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 –
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.

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 to see location, length, and difficulty of the many side trails.

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:



Blackrock Summit
Shenandoah National Park (Southern)
Skyline Drive milepost 85
Distance: 1 mile
Type: Loop or make it an ‘out and back’
Views: Beautiful view of mountains and valleys
Dogs: Bring your leashed furry friend along for the walk
Trailhead: At the end of the Blackrock Summit Parking area at milepost 85
Notes: A quick, easy trek to the summit for great views. Great hike for younger kiddos.
Blackrock summit1
Getting there:
From Charlottesville, VA the quickest way to Blackrock summit is using the South Entrance of the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) via 64 west. After heading towards the mountains on 64 west, take exit 99 towards Afton. Pay attention to the brown National Park signs to navigate your way to the Rockfish Gap Entrance Station of SNP. Drive North on the Skyline Drive for about 15-20 minutes to the Blackrock Summit Parking area at milepost 85. Do NOT park near Blackrock Gap (you will pass this first). Blackrock Gap is not the hike/trail described here. To find the trailhead, look to the end of the parking lot and find the trail Information board (pictured below).
IMG_7058Difficulty and length:
Only half a mile to get to some incredible views in Shenandoah National Park. Round trip, this hike is one mile and will likely take about 30 minutes. If hiking with smaller children or extremely pregnant ladies, allow for an hour.

As described above, this is a short hike to amazing views in the Southern part of SNP. Find the trail head at the trail information board once you park in the Blackrock Summit Parking area at milepost 85 along the Skyline Drive. Walk a few feet past the information board and then take a left and head south on the Appalachian Trail (white blaze).

You’ll notice it’s only a half a mile to the summit if you check out the trail marker (pictured above). After about 5-10 minutes on the trail, you will see another trail marker and a tree marked with a double white blaze. Turn right to stay on the trail and head to the summit. At this point the summit will be about .03 from where you are standing.

During this first half a mile, you will experience a little bit of an incline, but nothing unmanageable. It’s a short trek, so as soon as you start to get out of breath you will find yourself at the top. At the top, great views and a fun pile of rocks await.

After spending time at the summit enjoying the views, continue around the rocky pile to make your way back to your car. You are more than welcome to come back the way you came, but if you continue to follow the trail around the rocks, you will come to a trail marker after a few minutes. When you see this trail marker be sure to take a left to head back to the parking area.

Not a lot to add to this hike, other than to reiterate that I think it’s a great one for families with small children or people who move at a slower pace. Not a lot of effort needed for the great views.


My experience:
Happy New Year and Happy First Day Hikes! Hoping to start a new tradition of hiking on New Year’s Day, I head out for Shenandoah National Park with my mom and my husband. It was a cold, but clear day and after all the holiday gatherings, it was time to get outside regardless of the temperatures.

At 34 weeks pregnant, it was difficult to get dressed for a cold hike…I haven’t invested in hiking maternity clothes for freezing temperatures (side note: after this hike, I did some digging and found this rockin’ site – I found my warmest, stretchiest, pre-pregnancy hiking wear and packed a ton of snacks (yes, for a 1 mile hike).

I cannot understate the importance of hitting the trails with patient hikers when you are in your third trimester. It took our small group about an hour to do the round trip, one mile hike. Typically this hike would take me about 20-30 minutes with a break at the top for pictures and exploring the rocks, but this pregnant waddle I’ve got going on slowed us down. Not to mention water, snack, and breathing breaks. My family was patient and stayed at my pace, making our day trip to the mountains perfect.

I mentioned this is a great hike for younger children above. We saw quite a few families with little kiddos. Not to mention a few hikers with small dogs on this trail. It was great to see so many people being active outside on New Year’s day. This is a great trail for a quick, family hike in the mountains.

Winter View:



Dark Hollow Falls

Dark Hollow Falls
Shenandoah National Park (Central)
Skyline Drive milepost 50.7
Distance: 1.5 miles roundtrip
Type: Out and back
Views: Waterfall
Dogs: No pets allowed
Trailhead: Large parking area around Mile 50.7 on Skyline Drive (north of Big Meadows)
Notes: Short, popular hike. Steep return trip. Shenandoah National Park entrance fees apply.

Getting there:
From Charlottesville, VA head up 29 North. Take a left on 33 and enter the Shenandoah National Park (SNP) at the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station. Head north on the Skyline Drive. Large parking area on your right at mile 50.7 on Skyline Drive. Click here for a great Trail map courtesy of the National Park Service (pick up your own at no additional charge at the Entrance Station or Byrd Visitor Center).

Difficulty and length:
This out and back hike took me about 30 minutes to complete. Allow for more time if hiking with children. Round trip is 1.5 miles. I’d rate this hike as easy to moderate. For me, it was fairly easy due to the short distance, however you may get winded on the way back up from the falls.

Once you park in the Dark Hollow Falls parking area (see ‘getting there’ above) find the information kiosk and you will see the trail straight ahead. Please note that this trail does not allow pets. The trail leads about .75 miles down to the base of a beautiful waterfall. The trail along the way is marked by a blue blaze. It’s a very wide, easy to follow trail.

You’ll follow a stream on your right as you walk down to the falls with a few opportunities to dip your feet in small pools. Please heed any warning signs if close to the falls! After you reach the base of the falls, hang out for minute and then retrace your steps back to your car.  There is an option to extend the trail at the base of Dark Hollow Falls, you can follow a trail that leads on to Rose River Falls (I’ll post details on this hike in the future). If you choose to turn around and head back, keep in mind it’s a steep, but short climb back to the parking area.

Note: Great hike to do with kids. The short distance makes this hike great for the entire family. Bonus: this hike is very close to the Byrd Visitor Center and Big Meadows Wayside which has food, restrooms, and a gift shop.

Tip: If you are hiking solo, this is a great hike due to its short length and popularity. If anything goes wrong while you are out hiking alone, there will be plenty of people on the trail to help you. Try adding Hawksbill Loop as another hike for your afternoon. The parking areas are close to each other and you’ll get different views.

My Experiences:
I’ve visited Dark Hollow Falls a few times. It’s a great, short hike to add on to other hiking adventures when spending an afternoon in SNP. Some great hikes to pair this one with are Bearfence Mountain and Hawksbill Loop. Or, if you are going for a leisurely drive through the National Park, stop to stretch your legs on this hike. Early spring means snow melt and rain, this makes for the perfect time to visit waterfalls.

On my most recent trip, I woke up on a Saturday and really wanted to get out and hike. I couldn’t convince anyone to join me (weather apps flashed a picture of storm clouds and lightening). While I usually don’t hike alone, I couldn’t help myself. To be extra cautious, I chose Dark Hollow Falls as I know it’s heavily traveled and near the Byrd Visitor Center (several Park Rangers are stationed here). I let family know where I was headed and when to expect my return (ALWAYS a good idea when hiking – solo or not). When I got to the Swift Run Gap entrance, I realized my National Park Pass was expired. Luckily, they can set you up with a new one right there! I highly recommend getting the yearly America the Beautiful National Park Pass. There are several park pass options; there is a yearly for SNP or you can go crazy and get the pass that’s good for all our National Parks. You never know when you will end up in another state and get the urge to hike.

I got to Big Meadows in SNP and the sky was very ominous. Dark clouds and a lot of fog almost deterred me from continuing on, but I’d already driven this far. I arrived at the parking area for Dark Hollow Falls to find it half full. Not that bad considering it was almost 11:30am and this is a well-traveled trail. For once, I enjoyed all the people on the trail; knowing that if any harm came my way I would have help. At one point during my hike, there was growling coming from some nearby brush. It definitely gave me a jump, but I soon realized it was a young boy having some fun at my expense. I was very happy it wasn’t a run in with a black bear. I made my way down to the base of the falls in about ten minutes and spent some time enjoying the water spray, which cooled me off (if you live in Virginia you know all about summer humidity). After spending some time at the base, I returned to the parking area which only took about 20 minutes.  I found a group of people deciding whether or not to start the hike. I gave them a few tips and a few other suggestions for great day hikes in the park. Another great morning spent in the woods.

Spring views:

Summer views: