Shenandoah National Park (Central)
Skyline Drive milepost 45.6
Distance: 2.9 miles
Views: Sweeping views, including the Shenandoah Valley and Old Rag
Trailhead: parking area on the Skyline Drive at milepost 45.6
Type: Loop (circuit if you want to get technical)
Dogs: Dog friendly (SNP pet information here)
Notes: Do the entire loop – don’t take the short yet steep route to the summit (trust me, it’s worth it). Entrance fees to SNP apply.
Hike to the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) at 4050 feet. To access the trail from Charlottesville, VA enter the park at the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station off 33 near Stanardsville. Head North on the Skyline Drive and park at the Lower Hawksbill Trail parking area at milepost 45.6 (do not park at the Upper Hawksbill Parking area for the hike outlined here). This is a popular hike and can be crowded on the weekends, but here is an insider tip: most hikers take the short and steep part of the trail that goes straight to the summit (read: shortcut). Avoid the crowds by doing the full loop.
To do the full loop, once parked find the information board at the trail head. While facing this, with your back to the parking area, the trail to the ‘shortcut’ ascent is straight in front of you. Look over your right shoulder to find the trail that is often hidden by ferns in the summer and early fall; this is where you want to start. Taking this route to the summit gives you a longer hike, a gentler grade, and several rewarding views (not to mention a fun rock scramble).
Following this path leads you along the Appalachian Trail for awhile. Eventually, you will come to a ‘Y’ in the trail. Be sure to take the path to the left that leads uphill, check the cement trail marker and follow arrows for the summit. As you get close to the summit you will come to a fire road, stay left and head towards the Byrds Nest day shelter. Spend some time at the summit and be sure to look for views of Old Rag Mountain while at the top.
When you are ready for your descent you finally get to take this ‘shortcut’ I keep mentioning. Keep an eye out for the trail leading off to the left as you leave the summit and watch for trail markers to be sure you are heading to the Lower Hawksbill Trail. This is a short and steep descent. You will be back to your car before you know it. If you have knee trouble you may consider going back the way you came, making this a longer hike.
Visual Markers to look for: Look for trail markers. These will keep you on the path to the summit and on the correct path back to your car.
Tip: By doing the full loop you will get more views than those who take the shortcut to the summit and you may see more wildlife. Pictures below show stops and sights you miss if you take the shortcut.
Difficulty and length: This hike takes about two hours for the average hiker. Allow for more time if stopping for lunch or hiking with the kiddos. I consider myself an average to slow hiker and I would rate this trail as moderate.
I’ve done this hike several times, in many seasons and it always has surprises. Winds so strong they blow the hat off your head. Deer, startled by your heavy breathing as you make your way to the summit. Most recently, odd white poles, which I discovered were in place to study a specific salamander in the park. This is a great hike for friends visiting from out of state or for a casual hiker. It’s just the right distance, with just the right slope and incredible views.