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Little Devils Stairs Overlook to AT Crossing

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MILE 20.1, LITTLE DEVILS STAIRS OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,120 feet. There's a wide view here; the sketch shows only a part of it. At your left are the two Marshalls, visible over the top of Little Hogback. Farther right is The Peak, then a view over the mouth of Harris Hollow to the town of Washington, Va., and Jenkins Mountain, where the sketch begins.

View from Little Devils Stairs Overlook


To the right of Old Rag (at the right-hand edge of the sketch) are several peaks in the Central District that are better seen from Rattlesnake Point Overlook, mile 21.9. They are identified in the sketch.

Little Devils Stairs is in the gorge directly in front of the overlook. You can't see as much of it as shown in the sketch, because the trees have grown since the sketch was drawn. Little Devils Stairs is a very rewarding, if somewhat strenuous hike from mile 19.4.

Geology: Note that, as mentioned earlier, Keyser Mountain, Pignut Mountain, Fork Mountain, and Oventop are all set off from the main Blue Ridge by low gaps. These gaps, like those that mark off Jenkins Mountain and The Peak farther north, are the result of relatively rapid erosion along a geological fault.

The rocks in the road cut across the Drive are granodiorite, which is well exposed here.

MILE 20.4, SPRING; HIKE TO HOGBACK SUMMIT. Plenty of parking in the grass on the west side of the Drive.


HIKE HN-18: Hogback Summit. Circuit 1.0 mile; total climb about 250 feet; time required 1:00. See Map MN-5. A fairly easy short hike, with a view. The trail is somewhat rocky in places. It starts into the woods from the marker post at the edge of the grass. About a hundred feet from the Drive it passes a marked boxed-in spring on the left. (This is the source of Piney River.) The trail curves left around the spring, then makes a sharp right turn and climbs the ridge. When you reach the white- blazed AT on the ridge crest, turn left. Less than 50 yards from the junction, a short side trail on the right leads to a viewpoint at the top of a very steep slope, where the power line (which provides power for the radio transmitters on Hogback summit) descends steeply into the Valley.

There's a better view farther on: 20 to 30 yards from the trail junction. A marked side trail on the right leads to a ledge where a clearing was made for a hang glide launch site. The ridge descends very steeply into the Browntown Valley with an exciting open view. Straight ahead in the distance is Front Royal, with Dickey Ridge ascending to the right. On the left, the ridge that descends from Hogback splits into Gimlet Ridge, on the right, and Mathews Arm on the left. Return to the AT and, if you wish, go back the way you came. There are no more view and you do not have to walk along the drive to your starting point.

To complete the circuit continue on the AT and reach the summit of Hogback by a short, easy climb. The summit (elevation 3,474 ft.) is the highest point in the North District. Please stay clear of the radio installations of several government agencies, including the Park Service, on the summit. On the far side of the summit descend on the AT to the Drive at mile 20.8. Turn left and walk downhill 0.4 mile beside the Drive to your starting point. The grass is fairly wide. Please walk a safe distance from the pavement.


MILE 20.8, AT CROSSING. On the west side of the Drive is the service road for the radio installations on Hogback summit. Don't park here; continue to the overlook, just a few feet to the south.

MILE 20.8 to 21.0, HOGBACK OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,385 feet. This overlook offers several short, easy hikes, as well as a view. It's the longest overlook in the park; to see the whole view you have to stop somewhere near the middle of it; or stop twice - once at each end.

From the middle of the overlook you look down on the crest of Gimlet Ridge, which curves to the right as it descends. Splitting off to the left from Gimlet Ridge is Mathews Arm. In the hollow on the near side of Mathews Arm is Overall Run which has the highest waterfall in the park. It's a moderately strenuous hike from the AT crossing at mile 21.1, just to the south of the overlook, or from Mathews Arm Campground, mile 22.2.

Beyond Gimlet Ridge, across the Valley, are the two ridges of the Massanutten, with Fort Valley between them. Beyond the Massanutten, if the air is very clear, you can make out at least three ridges of the Alleghenies. It's said that, on a clear day, you can see eleven bends of the Shenandoah River. The nearest bend of the river is a little more than half a mile lower than the overlook.

The view to the right is similar to that from Gimlet Ridge Overlook (see sketch, page 98), except that from here you can see the radio towers on the crest of Hogback Mountain.

If you have binoculars, and it's a clear day, relax and spend time on details of the view. This is especially enjoyable in late afternoon, when the slanting light makes each object stand out in sharp relief.

Geology: The rocks exposed across the Drive are coarse-grained granodiorite of the Pedlar formation. The grain is best seen near the north end of the overlook, where the rocks are less weathered. Rock lovers only: go to the north end of the paved walk that runs along the wall. Turn around, walk 150 feet, then cross the Drive. There you'll find a boulder with a network of purple veins. These are iron oxide stains caused by weathering in ancient cracks, nearly a billion years ago. The cracks have since been "healed" by heat and pressure.


HIKE HN-19: Hogback Overlook and AT Circuit 0.7 mile; total climb about 100 feet; time required 0:35. See Map MN-5. An easy, pleasant walk. Park at small parking area at the AT crossing just beyond the south end of the overlook. Cross the Drive and take the AT uphill. From the edge of the Drive it's a little more than 200 yards to the summit - the crest of one of the four humps that make up Hogback Mountain. A hundred feet beyond the summit is a side trail that goes a hundred feet to the left, to the boulders above the overlook. There's a view from the boulders, but not as good as the view from the overlook.

Continue downhill on the AT and cross the Drive (with caution, because of the blind curve on your left). If you wish, continue ahead on the service road (see Hogback Summit Hike HN-20, below). If not, turn left and walk in the grass, back to the overlook and your starting point.



HIKE HN-20: Hogback Summit. Round trip 0.4 mile; total climb about 115 feet; time required 0:25. See Map MN-5. There are government radio installations on the summit of Hogback, up to the right of your view from the overlook. The walk to the top is short and easy. (You can get there by a slightly longer circuit route from mile 20.4 (Hike HN-19).)

From the north end of the overlook, continue north on the Drive for a short distance, then turn left on the service road which is more or less parallel to the AT and you have several options. On the summit are government radio installations. There is no view from the summit. If you want to lengthen the hike a little, continue on the AT down the far side of the crest for about 160 yards, to a side trail on the left that goes 25 yards to a hang glide launch site. There, at the top of a very steep slope, you have a view out into the Browntown Valley, with Gimlet Ridge to the left and Dickey Ridge to the right. If you go to the launch site, the total round trip from the edge of the Drive will be 0.6 mile, and the total climb about 195 feet.


MILE 21.1, AT CROSSING. Hike to Overall Run Falls. There is parking lot on the west side of the Drive just south of the Hogback Overlook. Distances on the AT: South (on the west side of the Drive) it's one mile to the Drive crossing at mile 22.0, with Rattlesnake Point Overlook in sight to the left. North (on the east side) it's 1.5 miles to Little Hogback Overlook, mile 19.7.

HIKE HN-21: Overall Run Falls. Semi-circuit 6.5 miles; total climb about 1,850 feet; time required 6:00. See MN-7. This is a fairly difficult hike; part of the trail is moderately steep, and part is rough and rocky. (If you're staying at Mathews Arm Campground, you might prefer the shorter and easier hike from the campground, (Hike HN-25). The access road to the campground is closed in winter.


The Upper Waterfalls
Above Overall Run Falls

Photo taken by Charlie Johnson

Take the white-blazed AT south from the parking area; you're near the right-hand edge of the map, a little above center.) About a third of a mile from the start, turn right onto the blue-blazed Tuscarora/Overland Run Trail, which after a short distance becomes moderately steep and rocky. At 0.7 mile from the AT, at a concrete marker post, the Tuscarora/Overlall Run Trail turns 90 degrees to the right. (The trail that continues ahead goes about a hundred yards, then connects with the Traces Trail that encircles the campground.)

From that concrete marker post, the blue-blazed Tuscarora/Overland Run Trail continues 1.6 miles to the yellow-blazed Mathews Arm horse trail on the left. Continue straight on the Tuscarora/Overland Run Trail. The trail descends and, after about a tenth of a mile, a short side trail branches off to the left. It leads fifty yards or so to a small overlook with a close view of the upper falls, which has a total drop of 29 feet. Like nearly all of the waterfalls in the park it's a cascade down the face of the rock, rather than a sheer plunge.

Return to the main trail and continue downhill. The trail goes down a stone staircase and then a steep gorge. Watch for one or more short side trails on the left. They lead to viewpoints at the top of the gorge, from which you can see the big falls - the highest in the park. Like the smaller one, it's a cascade down the face of the rocks; the total drop is 93 feet. When there's plenty of water it's a beautiful sight. In an unusually dry summer there's little or no water here.

Return uphill to the fire road and turn right. To add a little variety and make this hike a semi-circuit, turn right on the Mathews Arm Trail and fire road for a little more than 1.3 miles. (Take another look at Map MN-7.) Turn left on the Traces Trail and walk 0.6 mile to the junction with the connecting link. Turn left and go about a hundred yards to the junction with the Tuscarora/Overland Run Trail, which comes in from the left. Continue straight ahead, uphill. Turn left when you reach the white-blazed AT, and go another third of a mile to your starting point.


 
View to Right from Rattlesnake Point Overlook

MILE 21.9, RATTLESNAKE POINT OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,105 feet. There's a wide view from here; the sketch shows only the right-hand half of it. At the far left of the view is Hogback Mountain with its radio antennas. The Peak appears over the ridge that descends to the right from Hogback. Pignut Mountain, where the sketch begins, is a little to the right of straight out from the overlook. About halfway between The Peak and Pignut is Jenkins Mountain. You're not likely to see Blackrock (at the right-hand edge of the sketch) except in winter; it's near Big Meadows Lodge, nearly 18 miles away.

Geology: Across from the north (uphill) end of the overlook, and extending north from there, is a good exposure of the Catoctin basalt. Weathering and lichens have created a muted display of color, from pale tan and green to dark green and brownish purple. The rocks nearest the overlook are vesiculated. Bubble cavities in the lava were later filled by other minerals: white, light and dark green, and even pink. This is easy to see at the lower levels where the rock is freshly broken.

MILE 22.0, AT CROSSING. The crossing is about a hundred yards north of the milepost. Don't park here; you can't pull off a safe distance from the pavement. There's ample safe parking in the grass across from the entrance to the Piney River ranger area, a tenth of a mile to the south.

MILE 22.1 SERVICE ROAD, east side; entrance to the unsigned Piney River Area. If you're going to hike, park on the grass near the start of the Piney Branch Trail parking area.

Look at Map MN-5; you are at point "L," near top center of the map, on the edge of a network of trails and fire roads. A dozen or more circuit hikes are possible. Only one of them - the Piney Ridge and Piney Branch circuit - will be described here. (See HN-16 and HN-17 for hikes to Little Devils Stairs.) If you'd like to plan your own hike, use the following table to calculate the total distance and climb. Note that the amount of climbing between two trail junctions depends on which way you're going; it includes the net change in elevation, as well as the ups-and-downs of the trail. From "A" to "M", for example, the total climb is 795 feet; while from "M" to "A" it's only 630 feet.  

From To Dist.
miles
Climb
feet

A B 1.0 15
A M 2.9 795
B A 1.0 265
B C 1.4 20
B F 1.9 25
B J 1.0 25
C B 1.4 1285
C D 0.6 5
D C 0.6 235
D E 1.4 715
E D 1.4 20
E F 0.4 95
E G 0.4 0
F B 1.9 730
F E 0.4 0
F G 0.8 10
G E 0.4 205
G F 0.8 310
G H 0.4 0
      
From To Dist.
miles
Climb
feet

H G 0.4 285
H I 0.5 110
I H 0.5 5
I J 2.5 1095
I N 3.3 1475
J B 1.0 170
J I 2.5 55
J K 1.5 470
K J 1.5 15
K L 0.3 85
K M 0.4 5
K N 0.4 10
L K 0.3 5
L M 0.2 25
M A 2.9 630
M K 0.4 0
M L 0.2 0
N I 3.3 60
N K 0.4 90

 
Map MN-5 - Piney Branch and Little Devils Stairs Area

Click here for a printable map


Upper Piney River Falls
Photo taken by Glenn Wadsworth
HIKE HN-22: Piney Ridge-Piney Branch. Circuit 8.3 miles; total climb about 1,725 feet; time required 7:25. See Map MN-5. A rather difficult and tiring hike. In a few places the trail is steep. There are three stream crossings, and except in a dry season they might be troublesome. This is not a hike to take if you suspect high water. There is no problem with the crossings in summer unless the water is very high, but winter hikers should be concerned about the possibility of getting wet and the dangers of hypothermia. Features: a woods hike with no distant views, a cemetery and homesite, followed by a wonderful stream setting along the Piney Branch portion with two small waterfalls and numerous cascades and pools. Since this is a circuit hike, you can go in either direction. But if you go counterclockwise, as described here, there's less chance of mistaking road traces for the trail. There are concrete marker posts with directions and distances at all trail junctions.

From point " L" at top center of the map on this page, your route will be L- K-N-I-J-K-L. From the sign at your parking point take the blue-blazed Piney Branch Trail to point "K" on the map. (You will return to this point via the Piney Branch Trail.) Piney Branch Trail crosses the white-blazed AT in several hundred feet, turn right on AT and proceed to point "N." (The service road which you will cross also takes you to point "N." Because of the number of trails along with the service road in this area, it is strongly recommended that you confirm your intended trail and destination at the concrete marker posts. If you follow the service road a hundred yards farther, to its end, you'll come to the locked Range View Cabin, which has a pit toilet, also locked, and a spring. Please keep your distance if the cabin is occupied.

From point "N" on the map, turn left on the blue-blazed Piney Ridge Trail which goes along near the crest of the ridge for two miles. It's blue-blazed and smooth compared with what's coming later. Most of the trees are black locust, pine and other pioneer species. When the park was established this area was a goat pasture, with only a few trees left for shade. There are now many pine trees along the trail - all of them younger than the park, and much younger than the name of the ridge.


The Dwyer Family Cemetery
Photo taken by Linda Lavender

A little less than two miles after you leave the service road, there is a Dwyer family cemetery in the woods about 120 feet on your right. The cemetery is about 25 yards square and in the process of returning to wilderness. There are eleven inscribed stones, two metal markers, plus a dozen or so uninscribed fieldstone markers. The most recent burial was in 1927. According to one of the markers, a Mary G. Dwyer died in 1867 at 75. Some of the graves may be older. If you visit the cemetery, please respect the importance of this place - a significant link to the early residents of the area. Seven families of Dwyers, owning a total of 850 acres, lived near here in the area that became the park.

Just ahead, about 50 yards beyond the cemetery, is a trail junction with a concrete marker post. The blue-blazed Fork Mountain Trail follows an old road trace straight ahead and, a mile from the start, dead-ends at the Hull School Trail (lower left on Map MN-5). The Hull School Trail descends to meet the Piney branch Trail at point "H" on the map. There is a cemetery to the left of point "H" not visible from the trail. It is the Bowen cemetery (not to be confused with the Bolen cemetery at point "E"). It's well along toward returning to wilderness.

Now, back to the junction near the Dwyer cemetery. Turn left at the concrete marker post and stay on the blue-blazed Piney Ridge Trail. About 200 yards after the trail begins to descend sharply, you come to a former clearing. There was a homesite here on the left. The rocks were cleared by hand from garden and pasture. There is still evidence of habitation: foundations, broken brick, tile, and crockery; a walnut tree, and an old grapevine. Explore if you wish, but don't collect anything. Remnants of dwellings and possessions of the former residents are now artifacts and have been the subject of much research that has helped to understand the lifestyles and practices of the residents. The updated exhibits at the Byrd Visitor Center reflect this research.

From this point the trail follows an old road trace for a short distance, then swings right and a little uphill, while the road trace continues ahead. Watch for the blue blazes here. About 0.9 mile beyond the homesite, where the trail makes a fairly sharp switchback to the right, follow the blue-blazed Piney Ridge trail to the right for another 0.2 mile, until it dead-ends at the Piney Branch Trail. You are now at point "I" on the map. Turn left onto the blue-blazed Piney Branch trail.

You are now beginning a 2.5 mile uphill trek. The trail has been relocated to eliminate several stream crossings, but you will have two in this section. In several places the trail gets fairly steep. You will have a number of opportunities, about a half mile from the junction, to view cascades and small waterfalls. Keep your ears and eyes open and you should have no trouble finding them. The trail follows an old road trace in places and during the rest of the hike it will repeatedly join and leave old road traces.

After a second stream crossing, the trail continues for about two miles to the junction at point "J" on the map. During most of this distance the stream is down to your left, often out of sight.

Turn left at point "J" and cross the stream for the last time. Continue uphill another 1.2 miles to the parking area at point "L" on the map. You will cross the AT and a confusing utility right-of-way a short distance just before point "L." Because of the proliferation of trails in this area, check the marker post to confirm your path.

   
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