The fall foliage hiking season seems to be getting shorter and shorter each of the last couple of years. This year it was nearly all green one week, peaked for one week, and gone the next. During the beautiful and fleeting peak weekend this year, Whitney and Matthew joined me for a hike and scramble up Devil’s Marbleyard. For future updated foliage report for in SW VA, check out Virginia Department of Forestry Report.
This report is supplemented by pictures of my past hikes.
- name: Devil’s Marbleyard via the Belfast Trail (gps track – wikiloc alltrails)
- type: in and out
- distance: 3.6 miles
- elevation change: 1343 ft ascent and descent
- time: 3:10 hours (2:30 hours moving)
- location: Jefferson National Forest near Natural Bridge Station, VA (google map directions)
- The main attraction for this hike is Devil’s Marbleyard. However, there is a 8.3 mile loop with an additional 3 mile roundtrip side trail out to the AT. This does not include the scramble of Devil’s Marbleyard. Information regarding this loop can be found at Hiking Upwards.
- Even though dogs are allowed on the trail, the Marbleyard portion is pretty impossible for dogs. So someone must stay with them at the bottom or try to take the side trail up, which isn’t very fun.
At the trailhead for the Belfast Trail, there is a small parking area for about five cars. They are usually filled and subsequent cars have to park along the side of Petites Gap Road on the same side of the trailhead stretching westward. There have been issues with cars parked on private property here before in the past and according to Hiking Upwards, you must not have your tires on the road itself or face the possibility of being towed.
The trailhead begins by crossing the Elk Creek, then passing an informational post and a trail marker indicating junction of Belfast Trail. There are also several camping areas with established fire pits.
About a third of the mile from the trailhead, the Belfast trail cross the first of three stream crossings of the Belfast Creek. The crossing is followed shortly by a junction for the Glenwood Horse Trail branching off to the left. Continuing ahead the Belfast Trail crosses into the Jefferson National Forest and the James River Face Wilderness.
The Belfast Trail starts to gain some elevation from this point on a fairly rocky trail, the kind littered with small rocks up to the size of a fist. It’s not the most pleasant, especially on the way back. The trail continues along the Belfast Creek crossing it a couple of times. This also creates a couple muddy areas.
After about a mile and half from the trailhead, the boulder field of the marbleyard starts to appear through the trees to the left of the trail while you can find a nice cascade from the stream on the right. The Belfast Trail continues to the right away from the boulder field and toward the junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and then with the Appalachian Trail. You can find more information about that on Hiking Upwards. For us, and this is true for every other time I’ve been here, the boulder fields is the main reason for this hike.
For the boulder field, there isn’t a correct route to do it. It is pretty much choose your own adventure that can lead you to areas where the boulders may require more technical moves. However, with patience and good eye, you can always find ways to continue upwards without any technical climbing moves. Also while there is no specific route, the direction you should head up the field is generally upwards. There are usually plenty of people here so getting lost isn’t too much of a concern. Should you feel uncomfortable, there is a bailout trail on the right side of the boulder field when you are facing upwards that you can access at all times. This is also the trail most take down after the scramble.
The boulder field can be divided into three separate stages. At the bottom of the boulder field just off the Belfast Trail, you’ll only be able to see to top of the first section.
The grandness and length of the next section can be a bit of shock as you climb over the ridge at the end of the first section, but just keep in mind that it isn’t a race.
The end of the second section is somewhere between half way and 2/3 of the scramble and a good area for a break with plenty of large boulders to chill and sunbath on. The views here are also something to marvel at.
Continuing on to the third section of the scramble is when the end finally starts to come into view. The boulder field can be seen condensing with a rock ledge starting to rise out on the left.
Near the conclusion of our the scramble there are several different areas for vista views.
During the spring time, Rhododendrons can be found blooming at the conclusion of the scramble.
A trail at the conclusion of the boulder field can be found continuing up the mountain. Look for a spur to the left shortly after the trail forms for another nice vista of the boulder field and the mountains in the background. From this point, you can see Blue Ridge Parkway cutting across the side of Thunder Ridge and Thunder Hill on the left behind the immediate ridge. Continuing right there is Pine Mountain and Wildcat Mountain on the ridge directly across the way with Thomas Mountain and Wilson Mountain in the distance.
Returning to the trail and continuing up further to a flat area, there is an established fire ring and what looks like a camping area. There is a view from this point, but no water. Sir Rockington the 3rd can be found guarding the campsite though.
To head down the mountain, scrambling down is an option, however the preferred route is a trail on the south edge of the boulder field or the left side looking down. The trail is a bit tough due to its steepness, overgrown scrubby, and being covered with fallen leaves and rocks. It’s a good bet someone will fall on their butts at some point going down this trail so patience and taking it slow is recommended.
Eventually, the trail will intersect with the Belfast Trail, though it may be only noticeable when you look back.
After the intersection, all you have to do is follow the Belfast Trail back out the way you came from to the trailhead passing the start of the boulder field along the way.
- views: 3. This is probably Meg’s favorite in the area and is now Whitney’s favorite out of the three that she’s done. The Marbleyard provides a fun and unique experience to the hike unlike any other in the area. Old Rag, our favorite hike in Virginia, has a more varied scrambling experience crossing a ridge but that isn’t the same as the grand boulder field here that stretched beyond what the eye can see in three separate pitches. Furthermore, the contrast of the large boulders among the wooded mountains through the seasons is also unique. The understated portions of this hike is creek with it’s cascades that follows the Belfast Trail crossing it a few times.
- difficulty: 3. Scrambling can be a full body workout with no cover from the sun. Otherwise, the trail and the elevation profile isn’t too demanding. However, I would not recommend attempting the boulder field for the first time should there be issues with visibility or rain.
- technical: 3. The trail up to the boulder field is clear and well marked with recently updated signs. However, the boulder field will require heavy scrambling. There are ways up without any climbing moves and there are no exposure. Navigating the boulders aren’t necessarily clear in terms of the easiest route up, but most find their way to the top without a problem. This is also a well traveled hike, so there are usually people ahead of you that you can follow. On the downhill, the steep trail next to the boulder field to the south (left side facing downhill) can make the descent a slippery one, so care is needed to navigate the trail.