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:


Crabtree Falls

Crabtree Falls
George Washington National Forest (near Lovingston, VA)
Distance: 3.8 miles
Views: Waterfalls and the Tye River Valley
Trailhead: Parking area on VA Rte 56
Type: Out and back
Dogs: Yes – leash is a must on this hike!
Notes: Beautiful Waterfalls, $3 parking fee

Getting there:
There are several ways to get to Crabtree Falls from Charlottesville, VA; I always prefer the route with less winding roads. I take 29 South from Charlottesville about 40 miles. When you get to Lovingston, VA start to keep your eyes peeled. You will pass the Lockn’ site (on your left). Oak Ridge Farm shout out! After passing Oak Ridge Farm, hang a right on Route 56 W.  Stay on Rte 56 for a bit and look for signs for Crabtree Falls Parking Area (on your left). Note: Resist the urge to park at the Crabtree Falls Campground – pass this, it is not the hike parking area.

Difficulty and length: This hike is slow going on the way up. It’s steep, which means a lot of ‘breathing’ breaks. There are a lot of photo opportunities that may also slow you down. The way down is much quicker unless you get a late start and the trail is full of people. Most recently, this hike took me about 2 hours to complete. It may take longer if you have small children or slower hikers.

A very popular hike alongside several cascades that make up Crabtree Falls. This hike is very straightfoward. Park in the Crabtree Falls Parking Area and don’t forget to pay the parking fee ($3) and hang your parking pass. Yes, they enforce this! You will find the trail head after the information kiosk on your right. There are non-flushable bathrooms at the start, so be sure to use these before starting the climb. The hike begins on a nice paved trail. If you have little ones, you could easily bring a stroller on this part of the hike. You can get to the first waterfall viewpoint on the paved path and turn around if you are just in it to see a waterfall (or short on time). If you want to do some work and see the rest of the falls, continue up. The trail follows the waterfalls up for just under 2 miles with overlook areas at the base of several stunning cascades. Stay on these designated areas when taking pictures, don’t be tempted to climb over the railings onto the rocks near the falls.

This is a fairly steep hike with several stair climbs and a few switchbacks. When you reach the top, you will cross a wooden bridge to a viewpoint looking over the Tye River Gorge. Enjoy the views, have some lunch and make your way back down to your car the way you came. If driving back to Charlottesville on 29, don’t forget to stop at one of my favorites, Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, for a pizza. I hear ‘The Fat and Sassy’ is delicous!

Note: There are warning signs about people falling to their deaths on these falls. This is no joke, please take this seriously. Please do not hop over the railings to take pictures. You are putting your life in danger. The signs fail to mention that dogs have also died on this hike. The rocks are very slippery and even your furry friends can lose their footing. Be sure to put your pups on a leash before starting this hike.

Tips: Get here early to avoid serious crowds. There are railings and stairs on this hike and these areas can cause a lot of bottlenecking when the trail is crowded. Hike this trail after heavy rainfall for most stunning waterfalls.

IMG_4339My Experiences:
I have to be honest…this isn’t my favorite hike. Yes, the waterfalls are beautiful and there are great views at the top, but for some reason, I just don’t enjoy this one very much. It may be the crowds or all the people hopping over the railings to take pictures (despite the warnings). I’ve been to these falls several times over the years and I do really love them in the winter! Frozen waterfall = amazing. My recommendation…do this one in late fall or early spring.

On my most recent trip, this spring, we got to the trailhead by 9am. There were only a few cars in the parking lot and we had a lot of the waterfall viewpoint areas to ourselves on the way up. The way down was a different story. By now the masses had reached the hike and we ended up standing still waiting for large groups of people to pass by on the stairs. I highly recommend getting to this hike at 8am or earlier. When we returned to the parking lot it was completely full and someone was checking cars for hang tags and handing out tickets. Keep these tips in mind before you venture to Crabtree Falls for your own adventure!


Hawksbill Loop

Hawksbill Loop
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.

Hawksbill Loop Summer 2012Details:
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.

Hawksbill Loop near Byrd Nest Shelter

My Experiences:
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.

Winter views:

Summer views:

Fall views: