Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hightop backdoor

Hightop view of Rocky Mount and Massanutten
4 miles round trip, 950 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Hightop- as its name suggests- is the tallest peak in the South District of Shenandoah National Park, lying just south of the Swift Run Gap entrance. The views from atop Hightop are quite good and are among the better views visitors can find in this part of the park. This hike is the "Hightop backdoor" if we consider the "Hightop" hike to be the regular approach from the north starting at the Hightop Parking Area. The hikes are fairly similar, but this hike offers a bit more to check out at Hightop Hut. The hike, which follows a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, is not too difficult and is easy to reach due to its proximity to US Route 33; while it is a fairly popular hike, this peak sees just a fraction of the traffic that descends upon Hawksbill, Stony Man, and Marys Rock on nice weekends.

Two friends and I left Charlottesville on a weekend morning and made our way into the park by Route 33. Signs of spring were everywhere as we drove through the hollow of Swift Run, but faded as we reached Skyline Drive, where we headed south. After a brief stop at the Swift Run Overlook, we continued to Smith Roach Gap, the trailhead, about four miles south of the park entrance.

We began on the fire road heading east from Smith Roach Gap but then immediately turned onto the Appalachian Trail, which headed north and began a steady uphill. Spring had not yet reached the canopy here, but on the ground there was plenty of new green grass and wildflowers.

A little over a mile from the trailhead, we came to a fire road intersection and shortly afterward the spur trail to Hightop Hut. Hightop Hut is one of the many backcountry huts in the park for AT thru-hikers or other long distance backpackers. We checked out the environs of the hut before returning to the AT and continuing north and uphill.

Hightop Hut
At the end of this uphill, we arrived on the flat summit area. We checked out the forested true summit and the fire tower remnants and found a good nearby campsite before returning to the trail and hiking to the best (and only) view of the hike, a large greenstone outcrop with a wide, sweeping view of the South District and  Shenandoah Valley.

Hightop view of Flattop to Bucks Elbow and Trayfoot
During my previous visit to the summit of Hightop, the view had been good but the farthest peaks were hidden by smog. This visit was much different. Visibility was amazing: we could see at least 70 miles to Big and Little House Mountains by Lexington. To the south, we could see past Flattop, Loft, Trayfoot, and Bucks Elbow to Humpback and Devil's Knob, outside the park on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

View south
It was a very windy day and fairly cold as well. We had a great view of the dry slopes of Massanutten Mountain, on which the ongoing (at the time of writing this post) Shipwreck Fire started the next day. The winds, which we felt that day, didn't die down all week, resulting in at least 3000 burnt acres.

On our return trip, we descended to the fire road intersection, then took a left and followed the fire road back down to Smith Roach Gap. This gave for a slight change of scenery: the fire road was broad and grassy and many dandelions and other wildflowers grew in the middle of it. Parts of this descent were quite steep. The fire road eventually came to an intersection with another fire road, which we turned right at and followed back for a final flat half mile to Smith Roach Gap.

Dandelions on the fire road

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