Saturday, November 2, 2013

Humpback Mountain

View across Shenandoah Valley from the south side of Humpback Mountain
8 miles round trip/loop, 1900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, free parking

Humpback Rocks is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia, yet few visitors ever go farther up Humpback Mountain than the mile hike up to the rocks. That's a pity- because Humpback Mountain is packed with many more beautiful views, reminders of past inhabitants of the Blue Ridge, and, in the spring, a ridiculous amount of wildflowers. This hike visits the true summit of Humpback and crosses the mountain to a southern-facing viewpoint most visitors never see. The hike can be shortened to 6 miles round trip by skipping the Appalachian Trail loop segment on the return. The additional views come for fairly little extra effort- the steepest part of the climb is to Humpback Rocks itself, so you can enjoy more views with just a few extra miles of easy hiking.

I did this hike on a May weekend with my parents, who came down to Charlottesville to hike with me for a weekend to train for an upcoming long-distance hiking trip. The weather was gorgeous that day: the haze that had been around the previous week evaporated for the weekend, giving us seventy-mile visibility and the bluest of skies streaked with long cirrus clouds. After my parents arrived in town, we left Charlottesville mid-morning, taking I-64 west to Rockfish Gap at exit 99 and following signs for the Blue Ridge Parkway. We drove south 5 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway and parked at the Humpback Gap Overlook on the left side of the road. The parking lot was already mostly full when we started up the wide gravel path heading towards Humpback Rocks.

The first mile of the hike has already been detailed in my Humpback Rocks post. We climbed a half mile on the wide gravel path, with benches along the way, before we reached a flat spot halfway up the mountain; after this point, the trail was narrower, using wooden stairs and switchbacks to reach the top of the ridge. At the ridgetop, we reached a trail junction, where the trail to the left led to the Appalachian Trail and the trail to the left led to Humpback Rocks. We started off by heading left and visiting Humpback Rocks, reaching the rocks a mile and 720 feet climbing from the trailhead, having completed the steepest part of the hike. We scrambled up the rocks to the grand view. As expected, we shared the rocks with at least 30 other people on that beautiful weekend. I was surprised that we could see as far as Thorofare Mountain, a large hill in northern Madison County and a full 90-minute drive from the trailhead.

View across Shenandoah Valley from Humpback Rocks
After a short stop atop this greenstone outcrop, we returned to the previous trail junction and then took the trail towards the Appalachian Trail. After a short bit of climbing, we came to the AT, which we followed south. The AT climbed gently through the forest. At one point, it passed a small talus slope to the left of the trail; I scrambled out onto the talus slope and found a decent, though not particularly unique view of Elliott Knob, across Shenandoah Valley.

Soon after passing the talus slope, the AT reached the top of Humpback Mountains' ridgeline, which it followed for a little while, with occasional views to the south of the summit rising ahead. All along the ridge, there was an old stone fence- remnants from a mountaineer farm. Similar to the Blue Ridge to the north, the mountains here were once heavily settled and used. Farmers would graze hogs and livestock in the mountains; trees were cut for charcoal kilns; mining occurred in some areas. The mountains, then, are probably more natural today than they've been at any point since 1750. This fence is one of the many artifacts left over from that era.

Old rock walls atop Humpback
After following the ridge a short while, the trail dipped into a small saddle- the low point between Humpback's two humps- before beginning another ascent. The uphill was short and ended on the flat summit plateau. We followed the AT through the woods near the summit for a while until we found a spur trail breaking to the left that led immediately out onto a large, though not terribly prominent, outcrop. Although this outcrop was much smaller than the famous rocks on Humpback's lower hump, the view here was equally as spectacular. In fact, in some ways, it was even more so- the view into South District Shenandoah was even deeper, from this vantage point some 500 feet higher. Since the day was so clear, I was certain we could see seventy miles, close to the maximum extent of visibility anywhere in this state. Trayfoot Mountain and Massanutten Mountain dominated the view above Shenandoah Valley.

View north from the summit of Humpback Mountain
Just after we left the summit rocks, we started to find the many wildflowers that were in bloom that May day. A few yards away from the outcrops, we found a few patches of pink lady slippers. These orchids were extraordinarily beautiful and are somewhat rare- they're not found everywhere in the Blue Ridge, so I was very happy to see some here.

Pink lady slippers on the summit of Humpback
After leaving the summit area, we made a short downhill and then continued flat hiking on the broad south summit slope of Humpback. While following the ridge, we looked through the trees to the east and saw a white building atop a triangular mountain. I'm not exactly sure what we saw, but I think there's a good chance that was UVA's Fan Mountain Observatory, which houses a one-meter reflection telescope and is one of the primary spots for astronomy research at UVA, even though it's unknown to most of the school.

Perhaps a mile or so past the mountain, the trail swung northwest (to the right) and finally reached the major viewpoint on the south side of Humpback Mountain. Here, the AT followed the edge of a set of outcrops, giving splendid views from the trail itself. This was our furthest destination on the hike, so we relaxed here and enjoyed the view. This view is quite unique: it's entirely different from the view seen at Humpback Rocks and it may be the only good view of Wintergreen Resort from the north. Sitting on the greenstone outcrops, the most prominent feature visible was Devil's Knob and Blackrock, with many ski slopes running down their north side. Peeking out between the two summits of Wintergreen were Three Ridges and the Priest, the two great mountains of the Tye River watershed. To the west, there was a view towards Torry Ridge, Big Levels, Shenandoah Valley, and Elliott Knob. To the east, we could see into the Piedmont, a view of some of the low mountains around Lovingston. This view was just as stunning as Humpback Rocks, yet we shared these rocks with only one other group of visitors.

View of Wintergreen from the south side of Humpback Mountain

View into the Piedmont from the south side of Humpback Mountain
From the viewpoint, we backtracked two miles to the AT junction with the Humpback Rocks trail, taking a slight uphill first to the summit before a descent to the junction where we had been in the morning. This time, instead of taking the steep Humpback Rocks trail down, we took the AT north instead. The AT descended Humpback Mountain very gently- in fact, perhaps too gently. While the Humpback Rocks trail took just a mile to ascend to this point, the AT took 3 miles to descend the same distance, making gentle, broad switchbacks. There were no views along this stretch of the AT, which passed mainly through forest as it dropped slowly. However, we did see a lot of plant life: there were rhododendrons blooming throughout the forest and interestingly shaped flowers of the squaw root, a parasitic plant.

Squaw root
After many downhill switchbacks, the AT finally began to flatten out and follow the contours of the mountain, later ascending slightly. Along the way, we saw some Catawba rhododendron, one of the most widespread and most beautiful flowers of the Blue Ridge. Catawba rhododendrons are found copiously further south, but the area around Rockfish Gap marks the rough northern extent of their range. Eventually, after what seemed like an infinitely long walk from the junction with the Humpback Rocks trail, the AT joined the Old Howardsville Turnpike, a road that once crossed Humpback Gap. We followed the trail and the road for a while until the AT split from the road; from here, we stayed on the old road heading uphill until we returned to the Humpback Gap parking area.

Catawba Rhododendron
This was a very enjoyable hike, combining a overused and overcrowded showpiece with a series of less-visited gems on the AT. If you are hiking Humpback Rocks and have more time, I would certainly recommend that you hike 2 miles further each way to reach the southern viewpoint of Humpback Mountain. While the option for a loop on the return is described here, most of the highlights are on the round-trip portion and thus this hike can easily be done as a 6-mile round trip.


  1. Terrific Humpback post and accompanying images! It must be cool to have your parents join along. The plant you refer to above as 'a mycotrophic flower' is squaw root.

    1. Thanks! I've updated the info on the squaw root. It was my parents' first time on Humpback, so I was glad I could take them past all the crowds at the Rocks to explore the rest of the mountain.

  2. Thank you so much for this! We loved this hike, especially past the people on the rocks. Your notes made is easy and relaxing. (and I think in your directions, it's "left to the rocks and RIGHT to the mountain"! Thanks again