Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bull Run Mountains

View towards Shenandoah from High Point Overlook
4.2 miles loop, 950 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead; free access

*Note: High Point Overlook is currently closed due to hiker overuse. Check with the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy for the most recent information. Trails elsewhere in the preserve are still open.*

The Bull Run Mountains are a gem of Northern Virginia. While it doesn't offer solitude and deep wilderness, this range of small, wooded mountains does offer sweeping views of the Virginia countryside, green forests, and bubbling brooks, less than an hour from the Beltway. I would consider this hike and the Billy Goat Trail as being the two most rewarding hikes within an hour radius of Washington DC. This hike is on land operated by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency that manages conservation easements and lands made public through private gifts of forward-thinking Virginians. The nonprofit Bull Run Mountains Conservancy has excellent trail maps; I'd recommend printing a copy of their map before going, as the trail system at the preserve is quite complex and confusing. The highlight of the hike, the High Point Overlook, is actually on private land, which has been generously opened to the public: please help yourself, the conservancy, and future visitors out by respecting the rules set for the hike to High Point.

My family drove up to the Bull Run Mountains on a clear June day from Fredericksburg, but I'm guessing that most readers of this blog will plan on visiting by driving out from Northern Virginia. Getting there is very straightforward: take I-66 west from Tysons Corner to Haymarket, exit onto US-15 south; turn right from US-15 onto VA Route 55 west, and follow that for two miles to Turner Rd. Turn right onto Turner Road, which crosses over I-66, and then immediately turn left onto Beverly Mill Drive. There is a fairly obvious parking area that stretches along the road near the trailhead.

There are many trails in this park, and you could come up with any combination of trails to hike. I will describe a hike that starts uphill on the Chestnut Ridge Trail, links up with the Dawson Trail, then ascends on the Ridge Loop Trail, visits High Point on an out-and-back, then returns downhill on the Chestnut Ridge and Fern Hollow Trails.

The trails begin across the railroad tracks from the parking area. We started on the Chestnut Ridge Trail, which started on a gentle, fairly continuous ascent for a third of a mile before coming to a multi-way junction. Here, we took the flatter Dawson Trail, which soon brought us to the side of Catlett Branch, a very attractive stream.

Bubbling waters of Catlett's Branch
From near Catlett Branch, we found the Ridge Loop Trail and began the main uphill portion of the hike. The trail was steep at times in the beginning, but for the most part the ascent was not particularly steep or demanding. The trail wound through low elevation forest, with mountain laurel scattered around the slopes. A mile from the stream, we reached the top of the ridge.

Ascending the Ridge Loop Trail
Here, the trail reached an intersection with the path to the High Point Overlook, which is on private land. We continued uphill towards High Point, staying on the fenced in-trail, and in less than another half mile we reached the line of white rocks of High Point. The views from these rocks were splendid- the hills of the Virginia Piedmont rolled their way to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which were clad in their lush summer green. The city of Warrenton, and the many peaks of Shenandoah National Park- from Compton Peak down to Fork Mountain- were all visible.

The Blue Ridge and the Piedmont
The rock exposed at High Point is the same quartzite exposed on the western side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Bull Run Mountains are on the eastern end of the Blue Ridge Anticlinorium, a geological structure responsible for the existence of both the Bull Run and Blue Ridge Mountains. You can think of the anticlinorium as being shaped as a very broad upside-down U- thus, layers exposed on the westernmost part of the anticlinorium are also exposed on the easternmost part. The Bull Run Mountains connect with Catoctin Mountain in Maryland, which forms the Blue Ridge Anticlinorium with South Mountain there before the two join up to form a single range. The rocks here are created from sedimentation of ancient Cambrian beaches, over 500 million years ago.

We returned to the trail junction with the Ridge Loop Trail, but instead of taking the same trail down, we chose to descend on the Chestnut Ridge Trail. This trail followed the ridge for a while before making a steep descent down to the junction with the Fern Hollow Trail. Turning right onto Fern Hollow Trail, we continued the descent, eventually reaching and following the bottom of the hollow past the ruins of an old homesite, where a chimney and the foundations remained. The trail then turned, paralleling the railroad back to the parking area.

Crumbling homesteads
This last section of trail passed through Thoroughfare Gap, a low water gap cutting through the Bull Run Mountains. It also passed by the ruins of Beverly Mill, an impressive, hollowed-out stone structure. Once known as Chapman's Mill, this historic site was once one of the most important flour mills in Northern Virginia in the antebellum period. It became a meat storehouse for the Confederates during the Civil War; it was later restored as a mill by the Beverly family before burning down. Reflecting on the history of the area only made the view I saw earlier atop High Point more fascinating: it was humbling to realize that so much history had occurred in that serene Piedmont.

Old Beverly Mill
The hike ended when we returned to and crossed the railroad tracks to return to the parking area.


  1. This is a really wonderful write-up about the Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve. I wanted to correct one misconception. The Preserve is owned by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state agency with the mission of land conservation. More information about the Preserve, how to visit, and what to see there, can be found at

    1. Good to know! I'll make a correction. Thank you for all the good work you do protecting our Virginia landscapes!

  2. Beautiful writing about a beautiful place! To add to the comment from a few years ago, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation operates all day-to-day management of the Preserve and educational programs. They also create the trail maps. The Conservancy conducts environmental education in the greater area but does not have any information about the high point closure, nor do they have anything to do with Preserve management. If you would be able to clarify that for your readers, I would very much appreciate it!