Abraham Lincoln Driving Tour


Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, July 2019

– Civil War Series –

Before becoming the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln spent most of his life in what was then considered the “Northwest Territory” of the United States: the relatively unpopulated states north of the Ohio River Valley. From his boyhood in Kentucky and Indiana to his rise to prominence as a lawyer and politician in the state of Illinois, it was here that Lincoln honed his persistent determination, skillful oratory, charming wit, and political genius. Today, especially in Illinois, local pride for Lincoln runs deep, and hundreds of historic sites tell the story of Lincoln’s remarkable transformation from poor “rail splitter” to the country’s most revered leader. History buffs and curious travelers can retrace the steps of Lincoln—from his birthplace in central Kentucky to a collection of landmarks and museums in Springfield, the Illinois capital—on a multi-day driving tour. A handful of hiking opportunities dot the route, especially at the sites in Kentucky and Indiana. It is difficult to choose from the dizzying array of Lincoln sites in a region with a mild obsession with the former president—but the following proposal strings together some of the most prominent and interesting sites to form a 4-day driving tour. Additional sites of interest—off the main route but Lincoln-related—are listed at the end.

Note: In this age of GPS, I have included addresses for each site (rough approximations—for example, the nearest house) in lieu of specific directions.

DAY 1: LINCOLN’S BOYHOOD (1809-1830)

Stop 1: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (2995 Lincoln Farm Rd., Hodgenville, KY)

Billed as the “first Lincoln Memorial,” the beaux-arts Memorial Building at Sinking Springs Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky is a grand commemoration to the 16th president. At the time of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, however, this rural homestead was modest at best: on the hardscrabble land Thomas and Nancy Lincoln built a petite, one-room log cabin. While the original log cabin is long gone, a replica—thought for many years to be the actual structure—remains, preserved inside the memorial by the National Park Service. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park has a small visitor center with exhibits on Lincoln’s early life at Sinking Springs Farm, while a pair of hiking trails meander gently along the wooded hillsides. The namesake spring continues to drip into a dim cave near the memorial site.

Note: Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park is easily accessible from Louisville (1 hour) and Lexington, Kentucky (1 ½ hours) and a manageable drive from Nashville (2 hours) or Cincinnati (2.5 hours). I recommend staying in the Hodgenville area the night before starting the tour to get an early start the next morning. There is not a lot to do and see at Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park, but visitors should allot around 2-2.5 hours to explore the grounds, exhibits, and hiking trails.

Stop 2: Lincoln Museum (66 Lincoln Square, Hodgenville, KY)

It is less than a 10-minute drive from Lincoln’s birthplace to central Hodgenville, where the small Lincoln Museum includes an eclectic collection of wax figures and Lincoln memorabilia. Outside is a large statue of the town’s favorite son, who, despite being born at Sinking Springs, had no memory of his time spent living there.

Note: Allot around 1-1.5 hours for the museum. Admission costs $3 for adults.

Stop 3: Lincoln Boyhood Home at Knob Creek (7210 Bardstown Rd., Hodgenville, KY)

It’s another 10-minute drive from Hodgenville to Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek, where young Abe spent years 2-7 and developed his first lasting memories. Later in life, Lincoln recalled living in a splendid valley between wooded hills, as well as a near-death experience where he almost drowned in Knob Creek during a flash flood. The Lincolns moved here from Sinking Springs Farm due to a dispute over the land title, and it was the threat of eviction from Knob Creek that compelled the family to move again in 1816 across the Ohio River to Indiana. Today, the Knob Creek has no remaining artifacts (there is a recreated cabin and garden), but there is a steep, 1.5-mile hiking trail that leads to an underwhelming overlook. The site is administered by Abraham Lincoln National Historical Park.

Note: Skip the hiking trail, but spend at least 20-30 minutes wandering through part of the picturesque valley, imagining a young Abraham frolicking through the fields and forest. By now, it will be roughly lunch time on Day 1 of your journey.


Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek

Stop 4: Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (3027 E. S St., Lincoln City, IN)

From Knob Creek, head west through Elizabethtown and across the Ohio River to southern Indiana, a roughly 2-hour drive to Lincoln’s third boyhood home and one of the highlights of the entire trip. Situated in a lovely, densely wooded area, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial preserves the site where young Abe spent his teenage years. Later in life, Lincoln described his time living in the small pioneer community of Little Pigeon Creek as rather harrowing, where “the panther’s scream filled the night with fear, and bears preyed on the swine.” Southern Indiana, in the 1820s, remained largely wilderness, but it was here that young Abe developed his knack for storytelling, held his first paying jobs, and buried his mother and sister (who died of sudden illness).

Today, there is a large memorial to Lincoln at the site, and a Living Historical Farm offers a glimpse of pioneer life at the time that Lincoln grew up here. A terrific loop trail provides a circuit around the main grounds and includes a series of twelve stones, each taken from prominent sites in Lincoln’s life and career, such as Hodgenville, Springfield, Gettysburg, and Washington, DC.

Note: Allot the rest of the afternoon for this site, which includes a visitor center with a film on Lincoln’s boyhood. Explore the trails and Living Historical Farm, then settle for the night in the Lincoln City or Santa Claus area. Nearby Lincoln State Park, just south of the memorial, offers good camping options. See my post on August 11, 2019 for a trail description of a loop hike around Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.


Visitor Center at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial


Stop 5: Lincoln State Park (15476 County Rd. 300 E, Lincoln City, IN)

Although now principally a recreation area—a popular destination for swimmers and boaters—Lincoln State Park in southern Indiana also retains historic value as the old stomping grounds of young Abe and the Lincoln family. After a visit to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, head into the park to walk the same routes frequented by young Lincoln, visit the site of the old Gentry store (where Abe worked as a teen), and view the cemetery where Abraham’s sister Sarah Lincoln Grigsby was buried after her tragic death in 1828. Pristine forest also invites visitors to squeeze in a hike or two before moving onward.

Note: Spend at least 1-2 hours exploring the park before heading onward toward Illinois.


Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Plaza in Lincoln State Park

Stop 6: Lincoln Trail State Memorial (MFM7+7F Westport, Allison Township, IL)

It’s a relatively long trek from Lincoln City, Indiana to the Springfield area of Illinois, but one can break up the trip by heading northwest to the Lincoln Trail State Memorial, just across the Wabash River from Vincennes, Indiana. The site itself is just a stone monument, denoting the path by which Abraham, now 21, entered Illinois for the first time. After more than a decade in Indiana, the Lincoln family again set out further west in search of a new home.

Note: The memorial itself requires no more than 5 minutes, but curious visitors should also check out the charming town of Vincennes, Indiana, which is home to the Harrison Mansion and George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.


Lincoln Trail State Memorial

Stop 7: Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site (402 S. Lincoln Hwy., Lerna, IL)

From here the driving tour briefly deviates from chronological order. It’s roughly 1 ½ hours from the Indiana border to Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site in Lerna, Illinois, where Abraham’s father Thomas and step-mother Sarah Bush Lincoln settled in the 1840s while Lincoln pursued his law and political career in Springfield. Abraham likely had a strained relationship with his father and is thought to have expressed little remorse when Thomas Lincoln died in 1861. He had a much fonder relationship with Sarah Bush, however, who embraced raising Abraham after his mother’s death while living in Indiana. Thomas Lincoln’s original log cabin is no more—it was destroyed after being displayed at the 1893 World Expo in Chicago. However, like the boyhood home in Indiana, there is a living historical farm at the site, as well as a handful of trails and a brief park film.

Note: Allot around one hour for this site before moving on. Be sure to leave before 3 in the afternoon to head to the Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum, which closes at 4pm.


Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site

Stop 8: Lincoln Douglas Debate Museum (126 E St., Charleston, IL)

A small museum in Charleston, Illinois is dedicated to a key turning point in Lincoln’s political career: a series of public debates that pitted an upstart Lincoln against Senator Stephen Douglas ahead of the 1858 election for one of Illinois’ two Senate seats. While Lincoln went on to lose the election, the highly-publicized debates raised his national profile and sharpened his anti-slavery stane that he would carry into the White House two years later. Lincoln had arguably a mediocre performance at the debate in Charleston on September 18, but the museum (with limited hours) tells the story of all seven electric political showdowns with Douglas in 1858 that helped shaped Lincoln’s political career.

Note: Allot around an hour for this site. By now, it should be approaching evening on your second day.

Stop 9: Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park & Memorial (RV3W+M7 Harristown, Harristown Township, IL)

The last stop for the day is Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park & Memorial, a small patch of land near present-day Decatur, Illinois. It was here that the Lincolns built their first home in Illinois, a modest 16×16-foot cabin above the banks of the Sangamon River. The Lincolns did not last long here, however: the brutal “Winter of Deep Snow” in 1830-31 brought unusually frigid temperatures and howling winds that convinced the Lincoln family to abandon the site after less than a year. Meanwhile, Abraham turned 21 and was determined to strike out on his own: he purchased a canoe and set off down the Sangamon River toward New Salem, where he would live for much of his twenties. Today, the site near Decatur features a few modest landmarks and heavily wooded nature trails, with some limited access to the Sangamon River.

Note: Allot around 30 minutes to an hour to walk around this site. From here, make your way west to Springfield and New Salem, which will be covered in the final two days of the 4-day driving tour.


Sangamon River at Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park


Stop 10: Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site (15588 History Ln., Petersburg, IL)

After tracing Lincoln’s journey to Illinois for the past two days, spend the next two days in the Springfield area, the heart of the Land of Lincoln and the locus of Lincoln’s political and law career for much of his professional life. After moving away from his parents’ home in 1831, Lincoln settled for six years in New Salem, northwest of Springfield. Here Lincoln held several jobs, including store clerk, rail splitter, postmaster, and surveyor, and fostered friendships that he would maintain throughout his life. It was from here that he also launched his political career, running twice for the state legislature—losing his first attempt but succeeding in 1834. Today, Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site features a reconstruction of the pioneer community at New Salem, as well as hiking trails along the Sangamon River.

Note: Plan to spend at least a couple hours at New Salem before heading back into Springfield for the rest of the day.

Stop 11: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (212 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL)

The remainder of the tour covers a flurry of sites in Springfield, which became the capital of Illinois in 1839. Lincoln himself, who moved to Springfield in 1836, played a key role in moving the state capital here, and he spent much of the next decade serving as a lawyer in the city. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum offer a good introduction to Lincoln’s presidency and life in Springfield. While exhibits at the library itself are limited, it is worth ducking in for a half-hour to sneak a peek at the massive collection of Illinois historical records at the site, including 12 million books, documents, and other artifacts.

Note: Spend around 30 minutes at this site, which has rotating exhibits, before making your way to the museum across the street.


Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield

Stop 12: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (212 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL)

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, just across the street from the presidential library, has an impressive set of exhibits, particularly in covering Lincoln’s time in the White House. While less comprehensive than some other presidential library museums, life-size reproductions of key events—such as the Lincoln Douglas debates, cabinet meetings, and the president’s murder—immerse visitors in the life of the 16th president. Reproductions of Lincoln’s log cabin and funeral site are particularly impressive, while the unique “Ghosts of the Library” uses Holavision technology to mix the performance of a live actor with a series of holograms.

Note: Allot the rest of the day to explore the museum, then spend the night in Springfield.


Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum


Stop 13: Lincoln Home National Historic Site (413 S 8th St., Springfield, IL)

Start off the final day of the tour with a visit to Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the only National Park Service unit in Springfield. The site, in addition to offering brief tours of Lincoln’s Springfield home, also includes recreations of Lincoln’s neighborhood when he lived in the Illinois capital from the 1830s to 1860s. Being arguably the city’s most prominent lawyer, Lincoln—with his wife Mary Todd, and his children—lived in a well-to-do home and turned many of his neighbors into key political supporters, who would go on to support his bids for senate and the presidency.

Note: Allot at least 2.5-3 hours to explore the visitor center, take the half-hour tour of the Lincoln home, and jaunt around Lincoln’s neighborhood. A couple of the surrounding houses have further exhibits on Lincoln and Springfield during the mid-19th century. There is parking available at the site for $2 per hour.


Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Stop 14: Lincoln Law Office/Springfield Visitors Center (1 S. Old Capitol Plaza, Springfield, IL)

The Springfield Visitors Center, situated on the first floor of the building that housed Lincoln’s Springfield law practice, is the epicenter for tourism in the city. In addition to viewing Lincoln’s law office (closed for reconstruction at the time of my visit in July 2019), visitors in the summer can get information here on “History Comes Alive,” a fantastic set of events by local reenactors with a deep knowledge of Lincoln and town history.

Note: Depending on whether there is programming at the visitors’ center, plan to spend either 20 minutes viewing the law office and gaining information—or up to 2 hours when the reenactors are on site. Most of the programming is held across the street at the Old State Capitol, the next site on the tour.


Lincoln Law Office and Springfield Visitors Center

Stop 15: Old State Capitol (S 6th St. & E. Adams St., Springfield, IL)

For most of the time that Lincoln lived in Springfield, the state capitol building was situated here at 6th and Adams Streets in downtown Springfield. Although the capitol moved to a larger facility in the 1870s, the Greek revival structure here remains impressive today, and each room is affiliated with Lincoln in some way: here Lincoln borrowed books from the state library, served several terms in the state house of representatives, tried cases before the Illinois Supreme Court, and delivered his famed “House Divided” speech. In summer, several “History Comes Alive” events are held here in the Old State Capitol, which, in more recent history, also served as the location where President Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007.

Note: If there are events being held at the state capitol, plan to spend at least 1-2 hours here. If not, a brief, 30-minute walk-through will do, or one of the regularly-offered walking tours of the building.


Old State Capitol in Springfield

Stop 16: Lincoln Depot (930 E. Monroe St., Springfield, IL)

Fast-forwarding in time, Lincoln’s final experience in Springfield came here at the Lincoln Depot on February 11, 1861, when he boarded a slow train bound for Washington, DC to begin his first term as president. To the throngs of visitors who came to see him off, he said farewell: “To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man…I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” Lincoln would never return again, except in death, when his body was put to rest back in his hometown.

Note: Allot around 30 minutes for this site, which has a lengthy movie that plays on a loop.


Lincoln Depot in Springfield

Stop 17: Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site (1500 Monument Ave., Springfield, IL)

The final stop on the 4-day driving tour is the Lincoln Tomb, situated in Oak Ridge Cemetery, the second-most-visited cemetery in the country. (Note: See here for the first, where Lincoln’s eldest son happens to be buried.) Under an impressive obelisk lie the graves of Abraham and his wife Mary Todd, as well as his three youngest sons (Eddie, Willie, and Tad), all three of whom did not survive to adulthood. Circling around the crypt, miniature versions of famous Lincoln statues trace his life from boy and young lawyer to president. After four days of the driving tour, starting with Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, Lincoln’s final burial place serves as a fitting end to the story.

Extra credit

Of course, this was just a small selection of the hundreds of Lincoln-related sites in the region, and visitors can pick and choose from a broader set to lengthen the journey. Some of the more prominent of these “second-tier” sites are listed below (and included on the above map):


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Lincoln Boyhood Loop (Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, IN)


Lincoln Boyhood Loop, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, July 2019

– Civil War Series –

Well before he rose to prominence as an Illinois politician and 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his boyhood on a modest farmstead at Little Pigeon Creek in southern Indiana. It was here that young Abe, from 1816 to 1830, came of age: he worked the fields, attended school (briefly), held his first paying job rowing customers out to steamboats on the Ohio River, probably had his first encounters with slavery, buried his mother and sister (who died of sudden illness), and developed his gift of oratory and storytelling. Lincoln’s knack for splitting logs—a necessity in this heavily wooded, frontier wilderness—also laid the seeds for his future moniker as the “rail splitter” president.

Today, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial—a peaceful, largely forested park in present-day Lincoln City, Indiana—preserves this site of young Abraham’s upbringing. There are about two miles of hiking trails, a few of which can be strung together for a short circuit around the park. Following the Lincoln Boyhood Trail north from the Visitor Center leads to the site of the former Lincoln home and the Living Historical Farm, while a spur trail leads to an underwhelming site called Lincoln Spring. The hike then loops back to the start via the Trail of Twelve Stones, a highlight of the park that traces Lincoln’s life from birth to death.

Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Loop hike information Indiana trails


Map of Lincoln Boyhood loop hike, Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

The hike

Most visits to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial begin at the Memorial Visitor Center, which forms a semi-circle, ringed by the president’s most famous quotes etched in stone. There is parking at this forested site, and the walk begins across the street at the Allée, a neatly manicured lawn leading up a modest hill to a large flagpole. Start the hike by walking up to the flagpole and looking back at the lawn, which is symmetrical with the Memorial Visitor Center below. The beautiful setting is lined by towering sycamores and neatly-placed cedar trees. (Note: If you are walking up the right flank of the Allée toward the flagpole, you will notice a wide trail veering off to the right. Ignore this (for now – as this is your return path) and continue straight to the flagpole and beyond.)

Once under the American flag, continue straight into the rear woods, staying left at the first fork as the trail approaches the Pioneer Cemetery. Abraham’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, is buried here – she died of “milk sickness” when Abe was just nine years old. Young Abraham helped his father Thomas Lincoln build Nancy’s coffin; Thomas would go on to remarry two years later to Sarah Bush Johnston, who would quickly embrace the task of helping to raise Abraham and earned a level of affection from Abe that his father—who had a strained relationship with the future president—could not match.


Grave of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham’s mother who died here at Little Pigeon Creek

From the Pioneer Cemetery, another trail veers off to the left. Stay straight, following the path leading north beyond the graves. This wide, well-maintained track–the Lincoln Boyhood Trail–descends gradually through the peaceful forest. At 1/3 mile, the trail forks and reaches an upper parking area, this one for the Living Historical Farm. Continue straight, passing the shelter and restrooms on the right.


Lincoln Boyhood Trail past the Pioneer Cemetery

Less than a minute later, the hiking trail crosses an active railroad—the Southern Railway Cannelton Spurline—requiring hikers to be cautious when traversing. Just beyond, there is an interpretive wayside for “Thomas Lincoln’s Farm,” with some open acreage just beyond. Here the park staff have planted corn, squash, and other vegetables to try to simulate what Abe’s father did with the land while living here in the early 1800s.


Recreated farm at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

After crossing the cropland, the trail reenters the woods and splits. Stay left, heading first toward the Cabin Site Memorial, a recreation of the foundation where Lincoln’s boyhood home once stood. Continue on the path that leads past the Living Historical Farm on the right. This is a slight diversion from the loop, leading past the farm to Lincoln Spring.


Cabin Site Memorial at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

After observing time-period reenactors at the farm, continue straight as the trail to Lincoln Spring crosses the main park road and ends, somewhat anticlimactically, at a turn-around on the edge of the railroad tracks, with modern residential homes beyond. (Note: Somewhere around here is the spring, the main source of water for Thomas Lincoln’s farm, but it is not obvious where it is amid the dense tree cover.)


View of railroad from Lincoln Spring

From Lincoln Spring, double back the way you came, crossing the road again, until you return to the trail junction at the Cabin Site Memorial. This time head left to the Trail of Twelve Stones, perhaps the most interesting part of the hike. Scattered along the trail are the namesake stones, obtained and placed by the Indiana Lincoln Union in the 1930s to highlight significant events in Abraham Lincoln’s life.

After remaining straight at a four-way junction, the Trail of Twelve Stones leads to the first of such stones on the left: a small chunk of rock from the site of Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville, Kentucky. Next up, on the right, a tall stone monument commemorates Lincoln’s boyhood home here in southern Indiana. These markers continue for the length of the trail, tracing events in Lincoln’s life from his time as a young professional in New Salem, Illinois and presidency in Washington, DC to his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863 and sudden death two years later.

Along the way, the route passes a junction with the Boyhood Nature Trail (stay right), crosses the railroad again, and gradually climbs to the final marker: a hulking mass of stone—taken from Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois—to commemorate Abraham’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. By now, you are back near the Pioneer Cemetery; the Trail of Twelve Stones continues beyond the Nancy Lincoln stone to the Allée. Turn left here and follow the lawn back down to the visitor center and parking area.

The entire round-trip, including the spur to Lincoln Spring, clocks in at about 1.4 miles. With stops to admire the twelve stones and Living Historical Farm, allot at least 1-1.5 hours for this easy and historic hike.

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The Channels via Brumley Mountain Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)


The Channels, Jefferson National Forest, July 2019

Conventional wisdom suggests that slot canyons—narrow, slithering cuts in the sandstone—are relatively confined to the American West: Arizona, California, and Utah. Yet this is not precisely true. While different in character from its western counterparts, The Channels—also known as “The Great Channels”—in southwest Virginia meet the same usual definition of a slot: a sluice in the rock so narrow that it is possible to touch both walls with your hands. Once a largely well-kept secret, newly-constructed trails now offer visitors the chance to more easily access a unique landscape, a rare labyrinth of slots east of the Mississippi. But hikers must work to get here: the sandstone cuts are more than three miles—with 1,200 feet in elevation gain—from the nearest road.

The Channels via Brumley Mountain Trail Great Channels hike information


Map of The Channels hike via Brumley Mountain Trail, Jefferson National Forest

The hike

Tucked away in a remote section of southwest Virginia, The Channels are out of striking distance from any major city—but travelers along Interstate 81 between Roanoke and Bristol can reach the area by way of a winding detour of about 30-45 minutes. There are two main routes that lead to the slots: the namesake Channels Trail is quite long and arduous, requiring a steep, 5.5-mile slog to reach the slots. A better option is the Brumley Mountain Trail, which can be reached from Route 80 just as it crests Hayters Gap, a half-hour drive from I-81. This shorter approach—3.25 miles each way with 1,200 feet of elevation gain—turns the hike into a manageable half-day walk.

The road up Clinch Mountain to Hayters Gap is narrow and winding but paved and accessible for two-wheel drive vehicles. (Note: Set Google Maps to “Brumley Mountain Trail Trailhead.”) The parking area at the gap is likely to be crowded on weekends and holidays but relatively empty on other days. The hike begins by following a gravel track heading west from the parking area. Pass through the gate—barring all but foot traffic—and pass a marker indicating that you are at Mile 13.5 of the Brumley Mountain Trail (which begins far to the west, past The Channels).

The ascent at this point is very mild, with the trail gently snaking around a set of woody ravines. Some ups and downs lead to a relatively large gully at 1/3 mile, followed again by a gradual climb. Rhododendrons and mountain laurel are the highlights of the undergrowth, while a variety of deciduous trees form a towering canopy above. At ½ mile, the path passes under power lines, forming a narrow window with a view to the south.


Brumley Mountain Trail

After 2/3 mile on the gravel track, the road bends uphill to the right while the marked footpath to The Channels continues left. Take this turn and follow the dirt trail as it cuts westward. After traversing a particularly lush gully, the trail briefly climbs at a steeper incline before levelling off again at the sight of some privately-owned cabins on the right. Stay on the path as it continues north, crossing officially into The Channels Natural Area Preserve at the one-mile mark. (Note: An information board provides a map of the area.)

Just beyond, pass through another gate, traversing the northwesterly path as it resumes a mild ascent. At 1.4 miles, hikers will reach Shallow Gap, which—at least in winter—offers some obscured views in both directions. This saddle on Raven Ridge is just shy of the halfway point of the hike…although the second half is considerably steeper and more difficult. With a little over 300 feet in elevation gain behind you, it is rather daunting to learn that, from this point, there is about 900 feet left to climb.

As the trail past Shallow Gap rounds a left-hand turn, the steep ascent begins. After about 100 feet in gain, the path crests a ridgeline and bears right—with the remnants of an old road bearing left down the slope. The next section is steeper still, followed by a brief pause when the trail bends westward again. Rock walls become more ubiquitous on the right, and the trail rounds a left-hand bend (with the 11.5-mile marker) at about the two-mile mark.

At 2.25 miles, the trail cuts up a set of switchbacks and then enters one of the steepest sections of the hike that is made enjoyable, however, by low-hanging rhododendrons. After bearing north again, the trail ascends a chunk of slippery slickrock—ensure careful footing in this section. Now firmly up near the summit knobs of Clinch Mountain, the trail swings around to the north side of the ridge, offering more heavily obscured views on the right.


Spur to The Channels

At 2.9 miles, hikers will reach a trail junction—be sure to stay left on the Channels Spur Trail. (Note: The Brumley Mountain Trail bears right, continuing for another ten miles.) The spur trail narrows to a thin but well-worn single-track, enveloped by a canopy of shady rhododendrons. After a left-hand switchback, a tunnel of vegetation suddenly gives way to an opening to sunny skies. Look right to spot the fire tower atop Middle Knob (4,208’), the highest point on Clinch Mountain.


Before heading right, however, take a short detour on the spur heading left, following it to its end: step out onto the tops of a cluster of rock outcrops. The sweeping vistas from this point are the best of the hike: looking east, follow the ridgeline from which you came before it disappears into a drop to Hayters Gap, with Rich Mountain—a continuation of lengthy Clinch Mountain—beyond. The flattop peak that dominates the landscape is Beartown Mountain (4,689’), followed in the distance by Brushy Mountain (3,834’). To the right (east/south), smaller mountain ridges give way to Rich Valley and Great Appalachian Valley (where Abingdon and I-81 are located). Peering around to the southwest, it’s possible to glimpse part of Brumley Mountain (4,221’)—although the best views in this direction are yet to come.


Atop the “Little Channels” on Middle Knob

Be extremely careful at this overlook, however: large incisions cut through the rock, creating crevices 30-40 feet deep. The same weathering—permafrost and ice wedging during the last ice age—that created the Great Channels ahead also formed these fissures. Due to its similarities, although on a smaller scale, it makes sense to label these the “Little Channels.” (Note: Adventurous travelers can work their way down to the ground level, but it requires a level of effort perhaps best reserved for the Great Channels.)


View east, across Raven Ridge to Beartown Mountain, from the “Little Channels”

To reach the main attraction of the hike, return to the principal trail and then stay straight as the route climbs—maneuvering some minor rock scrambling—to the summit of Middle Knob, mounted by the now-inaccessible fire tower (the ladders have been gutted in order to deter climbing). (Note: There used to be a wooden structure here as well, but it has since been torn down.) Walk to the base of the tower and continue straight, catching the trail continuation as it dives back into the woods beyond.


Fire tower atop Middle Knob

At roughly 3.1 miles from the start, the winding trail reaches the tops of the Great Channels. Begin by following the social trail on the left, which climbs to a good viewpoint of the sandstone outcrops and Brumley Mountain (4,221’) beyond. The actual tops are fenced off, however, to protect a rare plant community called the Southern Appalachian Mixed Heath Bald.


Atop the Great Channels, looking west to Brumley Mountain

From the tops of the channels, the final approach involves descending a steep ravine, shaded by rhododendron, into the maze of slots. The main thoroughfare is relatively wide but impressive, with walls—dotted with lichen—rising up to 40 feet on either side.

Follow the incision into the inner sanctum of the channels, where a four-way junction offers hikers several choices. The narrow cut to the left leads to a 90-degree turn and, eventually, a dead-end. The path heading straight leads into a dark passage that drops to a spooky, rock-choked room. Taking a right leads into a dizzying labyrinth of rock, with each junction leading to additional options for exploration. Be sure to keep track of your surroundings, as it is easy to get lost.


Green lichen color the rock in The Channels


Secret room in The Channels


Shady passageways in the maze of rock


Hidden natural arch at The Great Channels

Once you’ve had your fix of dark, sinuous passageways, secret natural arches, and verdant sandstone walls, return the way you came – climbing back up and out of the Channels, across Middle Knob, and down Raven Ridge to the parking area. With stops along the way—including the “Little Channels” vista—expect to take around 4-6 hours for the round-trip hike.

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Fallingwater Cascades Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)


Fallingwater Cascades Trail, Jefferson National Forest, July 2019

Of the many hikes in the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area—part of Jefferson National Forest in central Virginia—the most popular is the Sharp Top Trail for its stunning views of the area. A second walk to consider, however, is the nearby Fallingwater Cascades Trail, which explores a shaded stream valley just off the northbound Blue Ridge Parkway. To call the tumbling waters along the trail “waterfalls” may be giving them too much credit, but the perennial drops do make for a pleasant destination, especially to cool off on a warm summer day.

Fallingwater Cascades Trail hike information Peaks of Otter

The hike

Driving north on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway from the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center, you will pass two trailheads on the left in quick succession. While the first provides a staging point for a nearby hike to Flat Top Mountain, the second is the main trailhead for Fallingwater Cascades—about 2.8 miles from the Visitor Center. There is room for around a dozen vehicles in the parking area.

The sign at the trailhead indicates that hiking routes head off in two directions: left to Flat Top Mountain, right to Fallingwater Cascades. While you will return via the path to the left, start the 1.4-mile circuit hike by heading right at the fork. Here the pavement immediately gives way to a gravel surface, with the easy-to-follow path heading downhill at a mild incline. Mountain laurel, maples, Virginia pines, and oaks dot the hillside, with rhododendrons becoming increasingly frequent as you approach the streambed.


Descent along the Fallingwater Cascades Trail

About 150 yards from the start, there is a bench and large rock jumble on the right, followed by a set of stone steps. As the path gets rockier, you can begin to hear the creek below. At 3/10 mile, the trail hangs a sharp left, then drops down a wooden staircase to the banks of Fallingwater Creek. Cross a wooden bridge over the creek, which drops precipitously over a bluff on the left—the top of the highest cascade.


Primary waterfall at Fallingwater Cascades

From the west bank of the stream, the trail curves left and begins a relatively steep downhill, using man-made steps and switchbacks to ease the descent. It is possible to view the cascade from about halfway down, but a spur trail at the base at 0.45 miles provides the easiest access. Head left on this spur for an up-close view of the main waterfall. Here Fallingwater Creek tumbles over a two-tiered slide perhaps 40 feet tall, creating a perennial cascade that soothes travelers on a hot summer day.

While this is the highest drop visible on the trail, the cascades continue downstream. About 75 yards from the initial waterfall, the creek spills over a three-tiered cascade and iron-tinged rock, giving the stream an orange-hued sheen. There are a number of spurs leading to the streamside, including one where the water rushes through a stony channel.


Minor drops along Fallingwater Creek

Finally, at 0.55 miles, the trail descends to cross the creek, requiring careful footing as you traverse the rocky stream. Leaving the creek behind, the route begins its relatively lengthy ascent back toward the trailhead. After an initial set of stone steps, the trail levels off briefly. But a steeper uphill kicks in at about 2/3-mile. In winter, when there is limited foliage, there are likely to be decent views westward, down into the Jennings Creek Valley.


Millipede along the trail

The Fallingwater Cascades Trail continues to climb to a left-hand bend at 9/10 mile, while the Blue Ridge Parkway comes back within earshot. At 1.05 miles, take a left at the junction onto the Fallingwater – Flat Top National Recreation Trail. From here the path narrows, climbing mildly to the hike’s highest point at about 1.2 miles. From here it is a gentle downhill back to the Fallingwater Cascades parking area.

This moderately difficult hike gains 360 feet in elevation and should take most hikers between 1-1.5 hours to enjoy.

Extra credit

Lace up your boots for the rocky and strenuous climb to the summit of Sharp Top, which offers panoramic views of the Peaks of Otter area. The combination of Fallingwater Cascades and Sharp Top makes for a nice day in this particularly scenic part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Sharp Top Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)


Sharp Top Trail, Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, July 2019

Viewed from the valley below, Sharp Top (3,862’) in central Virginia is an imposing peak, once thought by 19th century Virginians to be the highest point in the state. Although later surveyors found this not to be true (the honors go to Mount Rogers at 5,728’), Sharp Top remains a popular destination for hikers seeking sweeping views of the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 1.5-mile ascent to the summit is straightforward but brutal, covering an elevation gain of more than 1,300 feet. Along the way, consider a slight detour to Buzzard’s Roost, a collection of rock outcrops with a commanding vista.

Sharp Top Trail Peaks of Otter hike information

The hike

The steep climb to the summit begins at the Sharp Top Store, situated just off Route 43 as it weaves through the Peaks of Otter area, a stone’s throw from the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center and Blue Ridge Parkway. The Sharp Top Store is also the starting point for a shuttle bus that takes riders most of the way up the mountain…but, of course, this is cheating.

After loading up with water and snacks, follow the well-marked signs to the start of the trail, which begins as a neatly-constructed stone staircase. An interpretive sign tells the story of Sharp Top, including its long-held misrepresentation as the highest peak in Virginia. Sharp Top was a landmark well-known to early pioneers of the area, and, during the construction of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, Virginia residents sent a stone from the peak to be placed in the obelisk.

After some initial steps, the Sharp Top Trail quickly comes to a junction, with a spur trail heading left to the Peaks of Otter Campground. Stay straight as the path enters deep woods. After about 200 yards, the incline eases slightly, and the footpath bends right along a heavily-vegetated slope.

At 2/10 mile, the wide path crosses a paved road (the route of the shuttle bus) and then enters a mild uphill as it wraps around a left-hand bend. The path soon passes under a canopy of mountain laurel and settles into a steady ascent. Rocks become more abundant as the trail traverses a green gully, with largely obscured views to the west.


Mountain laurel along the Sharp Top Trail

After passing the half-mile mark, the ascending trail climbs a pair of switchbacks at the base of a 15- to 20-foot rock outcrop, then leads into a left-hand horseshoe bend. A couple more stone staircases lead up to a relative straightaway that nonetheless continues to climb persistently up a woody ridgeline. Two more narrow but short staircases give way to a left-hand switchback at ¾ mile. Here the first real views emerge: hikers can peer west toward McFalls Mountain and Campbells Mountain (2,414’), with the principal Blue Ridge just beyond.


First views above the trees along the Sharp Top Trail

Additional switchbacks and well-crafted stone stairs lead to the base of a rock outcrop at about 9/10 miles that, from a rear angle, looks like a nest of mammoth-sized eggs. As the incline eases, one can peer up to the left to a row of cliffs—this is near the summit of Sharp Top. But the trail here remains about 400 feet below the summit, requiring the path to swing around to the south to a high gap to clear the cliffs. For a brief moment at the 1-mile mark, the trail actually dips to clear a rock field, and the size of the boulders gets noticeably larger just beyond.

At 1.1 miles, the rock boulders temporarily disappear, and the now relatively smooth and level path reaches a high saddle where there is a trail junction. While the Sharp Top Trail continues left, consider heading right first on the short spur to Buzzard’s Roost, where exposed rock outcrops offer excellent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Piedmont plateau to the west and south. You can also, from this vantage point, view the summit of Sharp Top to the north.


View south from Buzzard’s Roost


Sharp Top from the viewpoint at Buzzard’s Roost

From Buzzard’s Roost, return on the 1/10-mile spur back to the trail junction, this time continuing right for the final approach to Sharp Top. The uphill path continues to weave among rock outcrops and is occasionally even asphalted. Guardrails assist with the climb in a couple areas as the path switchbacks up the mountain. At 1.5 miles (including the spur to Buzzard’s Roost), the trail dips down through a rocky notch, followed by more stone staircases. Within around 200 yards, the trail splits, with a spur heading left to the upper terminus of the shuttle bus. Continue straight to Sharp Top.

Stay right at another junction at 1.65 miles, this time with the summit now visible ahead. Pass a sign built by the National Park Service on the right (“Weather at Work”), as well as an old and empty cabin. Beyond, a final set of staircases provides easy access around a jumble of boulders to the summit—3,862 feet above sea level.

The various viewing areas atop Sharp Top offer views in all directions. The most striking views are to the north, looking across Abbott Lake and Peaks of Otter Lodge to Harkening Hill (3,372’) and Flat Top Mountain (4,001’). The Blue Ridge Mountains continue to the horizon to the northeast, while the Shenandoah Valley unfolds to the northwest.


Abbott Lake, Flat Top Mountain, and Peaks of Otter area from Sharp Top

Looking east, the mountains give way to small hills and flats—the Virginia Piedmont—which continue eastward toward Lynchburg and Richmond. The southward views are partly obscured (they are better at Buzzard’s Roost), but, like the northerly vista, the Blue Ridge Mountains disappear into the horizon.


Views south from the Sharp Top summit

The views from Sharp Top are particularly stunning at sunrise and sunset and, of course, as the fall colors alight the slopes with bright yellows, oranges, and reds.


Sun beginning to set on the Peaks of Otter area

Once ready to return, head back the way you came, carefully weaving down the seemingly endless stone staircases to the trailhead. Hiking time for the Sharp Top Trail varies widely by fitness level: quick hikers can complete the round-trip in about 2-2.5 hours, while most will require more than three hours because of the slow pace induced by the relentless climb.


Sharp Top Mountain from Abbott Lake

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Jonathan Run Trail and Sugar Run Falls (Ohiopyle State Park, PA)


Upper Jonathan Run Falls, Jonathan Run Trail, Ohioyple State Park, May 2019

The Youghiogheny River Gorge in southwest Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park has many echoes of other, arguably grander canyons in the area, such as New River Gorge in southern West Virginia and Cheat River Gorge at Coopers Rock State Forest near Morgantown: sweeping vistas and lush side canyons, flush with rhododendrons and picturesque waterfalls. While most visitors to Ohiopyle—a 1.5-hour drive from Pittsburgh—flock to the main Ohiopyle Falls and Ferncliff area, hikers seeking relative solitude can find it on the Jonathan Run Trail in the northwest section of the park. In the course of 1.6 miles, the trail passes two beautiful waterfalls, and it is a short walk from the end of the trail to a third, Sugar Run Falls. Visitors in late spring can expect terrific flows through dense green thicket, with the three flumes inviting hikers to stay awhile…

Jonathan Run Trail Sugar Run Falls hike information Ohiopyle

Jonathan Run Trail Ohiopyle State Park map

Map of Jonathan Run Trail and Sugar Run Falls hike, Ohiopyle State Park, adapted from https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/OhiopyleStatePark/Pages/default.aspx

The hike

Jonathan Run, a modest tributary of the Youghiogheny River, cuts through the northwest arm of Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park. While also accessible from the Kentuck and Sugar Run Trails, the best access point is its namesake path, the Jonathan Run Trail, which begins roughly 1.5 miles up the Holland Hill Road. (Note: From the Visitor Center at Ohiopyle Falls, head south on Highway 381, bear right on Ohiopyle Road, passing Cucumber Falls. Then stay straight at the four-way intersection, where the name changes to Holland Hill Road.)

