When I’m hit with an urge to get outdoors, you might find me cruising down Route 29 towards Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah is the most extensive wilderness space easily accessible to DC, and encircles almost 200,000 untouched acres of Northern Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
The places that I visit most often in the park are Old Rag Mountain, a challenging day hike with rock scrambling sections and breathtaking summit views, and Skyline Drive, a 105-mile undulating, ridge-hugging highway that’s best to drive in the spring or fall when tree colors are changing. I’m sure I’ll be returning to both spots soon, but on an early spring day I convinced a couple of friends to try a destination we’d never been to before.
We got a late start on the day (as we usually do), and overshot our intended noon departure time by almost an hour, sailing down Constitution Ave heading west out of the city. As anyone familiar with I-66 might expect though, we quickly found ourselves in traffic. How that road has backups on it seven days a week I’ll never understand, but it did eventually ease up and we decided that with the sun staying out well past 7:00, we’d still have time to complete the four hour hike as planned.
The drive to Shenandoah gets really nice when you thumb your nose at 66 and exit onto Route 29. At a gas station fittingly staffed by a clerk named “Ghas,” we grabbed supplies and rotated our drivers, which also meant the end of playing Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” on repeat, but Fleet Foxes’ “Blue Ridge Mountains” was a solid replacement. Driving down Route 29 reminded me just how quickly DC gives way to farmland, and we were lead past beautiful open country and farms with horses, bison, llama, sheep, cows, and goats. A few miles after turning off of 29, we reached the diminutive hideaway marked as the Graves Mill parking area, unloaded, and began the hike.
The route I had picked was described as an 8 mile out and back with constantly shifting landscapes: river scenery and small waterfalls to start, secluded nature and wilderness sightseeing in the middle, and then a steep ascent to the finishing point, a rocky outcropping with an unobstructed view known as Bear Church Rock. I still have no idea what Bear Church Rock means (the three words couldn’t have been produced by anything other than free association), but it turned out to be a great day hike. The trail was perfectly maintained, but because it’s lesser known than some of Shenandoah’s others, there was almost nobody on it the entire way.
We started along the Rapidan River, clear and cold and bubbling with small waterfalls and pools, and after about two and a half miles turned away from the river on the Jones Mountain Trail. A steep rise up the mountain took us through a green canopy of mountain laurel, and past clumps of snow that had held on from the cold week before. The chilly March and early April weather, finally broken by the sunny and beautiful Saturday we had picked, provided us with views through leafless trees all along on the ascent. A winter of beer and minimal exercise didn’t help our fitness, but we reached the gorgeous Bear Church Rock viewpoint in good time. After getting our fill of the view we turned around, taking the same route down, and it was a little after seven with the sun still out when we got back to the car.
On our way home, we stopped at a Five Guys for a post-hike mega meal and celebrated about a Hershey’s Ice Cream store being next door. After slamming the burgers we went into the Hershey’s, blaring with neon “open” signs, and with music still drifting out of a radio, but there was eerily nobody inside. We waited and waited, expecting a flustered employee to come out of a hidden bathroom or rush into the store, and at a particularly low moment we thought about serving ourselves and leaving money on the register. Finally, our biggest ice cream fanatic stormed out, and returned a few minutes later with a smile on her face and an apologetic owner in tow. Apparently he owned both the Five Guys and the Hershey’s Ice Cream store, but had forgotten to check if any gluttons had went for ice cream after their burger. We laughed it off with him, slammed sundaes without a pang of guilt, drove back into DC, and fell asleep immediately.
Getting There: To get to Shenandoah, and the launch point for this hike, you’ll really need a car. Here is the exact location of the Graves Mill parking area, which can only be found with coordinates and isn’t searchable by name on Google Maps.
If you do this hike the first weekend in May you’ll see dozens of pink lady’s-slipper, a native orchid. They are really cool flowers and they can only grow in the wild.
Go in mid to late June and all of the mountain laurel will be in bloom.
It’s a great hike.