Backpacking White Rocks via Nicholson Hollow

Backpacking White Rocks via Nicholson Hollow

Shenandoah National Park

Type: 1 Night Backpacking Lollipop Loop
Distance: Overall 15.2 miles (24.5 km). Day 1 – 8.2 miles (13.2 km).  Day 2 – 7.0 miles (11.3 km).
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 3742 feet (1141 m)
Date Visited: Saturday, June 29, 2019 – Sunday, June 30, 2019
Backpacking White Rocks via Nicholson Hollow Trail Map (KTNP)

We don’t go backpacking too often in the middle of summer (travels aside). But we had a free weekend, and we wanted to test out some new gear and get in shape for an upcoming trip to Glacier NP. So it was back to Shenandoah National Park for a quick one-nighter.

Initially we wanted to hike Jeremy’s Run, one of our favorite backpacking routes in the park. In reading some trip reports, it seemed like the trail could be laden with poison ivy in the summer though, which was a no-go for a fairly sensitive individual like myself. Instead, we decided on a 15.2 mile loop trail in the central district. The loop would go up Nicholson Hollow, past White Rocks, and return on Hannah Run Trail.

Planning

While we hadn’t done this exact loop before, White Rocks is a special place for us – it was the first place we ever went backpacking. It was only a one-night ~5.0 mile round trip from Skyline Drive, but we learned a lot and had a great time. This trip would be longer and more strenuous, at 15.2 miles and 3,742 feet cumulative elevation gain/loss. White Rocks Trail features a few views, and a spur trail leads to a waterfall and cave. We planned to camp near the intersection with that spur trail.

As mentioned, I tested out three pieces of equipment on this hike: Brooks Cascadia trail runners, a Sony a6400 camera, and an REI Flash 55 ultralight backpack. All three items were for slightly different uses compared with my current set of gear, which at the time was a pair of Vasque hiking boots, a Sony RX100 IV camera, and an Osprey Atmos 65 AG backpack.

The route we chose starts on the east side of the park boundary. The closest parking is the Old Rag Parking Lot, which fills up early on weekends. A few days before the trip, I called Shenandoah to ask a few questions. Among other things, the ranger informed me that the park may someday require the use of bear canisters, due to backpackers hanging bear bags incorrectly. That was certainly a surprise to hear! We’ll see if it happens.

Shenandoah: Gear Tested While Backpacking White Rocks
My current gear (on left) vs the gear I was testing (on right). Top row: Osprey Atmos AG 65 and REI Flash 55 backpacks. Bottom Row: Vasque hiking boots, Brooks Cascadia trail runners, Sony RX100 IV camera, and Sony a6400 camera with 18-135mm lens.

Day 1 – Nicholson Hollow Trail

We arrived at the Old Rag Parking Lot at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. There was plenty of space, but it was filling up fast. First, we requested a backcountry permit at the ranger booth. Then we hit the… road? If you’ve hiked Old Rag prior to 2020, you’re familiar with walking along Nethers Road for a bit before you reach any trailheads. As of 2020, a new parking lot was built closer to the trailheads, across the street from Nicholson Hollow Trail. But in 2019, we had to walk along the road to get to Nicholson Hollow Trail, which splits off before Old Rag Trail.

A trail intersection marker pointed us down a gravel road off to the right. At the end of the road is a gate, and to its right is the Nicholson Hollow Trailhead. The first half mile of the trail goes through private property before entering the park. After about one minute on the trail, we reached our first stream crossing, across Brokenback Run. Nicely laid out rocks provided easy stepping stones. But it had rained recently, so the rocks were wet and the stream was flowing fast and high. Luckily we had our trekking poles to help us balance.

I went first, and Kristin followed. As I reached the middle of the stream, my foot slipped and plunged into the chilly water. Of course. My other foot held onto a rock and I pulled myself out easily, but my shoe, sock, and foot were soaked. It turned out to be a good test of the trail runners. Even with the humidity, the shoes drained and gradually dried as I hiked – they were mostly dry by the time we camped later that night.

Shenandoah: "Ranger Booth at Old" Old Rag Parking Lot
Ranger station where we got our backpacking permit, at the “old” Old Rag Parking Lot
Shenandoah: Nicholson Hollow Trailhead to the Right on Nethers Road
On Nethers Road, head left to Old Rag, or right to Nicholson Hollow.
Shenandoah: Nicholson Hollow Trailhead
Nicholson Hollow Trailhead
Shenandoah: Crossing Brokenback Run on Nicholson Hollow Trail
Our first stream crossing, Brokenback Run

Shortly after the first stream crossing was an almost identical second one over Hughes River. Two guys crossed from the opposite direction as we waited. They had parked at Skyline Drive, and were taking Nicholson Hollow Trail to get to Old Rag. That’s one way to do it. When it was our turn to cross, I made sure my footing was secure and we both got across without incident.

After crossing, we continued hiking with Hughes River on our left. Occasional paths led out to the river for a better view. There were waterfalls, rapids, and swimming holes along the way – good opportunities to play around with my Sony a6400 camera. Nicholson Hollow is an enjoyable trail, with gradual elevation gain and a peaceful river next door. Along the way, we crossed into Shenandoah National Park.

After 1.2 miles on Nicholson Hollow Trail, we came to an intersection with Corbin Mountain Trail. This area has several backcountry campsites, though it was too early in the day for us to make camp. Another 0.4 miles later, we turned right onto Hot Mountain-Short Mountain Trail.

Shenandoah: Hughes River Crossing on Nicholson Hollow Trail
The second crossing, across Hughes River
Shenandoah: Hughes River Along Nicholson Hollow Trail
Following Hughes River
Shenandoah: Waterfall Along Nicholson Hollow Trail
Relaxing next to a waterfall, and testing out a wide angle lens
Shenandoah: Nicholson Hollow Trail
Nicholson Hollow Trail

Day 1 – Hazel Mountain and River Trails

While we really enjoyed Nicholson Hollow Trail, we really didn’t enjoy Hot Mountain-Short Mountain Trail. It’s a lot of uphill gain, and the trail is overgrown, narrow, and a bit of a slog. To our left was Short Mountain and to our right, Hot Mountain. For 2.1 miles we climbed up, taking a break for lunch about halfway through.

Upon reaching the intersection with Hazel Mountain Trail, we took a short break. While resting, I looked down at my shin and saw a small insect – a tiny deer tick. Oh, that’s why we don’t hike in Shenandoah as often in the summer. Thankfully, it hadn’t attached yet and I shook it off. After our break, we turned left onto Hazel Mountain Trail.

Hazel Mountain Trail isn’t too interesting, but it’s a good workout as it ascends and descends. After 1.2 miles, we turned right onto Hazel River Trail, which descends 700 feet over 1.8 miles. It was also terribly overgrown. Worried about ticks, I made sure to cover my legs despite the heat and humidity. It was probably my least favorite trail on this route.

Shenandoah: Hot Mountain-Short Mountain Trail
Incline on Hot Mountain-Short Mountain Trail
Shenandoah: Old Pink Lady's Slipper on Hazel Mountain Trail
This pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) on Hazel Mountain Trail was past its prime. They typically flower from late April to early June.
Shenandoah: Red Capped Mushroom on Hazel Mountain Trail
Red capped mushroom along Hazel Mountain Trail
Shenandoah: Descending Hazel River Trail
Heading down the rather overgrown Hazel River Trail
Shenandoah: Wild Columbine on Hazel River Trail
This wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) was one of the few flowering wildflowers we saw

Day 1 – White Rocks Trail

Eventually, in what took longer than I thought it should, we reached the junction with White Rocks Trail. We passed a few campsites, crossed Hazel River, and began ascending steadily. It’s a tough ascent initially, but eventually we got to a ridgeline that goes up and down as it spans four summits.

There are limited views along this section. If you can find them, faint side trails on the left lead to rock outcroppings that offer better views. These scenic vistas are considered to be the “white rocks.” Unfortunately for us, we didn’t do a great job of finding them – we bushwhacked a bit, but we may have missed some more obvious areas. Hopefully, next time we’ll do a better job of locating the viewpoints.

After 1.4 miles, we reached the intersection with the Cave/Falls Spur Trail, near where we planned to camp. Years ago, on our first backpacking trip, we stayed at a fairly large and private campsite with a huge rock. Unfortunately, this time it was occupied. So we grabbed another nearby site that seemed comparable, minus the huge rock.

It was nice to take a break and unload our gear. So far, I had really enjoyed using my ultralight REI Flash backpack – it’s super comfortable and definitely weighs less than my old pack. Of course, I plan to keep them both. We set up our tent and grabbed our water filtration supplies.

Shenandoah: Hazel River
Crossing Hazel River on White Rocks Trail
Shenandoah: Ascending White Rocks Trail
First ascent on White Rocks Trail
Shenandoah: View From White Rocks Ridgeline
One of the views from White Rocks ridgeline
Shenandoah: View North on White Rocks Trail
Looking north from White Rocks Trail
Shenandoah: Spicebush Swallowtail on White Rocks Trail
Spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) on White Rocks Trail
Shenandoah: Campsite at Cave/Falls Intersection with Large Boulder
Campsite with large boulder, located near the Cave/Falls Spur Trail intersection
Shenandoah: Campsite Near Cave/Falls Spur Trail Intersection
Our campsite for the night

Day 1 – Cave/Falls Spur Trail

We headed down Cave/Falls Spur Trail, a steep tenth of a mile. The closest water source, Hazel River, is at the bottom, along with beautiful waterfall and cave. As we started to descend, two guys came up and said that the falls and cave “aren’t worth it.” We’ve been there before, and we disagree. Plus, we needed water.

At the bottom of the steep hill, we saw a pool of water with a tiny waterfall. After walking upstream along Hazel River, we spotted a second waterfall, known as Hazel Falls. The waterfall is small, pretty, and secluded. On the opposite side of the trail is a cave that goes back about 10 to 15 feet. Even though it’s shallow, it’s interesting and fun to explore.

Both the falls and cave are picturesque, so we experimented with my new wide-angle camera lens. After snapping way too many photos, we began filtering some water. Suddenly, it started raining gently for about 30 seconds. It cooled us off, and foreshadowed what was to come.

Shenandoah: Heading Down Cave/Falls Spur Trail
Heading down Cave/Falls Spur Trail
Shenandoah: Small Waterfall At Bottom of Cave/Falls Spur Trail
Tiny waterfall along Cave/Falls Spur Trail, downstream from Hazel Falls
Shenandoah: Hazel Falls
Hazel Falls
Shenandoah: Looking at Hazel Falls From a Nearby Cave
Hazel Falls from a nearby cave
Shenandoah: Entrance of Cave Near Hazel Falls
Cave entrance
Inside the cave

Later that evening, I walked along White Rocks Trail to see if there were any other campsites near us. There were, and I spotted an attempt at a “bear bag.” Except it was just a plastic grocery bag tied to a small branch, right next to a tree trunk, about five feet off the ground. Flashback to the park ranger who said Shenandoah may require bear canisters in the future. Now I see why. C’mon people, hang your bear bags properly.

Back in the tent, we did a tick check. This time we found a deer tick attached near my waist. Ugh, I hate ticks. We removed it, then headed to sleep. We drifted off to the sounds of rain, wind, and thunder.

Shenandoah: Terrible Example of a Bear Bag
Someone’s terrible attempt at hanging a “bear bag”

Day 2 – White Rocks Trail

Around 6:45 a.m., we woke up and the rain had stopped, so we were able to make breakfast. Usually we do oatmeal with nuts, seeds, and fruit, but this time we shared a Mountain House hash dehydrated meal. It tasted pretty good, but we missed the dense calories we get from the oatmeal. We packed up and headed west on White Rocks Trail.

White Rocks Trail ascends initially before leveling out. It’s quite narrow in places, and Kristin was in front of me. I saw her step over a snake, and I asked her if she noticed it. “No…” she said, slightly stunned. I stopped with the snake between us. “It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t think it’s poisonous.”

The snake poked its head out onto the path, and just sat there. Kristin and I both backed away to give the snake its space; it immediately slithered across the trail and was gone. Later we looked it up based on photos I took. It was a copperhead…so much for my theory.

