As fall rolls around, it’s time for me to start my foliage watch. My favorite time to hike here in Virginia is during peak foliage, but the past 2 years has seen muted colors in the area. On this day in mid October, I was commuting from D.C. down to southwest Virginia, so a stop in the Shenandoah National Park was a welcome break in the drive. I found the foliage is still in the very early stages of changing. For weekly reports, you can also check out Virginia.org, Virginia Department of Forestry reports, or Shenandoah National Park.
You can also check out the companion video of this hike.
- name: Franklin Cliffs and Hawksbill Mountain loop (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
- type: loop
- distance: 8.9 miles
- elevation change: 1903 ft ascent and descent
- time: 3:32 hours (3:22 hours without breaks)
- location: Hawksbill Gap, Shenandoah National Park near Luray, VA (google map directions)
Shenandoah National Park, unlike the Jefferson & Washington National Forests in southwest Virginia, is a national park. So there are entrance fee (Shenandoah National Park) associated to access this hike. With the heavy traffic of visitors to Shenandoah, it is very much needed to up keep with infrastructure. I would also recommend to get the America the Beautiful Annual Pass for USD$80, it usually pays for itself if you visit 3 national parks.
There are several possible starting points for this hike. I started at Hawksbill Gap on Skyline Drive following instructions from Hiking Upwards, which gave the hike a top score for views. Alternatively, you can start at Upper Hawksbill trailhead as well (google map) for a slightly shorter hike. Unlike other hikes, this loop circles around a section of Skyline drive crossing it at Fishers Gap Overlook (google map), so it is another starting options. Lastly, you can also get onto the trail near Spitler Knoll Overlook (google map).
Should you be interested in only hiking Hawksbill Mountain, there is a short 2.6 mile loop also from Hawksbill Gap (alltrails) or you can just to the in and out to the summit (alltrails). You can also do a lolly pop option from Fishers Gap to include the Franklin Cliffs and then take the 2.6 mile loop before returning to Fishers Gap.
I pulled up at the parking area on a Tuesday at noon and was surprised to find so many cars here.
Almost all the traffic were for Hawksbill Summit, however, and I was headed the other way on the loop clockwise as specified by Hiking Upwards. I would recommend this to save the best for last.
I barely saw anyone as I started down the Cedar Run Trailhead before quickly turning right onto the Bill Meadows Horse Trail.
The first half mile is relatively flat before gaining some elevation at a 7.1% grade climbing the side of Splitter Hill for the next 3/4 miles, all in the trees. There is a campsite on the left of the trail before coming to a trail junction toward the Upper Hawksbill parking lot. Take the left to continue on the Big Meadow Horse Trail.
The next 1.6 miles isn’t particularly pleasant as the horse trail drops at a grade of about -9.3% over rocky terrain. The size of the rocks ranged from fist sized to larger, so I had to be careful to not roll my ankles or slip on them going downhill.
Again, the entirety of the hike were amongst the trees. I was early for the foliage as most of the trees were still green with hits on yellow. But you can see one or two here and there with some brighter colors.
The trail undulated for the next 1.4 miles crossing a couple dry stream beds that typically drain into the Rose River, but were not of interest here in early fall. About 4.3 miles from the beginning of my hike, the trail junctions with the Rose River Loop trail (alltrail) and an extension you can add to this hike. I took the right turn to head up back toward Skyline Dr.
It was a half mile uphill at about 8.0% grade to reach Skyline Dr at Fishers Gap.
So far, the hike had been pretty boring and a bit tedious with the rocky and lesser traveled trail. I saw 2 people on the Big Meadows Horse Trail and 3 people on the Rose River Loop Trail. However, the best parts of the hike are on the latter half, which begin by crossing Skyline Dr and turning right after the parking area onto the Appalachian Trail (AT) heading Northbound.
There are several outcrops along the AT called Franklin Cliffs providing nice views of the flat valley with the South Fork Shenandoah River snaking through, Massanutten Ridge in the distance, and ridge leading up to Big Meadows to the left.
These first few steps, 1.1 miles to be extract, on the AT can be slow going as you feel the need to checkout every outcrop. From these viewpoints, you can see the popular Strickler Knob (my trip report) on Massanutten Ridge. An argument can be made to start at Fischers Gap later in the day and head counterclockwise as you would end your hike among these cliffs that are set up perfectly for a western sunset. I also only saw 4 people in this section, but that will soon change.
After the cliffs, the AT starts to head uphill at a grade of 10.3% for the next 0.9 miles until a junction for the Rock Spring Hut that is 0.1 miles off trail.
Another half mile and a more gradual uphill, I reached the trail junction for Hawksbill Summit.
From the junction, it was about 0.9 miles to the summit with a mild 8.5% grade. Along the way, there was a smaller outcrop just before the top that provided for a more solitary view.
I could tell that the summit would be busy with signage near the peak.
Also near the summit are the 2 junctions for the Upper and Lower Hawksbill Trail, I would take the latter down.
The summit of Hawksbill is composed of a view platform
with a view of the popular Old Rag hike to the east
and a rocky area with views of the valley and Massanutten Ridge to the west.
Also at the summit is a little day shelter called Byrd’s Nest #2.
I didn’t stick around the summit for too long since it was crowded and I needed to finish my drive. So I headed down the final 3/4 mile on Lower Hawksbill Trail at a -16.9% grade descent on a wide and well worn trail.
ratings (1-5; click link for detailed breakdown)
- views: 2. My favorite section of the hike was Franklin Cliffs providing for vistas of typical Virginia valleys. I would be interested in seeing how sunset looks for these cliffs. Hawksbill Summit might be a better viewpoint in comparison, but it was very busy. Overall, compared to other typical Virginia vistas, I didn’t find the views as interesting. Perhaps it was the wide valley below and Massanutten Ridge being so far from the viewpoint that it didn’t provide as much interesting geographic features such as the typical layering of ridges in the distance. If I were to hike this again, I would avoid the boring Big Meadow Horse Trail all together. It was just a tunnel of green. I would perhaps go with a lollipop hike from Fishers Gap consisting of the AT through Franklin Cliffs before looping around Hawksbill Summit.
- difficulty: 2. Even through the elevation change was about 2000 feet, it was relatively spread out. The worst part of the hike was the downhill on the Big Meadow Horse Trail as it was covered with rocks and leaves from the year past since it wasn’t heavily traffic. This meant you had to be careful from rolling on fist sized rocks or loose leaves.
- technical: 1. The Shenandoah trails are all well marked and there wasn’t any technical spots on the trail.