50 Hikes in Northern Virginia
"50 Hikes in Northern Virginia is more than a guidebook. It is an offering of information on the world that borders what the hiker sees.”
--Ohio Sunday Western Star
Total distance (circuit): 2.8 miles
Hiking time: 1 3/4 hours
Vertical rise: 740 feet
Maps: USGS 7 1/2' Big Meadows
There is an attraction about the "most" of something that holds a fascination for humans and tends to draw us toward these famous entities. Tourists visit the Sears Tower in Chicago because it is the "tallest" building. We idolize athletes who are the "best" in their chosen sport. Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada, has a mall that has drawn thousands of shoppers yearly since it has become known as the "largest" in the world. Spelunkers are always looking for the "deepest" cavern, and, conversely, hikers often have the desire to top the "highest" summit. Hawksbill is not the tallest mountain in the Old Dominion (Mount Rogers in southern Virginia has that honor), but it does have the distinction of being the loftiest peak within the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park.
Unlike the long and involved climbs that you must undertake to other paramount pinnacles, Hawksbill may be reached in an easy ascent of less than 700 feet. The summit is a grand spot to watch the annual fall hawk migration. The circuit hike is, in fact, a good birder's walk year-round. Evening grosbeaks--not often seen during the warmer months in the mid Atlantic states--and pine siskins have been spotted fluttering around the evergreens in winter, while ruffed grouse go about their mating rituals in the spring. Warblers and juncos usually become quite common as the temperatures warm up. In the past, the Park Service has used Hawksbill to participate in a program of reintroducing peregrine falcons to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Up until the mid 1950s, these raptors could be seen rocketing about the North American skies at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. Yet, like the osprey and the bald eagle, they fell victims to the cumulative effects of DDT. The insecticide caused some hatchlings to be born deformed, but mostly it weakened the shells of the bird's eggs to the point that the eggs simply could not hold together long enough for the chicks to be born. Now that DDT has been banned in the United States, breeding the birds in captivity and then releasing them into the wild has proven somewhat successful.
The hike begins from Hawksbill Gap parking area (Skyline Drive milepoint 45.6), about 15 miles south of US 211 in Thornton Gap or approximately 20 miles north of US 33 in Swift Run Gap. Take the trail from the parking lot, following it to the left as you will be returning on the pathway coming in from the right.
Ascend through balsam fir and red spruce, holdovers from another time. The Ice Age's cooler temperatures permitted these trees, more typical of New England and Canada, to begin to compete with, and even gain a foothold against, the traditional southern hardwoods such as oaks and poplars. Once the glaciers receded and warmer temperatures returned, most of the northern plants died out, unable to tolerate a southern climate. However, the cooler temperatures on the higher peaks and ridges of the Blue Ridge, such as Hawksbill, have allowed some of these trees to remain and prosper, separated from their relatives several hundred miles to the north. Look at the range map of a tree identification guide and you will see that a tree mixed in with the evergreens here, the mountain ash, extends itself as far south as northern Georgia only by clinging to the high elevations of the Appalachian Mountain chain.
The trail makes several switchbacks before leveling out somewhat at .5 mile; striped maple is abundant in the understory. Its bright yellow flowers, hanging as long stemmed clusters, make their appearance just about the time of year warm temperatures become a daily occurrence. At .6 mile enter the no-camping zone, and at .7 mile make a right turn at a trail intersection to come to Byrds Nest Shelter 2 and the Hawksbill's summit at .8 mile.
Continue to the stone-walled outlook for the almost, but not quite, 360-degree panorama for which you've gained this elevation. Almost directly beneath you are Timber and Buracker hollows funneling and dropping East Hawksbill Creek out to the town of Luray, some 3,000 feet below where you are standing. (East Hawksbill Creek, accessible by bushwhacking from Hawksbill Gap, is highly recommended as a native-trout fishing stream by Harry Slone in his Virginia Trout Streams.) The view westward is of Page Valley, which, except for those who are sticklers for technicalities, is really just the easternmost portion of the Shenandoah Valley. The two sections of the valley come back together near Harrisonburg where Massanutten Mountain (see hikes 27, 28, and 29), the massive ridge due west, comes to an end. Northward you can see Skyline Drive making a wide swing eastward around a prominent rock outcrop, Stony Man (see hike 20). To the east is Old Rag (see hike 21), bristling with its noticeable rocky ridgeline and jagged summit. To the south is Spitler Hill, and closer (to the southwest) is rounded Naked Top.
After your picnic-lunch break at 4,049 feet above sea level, return to the shelter, walking past it to turn right off of the dirt road and onto the blue-blazed trail. A few yards down this pathway is another fine view to the west and a new perspective on the southwest. At 1.1 miles you will switchback away from the road, soon coming to small patches of mountain laurel for the first time on this hike (and passing out of the no-camping zone).
Intersect the Appalachian Trail at 1.7 miles. To the left it goes two and two-tenths miles to Fishers Gap and Skyline Drive milepoint 49.3. You need to make a right on the fern-lined AT and listen for the cry of a pileated woodpecker. If you don't know how one sounds, just think of Woody Woodpecker. He and his laugh were patterned after the pileated woodpecker. If, as many ornithologists believe, the ivory-billed woodpecker truly has become extinct, then the nearly 20-inch pileated has inherited the status of being North America's largest woodpecker. At 2.2 miles you will swing around a large rock promontory to cross a series of rock slides, or talus slopes, whose openings in the forest canopy can provide limited views of Stony Man to the north. For the second time on this hike, mountain ash trees are part of the forest. Not really an ash, but a member of the rose family, its red berries usually hang on the tree well into winter, providing food for grosbeaks and other birds. People of the southern Appalachians used to make a tonic from the juice of the berry to treat a variety of ailments.
Begin a quick switchbacking descent along a spur ridge to arrive at an intersection at 2.7 miles. The AT goes left. You want to make a right turn and go 500 feet to return to the parking area.