Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Big Flat Mountain Loop

Cedar Mountain, Blackrock, and Trayfoot over the Doyles River Watershed from Big Flat Mountain
3.4 miles loop, 550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

Although not one of the park's more well-known summits, Big Flat Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in the South District of Shenandoah National Park and delivers some great and unique views. Many visitors travel over the top of Big Flat Mountain each year without even knowing: the flat top of this mountain holds the South District's largest campground, Loft Mountain. This loop may be very crowded in the summer, when campers at Loft Mountain campground decide to explore their environs, but I had this hike entirely to myself on a Sunday in April before the campground had opened for the season. This hike is relatively easy but has an incredible payoff, with a unique and beautiful view of the South District of the park.

Big Flat Mountain shares, along with Trayfoot Mountain, the distinction of being the second highest peak in the South District of the Park (Hightop is the highest peak between US 33 and I-64). Big Flat Mountain is rather appropriately named- viewed from almost any point, the mountain is recognizable by its flat, nearly half-mile diameter mountaintop. The flatness of the peak made it a prime location for development, so the summit of the mountain is crowned by the Loft Mountain Campground, which was named for the mountain north of Big Flat rather than Big Flat itself, reportedly because the Park Service felt that "Big Flat" was not nearly as flattering a name as "Loft."

This hike makes a loop around the flat summit of Big Flat Mountain, thus also making a loop around the campground. When the campground is not closed for the winter, it is possible to shorten this hike to a 1.8 mile loop with minimal elevation gain by starting at the campstore.

I almost didn't do a hike on the weekend that I headed to Big Flat Mountain. At the end of the semester, I had much too much work to do and had gotten much too little sleep, so when I went on bed on Saturday night with raining pattering outside, I figured that I might just stay home for the weekend.

When I woke up early Sunday morning, though, the cloud cover was incredibly low- perhaps only a hundred feet or so overhead. I decided to go to Shenandoah, anyway, with no particular hike in mind. I-64 was entirely empty as I made my way west. One thing I realized I hadn't considered was what low cloud cover would mean about the drive up to Rockfish Gap. As soon as I-64 began its ascent up Scott Mountain, I was driving into fog so thick I could barely see the lanes on the highway. It was a rather nervewracking drive, especially given the history of bad accidents at Rockfish Gap.

Upon entering the park, the fog was still thick as ever. I began wondering what hike would be worth doing on such an incredibly foggy day when suddenly the sun pierced through the clouds at Moormans River Overlook. Blue sky was above; a sea of fog creeping up the mountain was below. The view at Moormans River Overlook, breathtaking on a normal day, was nothing short of inspiring that morning: clouds twisted their way up Pond Ridge, pines faded in and out of the mist, fog poured over Pasture Fence Mountain like a waterfall. Pieces of Bucks Elbow Mountain were intermittently visible.

To the north, the mountains seemed to be clearing up. I decided to continue north and hike somewhere with a viewpoint that I hadn't seen before. I stopped at many overlooks along the way: from Riprap and Horsehead Overlooks, I could see the fog sea filling Shenandoah Valley. Wisps of white and grey danced around the summit of Trayfoot and Blackrock.

Soon after, I reached the Big Run Overlook. Cotton-ball clouds floated through the Big Run Valley below the green peaks of Rockytop and Brown Mountain. A small bush of pinxter flower bloomed nearby.

Fog in the Big Run Valley
Arriving at the Doyles River Parking area at Mile 81, right across from the Big Run Overlook, I decided to do a loop around Big Flat Mountain to check out the views from that peak. After parking, I followed the Doyles River Trail 20 feet to the Appalachian Trail, which I followed north. From the Doyles River parking area, the trail began a steady but gentle climb. Less than a half mile from the trailhead on the AT, I came to the first rock viewpoint on this hike. A large greenstone outcrop provided a limited view west to Brown and Rocky Mountains. The trail was not terribly well maintained: multiple bushes grew well into the trail.

Appalachian Trail on Big Flat Mountain
Four-fifths of a mile from the trailhead, the trail reached the junction with the Big Flat Mountain loop. I continued following the Appalachian Trail, which headed right and continued a climb. The trail passed a viewpoint in the direction of Big Run Valley, leveled out, and then reached a junction with a trail leading to the Loft Mountain Campground. Just a few feet past that junction, I arrived at a spectacular chain of the viewpoints. Here, greenstone formed a small ring of cliffs around the flat summit of the peak. While these outcrops barely cleared the trees, they did provide amazing views. The largest of these outcrops provided a wide, unique, and beautiful view. The entirety of the southern half of the South District was splayed out before me. Most prominent were the connected peaks of Cedar Mountain, Blackrock, and Trayfoot. Cedar dominated across the valley of the Doyles River, while Blackrock poked up from the far end of the hollow around Jones Run. Trayfoot rose beyond that, with its southern side enshrouded in mist. Furnace Mountain, Rockytop Ridge, and Bucks Elbow Mountain were also visible from where I stood.

Fog in the Doyles River Valley
Past the viewpoint, the trail continued its circumnavigation of the summit. There were no more broad, sweeping vistas, but there were numerous views through the trees into the fog-covered Piedmont and of the broad peak of Little Flat Mountain. After passing close by to a number of campsites and by another trail leading to the campground, the trail swung north, heading through forest and past a power line clearing to a trail that led uphill to the campstore. I followed the trail up to the campstore and the abandoned road to the campground. Crossing the road, I took the small campground trail toward the amphitheater. At the amphitheater parking area, I took the grassy route that broke off to the left, which led downhill back to the AT. Along the way, I admired the last bare trees- here was a final vestige of winter. The forest floor, however, had been reclaimed by spring. Phlox bloomed in many spots.

Phlox along the AT
I did not run into another person until I was within earshot of the Doyles River Trailhead. I returned to the car, drove Skyline north to US 33, and returned to Charlottesville in time for a busy afternoon of music recitals and lab reports.


  1. You got some BEAUTIFUL fog shots on this hike! Nice!

    1. Thanks! Sunday morning was absolutely amazing- it was ethereal to hike in the mountains with fog in both the Piedmont and the Valley!