Doyles River Overlook to
Blackrock Gap

MILE 81.9, DOYLES RIVER OVERLOOK. Elevation 2,875 feet. A.T. access. The overlook is about 100 yards off the Drive. The entrance road makes a loop around the island, which has shade trees and picnic tables. The A.T. passes through the overlook, coming in one end and going out the other. Distances on the A.T.: North (to the left as you face the view) it's 0.9 mile to the Doyles River parking area, Mile 81.1. South (to the right) it's 1.3 miles to Browns Gap, Mile 83.0.

View from Doyles River Overlook
View from Doyles River Overlook

The overlook has a view of the Doyles River valley. To the left, outside the sketch, is Big Flat Mountain—the site of Loft Mountain Campground. Browns Cove (see sketch), like Browns Gap a mile to the south, was named for the rich and influential Brown family (page 204.) Note that High Top Mountain is not the same as Hightop, which is farther north and a lot higher.

View from Skyline Drive at Mile 82.0
View from Skyline Drive at Mile 82.0

MILE 82.0, VIEWPOINT AND HISTORY. There's parking space in the grass on the east side of the Drive, about 50 yards south of the milepost. Look out for a culvert near the north end of the grassy strip. From the west side of the Drive you have a clear view into Big Run (see sketch). Just inside the woods on the east side is an artificially levelled area about 25 feet in diameter. That's where General Early posted one of his guns in September, 1864, to command the old road that occupied the present site of Skyline Drive at this point, and thus prevent a cavalry attack from the north against the Confederate troops bivouacked in Browns Gap.

MILE 82.2, A.T. CROSSING. Elevation 2,800 feet. There's very limited parking beside the Drive. If you want to hike north on the A.T., I suggest that you start from Doyles River Overlook, Mile 81.9. To the south (on the west side of the Drive) it's 0.9 mile to Browns Gap, Mile 83.0.

MILE 82.5, GEOLOGY. There's parking space in the grass on the west side of the Drive; look out for two culverts about ten feet from the edge of the road. From 100 to 300 yards toward the south (downhill), sedimentary rocks of the Weverton formation are exposed beside the Drive: quartzites that vary from fine-grained to coarse and pebbly, and phyllites that vary from silvery gray to silvery pale green. The green phyllites are exposed intermittently beside the Drive for a quarter of a mile to the south.

MILE 83.0, BROWNS GAP. Elevation 2,600 feet. A.T. crossing. Fire road, both sides. Hikes. History. There's a large parking area on the west side. The A.T. crosses the Drive just south of the fire road. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the west side of the Drive) it's 1.3 miles to Doyles River Overlook, Mile 81.9 South (on the east side) it's 1.4 miles to the Drive crossing at Mile 84.3.

History: About 1750 Benjamin Brown and his son, also Benjamin Brown, began to buy land in the western part of Albemarle County, including more than 6,000 acres on both sides of what is now Doyles River. They became, of course, one of the most influential families in that part of the county. The older Benjamin Brown had eight sons. I know the names of seven: Benjamin, Barzillai, Benajah, Bernard, Bernis, Bezaleel, and Brightberry. In 1805-06 Brightberry Brown and William Jarman built a turnpike across the Blue Ridge here. For many years it was one of the principal routes for taking farm produce from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond.

Browns Gap and the turnpike were used briefly during the Civil War. On May 2, 1862, at the beginning of his Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson marched his entire army through Browns Gap. From June 9 to June 12, after the Battle of Port Republic at the end of the Valley Campaign, Jackson's army camped in and near Browns Gap. On September 25, 1864, General Jubal Early and his army, after their defeat at Winchester, fortified themselves here and fought off Sheridan's attacks for two days while awaiting reinforcements.

The turnpike is now a Park fire road. On the west it's Madison Run fire road; it descends five miles to the Park boundary, where it becomes Virginia secondary road No. 663. The lower end of the Madison Run hollow is worth exploring (experienced hikers only.) On the east, the Browns Gap fire road goes a little more than three miles to the Park boundary, where it becomes Virginia secondary road No. 629.

I will describe three hikes that begin at Browns Gap: Upper Doyles River Falls, the Doyles River Trail circuit, and Big Run Portal via Rockytop.

HIKE: Upper Doyles River Falls. Circuit 5.3 miles; total climb about 1,000 feet; time required 4:30. A not-too-difficult hike to a very pretty waterfall. See map, page 200.

Take the fire road on the east side of the Drive. About 0.4 mile from the start, and 25 feet up the bank to the left, is a small white tombstone. (In summer it may be hard to see from the road.) The inscription reads "William H. Howard, F Co., 44 Inf., C.S.A."

About 0.8 mile from Browns Gap the road forks, going uphill to the left and downhill to the right. Keep right. (The other road goes to an abandoned dump.) After another eighth of a mile you may see signs of human settlement, such as the ruins of a barbed wire fence and, half a mile from the fork in the road, the rusty shell of an old car 50 feet in the woods on the right. Three hundred yards farther, up the bank to the left, was a homesite. A part of the chimney is still standing, visible from the road. This part of the hike is a treat for tree lovers. There are several tulip trees and oaks, a hickory, and at least one hemlock, that are nearly four feet in diameter.

Cross the Doyles River and reach the Doyles River Trail 1.7 miles from Browns Gap. Turn right; after 250 yards the trail crosses the stream, goes another 300 yards, and then swings to the right, away from the falls. It makes a wide semicircle to the left, to a low point with a concrete marker. The falls are in view to the left, in a natural amphitheater surrounded by giant trees. They aren't very high, but I find them among the most attractive in the Park.

Return up the Doyles River Trail to the fire road; cross the road and continue uphill another 0.9 mile to the A.T. (Straight ahead at this point, 50 yards up the Doyles River Trail, is Doyles River Parking at Mile 81.9 on the Drive.) Turn left onto the A.T. Walk 0.8 mile to Doyles River Overlook, then another 1.3 miles to Browns Gap.

HIKE: Doyles River Trail and A.T. Circuit 6.5 miles; total climb about 1,400 feet; time required 6:45. A pleasant but moderately difficult hike, with three waterfalls. See map, page 200.

As above to Upper Doyles River Falls; then continue as in the "Doyles River Trail" hike described on page 200. Turn right when you reach the A.T,, and walk 1.1 miles, mostly level or downhill, to Browns Gap.

HIKE: Big Run Portal via Rockytop. Circuit 14.6; total climb about 2,900 feet; time required 12:20. A long, strenuous, tiring hike. There are a few good views along the trail—most of them where it crosses a talus slope or boulder field—of mountains to the west: Austin Mountain, Lewis Mountain, and Lewis Peak. Wider and more impressive views are available if you climb some of the cliffs and talus slopes that rise up on your right.

Most of the rocks you will see are sandstones of the Hampton formation. But as you begin to skirt the high peak of Rockytop you come to exposures of white Erwin quartzite, which continue almost to the Big Run fire road. In the quartzite are occasional examples of the fossilized burrows of Skolithos, an ancient, worm-like organism.

Take the fire road on the west side of the Drive. Turn right onto the A.T., and go 0.6 mile to the blue-blazed Big Run—Rockytop trail. Turn left, and go two-thirds of a mile to a trail junction. The Big Run Loop trail goes downhill to the right. The trail on the left goes to the Madison Run fire road. Go straight ahead, uphill. At a low point 0.4 mile from the junction, the Austin Mountain trail goes off to the left. Then, after about a mile, as you cross a talus slope, there's a crest on your right. According to Geological Survey maps, this is Rockytop. But l will follow the local custom and use the name Rockytop for the very rocky and more conspicuous summit up ahead.

As you skirt the left side of Rockytop there are cliffs and talus slopes above on your right. Continue around the west and north sides of the peak, ascending by switchbacks. Then descend for two miles to the Big Run fire road and turn right.

After half a mile cross a steel bridge (if it's still there) and continue on the former fire road, which is now the Big Run Portal trail. (See note about the BIG RUN VALLEY on page 203.) About four and a half miles from the bridge, you reach a junction with the Big Run Loop trail. Turn right, climb 1.3 miles to the Rockytop trail, and turn left. Continue to the A.T., turn right, and return to Browns Gap.

View from Dundo Overlook
View from Dundo Overlook

MILE 83.7, DUNDO OVERLOOK Elevation 2,769 feet. The sketch shows the right-center part of the view. The ridge to the left of Furnace Mountain rises to the summit of Trayfoot Mountain. Most of the bushes in front of the overlook are mountain laurel, which blooms in early June.

Geology: The cliffs and talus slopes on Furnace, Lewis, and Austin Mountains are of white Erwin quartzite. The talus on Trayfoot is Hampton quartzite,

MILE 83.7, DUNDO GROUP CAMP. The entrance is on the east side of the Drive, just south of the overlook. This was originally CCC Camp No. 27. Now it's a campground for organized youth groups—Boy Scouts, for example. The facilities are rather primitive. There are a number of tent sites, each with a table and fireplace. There are pit toilets at each end of the campground, and a water faucet at each campsite. If you'd like to bring your youth group here, call Swift Run Entrance Station, 540-298-9625.

MILE 84.1, JONES RUN PARKING. Elevation 2,790 feet. Hikes. The Jones Run Trail starts here, at a large parking area on the east side of the Drive. The A.T. crosses the Jones Run Trail just a few yards from its start.

From here you can take a one-way hike on the Jones Run and Doyles River Trails to Doyles River Parking Mile 81.1, or a circuit that returns from Doyles River Parking via the A.T. Since I've described both those hikes from the other end (pages 200 and 201), I won't repeat them here.

HIKE: Jones Run Falls. Round trip 3.6 miles; total climb about 915 feet; time required 3:15. A not very difficult hike on a good trail to an attractive waterfall. See map page 200.

Take the Jones Run Trail at the east end of the parking area. Cross the A.T. and after about half a mile cross Jones Run. The trail follows an old road trace for another third of a mile, then swings left and continues downhill through a very young forest that was a pasture when the Park was created. After you cross a shallow ditch that may have been a Civil War trench, and joining the stream on your left, continue another 0.2 mile to the head of the falls. The trail swings sharp right, then makes a switchback to the left and returns to the base of the falls. Jones Run drops about 42 feet over a nearly vertical cliff that crosses the gorge and continues for a distance down the left bank of the stream, Where the cliff is watered by spray from the falls, it's covered with a great variety of mosses and flowering plants.

MILE 84.3, A.T. CROSSING. Elevation 2,810 feet. Parking for several cars in the grass on the west side. Distances on the A.T.: North (on the east side of the Drive) it's 1.4 miles to Browns Gap, Mile 83.0. South (on the west side) it's 1.1 miles to Blackrock and 2.3 miles to Blackrock Gap, Mile 87.4.

MILE 84.7, ABANDONED ROAD, east side. This is an exploring possibility for experienced hikers. The entrance is grassy and hard to see; look for the yellow posts and chain. I have not explored this area. Park naturalists Bob Momich and Amanda Moody report as follows:

The trail passes signs of mountain people and the CCC: wells, rock walls, and piles of decaying chestnut wood. About a mile from the Drive, the trail divides. The right fork is obvious. Take the left fork, which is overgrown and obscure. Where it turns sharp left at some rock walls, keep going straight ahead. Cross a fence, leaving the Park. Enter an open field, with a good view of Cedar Mountain a head and Via Hollow to the right. Less than 300 yards ahead is the Via family cemetery. The dates on the stones are evidence of high infant mortality among the mountain people. Via is the original (and present) name of the family. Viar and Viare, which appear on some of the stones, are variants.

MILE 84.8, BLACKROCK PARKING, west side. This is the closest approach to Blackrock from the Drive. A hundred feet from Skyline Drive is parking space for 12 cars. The entrance road is well marked.

Map of Blackrock Area
Map of Blackrock Area

HIKE: Blackrock Summit. Round trip 1.0 miles; total climb about 175 feet; time required 1:10. An easy hike with outstanding views and a little geology. See map below.

Beyond the chain the Trayfoot Mountain trail (a former fire road, which still looks like a road) parallels the Drive for a short distance, then swings up to the ridge top, where it touches the A.T. Step over onto the A.T., and continue in the same direction. Walk a third of a mile on a good trail with a very easy climb, through pleasant woods. Then the trail swings right, onto a talus slope. After another hundred feet you're crossing a talus slope that goes down a tenth of a mile to your right, made of rocks from breadbox size to Buick size. And, beyond the slope, a wide-open breathtaking view across Madison Run and Dundo Hollow. The trail makes a 200-yard loop around three sides of Blackrock summit. In the middle of the loop, the Blackrock Spur trail goes off to the right.

The Blackrock Spur trail descends 0.2 mile to the Trayfoot Mountain trail, which continues another 0.7 mile to Trayfoot Mountain summit, where you'll find the foundation of a former fire tower. (There are no views from the summit.) The Trayfoot Mountain trail continues another 3.9 miles to the Paine Run trail.

There's no trail to the top of Blackrock. The climb is a rock scramble that you can begin at any point on the loop. On the summit, the view is wrapped around you for more than 300 degrees. Looking away from the woods, the high peak in front of you is Trayfoot Mountain, just over half a mile away. (Its elevation is about 3,380 feet; you're at 3,092.) Trayfoot Mountain extends far to the left from its highest point, then descends into Paine Run hollow. The low, free-standing mountain beyond its foot is Horsehead. Buzzard Rock rises to the left of the mouth of the hollow, the far edge of which is formed by Rocks Mountain.

To the right of Trayfoot summit, Furnace Mountain rises at the mouth of Madison Run hollow. (Madison Run was named for a wealthy settler who, about 1750, built an estate called Madison Hall near its mouth. Furnace Mountain gets its name from Mount Vernon Furnace, which was built at its > foot in 1848 for the reduction of iron ore.) Farther right are Austin Mountain, Lewis Mountain, and Lewis Peak. The long Rockytop ridge forms the far boundary of the hollow, and joins the main Blue Ridge toward the right, where you see a roadcut beside the Drive. Farther right on a very clear day you can see Hightop, thirteen miles away. Still farther right, and much closer, is Big Flat Mountain—the site of the Loft Mountain Campground.

Legend: In the spring of 1781, during the American Revolution, the British were pressing westward in Virginia. The Virginia Assembly, to avoid capture, fled across the mountain to Staunton. Thomas Jefferson, governor of Virginia, entrusted the State Archives and Great Seal to his friend Bernis Brown. Bernis hid them in a cave here at Blackrock, where they remained throughout the rest of the war.

Geology: Blackrock summit and the talus slopes below it are Hampton quartzite. Maybe you can imagine the great monolith that all this started from. When it was exposed by erosion it had already been cracked and weakened by pressure, and by cycles of heating and cooling. Rain water seeped into the cracks and froze, and melted and seeped and froze again. In a very short time, as geologists measure—probably less than 100,000 years—Blackrock crumbled into the magnificent but messy pile you're standing on.

In a fresh break, the quartzite is medium salt-and-pepper gray. Weathering has stained its surface pale purplish gray-brown, tan, and red-brown. Many of the rocks are covered with close-clinging pale green lichen. (A photographer with a closeup lens, color film, and a taste for abstract art, could spend some time here.) Any blackness that Blackrock may have is due to its burden of rock tripe—a coarse lichen that's dark brown and crispy when it's dry, and gray- green and leathery when it's wet.

Oral history: I have reports from oldtimers who visited the Blackrock Springs Hotel (which was about a mile down the hollow on the Paine Run side) during the early years of this century. The trip up to Blackrock was a favorite excursion for hotel guests. And one of its outstanding attractions—at least the thing the oldtimers remember most vividly—was the chance to scratch ones name or initials on the rocks. Which consisted, I gather, of scratching off the rock tripe.

MILE 86.8, TRAYFOOT MOUNTAIN OVERLOOK. Drinking fountain (turned off in winter). Elevation 2,530 feet. The short hollow in front of the overlook drains into the north branch of Moormans River in Via Hollow, at the foot of Pasture Fence Mountain (which has grassy clearings near its top.) To the right of Pasture Fence and more distant, with clearings and radio towers on top, is Bucks Elbow Mountain. From the south end of the overlook on a very clear day you can see far to the right, across the Blue Ridge to the Allegheny Mountains on the far side of the valley.

MILE 87.4, BLACKROCK GAP. Elevation 2,320 feet. Parking on west side. Fire road; trail head. A.T. access. The A.T. comes to the edge of the Drive on the east side, but does not cross it. Distances on the A.T.: North (to the left) it's a quarter of a mile to the Drive crossing at Mile 87.2. South (to the right) it's 1.8 miles to the Drive Crossing at Mile 88.9.

On the west side of the Drive the Paine Run trail goes 3.8 miles to the Park boundary, where it joins Virginia secondary roads Nos. 614 and 661. On the east side the fire road goes 1.1 miles to the Park boundary, then continues for 0.4 mile to the north fork of Moormans River in Via Hollow, which was a popular Catch and Release stream prior to the flood of 1995.

In June of 1995 unusually intense rains caused localized flooding and triggered numerous landslides which dramatically altered the landscape along the north fork of Moormans River. The lower 3 miles of this area is open for day-use only. The flood washed away several sections of the fire road which the park has no plans to rebuild. Hikers to this area should be prepared to bushwhack and be alert for hazards along what remains of the old road bed.

Paine Run hollow is big and wild—a great place for exploring and backcountry camping. Although you can reach it from the bottom, you have to cross private land to do so. It might be better to start from Blackrock Gap and walk down the trail.

History: About a mile down the Paine Run trail is Blackrock Springs, which at the turn of the century was a fashionable resort with a hotel, cabins, recreation hall, and bowling alley. The resort reached the height of its popularity in the 1840's and 1850's. It burned down, probably as a result of arson, early in this century. The waters of Blackrock Springs were said to be good for whatever ails you. According to advertisements they contained iron, soda, lime, magnesia, and carbonic acid gas. When Mme. Curie discovered radium, that too was added to the list of ingredients. There were seven springs of different colors and different healing properties, including one for rheumatism, one for arthritis, one for gout, and one for aiding the growth of hair. People still come to Blackrock Gap and carry jugs down the trail to bring back some of the healing water. If you'd like to see where the hotel once stood, or if you're suffering from shortage of hair or other ailment, try this:

HIKE: Blackrock Springs. Round trip 2.2 miles; total climb about 425 feet; time required 2:10. (See map, page 208.) Follow the Paine Run trail downhill on the west side of the Drive, past a switchback to the right, to a sharp switchback to the left. Leave the trail at that point and follow an old road trace straight ahead. In the next few hundred yards you will see level areas where cabins once stood, uphill to the right. Pass a covered spring at the right-hand edge of the road trace. (I don't know which of the seven ailments this one is good for.) The sites of various hotel buildings are straight ahead, as well as ahead and to the left. Explore at will.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved