Overview and History
A view of Signal Knob from the trail near Maneka Peak to the south.
Between the Blue Ridge to the east and the Alleghany mountains to the west lies the Great Valley of Virginia. The Valley stretches for most of the length of the US East Coast from Alabama all the way to New York and represents a break between different periods of orogeny (mountain building) which built the Appalachians. In the middle of the Great Valley lies the anomalous Massanutten Mountains of which Signal Knob is the northernmost pinnacle. The Massanuttens are a 50 mile long, 5 mile wide group of steep ridges rising abruptly between the two forks of the Shenandoah River. Geologically speaking, the Massanuttens are a 'synclinorium,' a large U-shaped formation of hogback ridges surrounding a central valley - the same strata that form the ridges lie burried below the interior valley. In the case of the Massanuttens, the enclosing ridges almost come together at both ends, nearly cutting off the interior valley, which is named Fort Valley. Passage Creek drains through the north end of the formation yielding a narrow route into the valley through a steep-sided canyon.
View from Signal Knob - Photo by Peter Larkins
The area is rife with history. In 1748-49, a young Virginian named George Washington surveyed the area for Lord Fairfax. In the 1770s, Washington and his Continental Army planned to use Fort Valley and the surrounding Massanutten ridges as a last defense against a failed Revolution. The area is remote, fertile and defensible, and they could conceivably have held off the British for years. The strategic importance of the Massanuttens was not lost on later generations; Signal Knob and other promontories along the ridges were used as lookout and signalling posts by both Confederate and Union troops during the Civil War.
In the 1800s, the Massanuttens was recognized as a ready source of iron ore, limestone, and the fuel needed to refine it. Four furnaces were set up in the valley and produced large quantities of 'pig' iron until shortly after the Civil War. These furnaces are largely preserved as historical parks as part of the George Washington National Forest. In 1933, the first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was established on Massanutten and became the model of New Deal work projects.
Fall view of Signal Knob Trail near Buzzards' Rocks Overlook.
Today, Signal Knob is a popular and free alternative to the crowded trails in Shenandoah National Park to the east. A ten mile loop from Elizabeth Furnace takes hikers past the impressive north end of the Massanuttens' western ridges to the airy lookout on Signal Knob. A network of trails, including the Big-Blue/Tuscarora Trail
(a runner-up to the famous Appalachian Trail) and the Massanutten Trail
(a 71 mile loop around the ring) pass near Signal Knob and many hiking options of all lengths are available.
Signal Knob is easily accessed from I-66 near the cities of Strasburg or Front Royal, VA. Take the US-340 exit at Front Royal heading south and after crossing the North Fork of the Shennandoah River (first bridge), turn right onto VA-55 west (just before you get to the second bridge). On VA-55, pass Waterlick sign, and at about 5.2 miles from US-340, turn left onto route 678, marked for Elizabeth Furnace and Fort Valley. You can also get to route 678 by taking VA-55 east from Strasburg (just off I-81). Follow VA-55 to the hamlet of Waterlick and turn south on route 678. The end of the Massanutten ridges will be obvious ahead of you. After 4 miles on route 678, find the Signal Knob Trailhead on the right. Another mile farther is the Elizabeth Furnace picnic area. Both are good places to start for Signal Knob.
Signal Knob, like the rest of the Massanutten Mountains is in the George Washington National Forest. There are no access fees or permits required. Please follow Leave-No-Trace principles.
For parking information or other questions, contact the Lee Ranger District
, (540) 984-4101
When To Climb
Signal Knob is accessible all year, but the best scenery can be found in the early summer when the mountain laurel is in bloom and in autumn when the leaves are changing. Late summer is blueberry and blackberry season and the trailsides have many berry patches. You may also see a black bear enjoying the berries. Treat them with caution! Winter hikers should be prepared for inclement weather and possibly frozen ground.
Camping is permitted throughout the National Forest except in the immediate vicinity of picnic areas and other developed waysides and in the watershed of the Strasburg Reservoir, which includes the southern slopes of Signal Knob. There are many informal trail-side campsites of varying quality. There are no fees for backcountry camping, nor are permits required. Massanutten is a steep ridge so water sources may be scarce. You can generally rely on finding water in any sharp valley marked on a map.
There are also developed campgrounds (fee areas) at Elizabeth Furnace and nearby Camp Roosevelt.
- Massanutten Ring trail (71 mile circuit)
There is a newly-completed circuit tour of Great Massanutten Mountain (of which Signal Knob is the northern end). Trail conditions are rough but nicely done. It is absolutely uncrowded and a great alternative to Shenandoah National Park.