Monday, March 12, 2012

Humpback Rocks

Fall colors on Dobie Mountain, from Humpback Rocks
2 miles round trip, 720 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, free parking

Humpback Rocks is easily the most popular hike on the northern Blue Ridge parkway and it's not hard to understand why: this massive rock outcrop delivers an airy and magnificent view of Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge, and the Piedmont. The trailhead is close to I-64 and US 250 and the hike quickly pops hikers atop a big rock with a tremendous view. The hike is particularly popular with students from the University of Virginia, who frequently make the short drive out here from Charlottesville to see the sunrise from this peak. I have done this trail more times than I've done any other trail- at the time of writing, I've done the Humpback hike seven times, five times for sunrises (and at a later edit time, ten times, seven sunrises).

Yet there are some serious drawbacks to this hike. The number one issue is the crowds: on a weekend, there are likely to be tens of hikers on this trail at once. On specific mornings, you might find a hundred people on the rocks to watch the sunrise. The only times I've not had to share these rocks have been a weekday morning (non-sunrise) in July and a sunrise on July 4th weekend two years ago. Another drawback are the state of the rocks themselves: visitors have not been kind to this natural feature. Graffiti is scrawled all over the upper portion of the rocks. However, hikers can also escape the crowds by continuing on from the rocks to hike all of Humpback Mountain, with more great views, or hike nearby Dobie Mountain.

I would imagine that this page might be useful for the multitude of UVA student groups that always plan group hikes to the rocks, so I'll post a detailed set of directions for getting to the trailhead from the east:

Take I-64 west to exit 99 onto US 250. Turn right onto US 250 at the end of the ramp. As soon as you pass under the I-64 bridge, there'll be a sign for Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway on the right; turn here. This drive goes a hundred yards to an intersection with Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn right onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and follow it for 5 miles south. The trailhead is at Humpback Gap Overlook, which will be a turnoff on the left side of the road. The total driving time from Charlottesville is around 30 minutes. If you are leaving from Charlottesville and hoping to see a sunrise, plan on being on the road 75 minutes before sunrise.

I'll detail a sunrise hike I did to the rocks in July. Three good friends and I decided to do this hike on July 4th weekend. We left Charlottesville an hour before sunrise and quickly made it up to Rockfish Gap and over to the trailhead. As we began the ascent, we got a few glimpses of the city lights of Waynesboro. Half an hour before sunrise, the sky was already beginning to brighten.

We went uphill immediately. The trail was wide and covered with gravel for the first part of the ascent. A half mile of climbing from the trailhead, the ascent was half over and trail leveled out briefly. Here, the trail had a flat/downhill portion and followed the west side of the mountain before continuing the ascent. There was also an old trail here that is a more direct route to the summit. That trail had become badly eroded and so it was now blocked off. Don't take it- let the mountain recover.

We continued the ascent up the mountain's west slope, climbing by stairs and switchbacks for another half mile until reaching the ridgetop. This marked the end of our ascent: we followed the trail to an intersection and took the right fork, which led downhill to the rocks. Once at the rocks, a bit of easy scrambling brought us to the top of the rocks and a gorgeous view. Five minutes after we arrived, the sun began to pop out from the horizon, brightening up the pink and purple skies.

Humpback Rocks Sunrise
This trail is fairly steep and may be challenging for anyone who doesn't have much experience hiking. Anyone planning on doing a sunrise hike in the spring or fall should know that the temperatures atop the rock during those times are often 20 degrees below those recorded in Charlottesville mid-morning. In other words, bring a jacket or you'll be cold!

The view from Humpback is about 270 degrees and is incredibly grand, in part because Humpback Mountain is the first major 3000-foot peak south of Rockfish Gap. To the east, Afton Valley and Castle Rock are visible. To the north, the entire spine of the Blue Ridge can be seen: just below Humpback is Dobie Mountain and further north are Afton, Scott, Bear Den, Calf, and Bucks Elbow Mountains. Bucks Elbow is the peak that protrudes farthest to the east. Trayfoot, Blackrock, Cedar, and Rocks Mountain are also visible. A little further west, the southern half of Massanutten is visible. Above Shenandoah Valley, much of Great North Mountain is visible: Elliot Knob is directly to the west, while on a very clear day the Tibbet Knob/Big Schloss area might be visible on the West Virginia border! The peaks of St. Mary's Wilderness are closer and to the west, while right behind the rocks is Humpback Mountain itself.

Labelled northward view from Humpback Rocks
Dobie and Afton Mountains and Shenandoah National Park from Humpback
Humpback Rocks
Blue Ridge Parkway
A short note on geology: Humpback Rocks is a very typical rock outcrop of the Blue Ridge crest. Like Stony Man further north in Shenandoah, the rocks are a large exposed chunk of greenstone of the Catoctin formation. A note on the rocks themselves rather than the geology: if you scramble down to the lower rocks, you'll notice large amounts of lichen, which are entirely absent on the upper rocks. The difference between the upper and lower rocks that allow lichen to grow in one are but not the other? People! So many people visit that it's impossible for lichen to grow on the upper rocks. In fact, some of the areas on the upper rocks have been walked smooth by the many hikers who come here.

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