We live relatively close to Shenandoah, but I wish we lived even closer. It can be a long drive, and sometimes we’re lazy and get a late start. Thankfully, those are the times when you can hike a shorter trail and it turns out to be pretty great. That’s what happened with Bearfence Mountain, a 1.1 mile loop. The hike has a short rock scramble that we’ve heard is good to prepare for hiking Old Rag. As we drove up Skyline Drive, the fog started to set in and we wondered if we would have a view from the top. But we’d already driven almost 2 hours, and were not about to turn back.
The hike begins across from the small parking lot, with room for 10-15 cars. Fortunately, there were still a few parking spots available on the day we went. There is a map posted beside the parking lot, which has 2 route options: one with rock scrambling (the obvious choice) and one without. Cross Skyline Drive and hike up the stone staircase to begin the hike. This is the first in a series of stone and log staircases that characterize the hike. We tried to research the history of the trail, but didn’t find much. We think it must have been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and we could see the care that was put into the design of the trail. Ferns covered the forest floor, which made the start of the hike very picturesque.
The fog made the woods appear ethereal and added an element of visual interest. Eventually we reached the rock scrambling portion, but I would not describe it as “mostly vertical” like the park website does. If it was, that would have been pretty awesome. But I would say it’s moderately challenging, and you do gain some elevation. There were some parts that were tricky to climb, but it was not strenuous. We’re not into extreme sports, so rock scrambling is the perfect balance for us.
We ran into several other groups during the hike, and had to wait briefly a few times while they climbed the rocks in front of us. Wait time was minimal and did not affect our enjoyment of the hike. We thought many of the rocks were granite, due to their slab-like appearance. Later we found out they are greenstone, formed from lava compressed over millions of years. It was a lot of fun to hike over them – just watch your footing.
Eventually, we reached the highest point on the rock scrambling section, and were greeted with a 360 degree view. Even though we couldn’t see far because of the thick fog, it was still a nice view of the treeline fading into the distance. Due to the combination of rocky terrain and fog at the summit, it was difficult to tell which way was up, and the horizon appeared to be at an angle. It was beautiful, but kind of disconcerting that I couldn’t properly orient myself. To cross the mountain of boulders at the peak, I had to move slowly and steady myself with my hands. Rock scrambling can be rough on your hands, but this one is short enough that gloves are not a necessity.
After the rock scrambling portion, we reached an intersection – to the right, the trail loops back to the parking lot. Continuing straight led to a viewpoint that was only about 300 feet away, so we decided to check it out. On the way to the viewpoint, we saw some white and yellow wildflowers that were one of many photogenic parts of Bearfence Mountain Trail. It was interesting to see a few varieties that flower in the fall. The viewpoint itself had very limited visibility due to the fog, so it was less than impressive. On the way back down, we turned left at the junction and took a connector trail before turning right onto the Appalachian Trail, which led back to the parking lot.
The rock scramble was the most fun part of this short hike, and it left us wanting more. We were hopeful based on the name of the trail, but sadly, we didn’t see any bears. Nor did we see any fences. Maybe next time.
Bearfence Mountain Trail | 1.1 Miles | Difficulty – Moderate
Elevation Gain: 311 Feet
Parking: Park at mile marker 56.4 on Skyline Drive (Google Maps Directions)
Trail Directions: Cross Skyline Drive, and hike about 0.15 miles until you reach an intersection. Continue straight on Bearfence Loop Trail. Continue hiking over rock scrambles, until you reach another intersection for about 0.35 miles. Continue straight about 300 feet to the viewpoint. After reaching the viewpoint, turn around, and go back to the intersection. Go left on the connector trail and in about 200 feet turn right on the Appalachian Trail. Continue 0.3 miles until you reach an intersection, and go left 0.1 miles to return to the parking lot.
Highlights: Rock scrambling, views, short trail if you don’t have a lot of time
Notes: No dogs on Bearfence Mountain Loop Trail