Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rocky Mountain/Big Run

Big Run Valley
10.1 miles loop, 2250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, due to elevation gain and multiple river crossings that can be hazardous in high water
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

At Big Run Portal, where the rough, pine-topped sandstone bluffs of Rockytop towered over the swift, freezing water of Big Run and there was no sign of civilization in sight, I almost forgot that I was in Shenandoah National PArk. In reality, I was just a couple hundred meters from the point where Big Run entered the farmland of Shenandoah Valley. But the closest publicly accessible road from there was Skyline Drive, nearly five miles away. I had not seen a single other human being since leaving the parking area. Many hikers consider Shenandoah to be a civilized wilderness, or barely a wilderness at all. A visit to this most remote, most wild part of the park would convince nearly anyone otherwise.

This is a difficult hike. During winter and spring, it requires four difficult and deep stream (river, really) crossings. Anyone who knows the park well enough to want to hike this trail (anyone who's already done Riprap, Robertson, etc.) should find the hike manageable, but I don't recommend it to anyone who hasn't already hiked fairly extensively in the park or in the Blue Ridge.

I hiked this on a January day at the beginning of my final semester at UVA. I was less than a week removed from my time volunteering in the Big Bend of Texas; just a week before, I had hiked Emory Peak, the park's highest peak, in about six inches of snow. I had returned from rain and snow in the desert to rain in Charlottesville and snow in the Blue Ridge. Friday, Skyline Drive was closed; but Saturday, as the snow melted, the drive opened. I got a late start and didn't get from Charlottesville to Mile 77 of Skyline Drive until about 11 AM. Along the way, I passed by beautiful views of the snow-covered Blue Ridge at Turk Mountain Overlook. I also found occasional patches of snow still on the drive itself, making driving slower and a little tricky.

Winter view south to the Priest and Maintop from Turk Mountain Overlook
I parked at the Brown Mountain Overlook, where I looked across a saddle to the cliffs and outcrops of Rocky Mountain. To the left of Rocky Mountain was a wide, deep valley, bound on the other end by Rockytop. The peaks here had escaped most of the snow, so they remained clad in the typical brown attire of a Blue Ridge winter day. I started on the hike on the trail leading downhill from the overlook. This trail quickly cut to the north as it passed through the clearing underneath the overlook. For a short while, I could see views north towards Rocky Mount. I also realized that although this part of the park had escaped most of the snow, it hadn't escaped the cold: the ground was crunchy from the thick needle ice formations in the soil.

The beginning of the hike, at Brown Mountain Overlook
Needle ice!
The trail descended for about 0.7 miles from the overlook down to a saddle between the Blue Ridge crest and Rocky Mountain. Here, the trail split off, with the left fork leading downhill towards Rocky Mountain Run and the right fork heading up Rocky Mountain itself. I took the right, leaving the other trail as my return path. This trail made a gentle uphill along the north side of Rocky Mountain, occasionally cutting through areas of mountain laurel.

Brown Mountain Trail
The trail broke into its first major viewpoint about a mile and a half in. As the trail headed south along Rocky Mountain, it very suddenly emerged into a series of white Erwin sandstone outcrops. The principal summit of Rocky Mountain was directly ahead; to its left were the endless folded ridges of the Big Run Valley, with the summit of Trayfoot, Blackrock, Cedar, and Big Flat poking out. The line of outcrops continued even when the trail turned right, forming almost a prow-like protrusion over the Big Run Valley that invited scrambling.

View from Rocky Mountain
Over the next quarter mile, there were occasional views to the west as the trail passed through fairly low-lying vegetation. I was able to see the summit of Rockytop poking above my surroundings; I could also see the southern tip of Massanutten towering over Shenandoah Valley.

View from Rocky Mountain
The trail reentered the forest as it approached the summit of Rocky Mountain. Most of the hike was fairly flat as the trail stayed just below the main ridge of the peak. The trail continued this way over towards Brown Mountain; there were no views from the trail. However, at multiple points, when I could see white rocks and blue sky just beyond the forest at the top of the ridge, I would go off-trail and make my way over to the rocks. Sometimes, there was just more forest on the other side; but three times, these bushwhacking excursions led to huge outcrops or talus slopes with phenomenal views up the Big Run Valley. Henry Heatwole, author of the Guide to Skyline Drive, called this "one of the greatest views in the park." It's certainly up there. At one of these viewpoints, I stood just short of a tower of sandstone, perched over a broken talus of quartzite, looking up the watershed to Trayfoot Mountain and out west into Shenandoah Valley.

View of Rockytop from Rocky Mountain
Big Run Valley from Rocky Mountain
Shenandoah Valley
After passing through the incredible viewpoints on Rocky Mountain, I continued on the fairly flat terrain and arrived at more views on Brown Mountain. Brown Mountain is barely a separate mountain from Rocky Mountain; in fact, I consider it more of a northwest extension of the Rocky Mountain ridge rather than a truly independent peak. While hiking on Brown Mountain, I stopped at a northward view towards Brown Mountain, and made a short off-trail excursion to yet another Big Run Valley and Rockytop view. From Brown Mountain, Rockytop was an impressive spectacle of pines and cliffs. And the most impressive feature was undoubtedly at the foot of Rockytop, where sandstone bluffs closed in on Big Run as the stream made its way out of the hollow into Shenandoah Valley. At times, the trees also broke to the west, bringing limited views of Massanutten Mountain and the Valley.

View of Twomile Ridge and Rocky Mount
Massanutten from Brown Mountain
Rockytop from Brown Mountain
I also found multiple superb examples of Skolithos, or fossilized worm holes, in the sandstone on Brown Mountain. These rocks, over 500 million years old, hold just these faint reminders of life from the white sandy beaches of the Iapetus Ocean during the Cambrian Era.

After passing the summit of Brown Mountain, the trail began a steady descent. In the next mile and a half, the trail dropped a good part of 1500 feet. Along the way, I saw the King and Queen Rocks, two large outcrops on the northern ridge of Brown Mountain that tower over the edge of Shenandoah Valley.

King and Queen Rocks
The end of the descent was fairly steep and brought more views of Shenandoah Valley and Big Run Portal. As the trail approached the Portal, the scenery became progressively wilder. The cliffs on Rockytop, which had seemed so small when first viewed from Rocky Mountain, now appeared much larger and much more impresssive. At times, I felt like I had been transplanted somewhere much farther west, so different was the scenery. After passing through a final clearing near the bottom of the valley, the trail finally finished the descent and came to the Big Run Portal Trail.

Shenandoah Valley from halfway down (or halfway up) Brown Mountain
Big Run Portal
I took a short detour by turning right on the trail and visiting the Big Run Portal Trail's bridge over the stream, before returning to the junction and continuing the clockwise loop by heading upstream along Big Run. About a quarter of a mile past the junction, the trail came to the first stream crossing.

Big Run
Big Run at one of the crossings
I realized then the shortsightedness of my planning for this hike. After a week of rains, Big Run was flowing at a decently high level. This was not a major problem in itself- the water was not so high that it was dangerous to cross- but as soon as I began crossing, I was immediately reminded that much of the water in the run came from snowmelt upstream. It took me a very unpleasant minute to cross the river. After this crossing, I picked up my pace to get back faster: I wanted to get back to someplace warm, and the sun was only an hour and a half from setting (the result of my late departure that morning).

Unfortunately, that cold crossing was only the first of four cold crossings of Big Run. A little over a mile later, after finishing the fourth and final crossing and feeling more than a little cold, I reached the junction with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail. I made quick progress up the trail, which followed the left side of the run before making two easier stream crossings as it climbed higher up.

Rocky Mountain Run
After hurrying up the trail for two miles from the Big Run Portal trail, including a final steep stretch with two switchbacks, I arrived back at Rocky Mountain Saddle and the Brown Mountain Trail. I turned left and finished the hike by returning to my car and turning on the heat. I exited the park by the Swift Run Gap entrance; on my way out, I stopped at Bacon Hollow Overlook to marvel at the colors of dusk over the Blue Ridge.

Dusk at Bacon Hollow Overlook


  1. I did this hike 2 weeks ago. I cannot imagine crossing Big Run in January. Kudos!!

    1. It was definitely one of the coldest experiences in my life! I'm glad you got to explore the Big Run watershed- it's such a wild and beautiful place!