Saunders-Monticello Trail

The Saunders-Monticello Trail
Charlottesville, VA
Distance: 4 miles
Views: Meadows, a pond, and great views of Cville
Trailhead: At the end of the large lot off of Route 20, smaller lot off of Route 53, or access from the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center parking lot.
Type: Out and back (side trails offer round trip and circuit hikes)
Dogs: Yes! Dogs are allowed on a portion of the main trail and on all side trails.
Notes: Gravel trail with bridges/boardwalks that allows easy access for bikes, strollers, wheelchairs, and toddlers. No restrooms at bottom of trail, but there are restrooms and a cafe at the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center at the top of the trail. Trail is typically open from sunrise to sunset.

Difficulty and length:
The Saunders-Monticello Trail is 4 miles – two miles up to the top and two miles back down. The path is mostly crushed gravel with a few wooden bridges and a gentle grade for an easy hike. Personally, I’d rate this trail as easy. Don’t get me wrong, on a hot July day it can be tough, but the wide, well-maintained trail is very accessible to all. This trail is for everyone!
This trail map lists side trails with the length and difficulty of each – https://www.monticello.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/TrailMap.pdf
Getting there:
Coming from Charlottesville, head south down Route 20 (towards Scottsville) and take a left at the light onto Route 53 (see signs for Carter’s Mountain Orchard and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Once on Route 53, your next right is a small parking area with a sign for the trail. You can park here and start your walk, but there are limited spaces (about 10 or so). If this lot is full, turn around and take a left back onto 53. Head down to the light again and take a right on Route 20 heading back towards Charlottesville. Your next right will be a larger parking lot for the trail, it’s called Dairy Barn Road (Private). You will also see the large ‘The Monticello Trail’ sign. Another option is to park up at the Monticello Visitor Center’s parking lot. They have restrooms and a cafe up there; it can be nice to start your walk from the top of the mountain after a refreshing drink and a bathroom break.

Details:
Once you park (See ‘Getting there’ section above), simply look for the wide, crushed gravel trail. It’s really hard to lose the trail as it’s so clearly marked and well-maintained. Keep on the path until you get to the Visitor Center at the top and then turn around and head back down. Two miles up and two miles down. Please note that dogs are allowed on side trails and on the main gravel trail until you reach the pond. Dogs are not allowed on the boardwalks.

There are several side trails off the main Saunders-Monticello trail with varying difficulty and accessibility. Check out this map from www.monticello.org/trail to see location, length, and difficulty of the many side trails.

Tip:
In the winter and early spring you will get a lot more sun on this hike since the leaves haven’t come back yet; be sure to bring sunscreen. Luckily, in the summer the trail is mostly shaded since the leaves are covering the trees making almost a full canopy overhead. This helps a lot with those 90-degree hot, summer days we get here in Virginia.

My Experience:
I love this trail! It’s close to town, easy to access, and stroller friendly. Yay for not always having to carry Miss Sunshine on my back! At the foot of the trail is a section of an old Tulip Poplar where you will usually see a swarm of children. My daughter loves to stop here and it’s a great photo opportunity.

Despite being so popular and so close to town, I still see a lot of wildlife on this trail. Keep your eyes peeled for deer, foxes, snakes, birds, lizards, and turtles (all of which I’ve seen on my walks here).

 

Summer views:

Fall views:


Spring views:

 

Frazier Discovery Trail

Frazier Discovery Trail (Loft Mountain)
Shenandoah National Park (Southern)
Skyline Drive mile 79.5
Distance: 1.3 miles
Views: Great views of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Trailhead: Park at Loft Mountain Wayside at mile 79.5 on the Skyline Drive. Follow the sidewalk north to the end of the parking lot and cross the road to find the trailhead.
Type: Circuit (connects trails to form a loop)
Dogs: No furry friends allowed on this trail (bummer!)
Notes: Entrance fees apply at Shenandoah National Park (SNP); easy to moderate climb to a rocky outcrop with amazing views. Restrooms and food next to parking area.

Difficulty and length:
This circuit is about 1.3 miles and most recently took me about an hour to complete. I had Baby Sunshine on my back in her pack (Deuter Kid Comfort II), so that slowed me down a little bit. I would rate this one as as being on the easy side of moderate. There is a steady uphill climb (almost always have to go up for a good view), but levels out here and there for nice little breaks. You can modify this hike to make it longer and more difficult (see ‘tips’ section below).
Getting there:
The Frazier Discovery Trail on Loft Mountain is in the southern part of Shenandoah National Park (SNP), but getting closer to the Central region. It takes about an hour to get to from the city of Charlottesville. From Charlottesville, I typically enter the park via the South entrance. I take 64 west to exit 99 towards Afton. After coming down the ramp, hang a right and follow the signs to enter the park. You’ll drive for around 26 miles or so from the South entrance (Rockfish Gap Entrance Station) of the park. Park in the Loft Mountain Wayside parking area.

Details:
Frazier Discovery Trail at Loft Mountain is a wonderful family hike in the southern part of Shenandoah National Park. Park at Loft Mountain Wayside Restaurant parking area at mile 79.5 on the Skyline Drive (See ‘Getting there’ above). Walk to the north end of the parking lot and cross the Skyline Drive to find the trailhead (see pictures below). The trail is well marked with cement post markers and blue and white blazes (AT) all along the way, so it shouldn’t be hard to stay on the trail and headed in the correct direction.

Once you get across the road, you’ll notice a fork in the trail. You can choose to start either right or left. I typically start out by heading left on the trail, so these details will describe the hike starting on the left for your ascent. About 25 minutes into the hike you will reach the viewpoint. I know everyone’s hiking speed varies, but this gives you a rough idea of how long it may take you to get to the views.

At the viewpoint there is a large rock outcropping with beautiful views of the mountains and the Skyline Drive. Bring a snack or simply bask in the sunlight and take in the stunning views. Either way, take a break and enjoy the views, this is the Blue Ridge Mountains baby.

When you are ready to head back to your car, simply continue on in the direction you were headed when you approached the rock outcroppings. After a little bit, you will see double blue blazes (click here for photo) on a tree and a cement trail marker (photo) that shows that you should hang a right to head down the mountain to complete your loop and arrive back at your car. Keep an eye out, because another 5 minutes or so down the trail is another great viewpoint on your right (photo below).
Keep an eye out for blue blazes on trees (to follow the Frazier Discovery Trail) and for the cement trail markers. They will point you in the correct direction; be sure to always follow the Frazier Discovery Trail arrows on the cement trail markers if you want to follow the hike described here.

Tip: You can make this circuit longer by following the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a loop around the Loft Mountain Campground. See this map from the National Park Service that shows various Loft Mountain hiking options – https://www.nps.gov/shen/upload/Frazier.pdf. This is a great addition for those with more time and more energy. Or better yet, get a campsite, stay the night, and start your hike from your tent door first thing in the morning.

My Experience:
This hike is perfect if you want to set out from a good ‘base camp’. What I mean by ‘base camp’ is a facility with bathrooms and burgers! I love that the trailhead is right across the Skyline Drive from the Loft Mountain Wayside parking lot. You have restrooms and food adjacent to your parking spot, which can make hiking (especially with little ones and grumpy husbands) much easier.

I’ve done this hike a few times, but the most memorable have been with my mom, Idaho (her trail name). The first time we ventured out on the Frazier Discovery Trail was Mother’s Day a few years ago (a family tradition – we always take a mom hiking on Mother’s Day). My mom and I had a blast on our hike. We told stories, laughed, and stopped to take goofy pictures along the way. After our hike, we stopped for some food at the Wayside restaurant. We met some young AT hikers who were trying to find a ride to Rockfish Gap (South Entrance to SNP). Of course, my mom immediately says, “Oh, we’ll take you”. And that started a new ‘tradition’ of also picking up hitchhikers on Mother’s Day (My mom cannot say ‘no’ to people!). We dropped the boys off without incident (other than an extremely smelly car as they hadn’t showered in weeks) and had a fun story to share.

On my last venture to the Frazier Discovery Trail there was a felled tree across the trail. That usually isn’t a problem, but when you have a 16 pound baby in a pack on your back, it’s a little challenging. I took it slow and had Idaho spot me. We made it over the log without any scrapes or scratches and with lots of laughs.
Bonus Tip: I feel like this is ALWAYS my bonus tip for a hike in Shenandoah National Park, but it’s seriously the best tip ever…take 250 back to Charlottesville instead of 64 East so you can stop for an adult beverage. I usually boast about all of Virginia’s amazing wineries, but it’s time to give beer some love. Some of my favorite breweries or tap rooms on the way home from SNP are: Pro Re Nata, Starr Hill Brewery, and Blue Mountain Brewery.

Bonus Bonus Tip: Check out this link to Shenandoah National Park’s information page about food and gas along the Skyline Drive – http://www.goshenandoah.com/dining/food-groceries. This will tell you about food and restroom facility openings and closings. Loft Mountain Wayside is open mid-April through early-November.

Fall views:

Little Calf Mountain

Little Calf Mountain
Shenandoah National Park (Southern)
Skyline Drive mile 99.5
Distance: 1 mile
Views: Grassy meadows and valley views
Trailhead: Parking area at milepost 99.5 on the Skyline Drive
Type: Out and back
Dogs: Dogs are welcome with a leash
Notes: Entrance fees apply at Shenandoah National Park (SNP); short, uphill trail through grassy meadows and trees; nice view at the top.

Difficulty and length:
The distance to the Little Calf Mountain summit from the parking area is about a half a mile. Round trip, this hike is around 1 mile. It’s an uphill hike, but I find the gentle grade makes the hike very pleasant. Easy to moderate rating on this one. Most recently, it took me about 35 minutes to get from the parking area to the summit of Little Calf Mountain. It was my first hike with Baby Comfort, so I had some extra weight and kept stopping to check on her, since she was only 3 months old. This is a great hike for families and children. Just the right driving distance from Charlottesville and just the right length for most. I would allow an hour and a half for this hike, which would include some time for frolicking and eating lunch in the grassy meadow at the top.

Chilly day on top of Little Calf MountainGetting there:
Little Calf Mountain is about a 40 minute drive from Charlottesville, Virginia. From Charlottesville, take 64 West to exit 99 towards Afton. Follow signs to enter the Shenandoah National Park at the South entrance (Rockfish Gap Entrance Station). Drive for about 5 miles north on the Skyline Drive to the Beagle Gap Parking Area at mile 99.5.

Details:
This is a short hike with nice views and a grassy meadow in the southern part of Shenandoah National Park (SNP). Park at Beagle Gap Parking Area at mile 99.5 on the Skyline Drive (see ‘Getting there’ above). Look for the opening in the fence marked with a white blaze and you’ve found the trail head. The hike begins with an uphill walk through a grassy field.

After about 5 minutes or so of walking, you will enter the woods and continue following the white blazes. After about 20-25 minutes, you’ll find the trail opens back up to a grassy meadow, this is the Little Calf Mountain summit.

This is the perfect spot for eating lunch and daydreaming. The views are pretty amazing, but your panorama may be interrupted by some towers on a mountain across the way. Bear Den Mountain has towers on top that you may want to keep out of your photos. Once you are finished with the views and your lunch, turn around and retrace your steps back to your car (image below shows Beagle Gap Parking area from your descent).

Little Calf - Beagle Gap parking areaTip: For a longer hike, continue on the Appalachian Trail (follow the white blazes) to the summit of Calf Mountain. There aren’t the same great views at this summit, but you will get a little extra distance in.

My Experience:
This is my go-to hike when I don’t have a lot of time, but I still want a quick trip to Shenandoah National Park. Since the trail is so close to the Southern Entrance into SNP, it’s perfect for those who don’t have all day for a hike. I’ve done this hike countless times with many friends and family and it always seems to be a good fit for folks who don’t hike often.

Most recently, I hiked this trail on Mother’s Day as my first hike with my 3 month old baby girl (her middle name is Sunshine, so we’ll call her that on my blog). It was my first time using her Tula baby carrier, so I took awhile adjusting and checking on Baby Comfort here and there. Miss Sunshine is a great hiking partner and she spent most of the time sleeping. I have to admit, I got a little out of breath this last hike, but hey, I was carrying my baby up a mountain and had just delivered about 12 weeks before that, so I’m cutting myself some slack! Spending the day in Shenandoah National Park and then stopping at Pollak Vineyards afterwards, was my perfect Mother’s Day.

Little Calf - relaxingBonus Tip: Take 250 back to Charlottesville, VA rather than 64 and stop at one of Virginia’s vineyards. A few of my favorites on the way back to Charlottesville are: Veritas Vineyard and Winery, Afton Mountain Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, and Pollak Vineyards.

Warning: Lots of poison ivy along this trail in the summer – watch out!


Spring views:

Summer views:

Fall views:

Winter views: