Road to First Manassas Driving Tour


Henry Hill Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, April 2017

– Civil War Series –

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, both the Union and the Confederacy foresaw a quick conflict, expecting to be done fighting by summer’s end. Politicians in the North believed the Federal Army would conquer Richmond, the Confederate capital, in one fell swoop, while top Southern general P.G.T. Beauregard bragged that his army was “certain to triumph” against an adversary he viewed as little more than “an armed rabble, gathered hastily on a false pretense.”[1]

Both sides would quickly be sobered. Under pressure from President Lincoln and others to deliver a decisive Union victory, Gen. Irvin McDowell led a force of 35,000 Northern volunteers on a march toward Richmond in mid-July 1861. The green soldiers, however, would make it only as far as Bull Run—just north of a key railroad link at Manassas Jun Junction, Virginia—before Confederate resistance and a series of Union blunders sent the Federal Army stumbling home in retreat on July 21, 1861.

The First Battle of Manassas, as it would come to be known in the South (the North dubbed it the First Battle of Bull Run), was a wake-up call for an overconfident Union. Yet the Confederate Army, exhausted by the intense battle, was unable to press on to Washington. Each side dug in for what would become a four-year war.

Touring the “Road to First Manassas” offers curious visitors today an opportunity to trace the lead-up to the war’s first significant battle. This two-day driving route covers the period of May-July 1861, starting in Alexandria, Virginia and ending at Manassas National Battlefield Park, where a series of hiking trails crisscross the former fields of fire. This post covers all the key stops, including a handful of museums, preserved forts, and the sites of several skirmishes in May-Jun 1861. Plan to spend the whole first day covering the lead-up to Manassas, then devote the second to exploring the battlefield itself and its five hiking trails.

Note: The below driving tour roughly follows the itineraries laid out by Virginia Civil War Trails and Michael Weeks’ Civil War Road Trip: Volume I (2011). In this age of GPS, I have included addresses for each site (rough approximations—for example, the nearest house) in lieu of specific directions.


Stop 1: Marshall House (480 King St., Alexandria, VA)

Day 1 is a busy day, and you will have to contend with notorious DC area traffic, so get an early start. The tour begins in Old Town Alexandria, a picturesque colonial town that was abandoned by Confederate soldiers early in the war and occupied by Union forces on May 24, 1861. It was here at the Marshall House—now the site of The Alexandrian hotel—that the Federals experienced their first casualty: on May 24, facing incoming Union troops who threatened to take down his Confederate flag, the innkeeper at the Marshall House shot and killed US Army Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the commander of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves and a friend of President Lincoln. The innkeeper, James W. Jackson, was subsequently quickly killed himself by Ellsworth’s men.

Up until very recently, there was a plaque on the wall of the Alexandrian that glorified not Ellsworth but Jackson, dubbing him the “first martyr to the cause of Southern independence.” Curiously, it has recently been removed as the hotel changed management.

Note: Allot 5 minutes to explore this site.


Site of the former Marshall House, Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 2: “Alexandria in the Civil War” sign (110 Callahan Dr., Alexandria, VA)

The second stop, situated a mile up King Street at the Alexandria Amtrak station, features the first of several “Civil War Trails” signs, this one dedicated to telling the story of Alexandria during the war. The city was ruled as a military district, the longest occupied territory of the war. There is an unmarked monument at Amtrak station, with a clear view of the 333-foot George Washington Masonic National Memorial to the northwest.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site, which is little more than a sign and a view.


View from the “Alexandria in the Civil War” sign, Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 3: Panorama of Alexandria (101 Callahan Dr., Alexandria, VA)

Next drive up Shooter’s Hill to the base of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial for a splendid panoramic view of Alexandria. The 44th New York Volunteer Infantry, known as the “Ellsworth Avengers,” camped at this site during the occupation of Alexandria. The city looks far different today than it did in the 1860s, but many historic buildings still remain, and the greenery of George Washington Memorial Park preserves the vista.

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes to explore this site, more if you plan to visit the Masonic museum.


Panorama of Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 4: Fort Ward Park (4301 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria, VA)

Leaving Old Town Alexandria behind, it is a 10-minute drive to Fort Ward, a beautifully-preserved earthen fort that was built by Union forces to protect Washington, DC. The fort never saw fighting during the war, but it did experience a flurry of activity, undergoing a series of expansions between 1861 and 1865. By 1863, the fort perimeter surpassed 800 yards and boasted room for 36 guns.[2]

More than 90 percent of the earthworks remain intact today, encompassed in the 45-acre Fort Ward Park. The Northwest Bastion has been reconstructed with a handful of cannons, and the Fort Ward Museum, open Tuesday-Sunday, features a 4,000-object rotating collection of maps, weapons, and trinkets from the time period.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore the grounds and museum.


Fort Ward Park, Alexandria, Virginia

Stop 5: Fairfax Museum (10209 Main St., Fairfax, VA)

By around mid-morning, you should be on your way out of Alexandria and heading toward suburban Fairfax. Here the small Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center offers a handful of exhibits on the city’s history, including an admittedly sparse section of the Civil War. This is a good point to pick up the story in the spring of 1861, however, when Union forces were gradually fanning out across northern Virginia to weed out Confederate positions. In the pre-dawn hours of June 1, a Union scouting party surprised a local militia positioned at nearby Fairfax Court House, fighting the small Confederate force to a draw in one of the first skirmishes of the war. Each side lost a soldier each, including the Confederate militia leader: Capt. John Marr.

Note: Allot 20-30 minutes for this site.


Fairfax Museum, Fairfax, Virginia

Stop 6: Fairfax Court House (4110 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, VA)

From the Fairfax Museum, make your way up Main Street to the site of the old Fairfax Court House (situated next to the new Court House). It was on this hill that the skirmish took place. There is a stone monument dedicated to Captain Marr, as well as a pair of small cannons and a Civil War Trails sign. Fairfax Court House changed hands twice in 1861: on July 17, Gen. Irvin McDowell’s troops seized the city; by July 22, as Union forces retreated from the Battle of Manassas, it returned to Confederate control.

Note: Allot 10 minutes to explore this site. Free parking is available two blocks east at the corner of Main Street and East Street.


Fairfax Court House, Fairfax, Virginia

Stop 7: Freeman Store & Museum (131 Church St. NE, Vienna, VA)

Two weeks after the skirmish at Fairfax Court House, Union forces fell into an ambush in the nearby town of Vienna as Brig. Gen. Robert Schenck was transporting the 1st Ohio Infantry along the Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad. As Confederate Col. Maxcy Gregg’s troops heard the railroad whistle in the distance, they moved forces into positions and surprised the incoming Federals, incurring several casualties before Schenck’s troops were able to retreat on foot. While the Freeman Store and Museum is light on Civil War history, a Civil War Trails sign out front tells the story of this skirmish.

Note: Allot 10-20 minutes for this site.


Freeman Store & Museum, Vienna, Virginia

Stop 8: Vienna Community Center (120 Cherry St. SE, Vienna, VA)

The minor “Battle of Vienna” actually took place near the modern-day Vienna Community Center, just off modern-day Park Street. Here the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail traces the former route of the railroad where Schenck’s troops were ambushed. (Note: Reportedly, there is a stone marker along the W&OD Trail that denotes the first railroad battle in history; however, I could not find it for the life of me!)

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes for this site.


Site of Battle of Vienna, Vienna, Virginia

Stop 9: Taylor’s Tavern (801 Ridge Pl., Falls Church, VA)

After grabbing lunch, head back east on Interstate 66 to the town of Falls Church. Just southwest of Oakwood Cemetery, look for a pull-off and a small Civil War Trails sign. While the sign covers the Union occupation of Falls Church, the real destination is reached by way of a short, woody path that climbs to the former site of Taylor’s Tavern, where Union balloonist Thaddeus S.C. Lowe used an old racing balloon to conduct the first aerial reconnaissance in American military history on June 24-25, 1861. (Note: Skip this site if you do not want to backtrack to the east, as the detour adds about ½ hour to the trip.)

Note: Allot 10-15 minutes to walk the short trail and explore this site.


Former site of Taylor’s Tavern, Falls Church, Virginia

Stop 10: Old Stone Church (13941 Braddock Rd., Centreville, VA)

From here, the story of the First Battle of Manassas picks up in earnest. Make your west along Interstate 66, roughly following the route taken by advancing Union forces in mid-July 1861. Facing mounting pressure in Washington to capture Richmond, Gen. Irwin McDowell and his hastily-assembled army of 35,000 men set out from Washington on July 16. The green troops advanced slowly, stopping frequently to clear the road, loot abandoned Confederate positions, and pick blackberries.[3] The force reached Centreville on July 18, passing the Old Stone Church, which would later be used as a field hospital during the battle. Today, the church has changed names—now the Church of the Ascension—but the historic structure remains. Look for a Civil War Trails sign on the site.

Note: Allot 5 minutes to explore this site.


Old Stone Church, Centreville, Virginia

Stop 11: Blackburn’s Ford (7126-7152 Centreville Rd., Centreville, VA)

As the Federals advanced west toward Manassas, Confederate Gen. P.G.T Beauregard reinforced southern positions along the banks of Bull Run, a woody creek that would serve as the frontier of battle. On the morning of July 18, McDowell sent Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler’s First Division south from Centreville to Blackburn’s Ford, where he was instructed to feel out the Confederate defenses. An intrepid Tyler, confident that he could press the offensive, disobeyed orders and directed his infantry to cross Bull Run – only to meet a barrage of fire from Confederate soldiers, hidden in the woods on the opposite bank. The brief Battle of Blackburn’s Ford forced Tyler’s division to retreat and cost the lives of 85 of his men.

Today, the site of the battle is situated within Bull Run Regional Park; look for a gravel turnoff off to the right, just before Centreville Road (Route 28) crosses Bull Run. A small parking area offers access to the creek and the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail, a scenic track which follows the stream for roughly 20 miles—an endeavor for another day.

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes to explore this site.


Blackburn’s Ford, Bull Run Regional Park, Virginia

Stop 12: McLean Farm (7500 Centreville Rd., Manassas Park, VA)

Just under a mile south of Blackburn’s Ford, Gen. Beauregard took up his headquarters here at the home of local farmer Wilmer McLean. Although the farm was ravaged in the Battle of Manassas, McLean would again come to play a cameo role in the Civil War five years later: on April 9, 1865, the Confederates former surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at McLean’s new home in Appomattox Court House. Today, the former site of McLean Farm, marked by a Civil War Trails sign, is tucked away in the back of a CVS parking lot.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.


Former site of McLean Farm, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 13: Mitchell’s Ford (7610 Old Centreville Rd., Manassas, VA)

After the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, Gen. Beauregard believed that the Union forces would attempt to cross Bull Run at nearby Mitchell’s Ford, just upstream to the southwest. Accordingly, Confederate reinforcements flooded the area. On the eve of battle, however, McDowell’s forces were actually preparing to attack much farther north, aiming to surprise Beauregard’s troops by crossing at Sudley Springs on July 21 and outflanking the Confederate left.

While there are no markers today at Mitchell’s Ford, look for a Civil War Trails sign and wayside exhibit just inside the entrance to the parking lot at Yorkshire Elementary School.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.


Mitchell’s Ford sign, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 14: Signal Hill (9300 Signal View Dr., Manassas Park, VA)

“Look out for your left, you are turned.” As McDowell’s forces were preparing to cross Bull Run, Confederate Col. Nathan G. Evans received this message from Capt. E. Porter Alexander, a flag-waving signalman, on the morning of July 21. The warning probably saved Manassas from Union capture: Alexander spotted McDowell’s forces sneaking around the Confederate left, making way for the ford at Sudley Springs. Upon hearing the message, Evans would sprang into action, moving the majority of his brigade northwest from its defensive position at Stone Bridge to meet the Federals as they crossed Bull Run. McDowell initially caught the Confederates off-guard, but he had now lost the element of surprise.

The importance of Capt. Porter’s message is captured today in a monument atop Signal Hill, a now wooded knoll to the east of Manassas. Look for the site across Signal View Drive from the Signal Bay Waterpark.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.


Signal Hill, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 15: Mayfield Fort (8401 Quarry Rd., Manassas, VA)

This stop offers a chance to get out and stretch your legs on a short hike around a former Confederate fortification. Mayfield Fort, constructed in spring 1861, was part of a system of defenses intended to protect Manassas Junction, a critical node on the railroad connecting Washington and Richmond. A partly paved, 6/10-mile stem-and-loop trail crisscrosses the earthworks, with the highlight being an elevated view of the surrounding countryside. Be sure to see the two “Quaker gun” reproductions, fake cannons used frequently by the Confederates to fool the Federals.

Note: Allot 30-45 minutes for this brief hike, which features several interpretive signs.


Quaker guns at Mayfield Fort, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 16: Manassas Museum (9101 Prince William St., Manassas, VA)

The Manassas Museum, open Tuesday-Sunday, is the center for interpretation of the Civil War era in the town of Manassas. Inside are relics from the time period: old newspapers, soldiers’ uniforms, and other war memorabilia. (Note: The docents at the site have a decisively pro-Confederacy leaning; better to wait until the next day to talk with the park rangers at the Manassas National Battlefield Park for a much more balanced view.)

Note: Allot 30-45 minutes to explore the museum and bookstore.


Manassas Museum, Manassas, Virginia

Stop 17: Manassas Walking Tour (9101 Prince William St., Manassas, VA)

The Manassas Museum is only a stone’s throw away from central Manassas, inviting visitors to take a stroll around this quaint downtown area. There are several Civil War Trails signs, which tell the story of Manassas during the war. One of the most interesting anecdotes comes from July 16, 1861, when Gen. Beauregard received a coded message from Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who relayed from Washington that McDowell planned to send 35,000 men to march on Manassas. This piece of intelligence was critical in persuading President Jefferson Davis to reinforce Beauregard’s troops along Bull Run.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to walk around Manassas. It will likely be evening by now; if you still have time, press ahead to Stop 18. If the sun is setting, save it for the next morning.


Downtown Manassas, Virginia

Stop 18: Ben Lomond Historic Site (10321 Sudley Manor Dr., Manassas, VA)

On July 21, as the battle was underway, elements of Brig. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brigade converted Ben Lomond Manor (also known as the Pringle house) into a Confederate field hospital. Owned by prosperous planter Benjamin Tasker Chinn, Ben Lomond Manor saw a significant decline due to the war, eventually forcing Chinn to sell the property and move to Washington, DC in 1870.

Visitors to Ben Lomond Historic Site can now explore the house and former plantation grounds for $5; tours are offered from May-October but only on Thursday-Monday between 11am and 4pm.

Note: If you are taking the tour, allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore this site. Because of the restrictive hours, however, it makes sense to skip this site or simply drive by for a quick peek before moving on.


Stop 19: Henry Hill Visitor Center (6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

After covering the lead-up to battle in day 1, the second day of the tour is devoted entirely to the events of July 21, 1861. Most visitors to Manassas National Battlefield Park begin at the Henry Hill Visitor Center, which offers extensive exhibits, including audio and video, on both the First and Second Battles of Manassas. The Visitor Center sits atop Henry Hill, site of the culminating engagements on July 21, 1861 and an excellent vantage point for observing the fields of battle.

Here you will be faced with a choice of options for the day. The first is to hike the 5.4-mile First Manassas Trail, which begins and ends at the Visitor Center and connects most of the major sites of interest by foot. The second is to drive between the sites, which allows visitors to see each spot in chronological order, starting with Sudley Springs and ending back here at Henry Hill.

(Note: See my post on March 15, 1861 for a detailed description of the First Manassas Trail. The remainder of this post covers the driving option, which still allows for several short hikes along the way.)


View from Henry Hill Visitor Center, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 20: Sudley Springs (5384-5400 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

On July 19, 1861—two days before the battle—Gen. McDowell dispatched the Union Army’s chief engineer, John G. Barnard, to identify a suitable place for thousands of Federal soldiers, horses, and artillery to cross Bull Run undetected. Barnard found such a spot at Sudley Ford, well upstream of the Confederate positions near the sleepy town of Sudley Springs. Two days later, Gen. McDowell sent two divisions (roughly 13,000 troops) to cross Sudley Ford, the move that kicked off the Civil War’s first major engagement.

While Sudley Ford is on private property, the 6/10-mile Sudley Loop Trail, one of five hiking trails that trace the First Battle of Manassas, explores the area just south of the crossing.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore this site. See my post on May 14, 2017 for a full trail description.


Sudley Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 21: Stone Bridge (16012-16020 Lee Highway, Centreville, VA)

At the time of the war, Stone Bridge offered the only road crossing of Bull Run in the area. As such, it was guarded by Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans’ 7th Brigade, which formed the extreme left of the Confederate defenses. On the morning of July 21, McDowell sent Brig. Gen. Tyler’s division to confront Evans’ force at the bridge, inaugurating the Battle of Manassas with an initial volley of artillery fire at around 6 am. But the attack was simply a feint, intended to disguise McDowell’s far larger movement of two divisions at Sudley Ford.

A popular, 1.6-mile hike crosses Stone Bridge (a reconstruction of the old causeway), parallels Bull Run, and then traces a circuit around the hillside where Col. Evans’ brigade was positioned. It also passes Farm Ford, where a certain Col. William Tecumseh Sherman would guide his brigade across Bull Run on the morning of July 21.

Note: Allot 1.5-2 hours to explore this site and hike the 1.6-mile trail. See my post on May 27, 2017 for a full trail description. By now, it will likely be around lunch time.


Stone Bridge, Stone Bridge Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 22: Matthews Hill (5911-5891 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

By mid-morning on July 21, Capt. Alexander’s message had warned Evans that Tyler’s artillery barrage was merely a feint, and Evans had moved around 900 troops to meet Col. David Hunter and Col. Samuel Heintzelman’s Union divisions—which had slowly crossed Sudley Ford—at nearby Matthews Hill. Despite being outgunned and outmanned, Evans’ troops—supplemented by two brigades led by Col. Francis Bartow and Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee—held off the Federal advance for nearly 90 minutes. The delay was critical in giving the Confederates enough time to bring additional reinforcements for the afternoon engagements.

Situated off Sudley Road, the Matthews Hill parking area serves as the start and end point for the 1-mile Matthews Hill Loop Trail. This short hike dips in and out of the woods and crosses both the Union and Confederate positions during the brief but bloody battle.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to explore this site. See my post on May 27, 2017 for a full trail description.


Matthews Hill Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 23: Stone House (12521 Lee Highway, Manassas, VA)

Situated in a low gully between Matthews and Henry Hills, the Stone House served as a makeshift Union field hospital during the battle. By late afternoon on July 21, the Confederates would reclaim the house and capture the wounded Federals inside. Surviving both the First and Second Battles of Manassas, the Stone House remains in remarkably good shape today, one of the few remaining structures from the time period. It is open to visitors from late spring through early fall.

Note: Allot 10-15 minutes to explore this site.


Stone House, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

Stop 24: Henry Hill Loop Trail (6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA)

Drive back to the Henry Hill Visitor Center for the finale of the driving tour: a short, easy hike on the Henry Hill Loop Trail. (Note: If you have time and energy for only one hiking trail on this trip, this is the one to do.) The path circles the key battlefield on July 21, where Confederate reinforcements—led by “Stonewall” Jackson, who would earn his moniker here—won a surprise victory and forced McDowell’s beleaguered forces into retreat. A series of Union mishaps, including delays at Matthews Hill, allowed the Confederates to crowd Henry Hill, engaging the Federals in overwhelming artillery fire before cavalry and infantry units would ultimately force the Northern soldiers to flee.

Note: Allot 1-1.5 hours to explore this site. See my post on May 27, 2017 for a full trail description. This is the official end of the two-day driving tour.


Henry Hill Loop Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia

 The Civil War’s first major battle was a shocking defeat for President Lincoln and the Union Army, but the Confederate Army was too fatigued and too disorganized to pursue the Federals back to Washington. As summer gave way to winter, both sides would fall back into a defensive position, recruiting volunteers and shoring up their armies for an eventual return to battle. While there were some minor offensives throughout late 1861 and early 1862, the brunt of the armies would not meet again until the Peninsula Campaign of spring 1862.

 There are five hiking trails, all in Manassas National Battlefield Park, that cover terrain relevant to the First Battle of Manassas:

[1] John J. Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 (Stackpole Books: 2015), pg. 4.

[2] Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walter Owen, Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (Scarecrow Press: 2009), pg. 42.

[3] Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas, pg. 7-8.

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Top 10 Hikes in 2017


Dolly Sods North Loop, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, September 2017

2017 is nearly in the books, and it’s been a banner year for Live and Let Hike. Viewership reached new heights (roughly 85,000 and 167,000 page views in 2017), and I added 76 new posts this year that covered hikes, scenic byways, and other destinations in 11 different states: California, Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. I also inaugurated two historical series in 2017, highlighting trails related to the Civil War and Revolutionary War.

For the second year in a row, the top 5 most visited posts (excluding the home page) were all holdovers from past years: (1) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Frontcountry”; (2) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Backcountry”; (3) Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch Loop (Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, UT); (4) Capitol Reef Hiking Guide; and (5) Rock Circuit Trail (Middlesex Fells Reservation, MA).

This year’s most popular new posts, however, were all from the mid-Atlantic: (1) Dolly Sods North Loop (Dolly Sods Wilderness WV); (2) Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 1: Pen Mar to Raven Rock Hollow, including High Rock and Devil’s Racecourse (South Mountain State Park, MD); (3) Yorktown Battlefield Auto Tour (Colonial National Historical Park, VA); (4) Stone Bridge Loop Trail (Manassas National Battlefield Park, VA); and (5) First Manassas Trail (Manassas National Battlefield Park, VA).

More importantly than page views, of course, was the quality of the hikes involved. In that spirit, check out the list below for my (heavily subjective) “top ten” best hikes of 2017, ranked in reverse order.


Big Schloss, George Washington National Forest, October 2017

  1. Big Schloss (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)

Taking its name from the German word for “castle,” the rocky outcrop at Big Schloss straddles the VirginiaWest Virginia border and features stunning, panoramic views of tree-laced mountains and majestic valleys. The 2.1-mile hike to the top is no slouch, either, with regular vistas as the trail follows the spine of a narrow, windswept ridgeline.

See my post on November 10, 2017 for a full trail description.


Tibbet Knob, George Washington National Forest, October 2017

  1. Tibbet Knob (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)

Better yet, make a day of it and hike to the top of Big Schloss’ less-visited cousin to the southwest, Tibbet Knob, which is arguably even more spectacular. An initial viewpoint at the hike’s ½ mile mark sports excellent views of the Shenandoah Valley, while the summit at 1.4 miles overlooks beautiful Trout Run Valley in the heart of the Great North Mountain range.

See my post on December 2, 2017 for a full trail description.


Beech Cliff Trail, Acadia National Park, August 2017

  1. Beech Cliff Trail & Canada Cliffs Trail Loop (Acadia National Park, ME)

I had the pleasure of visiting Maine’s Acadia National Park for the first time this year and was not disappointed. Despite never surpassing 1,600 feet above sea level, the granite peaks on Mount Desert Island are wonderfully rugged and unlike nearly anything else on the eastern seaboard. The Beech Cliff Trail is one of the park’s four “iron rung” hikes: strenuous climbs that require negotiating ladders, iron aides, and steep staircases to mount exposed cliff sides. The reward is commanding views of Echo Lake, Somes Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

See my post on August 14, 2017 for a full trail description.


Blackbird Loop, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, October 2017

  1. Blackbird Knob Loop (Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV)

After more than a year-long hiatus, I went on two overnight backpacking trips in 2017, both in West Virginia’s spectacular Dolly Sods Wilderness. This hiker’s paradise in Monongahela National Forest features alpine-like meadows, babbling creeks, high-altitude vistas, and broad ecological diversity, making it an increasingly popular destination despite its remote location. The Blackbird Knob Loop, the first of the two backpacks on this list, cuts through the heart of the Dolly Sods area, crisscrossing meadows as it visits both the forks of Red Creek and includes westerly views of beautiful Canaan Valley.

See my post on October 9, 2017 for a full trail description.


Acadia Mountain Trail, Acadia National Park, August 2017

  1. Acadia Mountain Loop (Acadia National Park, ME)

This challenging hike on Acadia’s quiet west side leads to a stony summit with panoramic views, then drops to the banks of Somes Sound, a tranquil inlet that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. The ascents and descents are sharp and rocky, making this one of the toughest hikes on this year’s list.

See my post on August 20, 2017 for a full trail description.


Stout Grove Loop, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, July 2017

  1. Stout Grove Loop (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, CA)

One of three hikes in the top ten from my July trip to northern California, the Stout Grove Loop is a short and easy circuit through one of the best redwood stands in the world. Walking through redwood groves, particularly in the region’s iconic fog or evening sun, is an otherworldly experience; these vermilion-hued sentinels, the world’s tallest trees, offer a distinctive beauty that is impossible to replicate in words or photographs.

See my post on November 4, 2017 for a full trail description.


Prairie Creek Trail, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, July 2017

  1. Prairie Creek Trail – Foothill Trail Loop (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

Longer and often less crowded than Stout Grove, this circuit hike in nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park offers a casual walk through several groves of spectacular redwoods. While passing the much-vaunted “Big Tree,” the most beautiful trees are unlabeled, silent sentinels reaching for the sky. All 2.6 miles of this hike, save for one tricky section, are wheelchair-accessible.

See my post on November 4, 2017 for a full trail description.


Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, July 2017

  1. Fern Canyon (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

While the trees are the main draw, the most spectacular hike in Prairie Creek Redwoods is the Fern Canyon Trail, a short but exquisite passage between fern-strewn walls. Lush with greenery and dripping with moisture, this jungle-like canyon was once a shooting location for Jurassic Park: The Lost World. A mile-long out-and-back covers the best of the canyon and requires hikers to surmount downed trees and ever-changing stream crossings.

See my post on October 29, 2017 for a full trail description.


The Beehive Trail, Acadia National Park, August 2017

  1. The Beehive Loop (Acadia National Park, ME)

The most popular of Acadia’s “iron rung” hikes, The Beehive Loop includes a hair-raising ascent up an exposed cliffside, ending at a summit overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Frenchman Bay. From here the loop traverses two lesser peaks and then drops to an attractive lake known as The Bowl. Strenuous and thrilling, The Beehive is an Acadia classic.

See my post on August 22, 2017 for a full trail description.


Dolly Sods North Loop, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, September 2017

  1. Dolly Sods North Loop (Dolly Sods Wilderness, WV)

The Dolly Sods North Loop, a popular backpacking destination in central West Virginia, takes this year’s top marks for its diverse terrain and stunning views. A rim of Pottsville Sandstone along the Rocky Ridge Trail offers unparalleled vistas of Canaan Valley, while the hike’s numerous meadows and heath barrens bear closer resemblance to ecosystems in northern Canada than to the rest of the mid-Atlantic.

See my post on September 13, 2017 for a full trail description.

Honorable Mention:

Posted in Acadia National Park, California, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Easy Hikes, George Washington National Forest, Maine, Maryland, Moderate Hikes, Monongahela National Forest, Redwood National & State Parks, South Mountain State Park, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trading Post Trail (Red Rocks Park, CO)


Trading Post Trail, Red Rocks Park, November 2017

Rising abruptly from the dry prairielands at the base of Colorado’s Front Range, the ruddy sandstone outcrops at Red Rocks Park are a popular destination in the Denver area. A short drive from the bustling metropolis, Red Rocks feels in some ways like an urban spectacle: the park is most well-known, after all, for its massive, man-made amphitheater, nestled among the stone. The 1.5-mile Trading Post Trail, however, offers a relatively rugged experience as it cuts across slickrock, skirts thick sandstone walls, and flirts with grand cottonwood trees. Best done as a loop, this hike never quite escapes the buzz of nearby roads, but it does offer a solid tour of the area’s unique geological landscape.

Trading Post Trail hike information Red Rocks Park

Trading Post Trail map Red Rocks

Map of Trading Post Trail, Red Rocks Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Red Rocks Park, roughly a 16-mile drive from downtown Denver, sits in a low valley between the slopes of Mount Morrison (7,881’) and a long, dusty ridge called the Hogback. The park is crisscrossed by paved, two-lane roads and littered with parking lots, and the somewhat gaudy Trading Post is a far cry from the serenity of Colorado’s famed mountain wilderness. Nonetheless, as the Trading Post Trail gets going (the start is situated at the end of the small lot east of the main building), the pavement gives way to dirt and slickrock, and hikers are plunged into a setting reminiscent of Utah’s spectacular canyon country.


Red Rocks from the Trading Post

The outcrops at Red Rocks are part of the Fountain Formation, a sedimentary rock layer that is nearly 300 million years old. As the ancestral Rockies—the predecessor to today’s mountains—eroded away around 270 million years ago, they left behind piles of sediment, which eventually were buried and hardened into stone. Another uplift roughly 70-40 million years ago, which formed the current Rocky Mountains, forced the Fountain layer upward, revealing the eastward-tilted outcrops visible today. (Note: Similar outcrops can be found at nearby Roxborough State Park, as well as Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and the Flatirons outside Boulder.)

As the Trading Post Trail descends a steep slope, its skirts the eastern flank of Picnic Rock, a weathered jumble of stone. After winding through sand, the trail descends a wide sandstone ledge, with sweeping views of the valley beyond. At about 2/10 mile, the trail crosses Red Rocks Park Road then hugs a grassy hillside as it continues to shed elevation.


Heading down the Trading Post Trail, with Picnic Rock on the right

By around 4/10 mile, the path levels out and crosses a wooden footbridge over a brush-strewn wash. From here the trail approaches a small red silo, situated at the base of massive Park Cave Rock, which features sheer, vertical cliffs. As the Trading Post Trail wraps around the rock formation bearing west, it crosses Red Rocks Park Road again. This is roughly the lowest point on the hike; it will be nearly all uphill from here.


Approaching Frog Rock

Cutting northwest across desert scrub, the next ¼ mile is fully exposed to the hot, midday sun. After initially swinging far from the sandstone outcrops, the path gradually approaches Frog Rock on the right and enters the hike’s most scenic section: a grassy passage between rock features. An optional loop splits from the main trail at around 1.1 miles, bearing east across a grassy meadow to the edge of hefty Frog Rock.


Frog Rock from the Trading Post Trail

The main track then approaches a set of interpretive signs; pictures and short descriptions of local features add context to the curiously-named rocks nearby: Sphinx, Gog and Magog, The Toad, Sinking Titanic, and Iceberg. After a subsequent trail fork (the optional loop enters from the right), the trail cuts left and enters a relatively narrow canyon. Sphinx Rock’s distinctive spire towers above, followed quickly by Sinking Titanic Rock and Iceberg Rock on the left.


Sphinx Rock


Nine Parks Rock and Picnic Rock beyond

Swallowed up by cottonwoods and willows, the ravine cuts deeper as the trail crosses a dry wash. At 1.3 miles, stay right at the trail fork, then cross a short bridge and ascend a steep staircase that exits the gully and runs up against the walls of Nine Parks Rock, the final formation encountered on the hike. Stay right as a spur trail leads up to a parking area on the left; from here, the path turns into a sidewalk paralleling Ship Rock Road.


Sinking Titanic Rock and Iceberg Rock

As it approaches the Trading Post, the trail drops down a series of steps to the Red Rocks Native Garden, with the main building just beyond. Here the snarls of crowds and vehicle traffic set in again, a reminder of the park’s urban environs at trail’s end.

Allot 1-1.5 hours for this moderately difficult loop hike.

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Bruin Bluff Trail Loop (Lair o’ the Bear Park, CO)


Bruin Bluff Trail, Lair o’ the Bear Park, November 2017

Gaining 180 feet in elevation, the Bruin Bluff Trail is a slightly more difficult alternative to the Bear Creek Trail in Lair o’ the Bear Park, roughly five miles west of Morrison, Colorado. Climbing in and out of mostly spruce forests, the meandering path provides views of a sun-soaked valley in Colorado’s Front Range, including from the trail’s namesake bluff, a top destination for hikers in this popular park. The circuit hike twice crosses Bear Creek, a lovely stream that gives life to large cottonwood trees.

Bruin Bluff Trail hike information

Bruin Bluff Trail Lair o the Bear Park map

Map of Bruin Bluff Trail Loop, Lair o’ the Bear Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

The Bruin Bluff Trail Loop begins and ends at the main parking area in Lair o’ the Bear Park. Arrive early or late in the day to avoid the crushing crowds, as this small but popular park can draw hundreds of visitors per day from the nearby Denver metro area. There are effectively two wide and well-trodden paths that begin at the parking lot: start with the trail heading east, heading across an open field past the pit toilets. This is technically part of the Creekside Trail, which merges with the Bear Creek Trail at 1/10 mile.

Follow the hard-packed thoroughfare for about ¼ mile to a shady picnic area on the banks of Bear Creek, which feeds into the South Platte River several miles downstream. Here a set of craggy cottonwood trees hug the banks, with hefty branches extending from their huge trunks. Cross the Ouzel Bridge to the south side of the creek.


Bear Creek and a mighty cottonwood tree

From here, the trail runs up against the base of a tree-laced mountainside. Bear right at the fork at 3/10 mile. This is the start of the Bruin Bluff Trail.

Now bearing west, the Bruin Bluff Trail begins to gradually climb through deciduous and coniferous forests, eventually approaching a grassy hillside, where the trail forks, at about the hike’s 4/10 mile mark. The trail bearing right is the dusty Castor Cutoff Trail, which provides a shortcut to Dipper Bridge to the northwest. Stay left on the Bruin Bluff Trail, which continues to climb after the junction.


Approaching Bruin Bluff

Now out in the sunshine, the narrow path climbs abruptly up a set of short switchbacks, then reaches Bruin Bluff. From this rocky promontory, hikers have near-panoramic views of the valley below. The mountains to the south, across Colorado Highway 74, rise to 7,800 feet and are situated outside the park boundaries; to the east, tree-covered Mount Morrison (7,881’) guards the entrance to Bear Creek Canyon, with Denver and the vast, endless plains beyond.


Bruin Bluff

The valley through which Bear Creek cuts is curious for its contrasts: while the south side (where you are hiking) is blanketed with evergreens, the north slopes are nearly bare of vegetation—likely a product of differing wind and soil conditions.

Even as you have reached Bruin Bluff, there is much more hiking to complete, and some of the best—and higher—vistas are to come. From the lookout, the trail cuts southwest and clears a minor, wooded ravine. At about 7/10 mile, the path switchbacks through upland scrub and offers the hike’s best views as Bruin Bluff remains visible across the gully. From here, hikers will bear west through a dense conifer forest, reaching the highest point of the loop at around 9/10 mile.


Bruin Bluff and Bear Creek Canyon from the Bruin Bluff Trail

The rest of the hike is a slow and gradual descent, first through thick woods, then down an exposed ridgeline. Coming within striking distance of Bear Creek, the trail cuts across a grassy meadow at around 1.25 miles. Bruin Bluff is now visible again, this time up above to the south. At 1.3 miles, bear left at the trail junction and immediately cross Dipper Bridge. Bear right on the Bear Creek Trail, the busiest walk in Lair o’ the Bear, and follow it for 1/10 mile back to the parking area.


Bruin Bluff from below

Allot between 45 minutes to an hour for this short and relatively easy loop hike in the Front Range.

Extra credit

Head west on the Bear Creek Trail as it enters a narrow canyon and passes high walls, whitewater rapids, and a curious modern-day castle en route to Corwina Park.

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Bear Creek Trail to Corwina Park (Lair o’ the Bear Park, CO)


Bear Creek Trail, Lair o’ the Bear Park, November 2017

One of the easiest mountain hikes in the Denver area, the Bear Creek Trail offers a family-friendly adventure through Lair o’ the Bear Park, which is roughly halfway between Morrison and Evergreen, Colorado. Heading west from the Lair o’ the Bear parking area, the hard-packed trail hugs a gently-flowing stream before entering shady Bear Creek Canyon, flanked by walls of stone. The 1.25-mile hike is mostly flat and level, ending at a trail fork as the path enters Corwina Park. (Note: Ambitious hikers can continue on as the Bear Creek Trail narrows and climbs steeply through Corwina and O’Fallon Parks to Panorama Point and beyond.)

Bear Creek Trail Lair o the Bear Park hike information

Bear Creek Trail Lair o the Bear Park hike map

Map of Bear Creek Trail, Lair o’ the Bear Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails. (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

The parking area at Lair o’ the Bear Park is a 5-mile drive west from Morrison on Colorado State Highway 74. Bear left into the parking lot, which is sure to be close to capacity on most sunny weekends. (Note: Lair o’ the Bear is one of the busiest parks in the Jefferson County park system.) Dusty trails circle the lot in all directions, but the Bear Creek Trail is the most evident, heading west through relatively dense vegetation. (Note: The Bear Creek Trail also heads southeast, past the bathrooms, toward Idledale; this section is shorter, however, and less scenic.)

Stay straight on the main trail as a series of spurs head off to the left, including the junction with the Bruin Bluff Trail at Dipper Bridge at around 1/10 mile. By now the woods have opened up, revealing a sun-soaked meadow across the stream to the north, while tall grasses and willows line the creek. Approach the first of two junctions with the Creekside Loop Trail at about 2/10 mile. Take a left and follow this short detour for streamside views, or continue straight over a minor tributary before emerging at the second junction, where the two trails come back together, at 3/10 mile.


Bear Creek Trail, looking back to the east

As the Bear Creek Trail continues southwest, it passes over a second, shaded tributary that is difficult, but possible, to pass in a wheelchair. As the trees dissipate again, the buzz of Highway 74, emanating from atop the slope to the right, is omnipresent and is by far the trail’s biggest flaw. Just beyond, however, the sounds of vehicle traffic are mitigated by the charming flow of Bear Creek, which squeezes through a narrow notch at about the ½-mile mark. Spruce-strewn hillsides and high, blocky walls dominate the far side of the creek, making this a picturesque place to stop for a snack or to try your hand at fly-fishing, which is popular in the park.


Bear Creek Canyon

Now heading northeast, traverse the wide, steel bridge over Bear Creek at around 7/10 mile. Soon after, the trail rounds a sharp left-hand bend and continues to follow the creek southeast. With high rock walls on the left, a peculiar sight comes into view, across the creek, at 9/10 mile: Dunafon Castle, built in 1941. Once an extravagant private home, this is now a popular wedding venue, complete with a Medieval-like appearance, a well-manicured lawn, a water wheel, and several man-made waterfalls. It is off-limits to passersby, however, as the “private property” signs facing the trail make abundantly clear.


Dunafon Castle, from the Bear Creek Trail in Lair o’ the Bear Park

Beyond the castle, the increasingly rocky trail follows the creek, now flowing from the northwest, for another ¼ mile to the end of the hike. At 1.2 miles, the Bear Creek Trail abruptly cuts left, climbing a steep slope as it enters Corwina Park. The larger, smoother path continues straight to the western reaches of Lair o’ the Bear Park, which ends with little fanfare at a metal gate. A wide bridge leads across Bear Creek, followed by a steep, gravel ascent to a very small parking area along Highway 74.


Beautiful Bear Creek

Hikers with time and energy can continue up the steep Bear Creek Trail continuation to Panorama Point, which offers views of Mount Evans and the Front Range. (Note: Use caution while hiking, as the trail is chock-full of speedy mountain bikers.) All others should turn around, retracing your steps back to the start of the 1.25-mile walk.


Bear Creek in Lair o’ the Bear Park

Extra credit

Try the 1.5-mile Bruin Bluff Trail Loop, which connects with the Bear Creek Trail, climbs to vistas of the valley, and weaves through conifer forests.

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Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 3: Wolfsville Road to US 40, including Black Rock & Annapolis Rocks (South Mountain State Park, MD)


Black Rock, South Mountain State Park, November 2017

The Appalachian Trail’s (AT) 41-mile stretch through Maryland is known for following long, relatively level ridgelines, making for—in general—a milder experience than other parts of the AT. Maryland Section 3, a 9.2-mile segment between Wolfsville Road and US 40, typifies this characterization; its miles of flat and easy walking are punctuated only by a short and steep climb at the start, occasional ups and downs in the middle, and a steady descent to US 40 at the end. (Note: Maryland’s seven sections are outlined in the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland and Northern Virginia.) Section 3 features some of Maryland AT’s best vistas at Black Rock and Annapolis Rocks, making the final third of this north-to-south hike one of the area’s most crowded. Though mostly easy walking, Section 3 would make for a beast of an 18-mile out-and-back, so day hikers might consider doing it as a shuttle, leaving one car at the Wolfsville Road parking area while parking another at the US 40 trailhead near Myersville, Maryland. (Note: Hikers with one car and less time should consider a shorter, 7.5-mile out-and-back to Annapolis Rocks and Black Rock.)

Appalachian Trail MD Section 3 Wolfsville Rd to US 40 Annapolis Rocks Black Rock hike information

Appalachian Trail MD Section 3 Wolfsville Rd to US 40 Annapolis Rocks Black Rock map

Map of Appalachian Trail Maryland Section #3 (Wolfsville Rd. to US 40), South Mountain State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Maryland Section 3 begins where the 4-mile Section 2 ends, crossing Wolfsville Road at a point roughly two miles south of Smithsburg, Maryland. Surrounded by thick woods, look for a small, graveled parking lot on the east side of the road; this is the local access point for the Appalachian Trail (AT).

From the parking area, head north on the blue-blazed path, which parallels the road and merges with the white-blazed AT after 1/10 mile. Bear left on the AT, traversing Wolfsville Road. Once across, the trail passes through a grove of hemlocks and begins a sharp ascent that covers 500 feet in elevation in ½ mile. Occasional switchbacks ease the climb, with some limited views through the trees as South Mountain extends north.


Upward climb on the Appalachian Trail

The trail climbs to an initial flat at 6/10 mile, and then pushes up and over a rocky ridge before dropping briefly and settling into leisurely level terrain at about 7/10 mile. The AT bears southwest, following the right flank of the lengthy mountain.

For the next three miles, the path stays relatively stable at around 1,800 feet. In the winter season, it is possible to peek through the trees to the west, overlooking the vast Cumberland Valley, which extends more than 70 miles from Pennsylvania to the Potomac River. Crags of blocky quartzite, the predominant rock layer on South Mountain, line the ridge on the left.


Quartzite ridges along the AT

It is not until around 2.25 miles that the trail breaks with its level and steady direction, suddenly breaking southeast and climbing up and over the quartzite spine of South Mountain. Here the trail becomes considerably rockier, and the views shift from westward over the Cumberland Valley to east over Middletown Valley. A rock slide at around 2.5 miles offers a rare unobstructed view through a window in the trees, overlooking Middletown Valley and the Catoctin Mountain range. This is a good spot to stop for a snack.


Eastward view to Middletown Valley and Catoctin Mountain

Beyond the overlook, the rock-studded trail crests the section’s high point (1,895’) then weaves up and down a pair of smaller summits. At around mile 4, the AT drops into Black Rock Gap; stay right at the junction with an old forest road at 4.2 miles. From here the trail sheds more than 150 feet in elevation as it approaches a woody hollow along the western slopes of South Mountain. At around 4.75 miles, the steep Thurston Griggs Trail bears off to the right, while Pogo Memorial Campsite appears up the slope on the left. (Note: The camp is named for Walter “Pogo” Rheinheimer, Jr., a member of the Maryland Mountain Club who drowned in a canoe accident near Harper’s Ferry in 1974.) Stay straight at the junction.

Bearing southwest, the AT begins to climb and crosses intermittent Black Rock Creek at about 4.9 miles. The incline eases as the trail turns west, approaching the ridgetop again at around 5.3 miles. Just steps farther, a marked spur leads east to Black Rock Cliff, undoubtedly one of the finest vistas in the area.


View of Cumberland Valley from Black Rock Cliff

From Black Rock, Cumberland Valley appears stitched together by a patchwork of forest and farms, with the distant North Mountain and Bear Creek Mountains forming its western flank. Interstate 70 stretches out across the valley toward Hagerstown, Maryland, the largest town in the area. (Note: Cumberland Valley is alternatively known as Hagerstown Valley.) To the southwest, one can see as far as the West Virginia panhandle and northern Virginia beyond.

Beyond the Black Rock viewpoint, the trail passes a second, unmarked viewpoint within minutes. The view from this outcrop is just as good as the first Black Rock vista.


View from unmarked viewpoint near Black Rock Cliff

Past these two overlooks, the AT settles into another gentle stroll amid oaks, hickories, and occasional pines. After passing through a sea of mountain laurel, hikers will approach a trail junction at 6.5 miles. Bear right onto the 0.2-mile spur trail to Annapolis Rocks, one of the most popular mountain destinations in Maryland. From the start, the blue-blazed path drops and passes a picnic table, information kiosk, and pit toilet on the right. Thirteen campsites, including two group sites, are available in the area, with a spring about a ¼-mile walk away.


View southwest from Annapolis Rocks

From the information sign, it is another 1/10 mile to Annapolis Rocks, chunks of quartzite perched on the edge of the west-facing cliff. While not as expansive as the views at Black Rock, the vistas here are arguably just as good: wooden hillsides spilling into the colorful valley, with Greenbrier Lake visible down to the southwest. On clear days, Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Massanutten Mountain, and Great North Mountain are visible on the horizon.


Annapolis Rocks


View of Greenbrier Lake, with Blue Ridge, Massanutten Mountain, and Great North Mountain on the horizon

Once you have had your fill, turn around and retrace your steps for 2/10 mile, this time uphill, back to the AT. Bear right to begin the final leg of Section 3.

After dropping to a low saddle, the AT skirts the east flank of a ridgetop knob, where occasional outcrops offer obscured views of Middletown Valley. At about 7.6 miles, the trail begins a brief descent, followed by a steep uphill at 7.9 miles. Rising to a low saddle north of Pine Knob (1,714’), the AT then begins a sharp descent and reaches a junction at 8.4 miles, where a spur trail bears right to Pine Knob Shelter. Stay left. A second junction is reached 2/10 miles later; bear left again.

Head southwest on the last stretch, passing under telephone lines and dropping to a low pass where US Highway 40 cuts through the South Mountain. The trail approaches Interstate 70 at 8.9 miles; bear left as the trail follows the interstate and crosses under US 40. Take a left at the next junction, leaving the AT behind, and climb up to a paved but unused road.

One hundred yards down the road, you will reach the AT parking area along US Highway 40, sure to packed on a nice summer afternoon. Hopefully you will have left a second car here to shuttle back to the start; if not, turn around and retrace your steps—for 9.2 miles—back to Wolfsville Road. Allot between 4-6 hours for the one-way journey.

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Tibbet Knob (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)


Tibbet Knob, George Washington National Forest, October 2017

Tibbet Knob (2,920’) is the slightly lower, less crowded cousin of nearby Big Schloss, situated along the Virginia-West Virginia border in George Washington National Forest. The summit offers sweeping views of Trout Run Valley in the heart of the Great North Mountain range, while a lower viewpoint ½ mile from the trailhead looks out across the majestic Shenandoah Valley to the east. This short hike, beginning at the Wolf Gap Campground, is often paired with Big Schloss, though its steep climbs and rocky tread make it a more difficult. (Note: See here for a description of the Big Schloss hike.)

Tibbet Knob Trail hike information George Washington National Forest

Tibbet Knob George Washington National Forest map

Map of Tibbet Knob hike, George Washington National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The 2.8-mile out-and-back begins across Wolf Gap Road from the Wolf Gap Campground, deep in the heart of the Great North Mountain area. (Note: The hike to Big Schloss heads the opposite direction, beginning along the campground drive to the east.) There is a small, rugged parking area on the west side of the road, not recommended for vehicles with low clearance. The Tibbet Knob Trail begins just beyond.

Hikers will start on a relatively flat and wide path that weaves through dense woods. Passing a picnic table and fire pit on the right, the Tibbet Knob Trail bears southwest on the Virginia side of the border. Leaving the crowds of the Wolf Gap area well behind, the trail begins to climb sharply at 1/10 mile amid beech, oak, and maple trees. There are obscured views to the east as the path flattens out at around 1/3 mile and passes minor rock outcrops on the left.


Rock outcrops along the Tibbet Knob Trail

After a brief descent, the trail comes to a fork at around ½ mile. Bear left on a short spur that leads to a magnificent viewpoint looking east to Bowers Mountain (1,878’), Threemile Mountain (2,060’), and the Shenandoah Valley. Two additional ranges are visible on the horizon: the 50-mile long Massanutten Mountain, with the higher Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park beyond. The view southeast, seemingly a sea of endless green, is one of the best in the region.


View southeast down Shenandoah Valley from the first viewpoint


Bowers Mountain and Threemile Mountain, with Massanutten Mountain and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond


View northeast from the outcrop

Back on the main trail, continue left and descend to a low saddle. After flattening for roughly ¼ mile, the narrow singletrack resumes the climb up to Tibbet Knob at around 8/10 mile. By now you are heading northwest and have crossed firmly into West Virginia. After rounding a bend at about the 1-mile mark, the incline steepens. After a brief respite, the path approaches the base of a rocky outcrop at 1.25 miles. Ascend the steep rocky terrace and continue along the relatively level trail as it enters a patch of mountain laurel.


Ascending the first rock scramble


Second rock scramble

Repeat the process again at 1.35 miles, where hikers must mount a second rock scramble. Now near the top of Tibbet Knob, the path weaves through a pine thicket and emerges at a tremendous viewpoint, the nominal end of this hike. Trout Run Valley unfolds below, bounded by Long Mountain (3,128’), Halfmoon Mountain (2,826’), and Mill Mountain (3,293’).


View of Trout Run Valley and Mill Mountain from Tibbet Knob

Up to the left, a gradually sloping ridgeline climbs to meet Long Mountain at an area called Devils Hole, while Great North Mountain continues beyond to the southwest. Endless blankets of trees are interrupted only by small pockets of rustic farmsteads, while no road can be seen or heard.


View southwest toward Devils Hole

The beauty of this vista arguably exceeds even that of Big Schloss (2,964’), which is itself visible to the northeast. (Note: Big Schloss is the second closest summit on the east side of the valley.)


Mill Mountain from Tibbet Knob (Big Schloss is the second peak in the chain)

The outcrop at Tibbet Knob is small, meaning you may have to share this ideal lunch spot with others. Even on a busy day, however, the crowds are likely to be a fraction of those on Big Schloss. Just beyond the viewpoint is a lovely campsite shrouded by pines. While the trail continues for another mile, it is largely devoid of views, making this a good turnaround point for day hikers.

The return journey is nearly all flat or downhill. Allot between 2-3 hours for this hike, allowing for plenty of time to take in the trail’s two excellent overlooks.

Extra credit

If you haven’t done so already, it is worth also hiking the 4.2-mile out-and-back to Big Schloss. The combination of the two hikes makes for a fine day in the Great North Mountain range.

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Big Schloss (George Washington National Forest, VA/WV)


Big Schloss, George Washington National Forest, October 2017

At 2,964 feet, Big Schloss is not the highest peak on Great North Mountain—which stretches for 50 miles along the Virginia-West Virginia border—but it is arguably the grandest. Named for the German word for palace or castle, Big Schloss offers panoramic views of some of the most beautiful terrain in the mid-Atlantic: rugged hillsides, majestic valleys, and endless mountains on the horizon. The downside of these renowned vistas, of course, is considerable foot traffic; the moderate, 2.1-mile hike to the peak can be crowded on weekends. This castle in the sky is extensive, however, offering a place for everyone to sit and soak in the tremendous scenery at the summit.

Big Schloss trail hike information George Washington National Forest

Big Schloss trail map George Washington National Forest

Map of Big Schloss hike, George Washington National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The hike to Big Schloss begins at the Wolf Gap Campground, situated right on the state boundary in George Washington National Forest. (Note: The campground is a 14-mile drive from either Wardensville, West Virginia to the northeast or Woodstock, Virginia to the southeast.) Park at the turnoff for Wolf Gap, then walk clockwise around the paved campground loop drive to reach the trail’s start (or simply follow the crowds).

For now on the West Virginia side of the border, the route to the summit begins by following the Mill Mountain Trail for 1.9 miles. The path bears northeast from Wolf Gap, climbing gradually but steadily through a forest of maples, oaks, and beech trees. After rounding a right-hand bend at ¼ mile, the incline steepens as the trail climbs the western slopes of Mill Mountain.


Ascending Mill Mountain

Mill Mountain constitutes a small section of Great North Mountain, a larger area that is better understood as a mountain range than a single peak. Great North Mountain, in turn, is part of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, characterized by their long mountain belts, separated by green, parallel valleys. They owe their formation to a mountain-building period around 300 million years ago.


Following the ridgeline to Big Schloss

The Mill Mountain Trail passes batches of mountain laurel and switchbacks up the hillside, with some limited views back to Wolf Gap and the slopes of Tibbet Knob (2,930’). A hefty rock cluster appears on the right at 6/10 mile, while the trail cuts left and levels off slightly. Pushing eastward, the trail crests the ridgeline at the ¾-mile mark. Cutting left, the trail follows a relatively thin spine with views in both directions—west and north into West Virginia and east and south into Virginia. The best views are to the right, overlooking the Stony Creek watershed in the direction of Little Schloss (2,624’) and the Shenandoah Valley.


View east to Little Schloss and the Shenandoah Valley

Heading northeast along the ridgeline, the trail descends gradually with intermittent views to the east. Clumps of Tuscarora sandstone dot the mountaintop; this hard layer of rock resists erosion and caps many of the mountains in this area.

The mountaintop widens at around 1.3 miles as the trail continues through hardwood forest. An uphill section begins at 1.5 miles and gains roughly 80 feet over the next 1/3 mile. Take a right at the trail junction at 1.8 miles, leaving the Mill Mountain Trail for the short Big Schloss Trail.

This final spur to the summit begins with an initial ascent, then levels off as rocky ledges offer the hike’s first unobstructed views of Trout Run Valley to the north and west. Except for a handful of farmsteads, this valley appears virtually untouched by man. Long Mountain (3,128’) forms the opposite flank, while Tibbet Knob rises to the southwest.


Trout Run Valley with Tibbet Knob and Long Mountain

Just beyond, the trail approaches the summit, accessed by way of a wooden bridge that traverses a cleavage in the sandstone. Now in the “keep” of the castle, it is a short climb to the high point, where a 270-degree panorama unfolds. (Note: By now you are firmly within the Virginia state boundary.)


Wooden bridge to the summit knob


Mill Mountain and Tibbet Knob from the summit

The rest of Trout Run Valley is visible to the left, bounded by Long Mountain and Halfmoon Mountain (2,717’) to the north. Mill Mountain continues to the northeast, extending beyond Big Schloss to the highest point in the Great North Mountain range at 3,293 feet.


North to Trout Run Valley, from Big Schloss


Northeast to Mill Mountain, Sugar Knob, and Little Sluice Mountain

The long ridge to the east is Little Sluice Mountain (3,120’), ending abruptly at Little Schloss. Looking down toward the Shenandoah Valley, the mountains cast shadows over a patchwork of farms. East of the valley is Massanutten Mountain, itself outdone by the taller Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park beyond.


Southeast to Shenandoah Valley, with Massanutten Mountain and Blue Ridge beyond


It should take around 1 ½-2 hours to reach the summit, warranting some rest time to eat and admire the beautiful surroundings. Once ready, head back the way you came to complete the 4.2-mile round-trip. The entire hike should take between 2.5-4 hours, depending on pace and the number of breaks.


Big Schloss

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Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 2: Raven Rock Hollow to Wolfsville Road (South Mountain State Park, MD)


Appalachian Trail, October 2017

Maryland Section 2 is almost certainly the least interesting of Maryland’s seven Appalachian Trail (AT) sections. (Note: As delineated by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland and Northern Virginia.) It does offer variety, however, as it weaves through dense deciduous forest and open fields in a quiet and peaceful section of Maryland. There is also a lot of human history, with remnants of rock walls scattered alongside the AT. The route picks up where Appalachian Trail Maryland Section 1 leaves off, climbing from Raven Rock Hollow to Buzzard Knob and Warner Gap Hollow and finishing four miles later at Wolfsville Road. Through-hikers will find rest at the modest Ensign Cowall Shelter in this section.

Appalachian Trail MD Section 2 hike information

Appalachian Trail MD Section 2 Raven Rock Hollow to Wolfsville Road map

Map of Appalachian Trail – Maryland Section 2, Raven Rock Hollow to Wolfsville Road, South Mountain State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Day hikers can park alongside the shoulder on Raven Rock Road at the crossing of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Raven Rock Hollow marks a clear departure from much of the Maryland AT, as lengthy South Mountain breaks down into smaller, shorter peaks. Opposite Raven Rock to the north, the southbound AT hugs the road for the first 1/10 mile, with Little Antietam Creek rippling over rocks down to the right.


Crossing Little Antietam Creek

After crossing the stream, the trail leaves the road behind and bears south toward Buzzard Knob (1,560’). While the path does not reach the top of Buzzard Knob, it does climb to a high pass to the east of the summit. After gradually climbing out of Raven Rock Hollow, the ascent begins in earnest at around 2/10 mile. Minutes later, the path surmounts a partly collapsed rock wall, a reminder that this area used to be inhabited by farmers and livestock owners. The climb eases thereafter as the AT crests a woody ridgeline, reaching a local high point at about the ½-mile mark.


Rock wall along the Appalachian Trail

Reaching the pass ushers in a sharp descent of around 200 feet to Warner Gap Hollow. The AT spits out onto unpaved Warner Hollow Road at 8/10 mile; bear left on the road for about 30 yards, then follow the white blazes as they leave the gravel drive and continue south. The path quickly crosses another flowing stream and returns to climbing.

The second ascent is considerably longer than the first, gaining 500 feet in elevation and stretching for about ½ mile before levelling off. The lower reaches of the hillside are dotted with more remnants of old rock walls. At 1.2 miles, the trail passes under power lines, which cut abruptly across the mountain slopes in a straight line bearing southeast.


Power lines along the AT

Beyond the tree cut, the trail weaves in and out of a series of woody ravines, then climbs to the base of a shady slope littered with mammoth boulders. The incline picks up as it clears the cluster of quartzite deposits and skirts the edge of a 10-15 foot wall speckled with green moss. The trail crosses a minor stream at 2.1 miles, then reaches another local high point at about 2.3 miles.

With the sound of zooming vehicles ahead, the trail suddenly bursts out of the woods and traverses a brushy field at 2.45 miles. The field ends at Foxville Road, a relatively busy thoroughfare in Maryland’s high country.


Field leading to Foxville Road

Cross the road and continue on the white-blazed AT as it enters a dense thicket. The trail approaches a second, much larger field awaits at 2.75 miles and begins a ¼-mile jaunt across this scenic, grassy hillside. A thin tree line marks the boundary between Washington and Frederick Counties. Off to the left is a row of farmsteads along the Pleasant Valley Road.


Crossing an open pasture on the AT


Residents of Pleasant Valley from the AT

At the 3-mile mark, the AT reenters the deciduous forest and meanders gradually uphill to the section’s high point (1,713’) at about 3.4 miles. (Note: Here the trail technically enters the jurisdiction of South Mountain State Park for the first time.) Skirting a handful of rocky outcrops, the AT drops to cross a second clearing with power lines at 3.6 miles. The downward slope steepens beyond and passes the Ensign Cowall Memorial Shelter on the right. Stop here for a snack—or, for onward backpackers, a night’s rest. (Note: There is reportedly a spring nearby, though I was unable to locate it; in any case, it’s probably better to filter water back at one of the creeks you have already passed.)


Ensign Cowall Shelter

From here the AT continues down the final stretch. Bear right at the trail fork at 3.9 miles, following the white-blazes as the path bears north. Four miles from the start, blue blazes direct hikers to the left to the local AT parking area; the white-blazed AT ends shortly thereafter, with little fanfare, at Wolfsville Road. This is the end of Section 2, with a much longer, rockier, and steeper Section 3 beyond.

Traversing the 4-mile route to this point should take 2-3 hours one-way. For those lucky enough to have a car parked at Wolfsville Road, your journey ends here. All other day hikers will have to turn back, retracing your steps back to Raven Rock Hollow.

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Sentinel Cave (Lava Beds National Monument, CA)


Sentinel Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, July 2017

Sentinel Cave is the longest of the “easy” caves in California’s Lava Beds National Monument, as well as one of the only lava tubes in the park with multiple entrances. Inside the cave, the roughly 2/10 mile traversed by hikers is relatively flat and wide, making this a good option for small children with an interest in spelunking. Sentinel Cave is a section of what was once the “master tube” for the Headquarters System, the main thoroughfare for lava flowing through a complex network of subterranean passages.

Sentinel Cave Lava Beds hike information

The hike

Sentinel Cave is located near the end of the Cave Loop Road, requiring one to drive nearly all the way around the circuit on the one-way drive. Skip the Upper Sentinel Cave Trailhead and instead park at the Lower Sentinel Cave parking area. (Note: Per the suggestion of a park ranger, this hike enters through Lower Sentinel and exits Upper Sentinel.)


Setting out for Lower Sentinel Cave

The hike begins with a ¼-mile, partly paved track that sets out across desert scrub toward the lower entrance. The towering mound to the southeast is Caldwell Butte (5,197’), one of several cinder cones in this volcanic area. After wrapping around to the north, the trail approaches the Lower Sentinel Cave entrance, a modest rupture in the lava tube that floods the cave with sun. Here the pavement ends, and a stony path leads down into the tunnel.


Lower entrance to Sentinel Cave

Once inside, a well-worn path cuts through a jumble of basalt, while a series of step marks on the right wall indicate various depths of the lava flows that once passed through the tube.


Thick benches in Sentinel Cave

A few minutes into the cave, just as darkness has set in, beams of light pour in again from a beautiful skylight. The roof between the two prominent holes in the ceiling forms a delicate natural bridge.


Looking up at the beautiful skylight

Beyond the sunny cupola, the trail passes through a breakdown jam, and a smaller tube crisscrosses the main passage overhead. The next, left-hand bend features thick benches on either side.

About halfway through the cave, hikers will reach a metal staircase, situated next to the pillar that gave the cave its name: The Sentinel, a modest spire on the right. Above the stairs, the path enters a large room littered with fallen boulders. The trail skirts the right edge of the breakdown.

The next feature of note is a 7-foot pit, guarded by metal railings, that leads down to the cave’s lower levels. Here there is also a tube inside a tube, partly visible looking up-tunnel from just beyond the pit.

Continuing marginally uphill, the path crosses a steel catwalk over a 15-foot chasm. Briefly diverting from the main passage, the trail weaves through a thinner side route that avoids the rocky jumble of the primary, collapsed tube. Soon enough, however, the two tunnels merge and the trail climbs another metal staircase.


Metal bridge over a 15-foot drop

From atop the stairs, you can see the light of the upper entrance ahead. Weaving amid fallen basalt, the trail makes for the exit, emerging out into the sunlight again after about 2/10 mile underground. The Upper Sentinel Cave entrance is notably larger than the lower entry. Straight ahead, Sentinel Bridge crosses over the fallen trench of basalt rock; climbing up onto the bridge offers a good look at the entrance and landscape beyond.


Standing atop Sentinel Bridge

From here, bear right on the paved trail, which leads around 125 yards to the Upper Sentinel Cave parking area. Bear right on the road and follow the drive for another 1/10 mile to the Lower Sentinel Cave Trailhead, where your car awaits.

Allot between 30 minutes to an hour for this loop hike through one of Lava Beds’ best and most easily navigated caves.

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