Thursday, October 29, 2015

Shenandoah - Skyline Drive and the Blackrock Summit Trail

In the pilgrimage to view fall foliage, thousands visit the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park in late September through October. It’s a quest to arrive on the peak color weekend, and because it isn’t an exact science, leaf-peepers resort to watching “fall foliage cams” and reading “color updates” from various regions. We managed to arrive in Shenandoah right during peak autumn color, and I know this because: 1. it was the weekend that we could make the long trip and 2. it was utterly beautiful and captivating. My point is; make the trip when you can and don’t worry so much about the color meters, as a fall visit to the Blue Ridge will be spectacular, a memorable trip that you will want to repeat every year!

We set out for the southern Rockfish Gap entrance to Shenandoah on Saturday morning, managing to avoid waiting in line to pay our Park entrance fee by beating the crowd to the Park. It’s entirely possible most visitors enter through the Front Royal entrance station as it’s the one furthest north and closest to Washington DC, but it’s more likely that the morning temperatures (which were hovering around 40˚ F) were the reason we saw relatively few cars parked at the overlooks and trailheads the first two hours.

The 200,000 acre Shenandoah NP is very long and narrow, running along the Blue Ridge mountains and including 60 mountain peaks between 2,000 and 4,000 feet in altitude. The Park’s main attraction is Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge. The easiest point of reference for location within the park is milepost #, with numbers running north to south for orientation. Therefore we entered at MP 105, south of which Skyline Drive joins the Blue Ridge Parkway and runs south all the way to Great Smoky Mountains NP. Within 2-3 miles we had already reached the first overlook, of McCormick Gap and Scott Mountain (2,760 ft). We also stopped at Crimora Lake Overlook (MP 92.6) for a look at the lake that’s left over from the valley’s mining days. At one time the area’s mines were among the largest manganese mines in the world and extracted more of the element than anywhere else in the US.

It is easy to stop at each overlook and spend the entire day having just traveled a short distance, but in order to fully experience Shenandoah I feel it is imperative to get out in the woods for one of the dozens of hikes within the Park. We had chosen the 1-mile Blackrock Summit Trail for our morning hike, parking available at MP 84.8. (The trail is rated easy, but be advised that the trail actually circumnavigates the summit (3,092 ft); the rocky top of the mountain isn’t so much of a marked trail but more of a scramble through a boulder field.) Not only is Blackrock Summit Trail one of two Track Trails in Shenandoah, but it also counts as an activity to earn a Junior Ranger badge, making it a very productive morning. I was excited because from the parking lot we followed the Appalachian Trail to Blackrock Summit, giving me the opportunity to tell Lauris and Mikus about this famous trail and share with them my dream of one day hiking it in its entirety. The boys quickly got into their Track Trails adventure, selecting the names “Joker Ghost” and “BumbierJānis” as their trail names. For bonus points, guess which one chose which... (For Kids in Parks Track Trail info please click here.)

From the trailhead we took the AT south for ½ a mile, emerging to the summit and a field of boulders. The autumn panorama was phenomenal, the view over Dundo Hollo and beyond a spectacular patchwork of color and texture. We were far from the only family enjoying ourselves on the Summit that morning, but one benefit of having to choose your own path over the mountain of boulders is everyone was spread out, and I didn’t feel as if we were intruding in other hikers’ space nor did anyone intrude on ours.

The contrast between the rocks, the colorful forest and blue skies made for some fantastic photo opportunities, but it was hard to get the boys to sit still long enough to take a picture. One Lauris and Mikus worked up the courage to climb by themselves (without their parents guiding their every step and holding their hands through more difficult spots) they were hard to stop; I couldn’t bear to watch them clambering about, certain the hike would end at best with a twisted ankle. Of course Vilis wanted out of the backpack carrier as well, but even the trail isn’t the safest for his tottering about, with plenty of trip hazards and slopes to the sides. When quizzed after our trip both boys named rock climbing at Blackrock Summit as their very favorite point of the entire trip.

From this point the Blackrock Spur Trail veers off northwest to Trayfoot Summit (3,374ft) and Furnace Mountain (2,657ft), and the Appalachian Trail continues on to the Blackrock Hut just a short bit south. To return to the parking lot we could either return the way we had come via the AT, or circle around on a service road/trail that parallels the AT along the ridge. We opted to complete the loop, enjoying the stroll down a wide, grassy path even though it didn’t have the status of being a trail as famous as the Appalachian Trail.

Once back at the car and hiking sticks packed in the trunk, we readied ourselves for some more scenic driving down the Skyline Drive. Of course it wasn’t long until we were back out at the next scenic overlook…


  1. I still cannot believe we were there within a day of each other! Looks like you had a wonderful outing. I particularly love the name BumbierJanis!! Do the kids have National Park passports that they stamp at every park? I regret not picking one up a couple of years ago when I was in Yellowstone & Grand Teton NP.

    1. They've got the Kids Passport to your National Parks. It doesn't have the sections for stamps but there is plen of room for notes in the back and that's where they stamp theirs. They also have room for "ranger autographs" and lists of animals they've seen... You should still get one. Most parks will send you a stamp to glue in your passport if you email them.

    2. Ranger autographs - that is too cute! And good tip, thanks!


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