Take a hike: Locals share tales from the trails

Chris Saunders hikes Blackrock Summit in Shenandoah National Park. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen Chris Saunders hikes Blackrock Summit in Shenandoah National Park. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

Early-morning light catches a tinge of red on the edges of the maple leaves. The air is crisp after a cold fall night in early October. Chris Saunders steps onto the Blackrock Summit Trail with the confidence and speed of someone who has been there before.

“I’ve hiked it five or six times,” he says. “Last time I was here for the sunrise.” He hikes in black jeans and a sweatshirt. His thin frame moves fast through the trees. He swipes at his face and laughs.

“My fiancee always makes me go in front to catch all the spiderwebs,” he says.

It’s not only spiderwebs and sunrise hikes that define Saunders’ relationship to these mountains. In April, he completed his goal to hike every trail within the Shenandoah National Park. That’s 509 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

“One day I was looking on the available hiking maps on SNP’s website, and I just realized, ‘Wow, I’ve done almost all of these,’” he says. It was then he decided to make it a goal to hike every one.

Saunders, a 24-year-old marketing manager for Roy Wheeler Realty Company, grew up in Charlottesville. He first learned about Shenandoah in the halls of Charlottesville High School, when he overheard a friend talking about hiking in the park the previous weekend.

“As soon as the weekend came, I grabbed some clothes, packed some dog food and two blankets, set out Friday evening with my dog and just went,” he says. “Had no idea what I was doing.” Saunders chose a trail near Loft Mountain Campground and slept on blankets on the ground. He woke up covered in bug bites, walked some more, and his love for hiking was born.

Chris Saunders, 24, who recently hiked all 509 miles in Shenandoah National Park, started hiking as a student at Charlottesville High School. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
Chris Saunders, 24, who recently hiked all 509 miles in Shenandoah National Park, started hiking as a student at Charlottesville High School. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

“It quickly evolved into a way to get away from school, people, the city, the noise. I was somewhat of a quiet kid. I still am that way,” he says. “I never really had a goal in mind, I just kept going and going, always wanting to try different trails to see different things.”

For Saunders, hiking all the trails in Shenandoah happened bit by bit, over many years. Sometimes he hikes with his fiancée, Maddy Rushing (they got engaged while hiking in Yosemite National Park). Sometimes he hikes with his two dogs. Sometimes he hikes alone.

“The views, the wildlife, the serene sounds and smells, it’s just a completely different world once you get on the trail,” Saunders says. He pauses by a dead tree that rises starkly against the blue sky. The tree looks like a sculpture, stripped of bark and with woodpecker holes carved into the trunk.

“I’ve never noticed this tree before,” he says, bemused. “Every time there’s something new.”

Park place

Each year more than 1 million visitors flock to Shenandoah National Park, just 30 minutes west of Charlottesville, to hike and take in the views from the overlooks along Skyline Drive. This year, which marks the centennial celebration of the National Park Service, visitation is up 35 percent, says Susan Sherman, president of the Shenandoah National Park Trust.

“Shenandoah National Park is remarkable in that it is the protector of wild lands and wildlife—and also the rich history of this region,” says Sherman.

Most of Shenandoah’s 500 miles of trails were built in the Depression era as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal project. The 10,000 men enlisted within Shenandoah as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps worked for $30 a month, $25 of which they were required to send home to their families. Over the course of nine years, the CCC men planted trees and built roads, facilities and the trails now enjoyed by hikers and visitors from all over the country and world.

Founded in 1935, the park is also rich with the history of the homesteading families who lived there before being forced to leave their lands for Shenandoah’s establishment. Visitors can see historical relics such as cabins and grave sites that stand as evidence of these old settlements. Gnarled apple and fruit orchards still dot the landscape.

Thanks to the original efforts of the CCC and subsequent management over the years, says Sherman, “Shenandoah is now a hiker’s paradise and offers extraordinarily diverse landscapes, from mountaintops to stream valleys to open meadows to secluded hollows.”

Old Rag is the park’s most popular hike. Sherman calls it “Shenandoah’s Half Dome,” referring to Yosemite’s famous rock formation. Old Rag attracts thousands of visitors each year for its strenuous ascent, rock scramble and panoramic views from the top.

Other popular hikes are Stony Man, Limberlost and Hawksbill, which is the highest peak in the park.

The Shenandoah Park Trust works to protect Shenandoah’s 200,000 acres. As a philanthropic partner to the park, Sherman sees the nonprofit organization as a vehicle that allows people who love and use the park to take responsibility for it.

“It belongs to all of us here in Charlottesville, but it’s true that with ownership comes responsibility,” she says. “We who live in the Charlottesville area are incredibly lucky to have this remarkable national treasure in our backyard, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.”

Climb every mountain

Saunders is not the only local person who’s hiked all 500 miles of Shenandoah’s trails. Eric Seaborg also recently completed the feat. Seaborg, who has been to the highest points of 49 states, thought hiking the Shenandoah 500 would be another fun goal.

“Once I got the idea, I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be interesting to do?’” says Seaborg, a freelance writer and avid hiker who lives in Charlottesville with his wife, Ellen Dudley. “I got some maps and studied them to see which trails I had done and which I hadn’t.”

Seaborg is no stranger to committed hiking. He and Dudley scouted the first American coast-to-coast trail in 1990-91, an endeavor that took them 14 months. Dudley recalls with a shiver the cold winter they spent that year hiking through the Midwest.

“I have one picture of a lightboard in Kansas showing the temperature at minus 8 degrees,” she says. They hiked from Point Reyes National Seashore in California to Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware on what is now called the American Discovery Trail. The couple later wrote the book American Discoveries: Scouting the First Coast-to-Coast Recreational Trail about their experience.

Both Seaborg and Dudley grew up hiking.

“My parents used to make me hike,” says Dudley. “I remember scuffing along through the leaves, thinking, ‘This is boring.’”  But her relationship with hiking has since changed. “It’s so pretty to be out there,” she says.

Husband-and-wife Eric Seaborg and Ellen Dudley both grew up hiking; together they scouted the first American coast-to-coast trail in 1990-91. Photo by Eze Amos
Husband-and-wife Eric Seaborg and Ellen Dudley both grew up hiking; together they scouted the first American coast-to-coast trail in 1990-91. Photo by Eze Amos

Seaborg grew up in Washington, D.C., and visited Shenandoah as a kid. “It was my father’s method of relaxation from his high-pressure jobs and he would take me along,” he says.

The love of getting outside stuck. As for how long it has it taken Seaborg to complete all the trails in Shenandoah? “It took 50 years!” he laughs, pointing out that he counts the hikes he did with his father as a kid.

The experience of hiking every trail in Shenandoah got Seaborg out to new and unexpected places.

“He went to all these obscure little trails,” says Dudley, who couldn’t hike with him because of a knee injury. She helped Seaborg keep track of his progress with maps and lists. “He never would’ve hiked on some of those normally.”

Seaborg says that it was worth the extra effort. “There’s no hike I did that I didn’t think, ‘Oh that was worth doing.’ There’s usually something: a great forest or a graveyard or something that made it worthwhile.”

Seaborg is a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which has been maintaining and advocating for more than 1,000 miles of trails in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia since 1927. As a PATC volunteer, Seaborg maintains a 1.5-mile section of the AT at Simmons Gap.

“There are studies that have shown that exposure to nature lowers blood pressure and helps your health in lots of ways,” Seaborg says. “I love to hike because I love the beauty. I love to see the stuff; I love the way it makes me feel; I like the exercise and being out there with my dog.” Seaborg notes that Shenandoah is one of only two national parks in the U.S. that allows dogs on the trails.

“Fall is also a great time to be in the park because there’s no hunting within the boundaries,” he says.

For many years, Seaborg and Dudley lived within walking distance of the park boundary at Simmons Gap, and Dudley kept records of the peak fall colors.

“October 24 is the special date,” she says. Seaborg recommends taking trails in the fall that go up ravines and along streams. “That’s where the colors are, the red maples, the tulip poplars,” he says.

But those who miss the foliage shouldn’t despair, says Seaborg. The trails in Shenandoah never close.

“There are lots of places where you can see views in the winter that you can’t see otherwise because the leaves have fallen,” he says. “When people go out into nature and come back they talk about coming back to the ‘real world.’ But really, when they’re going into nature they’re going into the real world.”

The view from the top

After only 15 minutes of hiking through trees, the trail at Blackrock Summit opens wide. A jagged rock scramble spills down the mountainside and Saunders leads the way up. The purple-gray rocks are streaked with rusty red and covered in chalk-green lichen. They shift and tip as we climb. Saunders’ shadow stretches out long behind him as he faces the strong morning sun. He chooses a high ledge of rock and we turn to take in the view.

The “real world” stretches out before us: rolling mountains, playful edges of yellow and red on the high-altitude leaves; a turkey vulture passes overhead with a rhythmic whoosh of wings. The Shenandoah Valley lies far below like a quilt, patterned with farms, silos and small towns. An immense quiet settles over us. The rocks warm as the sun rises higher and the air hardly stirs.

“The feeling of a grand view is complete satisfaction mixed perfectly with the most relaxing, stress-relieving experience you can imagine,” says Saunders. “It will make you forget whatever problems and background noise you have going on in your life. Even if only for a few seconds, it never fails to clear your mind and remind you that you’re alive.”

Great hikes close to home

“I like to combine the slogans ‘Get outside’ and ‘Just do it,’” says JoAnn Dalley, who has lived in Charlottesville for 36 years. She gets outdoors as often as she can, whether its in the Blue Ridge Mountains or on one of the many trail systems in town. Even if you’re not an experienced hiker, being outside is good for health and a sense of connection with nature, she says.

“The bottom line is that we live in such a rich environment,” Dalley says. “Hiking and walking outdoors is a great way to appreciate that environment and learn from it.”

“If you can walk to a place, that’s the best,” she says. “If you can drive within half an hour, that’s second best.”

Dalley and her husband, David, a longtime Charlottesville dentist, have section-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Mountain Lake to Leesburg. This means their feet have walked every bit of the trail within Shenandoah’s limits, though not all the way through at one time.

“We often hike the same hikes over and over again,” says Dalley, “because they’re convenient and familiar.”

Dalley has served as a Girl Scout leader and is an active volunteer with Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards and Rivanna Master Naturalists. She has a thick folder of maps of area hikes, as well as REI checklists for what to bring along on a hike (water, sunscreen, wind protection, food, first-aid kit). She even has a printout of the forage rules for Shenandoah, which describe the amount of edible items such as apples, mushrooms, berries and nuts a person is allowed to take out of the park.

JoAnn Dalley has served as a Girl Scout leader and is an active volunteer with Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards and Rivanna Master Naturalists. She and her husband, David, have section-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Mountain Lake to Leesburg. Photo by Eze Amos
JoAnn Dalley has served as a Girl Scout leader and is an active volunteer with Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards and Rivanna Master Naturalists. She and her husband, David, have section-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Mountain Lake to Leesburg. Photo by Eze Amos

But some of her favorite experiences in nature happen close to home. She loves to go for walks around Charlottesville with her dog, Rachel.

“If you take the same route over and over, you can really see the change of seasons,” she says.

Here are some of Dalley’s favorite close-to-home hikes:

The Rivanna Trail Network

The Rivanna Trail Foundation maintains around 20 miles of trail that loop around the city of Charlottesville. Though the circuit is not entirely contiguous (much of the trail is in easement through private property, presenting ongoing accessibility challenges), the trail makes for an amazing natural oasis right in the middle of the city. Popular sections include the paved trail running from Riverview Park in the Woolen Mills neighborhood to Darden Towe Park, the Greenbrier neighborhood trail and the section that curves by Observatory Hill near UVA. Other sections offer wooded meanders along Moore’s and Meadow creeks and travel through both residential and commercial areas with many access points. Used by runners, mountain bikers, hikers and open to dogs, the Rivanna Trail has something for everyone.

Ivy Creek Natural Area

Jointly owned by the city and Albemarle County, Ivy Creek is a 219-acre preserve managed by the Ivy Creek Foundation with at least six miles of trails. These include paved, handicap-accessible trails. Ivy Creek is a great birder’s paradise because bikes, jogging and dogs are all prohibited. “I’ve spent 15 minutes on these trails and seen something like 20 bird species,” says Dalley. In the fall, Ivy Creek hosts nighttime hikes to watch the nighthawk migration. Its diversity of landscapes, including fields, woods and wetlands, makes for a unique and quiet escape.

Observatory Hill

Called “O-Hill” by most, this university-owned property is popular with bikers and hikers, especially those who own dogs (they are allowed off-leash here). O-Hill is situated near campus with many winding and intersecting trails. “O-Hill is a little wild and woolly,” says Dalley, referring to the mountain bikers who might fly by on the trails. It’s high, dry and rocky. In autumn, acorns from the chestnut oaks that dominate the forest there fall in abundance. “I literally have gotten hit on the head with an acorn walking at O-Hill,” Dalley says. Parking is available at the observatory or at a few other locations close to the bottom of the hill.

Saunders Trail and the Secluded Farm Trails

Many people know of the Saunders Trail (handicap accessible) that winds up to the entrance of Monticello and includes a beautiful boardwalk section through the trees (note: No dogs are allowed on this portion of the trail). But fewer are familiar with the Secluded Farm trails, which meander through managed meadows and hilly forest to the south of the start of the Saunders Trail. “This is a great, underutilized network of trails,” says Dalley. Dogs are allowed on-leash.

Get out of here

Along with some classics like Humpback Rocks and Sugar Hollow, here are a few lesser-appreciated hikes within an hour’s drive of Charlottesville that offer views, leaves, rock outcroppings, water features, wildlife and more.

Beagle Gap

(to Bear Den Mountain summit or to Calf Mountain summit)

Distance from Charlottesville: 40-minute drive

Elevation change: 355 to 495 feet

Miles: 1.2 to 2.1

Time: 30 minutes to 2 hours

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Entrance fee: $20

Access: In Shenandoah National Park. The south entrance is at Rockfish Gap: Route 64, exit 99, then drive 5.9 miles north on Skyline Drive to milepost 99.5.

What to look for: This is a short hike upward to a view. In the gap there is a big meadow with old apple trees. “Earlier in the fall you’ll see butterflies and the meadow changing with the seasons,” says JoAnn Dalley. She goes every year to forage apples for applesauce. “They’re wormy and everything, but they’re fun to forage,” she says. These old apple trees are remnants of orchards that were planted and managed by families that were removed from their lands in the 1930s upon the establishment of the park.

Bear Church Rock

Distance from Charlottesville: 50-minute drive

Elevation change: 2,210 feet

Miles: 8.5 (up and back)

Time: 5 to 7 hours

Difficulty: Challenging

Access: Graves Mill trailhead at the Shenandoah National Park boundary near Madison

What to look for: A lesser-known but picturesque hike south of Old Rag, Bear Church Rock is a favorite for Eric Seaborg, Ellen Dudley and Susan Sherman. It begins along the Rapidan River and makes its way up along the Staunton River Trail past several small waterfalls. Look out for the Jones Mountain cabin on a short side trail to the right. This is one of many cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and is available for rent. This hike ends at the Bear Church Rock overlook, which is on a short side trail to the right (the Jones Mountain trail continues up the mountain, but the rocks are the turnaround point for this hike).

Blackrock Summit

Distance from Charlottesville: 1-hour drive

Elevation change: 175 feet

Miles: 1.2-mile loop

Time: 1 hour

Difficulty: Easy

Entrance fee: $20

Access: In Shenandoah National Park: milepost 84.1 on Skyline Drive at Blackrock Summit parking area

What to look for: After only 15 minutes of hiking through the woods, the Blackrock Summit trail opens up to a distinctive rock scramble and stunning 360-degree view. If you love wide vistas, Blackrock offers the most bang for your buck of any trail on this list. The plentiful, jutting rocks at the top make for interesting explorations and test your surefootedness, and it’s a large enough area to find a quiet spot of your own to take in the views in all directions.

Fortune’s Cove Loop

Distance from Charlottesville: 40-minute drive

Elevation change: 1,725 feet

Miles: 5.5

Difficulty: Challenging

Time: 4 hours

Access: Turn right off of Route 29 just before Lovingston onto Mountain Cove Road. After 1.6 miles, turn right on Fortune’s Cove Lane. Parking area is on left after 1.6 miles.

What to look for: This is a challenging hike located within a 755-acre Nature Conservancy Preserve (no dogs allowed). At the meeting point of the Virginia Piedmont and Blue Ridge Mountain ecosystems, Fortune’s Cove hosts a special diversity of plant and animal life. “There are glades or ravines along the Fortune’s Cove hike that have really unique and rare plant communities,” says Dalley. Views from the back half of the hike look toward the Blue Ridge around Wintergreen.

Humpback Rocks

Distance from Charlottesville: 40-minute drive

Elevation change: 1,240 feet

Miles: 2

Time: 2.5 hours

Difficulty: Challenging

Access: 6 miles south of Rockfish Gap (Route 64, exit 99) on the Blue Ridge Parkway, milepost 6

What to look for: This hike is very popular due to its proximity to the 64 exit at the Rockfish Gap entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is short, but extremely challenging as it goes straight up for a mile to the summit. The views are worth the climb, however, and it is a well-worn sunset and sunrise hike destination.

Mint Springs Valley Park

Distance from Charlottesville: 30-minute drive

Elevation change: Between 60 and 370 feet

Miles: 5 miles of trails

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Access: 5-minute drive northwest of downtown Crozet on Mint Springs Road

What to look for: “There’s a high prevalence of spectacular sassafras trees, which provide great color in the fall,” says Seaborg. The sassafras has recognizable leaves that can be three
different shapes: oval, mittened or three-pronged. In the fall, sassafras leaves turns yellow, rosy-red and orange. The fire trail provides beautiful views to the east.

Riprap Hollow Loop Trail

Distance from Charlottesville: 1-hour drive

Elevation change: 2,225 feet

Miles: 9.8-mile loop

Time: 6 to 8 hours

Difficulty: Challenging

Entrance fee: $20

Access: In Shenandoah National Park: milepost 90 on the Skyline Drive at Riprap parking area.

What to look for: This hike includes two beautiful vistas along the ridge of Rock Mountain and at the Chimney Rocks overlook. It also features a 20-foot waterfall and large swimming hole. It can be done as an out-and-back hike or as a circuit using the Wildcat Ridge Trail.

Sugar Hollow and Moormons River

Distance from Charlottesville: 30-minute drive

Elevation change: 360 feet

Miles: 2 to 3

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Access: Drive out Barracks Road/Garth Road and continue straight through White Hall on Sugar Hollow Road. Parking is located past the Sugar Hollow Reservoir.

What to look for: From the parking area, you can choose two trails. The trail along the north fork of the Moormons River passes a swimming hole, and the beautiful waterfall two miles up and on the left makes for a worthwhile destination. The trail that follows the south fork is the well-known route to Blue Hole, a refreshing place to swim in the summer. Expect brilliant color in the fall from the tulip poplars along both forks of the river.

Get into gear

JoAnn Dalley uses REI’s Day Hiking Checklist before setting out on the trail.

The 10 Essentials

  1. Navigation

Map, compass, GPS (optional), altimeter (optional)

  2. Sun protection

Sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses

  3. Insulation

Jacket, vest, pants, long underwear, gloves, hat

  4. Illumination

Headlamp or flashlight, extra batteries

  5. First-aid kit

  6. Fire

Matches or lighter, waterproof container, fire starter (for emergency survival fire)

  7. Repair kit or tools

Knife or multi-tool, kits for stove and mattress, duct tape strips

  8. Nutrition

Extra day’s supply of food

  9. Hydration

Water bottles or hydration system, water filter or other treatment system

10. Emergency shelter

Tent, tarp, bivy or reflective blanket

Beyond the 10 essentials: daypack, lunch, snacks, energy beverages or drink mixes, utensils, cups and toilet paper

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