Spring is a great time to go for a hike and see wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park. This time, we decided on a hike to Rapidan Camp in the Central District. The camp was a summer getaway for President Herbert Hoover between 1929 and 1933. It is also important as it helped initiate the construction of Skyline Drive.
In 1933, the Hoovers donated the land to Shenandoah National Park. It was later used as both a boy scout camp and federal retreat. In 2004, the National Park Service restored the camp and opened it to the public. From late spring to fall, the park offers a guided tour of the area (reservations are required). You can also visit Rapidan Camp on your own, though you won’t be able to get into some of the buildings.
A network of trails provides access to the area. The shortest route is a 4.0 mile out and back hike along Mill Prong Trail. We generally prefer loops, so we decided on a longer 7.1 mile circuit that starts along Mill Prong Trail and returns on the Appalachian Trail.
This wasn’t our first visit to Rapidan Camp. We’d been there before on a backpacking trip (the same trail, but in the opposite direction). No camping is allowed within 0.5 miles of the area, and we had camped just outside of that perimeter. If you’re interested in backpacking, check out our trail map for campsite locations. We’ve also been meaning to backpack a longer route through Rapidan Camp from Jones Mountain, but haven’t gotten to it yet.
Every year, Shenandoah National Park has a wildflower weekend, and this was the week after so we were hoping we’d see plenty of flowers. Mill Prong Trail begins across from a parking lot known as Milam Gap (near mile marker 53 on Skyline Drive). The lot was full, but we found a spot along the road. We crossed Skyline Drive and headed southbound on the Appalachian Trail. At the intersection with Mill Prong Trail, we turned left (though you could also get to Rapidan Camp by continuing on the AT). The trail started descending, and we spotted some geraniums.
There are three water crossings on the way to Rapidan Camp. We first crossed a stream that feeds into Mill Prong, the river that gives Mill Prong Trail its name. The water was decently high, but it was easy to cross. Afterwards, the stream flowed on our right until we crossed another small creek. Mill Prong Trail ends shortly after, and we took a slight right onto Mill Prong Horse Trail.
Soon, two large horses headed toward us. Mill Prong Horse Trail, if you couldn’t tell from the name, is a yellow-blazed trail, so horses are allowed. For all the hikes we’ve done in Shenandoah, this is the first time we actually saw people on horseback. We stepped off the trail to let them pass.
Finally we arrived at Big Rock Falls, where we crossed Mill Prong (the creek, not the trail). This is the last stream crossing, and it’s a bit harder to navigate than the others. The trail was decently crowded with a large group of backpackers, so we took our time. Big Rock Falls is impressive and makes for a good spot to take a break. About ten minutes after Big Rock Falls, we reached the gravel road that leads to Rapidan Camp.
At the gravel road, we turned right, then immediately left, onto a path that goes into the heart of Rapidan Camp. The camp is situated where two streams – Laurel Prong and Mill Prong – join to form the Rapidan River. The area has excellent trout fishing, which is one feature that attracted the Hoovers. A man-made waterway, called Hemlock Run, flows through the camp, though there isn’t much water in it these days.
The camp originally comprised 15 buildings, but only three remain: Brown House, Creel Cabin, and the Prime Minister’s Cabin. Creel Cabin houses park employees, while the other two buildings have exhibits that visitors can explore. Brown House, the building where President Hoover stayed, was closed when we visited. The Prime Minister’s Cabin was open, so we checked that out. It was named for Ramsay MacDonald, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, who stayed at Rapidan in 1929.
Afterward, we explored the outside of Brown House. Looking at holes in the outer part of the roof, we realized the structure had been built around large trees. We thought it was pretty cool that nature had been incorporated into the design. First lady Lou Henry Hoover had wanted to build the camp with a low ecological footprint.
Brown House was closed until the following week, when tours of Rapidan Camp would begin for the season, but its porch made for a nice lunch spot. As we ate, a park volunteer chatted with us about the huge hemlock trees that once grew above the camp, keeping it cool in the summer. Sadly, those trees died in the 1990s due to an insect called the woolly adelgid. We wished we had the opportunity to take the tour to learn more, but at least we learned some history of the area by talking with the volunteer.
Laurel Prong Trail
After lunch, we continued on. Unfortunately, we went the wrong way onto Hemlock Run Trail which, naturally, follows Hemlock Run. At the end of the short 0.2 mile trail, we reached Laurel Dam. The “dam” is really two concrete posts that make a sluice gate. It was used to redirect water from Laurel Prong to the man-made Hemlock Run, which travels through Rapidan Camp.
Once we realized our mistake, we headed back to Rapidan and found the correct path to Laurel Prong Horse Trail – a gravel road that eventually turned into a muddy path. We passed a side trail to Five Tents, the area where the first Rapidan Camp buildings were located. They were simple buildings with wooden floors and canvas tents above. We didn’t have time to check it out, but the main structures have long since been removed. Apparently items like electric fixtures and old fireplaces are still there, though.
Next, we reached the intersection of Laurel Prong Trail and Fork Mountain Horse Trail. The area has several campsites, and it’s where we stayed while backpacking a few years prior. This is about as close as you can pitch a tent to Rapidan Camp.
As we continued on Laurel Prong Trail, we started seeing many more wildflowers like showy orchid, pink lady slippers, Canadian mayflower, and bluets. There’s also a lot of mountain laurel, but it wasn’t quite flowering yet. We continued along a ridgeline, and saw more wildflowers like beautiful wild azalea.
As we admired the flora, Kristin said she felt a raindrop. I felt nothing. Then she said she heard thunder. I heard nothing. Five minutes later, I caught up to her – and I could feel and hear the approaching rain. Luckily we had rain jackets, because it started to pour and we had around three miles to go. We passed an intersection with Cat Knob trail and continued ascending.
As the rain poured, we made it to the next intersection and turned right onto the Appalachian Trail. We started ascending to Hazeltop (3812′), the third highest peak in the park, and saw lots of trilliums growing. Some were already past their prime, but it was nice to see them. Near the peak of Hazeltop, the rain finally let up. A small side trail provides a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, so we decided to check it out. After returning to the main trail, it started pouring again.
The rain finally let up as we descended to Milam Gap on the AT. A backpacker had pitched his tent directly on top of some ferns along the trail. As a reminder, make sure to use an established campsite so you can “leave no trace.” As we returned to Milam Gap, we noticed it hadn’t rained there at all. You never know when or where a spring shower will hit!
Surrounded by nature and rich history, Rapidan Camp has a bit of everything. Whether you’re dayhiking or backpacking, it makes a great destination. The loop we took was even more interesting with the spring wildflowers. And in our experience, it hasn’t been too crowded compared to other popular hikes in the park.
Rapidan Camp Loop Trail
Date: Saturday, May 18, 2019
Type: Out and back dayhike
Total Distance: 7.1 miles (11.4 km) round trip
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 1405 feet (428 m)
Time: 6 hours, including lunch and breaks
Trail Markings: White blazes for the AT, yellow for horse trails, and blue for everything else
Crowds: Low to moderate
Water: Various streams and creeks along the way, Big Rock Falls
Highlights: History, Views, Wildflowers, Waterfall
Notes: This route can be done clockwise or counterclockwise. If camping, make sure you’re at least 0.5 miles from Rapidan Camp.
Directions to Milam Gap: Google Maps Directions (Near MM 53 on Skyline Drive)
- 0.0 mi – From Milam Gap, cross Skyline Drive on the south side of the lot. You’ll be on the Appalachian Trail. In about 125 feet, turn left onto blue-blazed Mill Prong Trail. The trail will descend until you reach Rapidan Camp.
- 1.0 mi – After crossing a couple streams, Mill Prong Trail ends as it abuts the yellow-blazed Mill Prong Horse Trail. At the fork, turn right.
- 1.5 mi – Big Rock Falls, the last time you’ll cross Mill Prong
- 1.8 mi – Cross the gravel Camp Hoover Road. Slightly to the right is a gravel path that goes into the heart of Rapidan Camp and past The Creel. Explore as much as you like, then head west toward Laurel Prong Horse Trail. If you’re not sure which way to go, continue along Camp Hoover Road until you reach an intersection with Laurel Prong Horse Trail, which also looks like a road initially.
- 1.9 mi – On your right is a sign and a set of stairs leading up to Five Tents. Continue straight on yellow-blazed Laurel Prong Horse Trail (or check out Five Tents if you have time). The trail will start ascending around this point.
- 2.4 mi – Continue straight onto the blue-blazed Laurel Prong Trail. Laurel Prong will be the hardest part of the hike due to its ascent.
- 3.7 mi – At the fork, turn right to continue on Laurel Prong Trail. Cat Knob Trail will be to your left.
- 4.7 mi – Turn right onto the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.
- 5.1 mi – On the left, look for a short trail to a panoramic viewpoint that looks west. This is near the summit of Hazeltop. After this, you’ll start descending all the way back to Milam Gap.
- 7.1 mi – Return to the intersection with Mill Prong Trail. Continue straight on the AT, and cross Skyline Drive to return to Milam Gap.
- Rapidan Camp Tours (NPS)
- Rapidan Camp History (NPS)
- A Retreat Fit for a President (NPS)
- Rapidan Camp (Wikipedia)
- National Archives Camp Hoover (National Register of Historic Places)
- Historical Photo of The Hoovers On Porch (NPGallery)