Hiking Overview: Shenandoah National Park

Gorp.com

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

  • This 300-square-mile park has more than 500 miles of trails. Backpackers should be conscious of the many loop hikes that can be undertaken starting from Skyline Drive or adjacent lowlands.
  • A free backcountry permit is required before you embark on your overnight trip. No fires are allowed, but you can camp anywhere in the park as long as it is at least 20 yards from a trail, ten yards from a water source, and a quarter-mile from Skyline Drive.
  • Leave Skyline Drive and pass over Neighbor Mountain before dropping to camp at Jeremys Run. Loop back on Knob Mountain and spend the last night in the high country.
  • Head down to the Hazel River via the White Rock Trail. Camp on the Hazel River. Next day, cut over to Nicholson Hollow and camp, surmounting Hot-Short Mountain. Return via Catlett Ridge.
  • Leave the lowlands and hike up Hughes River before camping near Corbin Cabin. Loop back over Robertson Mountain and enjoy some views before returning to the lowlands.
  • Big Run is a fine camping and fishing destination. It can be accessed via Browns Gap. Return on the Rocky Top Trail and make a side trip to Lewis Peak.

Since Shenandoah is so narrow, hikes tend to be short, either up or down the ridge from Skyline Drive and back. The grand exception is the the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the length of the park, never very far from Skyline Drive and in fact crossing it several times. Some areas of the park were once heavily inhabited, leaving a network of old footpaths and roads, out of which a hiker can make longer composite hikes. Many of these hikes pass by the ruins of abandoned cabins and farm buildings of the vanished mountain folk. Shenandoah also has many beautiful waterfalls that make extraordinary destinations. And of course, many hikes are to overlooks with magnificent views, of which Shenandoah abounds.

Most trailheads are along Skyline Drive. The major exception is Old Rag Mountain on the north central edge of the park.

Five Hikes Away from the Crowds

In summer and fall, Shenandoah becomes a getaway for nature lovers near and far. Views are had from Skyline Drive and many of the tried and true trails become clogged with hikers seeking their own views by foot. However, Shenandoah's linear layout has its advantages when it comes to spreading out the crowds. No matter what time of year, the following five hikes are away from the crowds. After traversing these trails you'll be surprised they aren't on the busy list.

1. Bear Church Rock
This nine-mile round-trip high country hike leads along the ridge of Jones Mountain to an incredible view from Bear Church Rock. The hiking along Jones Mountain is never steep for long and is level much of the way as it meanders through varied and beautiful forests to reach the granite slab of Bear Church Rock. The outcrops makes for a natural viewing platform of Fork Mountain, Doubletop Mountain, and the crest of the Blue Ridge.

Directions: Pick up the Appalachian Trail at mile 55.1 of Skyline Drive. Head north on the Appalachian Trail, then take the following trails to reach Bear Church Rock: Laurel Gap Trail, Cat Knob Trail, Jones Mountain Trail.

2. Dwyer Cemetery via Piney Ridge Trail
This interesting and easy 2.9-mile one-way hike goes through a wildlife-rich transitional forest to the old Dwyer Cemetery. Bear and deer roam this ridge today; you may well see one or the other. Many downed black locust trees along with Virginia and pitch pine indicate a forest in transition reclaiming old fields. Keep along the ridge to reach Dwyer Cemetery. Many headstones have fallen over, others are unreadable. Still others are unmarked fieldstones. Trees are starting to invade the far side of the cemetery near a large, weather-beaten oak. The park service is not maintaining this graveyard.

Directions: Elkwallow Wayside is at mile 24.0 of Skyline Drive. From here, take the Elkwallow Trail to head north on the AT to Piney Ridge Trail.

3. Rocky Mount Loop
Leave the main crest of the Blue Ridge to access the summit of Rocky Mount and far-reaching views on this 9.8-mile loop. The forest changes character before and after Rocky Mount, an outcrop with stunning views. Look over Twomile Run. At the head of the run is the Twomile Run Overlook, where you started, and the crest of the Blue Ridge. To your right is the Shenandoah Valley. Beyond the summit, the trail drops along the base of a huge granite slope, traversing a rock field to the waters of Gap Run. There is a real aura of isolation in this once peopled valley.

Directions: The Rocky Mount Trail starts at Skyline Drive mile 76.2. Take the Rocky Mount Trail to its end, returning on the Gap Run Trail.

4. Piney River Falls
Gently wind your way through an eye-pleasing, high country woods into the Piney River valley on old roads and take a short side trail to the falls on this 6.8-mile round-trip. The Piney River Trail winds it way down to the valley, making very gentle switchbacks to reach the gorge of Piney River on your right. Cross the Piney River, passing many small cascades along Piney River beneath basswood, yellow birch, and red maple. Piney River Falls is a 25-foot, three-tiered cascade that falls over mossy rock into a deep and wide pool. It's a good place to cool off after a hot hike.

Directions: The Piney River Trail starts near the Piney River Ranger Station, at milepost 22.1 of Skyline Drive. The Piney River Trail leads to the falls.

5. Buck Ridge/Buck Hollow Loop
Enjoy ridgetop and riverine environments on this 5.8-mile loop, traversing the narrow Buck Ridge Trail. Some views open up before the path dives steeply off the side of the ridge down to Buck Hollow. The trail is so steep that log steps have been installed to make the footing better. Return up the moist valley in a dense streamside forest. Look for signs of human habitation as you encounter a series of old roads in the valley. Look, too, for big trees that cloak the sides of Buck Hollow.

Directions: The hike starts at milepost 33.5 of Skyline Drive. Take the Hazel Mountain Trail to Buck Ridge Trail, returning on Buck Hollow Trail.

GORP's hiking guide to Shenandoah is organized by the ranger district within the park.


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