Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hogback/Sugarloaf Loop

View of Gimlet and Dickey Ridges and Browntown Valley from Little Hogback
5 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain (or 5.5 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain)
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Hogback/Sugarloaf loop is a hike on the highest peak in the North District of the park that uses the AT, a fire road, and a fairly gentle forest trail to loop around some fun terrain. On my visit, my friends and I added a half-mile round trip side trip down Little Devil Stairs to see the waterfall at the very top of the gorge; the distances and elevation gain indicated in parentheses refer to that hike.

Three weeks into my internship in Maryland, I decided that I had to return to my favorite mountains. I talked five other interns into joining me on a hike in the park on a very warm but quite beautiful Saturday. We left Maryland around 8 and made our way across the broad Piedmont on I-66. The rolling Virginia countryside, the pastoral landscape of the Blue Ridge foothills, comforted me significantly- I had sorely missed them in my month and a half absence from the area. When we descended on VA 55 into Front Royal with Signal Knob rising above the town and then reached the north entrance of the park, I felt a sense of familiarity, even though I was only visiting this part of the park for the first time.

Just a few minutes into the park on Skyline Drive, we came to the Signal Knob Overlook, a spectacular viewpoint over the Shenandoah Valley that faced Hogback and Mt. Marshall. From Dickey Ridge, Massanutten Mountain looked much more jagged and dramatic than it did further south. Hogback, although far from being the highest peak in the park, seemed like a giant here, rising grandly from the lower Blue Ridge to the north.

Shenandoah Valley from Signal Knob Overlook
Continuing south, I continued my first-time tour of many of the North District's overlooks. I found another favorite in what is apparently everyone's favorite North District overlook: Range View. Here, Hogback rose significantly and the great peaks of the Central District- Mary's Rock, the Pinnacle, Stony Man, Old Rag- formed layers upon layers to the south.

Blue Ridge from Range View Overlook
After a slow meander along Skyline, we finally arrived at the trailhead, at mile 21 of the drive, a small parking area on the west side of the Drive just south of the Hogback Overlook. This is the same trailhead that I used for the Overall Run Falls hike- by driving to this trailhead, I finally fully completed the mileage of Skyline Drive, a rather embarrassing fact considering I had already hiked over 100 distinct miles of trails in the park at that point.

From the trailhead, we crossed Skyline Drive and picked up the Appalachian Trail on the east side of the road. The trail immediately began a gentle climb, circling behind Hogback Overlook right above the Drive with occasional views through the trees into Shenandoah Valley. We soon passed by the turnoff for the Sugarloaf trail to the right; we continued north on the Appalachian Trail. We soon passed through a forest floor full of ferns, a very pretty sight.

Ferns on the forest floor
The trail then crossed Skyline Drive and began a fairly gentle climb up the humps of Hogback Mountain. The trail skirted to the south side of the summit of Hogback and passed a hang-gliding site. While the hang-gliding launch site seemed like it would have good views west into Shenandoah Valley, it was closed at the time that we hiked by it. Continuing on, we began to descend down the east side of Hogback. The trail dropped quickly, switchbacking a couple of times as it went down. Along the way, we saw some of the last of Shenandoah's beautiful mountain laurel. My previous Shenandoah hike (Blackrock and Furnace Mountain) had been at the very start of mountain laurel season and this one had come at the very end; it was unfortunate that I had missed most of the mountain laurel in full bloom.

The last remnants of mountain laurel
The descent ended at a grassy saddle between Hogback and Little Hogback, which was cleared mainly for the nearby overlook on Skyline Drive, which was just uphill. The grassy saddle was still pleasant, with a view north and west to Gimlet Ridge.

Past the saddle, a spur trail on the right led to Skyline Drive. We stayed on the Appalachian Trail and very soon came to a greenstone outcrop that jutted out on Little Hogback mountain. The rock had a view slightly wider than that at the overlook- here, we could see Dickey Ridge, Signal Knob, and Hogback right beside us. We ate lunch and enjoyed the cooler mountain weather for a while.

View of Gimlet Ridge and Signal Knob from Little Hogback
A little further down from Little Hogback, we came to a junction with the Jinney Gray/Keyser Run Fire Road. We took the trail to the right, following it to a parking area and crossing Skyline Drive. We then followed the Keyser Run Fire Road, a flat and fairly nondescript segment of the hike. After most of a mile or so, we came to an intersection with the Little Devil Stairs Trail. While we hadn't originally planned to head down Little Devil Stairs, we decided to check out the top of the canyon. Going downhill on the Little Devil Stairs trail, we quickly descended about 300 feet in the course of a few tenths of a mile. We paused once we reached Keyser Run at the top of the canyon and found a small waterfall just off the trail.

Waterfall at the head of Little Devil Stairs
We decided to avoid heading further down the canyon and instead returned to the four-way intersection with the Keyser Run Fire Road. The climb back up was rather tiring that day- it was quite warm outside. Once at the four-way, we took the Pole Bridge Link Trail, which headed uphill slowly until it intersected the Sugarloaf Trail. The Sugarloaf Trail ascended gently up the south slope of Hogback, with pleasant forest scenery along the way. Before we knew it, we had returned to the top of the ridge and the Appalachian Trail. We followed the AT south, passing behind the Hogback Overlook and crossing Skyline Drive to return to the parking area, ending a good hike in the North District.