Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Elliott Knob

View north toward Shenandoah Mountain
8.4 miles round trip, 2450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead; very limited parking

Elliott Knob is one of the highest peaks in the northern and central parts of Virginia, so it shouldn't be surprising that the summit has great views over Shenandoah Valley, the Allegheny Mountains, and the Blue Ridge. This hike unexpectedly became one of my favorite hikes when I climbed Elliott Knob. I say unexpectedly because I certainly did not expect to love this hike: the last mile or so is a steep climb up a gravel road with a power line, the hike starts from a parking-less turnoff for a gated road, and the summit area is crowned with radio transmission towers. That didn't make for a great combination, but despite this, I ended up enjoying this hike quite a bit: the waterfalls in Falls Hollow are gorgeous and the views from atop Elliott Knob are quite impressive.

Elliott Knob is the high point of Great North Mountain. It is one of the highest peaks in this part of Virginia: it stands at 4463 feet as the highest mountain that directly abuts Shenandoah Valley. Hawksbill and Stony Man, the highest peaks in Shenandoah, are a full 400 feet shorter than Elliott Knob. From the South District of Shenandoah, Elliott Knob is ubiquitous: views from Furnace Mountain, Lewis Peak, Turk Mountain, Riprap, etc. all feature Elliott Knob towering over Shenandoah Valley. The prominence of this mountain drew me to hike it despite what I already knew to be the shortcomings about the trail.

I set out early on an April morning, with the sun rising as I drove west out of Charlottesville on I-64. The view was incredible as I passed Rockfish Gap. To the north, the early morning rays lit up Trayfoot and Turk Mountains, and the Blue Ridge was a vibrant, almost electric green. I continued west on I-64 until it merged into I-81 south; on I-81 south, the redbud was still in bloom. Immediately after getting on I-81, I took VA 262 west. I followed 262 into I got to VA 254 (Parkersburg Turnpike), which I took west. Coming off the ramp from 262 to 254, there was yet another incredible view- this time of the Ridge and Valley Appalachians stretching to the north.

VA 254 is a ridiculously beautiful country road that epitomizes everything about Shenandoah Valley. The road passed through 2 small hamlets before breaking out into the farmland of the Virginia countryside. Cows grazed in grass set blazing with color by the early sun, and in front of my windshield I could see the high, commanding pointy-top of Elliott Knob. VA 254 merged into VA 42, which I took west, at Buffalo Gap. VA 42 drove straight through the narrow water gap cut into Little North Mountain. About two miles past Buffalo Gap, I turned off at the trailhead. The trailhead is easy to miss: It is a gated forestry road with no parking area. To confirm that you're at the right place, get off at the forestry road and check to see if there's a trail sign that indicates "Elliott Knob 4 miles." I parked along the side of the road and then started my way up the trail.

The beginning of the trail is almost boring. The fire road ascends gently, with yellow blazes, and bends first to the right, and then to the left. A number of spur forestry roads run off to the right of the road, but the main road is pretty easy to follow. At about a mile in, the trail widens into a few clearings. A mile and a half from the trailhead, the road starts to narrow into a trail, which comes to and follows the left side of Falls Hollow Run.

The next section of trail- about a mile or so- is one of the most pleasant of the hike. The ascent is still gentle as the trail goes up Falls Hollow Run, passing many small cascades. The trail crosses the run fully twice, and once the trail crosses the run halfway by going onto an island in the run. The crossings were quite easy and could be done by rock-hop, but it's possible that they could be a little more challenging during periods of higher water.

Small waterfall on Falls Hollow Run
After crossing back to the left bank of the run, the gradient of the ascent steepens. The trail climbs high above Falls Hollow Run. Many more waterfalls are visible on the run through the trees, but getting to those falls would be a nasty bushwhack. The trail then flattens out and rejoins the run near the most impressive waterfall that I saw, which required a short bushwhack downhill. Small sandstone cliffs towered above the stream in this part of the hollow.

Waterfall in Falls Hollow
Just uphill of this waterfall, a small spur trail lead to this drop; it was difficult to see the full falls.

Upper waterfall in Falls Hollow
After passing the final falls in the hollow, the trail continued along the stream for another hundred meters before taking a sharp turn. This sharp turn is marked by three yellow diamonds on a tree. Be sure to turn here; the former trail continues but is blocked off with some brush. So when the going gets hard and you're struggling through a pile of brush, make sure you're still on the trail. The turn leads to a much narrower trail that cuts through forest and some mountain laurel as it heads south and east. There is minimal elevation gain until the end. In a little under a mile, the trail reaches the ridgeline of one of the flanks of Elliott Knob. Here, it ends at a gravel road in a powerline clearing.

From here to the top, the hike follows the gravel road. On the way back, a set of three yellow diamonds mark the spot where the trail intersects the road.

The road was tough. It's only a mile and a bit from the junction with the gravel road to the summit, but it took me nearly 35 minutes to get up it. The road ascends 1200 feet in a mile. The ascent was quite taxing, but at any point I was able to turn around and see a narrow view of Shenandoah Valley from the clearing around the road. As I climbed higher, the views improved.

Steep gravel road up Elliott Knob
After a rather tiring half hour of ascent, I finally came within sight of the transmission towers. At this point, I was close to the top; the road flattened out a little, I passed by a man-made pond on the right of the trail, and most importantly I entered a new climate zone. Whereas the lower slopes of the mountain were populated with the standard eastern hardwood mix, high up on Elliott Knob, above 4200 feet or so, were multiple stands of red spruce. Spruce survives in colder climates and is a rarity in Virginia.

Red spruce atop Elliott Knob
Past the first spruce stands, I continued the final climb. After passing by the junction for the North Mountain Trail, the road ended in a cul-de-sac at the top of the ridge next to the transmission towers. A less maintained, grassy road continued on the western side of the crest; I followed this road toward the top of the knob. Just a few yards up the road, I came to a rock ledge on the left side of the road. This ledge opened to an incredible view of the Calf Pasture River Valley and of Shenandoah Mountain.

View west to Shenandoah Mountain
On my way back, I took a nap on this rock. On my way up, I continued after taking some photos. A hundred yards or so further on, the grassy road flattened out onto the grassy summit of the knob, at 4463 feet. From the grassy area, there was a view to the east of the Blue Ridge; however, here, the views did not poke up much beyond the trees. Behind the grassy area were multiple spruce stands on the summit, and a fenced-off old fire lookout tower. It's illegal to trespass and ascend the lookout tower but I've heard the views are amazing.

Fire Tower atop Elliott Knob
I spent a while at the summit area enjoying the views of Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge, and Buffalo Gap to the east, and of Shenandoah Mountain to the west and north. To the east, I could see Massanutten Mountain and all of the Blue Ridge from Hightop down to Maintop. I spent nearly two hours at the summit before heading down; over the course of the entire hike, I ran into only 2 people hiking and a horseback group on the initial forestry road on my way back.

Blue Ridge from Elliott Knob


  1. Thank you, this was a great write up that prepared me for this part of my hike. During July 2017, a hiking partner and I completed a round trip hike from Shenandoah Boy Scout Camp to the top of Elliot Knob and back. The 18 mile trek took about 8.5 hours and it was definitely worth every step, including the last 2 miles of the grueling, rocky and rutted service road (where Falls Hollow trail intersects, upward, actually 1.8-1.9 miles). We started at 1700 feet and summited the knob at 4400 feet – somewhere just over 50,000 steps and almost 4000 feet in elevation gain!! The view from the fire tower is absolutely amazing and the cold breeze was extremely nice. Hikers should bring lots of water or prepare to filter water from the creeks along the way if you hike during the summer. I left with 4 liters in my backpack and used every drop!

    1. I'm glad you found this post helpful! That's a long haul from the Boy Scout Camp up to the summit- impressive hike! I agree that this hike is tough- probably one of the toughest summit day hikes in the state. Thanks for visiting!