A Note From the Author
For my crew of lightweight and ultra-light backpackers at D.C. UL Backpacking, this 67.4-mile loop along the ridges of Massanutten Mountain, Virginia, occupies a special place in the lore we pass along around the campfire. Five years ago, when many of us were going light, Evan McCarthy, who founded our group, first dreamt it up as a long weekend trip. At the time, 67.4 miles in a weekend seemed almost a superhuman accomplishment! Now, our yearly walk-around has become a springtime ritual, a rite of passage to new backpackers, a way to fend off our mortality, a demonstration that we’ve not gotten too sluggish over the winter, and a fine test of our backpacking skills. It never ceases to astonish me that a loop of this quality is about an hour away from the crowded suburbs of the D.C. Metropolitan area.
Over the years, the mountain has thrown practically everything our way. One hot Memorial Day weekend, the long dry ridges took their toll, and several backpackers bowed out near Edinburgh Gap. Another year, a day-long deluge resulted in a catastrophic kilt failure. A year ago, we somehow convinced ourselves that a hang-gliding spot would make a great campground. We ended up cowboy-camped on the rocky footpath, staring up a preternaturally full moon. Recently, winter hung around for our springtime ritual. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit on the first night in Veach Gap, then it blew snow on the treacherous descent off Signal Knob. We joked that it looked like we were on the Matterhorn. That was March 30th!
One of the reasons men and woman cherish mountains is because of the tales they tell about their adventures on them. For me, Massanutten Mountain is especially rich in these tales. It’s a place that I can’t help but be excited about, that I can’t help but dream of doing again.
I am very happy to share this route with the Backpacking Light community. My hope is that next time I am out following the orange blazes of the Massanutten Trail, I’ll meet a few backpackers who have been inspired to walk these ridges with me.
And if you would like to hit the trails with us, check out our Meetup group.
What a view! (Photo Credit: Michael Korin)
The Massanutten Mountains: I Like Big Ridges and I Cannot Lie
Location: George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Virginia
Highlights: Signal Knob, Kennedy Peak, ridge walking Massanutten Mountain
Distance: 67.4 miles round-trip
Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 11,868 feet gain/11,868 feet loss
Trip Length: 3–7 days
Recommended Maps and Other Resources:
- Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Map G, Trails in the Massanutten Mountain-North Half, Signal Knob to New Market Gap, George Washington National Forest, Lee Ranger District, Virginia.
- Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Guide to Massanutten Mountain Hiking Trails. 5th ed. Vienna, VA: Potomac Appalachian Trail club, 2008.
- USGS Quads: Toms Brook, Rileyville, Strasburg, Hamburg, and Edinburg.
Just a few miles past Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive-but a world apart in terms of the crowds-you’ll find Massanutten Mountain, a long series of ridges running parallel to the Blue Ridge. Walking these ridges will offer you the distilled essence of the Virginia ridge ramble. Marvel at the wide open views of the North and South Forks of Shenandoah River below, the Blue Ridge to the east, the Alleghenies to the west, and-most of all-the solitude all around.
From where Massanutten Trail (MT) descends off Signal Knob and reaches VA 678 in Fort Valley, you’ll walk a long, flat ellipse, hiking about 32.4 miles south to the Duncan and Strickler Knob area. Just a few miles north of US 211, you’ll climb Waterfall Mountain, turn north, and return via the western ridge of Massanutten. Signal Knob-a prominence that dominates the area and was used by both sides in the civil War-is your final highpoint and the sign that you are nearly home. While there is a fair amount of climbing and descending on this trail, the long ridges mean that there is also quite a bit of flat, if sometimes rugged, walking.
Part of the appeal of walking such a big trip on Massanutten Mountain is the sense that few have preceded you. That also means, however, that the path is not always as well trod and docile as more popular trails. Even by Mid-Atlantic standards, MT is a notoriously rocky trail. Kerns Mountain, Short Mountain, Three Top Mountain, and the descent from Signal Knob will all test your ability to move over asteroid fields of jagged, uneven ground. The long north-south ridges, however, may be the purest expressions of the Virginia ridge walk and offer great rewards, with their big vistas of the Blue Ridge, the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River, and Fort Valley itself. The ridges are narrow enough so that you’ll often be enjoying views in several directions.
Rocky trails and spectacular views. (Photo Credit: Miles Barger)
Besides the rough terrain, there are a few disadvantages to the trip. Water can be quite scarce for many miles, and you will be exposed to the elements, especially the sun. Plan to walk this trip in spring or fall, when the temperatures are cooler and there is water on the mountain. If you do go during a warmer season, plan your water carefully. You may very well need to cache water at key points. Always carry capacity for 4-5 liters (or more, dependent on your needs), as a dry campsite may very well be in your future.
HOW TO REACH THE TRAILHEAD
From I-66, take Exit 6 in Front Royal, Virginia, and head south on US 522 for about 1 mile. Turn right on VA 55 and drive west for about 5 miles, then turn left onto SR 678/Fort Valley Road. Enter the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and scope out Buzzard Rocks above you on the left. The parking lot for Signal Knob is the second lot on the right (38° 56.0388' N, 78°19.2255' W), just as you reach the group campground.
Backcountry camping is allowed through the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. However, many of the ridgelines that characterize this route are also narrow, rocky, and quite unsuitable for camping. Almost anywhere a spot widens out, you can count on finding a small impromptu site with a fire ring, often with impressive views. Trail junctions usually have small, serviceable sites, and there are often sites near road crossings. Given the water issues that characterize this route, you’ll have ample opportunities to exercise your inventiveness when it comes to planning and sequencing your campsites.
Sitting around the campfire. (Photo Credit: Michael Korin)
Little Crease Shelter (8.7/1,190/38° 52.175' N, 78° 21.569' W). This well-kept three-sided shelter in Veach Gap is located near water and features a privy, tent sites, and large fire pit. Two bunk beds in the shelter accommodate about eight backpackers.
Duncan Hollow (27.0/1,814/38° 41.576' N, 78° 32.881' W). By the time you cross VA 675 and reach Duncan Hollow, your bottles will likely be empty, so you’ll be glad to hear water running in the hollow. There are several attractive tenting sites on the left near the intersection with blue-blazed Peach Orchard Gap Trail.
Scothorn Gap (30.0/2,460/38° 41.183' N, 78° 34.253' W). About 3 miles farther along MT from Duncan Hollow, you’ll reach the intersection with Scothorn Gap Trail. Continue straight (west) on this yellow-blazed trail and pass a pond to see a campsite on your right. If you’re worried about the pond water, descend a little along Big Run on MT and you’ll have ample running water.
Edinburgh Gap (46.2/1,841/38° 47.390' N, 78° 31.800' W). As MT descends into Edinburgh Gap, there is a white blaze marking a tenting site. The nearby creek is seasonal, but there is a reliable piped spring about 0.5 mile east along VA 675. If you were going to cache supplies somewhere along MT, Edinburgh Gap might be the spot.
Little Fort Recreation Area (54.2/1,825/38° 52.291' N, 78° 26.903' W). If you reach Woodstock Gap and are in need of a place to spend the night, there is a small campsite nearby. From the pink-blazed trail that services Woodstock Tower, descend on the white-blazed trail to reach the campground, which has eleven sites open year-round (38° 52.026' N, 78° 26.666' W). There is no fee and no drinking water, but Peters Mill Run is nearby.
Little Passage Creek (59.3/1,240/38° 55.417' N, 78° 22.712' W). After you wave good-bye to Tuscarora Trail on Three Top Mountain, descend to Mudhole Gap, where campsites abound along Little Passage Creek.
Signal Knob (64.2/2,239/38° 57.148' N, 78° 19.737' W). As you walk eastward from Signal Knob Overlook, pass the turnoff for white-blazed Meneka Peak Trail. Beyond it, you’ll soon spot a few small campsites. They’re dry, but the views are remarkable.
Locate the spur trail at the south end of the parking lot. It joins up with the orange-blazed MT, which has bypassed the lot to the west. Walk south for about 0.5 mile, skirting VA 678 on the left. The trail will intersect with blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail, which heads right to West Virginia (0.5/883). You’ll turn left onto a combined blue-and-orange-blazed trail that descends quickly, crosses VA 678, and cuts through the Elizabeth Furnace Campground (1.0/746).
For a spell, MT coincides with Pig Iron and Charcoal interpretive trails, but very soon the path steepens and begins the long and sometimes steep climb to Shawl Gap, the first of many such gaps you’ll pass as you proceed south along the palisades of Massanutten Mountain (3.35/1,686). At the white-blazed trail from Buzzard Rocks that comes in on your left, turn right, following the blue-and-orange-blazed trail as it climbs an additional few hundred feet before topping out on the ridgeline. About 2 miles of ridge walking will take you to Sherman Gap (5.5/1,934), where a pink-blazed trail intersects from the right, combines for a stretch (yes, pink, orange, and blue blazes!), and then exits left. Continue south.
Climb about 300 feet past Sherman Gap, where you’ll enjoy some big views of the Shenandoah. After a sharp right turn (6.7/1,783), the trail begins a steady descent into Veach Gap, with an unreliable creek on your left. Eventually, you’ll hear water, and MT intersects with yellow-blazed Veach Gap Trail on the right. Continue straight, rock-hopping over Mill Run to find the Little Crease Shelter (8.7/1,190). Fill your bottles here, as this is the last reliable source of water for about 16 miles, until you reach Duncan Hollow.
A good spot to rest, refuel, and check the map. (Photo Credit: Miles Barger)
When you’re ready to walk on, climb about 600 feet to rejoin the ridgeline along a very old road bed. This road was constructed during the Revolutionary War, when General Washington feared that the Continental Army might be forced to retreat to Fort Valley. Once you reach the top of the ridge, the Tuscarora Trail bears east and descends the road grade, heading toward the Appalachian Trail atop the Blue Ridge (9.7/1,856).
Your route takes you south on a path that is now orange-blazed only, and you’ll cover the miles swiftly as the trail makes a beeline for Kennedy Peak. Before it reaches Milford Gap, the trail splits in two, with the official blazed branch sidehilling along the eastern flank of the mountain. Big views to the east and the west ensue as you reach Milford Gap (12.8/1,756), Indian Grave Trail (14.5/1,926), Habron Gap (18.2/2,113), and Jacks Notch, each with trails leading off the ridge. Don’t be distracted; Kennedy Peak looms before you. When MT bends right to go around it, instead climb the white-blazed spur trail to reach the observation tower and sweeping views of the Shenandoah river valleys (20.8/2,540/38° 44.5171' N, 78° 29.2607' W).
Once you rejoin MT, the walk down from Kennedy Peak is relaxed; coinciding with a road that is open to ATV traffic (you’ll spot some passable campsites if you don’t intend to reach Duncan Hollow right away). Soon the trail meets up with VA 675 at Edith Gap (23.4/1,849). To the left is an opening where hang gliders sometimes fly. Turn sharply right on the road, locate the next orange blaze, and leave the road to the right. MT descends gently through the forest, crossing a couple of power line cuts until it reaches a few outbuildings and VA 675 again (24.3/1,334). The Camp Roosevelt picnic area is just to the west along VA 675 and, in summer, you’ll be able to fill your bottles there.
After you cross VA 675, you’ll be in Duncan Hollow. MT soon winds its way south and eventually leads you across a very reliable creek. For the next 3 miles, MT ascends along the right side of this creek, and you’ll have ample opportunity to rehydrate and fill your bottles. At the intersection with Peach Orchard Gap Trail (27.0/1,814)-if you have the time-consider leaving MT to ascend to the saddle, adding an extra 2 miles round-trip. The scramble up to the summit of Duncan Knob offers memorable views, and you can camp below the knob.
After this intersection, MT continues south, climbing more steeply and eventually switching back over the crest of Middle Mountain. (Again, if time permits, consider bushwhacking out and back to Strickler Knob, which offers views to the south; this out-and-back would add about 1.5 miles to your trip.) MT quickly drops down to Scothorn Gap and Scothorn Gap Trail (30.0/2,460), where it turns left and descends Big Run southerly. Camping is straight ahead on the Scothorn Run Trail.
Mystifying trees may surround you. (Photo Credit: Miles Barger)
The descent of Big Run is rocky and watery, as MT alternately sidehills up high above the creek and then dives down for a crossing. At the bottom, MT meets white-blazed Massanutten Connector Trail coming in from US 211 to the south (32.4/1,617). Pause to shed a few layers and make sure your bottles are topped off, and then turn right and begin the toughest ascent on the trip: the 800 feet up Waterfall Mountain. Though stout, the ascent is blissfully direct, and the trail crests the mountain along open and flat land before crossing Crisman Road (32.5/2,322).
Just past the road, MT turns north and begins traversing the long westward ridges heading back to Signal Knob. For the first 4 miles, walk along Kerns Mountain where the trail continually flirts with the ridgeline over some exceptionally broken ground. Then at the four-way intersection at Jawbone Gap (37.7/2,402), drop your pack and clamber an extra 0.1 mile up to the rocky promontory for the view. From there, the descent to Moreland Gap Road is gentle (39.2/1,907). After crossing Moreland Gap Road, the trail shadows Edinburgh Gap Road through the woods on the right, crosses it, and then climbs steeply to the crest of Short Mountain (40.9/2,747).
The next few miles are treacherous walking before the trail begins a circuitous descent into Edinburgh Gap (46.2/1,841). In the gap, turn left onto VA 374 very briefly, pass the ATV parking on the right, and cross VA 675 (46.5/1,709). On the other side of the road, begin the climb up Waonaze Peak, but before you leave this gap, consider carefully if you need to detour to the spring about 0.5 mile east on VA 675. The next reliable water on the trail is 13 miles ahead, at Little Passage Creek.
Once you summit Waonaze Peak (48.1/2,705), you’ll enjoy about 6 miles of fairly flat ridge walking along Powell Mountain. This stretch is one of the most pleasant of the trip, with many views of the mountains to the west. Pass Bear Trap Trail, 7-Bar None Trail, and Lupton Trail on the right, and soon arrive at Woodstock Gap and the observation tower (54.2/1,825).
Easy miles follow Woodstock Gap as the trail continues north along the ridge of Three Top Mountain. MT passes Mine Gap Trail, intersects briefly with Tuscarora Trail (58.6/1,712), and then descends to Mudhole Gap (59.4/1,204), where it turns north for about 4 miles along a service road that parallels Little Passage Creek. The road ascends gently past an artificially constructed pond, passes yet another intersection with Tuscarora Trail, and grows steep as it climbs to the summit of Signal Knob (63.3/2106), the northernmost point on Massanutten Mountain and one of the best viewpoints in the area.
Nice views are common on the MT trail. (Photo Credit: Michael Korin)
Once you’ve drunk your fill of this view, descend 4 miles to the end of the trip, passing Meneka Peak Trail and then overlooks of Fort Valley (65.4/1,794) and Buzzard Rocks (66.0/1,518). Unfortunately, this descent crosses a number of rock fall areas, which offer very treacherous footing. Once you have passed the Buzzard Rocks viewpoint, the trail approaches the level of the road, and eventually turns left to follow a gully. The Signal Knob parking lot is a few tenths of a mile beyond (67.4/756).
You probably won’t want to add miles to this epic, but if you’re looking to change things up, consider starting and finishing at the Buzzard Rocks parking lot on VA 619. This would add a few miles to your route and allow you to visit the knife’s edge ridge of the rocks themselves. If you’re interested in cutting this long trip down to size, section-hike the eastern and western ridges independently, parking a shuttle vehicle at US 211 and the Signal Knob parking lot. Each of these ridges can effectively be cut in half by using Milford Gap Trail on the east side or Edinburgh Gap on the west. Another option is backpacking a fine loop in the south by walking north from US 211 on white-blazed Massanutten Connector Trail and then exploring the Duncan Knob and Strickler Knob area. A number of connector trails facilitate trips in this area, and the knobs both feature great views and some rock scrambling.
The Signal Knob trailhead is just a few miles outside both Strasburg and Front Royal, Virginia, where there are the usual array of businesses serving travelers along the interstates and a number of independent restaurants as well. If you happen to be using the trailheads on US 211, there are several local restaurants nearby, and New Market, Virginia, is not far.
For additional information, contact the Lee Ranger District of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests at 540-984-4101 or visit their website.
Michael R. Martin is a lifelong backpacker and outdoorsman with experience on trails near and far, including the American Southwest, Sweden, France, Iceland, Nepal, Peru, and, more recently, thousands of miles (and counting) in the Mid-Atlantic region. Martin leads, organizes, and teaches for the D.C. Ultralight Backpacking group. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.