Little Devil Stairs Overlook to A.T. Crossing

MILE 20.1, LITTLE DEVILS STAIRS OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,120 feet. There's a wide view here; the sketch shows only a part of it. At your left are the two Marshalls, visible over the top of Little Hogback. Farther right is The Peak, then a view over the mouth of Harris Hollow to the town of Washington, Va., and then Jenkins Mountain, where the sketch begins.

View from Little Devils Stairs Overlook
View from Little Devils Stairs Overlook

To the right of Old Rag (at the right-hand edge of the sketch) are several peaks in the Central Section that are better seen from Rattlesnake Point Overlook, Mile 21.9. They are identified in the sketch on page 105.

Little Devils Stairs is in the gorge directly in front of the overlook. You can't see as much of it as I've shown in the sketch, because the trees have grown too tall. Little Devils Stairs is a very rewarding, if somewhat strenuous hike from Mile 19.4.

Geology: Note that, as I mentioned earlier, Keyser Mountain, Pignut Mountain, Fork Mountain, and Oventop are all set off from the main Blue Ridge by low gaps. These gaps, like those that mark off Jenkins Mountain and The Peak farther north, are the result of relatively rapid erosion along a geological fault.

The rocks in the road cut across the Drive are granodiorite, which is well exposed here.

MILE 20.4, SPRING; HIKE TO HOGBACK SUMMIT. Plenty of parking in the grass on the west side of the Drive.

HIKE: Hogback Summit. Circuit 1.0 mile; total climb about 250 feet; time required 1:00. A fairly easy short hike, with a view. The trail is somewhat rocky in places. It starts into the woods from the marker post at the edge of the grass. About a hundred feet from the Drive it passes a boxed-in spring on the left. (This is the source of Piney River.) The trail curves left around the spring, then makes a sharp right turn and climbs the ridge. When you reach the A.T. on the ridge crest, turn left. Less than 50 yards from the junction, a short side trail on the right leads to a viewpoint at the top of a very steep slope, where the power line (which provides power for the radio transmitters on Hogback summit) descends steeply into the Valley.

There's a better view farther on: less than 100 yards from the trail junction, a side trail on the right leads to a ledge where a clearing was made for a hang-glide launch site. The ridge descends very steeply into the Browntown Valley, with an exciting, open view. Straight ahead in the distance is Front Royal, with Dickey Ridge ascending to the right. On the left, the ridge that descends from Hogback splits into Gimlet Ridge, on the right, and Mathews Arm, on the left. Return to the A.T. and, if you wish, go back the way you came; there are no more views.

To complete the circuit continue on the A.T., and reach the summit of Hogback by a short, easy climb. The summit, elevation 3,474, is the highest point in the North Section. There are radio transmitters of several State and Federal Government Agencies: GSA, the Virginia Division of Forestry, Virginia State Police, and Shenandoah National Park. On the far side of the summit descend, on either the A.T. or the service road, to the Drive at Mile 20.8. Turn left and walk 0.4 mile beside the Drive to your starting point. The grass is fairly wide, so that you can walk a safe distance from the pavement.

MILE 20.8, A.T. CROSSING. On the west side of the Drive is the service road for the radio installations on Hogback summit. Don't park here; continue to the overlook, just a few feet to the south.

MILE 20.8 to 21.0, HOGBACK OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,385 feet. This overlook offers a couple of short, easy hikes, as well as a view. It's the longest overlook in the Park; to see the whole view you have to stop somewhere near the middle of it; or stop twice—once at each end.

From the middle of the overlook you look down on the crest of Gimlet Ridge, which curves to the right as it descends. Splitting off to the left from Gimlet Ridge is Mathews Arm. And in the hollow on the near side of Mathews Arm is Overall Run, which has the highest waterfall in the Park. It's a moderately strenuous hike from the A.T. crossing at Mile 21.1, just to the south of the overlook, or from Mathews Arm Campground, Mile 22.2.

Beyond Gimlet Ridge, across the Valley, are the two ridges of the Massanutten, with Fort Valley between them. Beyond the Massanutten, if the air is very clear, you can make out at least three ridges of the Alleghenies. It's said that, on a clear day, you can see eleven bends of the Shenandoah River, though I've never counted that many. The nearest bend of the river is a little more than half a mile lower than the overlook.

The view to the right is similar to that from Gimlet Ridge Overlook (see sketch, page 98), except that from here you can see the radio towers on the crest of Hogback Mountain.

If you have binoculars, and it's a clear day, relax and spend time on details of the view. This is especially enjoyable in late afternoon, when the slanting light makes each object stand out in sharp relief.

Geology: The rocks exposed across the Drive are coarse-grained granodiorite of the Pedlar formation. The grain is best seen near the north end of the overlook, where the rocks are less weathered. Rock lovers only: go to the north end of the paved walk that runs along the wall. Turn around, walk 150 feet, then cross the Drive. There you'll find a boulder with a network of purple veins. These are iron oxide stains caused by weathering in ancient cracks, nearly a billion years ago. The cracks have since been "healed" by heat and pressure.

HIKE: Hogback Overlook and A.T. Circuit 0,7 mile; total climb about 100 feet; time required 0:35. An easy, pleasant walk. Park at small parking area at the A.T. crossing, about 200 yards beyond Milepost 21. Cross the Drive and take the A.T. uphill. From the edge of the Drive it's a little more than 200 yards to the summit—the crest of one of the four humps that make up Hogback Mountain. A hundred feet beyond the summit is a side trail that goes a hundred feet to the left, to the boulders above the overlook. There's a view from the boulders, but not as good as the view from the overlook.

Continue downhill on the A.T. and cross the Drive (with caution, because of the blind curve on your left.) If you wish, continue ahead on the service road (see Hogback Summit Hike, below.) If not, turn left and walk in the grass, back to the overlook and your starting point.

HIKE: Hogback Summit. Round trip 0.4 mile; total climb about 115 feet; time required 0:25. If you're curious about the radio towers on the summit of Hogback, up to the right of your view from the overlook, the walk to the top is short and easy. (You can get there by a slightly longer circuit route from Mile 20.4.)

From the north end of the overlook, continue north on the Drive for a short distance, then turn left on the service road. The road and the A.T. are more or less parallel, and you can take your choice. On the summit are radio transmitting towers of various State and Federal Government agencies, including the Park. There is no view from the summit. If you want to lengthen the hike a little, continue on the A.T. down the far side of the crest for about 160 yards, to a side trail on the left that goes 25 yards to a hang-glide launch site. There, at the top of a very steep slope, you have a view out into the Browntown Valley, with Gimlet Ridge to the left and Dickey Ridge to the right. If you go to the launch site, the total round trip from the edge of the Drive will be 0.6 mile, and the total climb about 195 feet.

MILE 21.1, A.T. CROSSING. Hike to Overall Run Falls. There is parking space in the grass on the west side of the Drive. Distances on the A.T.: South (on the west side of the Drive) it's one mile to the Drive crossing at Mile 22.0, with Rattlesnake Point Overlook in sight to the left. North (on the east side) it's 1.5 miles to Little Hogback Overlook, Mile 19.7.

HIKE: Overall Run Falls. Semi-circuit 6.5 miles; total climb about 1,850 feet; time required 6:00. This is a fairly difficult hike; part of the trail is moderately steep, and part is rough and rocky. (If you're staying at Mathews Arm Campground, you might prefer the shorter and easier hike from the campground. See page 110. The access road to the campground is closed in winter.)

Take the A.T. south, on the west side of the Drive. (See map, page 110; you're near the right-hand edge of the map, a little above center.) About a third of a mile from the start, turn right onto the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail, which after a short distance becomes moderately steep and rocky. At 0.7 mile from the A.T., at a concrete marker post, the Big Blue Trail turns 90 degrees to the right. (The trail that continues ahead goes about a hundred yards, then connects with the "Traces" nature trail that encircles the campground.)

From the junction, the Big Blue trail continues 1.6 miles to the Mathews Arm fire road. Turn right on the fire road, go less than a hundred yards, then turn left onto the Big Blue/Overall Run Trail. The trail descends and, after about a tenth of a mile, a short side trail branches off to the left. It leads fifty yards or so to a small overlook with a close view of the upper falls, which has a total drop of 29 feet. Like nearly all of the waterfalls in the Park it's a cascade down the face of the rock, rather than a sheer plunge.

Return to the main trail and continue downhill, less steeply now. The trail goes close to the edge of a steep gorge. Watch for one or more short side trails on the left. They lead to viewpoints at the top of the gorge, from which you can see the big falls—the highest in the Park. Like the smaller one, it's a cascade down the face of the rocks; the total drop is 93 feet. When there's plenty of water it's a beautiful sight. In an unusually dry summer there's little or no water here.

From one of the viewpoints a blue-blazed trail descends to the base of the falls. This trail is extremely rough going, hazardous in wet or icy weather, and infested with rattlesnakes. Not worth the risk and effort.

Return uphill to the fire road, and turn right. To add a little variety and make this hike a semi-circuit, continue on the fire road for a little more than 1.1 miles, to where the Traces Trail crosses. (Take another look at the map, page 110.) Turn left on the Traces Trail and walk 0.6 mile to the junction with the connecting link. Turn left and go about a hundred yards to the junction with the Big Blue Trail, which comes in from the left. Continue straight ahead, uphill. Turn left when you reach the A.T., and go another third of a mile to your starting point.

View to Right from Rattlesnake Point Overlook
View to Right from Rattlesnake Point Overlook

MILE 21.9, RATTLESNAKE POINT OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,105 feet. There's a wide view from here; the sketch shows only the right-hand half of it. At the far left of the view is Hogback Mountain, with its radio antennas. The Peak appears over the ridge that descends to the right from Hogback. Pignut Mountain, where the sketch begins, is a little to the right of straight out from the overlook. About halfway between The Peak and Pignut is Jenkins Mountain. You're not likely to see Blackrock (at the right-hand edge of the sketch) except in winter; it's near Big Meadows Lodge, nearly 18 miles away.

Geology: Across from the north (uphill) end of the overlook, and extending north from there, is a good exposure of the Catoctin basalt. Weathering and lichens have created a muted display of color, from pale tan and green to dark green and brownish purple. The rocks nearest the overlook are vesiculated. Bubble cavities in the lava were later filled by other minerals: white, light and dark green, and even pink. This is easy to see at the lower levels where the rock is freshly broken.

MILE 22.0, A.T. CROSSING. The crossing is about a hundred yards north of the milepost. Don't park here; you can't pull a safe distance off the pavement. There's ample safe parking in the grass across from the entrance to the Piney River ranger area, a tenth of a mile to the south.

MILE 22.1 SERVICE ROAD, east side; entrance to Piney River Area. If you're going to hike, park in the designated visitor parking area.

Look at the map on page 107; you are at point "L", near top center of the map, on the edge of a network of trails and fire roads. A dozen or more circuit hikes are possible, I'll describe only one of them—the Piney Ridge and Piney Branch circuit—here. (See page 100 for hikes to Little Devils Stairs.) If you'd like to plan your own hike, use the following table to calculate the total distance and climb. Note that the amount of climbing between two trail junctions depends on which way you're going; it includes the net change in elevation, as well as the ups-and-downs in the trail. From "A" to "M", for example, the total climb is 795 feet; while from "M"to "A" it's only 630 feet.



Map  of Piney Branch and Little Devils Stairs area
Map of Piney Branch and Little Devils Stairs area

HIKE: Piney Ridge-Piney Branch. Circuit 8.3 miles; total climb about 1,725 feet; time required 7:25. A rather difficult and tiring hike. In some places the trail is very rough. There are four stream crossings, and except in a dry season they are troublesome. Features: a woods hike, with no views; a mountaineer cemetery and homesite; a stream, with two small waterfalls and numerous cascades and pools. Since this is a circuit hike, you can go in either direction. But if you go counterclockwise, as I describe it here, there's less chance of mistaking road traces for the trail. And the steepest part of the hike will be downhill.

From point "L" at top center of the map on this page, your route will be K-N-I-J-K-L. Cross the Drive and follow the service road on the east side, to Piney Branch Trail on the left at point "K" on the map. (You will return to this point via the Piney Branch Trail.) Piney Branch Trail crosses the A.T. in a couple hundred feet, turn right on A.T. to the service road. Continue on the service road to point "N", the beginning of the Piney Ridge Trail. (If you follow the service road a hundred yards farther, to its end, you'll come to the locked Range View Cabin, which has a pit toilet, also locked, and a spring. Please keep your distance if the cabin is occupied. But you can occupy it yourself if you wish. Write to Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 118 Park Street, S.E., Vienna, VA 22180.

From point "N" on the map, the Piney Ridge Trail goes along near the crest of the ridge for two miles. It's blue-blazed, relatively open, and smooth compared with what's coming later. Most of the trees are black locust, pine and other pioneer species. When the Park was established this area was a goat pasture, with only a few trees left for shade; views from the ridge crest, they tell me, were spectacular. There are many pine trees along the trail—all of them younger than the Park, and much younger than the name of the ridge.

A little less than two miles after you leave the service road, the Dwyer family cemetery is 200 feet off to your right. It's about 25 yards square surrounded by a falling-down wire fence, and in the process of returning to wilderness. No effort will be made to maintain it. There are two metal markers, and eleven inscribed stones of marble or granite, plus a dozen or more uninscribed fieldstone markers. The most recent burial was in 1927. According to one of the markers, Mary G. Dwyer died in 1867 at the age of 75. Some of the graves marked with uninscribed fieldstone may be older. When the Park was established, seven families of Dwyers, owning a total of 850 acres, were displaced.

Fifty yards farther down the Piney Ridge trail is a double blue blaze (which means be alert for a change in direction). On the right, two large stones mark the former entrance road to the cemetery. (If you want to see the cemetery, but missed it, you can find it from here. Turn around, facing back the way you came. It's now 45 degrees on your left, and about 100 yards away.)

Just ahead at the trail junction, an abandoned trail goes to the right, with a decaying split-rail fence beside it. The Fork Mountain Trail follows an old road trace straight ahead, and a mile from the start dead-ends at the Hull School Trail (lower left on the map, page 107.) The Hull School Trail descends to meet the Piney branch Trail at point "H" on the map. The cemetery to the left of point "H" is not visible from the trail; it's 50 to 75 yards uphill, in the woods. This is the Bowen cemetery (not to be confused with the Bolen cemetery at point "E"). It's well along toward returning to wilderness; the stone markers are leaning or fallen.

Now, back to the junction near the Dwyer cemetery. Turn left on the blue-blazed trail. In the next 300 yards you'll pass a former "ghost forest" of large chestnut trees, all of them now fallen. About 200 yards after the trail begins to descend steeply, you come to a former clearing, still fairly open, and a number of rock piles. There was a homesite here, on the left. The rocks were cleared by hand from garden and pasture. There is still evidence of habitation here: foundations, broken brick, tile, and crockery; a walnut tree, and an old grapevine three inches thick. Explore if you wish, but don't collect souvenirs.

From this point the trail follows an old road trace for a short distance, then swings right and a little uphill, while the road trace continues ahead. Watch the blue blazes here. About 0.9 mile beyond the homesite, where the trail makes a fairly sharp switchback to the right, another rather well-worn trail comes in on the left; but it goes nowhere. Follow the blue-blazed trail to the right for another 0.2 mile, until it dead-ends at the Piney Branch Trail. You are now at point "I" on the map. Turn left.

Less than 300 yards from the junction is the first stream crossing. On the other side, the trail swings left and follows a dry stream bed for a short distance, then actually becomes a branch of the stream, so that you have to walk beside the trail rather than on it. This is very rough going, but there's only about 500 feet of it. Watch for a double blue blaze, where the trail swings right and becomes a little smoother.

The second stream crossing is 0.6 mile from the first; some 50 yards before the crossing is a waterfall on the left—a double cascade with a total drop of about 25 feet. (A guess; I didn't measure it.) Three hundred yards after the second crossing, look for a somewhat smaller waterfall down to the right. The trail follows an old road trace here, and during the rest of the hike it will repeatedly join and leave old road traces.

After another stream crossing, the trail continues for a mile and a third to the junction at point "J" on the map. During most of this distance the stream is down to your left, often out of sight. Which is too bad, because it has many attractive small cascades. Walking beside the stream is rough going, and will take more time than walking on the trail. But if you have time and energy to spare, you may enjoy it.

Turn left at point "J" and cross the stream for the last time. Continue uphill another 1.2 miles to the service road at point "K" on the map. As you go, the trees become younger and younger, until it's obvious that you're in a former clearing. If you pass some rusting oil drums and other junk, they have nothing to do with the mountain people who once lived here. This is refuse that was abandoned when the CCC left the Park about 1942.

At point "K" turn right on the service road and follow it back to your car.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved