Fog Ocean At Fishers Gap
Photo taken by Kaleen Vaden

MILE 49.4, FISHERS GAP and FISHERS GAP OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,070 feet. Hikes, fire road crossing, AT access. The overlook is hidden from the Drive by a large wooded island; its north entrance is just south of the fire road. On the fire road, 100 feet west of the Drive, there is parking space for two or three cars. A few yards farther down the road is the AT. For hikes beginning at Fishers Gap, you should park in the overlook. The view from the overlook is limited: a narrow V-shaped view down Fox Hollow (not the same as the Fox Hollow near Dickey Ridge), and across the Valley to the Massanutten. Be sure to read the historic markers pertaining to Stonewall Jackson and his activity in this area.

AT access is via a 55-yard trail which begins at a large rock where the parking area narrows at the south end of the overlook. Distances on the AT: south (to the left) it's 1.5 miles to the Big Meadows Amphitheater; north (to the right) it's 1.4 miles to Spitler Knoll Overlook. The AT crosses the fire road just to the north, which makes possible a very short "leg-stretcher" hike, as follows:  

HIKE HC-29: AT below Fishers Gap Overlook. Circuit 0.3 mile; total climb about 30 feet; time required 0:20. See Map MC-8. Take the short access trail at the south end of the overlook. Turn right on the white-blazed AT, then right on the fire road. When you reach the Drive, turn sharp right into the north entrance to the overlook, and return to your starting point.

Purple Clematis
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Wildflower note: The purple clematis, Clematis verticillaris, is an uncommon wildflower, but it blooms beside the AT below the overlook, usually in late April. It's a vine, producing large showy flowers with four long, limp, pale-purple sepals. In early April look for the pale violet flowers of hepatica, which is usually the first spring flower to bloom.

The fire road that crosses the ridge just north of the overlook is the old Gordonsville Turnpike. On the east side it descends through the Rose River valley, leaves the park, and becomes SR 670. Three miles outside the boundary it passes the Graves Mountain Lodge, near Syria. On the west it's called the Redgate Road. It descends 4.3 miles to the park boundary, where it becomes SR 611, and continues to Stanley.

History: In November 1862, Stonewall Jackson used this road to lead his large army across the mountain on the way to Fredericksburg, where he was instrumental in defeating the Union Army under General Burnside. This road follows an older trail that may date back to the 1700s. Claude Yowell, historian of Madison County, Va., says the road known as the Blue Ridge Turnpike was built as a toll road in 1849-50.

On the east side of the ridge, the road descends into Dark Hollow.

Three hikes that begin at Fishers Gap Overlook are suggested:

    Rose River Falls: round trip 2.7 miles (Hike HC-30).
    Rose River Falls and Hogcamp Branch: circuit 4.0 miles (Hike HC-31).
    Davids Spring: round trip 1.8 miles (Hike HC-32). 

HIKE HC-30: Fishers Gap to Rose River Falls. Round trip 2.7 miles; total climb about 720 feet; time required 2:35. A not-too-difficult hike to a rather small but very pretty waterfall. See Map MC-8; Fishers Gap Overlook is near right center.

Upper Rose River Falls
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Park at the overlook, and walk out the north entrance road. Cross the Drive, walk a hundred feet down the fire road, and turn onto a graded trail. There is a concrete marker post here pointing down the fire road straight ahead and marked "Rose River Falls." You can get there that way, but the section of the Rose River loop trail to your left is a much nicer walk, and it's a shorter distance to the falls. If you do the circuit hike version of this hike (Hike HC-31) described after this one you will be returning up this fire road. Continuing to the left, at first, this is a foot trail and horse trail combined; horses have the right of way. About 0.6 mile from the start, the horse trail turns off to the left; go straight ahead here on the blue-blazed trail. A mile from the start the trail turns abruptly to the right.

There's a rough stretch, but it's short. A hundred yards beyond the abrupt right turn, in what was once a grove of hemlocks, the Rose River comes down on the left and parallels the trail. As you walk, look for small cascades and pools and miniature waterfalls. After another quarter of a mile you're at the top of the upper falls, which consist of several separate cascades. A hundred feet farther is a low point to a side trail, with the lower falls in view to your left. Straight ahead on the side trail are some rocks where you can sit and watch the falls. Return the way you came.

Trivia: Rose River was named for early settlers, not for flowers. On an old map (1795) it's called Rows River.  

HIKE HC-31: Rose River Falls, Dark Hollow and return via Hogcamp Branch. Circuit 4.0 miles; total climb about 910 feet; time required 3:45. See Map MC-8. A slightly difficult hike, with one stream crossing. A few parts of the trail are rough, a few steep, and a few are sometimes damp and slippery. But, besides the falls, you'll see dozens of pools and cascades and miniature falls. Your route is down the Rose River Trail, past the falls and abandoned copper mine, up Hogcamp Branch to the bridge, and then up the fire road.

One Of The Many Rose River Cascades
Photo taken by Sayer

After the trail swings right for a second time it parallels a stream, the Hogcamp Branch, on the left. Two hundred yards farther, a "trail" of pale blue-gray rock chips goes steeply uphill on the right, to the filled-in shaft of an old copper mine. To the left is a weathered concrete block; it supported an air compressor that supplied the pneumatic drills.

History: The copper mine was worked from 1845 to 1850 and then abandoned. In 1902 the Blue Ridge Copper Co. was formed to resume operations here. Three shafts were opened; all of them now filled. The ore was in narrow veins through the basalt, consisting of blue and green carbonates of copper, a little cuprite, some chalcopyrite, and some native copper. The ore was rich, but getting it out of the basalt was not economically feasible.

Bear Family On Rose River Fire Road
Photo taken by Gabriel Mapel

Less than a tenth of a mile beyond the copper mine, cross the Hogcamp Branch and turn right. The trail ascends through lower Dark Hollow, with the Hogcamp Branch on your right, and reaches the fire road after 0.9 mile of climbing. Of all the trails in the park, this was Heatwole's favorite. He wrote, "The stream is rarely out of sight, and it has an endless variety of cascades and pools. There are wildflowers in summer, from Indian pipes to three-leaved sedum (just before you get to the fire road). The moss that grows on rotting logs here is too green to believe. It's a long climb; when you want to rest, go down to the stream, find a rock to sit on, and watch the water.

When you reach the fire road, turn right and cross the bridge, pausing to look to your left at a long, narrow waterfall. Thirty yards beyond the bridge, the blue-blazed Dark Hollow Falls Trail goes uphill on the left. If you make a side trip to the base of the falls you will add 0.3 mile and 145 feet of climbing to your hike. About 0.6 mile from the bridge the Cave family cemetery, which is still in use, is on the left side of the road. Continue steadily uphill to the Drive in Fishers Gap, about 1.1 miles from the bridge.
HIKE HC-32: Fishers Gap to Davids Spring. Round trip 1.8 miles; total climb about 470 feet; time required 1:40. An easy hike along the AT, past a former homesite. See Map MC-8. Fishers Gap Overlook is at right center.

Hemlock Skeleton
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Take the access trail at the south end of the overlook, go to the white-blazed AT and turn left. The trail descends for a few feet and then begins a long, steady, easy climb. About 250 yards from the start, notice a tremendous basalt rock on the left, in the process of splitting and breaking up. A quarter of a mile farther, you will enter a grove of now dead hemlocks. Here is Heatwole's description of the area written in the 1970s and which still was appropriate well into the 1990s, "after another 400 yards you're deep in a grove of large hemlocks, where you will notice several things: it's dark and cool and quiet; there is little or no undergrowth, and the ground is carpeted with fallen needles. If you stop and listen, in summer, you'll hear insects and birds, and an occasional car sound in the distance, and sometimes the shout of children in the Big Meadows Campground, half a mile away. If there's a gentle wind in the treetops you'll hear a steady rain of tiny hemlock needles." His description of what it was like to be in a grove of these wonderful trees gives you a sad sense of what is being lost as the last of the hemlocks die out. From the trail, near the middle of what used to be the hemlock grove, you can look downhill to a concrete watering trough about 25 yards away. Further down the hill on the left is the site of a former homestead.

Two hundred yards after you emerge from the former hemlock grove, you cross a small stream that flows from right to left. This is Little Hawksbill Creek. Continue up the trail and you will come again to the stream. Just 300 yards from here is the stream's source at Davids Spring. If you continue on the white-blazed AT from here you will pass just above the spring. You can also leave the trail here and follow the stream uphill to the spring. In April, look for the yellow flowers of marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, one of the first flowers to show color in the spring. The broad green lily-like leaves in and near the water are false helibore, Veratrum viride. In late summer, near the spring, look for the pink-white flowers of white turtlehead, Chelone glabra.

Davids Spring flows out from the roots of a tree. Don't drink as the spring drains the campground. There is a marker post on the AT at a sharp turn just above the spring. To return to Fishers Gap go left, as you face the campground, going downhill be sure you're on the AT (white blazes) and going downhill.

MILE 50.7, DARK HOLLOW FALLS PARKING. Elevation 3,425 feet. It has been said that of all the waterfalls in the park, Dark Hollow Falls is closest to the Drive and easiest to get to. (But see the description of waterfall at mile 1.4.) Remember that "easy" is a relative term and while it is easy going down to the falls, the real effort required is coming back up.

Trivia: Milepost 50 to Milepost 51 is the shortest mile on the Drive: just eight-tenths of a mile long. When the mileposts were put in, the Drive did not go through the deep cut in the hillside to the south of here, as it does now. Instead it made a loop to the east, starting near the south end of the parking area.  

HIKE HC-33: Dark Hollow Falls. Round trip 1.4 miles; pets are not allowed on this trail; total climb about 440 feet; time required 1:25. See Map MC-8. Take the trail at the north end of the parking area. It crosses the stream and then goes downhill along its left bank. This is Hogcamp Branch, which drains Big Meadows Swamp and becomes the principal tributary of Rose River. You may find it dry at the beginning, but it will gradually acquire enough water to make a satisfactory waterfall.

Dark Hollow Falls
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

The trail descends easily for 0.6 mile to the head of the falls. You must stay on the trail here. There's no view from the top of the falls, and the rocks there are slippery and dangerous. Please observe the warning signs. The trail swings away from the stream and goes uphill for a few feet before swinging right and descending to the base of the falls. On the trail between top and bottom of the falls you'll pass a tremendous rock that looms on your left, just where the trail swings sharply to the right. Except in dry summer months, water constantly trickles and drips down the face of this rock, promoting the growth of mosses, ferns, and liverworts. On cold winter days there's an enchanting display of stalactites and stalagmites of ice.

There's a fine view of the falls from the bottom. The water drops 70 feet, in a series of cascades, over the crumbling greenstone of an ancient lava flow. Thomas Jefferson once stood here and admired the falls. (Jefferson spent a great deal of time exploring these mountains, and studying their plants and animals. He was so fond of the Blue Ridge that at Monticello he put the outbuildings below ground, so as not to interfere with his view of the mountains.) Return by the way you came.

Below the falls, the trail descends another 145 feet in about 300 yards to the Rose River fire road, passing a number of small cascades, and then intersecting with a small waterfall that some call the lower Dark Hollow Falls.

North Entrance Sign
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

MILEPOST 51, BIG MEADOWS, NORTH ENTRANCE. To reach the visitor center or to walk in the meadow, turn right here, then left into the parking area. (For gas, food, lodging, picnicking, and camping, use the south entrance at mile 51.2)

Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center. Ranger staffed information desk, publications, exhibits, and films about the history of the park. There are new (2006) restrooms just outside the front door. The visitor center was opened to the public in April, 1966. Films are shown frequently, on a regular schedule. Ask at the information desk. Ranger guided activities can be scheduled here. More importantly, the staff are outstanding resources for planning hikes, recommending activities that match your interest and ability or identifying the animal you might have seen along the Drive.

The exhibits in the visitor's center and the films were totally redone in recent years. They reflect new understanding of the history and impact of the park's establishment as well as the results of research done by the park staff on all aspects of the park over the last seventy plus years.

The Shenandoah National Park Association operates a park store with many publications for sale that contain much in-depth information about the park, including many guides, as well as general references on flora and fauna that will greatly enhance your visit. The publications include many designed especially for children. If you are visiting with children ask about the Junior Ranger Program. This very popular program has proven to be a practical way to enrich the park experience for junior visitors and helps parents and children to share the experience.

On July 3, 1936, the park dedication ceremony took place here. Thousands of people were seated, on chairs, on chestnut logs, and on the ground. Bands played from bandstands beside the speaker's platform. Amplifiers and loudspeakers carried the sound to everyone, and the program was broadcast from coast to coast by NBC and CBS radio. After speeches by Harold Ickes (Secretary of the Interior) and George Peery (Governor of Virginia), President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in a short speech that ended with:

"We seek to pass on to our children a richer land and a stronger nation. And so my friends, I now take great pleasure in dedicating Shenandoah National Park - in dedicating it to this and to succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and for the re-creation which we find here."

Whitetail Fawn
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

The meadow was much larger then than it is now. It extended, with a few islands of trees, to the ridge in front of you, and down the other side. Behind you it reached the present site of Big Meadows Campground. It stretched from Fishers Gap, mile 49.4, to beyond Milam Gap, mile 52.8. An estimate of its present size is 132 acres. This is the largest environment of its kind in the park. It produces rare plants that don't grow elsewhere in Virginia.

There was once a "ghost forest" of dead chestnut trees here at Big Meadows, where the visitor center and parking area are now. Also at the left edge of the meadow was a CCC Camp - Camp Fechner, named for the Director of the CCC.

Several mountains can be seen from the balcony. A little to the right of center is Fork Mountain, just outside the park. The antenna tower on its summit belongs to the State Police.

Legend: During the Civil War a heliograph on Fork Mountain was used to send messages, by flashes of reflected sunlight, to Washington, D.C. Diagonally to the right (behind a tree if you're standing on the balcony) is Hazeltop. Cat Knob is between Hazeltop and Fork Mountain. Old Rag is in the distance at the far left, with pale gray granite cliffs on its left face.

Map MC-8 - Fishers Gap - Big Meadows area

Click here for a printable map

Hike HC-34: Big Meadows. A walk in the meadow is recommended. Distance, as far as you want. Time, whatever you can spare. While Big Meadows is on Map MC-8, there is no recommended route. This is primarily a wildflower walk; but there are birds to be watched, and a good chance of seeing deer. Outlines of the CCC buildings are maintained by selective mowing.

South Entrance Sign
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown
MILE 51.2, BIG MEADOWS, SOUTH ENTRANCE. Elevation 3,510 feet. Turn in here for food and lodging, gasoline, camping and picnicking, etc. The gas station is in sight at the junction. To reach the Wayside and Visitor Center follow the signs. The Wayside includes a snack shop, a campstore with groceries and camping supplies, and a gift shop. The restrooms are reached from outside the building, at the end nearest the gas station. For other features of Big Meadows see the following list.

Trailer sewage disposal: Turn right at the junction about 0.4 miles from the Drive. Disposal area is on left before maintenance area.

Campground. At the junction 0.7 mile from the Drive and partway up the hill, bear right. Keep right where the road forks, just before you reach the campground entrance station.

Laundry, showers, firewood, ice. Use the parking area on your left, just after you pass the campground entrance station. Showers and laundry are accessible.

Picnic ground. Take the left fork just before you reach the campground entrance station, then keep to the right and follow the one-way loop around the picnic ground. There are three parking areas on the loop. Park in the second one for the Amphitheater. Use the same parking area for hikes on the Lewis Falls Trail. (See above.)

Big Meadows Lodge. Go directly away from the Drive at mile 51.2, keeping straight ahead at all intersections until you reach the small traffic circle in front of the Dining Hall, 0.9 mile from the Drive. Ask here about reservations for motel-type units or rustic cabins. Meals are available at the restaurant except in winter. There's a taproom downstairs, and a gift shop near the entrance. Accessible restroom facilities are to the right of the lobby entrance.

Big Meadows In Early Spring
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

HIKE HC-35: Big Meadows Lodge to Blackrock summit. A very easy hike, the shortest in this guide, to a high point with a good view. The trail, marked by a sign, starts at the far end of the parking area uphill from the Lodge. Round trip from the Lodge, 0.4 miles; from the end of the parking area, is less than 0.2 mile. Total climb about 60 feet. Time required (from the lodge) 0:25.

Just before you reach the summit you may see a small shed to the left, with a microwave antenna on top. This is part of the Big Meadows telephone system. On the far side of the shed are underground tanks that store water for the Big Meadows development. Continue to the rocky viewpoint, elevation 3,721 feet. Caution: the rock is rather slippery, even when dry.

The sketch below shows the left-hand part of the view. At the foot of Roundhead Ridge is the town of Stanley; Luray is diagonally right. After dark, the lights of the two towns make a beautiful display. On a very clear day you can look far up the Valley to your right, to a peak at the north end of the Massanutten near Front Royal. Farther right you can see several peaks in the North District of the park. At the extreme right, and fairly near, the highest point you see is the rounded summit of Hawksbill. The second highest, farther left and more distant, is Stony Man.

View from Blackrock
HIKE HC-36: Story-of-the-Forest Trail. Circuit 1.8 miles; pets are not allowed on this trail; total climb about 290 feet; time required 1:30. An easy hike. See Map MC-8. The trail starts at the upper end of the parking area to the north the entrance to the Byrd Visitor Center and passes through woods and crosses a stream. It ends at the Big Meadows Wayside, at the lower end of the visitor center parking area. Because the last 0.8 mile of this hike is on a mostly open asphalt sidewalk along a road, you may want to make it a round trip rather than a circuit and return by the way you came when you reach the end of the wooded area about one mile from the start. The old asphalt walk is in disrepair. Because of this and the degree of slope, it does not meet Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards.
HIKE HC-37: Lewis Falls. Circuit 3.3 miles; total climb about 990 feet; time required 3:10. A pleasant walk to a high, pretty waterfall, on a mostly good trail with a few stretches that are rough, rocky, and steep. See Map MC-8. Note: if it's a sunny day and your schedule is flexible, take this hike in mid-afternoon. Then you'll have the sun behind you as you view the falls, and there's a chance you'll see a rainbow in the mist.

Start from the amphitheater parking area (the second parking area on the loop around the picnic grounds). Walk down the trail to the south (left) of the amphitheater entrance to the white-blazed AT. Turn left, go about 200 feet to a trail junction, and bear right downhill onto the blue-blazed Lewis Falls Trail. (As the map shows, you can also start the hike from the Lodge. Start out clockwise around the traffic circle; bear left onto the paved trail, turn left at the junction a few yards down the hill; go a little more than mile to the white-blazed AT and continue diagonally left, downhill, on the falls trail.)

A quarter of a mile from the junction there's a view to the right, into the Page Valley. The town you see is Stanley, at the foot of Roundhead Ridge. Two-thirds of a mile from the start, the trail passes along the base of a cliff that rises steeply on your left. The trail is steep and in wet weather it's slippery. The trail passes briefly over bare rock with a view to the right of the main Blue Ridge, and Tanners Ridge (with clearings and houses) descending from it toward the right. Beyond Tanners Ridge, a little to the right of straight out from the trail, is Chapman Mountain; farther right and more distant is Devils Tanyard, from which Dovel Mountain descends by a series of bumps.

Lewis Falls
Photo taken by Linda Lavender

An eighth of a mile farther, you reach a junction with a side trail. Turn right, and go about 50 yards to a wide flat viewpoint above the falls. You can't see the falls from here. There's a view down Pine Grove Hollow, with Tanners Ridge to the left of it. From this viewpoint a trail goes to the left, across the stream, to a viewpoint from which you look back at the falls.

The total height of the falls is 81 feet. It starts its drop in two separate streams (one of which disappears in dry weather), then strikes a mossy rock halfway down, and divides further. In mid-afternoon or later on a sunny day, if there's enough water to make mist, you'll see a rainbow. Return once more to the viewpoint at the top of the falls. Go left to the main trail and then turn right, steeply uphill.

The trail climbs steadily. The trail is rich in plant species. Heatwole was especially fond of two that occur in fall. One is grass-leaved blazing star, Liatris graminifolia, with leaves that look like large blades of grass, and a spike of small, thistle-like purplish flowers. The other is a velvety-red puffball, Calostoma sp., that grows out of a blob of jelly.

About 0.6 mile above the falls, the trail passes the site of the Lewis Spring Shelter (which was removed in 1976), then swings left and dead-ends in a dirt road. To the left, the road goes 0.1 mile to the old sewage treatment plant. Straight ahead is a door in the side of the hill, and behind it is a pump that sends most of the output of Lewis Spring up to the underground storage tanks on Blackrock.

Turn right on the dirt road. Thirty yards from the junction, a side trail on the right goes 100 feet to Lewis Spring. It's completely enclosed; you'll hear gushing water behind the padlocked door. This spring is not only the principal source of water for the Big Meadows development; it's also the source of Hawksbill Creek, which forms Lewis Falls and then, much later, flows through the town of Luray before joining the Shenandoah River.

Back on the road, continue uphill another 25 yards to the AT crossing. Turn left, and continue a steady, easy climb on the white-blazed AT. About 0.6 mile from the gravel road, pass a narrow side trail on the right; it goes 0.1 mile to the summit of Blackrock. About a hundred feet beyond this junction look for two side trails to viewpoints on the left. The second one is better. The view is much the same as the view from Blackrock, though not as wide.

Continue for less than 0.4 mile to the Lewis Falls Trail crossing. If you're going to the lodge, turn right here, and turn right at every opportunity until you find yourself in front of the lodge. If you're returning to the amphitheater parking area go straight ahead another 200 feet, watching for the side trail that goes up to the right before the amphitheater.

MILE 51.3, RAPIDAN ROAD, east side. The road goes 6.3 miles to Rapidan Camp and, eventually, to Criglersville. Rapidan Camp is easier to walk to from Milam Gap, mile 52.8.

MILE 51.4, SERVICE ROAD and PARKING AREA, west side. This road provides the easiest access to Lewis Falls, though the slightly longer circuit hike from the amphitheater area is recommended (see Hike HC-37).  

HIKE HC-38: Lewis Falls. Round trip 2.5 miles; total climb about 795 feet; time required 2:25. See Map MC-8. Follow the road downhill, crossing the horse trail twice and the AT once. Pass a short side trail on the left that goes to the enclosed Lewis Spring. Continue 30 yards to a locked door in the hillside on your right. (Behind it is a pump for the Big Meadows water supply.) After another 30 yards turn left onto the blue-blazed Lewis Falls Trail. Descend for 0.6 mile to a trail junction; take the side trail to the left, and go 50 yards to a viewpoint at the top of the falls. For a note on the falls, see Hike HC-37. Return by the way you came.

View from Tanners Ridge Overlook

Wood Lily
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

MILE 51.5, TANNERS RIDGE OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,465 feet. The sketch identifies most of what you see from here. To the right of Roundhead Ridge is the town of Stanley. The name of Dog Slaughter Ridge shown in the sketch is of unclear origin, though Slaughter was the name of a family in this area.

If you're here in the third week of July, take a minute to climb the bank across the Drive and look for the wood lily, Lilium philadelphicum, with fairly short stems, whorled leaves, and red-orange flowers marked with black. The lilies are getting scarcer, and there may be none when you read this.

MILE 51.6, TANNERS RIDGE ADMINISTRATIVE ROAD, west side. Elevation 3,465 feet. AT access; cemetery. The AT crosses the road 0.3 mile from the Drive. Distances on the AT; north (to the right) it's 1.5 miles to the Big Meadows amphitheater; south (to the left) it's 1.1 miles to the Drive crossing in Milam Gap, mile 52.8. The cemetery is on the right side of the road, beside the AT. There are a few old markers here, but this is an active cemetery; burials are still taking place.

Mile 52.8, MILAM GAP, elevation 3,230 feet. AT crossing; Rapidan Camp hikes. There's a large parking area on the west side. Distances on the AT: north (on the west side of the Drive) it's 1.1 miles to the Tanners Ridge fire road, and 2.6 miles to the Big Meadows amphitheater; south (on the east side) it's 2.8 miles to Bootens Gap, mile 55.1.

Trivia: There are a great many apple trees in and around Milam Gap; most are Milam apples - the variety most often grown by the former residents. The Milam Apple Story

Historic Landmark Plaque
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Rapidan Camp Hikes. During his presidential administration, Herbert Hoover developed and came to his camp on the Rapidan River for relaxation and "working" holidays, much as later presidents have used Camp David. Rapidan Camp is a not-too-difficult hike from Milam Gap. Two hikes are recommended: one directly down the Mill Prong trail, returning by the same route (Hike HC-39); the second a somewhat longer circuit (Hike HC-40).

Three of the camp's buildings, including the one occupied by the President, are still standing and recently restored. From late May to mid October, interpretive waysides and a map at the camp tell the story. You're free to explore the whole area. Ranger led guided tours via a van may be scheduled in season at the Big Meadows Visitors Center. In season there is an on-site volunteer at the camp to provide an orientation and to open the self-guided exhibit. For a time Rapidan Camp was called Camp Hoover. More recently, it is again referred to as Rapidan Camp, the name President Hoover always used in describing this place he loved so well.

President Hoover, at the end of his administration, donated the camp to the government for possible use by future presidents. When the park was established, Rapidan Camp became a part of it. The camp has served many functions since that time, but its recent restoration is designed to recognize the important role it played during the Hoover presidency as well as in the establishment of the park.

Editor's note: The Hoovers generous and thoughtful donation of Rapidan Camp to the federal government also provides additional insights into future presidencies. President Roosevelt was unable to take advantage of Rapidan Camp because polio had left him with limited mobility. Rapidan Camp in 1932 could be considered a classic case of a place having barriers to persons with disabilities. Roosevelt initially used cruising on the presidential yacht for relaxing and a get-a-way. With the advent of WW II, Roosevelt was advised to seek a more secure location for a retreat from the pressures of the White House. Roosevelt selected a rustic camp in the woods of Maryland, built by the CCC in the 1930s, called Shangri-La as his retreat. Subsequent presidents followed suit. President Eisenhower renamed Shangri-La, Camp David after his grandson. In the meantime Rapidan Camp was a Boy Scout Camp and then a place for senior government officials to enjoy a get-a-way at an historic site. President Carter (with his wife Rosalyn) was the last president to stay at Rapidan Camp.

This editor and his wife have made a number of visits to Rapidan Camp. Several years ago when visiting on the weekend closest to President Hoover's birthday - when there has traditionally been an open house at Rapidan Camp - we were told an interesting bit of history relating to the Carter visit. A resident of Madison County who was a docent for the birthday event reported that the Carter's were disappointed to find only single beds at Rapidan Camp. They preferred a double bed. In the hope that the Carters would return, a double bed was made in the style of the historic beds. The ladies of Madison County made a patch-work quilt for a double bed in the style of those they had earlier prepared for the single beds. About the time the bed and quilt were finished, President Carter lost his reelection bid to Ronald Regan. The Carters never got to use the new furnishings.

One more connection to presidential history remains. Vice-president Al Gore and his wife Tipper stayed at Rapidan Camp during the Clinton administration.  

Map MC-9 - Milam Gap - Rapidan Camp area

Click here for a printable map

HIKE HC-39: Rapidan Camp via Mill Prong Trail. Round trip 4.1 miles; total climb about 870 feet; time required 3:50. Moderately rough in spots; not steep; three stream crossings, two of them very easy. See Map MC-9. Milam Gap is below and to the left of center. Take the white-blazed AT on the east side of the Drive, walk about 50 yards to the trail junction, and turn left onto the blue-blazed Mill Prong Trail. For a third of a mile the trail descends gradually through what used to be fields and orchards, then enters older woods. Cross two small branches of the Mill Prong at 0.7 and 1.1 miles from the start. Thirty yards beyond the second crossing, the yellow-blazed horse trail from Big Meadows comes in on the left. Note: for the next 0.8 mile you'll be on the yellow-blazed horse trail; horses have the right of way. 

Less than half a mile beyond the trail junction, watch for a small waterfall on the right, where a cascade of water flows down over a sloping rock that spans the full width of the stream. Here, the trail turns right and crosses the stream. Use a little caution; the rocks are slippery. After another 0.3 mile, the trail ends and joins a road. Turn right, and follow the road to a small parking area. From here, the Laurel Prong Trail goes to the right. (See the circuit Hike HC-40.) Turn left to explore Rapidan Camp. The three original cabins still standing are: The Brown House (the Hoover quarters as distinguished from the White House) in the middle; The Prime Minister (which was used by Ramsay MacDonald, prime minister of Great Britain), on the right (see the self-guided exhibit in season); and The Creel (which was occupied by two presidential assistants), on the left. It is now used as a residence for volunteer site supervisors.

You can notice on the porch of the Brown House and elsewhere that the buildings were built around the trees that were standing there. The Hoovers tried to disturb the area as little as possible. A short distance below the porch, the Mill Prong, coming from the left, and the Laurel Prong, coming from the right, meet to form the Rapidan River. The very small stream that flows through the camp was man-made by diverting existing stream flows; it's called Hemlock Run.

Recently the Park Service installed exhibits in the Prime Minister and furnished the Brown House so it appears as it did when the Hoovers used it. The park staff even found some of the original furniture and used period pieces for missing items Check with the desk at the Big Meadow Visitor Center before starting out so that you can take advantage of available interpretive programs. (If you'd like more information about Rapidan Camp, see "Herbert Hoover's Hideaway" by Darwin Lambert. It's available at the visitor centers.)

Return to Milam Gap the way you came. Looking at the map, you might be tempted to return by the Rapidan fire road to make a circuit hike. It is not recommended. From Rapidan Camp, it's 6.3 miles via fire road to the Drive at mile 51.3, but only just over two miles to your starting point via the way you came.
HIKE HC-40: Rapidan Camp via Mill Prong Trail; return via Laurel Prong and AT Circuit 7.4 miles; total climb about 1,520 feet; time required 6:30. This is a moderately difficult hike because of its length and the amount of climbing; but no part of it is very rough or very steep. There are several stream crossings, all of them rather easy. See Map MC-9. The Laurel Prong Trail joins the AT below the bottom of the map.

As above to the Brown House, continue straight ahead on the blue-blazed Laurel Prong Trail. The trail follows an old road trace, which at first is a service road leading to the camp water source. The first half-mile is yellow-blazed. Half a mile from Rapidan Camp, watch for a junction where the road trace swings left and becomes the yellow-blazed Fork Mountain Trail. The Laurel Prong Trail, which you will follow, is blue-blazed beyond this point and it continues straight ahead.

Wildflower notes: In late summer look for closed gentians here at the trail junction. In other seasons you may find a short side trip on the Fork Mountain Trail worthwhile. The Laurel Prong is less than 200 yards from the main trail. Before you reach it you'll enter a rich stand of the great rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum, which extends a quarter of a mile downstream and more than half a mile upstream. This species may not grow anywhere else in the park, though Rhododendron catawbiense occurs at several places in the South District. Because the Hoovers planted a number of flower species near the camp, it's tempting to think they planted the rhododendrons here. But a description of them was written in the early 1920s - years before Hoover selected this area for his camp. It described the flowers as beautiful: pink in bud, then white when fully opened, then fringed with pink as they mature. See if you agree. They're usually at the height of bloom about the middle of July.

Continuing on the Laurel Prong Trail: there will be several stream crossings; not much water, but rocky or muddy. Traces of human habitation: a rock pile, and the remains of a rock wall. If the rhododendrons are in bloom, you'll see them on your left from several points along the trail. At 0.6 mile from the Fork Mountain Trail you'll cross the Laurel Prong (stream) and start to climb. After three-quarters of a mile of easy climbing through a pleasant open woods carpeted with ferns, you reach a trail junction on the ridge crest in Laurel Gap. To the left is the Cat Knob Trail. Stay on the blue-blazed Laurel Prong Trail, which turns 90 degrees to the right.

From Laurel Gap, follow the trail along the south slope of Hazeltop, with the Conway River basin to your left, for exactly one mile to its junction with the white-blazed AT. Turn right on the AT. Less than half a mile from the junction, the AT crosses the crest of Hazeltop, elevation 3,816 feet - the third highest point in the park (after Hawksbill and Stony Man) and the highest point on the AT within the park. Continue, mostly downhill, another two miles on the AT to your starting point in Milam Gap.

View from Naked Creek Overlook

MILE 53.2, NAKED CREEK OVERLOOK. Elevation 3,250 feet. The overlook provides a view down the valley formed by the east branch of Naked Creek (see sketch). Elkton is the town in the valley, out beyond the mouth of the hollow. The house over on Long Ridge is outside the park. Out of sight on the far side of Smith Mountain is Steam Hollow which, Heatwole heard, got its name from the steam produced by the moonshine stills that used to operate there.

Naked Creek Falls
Photo taken by Larry W. Brown

Naked Creek Falls is down in the hollow, less than a mile from the overlook. The falls are worth seeing if you like exploring and have enough experience to do so safely. There is no trail; this is a cross-country hike through the woods. You can expect to find fallen trees, rocks and brambles. This hike is more easily accomplished during the non-green seasons (e.g. when the leaves are off the trees). Start at the south end of the overlook, go downhill to the stream, then downstream to the falls. To return, with no chance of getting lost: go uphill from the falls to the Drive, then turn left and walk along the Drive to the overlook.

MILE 53.6 to 54.6, wildflower note: scattered along both sides of the Drive in this area are plants that look like giant Queen Anne's lace, with flat-topped umbels of white flowers that bloom in June. Because the plants often grow eight or ten feet high they look like they belong in the tropics, or maybe on Venus. This is cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum.