Swift Run Gap to Pinefield Gap

MILE 65.5, SWIFT RUN GAP. Elevation 2,365 feet. A.T. crossing. U.S. 33 interchange. To the west (turn right on U.S. 33), Elkton is seven miles and Harrisonburg twenty-two. Elkton has limited facilities. Harrisonburg offers a wide choice of food and lodging, a hospital, and access to Interstate 81.

The Appalachian Trail crosses the Drive here, and crosses U.S. 33 on the overpass. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the east side, from the north end of the overpass) it's 3.0 miles to the South River Picnic Area. South (on the west side, from the south end of the overpass) it's 1.2 miles to the Drive crossing at Mile 66.7.

History: Swift Run Gap has been an important Blue Ridge crossing for more than 100 years, although the present highway is relatively recent. On the east side it follows the original route closely; on the west it doesn't even touch the old road, except here in the gap. Beside U.S. 33, to the west of the overpass, are a historical sign, a stone pyramid, and a stone monolith. All three refer to the Spotswood expedition (page 30.)

Geology: The Swift Run formation was named and described from an exposure on an old road about a mile to the east. The rocks exposed beside the Drive in the South District of the Park show more variety that those in the other districts. (If you've forgotten the origin of the different formations, you might want to review the explanation that begins on page 74.) All the formations that occur in the Park, except the Erwin, are exposed in roadcuts in the South District. White quartzites of the Erwin formation are visible from several overlooks, and can be reached on foot—for example from the Riprap parking area, page 211.

MILE 66.7, HIGHTOP MOUNTAIN PARKING. Elevation about 2,635 feet. There's a 5-car parking area on the west side of the Drive. Hike to Hightop Summit Distances on the A.T.: North (on the west side) it's 1.2 miles to Swift Run Gap, Mile 65.5 South (on the east) it's 3.4 miles to Smith Roach Gap, Mile 68.6.

HIKE: Hightop Summit. Round trip 30 miles; total climb about 935 feet; time required 2:55. Outstanding views. See map, page 187.

Take the A.T. on the east side of the Drive. It starts out through a much overgrown clearing, then swings left, enters the woods, and begins to climb. (In May look for the red-purple trillium, Trillium erectum, starting about a quarter of a mile from the Drive; it's rare elsewhere in the Park.) The trail winds its way up the ridge, then turns right (west) toward the summit. After it swings left around the summit, watch for a side trail on the right that goes ten yards to a viewpoint on a rocky ledge. From there you can see most of the higher peaks in the South Section of the Park. See sketches.

The sharp peak of Trayfoot Mountain (elevation 3,374 feet) is nearly 14 miles away. The cleared summit of Flattop—about four miles away, elevation a little over 3,300 feet—is just outside the Park. To the left of Flattop, on a super-clear day, you can see Bucks Elbow Mountain, near the southern boundary of the Park.

History: On March 18, 1669, the explorer John Lederer first reached the crest of the Blue Ridge. (See page 30.) The ledge you're standing on may be the point from which he first saw the Shenandoah Valley.

If you return to the A.T. and go south about a hundred feet, you come to a side trail on the left that goes 120 yards to the summit of Hightop and the site of a former fire tower. There's nothing left of the tower but its foundation; the whole area is overgrown, and there is no view.

View from Hightop Summit (No. 1)
View from Hightop Summit (No. 1)

View from Hightop Summit (No. 2)
View from Hightop Summit (No. 2)

MILE 67.2, SWIFT RUN OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,715 feet. A large overlook with a bulletin board, and with several hemlocks in the island.

The sketch names the principal features of the view. Downhill from the overlook, the Park boundary is only 1/4 mile away. The large hollow below you is private property, although the mountains beyond it are in the Park. Behind you, Hightop Mountain looms over the "north" entrance to the overlook. (The actual direction of the Hightop summit is southeast.) The A.T. is nearly half a mile away, up on Hightop.

View from Swift Run Overlook
View from Swift Run Overlook

Geology: The rocks in the island are Pedlar granodiorite, stained by minerals from the lava flow that once covered them. The green color was produced by epidote; the dark brown stains by iron.

View from Sandy Bottom Overlook
View from Sandy Bottom Overlook

MILE 67.8, SANDY BOTTOM OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,705 feet. A small overlook with a large black locust tree. The sketch names some of the things you see from here. Sandy Bottom is a small community in the hollow below you. To see it, walk out into the grass beyond the paved walk and look down. If you have binoculars, take them with you. Sandy Bottom is private property, although the mountains beyond it are in the Park.

Hightop is directly east, towering over the north entrance to the overlook. Note the rocky outcrop near the summit. That's the objective of the Hightop hikes from Mile 66.7 and Mile 68.6.

MILE 68.6, SMITH ROACH GAP. Elevation 2,620 feet. Parking for about eight cars. A. T. crossing. Hike to Hightop Summit. Distances on the A.T.: South (on the west side of the Drive) it's 1.6 miles to Powell Gap, Mile 69.9 North (on the east side) it's 3.4 miles to the Drive crossing at Mile 66.7.

