Fishers Gap to Naked Creek Overlook

MILE 49.4, FISHERS GAP and FISHERS GAP OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,070 feet. Hikes, fire road crossing, A.T. access. The overlook is hidden from the Drive by a large wooded island; its north entrance is just south of the fire road. On the fire road, 100 feet west of the Drive, there is parking space for two or three cars. A few yards farther down the road is the A.T. For hikes beginning at Fishers Gap, I suggest that you park in the overlook. The view from the overlook is limited: a narrow V-shaped view down Fox Hollow (not the same as the Fox Hollow near Dickey Ridge), and across the Valley to the Massanutten. But a stop here is worth while for other reasons.

A.T. access is via a 55-yard trail which begins at a large rock where the parking area narrows at the south end of the overlook. Distances on the A.T.: South (to the left) it's 1.5 miles to the Big Meadows Amphitheater. North (to the right) it's 1.4 miles to Spitler Knoll Overlook. The A.T. crosses the fire road just to the north, which makes possible a very short "leg-stretcher" hike, as follows:

HIKE: A.T. below the overlook. Circuit 0.3 mile; total climb about 30 feet; time required 0:20. Take the short access trail at the south end of the overlook. Turn right on the A.T., then right on the fire road. When you reach the Drive, turn sharp right into the north entrance to the overlook, and return to your starting point.

Wildflower note: The purple clematis, Clematis verticillaris, is an uncommon wildflower, but it blooms beside the A.T. below the overlook, usually in late April. It's a vine, producing large showy flowers with four long, limp, pale-purple sepals. In early April look for the pale violet flowers of hepatica, which is usually the first spring flower to bloom.

The fire road that crosses the ridge just north of the overlook is the old Gordonsville Turnpike. On the east side it descends through the Rose River valley, leaves the Park, and becomes Virginia secondary road No. 670. Three miles outside the boundary it passes the semi-famous Graves Mountain Lodge, near Syria. On the west it's called the Redgate Road. It descends 4.3 miles to the Park boundary, where it becomes Virginia secondary road No. 611, and continues to Stanley.

History: In November of 1862 Stonewall Jackson used this road to lead his army of 15,000 (or 20,000 or 25,000) men across the mountain on the way to Fredericksburg, where he was instrumental in defeating the Union Army under General Burnside.

Uncertain history: According to one writer, this road was built in the 1790's. Another says it was built during the Civil War as a military road. Claude Yowell, historian of Madison County, Va., says it was first called the Blue Ridge Turnpike, and was built in 1849-50.

Legend: This is called the Redgate Road because there was a red toll gate across it here in Fishers Gap. More likely: on the south side of the road was a large fenced meadow, with a farm road passing through it. The farm road reached the Gordonsville Turnpike through a red gate in the fence.

On the east side of the ridge, the road descends into Dark Hollow.

I will recommend four hikes that begin at Fishers Gap Overlook:

    Rose River Falls: round trip 2.7 miles.
    Rose River Falls and Hogcamp Branch: circuit 4.0 miles.
    Davids Spring: round trip 1.8 miles.
    Davids Spring and return by horse trail: circuit 3.2 miles.

HIKE: Rose River Falls. Round trip 2.7 miles; total climb about 720 feet; time required 2:35. A not-too-difficult hike to a rather small but very pretty waterfall. See map, page 166; Fishers Gap Overlook is near right center.

Park in the overlook, and walk out the north entrance road. Cross the Drive, walk a hundred feet down the fire road, and turn left onto a graded trail. (At first, this is a foot trail and horse trail combined; horses have the right of way.) About 0.6 mile from the start, the horse trail turns off to the left; go straight ahead here. A mile from the start the trail turns abruptly to the right.

The next part of the trail is invitingly cool and shady, with more and more evergreens. There's a rough stretch, but it's short. A hundred yards beyond the abrupt right turn, in a grove of hemlocks, the Rose River comes down on the left and parallels the trail. As you walk, look for small cascades and pools and miniature waterfalls. After another quarter of a mile you're at the top of the falls, which consist of several separate cascades. A hundred feet farther is a low point on the trail, with the highest falls in view to your left. If you wish, go on a few feet more, to where the trail swings up to the right. Straight ahead on the side trail are some rocks where you can sit and watch the falls.

Trivia: Rose River was named for early settlers, not for flowers. On an old map (1795) it's called Rows River.

HIKE: Rose River Falls and return via Hogcamp Branch. Circuit 4.0 miles; total climb about 910 feet; time required 3:45. A slightly difficult hike, with one stream crossing. A few parts of the trail are rough, a few steep, and a few are sometimes damp and slippery. But, besides the falls, you'll see dozens of pools and cascades and miniature falls. See map, page 166. Your route is down the Rose River trail, past the falls and copper mine, up Hogcamp Branch to the bridge, and then up the fire road.

As above, to Rose River Falls. Continue another third of a mile; the trail leaves the stream there and swings to the right, with a grove of young hemlocks on your left. Beyond the hemlocks is a triangle of nearly level land bounded by the trail, Rose River, and Hogcamp Branch. There was once a mountaineer homesite here. And before that it was a favorite campsite of the Indians. Many arrowheads have been found here.

After the trail swings right for a second time it parallels a stream, the Hogcamp Branch, on the left. Two hundred yards farther, a "trail" of pale blue-gray rock chips goes steeply uphill on the right, to the filled-in shaft of an old copper mine. To the left is a weathered concrete monolith; it supported an air compressor that supplied the pneumatic drills.

History: The copper mine was worked from 1845 to 1850, then abandoned. In 1902 the Blue Ridge Copper Co. was formed to resume operations here. Three shafts were opened (all of them now filled.) The ore was in narrow veins through the basalt, consisting of blue and green carbonates of copper, a little cuprite, some chalcopyrite, and some native copper. The ore was rich, but getting it out of the basalt was not economically feasible.

Less than a tenth of a mile beyond the copper mine, cross the Hogcamp Branch and turn right. (Straight ahead, a side trail climbs 0.3 mile to the fire road.) The trail ascends through lower Dark Hollow, with the Hogcamp Branch on your right, and reaches the fire road after 0.9 mile of climbing. Of all the trails in the Park, this is my favorite. The stream is rarely out of sight, and it has an endless variety of cascades and pools. There are wildflowers in summer, from Indian pipes to three-leaved Sedum (just before you get to the fire road.) The moss that grows on rotting logs here is too green to believe. It's a long climb; when you want to rest, go down to the stream, find a rock to sit on, and watch the water.

When you reach the fire road, turn right and cross the bridge, pausing to look to your left at a long, narrow waterfall. Thirty yards beyond the bridge, the Dark Hollow Falls trail goes uphill on the left. (If you make a side trip to the base of the falls you will add 0.3 mile and 145 feet of climbing to your hike.) About 0.6 mile from the bridge there's a big, much-branched sugar maple — evidence of a former mountain homesite. Other clues are grape vines, artificially leveled areas, and spots where lawn-type grass still grows. The Cave family cemetery is near here, on the left side of the road. Continue steadily uphill to the Drive in Fishers Gap, about 1.1 mile from the bridge.

HIKE: Davids Spring. Round trip 1.8 miles; total climb about 470 feet; time required 1:40. An easy hike along the A.T., past a hemlock grove and a mountaineer homesite. See map, page 166. Fishers Gap Overlook is at right center.

Take the access trail at the south end of the overlook, go to the A.T,, and turn left. The trail descends for a few feet, then begins a long, steady, easy climb. About 250 yards from the start, notice a tremendous basalt rock on the left, in the process of splitting and breaking up. A quarter of a mile farther, the hemlocks begin; and after another 400 yards you're deep in a grove of large hemlocks, where you will notice several things: it's dark and cool and quiet; there is little or no undergrowth, and the ground is carpeted with fallen needles. If you stop and listen, in summer, you'll hear insects and birds, and an occasional car sound in the distance, and sometimes the shout of children in the Big Meadows Campground, half a mile away. If there's a gentle wind in the treetops you'll hear a steady rain of tiny hemlock needles.

From the trail, near the middle of the hemlock grove, you can look downhill to a concrete watering trough about 25 yards away. A little farther down the hill, and a hundred yards to the left, is further evidence of an old homesite, which you may find worth exploring. (If you get lost down there, go straight uphill to return to the trail.)

Two hundred yards after you emerge from the hemlock grove, you cross a small stream that flows from right to left. This is Little Hawksbill Creek, just 300 yards from its source at Davids Spring. Cross the stream, leave the trail, and follow the stream uphill to the spring. In April, look for the yellow flowers of marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, one of the first flowers to show color in the spring. The broad green lily-like leaves in and near the water are false helibore, Veratrum viride. In late summer, near the spring, look for the pink-white flowers of white turtlehead, Chelone glabra.

Davids Spring flows prettily out from the roots of a tree. Don't drink; the spring drains the campground. Looking upstream from a point 20 or 30 feet below the spring, you'll find one or more trails on the left, going about 50 feet uphill to the A.T. To return, go to the A.T. and turn left. Note, on the map, that Davids Spring is only a few feet from a trail junction. To return to Fishers Gap be sure you're on the A.T. (white blazes) and going downhill.

HIKE: Davids Spring and return via horse trail. Circuit 3.2 miles; total climb about 590 feet; time required 2:45. This is a hike for people who like to take a chance. It makes use of an abandoned trail—the former Swamp Nature Trail. I can't predict what condition it will be in when you read this. See map, page 166. Your route is: A.T. to Davids Spring, left on the abandoned trail, left on the present Nature Trail, then left again onto the horse trail.

As above, to Davids Spring. Where the A.T. makes a 90-degree turn to the right, turn left onto the unblazed abandoned trail. If you're able to follow it, you'll reach a small grassy area about 0.8 mile from Davids Spring. Here a small stream emerges from Big Meadows Swamp. In summer and fall it's usually dry. Flowers bloom here throughout the spring and summer, including blue-flag iris, thinleaf sunflower, American burnett and, in August, the brilliant red cardinal flower.

After another fifty yards you'll reach a trail junction; turn left here. Walk another fifty yards to the horse trail, turn left, and cross the stream. The rest of your hike is mostly downhill, and mostly on the bed of an old mountaineer road. (Remember that you're on a horse trail, and that horses have the right of way.) When you reach the Drive, turn left and walk in the grass on the left side of the road, Bear left into the south entrance of Fishers Gap Overlook, and return to your starting point.

MILE 50.7, DARK HOLLOW FALLS PARKING. Elevation 3,425 feet. It has been said that of all the waterfalls in the Park, Dark Hollow Falls is closest to the Drive and easiest to get to. (But see Mile 1.4 on page 82.)

Trivia: Mile 50 to Mile 51 is the shortest mile on the Drive: just eight-tenths of a mile long. When the mileposts were put in, the Drive did not go through the deep cut in the hillside to the south of here, as it does now. Instead it made a loop to the east, starting near the south end of the parking area,

HIKE: Dark Hollow Falls. Round trip 1.4 miles; total climb about 440 feet; time required 1:25. Take the trail at the north end of the parking area. It crosses the stream and then goes downhill along its left bank. This is Hogcamp Branch, which drains Big Meadows Swamp and becomes the principal tributary of Rose River. You may find it dry at the beginning, but it will gradually acquire enough water to make a satisfactory waterfall.

The trail descends easily for 0.6 mile to the head of the falls. I suggest that you stay on the trail here. There's no view from the top of the falls, and the rocks there are slippery and dangerous. The trail swings away from the stream and goes uphill for a few feet before swinging right and descending to the base of the falls. On the trail between top and bottom of the falls you'll pass a tremendous rock that looms on your left, just where the trail swings sharply to the right. Except in dry summer months, water constantly trickles and drips down the face of this rock, promoting the growth of mosses, ferns, and liverworts. On cold winter days there's an enchanting display of stalactites and stalagmites of ice.

There's a fine view of the falls from the bottom. The water drops 70 feet, in a series of cascades, over the crumbling greenstone of an ancient lava flow. Thomas Jefferson once stood here and admired the falls. (Jefferson spent a great deal of time exploring these mountains, and studying their plants and animals. He was so fond of the Blue Ridge that at Monticello he put the outbuildings below ground, so as not to interfere with his view of the mountains.)

(Below the falls, the trail descends another 145 feet in about 300 yards to the Rose River fire road, passing a number of small waterfalls and cascades.)

MILE 51.0, BIG MEADOWS, NORTH ENTRANCE. To reach the Visitor Center or to walk in the meadow, turn right here, then left into the parking area. (For gas, food, lodging, picnicking, and camping, use the south entrance at Mile 51.2)

Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center. Information, publications, exhibits, and a movie about the history of the area. The Visitor Center was opened to the public in April, 1966. Visitors sometimes ask about the materials it's made of. Here are some answers: The wood paneling is butternut. The floor of the lobby is crab-orchard sandstone from Tennessee. The exterior stonework is of sandstone from the Massanutten Mountain. A movie is shown frequently, on a regular schedule. Slide programs may be shown from time to time. Ask at the information desk.

The Visitor Center is worth a stop even when it's closed. Go around to the balcony at left rear and look out over the meadow, which has been a meadow for centuries. It was probably created by fire, set by lightning or by Indians. Indian fires, with some help from elk and bison, kept it open. Blueberries and strawberries grow in the meadow. And because deer like to browse around its edges, the meadow made hunting easier. After the Indians, white mountaineers grazed their cattle here.

The exhibit on the rail shows how the meadow looked on July 3, 1936, when the Park dedication ceremony took place there. Thousands of people were seated on chairs, on chestnut logs, and on the ground. Bands played from bandstands beside the speakers platform. Amplifiers and loudspeakers carried the sound to everyone, and the program was broadcast from coast to coast by NBC and CBS radio. After speeches by Harold Ickes (Secretary of the Interior) and George Peery (Governor of Virginia), President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Park in a short speech that ended with

"We seek to pass on to our children a richer land and a stronger nation. And so my friends, I now take great pleasure in dedicating Shenandoah National Park—in dedicating it to this and to succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and for the re-creation which we find here."

As the exhibit shows, the meadow was much larger then than it is now. It extended, with a few islands of trees, to the ridge in front of you, and down the other side. Behind you it reached the present site of Big Meadows Campground. It stretched from Fishers Gap, Mile 49.4, to beyond Milam Gap, Mile 52.8. An estimate of its present size is 132 acres. This is the largest environment of its kind in the Park. It produces wildflowers that don't grow in the woods.

There was once a "ghost forest" of dead chestnut trees here at Big Meadows, where the Visitor Center and parking area are now. You can see one of the ghost trees at the extreme left in the dedication photo on the exhibit. Also at the left edge of the photo is a CCC Camp—Camp Fechner, named for the Director of the CCC.

Several mountains can be seen from the balcony. A little to the right of center is Fork Mountain, just outside the Park. The antenna tower on its summit belongs to the State Police. (Legend: During the Civil War a heliograph on Fork Mountain was used to send messages, by flashes of reflected sunlight, to Washington, D.C.). Diagonally right (behind a tree if you're standing on the balcony) is Hazeltop. Cat Knob is between Hazeltop and Fork Mountain. Old Rag is in the distance at the far left, with pale gray granite cliffs on its left face.

I recommend a walk in the meadow. Distance, as far as you want. Time, whatever you can spare. This is primarily a wildflower walk; but there are birds to be watched, and a good chance of seeing deer at twilight. Traces of the CCC camp are still visible. A great many arrowheads have been found here, but they're now getting rare. If you find any, please leave them for the next explorer to see.

MILE 51.2, BIG MEADOWS, SOUTH ENTRANCE. Elevation 3,510 feet. Turn in here for food and lodging, gasoline, camping and picnicking, etc. The gas station is in sight at the junction. To reach the Wayside pass the two entrances to the gas station, then turn right and immediately right again, into the parking area. (What's a Wayside? It's a snack shop, a campstore with groceries and camping supplies, and a gift shop.) The restrooms are reached from outside the building, at the end nearest the gas station. For other features of Big Meadows see the map on page 166, and the following list.

Map of Fishers Gap — Big Meadows area
Map of Fishers Gap — Big Meadows area

Trailer sewage disposal: Turn right at the junction about 0.4 miles from the Drive. Disposal area is on left before maintenance area.

Campground. At the junction 0.7 mile from the Drive and partway up the hill, bear right. Keep right where the road forks, just before you reach the campground entrance station.

Laundry, showers, firewood, ice. Use the parking area on your left, just after you pass the campground entrance station. Showers and laundry are accessible.

Picnic area. Take the left fork just before you reach the campground entrance station, then keep to the right and follow the one-way loop around the picnic area. There are three parking areas on the loop. Park in the second one for the Amphitheater (Sunday morning church services and nightly campfire programs during the summer.) Use the same parking area for hikes on the Lewis Falls Trail. (See above.)

Big Meadows Lodge. Go directly away from the Drive at Mile 51.2, keeping straight ahead at all intersections until you reach the small traffic circle in front of the Dining Hall, 0.9 mile from the Drive. Ask here about reservations for motel-type units or rustic cabins. Meals are available at the dining hall except in winter. There's a taproom downstairs, and a gift shop near the entrance. Accessible restroom facilities are to the right of the lobby entrance.

HIKE: Blackrock summit. A very easy hike to a high point with a good view. The trail, marked by a sign, starts at the far end of the parking area beyond the Dining Hall. Round trip from the Dining Hall, 0.4 mile; from the end of the parking area, less than 0.2 mile. Total climb about 60 feet. Time required (from the Dining Hall) 0:25.

Just before you reach the summit you may see a small shack to the left, with a microwave antenna on top. This is part of the Big Meadows telephone system. On the far side of the shack are underground tanks that store water for the Big Meadows development. Continue to the rocky viewpoint, elevation 3,721 feet. Caution: the rock is rather slippery, even when dry.

The sketch shows the left-hand part of the view. At the foot of Roundhead Ridge is the town of Stanley; Luray is diagonally right. After dark, the lights of the two towns make a beautiful display. On a very clear day you can look far up the Valley to your right, to a peak at the north end of the Massanutten near Front Royal. Farther right you can see several peaks in the North District of the Park. At the extreme right, and fairly near, the highest point you see is the rounded summit of Hawksbill. The second highest, farther left and more distant, is Stony Man.

View from Blackrock
View from Blackrock

HIKE: Story-of-the-Forest Nature Trail. Circuit 1.8 miles; total climb about 290 feet; time required 1:30. An easy, self-guiding hike, with interpretive posts beside the trail for about two-thirds of its length. The trail starts at the Byrd Visitor Center and passes through a forest in various stages of succession. It ends at the Big Meadows Wayside, near the Visitor Center parking area.

HIKE: Lewis Falls (also called Lewis Spring Falls). Circuit 3.3 miles; total climb about 990 feet; time required 3:10. A pleasant walk to a high, pretty waterfall, on a mostly good trail with a few stretches that are rough, rocky, and steep. Note: if it's a sunny day and your schedule is flexible, take this hike in mid-afternoon. Then you'll have the sun behind you as you view the falls, and there's a chance you'll see a rainbow in the mist.

Start from the amphitheater parking area (the second parking area on the loop around the picnic grounds.) See map, page 166. Walk down through the amphitheater to the A.T. Turn left, go about 200 feet to a trail junction, and bear right, downhill. (As the map shows, you can also start the hike from the Lodge. Start out clockwise around the traffic circle; bear left onto the paved trail, turn left at the junction a few yards down the hill; go a little more than mile to the A.T. and continue diagonally left, downhill, on the falls trail.)

A quarter of a mile from the junction there's a view to the right, into the Page Valley. The town you see is Stanley, at the foot of Roundhead Ridge. Two-thirds of a mile from the start, the trail passes along the base of a cliff that rises steeply on your left. After another hundred yards you'll make a switchback first to the right and then to the left. The trail is steep at both switchbacks, and in wet weather it's slippery. A little more than 0.4 mile beyond the switchbacks, the trail passes briefly over bare rock with a view to the right of the main Blue Ridge, and Tanners Ridge (with clearings and houses) descending from it toward the right. Beyond Tanners Ridge, a little to the right of straight out from the trail, is Chapman Mountain; farther right and more distant is Devils Tanyard, from which Dovel Mountain descends by a series of bumps.

An eighth of a mile farther, you reach a junction with a side trail. Turn right, and go about 50 yards to a wide flat viewpoint above the falls. (You can't see the falls from here.) There's a view down Pine Grove Hollow, with Tanners Ridge to the left of it. From this viewpoint a trail goes to the left, across the stream, to a viewpoint from which you look back at the falls.

The total height of the falls is 81 feet. It starts its drop in two separate streams (one of which disappears in dry weather), then strikes a mossy rock halfway down, and divides further. In mid-afternoon or later on a sunny day, if there's enough water to make mist, you'll see a rainbow. Return once more to the viewpoint at the top of the fails. Go left to the main trail and then turn right-rather steeply uphill.

The trail climbs steadily, passing through a dark grove of hemlocks. The trail is rich in plant species. I'm especially fond of two that occur in fall. One is grass-leaved blazing star, Liatris graminifolia, with leaves that look like large blades of grass, and a spike of small, thistle-like purplish flowers. The other is a velvety-red puffball, Calostoma sp., that grows out of a blob of jelly.

About 0.6 mile above the falls, the trail passes the site of the Lewis Spring Shelter (which was demolished in 1976), then swings left and dead-ends in a dirt road. To the left, the road goes 0.1 mile to the old sewage treatment plant. Straight ahead is a door in the side of the hill, and behind it is a pump that sends most of the output of Lewis Spring up to the underground storage tanks on Blackrock.

Turn right on the dirt road. Thirty yards from the junction, a side trail on the right goes 100 feet to Lewis Spring. It's completely enclosed; you'll hear gushing water behind the padlocked door. This spring is not only the principal source of water for the Big Meadows development; it's also the source of Hawksbill Creek, which forms Lewis Falls and then, much later, flows through the town of Luray before joining the Shenandoah River.

Back on the road: continue uphill another 25 yards to the A.T. crossing. Turn left, and continue a steady, easy climb on the A.T. About 0.6 mile from the dirt road, pass a narrow side trail on the right; it goes 0.2 mile to the summit of Blackrock. About a hundred feet beyond this junction look for two side trails to viewpoints on the left. The second one is better. The view is much the same as that from Blackrock, though not as wide. See sketch, page 167.

Continue for less than 0.4 mile to the falls trail crossing. If you're going to the Lodge, turn right here, and turn right at every opportunity until you find yourself in front of the dining hall. If you're returning to the Amphitheater parking area go straight ahead another 200 feet, watching for the side trail that goes up to the right through the amphitheater.

MILE 51.3, RAPIDAN ROAD, east side. The road goes 6.3 miles to Camp Hoover and, eventually, to Criglersville. Camp Hoover is easier to walk to from Milam Gap, Mile 52.8.

MILE 51.4, SERVICE ROAD and PARKING AREA, west side. This road provides the easiest access to Lewis Falls. I'll outline the route, though I recommend the slightly longer circuit hike from the amphitheater (see above.)

HIKE: Lewis Falls. Round trip 2.5 miles; total climb about 795 feet; time required 2:25. Follow the road downhill, crossing the horse trail twice and the A.T. once. Pass a short side trail on the left, that goes to the enclosed Lewis Spring. Continue 30 yards to a locked door in the hillside on your right. (Behind it is a pump for the Big Meadows water supply.) Turn left here, onto the falls trail. Descend for 0.6 mile to a trail junction; take the side trail to the left, and go 50 yards to a viewpoint at the top of the falls. For a note on the falls, see page 168.

View from Tanners Ridge Overlook
View from Tanners Ridge Overlook

MILE 51.5, TANNERS RIDGE OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,465 feet. The sketch identifies most of what you see from here. To the right of Roundhead Ridge is the town of Stanley. The name of Dog Slaughter Ridge fascinates me; I can't determine its origin, though several people have offered unpremeditated conjectures. Fact: Slaughter was the name of a mountain family in this area.

If you're here in the third week of July, take a minute to climb the bank across the Drive and look for the wood lily, Lilium philadelphicum, with fairly short stems, whorled leaves, and red-orange flowers marked with black. The lilies are getting scarcer, and there may be none when you read this. I hope this brief mention does nothing to hasten their extinction.

MILE 51.6, TANNERS RIDGE FIRE ROAD, west side. Elevation 3,465 feet. A.T. access; cemetery. The area is worth exploring if you have time. The A.T. crosses the fire road 0.3 mile from the Drive. Distances on the A.T.: North (to the right) it's 1.5 miles to the Big Meadows amphitheater. South (to the left) it's 1.1 miles to the Drive crossing in Milam Gap, Mile 52.8. The cemetery is on the right side of the road, beside the A.T. There are a few old markers here, but most of the graves are relatively new. This is an active cemetery; burials still take place from time to time.

The A.T. toward the south is interesting. About 0.2 mile from the fire road, where water flows under the trail through a pipe, there's a spring 25 yards to the left. (It's hidden by vegetation in summer.) Ahead, an old road trace comes from Tanners Ridge and joins the trail. In the woods to the left is ample evidence of a mountaineer homesite: the spring, piles of rock, pieces of scrap metal, and the stone foundation of a small structure.

Mile 52.8, MILAM GAP, elevation 3,230 feet. A.T. crossing; Camp Hoover Hikes. There's a large parking area on the west side. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the west side of the Drive) it's 1.1 miles to the Tanners Ridge fire road, and 2.6 miles to the Big Meadows amphitheater. South (on the east side) it's 2.8 miles to Bootens Gap, Mile 55.1.

Trivia: There are a great many apple trees in and around Milam Gap; most are Milam apples—the variety most often grown by the mountain people. I don't know which name came first. I have an unconfirmed report of a mountain family named Milam.

Camp Hoover Hikes. During his presidential administration, Herbert Hoover came to his camp on the Rapidan River for relaxation and "working" holidays, much as later presidents have used Camp David. Camp Hoover is a not-too-difficult hike from Milam Gap. I will recommend two hikes: one directly down the Mill Prong trail, and return by the same route; the second a somewhat longer circuit hike. Three of the camp's buildings, including the one occupied by the President, are still standing and still maintained. An interpretive sign and map at the camp tell the story. You're free to explore the whole area unless the camp is occupied.

President Hoover, at the end of his administration, donated the camp to the government for use by future presidents or other high government officials. When the Park was created, Camp Hoover became a part of it. But the camp is still used from time to time by government employees for official business functions. Therefore, if you see that the camp is occupied, please don't go any closer.

Map of Milam Gap — Camp Hoover area
Map of Milam Gap — Camp Hoover area

HIKE: Camp Hoover via Mill Prong trail. Round trip 4.1 miles; total climb about 870 feet; time required 3:50. Moderately rough in spots; not steep; three stream crossings, two of them very easy. See map below. Milam Gap is below and to the left of center.

Take the A.T. on the east side of the Drive, walk about 50 yards to the trail junction, and turn left onto the Mill Prong trail. For a third of a mile the trail descends gradually through overgrown fields and orchards, then enters older woods. Cross two small branches of the Mill Prong at 0.7 and 1.1 miles from the start. Thirty yards beyond the second crossing, the horse trail from Big Meadows comes in on the left. Note: for the next 0.8 mile you'll be on the horse trail; horses have the right of way.

Less than half a mile beyond the trail junction, watch for a small waterfall on the right, where a cascade of water flows down over a sloping rock that spans the full width of the stream. Fifty yards beyond the falls, the trail turns right and crosses the stream. Use a little caution here; the rocks are slippery. Pieces of pipe that you may see on the far side of the stream were part of the original water supply system for Camp Hoover.

After another 0.3 mile, the trail ends and joins a road. Turn right, and follow the road to a small parking area. From here, the Laurel Prong trail goes to the right. (See the circuit hike, below.) Turn left to explore Camp Hoover (unless, as I said, it's occupied.) The three original cabins that are still standing are The President, in the middle; The Prime Minister (which was used by Ramsay MacDonald, prime minister of Great Britain), on the right; and The Creel (which was occupied by two presidential assistants), on the left.

Go on around to the porch on the far side of The President. It's a little unusual in that it was built around the trees that were standing there; the Hoovers tried to disturb the area as little as possible. A short distance down below the porch, the Mill Prong, coming from the left, and the Laurel Prong, coming from the right, meet to form the Rapidan River. (The very small stream that flows through the camp was man-made; it's called Hemlock Run.)

The President's cabin is open to the public one weekend a year nearest to Hoover's birthday, August 10. On that day, buses carry visitors to Camp Hoover from the Byrd Visitor Center, Mile 51.0. (If you'd like more information about Camp Hoover, see "Herbert Hoover's Hideaway" by Darwin Lambert. It's available at the Visitor Center.)

Return to Milam Gap the way you came. Looking at the map, you might be tempted to return by the Rapidan fire road to make a circuit hike. I don't recommend it. From Camp Hoover it's 6.3 miles via fire road to the Drive at Mile 51.3, though it seems a great deal longer when you're walking it.

HIKE: Camp Hoover via Mill Prong trail; return via Laurel Prong and A.T. Circuit 7.4 miles; total climb about 1,520 feet; time required 6:30. This is a moderately difficult hike because of its length and the amount of climbing; but no part of it is very rough or very steep. There are several stream crossings, all of them rather easy. (See map, page 170; the Laurel Prong trail joins the A.T. below the bottom of the map.)

As above to The President. Return past the small parking area on your right and keep straight ahead on the Laurel Prong trail. The trail follows an old road trace, which at first is a service road leading to the camp water source. The first half-mile is yellow-blazed. Half a mile from Camp Hoover, after you emerge from a grove of hemlocks, watch for a junction where the road trace swings left and becomes the yellow-blazed Fork Mountain trail. The Laurel Prong trail, which is blue-blazed beyond this point, continues straight ahead.

Wildflower notes: In late summer look for closed gentians here at the trail junction. In other seasons you may find a short side trip on the Fork Mountain trail worthwhile. The Laurel Prong is less than 200 yards from the main trail. Before you reach it you'll enter a rich stand of the great rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum, which extends a quarter of a mile downstream and more than half a mile upstream. As far as I know, this species grows nowhere else in the Park, though Rhododendron catawbiense occurs at several places in the South Section. Because the Hoovers planted a number of flower species near the camp, it's tempting to think they planted the rhododendrons here. But I find a description of them that was written in the early 1920's—years before Hoover selected this area for his camp. The flowers are beautiful: pink in bud, then white when fully opened, then fringed with pink as they grow older. They're usually at the height of bloom about the middle of July.

Continuing on the Laurel Prong trail: there will be several stream crossings; not much water, but rocky or muddy. Traces of human habitation: a rock pile, a rock wall, and a decaying rail fence. If the rhododendrons are in bloom, you'll see them on your left from several points along the trail. At 0.6 mile from the Fork Mountain trail you'll cross the Laurel Prong and start to climb. After three-quarters of a mile of easy climbing, you reach a trail junction on the ridge crest in Laurel Gap. To the left is the Cat Knob trail. Stay on the Laurel Prong trail, which turns 90 degrees to the right.

From Laurel Gap, follow the trail along the south slope of Hazeltop, with the Conway River basin to your left, for exactly one mile to its junction with the A.T. Turn right. Less than half a mile from the junction, the A.T. crosses the crest of Hazeltop, elevation 3,816 feet—the third highest point in the Park (after Hawksbill and Stony Man) and the highest point on the A.T. within the Park. Continue, mostly downhill, another two miles to your starting point in Milam Gap.

View from Naked Creek Overlook
View from Naked Creek Overlook

MILE 53.2, NAKED CREEK OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,250 feet. The overlook provides a view down the valley formed by the east branch of Naked Creek (See sketch.) The town in the Valley, out beyond the mouth of the hollow, is Elkton. The house over on Long Ridge is outside the Park. Out of sight on the far side of Smith Mountain is Steam Hollow which, I've heard, got its name from the steam produced by the moonshine stills that used to operate there.

Naked Creek Falls is down in the hollow, less than a mile from the overlook. (See map, page 170; you're in the lower left part of it. I had to cheat a little to get the falls on the map; actually, they should be just below the bottom edge.) The falls are worth seeing if you like exploring and have enough experience to do so safely. There is no trail; this is a cross-country hike through the woods. And as with any bushwhacking enterprise, you can expect to find some rocks and brambles. I suggest you start at the south end of the overlook, go downhill to the stream, then downstream to the falls. To return, with no chance of getting lost: go uphill from the falls to the Drive, then turn left and walk along the Drive to the overlook.

MILE 53.6 to 54.6, Wildflower note: Scattered along both sides of the Drive in this area are plants that look like giant Queen Anne's lace, with flat-topped umbels of white flowers that bloom in June. Because the plants often grow eight or ten feet high they look like they belong in the tropics, or maybe on Venus. This is cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved