Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lewis Peak

A unique view of Massanutten Mountain, from Lewis Peak.
9.3 miles round trip, about 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to length
Access: Trailhead on Skyline Drive; Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The first time anyone in my family visited a national park was in 1979, when my parents came down to Front Royal from Philadelphia, drove the entirety of Skyline Drive, hiked up Stony Man and to a waterfall (they aren't sure which; I would guess the uppermost Whiteoak Canyon Fall), and arrived in Waynesboro- all in one day! Along the way, they stopped at a visitor center and bought a copy of the first edition of Henry Heatwole's Guide to Shenandoah.

In high school, the Heatwole guide became one of my favorite books- I read hike descriptions for fun and used the book to plan occasional family hiking trips to Mary's Rock, Hawksbill, Old Rag, and other well-known park attractions. What fascinated me the most was near the end of the book- a large, almost full-page map of the Big Run valley. Skyline Drive scraped the bottom right corner of the map, but the rest of the map was roadless: a complex of ridges, streams, and trails in one of the largest wild areas in Shenandoah National Park.

Since beginning to hike regularly in Shenandoah, I've passed by the Big Run area often, but I had yet to truly hike in it. An October hike took me to the summit of Loft Mountain and a view over the valley, a November drive had me stopping at the overlooks on an overcast and rainy day. The Big Run area is as wild as it looked on Heatwole's map. From the drive, the valley appears to be a huge bowl, bound on one side by the rumpled ridges of Rockytop with the high peak of Trayfoot behind it and on the other side by the exposed folds of sandstone on Rocky and Brown Mountains.

Saturday morning, three good friends and I head out from Charlottesville at 8. I threw out a couple hike options, secretly hoping that they would choose one that would bring me to the Big Run Valley; and they did, choosing a little-traveled hike to Lewis Peak.

Lewis Peak is a small, sharp (by Shenandoah standards) peak connected to the main ridge of Rockytop. I had done a good deal of prior reading on it on Summitpost (, which has a useful hike description. The hike started from Brown Gap, south of the Loft Mountain Development and Big Run.

The first half mile or so followed the Appalachian Trail to a small summit on the Blue Ridge crest; from there, the Big Run Loop Trail leads left and descends half a mile to the Rockytop Trail; following that for 2.5 miles led to the Lewis Peak Trail, which led for the final 1 mile to the summit of Lewis Peak.

The Rockytop Trail followed a mainly wooded ridgeline. In summer, it's likely that there are no views, but as we were hiking in February, there were obscured views of Big Flat, Loft, Cedar, Trayfoot, Brown, and Rocky Mountains, as well as the whole Big Run valley. Lewis Peak was visible as a sharp, triangular peak to the west for much of the time; the confusingly named Lewis Mountain was also visible. Shenandoah naming is awful: besides having adjacent mountains named "Lewis Mountain" and "Lewis Peak," there is another "Lewis Mountain" in the park, just south of the Big Meadows/Bearfence area. At a clearing near the intersection with the Lewis Peak Trail, there was an interesting view of the huge rock fold on Rocky Mountain, across the valley. I'm interested in checking it out- I'm hoping to do Rocky/Brown Mountain sometime this spring and perhaps bushwhack to the big rock fold if it isn't on the actual trail.

The first good views on the hike are at the talus slopes on the Lewis Peak Trail about 0.2 miles from the junction with the Rockytop Trail. The northern view takes in Massanutten, Lewis Peak itself, Rockytop, and there is a good view of the multiple rocky protrusions on Brown and Rocky Mountains. The talus slope on the other side of the mountain has a good view of Trayfoot. The only major descent/ascent of the entire hike is a roughly 350 foot descent to a gap between Rockytop Ridge and Lewis Peak and then a similar ascent to the summit of Lewis Peak.

The last 0.2 miles of ascent to the summit of Lewis Peak is one of the most spectacular segments of trail I've hiked in all of Shenandoah- up there with the ridgeline hike on Old Rag and the continuous views of the Stony Man/Passamaquoddy Loop. The trail switchbacks through a burn area caused by the Lewis Peak fire of 2006. As vegetation here is still low, the final ascent is on an open slope with wide views to the south. The trail passes a few yards away from the true summit of the peak before looping around the summit past a nice campsite to the principal viewpoint, which comes with a spectacular view to the north.

In the burn area on the Lewis Peak Trail.
Of particular note are some of the most concentrated areas of Skolithos I've seen in Shenandoah. Skolithos is a trace fossil left by Cambrian Era worms in the Erwin Formation in the Blue Ridge. The summit of Lewis Peak was a beach some 500 million years ago, before the Alleghenian Orogeny. That past is preserved in the white quartzite and sandstone of the Erwin Formation (;0), which you can find along the westernmost peaks in the South Section of the park, on Rocky Mount, here, Furnace Mountain, Turk Mountain, and some other peaks that border the valley. What was so cool about Lewis Peak is that the sandstone has been exposed so that the Skolithos are visible from above, appearing as dots in the rocks. It is some truly cool stuff.

Skolithos, fossilized worm-holes viewed from above. These Cambrian Era trace fossils can be found throughout the white sandstone of the Erwin Formation in the southern part of the park.
There is nearly a 360-view atop the peak; only a small part of the view of the Valley is obscured. A bonus to doing this hike is the solitude: the only other hikers we ran into were two backpackers on the Rockytop Trail.
View north from Lewis Peak: Stony Man and Hawksbill are visible in the distance. Rocky Mount, King and Queen Rocks on Brown Mountain, and Rockytop are closer.

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