|Robertson and Old Rag Mountains from Hawkbill's summit|
8 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Access: Trailhead off Skyline Drive (paved road), Shenandoah National Park entrance fee required
This is a long and fairly rewarding hike to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain, the highest peak in the park, though I would recommend most visitors to do Hawksbill as a 2.5-mile loop hike starting at Hawksbill Gap. This trail is a bit on the long side; the section along the Big Meadows Horse Trail is honestly not terribly interesting, though the extra views along the Appalachian Trail are quite beautiful. Hiking Upward rates this hike as one of the best for views in the Mid-Atlantic; I can tell you flatly that although it's a beautiful hike, this loop as a whole does not have the highest reward to effort ratio. So hikers who are familiar with the park may want to do this hike to explore some less-trod ground; hikers who really want a long hike involving Hawksbill would be better served on the more scenic Cedar Run-Hawksbill route.
My family and I did this hike on an extremely cold Christmas Day, when temperatures started around 15 degrees and stayed below 20 degrees the entire day in the mountains. We drove to the park from the Fredericskburg, entering the park from the Thornton Gap entrance at US 211 and driving south on Skyline Drive to Fisher's Gap Overlook at mile 49. As we pulled into the parking area, we saw a bobcat disappear into the woods- the first and so far only time that I've seen a bobcat in Shenandoah. We parked at the overlook, walked back towards Skyline Drive and then descend the fire road just north of the overlook to a junction with the Appalachian Trail to start our hike.
We headed north on the AT (right at the AT junction) from Fishers Gap. We quickly found that the extremely cold weather brought extremeley interesting ice features to the park: hoarforst covered many plants, while the ground was thick with needle ice. In fact, there were many areas with two-tiered needle ice (needle ice that formed beneath needle ice from the night before), resulting in ice columns of up to nine inches long. The ice made the trail crunch under our feet the entire day.
|View from Franklin Cliffs towards New Market Gap|
|Views on the Salamander Trail|
|Spruce tree atop Hawksbill|
We lunched at the shelter before walking the final 50 yards to the observation platorm at 4050 foot summit, the highpoint of Shenandoah National Park. The 270-degree view was tremendous: all of Page Valley, Stony Man, Robertson Mountain, Old Rag, and the Piedmont, stretching to the horizon.
|Stony Man and Timber Hollow from Hawksbill|
The Big Meadows Horse Trail was long and honestly rather boring. There wasn't much to see; the trail descended the side of Spitler Hill into the upper Rose River watershed, then, followed the side of the mountain for two miles or so until reaching two stream crossings of the upper reaches of the Rose River. Mile markers marked the trail every half mile, which hikers might find useful for keeping track of how much longer they have until they get back to their car.
|Feeder streams of the Rose River|
|Sunset at Fishers Gap|