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Monday, August 17, 2009

Gettin' Loopy in Shenandoah: Rocky Top to Big Run

In the Southwestern section of Shenandoah National Park is a seldom-travelled loop hike that offers an incredible sampling of what the park has to offer (wildlife, rocky ridges, trout steams, lush forested valleys) without the crowds and traffic that can take the "wild" out of the Shenandoah wilderness.
This 14-mile loop begins and ends at the Brown's Gap Parking at Mile 82 on Skyline Drive. From there it follows the yellow-blazed Big Run Loop Trail for 1/2 mile to its intersection with the blue-blazed Rocky Top Trail (left). From here its approximately 5 1/2 miles of ridgeline before dropping steeply into the lush valley created by Big Run and a righthand turn onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Trail. Along this ridgeline section keep your eyes peeled for the numerous inhabitants of the park. We saw lizards (fence swifts), whitetail deer, black bear and timber rattlesnakes in this section, the latter of which can be a VERY unpleasant surprise if you're not paying attention.

Pack plenty of water as this ridgewalk offers none, but we did find a veritable bounty of ripe blueberries and blackberries (mid-August). Some of the terrain here is rugged and rocky due to an intense fire that burned this ridge in 1986 and apparently damage topsoil to such a degree that parts of this forest have yet to begin to recover. Other sections of the ridge have fully recovered and host a mature canopy with ample shade while still others have slowly begun to re-establish vegetation with low-shrubs and young trees. The result is an ever-changing canvas complete with fern-carpeted tree-tunnels as well as open rocky vistas. The descent to Big Run is a long, rocky traverse (1400 vertical feet) that is exposed to afternoon sun and gets hot in the warmer months and can make for sore feet by the time you reach the water.

Approximately 1/2 mile after turning right onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Trail is the only bridge on the trip and the intersection with the blue-blazed Brown Mountain Trail. Primitive campsites of varying sizes can be found up and down the streambank here with the larger spots located downstream from the intersection.

The next day is as dark, cool, and wet as the previous day was exposed, hot, and dry. Build time into your itinerary to fish (VA fishing license required - Creel limit is 6 trout over 9 inches), swim, and explore this area. At one point I bushwhacked up a ridge and sat quietly on a rock to observe the forest away from the trail. Within 45 minutes I was treated to a yearling male black bear who passed less than 50 feet in front of me while foraging on insects under rocks, hickory nuts, acorns and pecans. There is so much wildlife in Shenandoah that on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike I saw 5 bears in one 2-hour period one morning. Taking some time to sit quietly, watch and listen can yield some huge payoffs.

The trail crosses Big run a total of 8 times on its gentle climb to the intersection with the Big Run Loop Trail. Ample primitive camping opportunities exist within 1/2 mile of this intersection and an epic fishing hole (approximately 50 brook and rainbow trout with about 1/3 over the keeper size) at the second ford after Patterson Ridge Trail splits left from the main trail.

The final two miles is a steep climb on the Big Run Loop Trail (Yellow Blazed to the right) back to the original intersection with the Rocky Top Trail (straight) and back to the parking lot via Big Run Loop.

Entrance to Shenandoah National Park requires a $15 dollar per-vehicle entrance fee and is valid for 7 days. Backcountry camping requires a free backcountry permit that can be obtained at entrance stations and various other sites along the Skyline Drive.

Click here for a map and vertical profile from


  1. My and Dominic's best trip yet. Dominic also saw a bear and her cub. We were right up on the Timber Rattler. Watching the video gives me an adrenaline rush. I walked right by a black Timber Rattler at the camp in flip flops and heard Ben tell me what I had just done, and I was a little freaked, but at the same time have developed a greater love of Rattle Snakes. We did not see any Copperheads, and I've heard rumor that they are more aggressive than the Timber Rattler, which is very docile.
    Ben and I spent 15 minutes hanging out with a deer it was awesome. Eating fresh Brook Trout is wonderful. Great time had by all!!!!!!

  2. ummm...i didn't comment because i didn't realize it was you!!! how are you???? i miss you! email me!


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