After that excitement, we turned left onto Hazel Mountain Trail. We crossed Hazel River and saw a neat pickerel frog (also poisonous) nearby. As we continued, Kristin and I chatted about all the wildlife we’ve seen while hiking, and lamented never having seen a black bear in Shenandoah in the four years that we’ve been hiking there together.

Shortly after, we heard a noise off to the side, and a black bear stepped onto Hazel Mountain Trail about 100 feet in front of us. “Bear,” I said softly, I didn’t have time to say anything else. It glanced at us, then quietly continued across the trail. The encounter lasted only seconds. I didn’t even have time to get my camera out, but it was exhilarating to see a black bear in the wild.

Shenandoah: West on White Rocks Trail
Starting our day, heading west on White Rocks Trail
Shenandoah: Copperhead Snake on White Rocks Trail
A venomous copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) on the trail. It crossed the trail quickly once we gave it some space.
Shenandoah: Pickerel Frog on Hazel Mountain Trail
A pickerel (Lithobates palustris), the only poisonous frog native to North America (it secretes mild toxins from its skin)
Shenandoah: Crossing Hazel River on Hazel Mountain Trail
Crossing Hazel River
Shenandoah: Hazel Mountain Trail
Five seconds earlier, a black bear crossed Hazel Mountain Trail RIGHT HERE!

Day 2 – Hannah Run Trail

At the intersection with Catlett Spur Trail, we continued straight on Hazel Mountain Trail. It’s a muddy, uphill climb and we didn’t notice anything special beyond a few yellow Clintonia wildflowers (which weren’t flowering this time of year). After 1.1 miles that seemed much longer, we turned right onto Catlett Mountain Trail, then immediately left onto Hannah Run Trail. There, we ran into some fellow hikers for the first time that day.

The segment of our hike on Hannah Run Trail was 2.4 miles, with steep ups and downs and a few stream crossings. Along the way were a few remnants left by occupants of the area before it became a park: a fireplace and an old stone wall. We ate lunch on the trail, and I found tick #3 on me; thankfully, Kristin hadn’t found any. At a few points near the end of Hannah Run Trail, it looked like there would be some good views, but the trees always seemed to block them. There would likely be more visibility in spring or fall.

About a half mile away from returning to Nicholson Hollow Trail, I felt a popping sensation under my knee, and it started hurting like hell. I could barely move without grimacing, and I had no idea what went wrong. Somehow, we made it to Nicholson Hollow, and found a campsite where I took a break. It helped a bit, and I managed to make it back to our car.

Shenandoah: Yellow Clintonia Fruit on Catlett Spur Trail
A yellow clintonia wildflower (Clintonia borealis), which usually blooms in May and June, on Catlett Spur Trail. The blue fruit is semi-poisonous, so don’t eat it!
Shenandoah Squawroot on Hannah Run Trail
A parasitic plant called squawroot (Conopholis americana). It’s past the flowering stage, so you can see its fruit, white seed capsules.
Shenandoah: Taking Break on Hannah Run Trail
Taking a break on Hannah Run Trail
Shenandoah: Stream Crossing Hannah Run Trail
A small stream flowing across Hannah Run Trail
Shenandoah: Old Fireplace along Hannah Run Trail
An old chimney along Hannah Run Trail. Sometimes copperheads hang out around old structures, so keep an eye out.
Shenandoah: Old Stone Wall on Hannah Run Trail
Old stone wall along Hannah Run Trail

At home, we did a thorough tick check, then showered. That’s when Kristin spotted a tiny deer tick on her leg. Even after checking AND showering! We quickly removed it, and remained vigilant for the next 24 hours or so. As for my knee, it continued hurting for the next week, so I saw my doctor and was told I strained my hamstring. I headed to a physical therapist so I could survive our upcoming trip to Glacier National Park.

Now for my opinion on the gear I tried out. The Brooks Cascadia trail runners, while not having the same amount of grip as my boots, were definitely lighter and dried quickly. The REI Flash lightweight backpack was also a winner; in the end it was more comfortable than my Osprey Atmos AG. We’ll see if that’s still the case with continued use. And while the Sony a6400 took great photos, I realized that I hate changing lenses, so that one is still to be determined.

Overall, the hike was enjoyable. Our favorite sections were Nicholson Hollow, White Rocks, and the Cave/Falls Trail. There are some cozy campsites, though it was disheartening to see how some campers hung their food and other scented items when there are bears nearby. The wildlife we saw also made the trip rather memorable. Spring and fall are probably ideal seasons for this route – if you go in the summer, make sure to stay on the lookout for ticks.

Shenandoah: Park Boundary on Nicholson Hollow Trail
Crossing back onto private property along Nicholson Hollow Trail
Shenandoah: Self Serve Drinks on Nethers Road
Local residents set up a self-serve drink cooler on Nethers Road
Shenandoah: Red-spotted Purple Butterfly on Nethers Road
A red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) on Nethers Road

Backpacking White Rocks via Nicholson Hollow

Date: Saturday, June 29, 2019 – Sunday, June 30, 2019
Type:
1 Night Backpacking Lollipop Loop
Total Distance:
15.2 miles (24.5 km) round trip
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss:
3742 feet (1141 m)

  • Day 1:
    • Distance: 8.2 miles (13.2 km)
    • Overall Cumulative Gain and Loss: 2650 feet (808 m) gain, 1538 feet (469 m) loss
    • Time: 6.5 hours, which includes lunch and occasional breaks
    • Overnight: A backcountry campsite near the intersection of White Rocks Trail and Cave/Falls Spur Trail
  • Day 2:
    • Distance: 7.0 miles (11.3 km)
    • Overall Cumulative Gain and Loss: 1092 feet (333 m) gain, 2204 feet (671 m) loss
    • Time: 5.5 hours which includes lunch and breaks

Trail Markings: White blazes for the AT, yellow for horse trails, and blue for everything else
Difficulty: Moderate
Crowds: Low
Water: Multiple streams and waterfalls
Highlights: Views, wildlife, history, waterfalls
Directions to Old Rag Parking: Google Maps Directions

Trail Directions

  • 0.0 mi – From the Old Rag parking lot, head 0.1 miles west on Nethers Road. At the fork, turn right onto a gravel road (there’s a trail marker at the fork). After 170 feet you’ll see the Nicholson Hollow Trailhead on your right. Start your hike here. Two stream crossings will come in short succession after hiking 125 feet.
  • 1.2 mi – At the intersection with Corbin Mountain Trail, continue straight.
  • 1.7 mi – Turn right onto Hot Mountain-Short Mountain Trail. This trail has the steepest incline on the route.
  • 3.8 mi – Turn left onto Hazel Mountain Trail
  • 4.3 mi – Continue straight on Hazel Mountain Trail at the intersection with Catlett Mountain Trail
  • 4.8 mi – Continue on yellow-blazed Hazel Mountain Trail at the intersection with Sam’s Ridge Trail
  • 5.0 mi – Turn right onto Hazel River Trail, which will descend steeply
  • 6.4 mi – Turn left onto White Rocks Trail. About 0.1 miles in, you’ll cross Hazel River and start ascending. The trail follows a ridgeline that goes up and down four summits.
  • 8.2 mi – Intersection with Cave/Falls Spur Trail, which leads down to Hazel Falls. There are several campsites in the area, which is where we stayed. Go down Cave/Falls Spur Trail to a water source, Hazel Falls, and a cave.
  • 9.3 mi – Turn left onto Hazel Mountain Trail
  • 9.8 mi – Turn right onto blue-blazed Catlett Spur Trail
  • 10.9 mi – Turn right onto Catlett Mountain Trail and go 230 feet, then turn left onto Hannah Run Trail.
  • 13.4 mi – Turn right onto Nicholson Hollow Trail
  • 13.6 mi – Continue straight on Nicholson Hollow Trail at the intersection with Hot Mountain-Short Mountain. At this point, you’ve completed the “loop” part of the hike.
  • 14.0 mi – Continue straight on Nicholson Hollow Trail at the intersection with Corbin Mountain Trail.
  • 15.2 mi – Back at the Nicholson Hollow Trailhead. Continue back up the gravel road to Nethers Road. Head left 0.1 miles to the Old Rag Parking Lot.

Places

Maps

Links

Elevation Graph

Interactive Map

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