A Different Kind of Mountain Experience
Shenandoah National Park cannot compare with other national parks such as Glacier, Yosemite, and Zion as a natural spectacle, but the fact that it is within a day's drive for the tens of millions who populate the megalopolis that is most of the East Coast from Boston to Washington, D.C. means that the few exposed mountaintops there can get crowded.
Those who love their mountains but not the crowds learn to start early, go in winter, or go on weekdays. They also learn to seek out-of-the-way locations, and Bear Church Rock (3035'), an exposed outcrop on Jones Mountain, a long, broad mountain that lies in the park's Central District, fits into that category.
At almost 5 miles from the nearest trailhead on Skyline Drive and along a trail devoid of popular destinations such as waterfalls and cliffs, Bear Church Rock does not see many human feet. Most visitors are probably hikers headed to or from Jones Mountain Cabin, a backcountry site managed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and available for rental. Other than those folks, the peak sees a few hardy day hikers and solitude-seeking backpackers. What you won't see are the noise-making types that dash from the car with water bottle in one hand and camera in the other to brave the untamed wilderness.
A hike on Jones Mountain is not a journey into the overpowering grandeur of nature but rather a trip into its quieter beauty. It is a true walk in the woods, and hikers there look for subtle wonders such as spring's emerging wildflowers, the first changing leaves of autumn, the colorful lichens slowly but inexorably changing fallen trees back into the dirt from which they sprouted, caterpillars crawling, moths waiting out the daylight, and so on. It is a pleasant escape into the mountains and away from civilization for those with the frame of mind to enjoy it.
On Skyline Drive in the park's Central District, park at Bootens Gap, just south of MP 55, in a small parking area on the east side of the road.
Bear Church Rock is 3.2 mi from the lower end of Stanton River Trail outside the park on SR 662, but parking is very limited, and part of the road is supposed to be pretty rough. The following directions are courtesy of SP member Buz Groshong:
US 29 about 3 miles south of Madison to VA-230 on right (west). Turn right on VA-230 toward Stanardsville and go about 3.6 miles to Wolftown. At Wolftown, turn right on 662 and go about 5.4 miles to Graves Mill. At Graves Mill turn right (still on 662) and follow about 0.5 mile to the end of the road at the park boundary.
To reach Bear Church Rock from Skyline Drive-- Hike north on the Appalachian Trail for 0.4 mi to a junction with Laurel Prong Trail. Turn right onto that trail and follow it for 1 mi, descending gently to Laurel Gap, where there is a junction with Cat Knob Trail. Cat Knob Trail is only 0.5 mi but is steep; follow it to Jones Mountain Trail. Follow this trail for 2.8 mi, mostly along a ridge, and look for an opening that provides access to Bear Church Rock. Along the way, the trail crosses the highpoint of Jones Mountain, 3482', but there are no views.
The spur trail to the cabin is half a mile farther from Bear Church Rock.
Elevation gain on the RT route is around 1800'.
Red Tape, Camping, and External Links
It costs $15 to enter the park, and that provides access for a week. Annual passes cost $30. The interagency pass, good for yearlong entry to areas managed by NPS, USDA Forest Service, USFWS, BLM, and the Bureau of Reclamation, costs $80.
The park is open all year, but Skyline Drive does sometimes close after snow or ice storms. The park site does not give current road conditions, so call ahead (540-999-3500).
To reduce poaching, Skyline Drive is subject to night closures during hunting season. Check the park site for exact dates and hours.
Camping and Lodging
The nearest campground is Big Meadows, at MP 51. The campground is usually open from early March through Thanksgiving weekend. Reservations are strongly advised. Lodges at Skyland (MP 42), Big Meadows, and Lewis Mountain (MP 58) are seasonally open, with Skyland opening earlier and closing later than the other two.
Backcountry camping is free, but you do have to fill out a permit, available at entrance stations.
Official park site