Sunday, June 7, 2015


As I pen this column, Virginia’s trails are no doubt overrun by Memorial Day hikers, and for that very reason I have resisted the urge to visit my favorite spot in the Shenandoah National Park.  Next weekend should be no different; as the first Saturday in June is officially designated “National Trails Day,” a celebration of the wonderful system of paths veining our beautiful country.  In honor of this event, I’ll detail a few places I’ve developed a soft spot for in and around central Virginia.

Saint Mary’s Wilderness

    The Saint Mary’s is a special place to me and a popular and well-known destination for hikers and fishermen alike.

    This federally-designated wilderness of almost 10,000 acres is situated in southeastern Augusta County, surrounding the upper Saint Mary’s River.  About 17 miles of trail negotiate the rugged gorge that guides the river, from the lower end of the property near Raphine up to the southern edge of Big Levels at Green Pond.

    The Saint Mary’s Falls Trail begins at the lower parking lot, accessible via Forest Service Road 41, and, moving northeast, fords the river before dead-ending at the wilderness’s dominating feature—Saint Mary’s Falls.  This is by far the most popular hike; the plunge pool below the falls is usually full of cliff-divers during the warmer months.

    The Mine Bank Trail descends into the gorge from the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Fork Mountain Overlook near Milepost 23, following one of the River’s largest tributaries, Mine Bank Creek.  Roughly two miles of downhill trekking will land one at the intersection of the lengthy Saint Mary’s Trail, just within striking distance of the river.  There are a handful of quality camp spots at the base of the hollow where the waters converge, making this trail popular among backpackers.  Keep in mind, though the hike in is relatively easy as it is all downhill, the reverse trip is strenuous.  Plan time accordingly. 

    The Saint Mary’s Trail—the property’s longest trail—begins at Green Pond.  Forest Service Road 162 branches north from the Parkway at Milepost 22.2 at Bald Mountain Overlook and leads to this trailhead, which is probably the least-utilized.

Sugar Hollow, North Fork of the Moormans River

    I’m not giving away any secrets here.   Much to the chagrin of Charlottesville’s brook trout fishing crew, the parking lot at this trailhead near the upper end of Charlottesville’s Sugar Hollow Reservoir is rarely devoid of a car, but it has earned respect from me, both for the experiences I’ve had in the Hollow and for its closeness.

    Follow Garth Road west from Charlottesville and continue on Route 614 until reaching Sugar Hollow Reservoir.  The trail departs from the parking lot at the upper end of the reservoir.

    Three river fords and 2.3 miles of trail separate the parking lot and the Big Branch spur trail on the left that ascends to the Skyline Drive at Black Rock Gap in 3.7 miles.  The main trail continues past the spur, generally following the river.

    If you arrive at the trailhead and the parking lot is slammed, you may achieve a bit more solitude by opting to hike the South Fork of the Moormans River instead.  A yellow iron gate bars the head of this trail on the downstream side of the parking lot.  Ford the river in the first few yards, then continue up the trail to the famed “Blue Hole”—a seemingly bottomless swimming hole.

Humpback Rock

    Again, this is no secret.  The Humpback Rock trail is easily one of the most popular hikes in Virginia thanks to the beautiful panoramic view of Shenandoah’s west slope and the Shenandoah Valley, but if you’re looking for a short, fun hike with a great reward, you can’t beat it.

    At Milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, at the base of the Mountain Farm Trail, there is a 19th Century interpretive farm setup.  This marks the trailhead for reaching Humpback Rock.

    This is a short trail of about a mile that gains roughly 800 feet in elevation.  The first portion of the trail is graveled and very steep, but the remainder is rugged, steep, and somewhat muddy.

    The namesake outcropping at the peak is well worth the expended energy, though there is an astonishing amount of writing on the rocks from past hikers. 

    Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the trail, pack your headlamp and camp out on the peak to watch the sun set over the Valley.

    Now that I’m through with this column, I’m excited to go exploring in the days to come.  I’ve only named three, but there are countless other hikes of equal or greater challenge and reward within a short trip from Charlottesville.  Get out and take advantage of the miles of trail within our very own Shenandoah National Park this weekend!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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