|Mt. Marshall Trail starts at the Skyline Drive. I parked 0.2 miles away, at the Jenkins Gap Overlook,
though another car had parked in the grass here when I returned.
|The upper elevations of this trail are, as described in the 14th edition of the
Shenandoah Trail Guide, "almost level."
|At the southern end of the Mt. Marshall Trail, outside of the park, the trail is marked by a small sign.
I've hiked a number of trails in this area over the past few months, including the Bluff Trail and the Jordan River Trail. You won't find postings on these hikes because, frankly, the trails weren't interesting enough to report on. I only report on a small fraction of the trails I hike. This hike became more interesting because of where I went next.
Returning back to the intersection of the Mt. Marshall Trail and the Jordan River Trail, I remembered a description in the Hiking Upward website about a decommissioned trail to the summit of The Peak. (Link.) The Peak is a 3020 foot summit separated from the rest of the Blue Ridge that is near the intersection of these two trails. There is a concrete mileage post here, and it used to have a second metal direction strip, but no longer. This is a dead-on indication that an old trail or road used to be here. I decided to check out whether it would be possible to find this old trail then continue back to the Skyline Drive, as I had hiked by here before and thought I saw evidence of the old trail.
|This concrete post clearly shows that there was once something else at this intersection,
as indicated by the notch that once held another metal strip.
I didn't have the website's hike description or map, but I had remembered this hike from Hiking Upward because they rank it a "6" on a 1-5 scale in difficulty, with 5 being "most difficult." Much of the reason behind the "6" ranking was the difficulty in getting up The Peak. Because they also rate some of the (truly evil) trails around Wintergreen Ski Area as a "6," I am always interested in checking these out. (Note that the hike they rank a "6" includes a long loop that includes both the A.T. and the Bluff Trail, which I did not hike on this outing.)
March must be the right time of year to do this kind of exploring, as reviews on Hiking Upward indicated that the mountainside is overgrown during the Summer. I found the old trail bed right away. I figured that it wouldn't hurt if I checked it out for a few hundred yards, even though I didn't have a trail description and hadn't read anything about the old trail before the hike. Of course, it is predictable what happened next. After an hour-and-a-quarter, I had completed two additional hiking miles and ascended about 800 feet. But, despite following an old trail for that time, I returned to the post pictured above even more confused than when I left it, as the trail I took never ascended to the summit.
Like many old/decommissioned trails and roads, the most difficult area to follow is right at the intersection. Even this wasn't very hard, because others had blazed the trail before me, and it was easy to read the land and follow the old path. After a little while, there were even trees with old blazes on them. The trail itself was a stiff, but not exceptional climb, ascending at an average 21% grade over the first 4/10 of a mile - with some brief steeper portions.
|Looking back towards Mt. Marshall, the trail climbs up The Peak.
Note the tree on the right with a faded blue blaze.
|At this point, the trail seems to fork, with discernable use heading both to the left and to the right.
|The trail after the fork is clearly dug into the side of the mountain.
|Looking back towards Mt. Marshall from the abandoned trail along the slope of The Peak
|Looking southwest from the slope of The Peak.
|Another view from the slope of The Peak.
There is another interesting aspect to the USGS map that I didn't really notice until later - the intersection where the concrete post still stands used to be a 4 way, with a trail connecting the Jordan River Trail and Mt. Marshall Trail here with the Bluff Trail to the northwest. I'll have to return sometime to check that out.
Next I checked out my collection of Shenandoah National Park trail guides. I have possession of six different trail guides, each published by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club at different times: 1950's 4th Edition, 1973's 7th Edition (actually a reprint of the 1970 edition, but I will refer to it as 1973), 1991's 10th Edition, 1994's 11th Edition, 1999's 12th Edition, and 2012's 14th Edition (current). Basically, I use 4 of these: 1950 (quoted earlier in this posting), 1973 (23 years after the 4th Edition), 1991 (18 years after the 7th Edition) and 2012 (21 years after the 10th Edition). These give me glimpses into the trail structure in the park over each of the last 4 generations. As a general rule, 1991 and 2012 are amazingly similar - there are few trail changes and even the trail descriptions are often word-for-word the same. In this case, The Peak Trail was abandoned before 1991 and there is no description of the former trail.
Looking at older descriptions, the 1950 edition refers to The Peak Trail as reaching The Peak summit 0.75 miles from the Mt. Marshall Fire Road, at a point that affords a "splendid panoramic view; viewpoints have been cut just beyond the summit."
The 1973 guide shows a park that was considerably different than the park described just 18 years later. Many trails and shelters that existed in 1973 were gone by 1991. And in this case, the 1973 edition provides the best description of this old trail. This guide states that the trail to the summit "was abandoned for some years but was reopened in 1965 when permission was obtained to cut two viewpoints. In addition, a new loop trail beginning partway up the mountain affords an alternate and less hazardous route to the top." (p. 135.)
The 1973 guide also states that the left fork (the one where H.U. described a stone cairn) climbs steeply to the summit, and "[p]arts of this route are treacherous because of loose rock." The right fork, which I took, "continues up dug road skirting steep rocky west side of mountain with good winter views of Harris Hollow and Skyline Ski Area on Jenkins Mtn. At .83 m. from saddle turn sharp left uphill away from dug road. At .9 m. short trail to right leads to south lookout." This apparent "south lookout" is just past where I turned around.
The guidebook's description of views to the "Skyline Ski Area on Jenkins Mtn." had me searching on Google. I found out that this ski area opened originally for senators and congressmen, became a public ski area, and closed just after the guidebook was published, after the 1973-74 ski season. It went out of business due to the lack of travel in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973 and diminished snowfalls compared to the 1960's. An excellent description of the ski area, with photos and scans of a brochure, are found here: Link. The USGS topo shows the slope to be due south of Big Devils Stairs in the Park, and Google Earth shows the former ski runs to now be predominantly covered in forest.
Back at the concrete post, labeled on the USGS map as "Thoroughfare Gap" but called "the Peak Saddle" in the 1973 guidebook, The Peak Trail once continued "northwest up gentle grades .33 m. to Bluff Trail... thus affording a circuit trip..." (p. 136.) This trail segment also no longer exists.
And, another side note: the 1950 guidebook stated that the current Jordan River Trail was abandoned in 1950. It also mentions an "abandoned Waterfall Branch Trail" further north off of the Mt. Marshall Trail, where the Mt. Marshall Trail crosses that stream.
For me, this hike doesn't rate a "6," but I did not hike all the way to the summit of The Peak (it could be that the portion I did not hike is the most difficult) and I did not hike the loop hike contained in the Hiking Upward description. So it really is comparing apples-to-oranges. I report this because while the route I took is long, and there are some steep sections up The Peak, I don't consider this hike to be overly difficult.
All this makes me interested to return, though probably not until a future winter after the spring/summer growth has again died back. When I do return, I will probably access the area from outside the park via the Harris Hollow Road - especially now that I've seen that there are parking spaces there. If you plan to do the same, note that the entire elevation gain of the hike is contained in the 2.75 miles from the Harris Hollow Road to The Peak's south slope - nearly 1800 feet.
PATC Difficulty Factor: 328.6 (this is a comparatively difficult hike, mostly because of distance.)
Total Distance: 14.1 miles
Total Time: 5:04 hours
Total Elevation Gain: 3823 feet
Starting Elevation: 2377 ft.
Low Point: 1025 ft. (at the southernmost point of the Mt. Marshall Tr.)