Monday, May 6, 2013

Duncan Knob

View south from Duncan Knob
3.4 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain

The short hike to the summit of Duncan Knob from the Gap Creek Trailhead affords a spectacular view for fairly little effort. Duncan Knob is one of the many summits of Massanutten Mountain, the long mountain that cuts Shenandoah Valley into two, so it affords good views of both the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and Great North Mountain and the Alleghenies to the west.

I hiked Duncan Knob on a very early September morning. I had to return to Charlottesville by noon, so I woke up before the sunrise and drove north up Route 29 to Ruckersville, then west on Route 33 to Elkton across Swift Run Gap, then north along US 340. The scenery on US 340 was magnificent in the early morning: Massanutten Mountain rose above a layer of fog near Elkton, and the sun rose while I drove up Page Valley with the Blue Ridge on one side and Massanutten on the other. I turned right (west) at US 211 and followed it up to New Market Gap, and then took Crisman Hollow Rd, a poorly marked turn, at the top of the pass. It is easy to miss this road; just know to turn right once you reach the highest point along US 211. Crisman Hollow Road wound its way up the mountain, coming to a spectacular view of the sunrise before entering Fort Valley. I drove about 5 miles on Crisman Hollow Road to the Gap Creek Campground. The area is not well marked, but it is the pull-off to the right of the road about 2 miles after the Scothorn Gap Trailhead.

Sunrise on Massanutten Mountain

Finding the trailhead from the parking area was rather difficult. Gap Creek Campground has a short bumpy road that parallels Crisman Hollow Road with campsites on it: from the far (north) end of the campground, I hiked south into the campground road and found the trail heading back into the woods from the back of the second campsite in the area. Unfortunately, these campsites were not well maintained and in some cases had quite a bit of litter by them. To know that you're on the right trail, you'll see blue blazes and you'll cross a creek on a bridge right after leaving the campsite.

From the trailhead, the blue-blazed trail ascends through the fairly young woods. There are occasional signs of past human use and habitation along this trail. The ascent isn't terribly steep or long, but there aren't views to entertain; after a mile or so from the trailhead, the Gap Creek Trail intersects the Scothorn Gap Trail. From here, I continued on the blue-blazed trail, climbing along the south slope of Duncan Knob towards Peach Orchard Gap, which was occasionally visible through the trees. After about a mile and a half of hiking from the trailhead, I arrive at Peach Orchard Gap, where morning sunlight streamed through the trees.

Forest at Peach Orchard Gap

I headed left up the white-blazed Duncan Knob Trail from the gap. The Duncan Knob trail was a little overgrown, but was still fairly easy to follow as it ascended quickly through the woods. However, the trail got progressively rockier and eventually faded when I arrived at the rock scramble. Here, the trail disappeared at the foot of a huge sandstone talus slope. A few cairns marked the way but weren't terribly easy to follow; I ended up just picking my own route up the talus slope up, cutting towards the west (left) side of the peak. As I scrambled upward, amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Page Valley opened up behind me. At the end of the scramble, having lost the trail, I forced my way up a narrow chute of talus and arrived at the summit ridgeline. I walked out onto a sandstone ledge atop the peak and took in the huge view, which included everything from Hawksbill down through the South District of Shenandoah, Strickler Knob on Middle Mountain, Fort Valley, and Great North Mountain. I spent twenty minutes soaking in the views before I scrambled down the rocks again, found the trail after the rock scramble, and made my way back to Charlottesville to be on time for the rest of my day.

View into Fort Valley from Duncan Knob
I would encourage you to take note of where you come up onto the rock scramble if you do decide to hike Duncan Knob, as I imagine it'd be quite easy to get lost when trying to find the white-blazed trail on the way back down the mountain.

Some notes on geology: Duncan Knob is one of the easiest places to observe the difference in the physiographic regions of Virginia. To the east, it is possible to see the distinct summits and peaks of the Blue Ridge, while to the west it is possible to see the endless flat, parallel ridges that make the Ridge and Valley. It is also possible to see that Massanutten Mountain itself belongs to a similar Ridge and Valley structure as that found further west. Unlike the more complex folding of the Blue Ridge anticlinorium to the east, Massanutten Mountain is part of the Massanutten synclinorium, a less complex fold in which the top of the syncline has eroded, leaving the more resistant rock layers as the ridges that bound each side of Fort Valley.

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