Overview and Route Information
Yes, that's the name. A little pretentious, perhaps, for a wooded summit that maps mark as 2925' and for which my GPS device returned a whopping 2892'.
But there are some very nice things that recommend The Peak. For one thing, it is one of the most "mountain-like" mountains in Shenandoah National Park; its prominence from Thoroughfare Gap (gap is Eastern for pass), which connects it with Mount Marshall, its highest neighbor, is almost 1000', and its rise from its eastern base is almost 2300'. Second, there is no officially maintained trail to the summit, making it an excellent choice for people looking to escape the trail crowds and find a little mountain adventure in the rapidly diminishing wilderness of the East.
The summit is wooded, which in other words means that there are no unobstructed views, but a winter climb will yield plenty of good views in all directions. The bare trees will frustrate photographers, but climbers will still enjoy pleasant views of Shenandoah favorites such as Mount Marshall and Old Rag, and they can look east over the quiet settlements built around the horse farms of the rolling Blue Ridge foothills.
Spring would be nice, too; the bare trees of early spring will still yield nice views, and the abundant wildflowers later in the season will make up for the lack of views. And it's a similar story in autumn-- the colors of October will be beautiful, and the nakedness of November and December, plus the retreating undergrowth, will again offer views. Summer is one season I would not like to find myself here, though-- humidity and dense undergrowth (don't forget the poison ivy) could make the place miserable.
There are three feasible routes that utilize maintained trails most of the way. All three involve an approach to The Peak from Thoroughfare Gap (west of the summit). The first is the shortest and makes the most sense for most people. The other two are much longer and involve more elevation gain/loss.
This one starts from outside the park (see Getting There). Hike the Mount Marshall Trail to Thoroughfare Gap, gaining about 975' over 1.8 miles. The first 0.6 miles go through private property, so take care to stay on the trail. From the gap, strike almost due east for the summit, which is about one mile and 975 vertical feet away.
Unless you go late spring through early fall, you will encounter only mild bushwhacking. In fact, you will more likely than not run into some old trails, some of which are still blazed. Recent maps and guides do not mention any trails on The Peak, so these trails must have been abandoned some time ago, though some fresh-looking cuts on deadfall in one area made me wonder if some locals secretly maintain the trails for their own use.
You can even find an old blazed trail all the way to the summit if you look very carefully. At Thoroughfare Gap, there is a USGS marker (a sign over it asks visitors not to disturb the survey marker), and about 25 yards north of it, there is a signpost marking the junction with the Jordan River Trail. The old summit trail ends near this post, but it is not visible from the gap area. One must hike 20-30 yards into the woods to see the first blazes and remnants of the steep, rocky path. I only discovered this on my way back down.
The USGS topo map this page links to does show the trail, called "The Peak Trail," but remember that such maps sometimes do not get updated for decades. Recent maps, including the excellent PATC maps, do not show the trail. So to repeat, the trail up The Peak is not marked or evident from the trail over Thoroughfare Gap.
If you look at the Comments section, you will see that an SP member has actually done some maintenance work on The Peak Trail, and he mentions that there was a cairn marking the trail as recently as March 2007. Rangers or nature may have dismantled that cairn, though, as there was no evident cairn there on December 24, 2007. It is possible I missed the cairn, but I am pretty certain one was not there. In any event, this page should have sufficient information for finding and using the trail should you want to.
From Skyline Drive
These two ways really make sense if you are staying at a campground or lodge in the park, if you are backpacking, or if you are approaching the park from the west (in which case it would be a long drive down and around to the southern trailhead).
#1-- Park at Jenkins Gap or at a small parking area a short distance southeast of it (both are between Mileposts 12 and 13 on Skyline Drive) in the park's North District. Hike southeast along Skyline Drive until you reach the Mount Marshall Trail (the trail departs directly from the small parking area previously mentioned) and take that trail for 4 miles to Thoroughfare Gap.
#2-- Park at Gravel Springs Gap (about halfway between MP 17 and 18 on Skyline Drive) in the North District. Follow the Appalachian Trail a short distance south to the Bluff Trail. After 3.8 miles on that trail, you reach an intersection with the Mount Marshall Trail, where you turn right and hike 0.4 mi to Thoroughfare Gap. Total distance to the gap from the parking area is 4.4 miles.
NOTE: A study of area maps will show that the shortest way to The Peak is to take the Jordan River Trail to Thoroughfare Gap from the end of SR 629, southwest of the town of Flint Hill. This route crosses private property, and signage suggests hikers are not welcome to pass through.
Remember, this one is not about the views but about the solitude, the sense of discovery, and the little details that make the Blue Ridge forest a special place.
Getting ThereDirections to the Skyline Drive trailheads are in the previous section.
To reach the southern trailhead and access the route I recommend, look for SR 628 between the towns of Sperryville and Washington off U.S. 211/522. SR 628 leads into the tiny community of Washington, where one of the state's most famous, exclusive, and expensive restaurants is (the Inn at Little Washington). In the center of town, turn west onto SR 622, which travels through a pleasant landscape of pastures and gentle hills. Turn right onto SR 625, which leads to a small parking area and two gates. The Mount Marshall Trail begins on the right. It is 3.5 miles from Washington to the trailhead.
Red Tape, Camping, and Links
If one takes the southern approach, the only red tape involves respecting private property at the trailhead and along the first 0.6 miles of the trail. Hiking off the trail or trashing the parking area could cause the landowner(s) to close public access to the park from here.
If one approaches via Skyline Drive, all of the following considerations apply:
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 nighttime closures during hunting season (mid-November through early January). Specific information about the dates, times, and sections for the current year is available on the park's website.
You cannot camp at the southern trailhead. You might be able to get away with sleeping in the car if you call no attention to yourself, but don't push it.
Backcountry camping is free, and there are some nice spots near the summit. Technically, you must get a permit, but you will have to drive into the park to get one, adding anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours to your trip (you can get permits at the entance stations on Skyline Drive).
On Skyline Drive, the closest campground is Mathews Arm (MP 22), which has water and flush toilets but no showers or a store (there is a seasonally open snack bar at Elkwallow, a short drive south on Skyline Drive. The campground is open from late May through October. It will usually fill on holiday and October weekends. The fee for a campsite is $15 per night (as of 2007, higher if you reserve).
Official park site