virginia hikes: Big Schloss, Mill Mountain, & Stony Creek loop, May 30 2020

It is clear how the popular peak of Big Schloss got its name, for schloss is German for castle. The peak appeared very much like one on our approach from the north on the Mill Mountain trail. It was indeed the highpoint in this popular area for backpackers, which is otherwise a monotonous green tunnel during the early parts of summer.

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information

  • name: Big Schloss, Mill Mountain, & Stony Creek loop (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
  • type: loop
  • distance:  12.8 miles
  • elevation change: 2365 ft
  • time:  5:46 hours (5:11 moving)
  • location: Lee Ranger District, George Washington National Forest, near Woodstock, VA (google map directions)

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If you are interested in just hiking to Big Schloss, there are 2 in and out options. The first and more typical hike is from Wolf Gap Campgrounds covering 4.3 miles (alltrails; Google map directions) or via the Big Schloss Cut off starting on FR92, which was part of our loop (Google map directions)

A longer version 13.5 mile version of our look can be hiked by starting from Wolf Gap Campgrounds, but also includes a longer roadwalk (alltrails; Google map directions). Lastly, our hike can be extended to a 18.2 mile loop to include Little Schloss in addition to Big Schloss (Google map directions). The last option can be started from any of the parking areas along the FR92 on the trail.

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video

report

Our hike started on Fire Road 92 (FR92) at the parking area for the Stony Creek Trail, meaning we would start our hike with a half mile road walk until the Big Schloss Cutoff Trailhead. There was more parking at Stony Creek and we didn’t want to end the day with the slight uphill roadwalk.

The Big Schloss Cutoff Trail heads up the ridge with a few switchbacks, the initial 0.7 miles is at a 10.5% grade through the woods with plenty of Mountain Laurels bushes blooming.

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There trail flattens out for a second over a few rocks before the switchbacks begin for the next 0.9 miles at a 15.2% grade to reach the ridge. The trees here are thinner allowing for the sun to beat down on us making the push to the ridge the most difficult section of the hike. At the top, the trail dead ends on the Mill Mountain trail that traverses the ridge of Mill Mountain. There are several camping spots here, but no water.

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We turn left here to head toward Big Schloss on the Mill Mountain trail for 0.85 miles with vegetation surrounding a very clear trail, though you’d want to check for ticks afterwards. The trail climbs slightly bring us to a view that confirms Big Schloss is the appropriate name for the outcrop.

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Then the trail drops down just as much to head around the outcrop toward the next junction. Turning left here onto the Big Schloss Trail and we headed up the quarter mile rocky trail on southern side of the outcrop at a 11.9% grade.

A few Wild Azaleas is blooming along the trail

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before we come to the major campsite here.

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But that is not the only camping spot here as there are plenty of flat areas with established fire rings

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and rock cliffs for you to call your own. The view toward the east here is of Little Schloss.

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Past this open area, we came to a wooden bridge that connects to the peak of Big Schloss.

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There are again plenty of outcrops here for you to find one of your own with 180 degree views. Looking toward the North and West (right to left), we can see Sugar Knob, Mill Mountain (the most immediate and tallest peak), Halfmoon Mountain, Long Mountain, Devils Hole Mountain, Tibbets Knobb, and the Trout Run Valley.

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I can imagine why this is a popular camping spot for the sunrise and sunset. There is no water source here however.

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After hanging out here for a while, we retraced our steps and started to head north east on the Mill Mountain Trail. From the junction of the Mill Mountain Trail and the Big Schloss Trail, the Mill Mountain Trail undulated across the rather wide ridge of Mill Mountain for the next 2.4 miles. Along the way, we pass the junction with the Big Schloss Cutoff trail that we took up and several other campsites along the ridge.

The trail wasn’t the kindest on the feet as there were grass growing on the trail which hid first sized rocks. Additionally, the trail was pretty dull since it was mostly in a tunnel of green. There seemed to be potential of views since the wide ride that a rock outcrop ridge that the trail followed for a large section, but that never really materialized as the trees blocked any possible views from the ridge. We checked out a few side trails, but they just lead to one of the many campsites surrounded by trees along the ridge.

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About 1.8 miles from the Big Schloss Trail junction, there was finally an overlook of Long Mountain and the Trout Run Valley.

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That would be it for vistas for the rest of the hike and we weren’t half way though. We would see plenty of green tunnel. At least the Wild Azaleas were blooming during our hike providing for some contrast.

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At roughly the halfway point of our hike around 6.8 mile and the end of flat portion along Mill Mountain, we came to the only water source on the ridge, a stream. Being a hot and humid day, we filtered some water here.

Then the trail finished the uphill to the Mill Mountain summit at a 8.2% grade over the next 0.9 miles. The top of Mill Mountain is anticlimactic since it is covered with trees without a vista. A side trail lead a creepy shed that marked the summit.

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We did not linger and begin our long downhill back to our car. It started with the last half mile portion of the Mill Mountain Trail for us declining at -5.8% grade. At the four way junction, we turned right onto the Tuscarora Trail (formerly the Halfmoon Lookout Trail) heading toward Little Stony Creek Trail.

It was about 0.6 miles continuing to drop at a -4.7% until we reached our final junction for the Little Stony Creek Trail, which we turned right onto.

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A few steps from the junction, we arrived at the Sugar Knob Cabin. Staying at the cabin requires a reservation from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). No camping can be within 200 ft of the cabin. There is however a water source shortly after the cabin and the first time we’d see Little Stony Creek.

The next 1.3 mile portion of Little Stony Creek trail is the steepest at -10.6% grade. While it follows Little Stony Creek, it stays higher up and we don’t every see the creek after the initial few steps. We were once again in the dull tunnel of green, except it was muddier.

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So the forest threw us a bone, rather a rattlesnake, to make it more interesting. We were fortunate the snake had stopped a backpacking couple, who notified us of its presence.

After waiting around for it to move off the trail, we were on our last 2.4 mile stretch of downhill at -5.1% grade. While the grade was less, the trail got muddier. We were pretty disappointing with the trail at this point until we came to a set of campsites 1.3 miles from the end.

The campsites also provided our first access to Little Stony Creek that we had been hearing for the last few miles. These were some nice campsites.

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Should you want to fish, that’s also possible here.

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For the last mile stretch of the hike, we’d get a few more glimpses of the creek. However, with the water also came the flies. I think we were also just done at this point with the hike and were looking forward to dinner.

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ratings (1-5; see detailed breakdown)

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  • views: 2. This hike was one of the hardest for me to rate due to the high variance of the trail. The view of Big Schloss coming in from the north was pretty majestic and really represents the name well. From the outcrop, there were plenty of nice open vistas of mountain ridges typical of Virginia. At the end of our hike, we found some campsites that had everything you’d want. However outside of these two highlights, the trail were some of the most monotonous trails consisting of a green tunnel. We saw plenty of new backpackers during this stretch and I feel so bad that this was their first experience because the lack of payoffs for the work. My suggestion based on this high variance is to day hike to Big Schloss via the Big Schloss Cutoff Trail, then pick up your backpacking gear and hike a mile or so in on the Little Stony Creek to camp at those great campsites.
  • difficulty: 2. Neither the elevation gain or the grade are very high for the hike. The heat and my lack of shape due to COVID-19 stay at home wore on my for this distance, but I typically wouldn’t find it too difficult.
  • technical: 1. The trail well marked and nicely graded. Water isn’t readily available on the Mill Mountain Ridge, so planning for that is necessary.

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