As the fall colors start to taper, we headed out for a hike at the northern tip of Shenandoah National Park. What we found was the leaves were pretty much gone at higher elevations and the vista views were mostly brown, we did find some nice foliage in the woods at lower elevations where we would have typically been in a tunnel of green during the middle of the year. For weekly reports, you can also check out Virginia.org, Virginia Department of Forestry reports, or Shenandoah National Park.
- name: Compton Peak via Appalachian Trail from Jenkins Gap to Chester Gap (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
- type: point to point
- distance: 8.5
- elevation change: 1480 ft ascent and 2872 ft descent
- time: 3:34 hours (3:14 hours without breaks)
- location: Jenkins Gap (google map directions) to Chester Gap at US 522 (google map directions), Shenandoah National Park near Front Royal, VA
Since this is a point to point hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT) we set up a shuttle to make it a one way trip. It was more convenient for us to start at Jenkins Gap on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park rather than the small parking area on US 522. Heading northbound on the AT meant our hike was mostly downhills, perhaps making it an easier hike.
Shenandoah National Park 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.
Before we started our hike, we set up a shuttle to keep it a one way point to point hike rather than a long in and out hike. This was easier since Meg was coming from DC and I was driving up from southwest VA. The small parking lot, about 8 parking spots, at the side of a busy US 522 was plenty full by the time we arrived early afternoon. We squeezed one of our cars at the edge of the parking area and headed up into Shenandoah National Park. There were some nice forested foliage areas on our way up Skyline Drive, but the trees started to look bare as we reached Jenkins Gap. There were much more parking here.
A few steps on the yellow blazed connecter before we turned right at the Appalachian Trail (AT) junction heading northbound. It was a relatively flat first 0.4 miles before a 0.9 mile incline at about a 10% grade up to Compton peak. It was mostly through the forest, which had mostly lost their leaves. We did see a blueberry bush, but it wasn’t ready.
At Compton Peak, there is a junction with side trails branching off both sides of the AT.
We opted to turn right toward the mediocre southeast outlook dropping at a -17% grade over 0.2 miles.
The highlight here and of the entire hike isn’t the outlook, but rather the Basalt Columns found underneath the viewpoint.
The Basalt Columns are always unique wherever I’ve encountered them and it was the reason I decided to do this hike. Despite being much smaller in area in comparison to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland or Devil’s Postpile in the Eastern Sierras of California, it was still a cool sight. One that I didn’t realize existed in Virginia.
After spending a few minutes marveling at the unique rock structure, we returned to the junction and headed toward the northwest outlook. There are a couple of outcrops providing for a better vista view including Front Royal in the distance.
Including a view of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River snaking through the valley.
We didn’t stay long on these outcrops and returned to the AT junction after a few minutes as these outlooks were relatively busy. Continuing northbound on the AT, we next reached the Compton Gap parking lot after 0.9 miles at about a -10.6% grade descent.
After crossing the road, the AT continues on an old and wide fire road shared with the yellow blazed Compton Gap Trail, which you’ll see next to the white blazes of the AT. It wasn’t of much interest at the leaves were all down on this stretch. For the next 1.7 miles from Compton Gap, it is relatively flat but passes the Dickey Ridge Trail junction and the Springhouse Road Trail junction. Hiking Upwards pointed out that there are some interesting rocks off the Dickey Ridge Trail called the Fort Windham Rocks (Live and Let Hike, summitpost.org, mountainproject.com) but I didn’t read the directions very carefully initially so we didn’t detour from the AT.
The next junction is where the AT splits with the Compton Gap Trail and turns left to head downhills.
The next 1.25 miles would be the steepest prolonged downhill of the hike at about -12.4% grade. At the beginning of the downhill, there is a viewpoint called Possums Rest Overlook.
Next the came the Tom Floyd Shelter, which seemed very busy during this Saturday night. They had a fire going in anticipation of the unusually cold fall weather here in Virginia.
It was during this section the switchbacks begin. but so does a really nice section for foliage. It seemed that these lower elevation forest still had their leaves and they stood out in the golden hour light of the setting sun.
As we continued on, we saw another sign indicating the camping areas, the spring, and Tom Floyd Shelter itself.
Near the end of the switchbacks, we reached a junction with the blue blazed trail toward the Harmony Hollow Trailhead on Route 601. We wished that we had parked our other car here at this point this was the last picture we would had sunlight for.
After the switchbacks, it was another 0.85 miles downhills at about a -9% grade though a a more marshy like terrain until the AT crossed a creek and Moore Road/Joy Spring Road.
The next portion of the hike involved a pesky 0.43 mile uphill at about 13.5% grade. I can’t say much about it other than it was in the forest with fence toward our west/left. The the final 0.86 miles was a -9.8% grade drop alongside the same fence down and a residential houses toward the the dammed Lake Front Royal. The trail was a bit muddy here when we went through and we were glad there was a boardwalk for the final few steps below the lake to reach our car.
- views: 2. The highlight of this hike for me was the unique Basalt Column formations near Compton Peak. The northwest vista at Compton Peak was decent vista as well. These components are what earns this hike a high 2 rating bordering on 3. I would not recommend the section of AT from Compton Gap to Chester Gap as it is just a walk in the forest without much features and would have received a 1 rating by itself from me. Only the late fall foliage kept it more interesting for me, but fall foliage bumps up all Virginia hikes by a rating for me. If I were to plan his hike over again, I would hike up to Compton Peak and perhaps the loop involving Dickey Ridge Trail and Springhouse Road Trail visiting Fort Windham Rocks.
- difficulty: 1. From Jenkins Gap, most of our elevation change was downhill. So our knees and ankles were not happy with us. The downed leaves covering the trail probably made it worse, especially as we finished in the dark without great depth perception. I imagine we wouldn’t have had too much issues with the trail typically. If you are going southbound, there is almost 3000 feet of elevation gain. The good news was that it was well spread out throughout the hike, making it a 2 rating.
- technical: 1. The Shenandoah trails are all well marked and there wasn’t any technical spots on the trail.