Jenkins Gap to Gravel Springs Gap

MILE 12.35, JENKINS GAP. Elevation 2,350 feet. A.T. access; Bluff Trail circuit hike. Plenty of parking space in the grass on the west side. An old road that went down the west side of the mountain to Browntown starts here. The first part is now a service road; 80 yards from the Drive is a dirt and gravel storage area on the right. The A.T. is less than 70 yards farther. Beyond the A.T. the road is now a yellow-blazed horse trail, which descends rather steeply to the Park Boundary.

Distances on the A.T., from its junction with the road trace: To the right (north) it's 2.0 miles to Compton Gap, Mile 10.4. To the left (south) it's 1.7 miles to the Drive crossing at Hogwallow Flats, Mile 14.2.

HIKE: A.T. and Bluff Trail. Circuit 12.8 miles; total climb about 2,495 feet; time required 10:30. (See map, page 96; you're at the upper right corner of the map.) Because of its length and the amount of climbing, I've classified this hike as "difficult"; but no part of it is very steep, and it's only moderately rough. The route goes from the grassy parking area in Jenkins Gap, via the service road to the A.T., and then to the left, across both summits of Mount Marshall, to Gravel Spring Gap. Return via the Bluff Trail to the Mount Marshall Trail. Turn left, return to the Drive, turn right, and return to your starting point. As the map shows, you could start this hike at any of five points on the Drive. I've chosen to describe it only once, starting at Gravel Springs Gap, Mile 17.6. See page 97.

MILE 12.4, JENKINS GAP OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,355 feet. The gap is named for one of the early settlers. When the Park was created, sixteen families named Jenkins, owning a total of 850 acres, were displaced from this area. Most of them were descended from Timothy Jenkins, who was born about 1735.

From the overlook you have a narrow V-shaped view into the Piedmont. The hollow below the overlook is drained by the Burgess River, which divides just outside the Park boundary and flows off in two different directions. The high point to your left is Compton Peak. If you have binoculars, look a little way down and to the right from the highest point. The rock ledge there is one of the objectives of the Compton Peak hike, page 91.

MILE 12.5, MOUNT MARSHALL TRAIL, east side Hikes. You may park at Jenkins Gap Overlook (Mile 12.4) or on the grassy shoulder beside the Drive, between the overlook and the trail head. The Mount Marshall Trail is a former fire road.

MILE 13.8, HOGWALLOW FLATS OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,665 feet. From here you have a wide view of the Piedmont, which extends 70 miles east to the coastal plain. The small town you see is Flint Hill—one of the seven resettlement areas into which mountain people were moved when the Park was created in the 1930's. The high point toward your right is The Peak.

Piedmont is from an Italian word meaning "foothill". It applies to any foothill region, but especially to the plateau between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain—including parts of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Waterfalls and rapids occur where rivers cross the fall line—the contact between the rocky, resistant Piedmont and the softer, more easily eroded soils of the coastal plain. A number of major cities were developed along the fall line, for two reasons: first, it was as far inland as ships could navigate; second, the falls served as a source of power.

Most of what you see from the overlook is in Rappahannock County. About a fifth of the county's 274 square miles are within the Park. This is the only county near Washington D.C. that has remained completely rural. Its total population is considerably less than 6,000. It has no railroad, no industry, no mobile homes, and no rural property of less than 25 acres. The residents intend to keep it that way.

MILE 14.2, HOGWALLOW FLATS. Elevation 2,745 feet. A.T. crossing. There's a grassy parking pullout on the west side of the Drive. Distance on the A.T.: North (on the west side) it's 1.6 miles to Jenkins Gap, where an old road leads a short distance to the Drive. South (on the east side) it's 2.1 miles, via the north summit of Mount Marshall, to the Drive crossing between the two Marshalls at Mile 15.95.

MILE 14.9, BROWNTOWN VALLEY OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,890 feet. Drinking fountain (turned off in winter.) To the left of your view is Hogback, with a notch where the Drive crosses it at Hogback Overlook. Descending to the right from Hogback is Gimlet Ridge. The view looks straight out across the Browntown Valley to the Massanutten, with Signal Knob at its right-hand end.

To the right you can see a part of Dickey Ridge. Browntown is visible from the north end of the overlook, near the center of the view.

This overlook, and the Drive for a half mile or more to the south, lie on a shelf formed by one of the many lava flows that now cap the two summits of Mount Marshall.

MILE 15.95, A.T. CROSSING. Elevation 3,075 feet. Hikes to both peaks of Mount Marshall, with a pleasant view from each. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the east side) it's 2.1 miles to the Drive crossing at Hogwallow Flats, Mile 14.2. South (on the west side) it's 1.6 miles to the Drive crossing in Gravel Springs Gap, Mile 17.6. A paved parking area is on the east side of the Drive.

HIKE: North Marshall. To the viewpoint, round trip 0.75 miles; total climb about 105 feet; time required 0:45. To the summit, round trip 1.3 miles; total climb about 295 feet; time required 1:15. An easy walk; the trail is mostly smooth, and not steep.

Take the A.T. on the east side of the Drive, less than a hundred yards north of the milepost. The trail is nearly level at the start, then climbs gradually with a couple of switchbacks. Less than 0.4 mile from the start, the trail turns 90 degrees to the right. There, on your left, is a fine view from an open ledge with a sheer drop of about 60 feet. To your left you can look over nearby Pignut Mountain to higher, more distant peaks: the Pinnacle, Marys Rock, Stony Man, Millers Head, and Pass Mountain. (If you'd like to identify them for certain, see the right-hand end of the Range View Overlook sketch, page 95.) Farther right and nearby you see a stretch of the Drive on south Marshall, with Hogback beyond it. Continuing to the right: Browntown Valley, the Shenandoah Valley, and then Dickey Ridge, with the Drive and two overlooks in sight.

If you like, continue to the summit of North Marshall; there's no view from the summit, but the trail is easy. A hundred yards beyond the first viewpoint is a second, just off to the left. This view is not as wide as the first; but from late August to early October, the view is framed on the right by the bright red berries of mountain ash.

HIKE: South Marshall. To the viewpoint: round trip 1.6 miles; total climb about 295 feet; time required 1:20. A fairly easy walk; the trail is smooth, and not very steep.

Take the A.T. on the west side of the Drive, 200 feet north of Milepost 16. The trail climbs easily to the summit, where it flattens out for a while. There's no view from the summit. Keep going, and begin the descent on the far side. You'll pass several narrow, somewhat overgrown viewpoints on the right. Keep going. A hundred feet beyond the point where the trail jogs right, then left, (and a quarter of a mile beyond the summit), the trail turns left, and a side trail on the right goes 25 yards to the viewpoint ledge.

The view is not quite as wide as that from North Marshall. but I find it more exciting because the treetops below the ledge are a long ways down, so that the view includes a lot of pure mountain air. What you see from here is practically the same as what you see from North Marshall, except that you can't see South Marshall because you're standing on it.

View from Range View Overlook
View from Range View Overlook

MILE 17.1, RANGE VIEW OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,810 feet. Unless it's a very hazy day, be sure to stop here; this overlook is the superstar of the North Section. Toward the south-southwest you're looking lengthwise down the Blue Ridge, all the way to Stony Man, fourteen miles away. The sketch shows only about half the view. To the right of Pass Mountain, and considerably nearer, you can see Skyline Drive at Mount Marshall Overlook. Farther right, the high point with the radio towers is Hogback, from which Gimlet Ridge descends to the right. Beyond Gimlet Ridge you can see two ridges of the Massanutten and, sometimes, the Alleghenies far beyond.

MILE 17.6, GRAVEL SPRINGS GAP. Elevation 2,665 feet. Hikes: A. T. crossing. There's a paved parking area on the east side of the Drive. Distances on the AT.: North (on the west side of the Drive) it's 1.6 miles to the Drive crossing at Mile 15.95, on the saddle between the two peaks of Mount Marshall. South (on the east side) it's 1.3 miles to the Drive crossing at Mile 18.9.

The old Browntown-Harris Hollow Road crossed the mountain here. On the west side it's now yellow-blazed and classified as a horse trail. On the east it's used as the service road for Gravel Springs Hut.  

Map of Big Devils Stairs and the Bluff Trail Area
Map of Big Devils Stairs and the Bluff Trail Area

I will outline three hikes that you might take from here. See map above. You're near the upper left corner of the map.

HIKE: Gravel Springs Hut. Circuit 0.8 mile; climb about 190 feet; time required 0:50 Take the A.T. on the east side of the Drive; it starts out parallel to the service road and just a few feet to the right of it. After less than 300 yards the trail divides, with the A.T. going right and the Bluff Trail left. Take the left fork, and continue about 0.2 mile to the service road; the spring and hut are both in view to your right. The hut has a fireplace and a table, and there's a pit toilet a short distance beyond it. The old Browntown-Harris Hollow road used to continue down hill beyond this point, is now a maintained spur trail to Harris Hollow trail.

Unverified report: The spring was the scene of considerable social activity in mountaineer days. Travellers crossing the mountain on the Browntown Harris Hollow road could buy moonshine whiskey here. Water from the spring, or from another not far away, was used to make moonshine in the head of a nearby hollow.

You can return to your car the way you came or, for variety, make it a circuit hike by returning on the service road. It rejoins the A.T. at the parking area.

HIKE: Big Devils Stairs, to the bottom of the canyon and return. Round trip 5.7 miles; total climb about 1,850 feet; time required 6:50.

From Gravel Springs Gap, start out as above (Gravel Springs Hut Hike.) Continue across the service road on the Bluff Trail.

The Bluff Trail continues through the disintegrating lava flows on the side of South Marshall. There were fine views along the trail when the Park was young, but now they're overgrown. About 0.6 mile beyond the service road, there's a ledge on the right; in the winter, when the leaves are down, there's a view through the bare branches of a part of what you can see from Range View Overlook, which is more or less straight uphill from here. Continue 0.8 mile farther to the junction with the Big Devils Stairs Trail, about 1.6 miles from Gravel Springs. Turn right onto the trail.

The canyon is spectacular and steep, with cascades, waterfalls, and huge boulders between high sheer walls of rock. The original trail followed the stream. The present trail follows along the top of the gorge, on the left side of the stream. It's not as exciting as the old one, and not quite as strenuous, but its's a lot safer. And at several points the trail offers exciting views down into the canyon.

I think you'll enjoy this hike, even though you may be tired at the end of it. Because the canyon is deep and narrow it tends to be deeply shaded, with spotty sunlight, which makes photography difficult. For best results choose a light-overcast day, and use high-speed film.

There is no boundary access to Big Devil Stairs from Va. 622.

HIKE: Bluff Trail and A.T. Circuit 12.8 miles; total climb about 2,495 feet; time required 10:30. This is a difficult hike because of its length and amount of climbing. Parts of the Bluff Trail are moderately rough. See map, page 96.

Unconfirmed report: "The Bluff" is the local name for Mount Marshall.

Follow the A.T. and Bluff Trail to the head of Big Devils Stairs, as described above. Continue on the Bluff trail for a little more than two miles, to the Mount Marshall trail (a former fire road). Turn left and follow the Mount Marshall trail, mostly uphill, to the Drive. Turn right on the Drive, pass Jenkins Gap Overlook, and go another hundred yards to a trailhead and grassy area on the West side. Follow the Jenkins Gap trail for about 100 feet to the A.T., and turn left. The A.T. crosses the Drive (at Mile 14.1) and then climbs the north crest of Mount Marshall. There's no view from the top; but as you descend you reach a ledge on the right side of the trail, less than 0.3 mile beyond the summit, with a fine view. (See page 94.)

Cross the Drive (at Mile 15.95) and ascend the south peak of Mount Marshall Again, there's no view from the summit. But after you descend a quarter of a mile on the far side, the trail turns to the left, and a side trail on the right leads 25 yards to a good viewpoint. Continue downhill until the A.T. joins another fire road. Turn left, cross the Drive, and you are at your starting point.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved