Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spy Rock

Devil's Knob, Three Ridges, and Trayfoot Mt. in the far, far distance
3 miles round trip, 1150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, with a bit of rock scrambling at the end
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The 360-degree view from Spy Rock is one of the most remarkable in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Located on the flank of Maintop Mountain, the rock provides a stunning full panorama of the Blue Ridge south of Rockfish Gap. The rock is accessible via a short though at times steep hike with a brief rock scramble at the end. As of December 2020, the popular trailhead at Montebello Fish Hatchery is closing, which may make it necessary to reach this trailhead from the Crabtree Meadows Trailhead (or the Crabtree Falls Trail for those without a 4WD) in the future via a much longer hike.

I did this hike on a crisp early October morning with a friend. We left Charlottesville just before sunrise for the 90-minute drive to Montebello. I took I-64 west and then took exit 107 to US 250 west to VA 151. The sun rose as we drove through Rockfish Valley, with early morning fall light hitting Humpback and Devil's Knob as we passed by spectacular roadside maples. After crossing a gap through some of the Blue Ridge foothills south of Nellysford, we came to VA 56, which we took west (right). VA 56 followed the Tye River past Massie's Mill, with spectacular views of the Priest and Three Ridges. The road narrowed as we ascended into the mountains, passing Crabtree Falls and the turnoff for Meadows Rd. before we finally came to the Montebello Fish Hatchery on the south (from our direction, left) side of the road. We turned into the Fish Hatchery and followed signs for the trailhead to reach the trailhead for Spy Rock, which was a small, fenced-off parking area adjacent to a grassy field.

Two gravel roads headed into the mountains from the trailhead. The trail follows the gravel road to the right (not the one that seems to be a continuation of the road that you drove in on to the trailhead). The first mile of the hike follows this gravel road, which ascends, sometimes steeply, through hardwood forest. This part of the hike would likely be nondescript for much of the year, but during fall, the entire forest was brightly lit up with color. Along the way, another gravel road branches off from the main gravel road; follow the branch that continues uphill.

Fall foliage on the gravel road
After a mile of ascent from the trailhead, the gravel road reaches a saddle on Maintop Mountain. From here, we took the Appalachian Trail north (left). The AT began a steady climb up Maintop Mountain, passing a small gate. The trail began by following the crest but soon swung to south of the ridgeline. We continued on this section of the AT for a half mile (a little over 10 minutes) before spotting Spy Rock through the trees. A little after first spotting it off to our right, we came to a saddle with a few cleared campsites.

Forest along the Appalachian Trail
Here, we split from the AT and hiked along the saddle towards the base of Spy Rock. The last section of the hike was a fun rock scramble. Spy Rock is a large chunk of exposed granite that pops out from the ridge, so getting to the top required a fun scramble upward. This rock scramble may be challenging to those not accustomed to rock scrambling- it was a step above Bearfence Mountain in Shenandoah but certainly much easier than Old Rag. Towards the end of the scramble, the rock began to flatten out and views to the west opened up. At the top of the rock, we found incredible 360-degree views. The most immediately striking part of the vista was to the south: Spy Rock towered over the valley of the Piney River. Across the valley were the Friar, the Cardinal, and Mt. Pleasant. To the west were Rocky Mountain and Elk Pond Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a view through a gap to Shenandoah Valley. Close by to the north was Maintop Mountain. Far to the north, there was a beautiful view of distant Trayfoot Mountain rising out of the Valley, and more close by the peaks of Devil's Knob and Three Ridges. To the east was the many humps of the Priest and the color-saturated fall forests of the Piedmont.

The Priest from Spy Rock

Maintop Mountain and Shenandoah Valley
While the view into the Piney River watershed from the top was brilliant, I found an even better viewpoint to the south on the south side of the rock. Here, a faint trail leads off the rock steeply downhill. The path cuts through the trees for a hundred yards or so and then emerges on a broad, open slab of granite. The view from this outcrop was much more open to the south: I could see a farm in the valley below and all the peaks that I had seen from atop the rock.

View of the Cardinal and Mt. Pleasant from the lower outcrop on Spy Rock
This hike has become one of my favorites in the state: the view from atop the rock is truly stunning. The peaks encompassed in the vista include most of the highest peaks in this part of the Blue Ridge (The Priest, Three Ridges, Maintop, Mt. Pleasant, Elk Pond, and Rocky). The trail itself, while not as spectacular as the end view, is also fun and enjoyable.

View to the south
View to the north

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