Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mount Marshall from Little Hogback

North Marshall
7.8 miles round trip, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required

This hike follows an easy stretch of the Appalachian Trail from one scenic Shenandoah summit to another. It's not a particularly wild hike- along the way, the AT crosses Skyline Drive numerous times- but it is highly scenic, packing in some of the best views of the North District into a very short stretch of park.

I hiked this with a friend in August. Usually, August in Virginia is unpleasant: in the Piedmont, the sky is gray with smog on the edges and the air is so heavy with humidity I'm surprised it doesn't sink into the Bay. In the Blue Ridge, the temperatures are a few degrees cooler, but it's still humid and visibility is usually measured in yards. In other words, as much as I love the Blue Ridge, August often leaves me longing for AC, somewhere indoors. But on the first weekend of August, my friend and I left Northern Virginia to auspiciously blue skies and found temperatures of just 60 F when we entered the park.

To get to the trailhead, we took I-66 west from Northern Virginia, hopped onto Rte. 55 west at exit 13, and then drove into the town of Front Royal. We turned left at US 340 and took 340 south briefly to reach the northern terminus of Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park. From the entrance, we followed Skyline Drive nearly 20 miles to Little Hogback Overlook and parked there. The trail started at the northern end of the parking lot, where a short trail led to a junction with the AT.

We enjoyed the view from overlook of the ridiculously blue and clear skies over the rolling green ridges of Massanutten Mountain. Then we headed off, following the Appalachian Trail north from the parking area. We very quickly came to a spur to the left that led to the Little Hogback viewpoint. Only a few hundred yards from the overlook, this set of greenstone outcrops offered an even wider view; from here, we could see the broad forested hump beside us that was the summit of Hogback proper. We stayed here only briefly before continuing along the AT.

View toward Signal Knob from Little Hogback
Describing this hike mile-by-mile would not be particularly useful, as it simply follows the AT while crossing Skyline Drive multiple times, so I will skip the level of detail that I usually give. The hike consists of an intial downhill segment to Gravel Springs Gap and then a climb up to South Marshall, then another short descent and ascent to North Marshall. None of the hiking is hard and all of the ascents are gentle, though most are fairly lengthy. South Marshall is marked by a clear spur trail to the left of the AT a little less than 3 miles from the trailhead, and the viewpoint on North Marshall is a short scramble to the right of the trail when the trail makes a sharp turn to the left about half a mile out of the parking lot between the two summits of the Marshalls. Otherwise, there are no turns off the AT; just follow the white blazes of the AT.

We saw an astounding amount of life along the trail. Flora was plentiful: there were many wildflowers blooming along the trail and plenty of interesting fungi as well. We saw the exquisite form and bright orange color of the Turk's Cap lily, as well as unfamiliar fungi that was perhaps just as orange. Animals were plentiful too: butterflies fluttered near wildflower patches all day. We even glimpsed a mother black bear and her cubs from a distance, dashing off into the woods as we went along the trail. Even without the incredible views that were to come, the hike was already a feast of small delights.

Indian pipes
Turk's Cap Lily
More fungi!

Trailside butterfly
A little over an hour's hiking from the trailhead, we reached the main viewpoint on South Marshall, a set of greenstone outcrops just to the left of the trail. It was quite windy and chilly here, making the August day feel much more like October. The view was wide and serene: Page Valley was spread out before us, with Massanutten Mountain and the many ranges of the Valley and Ridge beyond. To the left was the impressive hulk of Hogback and to the left of that the multitude of peaks in the Cental District. To the right (north), we could see Dickey Ridge. My friend commented on the oddness of the fact that this pastoral scene was just over an hour out of the endless surburbs of Northern Virginia.

Hogback from South Marshall
View north from South Marshall
South Marshall
A little while later, we continued on another mile and came to the viewpoint on North Marshall. Scrambling onto the rocky viewpoint, we had a much clearer view to the south: this time, we could see Mary's Rock, Stony Man, Old Rag, and many more of the park's best-known peaks. From this angle, Mary's Rock was particularly interesting, taking on an almost pyramidal shape.

View south from North Marshall
Mount Marshall is named after the Marshall family that lived in what is today Fauqier and Rappahannock Counties- the family of John Marshall, the Supreme Court justice who used his position to define the relevance of that body. The Virginia Piedmont soil must have had some extra kick back in the mid-18th century: it's still astonishing to me that this stretch of land produced, in a few generations, four of the first five presidents and Marshall.

After spending a little while at the main viewpoint, we followed a faint path over to a secondary viewpoint with an interestingly shaped boulder. The view here was much the same as at the earlier viewpoint. We then made our way back along the AT on one of the nicer summer days I've experienced.

Odd rocks on North Marshall


  1. Thank you very much for your detailed guide! - John Park

  2. Excellent thanks. I wondering the mileage difficulty. I did Little Devils Stairs last weekend and looking for something a little easier for this weekend.

    1. This is a longer hike than Little Devil Stairs but without any sustained significant elevation gain, so I'd say they're similar in difficulty (this is the easier hike if you don't mind distance as much as elevation gain). If you're looking for an easier hike you can start from Gravel Springs Gap and hike to the Marshalls, which will cut a little off the hike mileage.