Shenandoah – Where the Locals Go (hiking, swimming, great views)
Shenandoah is absolutely gorgeous right now. But its beauty changes season to season: from autumn leaves, to frozen water falls, to flowering rhododendron, to amazing vistas, to picture-perfect swimming holes. Front Royal Brewing Co. sits right here at ground zero. Our home town and namesake is where the legendary Shenandoah River actually begins – the north and south forks come together on the edge of town to begin their journey north as the meandering Shenandoah. But we’re also where the Skyline Drive begins, and where the Shenandoah National Park ends. When you decide to come here, you’ve come to the perfect spot to experience this amazing region.
You have many good options, from a picnic on the Skyline Drive to hikes on Old Rag and the many other justly-famed mountain trails in the Shenandoah valley. Numerous blogs, apps, websites, and travel guides can tell you all about these popular destinations.
But since we are about being local here at Front Royal Brewing Co., we thought we’d pick the brains of some of our best local customers to give you options you may not have thought of. Front Royal Brewing Co. is a hiker haven of sorts. Our landlord offers “Base Camp Front Royal,” which is a free shower-locker-laundry facility for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. For most of the summer you’ll see these hikers sitting at our bar, spinning yarns about what they’ve seen and done in the mountains. But for many of our local customers, these mountains have been their personal playground for a lifetime.
One such local is Chris German. Chris’s day job is guiding people on river trips down the Shenandoah, but his real passion is discovering amazing hikes and places to go in these marvelous mountains. Here are his favorites, all right here a few miles from Front Royal. Note: we don’t give all the details you may need for some of these trips, so check your favorite hiking site for more information. We like Hiking Upward.
Best For: View, Easy Hike; 4-7 Miles
This is the quintessential hometown hike. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone from Front Royal who hasn’t taken this beautiful and easily-accessible day-hike. You can turn it into a two-hour out-and-back walk that almost any reasonably healthy adult of any age can handle, or you can shuttle from one end of the ridge to the other and hike all day. You’ll meet extended families, couples on dates, serious rock climbers, and hiking aficionados from all over the east coast. It truly has something for everyone.
The culmination of the hike is, of course, Buzzard Rock (the name comes from the population of buzzards, gliding on the updrafts), an outcropping extending for several hundred yards along the ridge, with sheer drops on the west side of 300 feet or more. Hence the rock climbers. They seem to always be there, with their ropes and gear – and fearlessness. The views are awesome. To the west is Fort Valley and the Massanutten Range, a beautiful wilderness area that has the look and feel of Colorado, not Virginia. To the East is the town of Front Royal and the surrounding farms and countryside. There’s even a somewhat surreal view to the north of the fish hatchery and its many round ponds.
The eastern trailhead (3087 Mountain Road, Front Royal, VA) has a somewhat limited parking lot, and during peak season, cars will sometimes overflow and park on the road. DON’T be tempted. The police do ticket. If the Mountain Road lot is full, try driving around the mountain to the western trailhead at Elizabeth Furnace. The hike from there is longer and more strenuous but even more beautiful. (If you have two cars, you can also shuttle-hike from lot to lot), Another word of caution. Many sites also list the Buzzard Rock Overlook hike, which is not the same as either of the Buzzard Rock hikes described here. The Overlook hike also leaves from Elizabeth Furnace, but takes you west of Passage Creek up the Massanutten ridge towards Signal Knob, with a view of Buzzard Rock to the east, but not a trip to the rock itself.
Best For: Falls, Swimming; 3-9 miles
This is the perfect summer hike, in swimming attire. Falls to gaze at, pools to swim in, water slides to make you squeal. But if you’re out here in winter, it’s also a fabulous winter hike. Look for a day when temperatures have been in the teens for several days and you’ll be amazed at the frozen water falls. Awesome!
Overall Falls, if you do the full trip, is an 8 mile loop. But you can customize it to your liking. It includes the highest waterfall in the Shenandoah National Park – a 93 foot drop. But it also includes three more falls, spectacular in their own right – one at 63 feet, another at 36 feet, and one more at 29 feet. This area is also prime bear habitat, so keep a sharp eye. The stream going over these falls is low volume so the hike is best in spring when water flow is high.
But the hidden surprise on this hike is a series of swimming holes, off the beaten track, that include pools deep enough to dive into off the rock cliffs, gentle water slides you can scoot down on your rear, and a myriad of other small pools to lounge in. Much better than a manufactured water park off the beltway!
You can start this hike from the top or bottom, but we suggest beginning at the bottom at the Thompson Hollow trailhead. The swimming area is about a mile up the trail from Thompson Hollow. After a mile, the trail comes to a T intersection. Swimming area is down the mountain to the right. Continue to the left to get to the falls.
GOONEY CREEK SWIMMING HOLE
Best For: Swimming; 50 yards
While we’re on the topic of swimming; holes, we have to tell you about this one. A classic you won’t find on any trail guide. Gooney Creek is a small but beastly creek dropping straight out of the mountains into the Shenandoah River – kayakers adore this creek after a spring rain. But at its mouth, just before it empties into the Shenandoah, it offers up a beautiful, deep, wide swimming hole with rock cliffs and an Olympic-sized pool that’s perfect for an August day. If you need to cool off after a day of hiking definitely check this out.
To get there, take VA 340 south from Front Royal about 5 miles to Gooney Creek Campgrounds. Walk about 50 yards upstream to the swimming hole.
LITTLE DEVIL STAIRS
Best For: Strenuous Hike, History; 6 miles
Locals like this hike for two reasons. First, it’s a mood thing. Try it on a misty, foggy day. The clouds hang in the valleys and shoulders of this valley, as if an artist put them there. The hike follows a deep draw into the mountain, along a small creek and over a series of natural rock stairs. Very cool experience.
The second reason, though, is a touch of local history. Early last century, Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive was private property, owned by thousands of mountain people – farmers, herders, lumberjacks, hunters. Hundreds of years before that, immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and the Continent of Europe had migrated into those mountains to eek out a living and became the authentic Appalachian mountain people many of us have heard or read about. But during the New Deal, this region was appropriated by the Federal government and the locals were force off their land – many settled right here in Front Royal. About two miles into this hike, you’ll come across gravesites these early mountain people left behind as well as a Park Service marker, memorializing their experience.
SIGNAL KNOB OVERLOOK
Best For: Driving to View, 0 hiking miles
We’ll close with a drive-through. For those of you who may be tired of hiking but still want an amazing Shenandoah experience, you’ll need to plan ahead a little for this one: wait till sunset. From Front Royal, drive south on the Skyline Drive just a few miles to Signal Knob Overlook, which gives you a perfect west-facing view of the sunset over Signal Knob. Absolutely spectacular. What local teenager wouldn’t love to end a picnic date sitting on the wall of the overlook, holding hands, watching those hues of red, orange and purple fade into night. Even a middle-age couple would love that!
Thank you, Chris, for your suggestions. Can’t wait to get out there and do them all again. We have some other local experts lined up to suggest more hikes and destinations for our readers. We’ll continue adding to this blog, so please check back.
And when you’re in Front Royal, stop by Front Royal Brewing Company. We’re always churning out new beers and even offer what we call our Trail Series: new, cutting-edge brews straight from our experimental cellar. They come in limited supplies,but are just perfect after hiking and swimming in Shenandoah. We also have amazing food every day and live music on the weekends. Hope to see you soon!