Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Mt. Marshall Trail and The Peak: Shenandoah National Park

The Mount Marshall Trail is located in the North District of Shenandoah National Park and is a nice long trail that I had never before hiked. This is my eighth trip to the North District since last May, as I work to check off every trail in the Park. The trail connects the Skyline Drive near MP 13 with Route 625 outside the Park - the Mt. Marshall Road off of the Harris Hollow Road, which connects with Washington, Virginia. "Little Washington" is a very upscale place, and houses along Rt 625 appeared to be very nice. There is a small parking area on Rt. 625.
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 trail originated as a fire road, except in its southernmost portions near the park border, where the fire road portion is no longer mapped or maintained. More on that later. Because of its original fire road status the trail is normally very wide, and descending from the Skyline Drive is very gentle for the first 4.3 miles to the Jordan River Trail, averaging only a 1.7% grade. South of the Jordan River Trail, the descent is considerably steeper, averaging 10.6% over the southernmost 1.7 miles.
The upper elevations of this trail are, as described in the 14th edition of the
Shenandoah Trail Guide, "almost level."
Near the park border I noticed an old road splitting off to the east from the trail.  There is nothing on current topographic maps about this roadbed, but a careful review of the 1948 PATC Map No. 9 (Fourth Edition), which I reviewed at the UVA Special Collections Library, shows that this roadbed was the original fire road.  The 4th Edition of "Guide to Paths in the Blue Ridge," copyright 1950, confirms this, stating, "The route as originally marked, prior to the construction of the fire-road, diverged from the present route at the third stream crossing (.45 m.) from the Harris Hollow Road and rejoined it at 1.62 m.  The fire-road is .16 m shorter than the old route." (Page 14-209.)
At the southern end of the Mt. Marshall Trail, outside of the park, the trail is marked by a small sign.
Today the old route is once again the only route, as sometime after 1948 the Mt. Marshall Fire Road was decommissioned and became the Mt. Marshall Trail.  with two choices descending into the valley, the old trail continued and the road was eliminated.  I followed the trail to its terminus, outside the park.

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.

At the 4/10 mile mark, the trail appears to reach a fork, shown in the photo above.  A later review of Hiking Upward's description of this point indicated a stone cairn here, but I did not see one. I took the path that appeared more heavily traveled - to the right.  This did not take me to the summit.  But it was in great shape (with a few blowdowns blocking the way on occasion), and afforded several partial views of the valley, which are shown in the photos that follow.

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
I kept thinking the trail would cut left and summit The Peak.  Though it climbed at a 14% grade, I passed to the south of the summit after about a mile on the old trail, and then the trail then appeared to head down a ridge away from the summit.  I could not tell how far it continued.  Here, there were two trees with square white blazes - something I've never seen.  It wasn't going to take me to the summit, however, so I turned around here.
I turned around at a point where the trail clearly turned away from the summit and appeared to head down a ridge.
This point was marked by two trees with square blazes on them, shown above.  Not sure what this means.
Gracie is briefly unleashed here as we had just crawled over and through a couple of downed trees.
On the return, I saw what could have been a path to the summit, but it didn't look definite enough to be worth following.  The trip had me wondering why there was a clear path along the slope of The Peak, without going to the top, and heading who knows where.
Looking southwest from the slope of The Peak.
Another view from the slope of The Peak.
When I returned home, I started searching through old maps and guidebooks. The 1948 PATC Map 9 (North District, SNP) shows a trail that heads directly up The Peak to the summit, and does not show a trail along the slope.   The current USGS Topographic Map of the area, however, shows several additional details.  (It is interesting to note that these USGS maps are basically time capsules of the Park as it existed in the early 1970's - there is much information on SNP as it existed at that time on these maps.) Here is a link to the USGS with an overlay showing my GPS route.  Link.  According to this map, there was a loop trail to the summit of The Peak, and the trail I followed basically ended where I turned around.

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.

Hike details.
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.)
Highest Point: 2789 ft. (where I turned around on The Peak)
Difference: 1764 ft.


  1. Jeff, George Walters, who served for many years as the district manager in the North District for both the A.T. and blue-blazed side trails, knows all about the formal abandonment of the The Peak trail. He lives near Sperryville and remains a PATCer. Jack Reeder, former club president, who now lives outside of Winchester, owned a home on the eastern slope of The Peak for many years and has considerable knowledge of the trail. Walt Smith maintained and hiked The Peak trail after the SNP abandoned it. In 1991, he proposed a relocation to address concerns over erosion to justify its reopening. I wrote a draft Environmental Assessment and submitted it to the Park for that purpose (I was the Supervisor of Trails then). The SNP rejected our proposal immediately.


    Don White

    1. Thanks, Don. So the trail was closed due to erosion issues? Do you know about when it was closed? -Jeff

  2. Jeff,

    Apparently, The Peak trail always had erosion problems - really, I know of no trail that doesn't have erosion problems, however. Especially one whose grade is so steep.

    The problem with The Peak trail was that its overseer passed away and, according to what George told me in 1991, he had been unsuccessful finding a replacement. Of course, this was before the Hoodlums crew was formed, so George had no fallback to use. He thought, he said, that by "abandonment" meant that The Peak trail would be temporarily dropped from the list of trails for which PATC was responsible and that it would be restored to that list when a member volunteered to maintain it. In 1991, such a person stepped forward: Walt Smith. Walt not only volunteered to maintain the trail, he described a rerouting that would address the grade/erosion matter.

    However, the SNP, led by then-Superintendent Bill ("No-New-Trails") Wade, had instead invoked the much more formal and expensive NEPA process and had formally abandoned, or removed, The Peak trail from its inventory. The official reaction to the draft EA I submitted directly reflected this; SNP complained that, in my draft, I had not paid "sufficient attention" to the No Build option.

    The Peak trail remains on the USGS quad for the area; PATC was forced to remove it from our maps under pressure from NPS.

    I think that The Peak trail was formally abandoned in 1989 or 1990. It had not been maintained for at least a year prior, I believe. (I have not searched through my files at home for the copy of the draft EA I submitted; that should be with our historical records at headquarters, though.)



  3. Jeff I stumbled across your site, great write up. Interesting history on how the SNP trails change over time. I did find that the 1968-97 USGS tops show the Peak trail and loop on them. See here. https://www.historicaerials.com/viewer


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