Friday, November 23, 2012

Rocky Row Loop

One of the things I like most about hiking in the Blue Ridge, as opposed to many of the Allegheny ridges farther to the west, is the up-and-down nature of the range. With the caveat of the Blue Ridge Plateau, the peaks in the former are generally more distinct, with few of the long, relatively level ridgelines common in the latter. There is also a tendency toward a lot of local relief and prominence, with the mountains rising abruptly above the neighboring lowlands of  the Piedmont to the east and the Great Valley to the west. Indeed, the most prominent peak in Virginia is here. Though far lower than the state highpoint of Mount Rogers (the second most prominent), 4,225' Apple Orchard Mountain rises nearly 3,000' above the saddle connecting it to its higher line parent of Salt Pond Mountain. And it towers even more above the 600' elevations of the nearby James River and Piedmont. Another common trait is being steep and rocky. This all adds up to make a rugged landscape with frequent good views.

One of the great hikes in this area is up to and over the cliffs of Little Rocky Row and Big Rocky Row. I did this hike again recently with my good buddy Tommy Bell. We started out on the Appalachian Trail near its lowest point in Virginia which is where it crosses the James River at Snowden. It climbs pretty directly up to the dramatic cliffs of Little Rocky Row in 2 1/2 miles, and from there are dramatic views south into the ever-increasing flatness of the Piedmont, as well as west to the aforementioned scene of Apple Orchard Mountain high above the gorge of the James River through the Blue Ridge.

Tommy Bell near Big Rocky Row with the James River and Apple Orchard Mountain in the distance.
Continuing on, northbound on the AT, the trail gains another 500' as it climbs up to the summit of Big Rocky Row. There are several more good views in this area, some on the trail and some a short distance off. A couple of them face to the north to the Great Valley and include some of the more exciting hikes around Lexington, including House Mountain, Big Butt, and Jump Rock, as well as several lower but steep, rocky, and conical peaks along the western front of the Blue Ridge that make for great off-trail exploring. Pinnacle and Peak 2310 are among these that I have explored and both are outstanding adventures, particularly the former as it has a great slide on it reminiscent of the Adirondacks.

The actual cliffs that Big Rocky Row is named for don't reach to the top of the mountain but, rather, are a couple hundred feet below on the southeast slopes and on the opposite side of the mountain from the trail. Tommy and I had hoped to make our way to them on this hike but overshot the end of them by farther than we cared to backtrack off-trail on the steep sidehill terrain. But I knew there was another great spot ahead that my friend Dave Socky and I had found on a previous hike here when we bagged Silas Knob.

The namesake cliffs of Big Rocky Row.
This panorama from the outcrop above Saddle Gap includes Big and Little House Mountains (left), Big Butt, and Jump Rock in the distance, as well as Peak 2310, Pinnacle, and Entoto Knob in the foreground. See larger photo here.
 Just beyond Saddle Gap, as the ridgeline starts to rise toward that peak, there is another, lesser cliffline that juts out from the crest. They aren't particularly high, nor are they very obvious from the trail, especially in Summer - even though they are less than 50 yards away at one point. But a short, steep climb up to them reveals what are arguably the best views of the entire hike. The narrow clifftop wraps around the snout of the ridge, and by moving around it you can see about a 270° panorama. This view sweeps from the steep cone of Sugarloaf Mountain in the northeast to Apple Orchard Mountain in the southwest, then around to the Alleghenies and another Sugarloaf and as far north as Jump Rock. It's a spot to savor and, despite the closeness of the AT, one you will likely have all to yourself thanks to its trail-less obscurity.

The route of this hike. To see a larger map go here.

Hike Stats:
12 miles
2,700' cumulative elevation gain

More pictures from this hike

Pictures from other hikes to Rocky Row:
July 2011
May 2009
September 2007

Resources and Contacts:
Glenwood-Pedlar Ranger District
27 Ranger Lane
Natural Bridge Station, VA 24579
Hiking Upward Page
gpx file and topo maps

Trailhead Coordinates:

Google map for trailhead:

Scan QR code to navigate to trailhead with Google maps on your smartphone:

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