right onto a newer, gravel road. That's tree-lined VA 717, which leads slightly downhill and around several curves for just over a mile.

As the road curves south and west, the high ridge bearing the ridge trail south of the colorful oak will loom directly ahead. At the end of an open field, and after passing a couple of telephone poles, turn left onto an unpaved side road—the first you'll encounter on VA 717. Walk a few hundred yards on the level and shady road. Where it curves to the left, watch for a dirt trail going right for about 15 yards to Seek Ford Landing.

Next, ford the rocky-bottomed, 200-yard-wide river. Aim for a small sandbar slightly upstream on the far side, which is where canoes are typically left. Wear appropriate footgear and with empty pants pockets, cross the river as a group (if you have one). Once across, get going on your 12-mile cruise to the trailhead.

If you'd prefer a less-rigorous outing, start with an out-and-back hike on the Tuscarora Trail between the trailhead and the trail's junction with the ridge-top trail. That'll give you an aerobic outing of 7.4 miles, about 2,600 feet in elevation change, and lovely views of the South Fork and beyond. Then have the outfitter launch you 3 miles or 7.5 miles upriver so that you can also spend time on the water.

For more information on Massanutten Mountain, contact the US Forest Service's Lee District headquarters in Edinburg, (540) 984-4101; for more information on the trails, contact the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, (703) 242-0693 or www.patc.net.

Nearby/Related Activities
Make the most of canoeing down a gorgeous river. For instance, tie up en route to have a picnic and a swim.

Published: 25 May 2004 | Last Updated: 5 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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