The Jonathan Run Trailhead, situated at a sharp left-hand bend in the northbound road, is tucked away in the trees off to the right. A small, unpaved parking area has space for maybe a half-dozen cars.

The Jonathan Run Trail, the only path that heads off from here, begins by keeping its distance from its namesake creek but sporadic views of the stream appear on the left. The easy-to-follow path bears uphill in fits and starts, crossing a muddy ravine after about 1/3 mile. From here the trail drops down to creekside, following yellow blazes.

Now over a half mile from the start, the trail begins an abrupt climb to a higher level, putting hikers at least 30 feet above the creek bed. The track stays at this height for around 200 yards then drops back to stream level.

The hike, to this point pleasant but nothing spectacular, becomes considerably more interesting as it ducks under a canopy of leafy rhododendrons at 8/10 mile. These beautiful plants thrive in the moist, streamside setting, giving the ravine a more memorable character.


Rhododendrons along the Jonathan Run Trail

Steps further, the trail crosses a wooden bridge that, at the time of the author’s hike, appeared freshly constructed. Staying in the floodplain, the trail along the western bank gains little elevation. At 1.1 mile, the yellow-blazed path leaves the main track to the left. (Note: The path heading right leads to a difficult creek ford that is no longer used.)

Hikers will again cross the creek, however, in about 100 yards, just after a fork with the Sugar Run Trail (stay right). (Note: Visitors can venture a little way up the Sugar Run Trail, however, for a peek at nearby Fechter Run Falls.) The Jonathan Run Trail, after the second bridge, quickly ascends to another trail junction, this time with the Kentuck Trail, which offers access to the Kentuck Campground.

Continuing left at the fork, start to look for a set of social trails bearing off to the left. These paths, well worn but still steep and requiring careful footing, converge on the base of Upper Jonathan Run Falls. (Note: This waterfall, unlike the other two, is NOT labelled on Ohiopyle maps.) While not particularly high or wide, this private cascade is arguably the best of the bunch because of its secluded location and multitiered tumble that leaves visitors with the sense that they are surrounded by flowing water.


Upper Jonathan Run Falls

Below the main falls, Jonathan Run drops another three feet off a sandstone ledge, pouring into a beautiful bowl-shaped pool that is attractive for swimming. It is easy to spend upwards of an hour relaxing in this beautiful area, and crowds are likely to be few or nonexistent.


Swimming hole at Upper Jonathan Run Falls

Once ready, climb back up to the main trail and bear left, heading downhill on the wide path. Keeping to the right of the creek, the Jonathan Run Trail descends steadily for ¼ mile to the next attraction: Lower Jonathan Run Falls. At the sounds of rushing water, start to look again for a set of interconnecting social trails on the left. This time, the descent to the falls is considerably more difficult—and not recommended for small children or those without proper footgear. (Note: At one point, the path is so steep that a rope has been installed to assist with the descent.)


Lower Jonathan Run Falls

Those who brave the drop, however, are rewarded with another intimate waterfall. Unlike the upper falls, Lower Jonathan Run Falls tumbles over just one main drop that ends in a small pool. Large boulders along the creek offer a nice place to again rest and take in the scenery.


Lower Jonathan Run Falls

After a grueling ascent back to the Jonathan Run Trail, bear left again. The trail ends soon after, spilling out onto the Great Allegheny Passage, a hiking and biking superhighway that extends 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. In Ohiopyle, the wide and largely flat path follows the Youghiogheny—partly visible straight ahead—for the roughly 10 miles that it weaves through the park.


Great Allegheny Passage, heading west toward Sugar Run Falls

Hikers can use the end of the Jonathan Run Trail as a stopping point, a prompt to turn around and retrace your steps back for 1.6 miles to the trailhead. But those thirsty for one more waterfall can bear left on the Great Allegheny Passage and follow it for 250 yards to the junction with the single-track Mitchell Trail.


Sugar Run Falls along Mitchell Trail

Bear left on the Mitchell Trail, entering a dark ravine with the sounds of more rushing water. After a few minutes of climbing, the footpath reaches the base of Sugar Run Falls, a small but beautiful cascade that is even more likely than the others to be devoid of crowds. Be careful scrambling around here, as the viewing space along the banks is tight and rocky.


Sugar Run Falls

While the Mitchell Trail continues uphill from here, it is time to turn around and return to the trailhead, following the route you came. It is a roughly 1.8-mile journey, this time covering a modest but steady uphill gain of about 300 feet in elevation.

The entire 3.6-mile journey, with little to no breaks, can be completed in less than two hours. But those seeking some serenity at the three falls, should allot for at least three hours for the moderately-difficult hike.

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Jumonville Glen Trail (Fort Necessity National Battlefield, PA)


Jumonville Glen Trail, Fort Necessity National Battlefield, May 2019

What precisely happened on May 28, 1754 at Jumonville Glen in southwestern Pennsylvania remains unknown to this day. British forces led by a young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington claimed that, when they encountered a French contingent encamped at the base of a cliff, the French fired first. The French forces, commanded at the time by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, claimed that Washington’s forces surrounded and massacred them while they were resting. Whatever the reality, the results were profound: the short skirmish—which killed 13 French soldiers and one of Washington’s—kicked off a war between the two European powers that would last until 1763. The French and Indian War, beginning here at Jumonville Glen, would help cement British control of North America, until the Revolutionary War two decades later.

Today, the shady glen is preserved as part of Fort Necessity National Battlefield, situated in the Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania. (Note: The Jumonville Glen Unit is located 8 miles northwest of the main battlefield grounds.) A brief but pleasant loop hike encircles the area where the skirmish occurred: in addition to the historical relevance, the rocky sandstone ledges are interesting in themselves.

Jumonville Glen Trail hike information Fort Necessity


Map of Jumonville Glen Trail, Fort Necessity National Battlefield

The hike

The Jumonville Glen parking area is situated deep in the wooded highlands above Uniontown, Pennsylvania, roughly a 15-minute drive north of the main section of Fort Necessity National Battlefield. (Note: This primary area includes Great Meadows, site of a later battle in July 1754, when French forces caused Washington a humiliating defeat.)

Behind a covered information kiosk, the short trail to Jumonville Glen begins as a well-paved track into the wilderness. Stay on the pavement as the path forks, saving the interpretive sign (“From Jumonville to a World War”) for the end of the circuit. From here the modern, asphalted track bisects an old roadbed—remains of the famed Braddock Road, which was built in 1755 to transport British forces during the ensuing French and Indian War. (Note: The trace was named for Major General Edward Braddock, Washington’s commander who died during the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755.)


Traces of Braddock Road at Jumonville Glen

Heading southward, the trail gradually descends amid thick forest, then bears east. Ferns, chestnut oaks, birches, and maples dot the landscape. At about 250 yards, hikers will come across a minor monument to George Washington, revealing that the Jumonville Glen area is also known as “Washington’s Rocks.”


