Today, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is beloved by picnickers, nature-goers, and adventurers on America’s East Coast. While few dispute the merits of conservation to protect majestic lands like the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is important to recognize, however, the costs of seizing land for federal protection. Shenandoah’s Fox Hollow Trail—situated across Skyline Drive from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center—serves as a reminder of the park’s not-so-savory beginnings. The short hike traces a circuit around a long-abandoned farm, once the lifeblood of the namesake Fox family, who—like hundreds of other mountain dwellers in the area—were forced to leave in the 1930s to make way for the creation of Virginia’s first and only national park. What was once an open hillside pasture of bluegrass, corn, and wheat is now blanketed with oaks, spicebush, hickories, and poplars. But the park preserves traces of human history at Fox Hollow amid the forest, providing a glimpse of life in Shenandoah before the entrance fees and visitor centers—and to atone for the removal of more than 500 families from what is now Shenandoah National Park. (Note: See Washington City Paper for a great article on the resettlement process and its aftermath.)
Reaching the Fox Hollow Trail is easy, as it is situated just across Skyline Drive from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, about five miles south of Front Royal, Virginia (see map). Not far from Interstate 66, it’s the closest easy hike to Washington, DC and boasts a great, multi-page trail guide available at the Visitor Center and trailhead for $1.00. (Note: There is a $20 entrance fee for vehicles to enter Shenandoah National Park.)
Parking at the Visitor Center, head out the east-facing entrance, pass the flagpole, and carefully cross Skyline Drive. Here a trail kiosk offers a map and short trail descriptions of the Fox Hollow and Snead Farm Trails. There is also a small box here to purchase the Fox Hollow trail guides—highly recommended to get the full experience on this short but interesting hike.
Take a left at the trailhead, walking the circuit in a clockwise direction to correspond with the trail guide. (Note: Heading this way also avoids a steep climb up from the hollow.) Take a minute to peer out over the grassy meadow, once a sea of trees after the park’s establishment in 1935 but since cleared by park crews to restore the vista. Across the valley to the east, High Knob (2,388’)—situated outside the park boundary—dominates the landscape on a clear day.
Less than 100 yards from the start, the trail forks at the northern fringe of the meadow. Take a left, where the Fox Hollow Trail merges briefly with the much longer Dickey Ridge Trail and darts into the woods. Now clogged with foliage, this area was once a sun-soaked field, part of the Fox family’s 77-year-old property. (Note: In fact, more than 1/3 of the land that makes up present-day Shenandoah National Park was clear of trees before the Park Service began reforesting the area in 1935.)
At ¼ mile, take a right at the next junction, leaving the Dickey Ridge Trail behind as the Fox Hollow loop begins to descend the rocky slopes of the ridge. Dropping rather sharply, the path passes a series of rock piles at around 1/3 mile. (Note: I counted seven in total in the course of 1/10 mile.) As Thomas Fox and his descendants cleared fields to make way for farming, they carefully built these neatly-stacked heaps of greenstone, a volcanic rock ubiquitous in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Past the rock piles, the trail bears left and briefly climbs a minor slope to reach the Fox family cemetery at ½ mile. Here generations of Foxes are buried, though only a handful of headstones remain, including that of Lemuel F. Fox, who died in 1916, and Lemuel’s daughter Gertrude, who passed away at a mere 21 years old in 1904.
Just beyond the cemetery, the trail makes a left turn and heads downhill again, passing an old cement springbox at 0.55 miles. This was once used to supply water for the former dining room in the nearby Dickey Ridge Lodge-turned-Visitor Center. Immediately after the springbox, the path passes under a bundle of wily vines, then descends steeply again. Look for an old millstone hidden in the brush aside the trail.
At 0.65 miles, the path crosses a little sliver of a stream, then climbs to what was once an old road on the property, reinforced by a wall of greenstone. Just past the ¾ mile mark, the trail takes a hard left and at about 0.83 miles passes an old sycamore tree that Lemuel Fox, Jr. identified as “the only tree on this hill” in the 1920s. Now the area around it has been filled with black locusts, walnuts, sassafras, tulip trees, and others.
After several minutes of casual uphill, the trail turns abruptly right and ascends steeply to meet the Dickey Ridge Trail again at 1.2 miles. Stay straight, following the southern edge of the original meadow back to the trailhead and Visitor Center.
Allot around an hour for this 1.2-mile loop, a pleasant blend of old and new and a testament to the original settlers of Shenandoah, whose stories live on despite a tragic past.