Exploring Shenandoah National Park on Foot
This is a moderate hike with a great reward. The walking is easy, and the trails are used surprisingly little. The nearly level Bluff Trail takes you to the Big Devils Stairs canyon rim for a great view of the valley below and the mountains beyond. Along the way, you will pass a shelter used by long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Leave Skyline Drive from therear of the Gravel Springs Gap parking area on the Appalachian Trail. Head south for 0.1 mile andturn left on the Bluff Trail. Switchback 0.3 mile down through a crowded forest to emerge at theGravel Springs Hut. In front of you is the spring and to your right is the trail shelter. Imagine staying in shelters like this on the 2,100-mile trek from Georgia to Maine.
This hike continues on the BluffTrail, which leaves the clearing from the shelter on the right. At the Harris Hollow Trail junctioncontinue forward on the Bluff Trail. After a switchback, come to another junction; stay left andcontinue on the Bluff Trail. It runs nearly level, around 2,300 feet, on the southeast slope of MountMarshall beneath a high-canopied forest strewn with large boulders.
At 1.1 mile, the forest opens on the right, offering views off the side of Mount Marshall. Several of Gravel Springs branches emanatefrom the slopes of Mount Marshall and bisect Bluff Trail. Many of these will be dry in late summerand fall.
At mile 1.9, cross the upper reaches of Big Devils Stairs gorge, which is just beginning tocut its way down the mountainside. It is an easy crossing in times of normal water flow. Just beyondthe crossing, come to the Big Devils Stairs Trail junction.
Turn right onto the Big Devils Stairs Trail,which follows the east rim of the gorge. Notice how the forest changes. The trees here are thosetypically found on drier slopes chestnut oak and Virginia pine with an understory of mountain laurel. At mile 2.2, the path makes a few switchbacks as it meanders down the rim of the gorge.
After an abrupt right turn, the trail comes to the edge of the gorge, offering a southward view.Continue down the trail and descend to a large rock outcrop at mile 2.6. There are good views ofthe Big Devils Stairs canyon and the mountains beyond. Follow the trail just 0.1 mile farther toanother outcrop that hosts a gnarled pine hanging on the edge of the rim. Here there are even betterviews of the beautiful Shenandoah country. Beyond this point, the trail begins a steep descent and isnot recommended.
Directions: From Thornton Gap, take Skyline Drive north for 13.9 miles to theGravel Springs Gap parking area at milepost 17.6. It is on the right side of Skyline Drive. TheAppalachian Trail leaves the rear of the parking area.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication