Do you like climbing and scrambling in Shenandoah National Park, want to avoid the crowds on Old Rag and Bearfence Mountain, but don’t want to hike several miles in order to do all that? If so, then the Lost Cliffs ought to make you happy. Almost no one visits this spot, there is a short hike to it, and the climbing and scrambling are much better than they are on the standard routes on Old Rag and Bearfence. The views from the clifftops are not as expansive as they are from the aforementioned peaks, but there are still nice views south and west, and don’t forget that you will almost certainly have the cliffs all to yourself.
The Lost Cliffs are aptly named. They rise nearly 100’ above the forest floor and are located close to the busy Swift Run Gap and South River Falls areas of the park, but they receive few visitors because they are down a little-used fire road and require leaving the trail to get to them. There is a scenic waterfall nearby, Dry Run Falls, actually one of the park’s nicest, but it, too, requires off-trail travel to reach, and that involves a substantial amount of steep, tedious bushwhacking.
The rock at Lost Cliffs is very solid, though not quite as good as that at Little Stony Man Cliffs to the north. But its sturdiness and form mean good opportunities for placing and using protection, and the fact that the clifftops can also be reached by hiking means that most climbers would probably choose toproping here although lead climbers will find that they can practice their craft here, too. There are no named or established routes of which I know, but most climbing here is in the 5.4-5.8 range, though one might find easier or harder climbs if he/she really wants to.
There is not much here for scramblers or non-expert free soloists, but I did find one route that was feasible. However, reaching a complicated move in a highly exposed spot about three fourths of the way to the top, I turned back, reasoning that the cliffs weren’t glamorous enough to warrant such risk, especially when I was alone and unroped and no one else knew where I was. Scramblers can, though, find a good Class 3 ascent at the north end of the cliffs, right along their edge. Just left of that edge, it is a Class 2 bushwhack to the summit. There’s a Class 3 opportunity at the south end, too, but it had a lot of brush obstructing it and didn’t look like much fun. That end, too, allows a Class 2 bushwhack to reach the top. Atop the cliffs, though, scramblers and hikers will find some nice outcrops on which they can play around a bit—a good place to practice short moves and bouldering skills without worrying about falling to your death.
Dry Run Falls—if you don’t mind some ugly bushwhacking, you’ll be very glad you visited this highly scenic and seldom-visited waterfall, which drops in three major cascades, the last of which is the highest and most dramatic, and which fall in total more than 80’. In fact, considering the three drops together, this could be the park’s highest waterfall instead of the uppermost of Whiteoak Canyon’s falls.
Hike past the cliffs until a stream (Dry Run) crosses the path and the trail turns sharply left. Then the trail descends, paralleling the stream, which soon disappears from view, until it bends sharply right. Just after this second bend, which is about 1.5 miles from the start of the trail, the falls will be roughly due south of you. You will not see them, but you may hear them. There is supposed to be the trace of an old fire road leading to the falls somewhere around here, but I have never found it. Still, it might pay to look first instead of jumping right into the tedious bushwhacking. 10-20 minutes of fighting deadfall, loose soil, steep slopes, thorns, and mossy rocks will get you to the falls.
WATCH OUT FOR TIMBER RATTLESNAKES! They are fairly common in the park, and the wilderness setting of the Lost Cliffs-Dry Run area is perfect habitat for them. Watch where you put your hands and feet, and watch where you sit, too! Wear ankle-protecting shoes until you put on rock shoes, if you do, and begin your climbing. The off-trail approaches to the cliffs and the falls, and the clifftops themselves, are especially likely places to encounter the snakes. And don’t kill them! It’s illegal, and this is their home, anyway.
ANOTHER WARNING: If poison ivy ever heads for extinction, Shenandoah will be one of its last strongholds. Bushwhacking in the park, in addition to the serious deadfall issues, exposes people to a great deal of poison ivy. Dry Run Fire Road itself is frequently overgrown late spring through fall. For these reasons, I recommend visiting Lost Cliffs and Dry Run Falls late fall through early spring. And wear pants, not shorts, even if you go in the hot, humid summer.
The Lost Cliffs are not officially named on USGS maps, but they are listed on topo maps published by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. I think it would be a bad precedent to start making mountain/rock pages for just any cliffs or outcrops in Shenandoah or anywhere else, but since these do have an officially recognized name, I felt a page on them was appropriate.
Getting ThereEnter Skyline Drive at one of its four access points and drive to South River Overlook, which is just north of the South River Picnic Area and is between mileposts 62 and 63, closer to 63. If entering at Rockfish Gap or Swift Run Gap, drive north to reach the parking area. If entering at Front Royal or Thornton Gap, drive south.
To get to the cliffs, park at the South River Overlook, which is on the east side of Skyline Drive, and then walk across the road and a few dozen feet north until you see a gated fire road. This is Dry Run Falls Road, but it is unmarked. Hike down the fire road, which will probably be overgrown late spring through fall, so wear pants and long sleeves or go at a different time of year. After 10-15 minutes, you will see the cliffs directly off the trail on your right.
Red TapeIt 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 closures during hunting season. The information below, copied and pasted from the park site, illustrates the 2006 restrictions—
From November 13, 2006, through January 6, 2007
• between Front Royal (Mile 0 at U.S. Highway 340) and Thornton Gap (Mile 31 at U.S. Highway 211), and
• between Swift Run Gap (Mile 65 at U.S. Highway 33) and Rockfish Gap (Mile 105 at U.S. Highway 250),
will be closed daily between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.
The central portion of the Drive, between Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap, will remain open for overnight access to Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Campground until those facilities close on November 26.
Then, beginning November 27, 2006, through January 6, 2007, the entire length of the Skyline Drive will be closed daily from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m.
CampingThe nearest campground is Lewis Mountain, about 6 miles north. Big Meadows is about 10 miles north, and Loft Mountain is about 18 miles south. Big Meadows usually is open from early March until just after Thanksgiving; the others open in May and close earlier in the fall. Reservations are strongly advised for Big Meadows. For more comfort, consider staying in a cabin or lodge room at Lewis Mountain, Big Meadows, or Skyland (about 22 miles north). The lodges, too, are seasonally open, with Skyland opening the earliest. See the links section for more information.
External LinksOfficial park site