On New Year’s Eve Day, I decided the weather was warm enough to take a ride to Bluemont, Virginia to attempt what turned out to be my most difficult hike of 2021: Raven Rocks.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the circumstances made it even more challenging as the ground was still the damp from rain the evening before. This is something that almost caused me to postpone this experience and, if I was less experienced, certainly should have.
About the Area
The path to Raven Rocks follows the Appalachian Trail, and the view from the overlook is one of the best in the area. The hike is about 5.5 miles out and back, with an elevation gain of just over 1,500 feet, and there are three rather taxing ascents.
This is because the trail is on the portion of the Appalachian Trail known as “the rollercoaster,” where the trail ripples between spurs and hollows along the western face of the Blue Ridge Mountain.
Raven Rocks itself is formed by two tributaries of the Shenandoah River. It’s the northernmost branch in a series that occur along the western slope of the mountain south to Ashby Gap.
The area is not only popular with hikers, but also with rock climbers, as the wall can be accessed by a road about a half mile from the east. There were no climbers out on the day I was there, but I can absolutely see the appeal.
Before you go, the first thing you need to know about the Raven Rocks trail head is that parking is extremely limited. I got lucky and managed to nab a space in the small lot where you’ll find the kiosk trailhead. Latitude, 39.11665, Longitude -77.85239
That said, I urge you to respect the parking signs. If you park where you shouldn’t, particularly along Pine Grove Road/VA 679, your vehicle will be towed.
There is also ample parking on the south side of VA 7 at the ridge. Latitude, 39.11536, Longitude, -77.8475
Note, however, that if you park here you will have to walk across VA 7, which is a busy highway with fast moving traffic. Please exercise caution when crossing the road.
What to Know Before You Go
Most hiking guides rate this hike as moderate, with some rating it as more strenuous. I would probably put it somewhere between the two. The difficult areas are genuinely challenging, but the respites in between do provide the experienced hiker with ample time to recover.
One thing you should know: the trail is extremely rocky. You must wear good hiking shoes with ample tread and may find it worthwhile to use a hiking stick or poles on your journey. I brought along my poles, and while I didn’t use them for most of the hike, I was extremely glad I had them in certain spots where I needed a bit more support.
You’ll also want to be sure to do this hike early enough in the day that you do not run out of daylight. Due to its extreme rockiness, you’ll spend most of the time watching your feet; pausing only to take in the breathtaking scenery when you step off-trail.
I went a bit later in the morning than originally intended and found myself hoofing it a bit on the return to ensure I could safely make it back to my car.
Dogs are welcome on the trail but must be leashed. I would also encourage you to determine if the hike is appropriate for your pooch based on their age and agility.
While I did see several families on the trail, this trail is not appropriate for young children. As with your pup, I recommend using discretion when determining if your child can handle the hike out and back on their own.
And, if I haven’t scared you off yet, I recommend planning about four hours for this trek. It took me about 3.5 hours, but, as I mentioned, I made the return much more quickly than normal due to waning daylight. It also took me longer to get out to the overlook due to some slippery conditions I encountered around the first descent.
The First Descent: Things Aren’t Always What They Appear
The entire trail is well marked, blazed in white, and begins just beyond the kiosk. The initial trek is uphill and didn’t seem too difficult to start. Still, I found myself watching my feet, as rocks jut out from the ground every which way.
My thoughts on the level of difficulty were quickly wiped from consciousness as I came across the first descent, slick from the previous evening’s rain.
While there are trees to use for leverage on the way down, I just couldn’t seem to attain sure footing even in my shoes, which are trail hikers recommended specifically for the Appalachian Trail with a phenomenal grip. I will admit, I contemplated turning back.
But it was at this point that I ran into my personal trainer and his parents who were coming back from the overlook. That put a fire in my belly. If they could do it, I was convinced I could manage these awkward bits, as well. Onward I went, albeit slowly, crossing the last of the most slippery portions of the trail.
The next ascent seemed to go on for a good while and, though you’re certainly climbing, it’s more gradual which makes it seem almost flat in comparison to some of the other areas.
The trail winds through the woods where there are beautiful rock formations and, because the trees were bare, I had magnificent views of the Winchester Valley to the west.
Aside from stopping to take the photos you see here, however, I was still watching my feet. Taking my eyes of them for more than a few seconds almost always resulted in me catching my toe on something.
I Need to Get Down…But how?
The next descent seemed moderate enough in the beginning but didn’t last for long. Suddenly the trail became steeper until I found myself at the edge of what is best described as a drop-off of sorts.
There were a couple of hikers behind me, so I pulled off to the side of the trail to let them pass and watched. A gentleman who had clearly done the hike before, led by his small pup (most agilely I must add), seemingly slipped down the cliff with little effort.
And then I watched an experienced couple navigate their way down. Observing them and doing a careful surveillance of the area helped me slowly, safely make my way down, using the tree trunks and rocks to support my hands and feet, as I entered the sprawling Raven Rocks Hollow Run.
The Final Ascent
Crossing the run is no easy feat but it’s quite an experience. I kept my eyes open for the white blazes as I made my way across the trail which was now comprised entirely of misshapen rocks.
Thankfully they were all dry, and I was able to keep my footing while taking in this rather majestic area. I could hear a stream flowing nearby, seemingly under the rocks, but saw no water. Later, I learned there’s a large campsite north of the run and a spring 100 yards downhill.
After crossing this area, it’s all uphill for the duration, which lasts about a half mile. The ascent follows a series of switchbacks before you cross the West Virginia border, and the open ridge appears before you.
Raven Rocks Overlook
In a word, Raven Rocks Overlook is stunning. The rocky ridge offers a series of outcroppings where you’ll find breathtaking views of the Shenandoah Valley and peaks of mountains in the distance.
You’ll want your camera on hand to take a few photographs of the magnificent scene before you. It’s also a great place to sit for a bit, enjoy a beverage or a bite to eat, and catch your breath before turning round to do it all again.
I personally found the return hike easier overall. It helped that the trail turned out to be quite dry everywhere aside from the initial descent, which was easier to climb up than down. I’m not sure if I just found my rhythm and felt more at ease with the terrain, or if it genuinely is more difficult on the way out.
Regardless, I recommend anyone who finds themselves in the area tackles this hike at least once.
The satisfaction gained from conquering this portion of the AT rollercoaster, and the views it offers absolutely makes the experience worthwhile.