The Rocks at Last
Mention Rocks Mountain even to someone who knows Shenandoah National Park well, and chances are you’ll get one of two responses: honest people will tell you they’ve never heard of it, and others, trying to be polite, will smile and nod indulgently and perhaps say “Oh, yes,” as your relatives often did around you when you were little (and maybe still do now).
But mention Calvary Rocks, Chimney Rock
, the Riprap Trail, and Wildcat Ridge, and then you’ll get somewhere. Rocks Mountain, as marked on topo maps, is hard to distinguish; the Mountain
is far from the Rocks
and underneath Riprap
, making it seem as though the peak there is Riprap Mountain. Wrong.
goes with the word Trail
printed further along the map. Rocks Mountain is the broad 2910’ mountain that the popular Riprap Trail traverses, along the way passing Chimney Rock and Calvary Rocks.
The Calvary Rocks are not the highpoint of Rocks Mountain, but they are more interesting than the actual summit, which, like many Shenandoah summits, is covered by forest.
The funny thing about Calvary Rocks is that what most people probably think is Cavalry Rocks is really just a collection of small outcrops and cliffs near
Calvary Rocks. The nice thing about that is because of the confusion, very few people ever climb on the actual Calvary Rocks, which are just minutes from a well-traveled trail and which have excellent views following some fun climbing that gets into Class 4 and 5 if you want it to.
And you do
want it to, by the way, because the easier ways involve nasty bushwhacking that includes standing on piles of dead trees and brush that pierce your legs and threaten to collapse.
Sections of the rocks lend themselves to toproping and trad climbing,
but consider this advice: if you toprope, you will have to bushwhack and/or scramble up, build anchors, fight your way back down, and then fight your way back down again after the climb (well, one of you will); if you take a lead approach instead, someone can follow and clean, leaving just one round of bushwhacking for all.
Or you can just scramble/free solo and find something that suits your skill level. Once you hit the rocks, you will find sustained scrambling or climbing for 40-60’. Atop the white sandstone rocks, you will have excellent views in all directions, and fall, because of the colors, would be the best time to climb up and experience the views. Less than half a mile to the south is the actual summit of Rocks Mountain, but it is wooded and will require bushwhacking to reach (Shenandoah’s off-trail terrain is densely populated with deadfall and thorns, so consider yourself warned).
Reaching Calvary Rocks:
From the trailhead (see directions in Getting There), hike 0.4 miles along the Appalachian Trail to a signed junction with the Riprap Trail, where you turn left. The concrete post there indicates it is 1 mile to Calvary Rocks
. In about 0.75 miles (unfortunately, some of this is downhill), you reach some small cliffs and rock outcrops on your right; these rocks face west and offer fine views, but they are NOT the Calvary Rocks. They do, however, make a nice place to stop, relax, enjoy the scenery, take pictures, and do a little scrambling that shouldn’t be harder than Class 3 unless you try to make it so.
Continue hiking along the Riprap Trail. Shortly past the rocks and cliffs mentioned above, you will start seeing and passing some tall rocks in the woods to your left (east). These are the Calvary Rocks. If you reach a sharp leftward bend in the trail by a prominent clifftop, you have gone a little too far. The easiest way to access the brush-free parts of the rocks is to follow and start scrambling through a little gap near their center until you see the view shown on this page (see “The Rocks at Last"). After that, it’s up to you.
Many people use the Riprap Trail, Wildcat Ridge Trail, and the AT to make a 9.5-mile loop hike. Riprap Hollow is very pretty, especially in fall and spring, and the stream running through it is quite scenic even though it has no waterfalls. This area is also one of the few in the park where once can find Catawba Rhodendron (late May, early June), which is common further south along the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Beware poison ivy when bushwhacking!
It's better to make this trip late fall through early spring.
NOT the Calvary Rocks
The TH is in the park’s South District at MP 90 and is marked as the Riprap Trail Parking Area (not to be confused with the Riprap Overlook a little farther south). From any entrance station other than the southernmost one (Rockfish Gap), drive south.
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.
It’s common sense to wear a helmet when climbing, anyway, but it’s especially important here since people at the top might toss rocks over the edge.
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.
The 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