Jumonville Glen Trail

The pavement ends at an overlook about 50 yards farther, where an interpretive sign sets the stage for the battle on May 28, 1754: having heard that a group of French soldiers was in the vicinity, Washington and about 40 men formed a raiding party, setting out to investigate. As they approached, they spotted the French party at the base of this glen, ostensibly resting: what were their intentions? To spy or to negotiate? Washington and his native Iroquois allies prepared their approach…

After the overlook, the pavement disappears, transforming into a dirt, rocky single-track. Follow this path as it descends, switchbacking down the hill to the base of the sandstone ledges. Here, about 1/3 mile into the hike, was the site of the French encampment. A second interpretive sign picks up the story…


Base of the cliffs at Jumonville Glen

On the morning of May 28, as the 32 French troops prepared breakfast, they were suddenly startled by the presence of the British and Iroquois soldiers. Who shot first remains a mystery, but the French were quickly drawn into a volley of fire. The entire skirmish lasted only 15 minutes, but 13 Frenchmen were mortally wounded, including Jumonville, the group’s commanding officer.

At this spot, hikers can peer up at the rock outcrops, the enviable position held by about 20 British soldiers during the short battle. Washington and 10 others entered from the woods off to the left, while Tanacharison and Monacatootha led a contingent of Iroquois warriors from the right.


Sandstone outcrops at Jumonville Glen

When the dust settled, all but one of the surviving French forces were held prisoner (one escaped back to Fort Duquesne to alert the French command), and the representatives of New France were outraged, demanding retribution for what they viewed as an unjustified slaughter. Washington’s raid at Jumonville Glen would come back to haunt him weeks later, when the French easily overran Washington’s field headquarters at Fort Necessity on July 3. (Note: Unknown to Washington (who could not read French), the surrender papers he signed included a provision that held him personally responsible for the death of Jumonville on May 28.)


Climbing through a notch at Jumonville Glen

From the interpretive sign, bear left on a dirt path that hugs the base of the cliffs, ignoring a social trail that heads right. The route cuts through a notch in the ledges of Pottsville sandstone, then descends. Another small outcrop requires a minor ascent to evade. Several social trails veer off from around here; stay generally left on the most well-trodden of the bunch.


Jumonville Glen Trail as it meanders back to the start

At 4/10 mile, ascend a set of stone steps then swing around a bend, reclaiming the high ground above the cliffs. From here the path follows a ravine on the right that is choked with vegetation. Through gradual meandering, the trail weaves its way back to the initial junction. The interpretive sign here discusses the consequences of the skirmish: the subsequent Battle of Fort Necessity and the start of a global war. The French and Indian War morphed into a broader conflict in 1756 with the opening of a European Theater that came to be known as the Seven Years’ War.

At this final junction, bear right and return to the parking area. Allot around 30-45 minutes for the entire circuit.

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Raven Rock Trail (Coopers Rock State Forest, WV)


Raven Rock Trail, Coopers Rock State Forest, May 2019

At Coopers Rock State Forest in northern West Virginia, the Cheat River carves a deep, sandstone canyon through thick forest, making the area one of the most popular outdoors destinations in the Morgantown area. While most flock to the overlook near the main parking area at Coopers Rock, the nearby Raven Rock Trail offers an opportunity to stretch your legs and visit a quieter viewpoint that is arguably even more expansive. Short but rocky, the out-and-back track forms a 2.5-mile round trip.

Raven Rock Trail Coopers Rock hike information


Map of Raven Rock Trail, Coopers Rock State Forest

The hike

The Raven Rock Trailhead is situated roughly 2.2 miles down Coopers Rock Road, a short drive from the entrance to Coopers Rock State Forest at the junction with Interstate 68. Heading south from I-68, the marked trailhead will be on the left, although the parking area is located opposite the start on the right.

Passing around the closed gate, the trail begins as a wide gravel road. Maps are located at a small information stand on the right, after which the track leaves the parking area behind. In about 50 yards, bear right at the junction, leaving the dirt double-track as it bears left into the woods. The trail from here remains wide but rockier and more natural.

A steady downhill pace sets in as the track descends a wooded hillside en route to the rim of the Cheat River Gorge. At about 300 yards, stay straight at the trail junction—the orange-blazed trail that bisects the path offers connections to the McCollum Campground and Coopers Rock area.


Sea of ferns along the Raven Rock Trail

Descending amid a sea of ferns and other greenery, the trail approaches a large rock monolith on the right at about ¼ mile. The declivity remains but eases slightly, still bearing south toward the canyon. The ravine on the left gradually takes on more form, with a trickle of water becoming a steady flow.

Another row of cliffs come into view on the right at 4/10 mile, followed by an unmarked path that enters from the left. Within the next 300 yards, the trail flattens out considerably. At 7/10 mile, a brief uphill leads quickly into a sharp decline, with the stream becoming louder on the left and hemlocks and rhododendrons become more ubiquitous.

At about 9/10 mile, the trail reaches a somewhat confusing fork, with a spur trail heading straight while the main track veers sharply to the right and begins an abrupt uphill. (Note: The left spur is worth exploring, as it leads to a beautiful, shaded stream.) The next section is the most difficult of the hike, climbing roughly 120 feet in elevation in less than 300 yards. But the sharp ascent ends at about 1.1 miles, and—even though trees still obstruct the view—one can sense that the canyon rim is near.


Sandstone cliffs under the power lines

At 1.2 miles, the trail veers toward a set of power lines, towering over a jumble of rocks that are worth exploring in themselves. Finally, continuing south on the trail, the path passes directly under the power lines and ends at the stunning Raven Rock Overlook.


Panorama view from Raven Rock Overlook

Below, the majestic beauty of the Cheat River Gorge unfolds, with the waterway itself visible off to the southeast. It is a jaw-dropping 1,100 feet from here down to the base of the canyon, a height that eclipses the better-known New River Gorge in southern West Virginia. Looking right, it is possible on clear days to spot Coopers Rock to the northwest, a small protrusion of sandstone on the near side of the canyon. Beyond, the Cheat River forms a lake, a popular destination for swimming, rowing, and fishing.


Eastward view of the Cheat River Gorge from Raven Rock


View west over the Cheat River Gorge from Raven Rock Overlook


Raven Rock Overlook

Arriving early in the morning, there is a good chance of having this spectacular viewpoint all to yourself. But once you are ready to return, turn back and follow the way you came—this time the ups and downs are reversed, with a sharp downhill followed by a slow but relentless climb that will feel much harder than the arrival trek.

Allot at least 1.5-2 hours for this out-and-back hike.


Westward view, with Coopers Rock (the faint pinnacle on the right) visible in the distance

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Swallow Falls Canyon Trail (Swallow Falls State Park, MD)


Muddy Creek Falls, Swallow Falls Canyon Trail, Swallow Falls State Park, May 2019

The roughly one-mile circuit hike in Maryland’s Swallow Falls State Park would be impressive enough if its only attraction was the last remaining stand of virgin hemlock and white pine trees in the state. But in addition to this exquisite forest, the Swallow Falls Canyon Trail also passes four waterfalls, cuts under towering sandstone cliffs, and spans a shady landscape dotted with alluring rhododendrons, all in one brief and relatively easy jaunt.

Swallow Falls Canyon Trail hike information


Map of Swallow Falls Canyon Trail

The hike

Expect to see plenty of people at Swallow Falls State Park, a popular destination in western Maryland near the West Virginia state line. But the crowds are largely there to swim, fish, and camp, leaving the hiking trail itself relatively breathable. The circuit begins at the main parking area in the park, just beyond the entrance on the right, where there is a small trailer that functions as a visitor center. The start of the Swallow Falls Canyon Trail is hard to miss: a towering entrance sign more than 10 feet high signals the way.


Grandiose start of the trail

As soon as the hike begins, hikers enter the splendid forest of earthy hemlocks and pines, a beautiful combination and relative rarity in the Mid-Atlantic. The 37-acre Youghiogheny Grove includes trees that are more than 300 years old, casting a shadow that offers cool freshness on even the hottest days.


Boardwalk through the Youghiogheny Grove

Within 50 yards, the trail forks, marking the start of the loop section. Bear left first, heading north through the woods. The broad and easy path gradually descends, reaching an additional parking area (for those with wheelchair placards). Stay straight on the path as it turns to a wooden boardwalk. About 300 yards into the hike, the boardwalk ends, and a flurry of trails head off in different directions. Make your way down the hill toward the edge of the sandstone gorge: here an overlook offers the first look at Muddy Creek Falls, a 53-foot chute that is the highest free-falling waterfall in Maryland.


Muddy Creek Falls

Bear slightly left to find the trail heading down to the base of the falls. From here you can view Muddy Creek as it drops through neatly-carved layers of exposed sandstone and shale. The pool at the base fans out to fill a large basin before the creek continues down a set of cascades beyond. (Note: The presence of Muddy Creek Falls within a park bearing the name of another significantly smaller and less impressive waterfall is somewhat confounding.)


Base of Muddy Creek Falls

From the falls, follow the continuing trail, now fully dirt, as it hugs the edge of the sandstone cliffs. Beautiful rhododendrons dot the landscape, offering further shade. At about ¼ mile, the trail rounds a right-hand bend; just off to the left is the confluence of Muddy Creek and the larger Youghiogheny River, which cuts a steep gorge through the surrounding mountains.


Sandstone cliffs and rhododendrons line the trail

Just beyond, climb a set of stairs, then follow a high wall before passing under two high overhangs. By 4/10 mile, the river on the left has actually calmed, a relative stillness that belies the waterfalls ahead. The ascending trail gradually narrows and weaves under another set of hemlocks.


Lower Swallow Falls

At ½ mile, the trail approaches Lower Swallow Falls, a short but pleasant drop along the Youghiogheny. After the falls, the trail ascends a spiraling wooden staircase, ending at a spur trail that heads left to a relatively distant view of Upper Swallow Falls, slightly more impressive than its smaller neighbor.

Returning to the main track, head south and stay left at the trail fork at 0.55 miles. About 125 yards later, stay left again at the next fork; by now you have reached the base of Upper Swallow Falls, a popular swimming hole for visitors. The waterfall fans out into an accessible spill, reachable by way of the shallow waters downstream.


Island of rock at Upper Swallow Falls


Upper Swallow Falls from above

Heading a little further on the trail brings one to the top of the falls, a popular spot for photos. Upstream, the river is calmer, with the bridge carrying Swallow Falls Road visible in the distance.

Continue south on the Canyon Trail as it bends sharply right, away from the Youghiogheny River. There is one more waterfall to be found: Tolliver Falls, a short but aesthetically-pleasing drop set in a shady ravine with an alluring pool. The tree canopy makes Tolliver Falls easier to photograph than its larger cousins.


Tolliver Falls


Tolliver Falls and trail

After the falls, the trail bears right again, following a sign pointing toward the parking area. The path traverses relatively level terrain through thick forest, reaching a trail fork at 9/10 mile. Stay left, then follow the remainder of the track as it returns to the initial junction at the start of the hike. Bear left and exit the woods, returning to the sunny parking area and trailhead.

Swallow Falls State Park is an easy place to spend a whole day, but those looking just to hike can complete the entire loop in under an hour.

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Humpback Rocks Trail (George Washington National Forest, VA)


Humpback Rocks Trail, George Washington National Forest, April 2019

Once a prominent landmark for wagon trains travelling along the Howardsville Turnpike in the early 19th century, Humpback Rocks is today an iconic, jagged promontory in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest frequented by hikers. Its proximity to Interstate 64 and Charlottesville, Virginia makes Humpback Rocks a dizzyingly popular destination, but no amount of crowds can mar the spectacular views from the overlook, high above the Shenandoah Valley. Visitors must work for the vista, however, ascending a crushing 800 feet in elevation in less than a mile. (Note: Ambitious hikers can continue onward from the rocks to nearby Humpback Mountain for additional views.)

Humpback Rocks hike information trail


Map of the hike

The hike

The out-and-back hike to Humpback Rocks begins and ends at the Humpback Gap Trailhead, situated just south of the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center and mountain farm along the Blue Ridge Parkway (around Mile Marker 6). The parking lot is small and sure to fill up quickly – best to arrive early or late in the day.

Humpback Gap itself is a grassy neck between Dobie Mountain (2,712’) to the north and Humpback Mountain (3,080’) to the south, both part of the broader Blue Ridge Mountains, which extend from Pennsylvania to Georgia. The well-trodden, 9/10-mile hike to Humpback Rocks climbs a section of Humpback Mountain, where ascents are steep and switchbacks few.


Start of the hike to Humpback Rocks

The aggressive climb begins immediately, ascending the spine of Humpback Mountain amid modest tree cover. The path is wide, partly graveled, and easy-to-follow, with occasional obstacles (fallen trees, sharp steps). In winter, when there is little foliage, it is easy to gain views to the east and west: to the right is the sweeping expanse of the Shenandoah Valley; to the left, the sharp edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains gives way to gentler hills and, eventually, the Piedmont plateau region that spans central Virginia. The blue-blazed Humpback Rocks Trail here is within striking distance of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (AT), which ducks east from the summit of Humpback Mountain.


Sharp, steady climb

Around 4/10 mile, a large rock jumble comes into view on the left, while outcrops on the right offer obscured views to the west. The trail then briefly drops and traverses a welcome flat surface for a short period, curving westward to parallel a tall rock wall on the left. Astute hikers will notice, through the trees, a ship-like pinnacle high up above on the left: this is Humpback Rocks, your destination.

The Humpback Rocks Trail narrows and mounts a set of wooden steps, then sharply bends left and enters a steep climbing section. This group of short switchbacks is perhaps the most grueling part of the hike, but the incline begins to crest at around ¾ mile. Nearing the ridgetop, sharp protrusions of rock are visible on the right: these are collections of Catoctin greenstone—the same stuff of Humpback Rocks—that were thrust upward during the Alleghanian orogeny, a period of mountain-building that occurred 300-250 million years ago.

Once at ridge level, the trail forks, with the spur to Humpback Rocks heading left. (Note: The continuation to Humpback Mountain and the AT bears right.) From here it is a short climb to the overlook, itself an impressive jumble of greenstone, angled at a sharp diagonal and bisected by a rocky fissure.


Humpback Rocks

Climb either side for magnificent views. From left to right: the views span the Blue Ridge Mountains’ west flank to the southwest, with Torry Ridge, Kelley Mountain (3,280’), and Kennedy Ridge in the distance; then continue due west across the Shenandoah Valley to the Great North Mountain area; followed by northward views to Humpback Gap, Dobie Mountain, Rockfish Gap, and the South District of Shenandoah National Park; and finally, east, to Rockfish Valley and the Piedmont. Parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway can be found down below.


Westward view across the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Shenandoah Valley

Humpback Rocks is a fine place to stop for an hour to eat a snack and reflect on the scenery—if you can tune out the thick crowds of others trying to do the same. After taking in the views, hikers can continue onward to Humpback Mountain for more serenity or head back the way they came: a much easier, 9/10-mile descent to the trailhead.


Eastward view from Humpback Rocks

Allot at least 1.5-2 hours for the round-trip, out-and-back hike.

Extra credit

The other prominent highlight in this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the superb hike to Crabtree Falls, Virginia’s highest waterfall, and The Priest, a towering peak with excellent views. Best to leave this for another day, however, as it is also challenging with considerable elevation gain.

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