Shenandoah: Blackrock Summit & South River Falls Trails


It was still early in the day, but I was anxious to get out of the car and hike a trail.  The first good opportunity I found to follow a reasonably short path to something reasonably interesting, was the Blackrock Summit Trail.

The Blackrock Summit Trail is actually a combination of two other trails: the Trayfoot Mountain Trail, and the Appalachian Trail (which runs alongside or near Skyline Drive for almost the entire length of the park). The round trip is only about one mile (slightly longer if you scramble up to the top of the peak of Blackrock Summit), but it does require an elevation gain that can leave you a bit out of breath on the way up.

I chose to take Trayfoot Mountain Trial on the way up, and the AT on the way back.  Trayfoot is a wide trail (big enough for a jeep), and an easy climb…

… giving you plenty of opportunities to admire the Rhododendron that surround the path.

Trayfoot bypasses the summit, so when you reach the second intersection with the Appalachian Trail, take a left.

The AT circles around the talus slopes at the summit.

There is no definite path to the top, you have to invent your own.  It can be difficult — you make several successful hops from one rock to another, then suddenly find yourself in a dead-end, with a huge chunk of quartzite blocking your way, or a patch of loose rock that will shift when you land on them.

Climbing up the talus is actually more risky than I realized when I started my climb.  I quickly learned that even huge boulders can be loose, and can be balanced in such a way that they will shift underneath your feet.  When I reached the top, I noticed a lot of buzzing.  There was a nest of bees hidden in between the rocks (and the only navigable path down took me directly over the nest!).  I also noticed A LOT of spiders living in the rocks.  I doubt they were poisonous, but they were plentiful.  Thankfully, the “they’re more afraid of you than you are of them” rule caused them to scurry out of my way.  A sign at the trailhead also warned that rattlesnakes could be hiding in the rocks.  With all that to worry about, I was very glad to get off this pile of rocks.

Despite the dangers and difficulty, the view from the top of Blackrock Summit is fantastic…

… in every direction.

The talus slope continues down the side of the mountain.

The trail back down was also great.  The AT is much narrower than the previous jeep trail…

 … and in some spots, it passes through an incredibly dense “tunnel” of Rhododendron.

With my first hike of the day complete (I would make four hikes in all)… I continued northbound on Skyline Drive.

Dundo Overlook

The Dundo Overlook offers a nice view, and a history lesson.  In 1862, during the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson used nearby Brown’s Gap for troop movement.  Stonewall used the topography to divide and confuse the Union troops.  In 40 days, his 17,000 Confederate troops won five battles against 45,000 Union soldiers.

Doyles River Overlook

Layers of mountains come together nicely at Doyles River Overlook, making for a nice picture.

Big Run Basin Watershed Viewpoint

11 square miles of land drains into the Big Run Basin Watershed, the largest watershed in Shenandoah National Park.

When one inch of rain falls in the Big Run Basin Watershed, 200 million gallons of water flows into the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Massanutten Mountain

You’ll see a lot of Massanutten Mountain on your drive up Skyline Drive (assuming the air is clear — it’s a bit hard to see Massanutten in this picture).  Massanutten is a huge, 50-mile-long mountain that rises up in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, splitting the valley in two.  The south end of Massanutten is about 10 miles away from this viewpoint.

Ivy Creek Overlook, Maybe

I’m not completely sure if this is Ivy Creek Overlook.  If not, it’s nearby.  The truth is, for a few miles before turning off here, I was stuck behind a slow-moving RV, and the drive was becoming so boring that I feared I’d fall asleep driving.  I pulled into this stop along with a motorcyclist right in front of me, who was experiencing the same intense boredom.

Thankfully, this made for a very nice stop.  Not only does it offer a great view of a picturesque valley…

There’s also some rocks to climb, between the parking area and the road.  At the top, you get a great view of Skyline Drive.

South River Falls Trail

Of the four trails I hiked in Shenandoah National Park during my one-day visit, South River Falls Trail is probably the one I should have skipped.  It’s a great 3.3 mile loop trail that leads to an impressive 83-foot high waterfall, and it’s a worthwhile hike if you have the time.  But I didn’t.  It also requires quite an effort, thanks to the trail’s nearly 1,000-foot elevation change.

    The trail leaves from the far side of the South River Picnic Area.  Watch for the trailhead sign and a water fountain (for which you will be very thankful, later on).  For the first half of the trail, you’re going downhill.  You’ll cross the Appalachian Trail soon after leaving the parking lot.  This will be your return route.

After a while, the trail meets up with South River.  You’ll find numerous tiny waterfalls, which provide a nice place to stop and relax.

After a while, you might be tempted to convince yourself that one of these small falls is the one you’re looking for.

You’ll know the actual falls when you see it.  There’s one good spot at the side of the trail for viewing the falls, but there are a few trees in the way…

… and you’re not very close.  A spur trail continues downhill and hooks back to the base of the falls, but the spur requires an extra one mile (round trip) of hiking.  I was already getting tired at this point, and I knew I had a lot of climbing to do, just to get back to the parking area.  The entire hike would probably have been more rewarding if I had continued on to the base of the falls, but I decided to start on the return trip.

At the viewpoint, you could choose to go back the way you came.  It would be slightly shorter than following the return route, but perhaps slightly steeper as well.

I chose to follow the rest of the loop.  Just beyond the viewing area, the first trail connects with an old jeep road, that’s now traveled only by humans and horses.  The jeep road makes the long climb back uphill, before intersecting with the Appalachian Trail.  Then, a half-mile walk along the AT completes the loop.

The climb uphill was simply torturous.  It was a hot day, and I had run out of water (or perhaps, in a foolish move, I hadn’t taken any.  I’m not sure, but I know I was very thirsty).  As I rounded one curve after another on the jeep path, I hoped I would see the end of the trail.  Instead, around each turn, another stretch of steep road awaited.  When I finally made it back to that water fountain at the beginning of the trail, I easily sucked down a half-gallon without taking a breath.

Baldface Mountain Overlook

Between South River and my next stop, Bearfence Mountain, I made only one stop to enjoy the view, at Baldface Mountain Overlook.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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