An old mountaineer road crossed the Blue Ridge here. On the west side of the Drive it has been obliterated. On the East it provides a pleasant, one-mile walk to the Park boundary. About 3/4 mile from the start, the road forks. To the left, it goes to the Hightop A.T. Hut. Take the right-hand branch, which is blocked by boulders to prevent vehicular traffic. At the Park boundary you reach Virginia secondary road No. 626. About 0.3 mile beyond the chain is the site of the old Hightop School.

HIKE: Hightop Summit. Round trip 3.7 miles; total climb about 950 feet; time required 3:25. Outstanding view. A good trail, with an easy slope. See map below; you're near the left-hand edge.

Follow the fire road for about 10 yards, then turn left onto the A.T. Most of the hike is through former pasture, with few mature trees until you get near the summit. Ascend steadily for about a mile; the trail then levels off and crosses the unpaved service road for Hightop A.T. Hut (0.15 mile to the left.) After another 0.1 mile on the A.T., a side trail on the left goes 0.13 mile to the hut, which has a pit toilet and an unprotected spring.

About 0.4 mile beyond the Hightop Hut trail, a side trail on the right goes five yards to an unprotected spring at the foot of a large boulder. Beside the A.T. are shagbark hickories that drop sweet, high-calorie nuts in the fall; if you're lucky, you may find one that the squirrels have overlooked. About 1.8 miles from the start of the hike, the trail levels off and swings around the left side of Hightop summit. A side trail on the right goes 120 yards to the site of a former fire tower. Stay on the A.T. for another 100 feet, and watch for a side trail on the left and goes ten yards to a ledge with a magnificent view. (See sketches, page 185.)

Returning to Smith Roach Gap, stop when you come to the dirt road that crosses the A.T. in an overgrown field. If you turn left and return on the road, it will add less than a quarter of a mile to your hike, with no extra climbing. The road continues through the overgrown field for a short distance; you'll find a variety of wildflowers here in late spring and early summer. After about 0.2 mile, look for an old split-rail fence on the left. Half a mile from the A.T., join another dirt road coming from the left. Keep right, and continue gently downhill another three-quarters of a mile to your starting point.

Map of Hightop Area
Map of Hightop Area

MILE 69.3, BACON HOLLOW OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,455 feet. A good-sized overlook with a rocky, shady island. The sketch shows most of what you can see from here. Flattop, the mountain with the clearings on top, goes up and to the right, out of the sketch. The ridge at the left of the sketch goes up to Hightop, although you can't see the Hightop summit from here. Behind you, on the other side of the Drive, is Roundtop. Bacon Hollow is directly in front. With binoculars you can see a modern mountain community, with freshly painted houses and late-model cars. The Park boundary is close to the Drive here—not much more than 100 yards below the overlook.

View from Bacon Hollow Overlook
View from Bacon Hollow Overlook

MILE 69.9, POWELL GAP. Elevation 2,295 feet. A. T. crossing. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the west side of the Drive) it's 1.6 miles to Smith Roach Gap, Mile 68.6. South (on the east side) it's 3.2 miles to Simmons Gap, Mile 73.2.

MILE 70.1, GEOLOGY. In the deep roadcut south of Powell Gap are pebbly and sandy phyllites of the Swift Run formation. Rock lovers only: there's parking space in the grass beside the Drive, about 0.2 mile in either direction.

MILE 70.6, EATON HOLLOW OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,500 feet. A fairly large overlook, with a shaded island suitable for picnics. There's a view from the north end of the overlook—directly north over Eaton Hollow. Hanse Mountain, four miles straight ahead, has two crests and three talus slopes. To the left of it, and somewhat closer, is Beldor Ridge. To the right of it are three small knobs; the highest, in the middle, is Dollys Knob. A mile and a half diagonally right is the rounded crest of Bush Mountain. Higher up to the right, a mile and a quarter away, is Roundtop—the knob that rises above Bacon Hollow Overlook. To the left of Roundtop is Hightop, three miles away.

View from Rocky Mount Overlook
View from Rocky Mount Overlook

MILE 71.2, ROCKY MOUNT OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,445 feet. In the island are a couple of good-sized basswood trees. Rocky Mount is the peak with numerous talus slopes, directly in front of the overlook (see sketch). The ridge just this side of Rocky Mount ascends to the left and joins the Blue Ridge near Two Mile Run Overlook, Mile 76.2. The Rocky Mount trail goes from Mile 76.1 to the Rocky Mount summit. See page 191.

Geology: The rocks across the Drive from the overlook are dark, much- weathered Catoctin basalt. The talus slopes over on Rocky Mount are white quartzite of the Erwin formation.

MILE 72.2, BELDOR HOLLOW OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,345 feet. This is just a road widening, without an island. Trees divide the view into two parts. From the north end you have a narrow view of Rocky Mount. From the south end (see sketch) you, look into the upper end of Beldor Hollow—a very long hollow that runs down below the overlook and far to the right. Beyond the head of the hollow are a number of mountain crests, most of them on the main Blue Ridge. Skyline Drive winds its way among them. If you're going south, this is a preview of your route. If you're going north, you can see where you've been.

View from Beldor Hollow Overlook
View from Beldor Hollow Overlook

MILE 73.2, SIMMONS GAP. Elevation 2,255 feet. A. T. crossing. Ranger Station. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the east side of the Drive) it's 3.2 miles to Powell Gap, Mile 69.9. South (on the west side) it's 2.2 miles to Pinefield Gap, Mile 75.2.

An old mountaineer road, now a Park fire road, crosses the Blue Ridge here. On the west it goes 1.5 miles to the Park boundary in the head of Beldor Hollow, where it becomes Virginia secondary road No. 628. On the east it goes 0.8 mile to the park boundary in Fork Hollow, where it becomes Virginia secondary road No. 628, as on the other side of the mountain. Along this road, on the east side and within half a mile of Simmons Gap, was a small mountain community that included Simmons Gap Mission and Simmons Gap Post Office.

MILE 74.4, LOFT MOUNTAIN OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,455 feet. The view is bounded on the right by the northeast crest of Loft Mountain, and on the left by Flattop. County Line Mountain is straight ahead (see sketch.) The line crosses it just below the crest. You're in Greene County. The crest of County Line Mountain, and most of what you see beyond it, are in Albemarle County.

Toward the left are houses and farms on the side of Flattop Ridge—very different from the old mountaineer cabins. Most of the homes you see, especially out in the hollow, look fairly prosperous. Many of the people who live in them work elsewhere, and depend on farming for only a part of their income.

View from Loft Mountain Overlook
View from Loft Mountain Overlook

Geology: The rocks exposed in the island and across the Drive are Catoctin basalt. Those near the south end of the island deserve a close look. Colors vary from gray through green-gray to green and purple. Here and there are veins of quartz, and a few small vesicles (gas bubbles in the lava which were later filled with other minerals.) In places the rock is covered with thin sheets of asbestos, which you can recognize by its parallel, fibrous crystals.

MILE 75.2, PINEFIELD GAP. Elevation 2,535 feet. A.T. crossing. There's no safe parking at the A.T. crossing, but there's plenty of room in the grass at the entrance to the service road, a hundred yards to the south. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the west side of the Drive) it's 2.1 miles to Simmons Gap, Mile 73.2. South (on the east side) it's 1.6 miles to Ivy Creek Overlook, Mile 77.5.

There is evidence of a mountaineer homesite here in Pinefield Gap. The A.T. south of the crossing follows an old road trace. There is one spring in this area. There are fruit trees on both sides of the Drive just south of the service road. Oswego tea, Monarda didyma, and a cultivated species of Phlox are growing nearby.

From the service road entrance, the A.T. is 100 yards north on the Drive and 250 yards down the service road. The Pinefield Gap A.T. Hut is a quarter of a mile from the Drive via service road. That suggests a short semi-circuit hike.

HIKE: Pinefield A.T. Hut. Semi-circuit 0.6 mile; total climb about 125 feet; time required 0.35. Follow the service road, which may be somewhat rough in spots. The hut is 165 yards beyond the A.T., near a small stream. It has a table, fireplace, and pit toilet. There's a spring a short distance upstream. It's unprotected, so boil the water before you drink it.

Return to the A.T. via the service road. Turn right onto the A.T., which continues for about 0.2 mile, through a forest of young maples, to the edge of the Drive. Turn left and return to your starting point.

MILE 76.0, GEOLOGY. Phyllites and sandstone of the Hampton formation are exposed in the roadcut here. The closest parking space is at Mile 76.1.

Mile 76.1, ROCKY MOUNT TRAIL. The trail begins at a marker post on the west side of the Drive. There's parking space for one or two cars here, and additional parking at Two Mile Run Overlook, 0.1 mile south.

HIKE: Rocky Mount Summit. Round trip 6.9 miles; total climb about 2,065 feet; time required 6:40. This is a strenuous hike; near the summit, the trail is steep and rough. I have not hiked this trail; the following report is from Ranger-Naturalist Nancy Shives.

The trail descends rather steeply for 0.4 mile, then more gradually. From a low point at about 0.6 mile from the start, the trail skirts the left side of a low knob. Look for a view to the left, toward Two Mile Ridge. (And, in spring, look for the pink flowers of fringed Polygala beside the trail.) The trail ascends, passing to the right of a knob and then descending for 0.9 mile to a gap, where the Gap Run trail (named for a different gap, not this one) comes in on the right.

From the gap, the trail climbs nearly a thousand feet in 1.2 miles, with switchbacks, up the south side of Rocky Mount. From the first switchback there's a good view across Two Mile Run to Two Mile Ridge. The high point on the trail is your destination. From there you can climb to a rock with a fine view across Two Mile Ridge to Rocky Mountain and, farther left, to the Blue Ridge and a part of Skyline Drive.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved