North Entrance to Signal Knob Overlook

MILE 0.0 Skyline Drive begins at U.S. Highway 340 near the south edge of Front Royal. You can find food and lodging in Front Royal, mostly at the far end of town.

Going south from the Drive, U.S. 340 passes through an especially attractive part of the Shenandoah Valley. Skyline Caverns is 1.1 miles south of the Drive on U.S. 340. The "anthodites"—small but pretty clusters of long white crystals—are its principal attraction.

MILE 0.05, PARKING AREA. Elevation 590 feet. Dickey Ridge Trail. As you enter Skyline Drive from U.S. 340, you come immediately to a parking area on the west (right) side of the road. Pull off and stop for a minute. This is the lowest point on the Drive, and the only place in the Park where the basement rock is limestone. But you can't see it, because it's covered by soil and broken rock that have washed down from the Catoctin formation on the ridge.

From this point the Drive climbs steadily on Dickey Ridge, finally reaching the Blue Ridge at Compton Gap, Mile 10.4. The Dickey Ridge Trail begins at the parking area. It goes more or less parallel to the Drive for 9.2 miles, then joins the A.T. (Appalachian Trail) near Compton Gap. I recommend a short walk up the Dickey Ridge Trail, and return by the same route. (Note: the terms "Dickey Ridge" and "Dickey Hill" are synonymous.)

HIKE: Dickey Ridge Trail. Round trip 2.7 miles; total climb about 440 feet; time required 2:10. A pleasant, easy walk beside a small stream.

The trail starts at the marker post on the west side of the Drive. The first half of your walk goes through an area that, when the Park was created in the 1930's, was pasture with only an occasional tree. Now it's grown up with spindly black locusts and other pioneer trees, and it's carpeted and festooned with Japanese honeysuckle. This area shows what your front yard may look like if you forget to mow the lawn for fifty years.

The stream is dry where you first see it, but there's water after you walk about 0.4 mile. Beyond that point, look for tall young sycamores on the right. Sycamores are not common in the Park; they occur only near streams at low elevations.

About half a mile from the start, a side trail goes left for 200 yards, and reaches the Drive just south of the Entrance Station. A little more than a hundred yards farther, another side trail (actually an old road) also goes left to the Drive. Just beyond, you cross the stream on a small but sturdy bridge.

Throughout the rest of your hike you'll see evidence of the mountain people who once lived here: stone piles, stone walls, and traces of old roads. At about 0.4 mile beyond the stream crossing, look for the remains of a stone chimney, now filled in, to the left of the trail. This is all that remains of a mountaineer homesite.

About three quarters of a mile beyond the bridge the trail leaves the stream and, at a concrete marker post, switches back sharply to the right. I suggest that you return to your car from this point. Ahead, the trail climbs rather steeply for half a mile to the Drive crossing at Mile 2.1.

Mile 0.3, ROAD, east side. This goes into the Park Service residential area.

MILE 0.6, FRONT ROYAL ENTRANCE STATION. Elevation 705 feet. There's a parking area just south of the Entrance Station. Beside it, on the west side of the Drive, are a buckeye (horse-chestnut) and several Kentucky coffee trees. Both species are rare in the Park.

Geology: The Front Royal fault crosses the Drive here, separating the limestone and dolomite of the Rockdale Run formation from the lava flows of the Catoctin formation.

MILE 1.4, PARKING AREA, west side. Elevation 970 feet. There are two modest attractions here:

Waterfall: Cross the Drive and walk south (uphill) about a hundred feet, then look to your left. There, directly in front of you, is a charming cascade of water some 60 feet high. This is the only waterfall that's visible from Skyline Drive. And like all our falls, this one is at its best in spring or after heavy rains. It may be completely dry in summer.

Geology: The rocks across the Drive from the parking area are basalt of the Catoctin formation; they were molten lava about 800 million years ago. In a fresh break the rock is mostly gray-green—the green color caused by the mineral epidote (calcium aluminum iron silicate). Here, weathering has produced a variety of colors: gray-green, light brown, and dark gray-purple.

Near the downhill end of the rock cut you can see pale tan spots, 1/4 to 3/4 inch in diameter, on the purplish rocks. These were once gas bubbles in the lava, which were later filled by minerals. At no point do the Catoctin lavas have the porous appearance of recent lava; they have been metamorphosed by the pressure of other rocks above them, so that no bubble spaces remain except where the minerals that filled them were later lost by weathering.

Mile 2.0, PARKING AREA, west side. A paved parking pulloff, about 100 feet north of the milepost, with room for several cars. Park here if you want to hike on the Dickey Ridge Trail from the crossing at Mile 2.15.

MILE 2.15, DICKEY RIDGE TRAIL CROSSING. Elevation 1,155 feet. There's no marker or sign here, and the trail is hard to see from your car. Use the parking area at Mile 2.0 if you want to hike. On the west side, the trail goes 1.9 miles to its origin at Mile 0.05 on the Drive. On the east side it goes 2.6 miles to the Fox Hollow Trail, across the Drive from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.

MILE 2.8, SHENANDOAH VALLEY OVERLOOK. Elevation 1,390 feet. The view here is quite worthwhile, and if the air is fairly clear I recommend that you give it a little time. Use binoculars, if you have them. You look across the Valley, 800 feet below, and a stretch of the Shenandoah River, to the two ridges of the Massanutten Mountain, with Signal Knob at their right-hand end. The Massanutten divides the Shenandoah Valley, separating the north fork of the Shenandoah River, on the far side of the Massanutten, from the south fork on this side. The two meet at Riverton, a few miles north of Front Royal.

Front Royal is toward the right of your view, and two to three miles away. After dark, the lights of Front Royal make this overlook a very worthwhile stop.

Legend: Front Royal got its name because at one time it lay on the frontier of the land occupied by the Royal (British) troops.

Legend: "Front", in the language of the mountain people, meant "foothill". The foothills here were occupied by Royal troops.

Legend: When the town consisted principally of a tavern, and Royal troops were stationed there, the sentry's challenge was "front", and the password was "royal".

Legend: Front Royal was originally called Lehewtown. In frontier times it had so many brawling and disorderly inhabitants that the name was changed, informally at least, to Helltown.

MILE 4.6, DICKEY RIDGE VISITOR CENTER. Elevation 1,940 feet. Information, publications, slide show, exhibits, telephone, rest rooms, water; Fox Hollow self-guiding trail; access to Dickey Ridge Trail.

The Visitor Center was built in 1938 as a dining hall, and the concessioner had cabins for rent in the area just north of the building. They closed the dining hall during World War II, and did not re-open it when the war ended. It was converted to a Visitor Center in 1958.

There are views to both east and west from the building. If you walk down to the edge of the grassy area you can look west across the Valley to the Massanutten. To the far left is Hogback Mountain, with four separate bumps along its crest. Between Hogback and here is the Browntown Valley. Across the Drive, to the east you'll view Chester Gap.

The Dickey Ridge Trail is about 80 yards to the east of the Drive, on the side across from the Visitor Center. From here the trail goes 2.6 miles north to the Drive crossing at Mile 2.15; and 2.5 miles south to the Drive crossing in Low Gap, Mile 7.9.

Map of Dickey Ridge—Fox Hollow Area
Map of Dickey Ridge—Fox Hollow Area

HIKE: Fox Hollow Trail. Circuit about 1.2 miles; total climb about 310 feet; time required 1:20. This is a pleasant self-guiding trail through two old mountaineer homesites. The trail is easy; no part of it is steep or rough. See map above.

You can buy a self-guiding pamphlet at the Visitor Center, or from the dispenser at the trail head. Here's a summary:

The trail begins in the grass across the Drive from the Visitor Center. Where the trail forks, a few feet from the Drive, keep left. In less than 100 yards you'll reach the Dickey Ridge Trail. Keep to the left here; continue another 0.2 mile, then turn right at the junction. You will pass piles of stones that several generations of the Fox family cleared from their fields and pasture. The trail turns sharp right when it reaches the walled cemetery. The vine that grows inside the wall is periwinkle, Vinca minor, which has blue flowers in the spring. Periwinkle was sometimes called "cemetery plant". It was used in cemeteries because it makes a good ground cover, and doesn't have to be mowed.

Continue past the site of the Fox family garden and house, then turn sharp left at a concrete-enclosed spring (which was built to supply water to the Dickey Ridge development when the building there was a restaurant, rather than a Visitor Center.) Pass an old millstone near the site of the Fox family barn. (There was no mill here; the stone was brought into the hollow for ornamental purposes.) Cross the stream and continue to a dirt road. Edgar Merchant had his home here: the house was on the flat area to your left; the barn covered the rock-bordered hole on your right.

Turn right on the old road. Follow it uphill for a little more than 0.4 mile, then take the trail that goes uphill to the right. Cross the Dickey Ridge trail and continue uphill to your starting point.

MILE 4.7, DICKEY RIDGE PICNIC AREA. Elevation 1,935 feet. Entrance is at the south end of the Visitor Center parking lot. A one-way road takes you through the Picnic Area, and rejoins the Drive at Mile 5.0. There are tables, fireplaces, several drinking fountains (turned off in winter), and a comfort station. For winter use there's a frostfree faucet in front of the comfort station, and pit toilets behind it.

MILE 5.0, EXIT ROAD, west side, from the Dickey Ridge Picnic Area. Do not enter.

MILE 5.1, SNEAD FIRE ROAD, east side. This road leads to an old homesite; the hike is interesting and easy. There's limited parking in the grass on the west side of the Drive. For better parking, or to make the hike a little longer, start from the Picnic Area or the Visitor Center.

HIKE: Snead homesite. Round trip 1.4 miles (from the edge of the Drive); total climb about 190 feet; time required 1:25. See map, page 84. Take the fire road; cross the Dickey Ridge Trail and then, a tenth of a mile from the Drive, come to a fork in the road. The right-hand fork climbs to the highest point on Dickey Ridge, which is occupied by a Vortac radio beacon belonging to the Federal Aviation Authority. This facility is an aircraft navigation aid. For that reason, F.A.A. is a little nervous about the possibility of sabotage or vandalism. I suggest that you not use the road, nor go to the summit by other means.

Take the left fork. Walk a tenth of a mile through an old apple orchard to a second fork; keep to the right here. The other road goes down to the pumphouse, a part of the Dickey Ridge water system. The Snead homesite is 0.7 mile from the Drive. The house has been torn down, but the barn is in fairly good condition. The small structure in back may have been a root cellar.

The road continues beyond the barn to the site of the Snead house, on the right, where a wall and steps still remain. As you might guess, the owners of this property were not typical mountaineers. Originally it belonged to the Garter family, who were farmers and fruit growers in comfortable circumstances. They owned extensive orchards; and the land now occupied by the Visitor Center was, in 1930, Carter's cornfield. This property is now called the Snead place, although Snead, a Rappahannock County judge, owned it for only a few years. The Park bought the 200-acre property in 1962, in order to develop and protect the Dickey Ridge water supply.

You can go back the way you came, or continue on the Snead Farm Loop Trail. That goes 0.7 mile to the Dickey Ridge Trail. Turn right, and go 1.2 miles back to the Snead Farm fire road.

MILE 5.3, PAVED PARKING PULLOUT, west side. Elevation 1,985 feet. Room for about six cars. This is obviously an overlook, though it has no name and does not appear on the Park's list of overlooks. Vista clearing here has a low priority; the view is sometimes obstructed. From here you look westward across the Shenandoah Valley, and several loops of the Shenandoah River, to the Massanutten. To the far right is a part of Dickey Ridge; Front Royal is hidden behind it. Here, as at many of the overlooks in the North District, I like to study the farms, roads, and ponds through binoculars. The barn that you see at the foot of the ridge is about eight hundred feet below you.

MILE 5.7, SIGNAL KNOB OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,090 feet. To the far left you can look up the Browntown Valley to the two peaks of Mt. Marshall and, farther right, the four humps of Hogback. Below you is the Shenandoah Valley, with the south fork of the Shenandoah River meandering through it. The first two ridges on the far side of the Valley are the Massanutten, with the Fort Valley between them. The Massanutten divides the Shenandoah Valley for a distance of nearly fifty miles.

Legend: Massanutten is an Indian word meaning "three-topped."

Legend: Massanutten is an Indian word meaning "old field" or "potato field" (though I've been told that the Indians who lived in this area did not grow potatoes).

Legend: Massanutten is an Indian word meaning "Indian basket", referring to the supposedly basket-shaped Fort Valley.

History:: In 1726 a group of Germans moved into the Valley from Pennsylvania, and established a settlement, which they called Massanutten, to the west of the present town of Luray. They called the ridge to the west of the settlement not Massanutten, but Peaked Mountain. (That name is still used locally for the peak at the southern end. It's pronounced with two syllables: PEAK-id.) The Massanutten colony survived in peace until about 1754; then followed a dozen years of Indian attacks. Homes in the area, some of them still standing, were built like forts.

Sometime before 1750, the name of Peaked Mountain changed to Buffalo Mountain. The deep gap near the middle, now called New Market Gap, lay just to the west of the Massanutten settlement, and was therefore called Massanutten Gap. The name of the gap was later applied to the whole 50-mile ridge.

Signal Knob is the high point at the right-hand end of the Massanutten. Although there was no Civil War action on the mountain itself, there were battles on both sides of it. Signal Knob was a Confederate Army signal station. (It may or may not have been used briefly by Union troops.) Signals were relayed to another knob farther south on the Massanutten, and from there to Stony Man, on their way to Richmond.

Geology: Cross the Drive at a point a little south of the middle of the overlook, and look at the rocks from the edge of the Drive. At about eye level is a band of sandstone, two-and-a-half to three-feet thick. It separates a dark lava flow (below) from a later, lighter-colored lava flow above.

The sandstone is banded with colors varying from tan to reddish to reddish-purple, showing that it was formed from various kinds of sand and mud. We can conclude that many years, or more likely many centuries, elapsed between the two lava flows. During that time streams eroded higher ground, depositing sand and mud here. The reddish color of the sandstone is probably the result of mineralization by the upper lava flow.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved