Overview and Route Description
How can you get a world away from civilization in a national park that is within an easy day’s drive of millions of people? Head for Rockytop.
Rockytop is one of the peaks of the Big Run watershed, the park’s largest, in the South District of Shenandoah National Park. The South District has fewer trails and sees less usage than do the park’s other two districts, and the trails of the Big Run area pass through highly scenic landscapes of cliffs, talus slopes, sandstone outcrops, and clear trout streams in what is probably the wildest section of Shenandoah. Bear sightings are common, and the bears here, not habituated to humans, usually run away as fast as they can as soon as they are aware of a person’s presence. The country feels big here, and the mechanized world seems far away (except when the sounds of freight trains from the Shenandoah Valley fill the air, but those train sounds seem right somehow here in the Appalachians).
Rockytop itself is the long ridge that dominates the view to the left (south) as one stands at the Big Run Overlook on Skyline Drive. It also forms the southwest wall of Big Run Canyon. Its pointed (for a Blue Ridge peak, that is), westernmost summit is the peak’s highpoint (the point marked Rockytop on most topo maps is not the true highpoint), and it is distinguished by some obvious talus slopes on its faces. The trail over Rockytop follows the ridgeline, crossing some of the talus slopes, before dropping to meet Big Run near the park boundary.
Those talus slopes are one of the main attractions of Rockytop and some of its neighbors, and not just because they allow excellent views of portions of the park that are difficult or impossible to see from the road. The talus slopes are also remarkable because they contain numerous specimens of fossilized wormholes that are estimated to be 500 million years old.
Before the uplift that created the Blue Ridge occurred, what is today the Appalachian region was part of an inland sea (300-325 MYA). The present East Coast was above sea level, though, so runoff flowing west ran into the inland sea, where invertebrates thrived. In time, pressure caused the lower layers of sediment to harden into sandstone while changing clays to shale and limey muds to limestone. After the upthrust of the Blue Ridge, the shale and limestone eroded away, leaving exposed the white sandstone-quartzite found on several South District peaks.
A look at some specimens of the sandstone will reveal striations that appear like long, straight, slender tubes or lines parallel to one another. These are the wormholes sea worms—skolithos—whose burrows were filled with sand and fossilized. Due to its appearance, the rock is sometimes called pipe-rock. Other peaks where it is readily found, all in the South District, include Brown Mountain (see Rocky Mountain), Lewis Peak, Austin Mountain, and Turk Mountain.
There are several ways to hike to Rockytop. This is the easiest and shortest of them—
RT Distance: About 12 miles
Overall Elevation Gain: app. 1350' (trails go up and down)
From Browns Gap (see Getting There), hike 0.6 miles on the Appalachian Trail, and then turn left to follow the Big Run Portal Trail for 0.7 miles, losing about 200’. After that, take the Rockytop Trail. The trail follows Rockytop’s ridgeline, passing close to two false summits. Occasional talus piles and other breaks in the trees offer nice views. About 5.3 miles from the parking area, the trail reaches a sag at the base of Rockytop’s highest point and then climbs in a northwesterly direction; shortly before this sag is a talus slope providing excellent views of Lewis Peak, Rockytop’s highpoint, and a still-bucolic section of the Shenandoah Valley. At 5.8 miles (3.5 on the Rockytop Trail), the trail crosses talus slopes that not only yield good views but also have numerous specimens of the wormhole-marked sandstone (illegal to remove). Then the trail follows switchbacks to crest the ridge at about 6 miles; from there it drops to a divide in an open, burned area before resuming its northwesterly direction and descending steeply to Big Run.
The trail does not actually crest Rockytop’s summit. The summit, despite the name, is wooded, and reaching it will require bushwhacking from the talus piles or the ridge crest just beyond them. Bushwhacking in Shenandoah can be a terrible experience, so consider yourself warned.
From the intersection with the Big Run Portal Trail, it is only about 200 vertical feet to Rockytop’s summit, but the gentle undulations make it much more than that. The trail is rarely steep. All trail junctions are marked with concrete signposts indicating distances, directions, and trail names.
Unless it is hot, wear pants instead of shorts. The deeper you go into this part of the park, the less trail maintenance there is. Many sections are overgrown from late spring through early fall, especially between the highpoint and Big Run. This means, among other things, poison ivy. If you are going to go of-trail to the true summit or elsewhere, it would be better to go in winter.
Getting ThereThe TH is in the park’s South District at MP 82.9 (Browns Gap). From any entrance station other than the southernmost one (Rockfish Gap), drive south.
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 closest campground is Loft Mountain, which has showers, water, flush toilets, and a store. The access road for the campground is at MP 79.5. The campground is open from mid-May through October, and you can make reservations to stay there, though only 10% of the sites are reservable (see park link for more details). It is the park’s largest campground, but 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).
External LinksOfficial park site