Thursday, December 31, 2015

Trail leads to incredible vista on Stony Man

Fall colors from Stony Man Overlook. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah NPS. 
Topo map, Stony Man Trail.

Route covers
segment of
Trail in Virginia

Fantastic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its famous Shenandoah Valley await day hikers on a segment of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in Shenandoah National Park.

Often simply referred to as the Appalachian Trail, the route runs about 2200 miles between Mount Katahdin, Maine, and Springer Mountain, Georgia. It’s the world’s longest hiking-only trail and takes months to traverse.

About 101 miles of the famed backpacking trail passes through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, with many sections accessible from Skyline Drive. An excellent segment to hike is the Stony Man Trail, which runs about 1.6-miles round trip and gains 340 feet in elevation. Avoid crowds by arriving early.

Ancient mountains
To reach the trailhead, from Luray, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, head east on U.S. Hwy. 212. Turn right/south onto Skyline Drive. After a scenic drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains, leave your vehicle at the Stony Man parking area.

Pick up the blue- and white-blazed Appalachian Trail on the parking area’s east side. The trail heads roughly northeast through a beautiful forest, gradually gaining 200-plus feet over about 0.4 miles.

This segment of the trail crosses the ancient and greatly eroded Blue Ridge Mountains, which formed about 320 million years ago when the tectonic plates carrying North America and Europe collided. At that time, Blue Ridge’s peaks were among the highest in the world, comparable to the younger mountains in today's Alps.

Upon reaching the junction heading to Stony Man Mountain, go northeast on the trail. This is a stem trail, that in about 0.1 miles reaches a loop; go counterclockwise or to the right/north on it.

Stony Man Overlook
The loop curves around the east and north sides of Stony Man Mountain, the park’s second highest point at 4011 feet (Hawksbill Mountain is 40 feet higher.), for about 0.3 miles. Stony Man is the Blue Ridge Mountains’ most northerly 4000-foot peak. The summit is basalt that has metamorphosed into greenstone.

On the loop’s west side, take a 0.05-mile spur to the viewpoint. Upon reaching the Stony Man Overlook, the Appalachian Trail crosses its highest point – 3837 feet – in the park. At the viewpoint, you’ll be rewarded with an expansive view of the Shenandoah Valley and the Massanutten and Allegheny Mountains beyond, as you breathe in clean, crisp air. The view is particularly impressive in autumn when the trees below are alit in color.

After taking in the vista, head back to the loop and go right/southeast. Be careful not to accidentally turn onto the Stony Man Horse Trail.

In about 0.15 miles, the loop reaches the stem trail that takes you back to the Appalachian Trail. The stem is to the right/south. Once at the Appalachian Trail, retrace your steps back to the parking area.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.