Friday, March 16, 2012


View of Hanse Mountain and US 33 from Hightop
3 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy

Hightop is the highest peak in the South District of Shenandoah. The relatively short and moderate trail to the summit makes it one of the more appealing hikes in this area of the park. The hike's proximity to the Swift Run Gap entrance makes it even more popular.

I did this hike last July with my family. My parents came down to Charlottesville on a Saturday afternoon and we headed up I-64 to Rockfish Gap and onto Skyline Drive. This was my very first visit to the South District of Shenandoah: since then, I've returned over 14 times. We didn't stop at any overlooks on our way along the drive, as we were set on getting to Loft Mountain campground before the campground filled up. In retrospect, this was a bit disappointing: it took me until November to finally stop at all of the overlooks in the district and learn what I missed out by skipping all the viewpoints along the way.

We nabbed one of the last spots at the Loft Mountain Campground that night, right next to the water storage tanks atop the mountain. While the proximity of the water tanks made the location suboptimal, there was a decent view from our campsite due to our proximity to the summit of the mountain. One of the most amusing facts about Loft Mountain campground is that it is not actually on Loft Mountain, but instead on nearby Big Flat Mountain. The campground was apparently not named after Big Flat Mountain because the park deemed that "Big Flat" didn't have quite the same ring to it as "Loft."

We hiked some of the trails around the campground after dinner, following a short segement of the AT between the campstore and the south end of the campground. However, I only later learned that had we hiked a little farther, we would reach greenstone outcrops with views to the south. But that leaves me something to check out in the future!

After a fairly warm night, we awoke the next morning to beautiful sunrise colors painted on the sky and the mountains to the north. We ate breakfast, packed up, and made our way north along Skyline Drive to the trailhead.

Sunrise at Loft Mountain Campground
The trailhead was at about mile 68 of Skyline Drive, barely a mile south of the Swift Run Gap Entrance. There was parking on the west side of the road and the trail followed the Appalachian Trail on the east side of the drive.

We followed the trail up the side of the mountain. The elevation gain wasn't gentle, but it also wasn't terribly steep. For the most part it wound through traditional Shenandoah woodland. We did the hike at a fairly relaxed pace, resting during some of the ascents. There were few extended flat sections of the trail: for the most part, the trail climbed at a steady but never too steep incline.

An hour out from the trailhead, we reached the rock outcrop viewpoints near the summit of Hightop. A few yards past the second, wider rocky viewpoint, I followed a faint, unmarked trail leads to the left to the true summit of Hightop, where there were the concrete remains of the base of a former fire tower. The summit was wooded, however, and had no views, so I backtracked to the main Hightop viewpoint.

The greenstone outcrop here was not as prominent as the ones at Stony Man or Humpback: the rocks just barely reach above the trees to allow the view. The view encompasses much of the South District of the park: directly to the south, Flattop is the nearby summit with buildings atop it,  Bucks Elbow is faintly visible to the southeast in the far distance, Trayfoot is the sharp peak directly south and fairly far away, Loft Mountain is the peak right behind Flattop, and Brown Mountain and Rockytop are stubbier mountains to the southwest. Closer in the field of view are Rocky Mount and Hanse Mountain, a solitary hill that rises to the south of US 33, which cuts through the forest on its way into Shenandoah Valley. The southern end of Massanutten is also visible.

View south to Rocky Mount and Massanutten Mountain
Hightop is one of the many creatively named peaks in this part of the park. Nearby peaks are named Roundtop and Flattop, and a different mountain closer to the originally named Big Flat Mountain is confusingly named High Top Mountain.

As I noted earlier, the rock that makes up the peak of Hightop is greenstone. From Hightop, it is easy to see the two layers of the Blue Ridge here: directly to the south is the Flattop-Loft-Cedar-Bucks Elbow Catoctin formation layer, while to the south west is the Hanse-Rocky Mount-Brown Mountain-Rockytop-Trayfoot Chilohwee sedimentary layer. The Catoctin layer makes up most of the highest peaks in this part of the park (Hightop, Big Flat, Loft, Cedar), but the slightly lower western layer forms the actual divide between the Rivanna and Shenandoah River watersheds.

Swift Run, which lies just north of Hightop and flows down from Swift Run Gap, is the northernmost stream that drains into the Rivanna River. South River, the stream to the north of Swift Run, and all the streams up through Manassas Gap drain into the Rappahannock-Rapidan watershed.

View south

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