A different season in Virginia can make the same hike a completely different experience. It was winter the last time I visited Rock Castle Gorge. When we returned for a spring hike, we found a completely new experience.
- name: Rock Castle Gorge loop (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
- type: loop
- distance: 11 miles
- elevation change: 2516 ft
- time: 4:29 hours (4:22 hours without breaks)
- location: Rock Knob Recreation Area near Floyd, VA (google map directions)
We started our hike from within the gorge at the confluence of Little Rock Castle Creek and Rock Castle Creek at the end of CC Camp Lane just off of Woolwine Hwy (VA-8). Typically, this is said to be easier as the uphill is a the beginning of the hike and we finish on the downhill. We also chose the hike counterclockwise, taking the steepest section on the uphill.+
The Rock Castle Gorge loop can be started at several points along the Blue Ridge Parkway as well (alltrail). They include the Blue Ridge Parkway Rocky Knob campgrounds (google map directions), The Saddle Overlook (google map directions), Rock Castle Gorge Overlook (google map directions), and Twelve O’Clock Knob Overlook next to Rocky Knob Visitor Center (google map directions).
Within the Rocky Knob Recreation Area, there are a couple smaller loop (Black Ridge Trail and Picnic Loop Trail) along the Blue Ridge Parkway on the ridge.
There is a primitive campgrounds along the Rock Castle Gorge Trail, but a permit is required by calling the District Ranger Office at (540) 745-9660 or the campground at (540) 745-9664, or by stopping at the campground at Milepost 167. For more information see the NPS website.
The trailhead off of Woolwine Hwy is very small with 4 main parking spots and a turnaround.
The trail starts by crossing a gated bridge across Little Rocky Castle Creek. There is a post board describing the regulations of the Rocky Knob Recreation Area managed by the National Park Services.
A few steps after the bridge and post board, there is a junction that marks the start of the loop.
For the first third of a mile, the trail followed Little Rock Castle Creek. There was a crossing of a side stream before the brunt of the uphill.
Over the next mile, the steepest portion of the trail takes place at an average roughly 20% grade. Specifically the trail wraps around the side of the mountain crossing several gullies with seasonal stream draining. However it does parallel Woolwine Hwy, so it wasn’t the most tranquil section of the hike. Unfortunately, it is a theme of this hike.
The maximum grade was near the top at 59% grade involving some minor scrambling.
After some huffing and puffing, the next mile undulates through the forest. It wasn’t too interesting overall but We did see some Fire Pink while flowers.
We passed another stream with a pair of bridges
and the remnants from an old cabin.
After crossing another creek, the trail starts to parallel the Blue Ridge Parkway and starts another uphill for the next mile at a 10.4% grade. First it crosses a fence stile into a pasture. Initially, the trail continues along the fence and passes the Rocky Knob Campground.
Through the rest of the pasture, the trail disappears but are marked by sticks in the ground.
The pasture does provide nice open views of the valley below with Panther Knob on the right.
Though, an eye on the ground is recommended as you gaze out into the open as the pasture is covered with cow pies and active grazing. The open pasture allowed for the strong gust on this day to waffle up the strong odor. The briskness of the gust made us pick up our pace.
The view remains open until the end of the pasture. There is another cow gate with the trail continuing through a patch of forest.
Through the forest is the Saddle parking area off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
From the view from The Saddle, the view is of the valley and Sugarloaf Mountain.
From the other side of the parking area, Buffalo Mountain can be seen in the distance.
After the Saddle Parking lot, it was a quarter of a mile at about 13.8% grade to reach the old Appalachian Trail shelter at mile 4 of the hike. According to Hiking Upwards, the Appalachian Trail was moved to the west in the 1950s. On the way to the shelter, there is an unmarked junction half way up. The left trail leads to the shelter while the trail to the right forms the loop around Rocky Knob.
There are plenty of viewpoints here at Rocky Knob.
The trail continues along the ridge with slanted rock formations that’s very common on the ridges of southwest VA.
From the summit, the trail descends over the next 0.7 miles through a few switchbacks at a grade -9.3%. Along the way, the trail passes the junction that forms the loop around Rocky Knob.
At the bottom of the switchbacks, we the trail comes to the next viewpoint shared with the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Rock Castle Gorge parking area. The sign here discusses the quartz crystals that gave the gorge its name.
The quartz is very explicit here as the rocks on the trail had a unique shine to them under the sun. We also just found quartz rocks along the trail.
Half mile after the Rock Castle Gorge pull out, we reached Twelve O’Clock Knob Overlook. Between the two pull outs, we passed a junction for a trail toward the visitor center and where the Black Ridge Loop joined us.
The trail crosses over to the other side of the ridge and going over fence stile to a view to the west. The wind gusts were coming from that direction, making this section a chilly one. The trail continues in the open for just over a half mile with about an 11.4% grade.
At the end of the pasture is call Grassy Knoll. The trail comes to a junction where the Black Rock Ridge leads away to the right followed by a cow pasture gate.
The trail passes a radio antenna in the woods before our long downhills started. The first section covered 2/3 miles at a grade of -14%. After a few steps downhill, the trail went over another fence stile and we continued through another open pasture.
The trail turns to follow a stream draining a retention pond and crosses one last fence stile and turned away from the stream, which drops quickly in the drainage. After a few steps uphill, the trail drops at a third of a mile with roughly a -14.9% grade. During this stretch we came across several blooming rhododendron.
The trail returned back to the stream and crossed it.
The next 0.8 miles continued downhill at a gentile -5.0% grade on a narrow single track at first. Then the trail and another stream combined for an interesting section of the trail.
Afterwards, the trail took us through a rocky area where we hopped on a few rocks.
Just before the crossing of Rock Castle Creek, we reached the chimney remnants of another house.
The bridge crossing Rock Castle Creek was at mile 8.25 and is followed by the junction with the with a fire road. We turn left on the fire road for the next 2.7 miles all the way back to our starting trailhead.
The fire road follows Rock Castle Creek for its entirety. The first 0.8 miles descends at roughly -10.4% grade before flatting out to roughly -4.3% grade. It crosses several side streams and Rock Castle Creek itself.
About 9.5 mile mark on our hike, we passed the privately owned Austin House. The only remaining home in the gorge built in 1916.
The last area of interest we passed was the Primitive Campgrounds roughly half a mile before the trailhead. It has bear boxes and fire rings. Reservation is required ahead of time to use these campsites (see the NPS website).
The fire road next to Rock Castle Gorge was the most tranquil portion of the hike and my favorite section.
- views: 2. Many would suggest the highlight of the hike were the vistas from the ridge. It was varied in the form of open fields and a ridge cliff. However, there are a couple of factors that I thought took away from the experience. First was the trail paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway and the vistas are shared with the tourists on the Parkway. You could always hear the traffic along the road. Secondly, open areas were cow pastures with all the smells and hazards that come with cow pies. My favorite sections of the hike was hiking along the the several streams that all eventually run into the Rock Castle Creek, which provided for a much more tranquil experience.
- difficulty: 3. This hike has some of the steepest portions of trail I’ve encountered in Virginia, just behind the Angeline Trail. Add in the 11 mile total distance and 2500 feet of elevation change makes this a difficult hike. The exposure on the ridge portion of the hike can bring harsh winds and sun exposure as well, not to mention dealing with the smells of cow pies.
- technical: 2. The trail is well signed for the most part, however there is some minor scrambling up the steepest portions of the hike.