Friday, July 5, 2013

Riprap Trail

View from Chimney Rock
9.8 miles loop, 2230 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to length, elevation gain, multiple stream crossings and rock scrambling
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

The Riprap Trail is a classic. It's got something for everyone, and it's quite possibly one of the most thoroughly scenic trails of the South District of Shenandoah. I hiked this trail during a rainstorm- and even then, the charms of this trail were quite apparent. This is a trail for the spring, when the wildflowers are blooming and the water is flowing down in Riprap Hollow and the poison ivy hasn't made bushwhacking to Calvary Rocks an unhappy affair yet. Despite its 9.8 miles and 2230 feet of elevation gain, it's not a strenuous hike- hikers who have done 10 mile hikes will find the grades on this trail to be gentle and the distance flies by when you're hiking along rushing streams and wide-open views. However, it's still not a trail to be handled lightly: The trail requires five river crossings, which can be quite deep during and after storms and in spring, and it is nearly 10 miles. That said, the Riprap Trail is one that all UVA students should try during their time in Charlottesville.

I hiked this trail on a rainy May day with two friends. We left Charlottesville mid-morning. I took I-64 west to Rockfish Gap in poor weather; the fog on Scott Mountain was very heavy. We then hopped off at exit 99 and turned right onto US 250, then right again at a sign for Skyline Drive; at the end of this road we turned left to go north on Skyline Drive. At the entrance of the park, the ranger seemed to give us somewhere between a look of pity and a smirk as we drove into the very overcast and somewhat rainy Shenandoah day. We drove north to around milepost 90 and parked at the Riprap Trailhead. Since it was extremely cloudy, we decided to do the loop clockwise rather than the traditional counterclockwise and thus leave the views of the hike for the afternoon, when we hoped the weather would clear up.

We headed south on the Appalachian Trail. The AT wound through the high areas of the mountain here, just downhill of Skyline Drive. We could hear the cars on the drive from time to time; but we still felt alone in the forest, where signs of spring were everywhere. To the west, occasional views of cloud-shrouded ridges would pop up from time to time. Beneath us, the forest was bursting with fiddlehead ferns and red-spotted newts. About 2.8 miles from the trailhead, we reached a junction with the Wildcat Ridge Trail, which we turned right onto and followed.

The Wildcat Ridge Trail started a gentle descent into Riprap Hollow. For the next two and a half miles, we intermittently followed the top and sides of ridgelines, with occasional limited views of the nearby ridges. The clouds shifted in and out and the vegetation became greener as we dropped into the hollow.

Wildcat Ridge Trail
After following the ridge for a while, the trail made a sharp right turn and began descending a little more steeply into the bottom of the hollow. We came to the first stream crossing of the hike: the stream that drained the hollow beneath Wildcat Ridge. The creek was bursting out of its banks due to the recent rain: what usually would likely have been a rock-hop was now a knee-deep crossing. We made our way across the first crossing and continued downhill another quarter mile to a second crossing. This stream was particularly fast at this second crossing; I became slightly disoriented in this area, mistaking this stream for the main river in Riprap Hollow. After wandering around for a while, we finally figured out the direction of the trail and crossed the creek again.

A violent stream in Riprap Hollow
A little further downhill from this second river crossing, we came to the main stream of Riprap Hollow. This usually gentle stream had turned into a minor river with knee-deep water. We crossed here and went ahead a bit to reach the junction with the Riprap Trail. Around this junction, we found quite a few young hemlock trees and azaleas.

Azaleas blooming
We turned right onto the Riprap Trail and began following it up into the hollow. The trail started out a distance away from the river, but soon started approaching closer and closer to the hollow's main stream. At this point, the rain, which had held off in the morning and been just light when we were descending Wildcat Ridge, began to pour. The stream, which was already quite full, began pouring over its banks. In many areas, the trail itself became a second stream. It became difficult to distinguish trail and streambed in some spots. Eventually, we gave up on staying dry and just trudged straight through the next stream crossing, where the stream had completely over-run the trail. Past that stream crossing, we came to the main swimming hole in Riprap Hollow. In drier times, the swimming hole might have provided a welcome and calm respite from the heat, but that day, none of us were in the mood to be any more soaked than we already were. Plus, the waters in the swimming hole were frothing as torrents of water made their way downstream.

Swimming Hole
Past the swimming hole, we made another stream crossing and returned to the left bank of the stream. The trail swung away from the stream for a little while, providing some relief from walking through a river, but eventually swung back and returned to the side of the stream at a waterfall, one of the more impressive sights in Riprap Hollow. During dry times, the falls would probably be much tamer- however, during our hike, the 20-foot drop was wild and rushing.

Falls in Riprap Hollow
After passing the waterfall, the trail continued up into the hollow, gradually climbing towards the ridge. Thankfully, the rain started to abate during our climb. We pushed through this section of trail to reach the top of the ridge, where we emerged in what appeared to be a burn area. Here, the ridge was quite open to the north and west, so on a clear day I expect the views would be quite good. However, we were enveloped by clouds while going through the burn area and missed the views that I expect you could find there otherwise.

After hiking along the ridge area for a while, we came to Chimney Rock, a sandstone outcrop that jutted out to the left of the trail. While we were at Chimney Rock, the clouds gradually began to disperse, opening up some views of Paine Run Hollow, Buzzard Rock, and Trayfoot Mountain. Chimney Rock itself was a tall, isolated sandstone outcrop, separated from the sandstone cliffs next to the trail; bolts in the cliffs suggested that there once was a bridge over to Chimney Rock, but there's currently no way of getting onto Chimney Rock itself short of climbing down a rock crevice and then scaling the chimney, none of which we found appealing since it was so wet.

View from Chimney Rock
From Chimney Rock, we continued a third of a mile onward to Calvary Rocks, a summit on Rocks Mountain only accessible by a short bushwhack. After passing a large talus slope to the right of the trail, we looked for and took a small path that branched off to the right of the trail and followed the ridge to the summit of the rocks. Atop the rocks, there was a spectacular view of clouds shifting among the peaks of the South District and of Shenandoah Valley to the west.

View from Calvary Rocks
We stayed briefly at Calvary Rocks before returning to the Riprap Trail and following it uphill to its junction with the Appalachian Trail. Here, we turned right and followed the AT downhill back to the parking area and the warmth of being inside a car, 1.5 miles from Calvary Rocks.


  1. Very effective description -- I almost felt soaked just reading it. The Rip-Rap - Wildcat Ridge - AT circular hike is really as good as it gets for a 10 mile max weekend hiker (from teens to 70s). Just north of the swimming hole is a rocky area where I SAW AN ENORMOUS black rattlesnake once. Between that ROCKY PLACE AND THE SWIMMING HOLE (ALL JAMMED TOGETHER) IS THE NORTHERNMOST STAND OF CATAWBA RHODODENDRON anywhere near the AT.

    1. Thanks for visiting and letting me know that you can find Catawba Rhododendron along Riprap! I haven't seen Catawba rhododendrons north of Humpback Mountain before, it's good to know that there are some in the Park as well!