Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Virginia Appalachian Trail's Dozen Best Overlooks

The Appalachian Trail's 550 miles in Virginia have countless overlooks providing memorable views. I often came to a new overlook and thought about whether it made my "Top 12" list, but held off on completing the actual list until I finished the entire trail.  This may have resulted in a disservice to the more northern miles of the A.T. in Virginia, as I finished those earlier in my quest.  Nevertheless, I have collected my 12 favorite views from along the A.T.  Each view has to be within 100 yards of the trail - so Bearfence Rocks in Shenandoah National Park doesn't make the list, as the A.T. cuts just west of these views.  The views below are listed South to North - not in order of their "greatness." Listing each by its greatness would present a whole 'nuther level of hardness!

1. Buzzard Rock (Location Link)
Buzzard Rock is the southernmost viewpoint and was the biggest surprise of the twelve.  I hadn't read anything about this vista and was blown away by the beauty I experienced at this spot.  In addition, it is just south of, and downslope from the summit of Whitetop Mountain, the second tallest mountain in Virginia.  Mt. Rogers, the highest peak, has no views, so I certainly didn't expect a spectacular vista below the summit of this mountain.  I hiked here with my Boy Scout Troop as part of a multi-day backpack on the A.T., and the boys could have stayed here for hours soaking up the views.

Boy Scouts enjoy view west from Buzzard Rock in 2015, including my son wearing the bandanna headband.

2. Rhododendron Gap, Mt. Rogers Highlands (Location Link)
About 7 miles north on the A.T. from Buzzard Rock (and less than a mile north of the Mt. Rogers Access Trail) is Rhododendron Gap in the Mt. Rogers Highlands.  Where the A.T. intersects with the Pine Mountain Trail and the Crest Trail there is a large rock that I thought required a tough climb the first couple of times I passed it.  It turns out that there is an easy access from the trail around the back.  The view from the top looks northeast towards Grayson Highlands State Park.  I loved the sunrise from this spot!

The rock in the back of this photo provides a spectacular view.

Sunrise at Rhododendron Gap, August 2015

3. Burkes Garden from Chestnut Knob Shelter (Location Link)
The Chestnut Knob Shelter is my favorite A.T. Shelter in Virginia.  A friend and I stayed inside this cabin on a cold and windy October night in 2014 and were very grateful that it had four walls.  The shelter is at a high point 4400 feet above sea level.  One direction gives views into Beartown Wilderness.  The other direction gives views into Burke's Garden.  Viewing sunrise in Burkes Garden is an experience I will never forget.
Burke's Garden from the A.T. at the Chestnut Knob Shelter, October 2014
4. Unnamed Viewpoint between Wapiti Shelter and Woods Hole Hostel, Sugar Run Mountain
(Location Link)
The trail north from Dismal Falls is truly a "green tunnel" where you feel disconnected from the rest of the world.  There are no views for hours until you come to this viewpoint northward, with views of Pearis Mountain and the New River Valley towards Pearisburg.  It was wonderful to see out from the trees - a view this spectacular was a bonus! You can trace the path of the A.T. over the next 6 hours of hiking from this spot.  A couple hours north of here is Angel's Rest Overlook - it is probably better, but I have no photos of that or real recollection of its beauty.

View north to the New River, July 2014

5.  Rice Fields Overlook, Peters Mountain (Location Link)
Just north of the New River, a recent re-route completely changed the location of about 4 miles of trail climbing Peters Mountain.  I hiked both routes in 2014, and they came back together at the Rice Fields Shelter.  Near the shelter is an overlook into West Virginia that allows the hiker to experience sublime sunsets.  I'd love to go back again.  
Rice Fields, April, 2014

Boy Scouts enjoy the view from Rice Fields
6. McAfee Knob (Location Link)
McAfee Knob is well known because it is the ultimate selfie spot anywhere on the Appalachian Trail. It also has a killer view of the ridge that the A.T. traverses to the north, along with the valley to the west.  I had heard about this spot for years before I finally experienced it, and it lived up to all the hype and then some.  I had what I call a "Grand Canyon Moment" here, thinking that no photo in the world can do justice to the magnificence of the view from this spot.
Doing the Hiker Photo Thing at McAfee Knob, February 2013
7. Tinker Cliffs (Location Link)
The Tinker Cliffs overlook is a couple hours hike north of McAfee Knob.  Because Tinker Cliffs looks right down the valley, I felt that the view is better, on the day when I did both.  Note that you can see McAfee Knob in this photo - it is on the high point to the left in the photo.
Tinker Cliffs, February 2013
8. Fullers Rocks (Location Link)
Fullers Rocks are on the A.T. just north of where it crosses the James River.  It is a tough hike getting up here, with over 2000 feet of elevation gained.  It is definitely worth the views, despite the climb!  
The James River cuts through the Blue Ridge as seen from Fullers Rocks, with the James River Face Wilderness
on the right side behind the river

Panorama from Fullers Rocks, July 2013

 8. Cole Mountain Summit, Pleasant Mountain Scenic Area (Location Link)
Cole Mountain is the ultimate place to sing "The Hills Are Alive" along the A.T. in Virginia.  The Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club maintains the summit as a bald, and one can see mountains from Trayfoot in Shenandoah National Park to McAfee Knob south of Roanoke.  Every time I return there, I always am amazed by the view and wonder why I don't return there more often.

9. 2/3 Up The Priest From the Tye River (Location Link)
The Priest is a big climb from the north - ascending from about 1000 feet at the Tye River to over 4000 feet at the summit.  There is a view at the summit, but I always prefer the rock about 2/3 of the way up the mountain with its northeastern views.  Especially in the winter, this is a nice warm spot to sit and enjoy a snack and a great view, knowing that most of the climb is behind you.

Looking north towards Three Ridges from The Priest
Looking East from The Priest

10. Hanging Rock, Three Ridges Wilderness (Location Link)
This part of the A.T. has plenty of great overlooks, starting at Spy Rock to the south to additional views in the Three Ridges Wilderness.  I have always liked the view from Hanging Rock the best among the Three Ridges views because it looks straight down the valley.  Hanging Rock is the northernmost viewpoint along Three Ridges and about 2 miles south of the Maupin Field shelter.

Hanging Rock, Three Ridges Wilderness
My son and a friend looking down to the Tye River from Hanging Rock in 2013.
11. Blackrock Summit, Shenandoah National Park (Location Link)
Blackrock Summit may be the easiest to reach of any of the listed overlooks.  As a result, there are lots of little kids climbing the rocks on this summit.  It is a great place for new hikers to check out.

View from the trail as it crosses Blackrock Summit.  Trayfoot Mountain is on the right.

12. Mary's Rock, Shenandoah National Park (Location Link)
This may be the most popular spot in Shenandoah National Park - it is close to DC, a relatively quick hike to the top, and you don't even need to pay to enter the park.  Oh, and the view is spectacular.

My son lunching in 2010 at Mary's Rockx, Shenandoah National Park, wearing his Hiking Upward tee shirt.
You can see the SNP Entrance Station below.
Is your list different?  Let me know what you would change.


  1. I realize McAfee Knob is famous and does have some commanding views, but personally, like Tinker Cliffs, I think I would have chosen Dragon's Tooth.


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