Sunday, November 7, 2021

Hanging Rock Observatory/Allegheny Trail

The Hanging Rock Observatory hike is a long way from my Charlottesville home - 150 miles and 2 hours, 40 minutes driving time via Interstate 64 to Covington, south to Paint Bank on Virginia Rt. 18, then local roads to the trailhead.  The hike is in the Jefferson National Forest, but in West Virginia, not Virginia.  The views from this trail are worth the trip!  This trail has some of the more awesome views I've encountered in the Virginias.

This is actually the tale of two hikes.  The first, between the trailhead and the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory is locally very popular – the trailhead parking lot frequently fills up early on autumn weekends.  The second, on the Allegheny Trail past the Observatory to a second overlook, sees much less activity.  The entire hike is pretty easy, as the parking lot is located on the crest of the ridge of Peters Mountain.  Be sure to wear blaze orange during the hunting season so hunters can see you from a long way away!

Mile 0.0 – Start the hike at the Hanging Rock Observatory Parking Lot, with space for about 15 vehicles.  Finding the trailhead parking lot may be the hardest thing about this hike!  Fortunately, you can find the trailhead in Google Maps labeled as “Hanging Rock Observatory Trailhead/Allegheny Trail,” but do not let your GPS take you on Fire Tower Road – stay on Limestone Hill Road until you reach a sign for the parking lot.    The trail follows the yellow blazed Allegheny Trail, starting in the back end of the parking lot, heading uphill.

Mile 0.2 – After an initial ascent of 130 feet, the trail starts a descent.

Mile 0.5 – Begin the big climb of this hike, a relatively mild 280 feet over nearly a half mile. 

Mile 0.9 – A trail sign signals a blue blazed trail on the left.  A nearby sign states, “You can either turn left her and take the short very steep rocky climb up to the Observatory or continue along the Allegheny trail another 200 yards or so passing below the Observatory then turning left on the opposite end of the blue blazed loop trail taking a much less steep and rocky route to the Observatory.”  Of course, this description is taking the “short very steep rocky” option.  Turn left.

ile 1.0 – Reach the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, elevation 3812.  The views – wow!  This tower was originally built in 1956 as a fire tower, but was closed in 1972 and the land on which the tower sits was purchased by the United States Forest Service in 1983.  The tower was restored by birders, as this has been a popular raptor count location dating back to at least the early 1950’s.  The tower was rebuilt after vandals set fire to it in 1996.  Inside the building, recent raptor counts are logged on a white board. There is a log book for human visitors to leave a record of their visit.  There is also some information on the types of birds observed from this viewpoint.

Views to the south include Peters Mountain where the Allegheny Trail ends at an intersection with the Appalachian Trail just outside of the Peters Mountain Wilderness<> and Wind Rock along the Appalachian Trail.  Views to the east are of Potts Mountain and the West Virginia/Virginia border.

When you have finished these views, head back down the observatory steps and take a right on the blue blazed trail.  You will pass a porta-potty.

Mile 1.1 – Reach the Allegheny Trail.  There is a small sign on a signpost indicating the side trail, and another sign on a nearby tree.  Harder to see is the Allegheny Trail, which receives considerably less use after the second turnoff to the Observatory.  There is a yellow marker on a tree to your left as you reach the trail signs – look for it and head left if you wish to extend your hike beyond the Observatory.  Keep an eye out for yellow signs keeping you on the Allegheny Trail as you progress – the trail itself is sometimes faint, but the route is marked much more frequently than you will find on the Appalachian Trail.  I made a game of how many yellow blazes  I could see at the same time when hiking this section.

Mile 1.7 – Encounter a grassy roadbed and follow trail markings.  You cut left on this roadbed for about 20 feet then right onto trail again.  You do not hike as far as the nearby woods road to the east.

Mile 1.9 – The Allegheny Trail exits woods and crosses an open field, following trail signs on carsonite posts.  Keep an eye for these posts leading directly across the field, as the trail briefly merges into and then leaves a roadbed.  Do not follow the roadbed past a short distance, as it leaves the trail route quickly.

Mile 2.0 – Just after reentering the woods, look for another carsonite post signaling a blue blazed side trail to a vista.  Leave the Allegheny Trail and follow the blue blazed trail.    

Mile 2.1
– Make your way through some trees to a rock vista looking west into West Virginia.  There are also views to the south along the crest of Peters Mountain.  This view is not as expansive as the one experienced back at the Observatory, but chances are you will have this view to yourself.  When you are ready, retrace your steps back to the Allegheny Trail, again cutting through the meadow to return on your northbound return.  (The Allegheny Trail continues south for another 10 miles to its terminus at the Appalachian Trail, but this description does not follow that part of the trail.)

Mile 3.1 – Reach the southern end of the blue blazed Observatory trail.  You can either experience the Observatory views a second time, or continue straight on the Allegheny Trail directly back to your vehicle, with views up to the Observatory as you hike.

Mile 4.2 – Arrive back at the trailhead parking lot.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Breaks Interstate Park

Have you ever taken a hike that, when you were done, you looked at your distance with disbelief because it took such a long time to complete a relatively short hike?  On paper, this loop does not seem like it is a challenge, but much of the time the trail is actually very rocky and steep.  My slow pace – about half of my normal speed - had me worried about completing this short loop before sunset for much of its length.  And I hiked it when dry!  Others say this trail is downright treacherous after rains or when the leaves are falling.  Heed the park’s warning sign and attempt this one only if you are an experienced hiker outfitted with good boots.

Although this hike never leaves Virginia, Breaks Interstate Park is located in both Virginia and Kentucky.  Each state jointly operates the park.  It does not require a Virginia State Parks pass to enter, but instead is a separate charge.  The highlight of the park is the varied views of a canyon created by the Russell Fork River, said to be the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi. 

When fully open in the Summer, there are a great variety of recreation options in this park.  There are lodge rooms and a restaurant, mountain bike trails, boat rentals, cabins and cottages, and a large pool.  The campground has sites with electricity and water, and sites for tents without upgrades. The campground restrooms have hot showers – no need for quarters. (Note: even walk ups who first check in at the park will have to reserve a site through  There are no sites held back from online reservations, so you will get dinged for the online fee whether you reserve at home before leaving or with the help of park personnel after you arrive.)  It is a large campground, and it is the only camping option in the park, as there is no backcountry camping here. 

The beauty of this place makes it worth the long drive it takes most folks to get here. The prolific trail guide writer Leonard Adkins states in his 50 Hikes in SouthernVirginia of Breaks Interstate Park, “if your time in this region is limited, you should bypass everything else and spend your days here.  If I had my way, I would spend my whole summer here.”  His guide does not describe this loop, and I do not believe many visitors explore the described trails because most do not stray from the rim.  This is the only access to the Russell Fork River, however, and having hiked the real Grand Canyon earlier in the year, I wanted to compare my previous experience with this park’s “Grand Canyon of the South.”  (Spoiler: the trail to the river at Breaks is a lot shorter, but mile-for-mile is harder than its Arizona namesake.)

Mile 0.0 – After driving past the lodge and the park’s visitor center, start the hike from one of the parking areas giving access to canyon overlooks.  This description starts at the Tower Tunnel Overlook parking area.  The lot has room for a dozen cars, but if there are no spaces you can start this loop at the next parking area.  Start the hike next to the kiosk at the end of the lot, and take a photo of the trail map if you do not have one with you.

Mile 0.1 – Take the yellow blazed trail past a trail intersection and head a short distance out to the overlook before starting the real hike. 

Mile 0.2 - After soaking in the vista, return to the trail intersection you passed on your way to the overlook.  Before you again reach the parking lot, take a left onto the orange blazed Prospector’s Trail, heading toward the River Trail.  The park’s trails are very well signed here.  Shortly after starting down the Prospector’s Trail, pass a couple of stern warning signs telling you to be in shape and well equipped to complete the trails described here.

Mile 0.5 – The Prospector Trail begins to lose elevation and heads underneath a huge rock boulder.  This trail’s path follows the canyon rim, but along a lower elevation than the rim.

Mile 0.6 – The trail makes a couple of switchbacks and passes a “Rock Climbing Access Trail” before it cuts into and through a series of large boulders.  Very cool!

Mile 1.2 – Come to an intersection with the start of the River Trail.  Leave the Prospector’s Trail and head down the blue blazed River Trail.  The route really drops elevation fast over the next half mile, dropping 560 feet over the next 0.6 mile.  During this section, the trail passes next to a series of small cliffs. Although the trail is rocky and there are few views during this section, the nearby rock formations make for a pleasant hike.

Mile 2.2 – The River Trail drops to close contact with its namesake river, with views between the trees. It never reaches water’s edge, but you can easily bushwhack to the river.  I headed on using the trail, passing very close to more cliffs.

Mile 2.3
– The River Trail ends at a right turn and becomes the Grassy Creek Trail near where Grassy Creek enters into the Russell Fork River.  There was no trail sign here, but the Grassy Creek Trail is yellow blazed, not blue like the River Trail.  Just after the turn, ascend about 50 feet, and look down on a small waterfall on Grassy Creek.

Mile 2.7
– Turn right onto the Laurel Branch Trail.  If you find yourself crossing a somewhat slick streambed on the Grassy Creek Trail, you have gone too far.  I missed this intersection at first, even though it is signed.  The Laurel Branch Trail parallels the Laurel Branch stream and climbs straight upslope at a steep pitch, averaging nearly a 30% grade for over 3/10 of a mile.

Mile 3.0 – A trail sign signals an intersection with the end of the Prospectors Trail and your return to the rim top trail system, with arrows pointing in every direction, signaling multiple choices.  

Although I could take the Prospectors Trail back, it seemed more interesting to stay on the red blazed Laurel Branch Trail, which ascends in a zigzag a trail marked with a series of metal arrows on trees. Shortly afterward, take the Laurel Branch Trail through a rock formation known as The Notches.

Mile 3.2
– After passing through The Notches, arrive at an intersection with the blue blazed Ridge Trail, marked by a sign. Take the Ridge Trail towards Stateline Overlook.  After an initial, brief climb, the Ridge Trail is relatively flat.  The rest of the hike is easy.

Mile 3.0 – Reach the parking lot for the Stateline Overlook. Be sure to detour slightly to check out the views at the overlook! There is a signboard at this overlook explaining the boundary and Pine Mountain.  

Continuing on the hike, I found trail signs lacking and the route confusing here.  My map told me that the Overlook Trail would take me back to my vehicle.  Returning from the overlook to the parking area, the Overlook Trail is on the right.  But the trail was so much smaller than other trails I had experienced in the park, I thought it was a social trail and did not take it at first.  I started out following the park road back then switched to the Overlook Trail as it paralleled the park road just to the right, passing several picnic areas and the Clinchfield Overlook parking area/trailhead.  The park road was empty.

Mile 4.3 – Arrive back at the trailhead parking lot. 

Park Trail Map:

Hike Data:

Distance: 4.3 Miles

Hike time: 2:56

Minimum Elevation: 913 ft

Max Elevation: 1974 ft

Total Ascent: 1331 ft

Distance from Charlottesville is over 5 driving hours: