Distance: 9.6 miles (15.5 km) round trip
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 2382 feet (726 m)
Date Visited: Saturday, June 22, 2019
Riprap and Wildcat Ridge Trail Map (KTNP)
Surprisingly, this was our first hike in the southern section of Shenandoah National Park. Before this, the furthest south we had travelled in the park was Bearfence Mountain. Most of the well known hikes are in the central and northern districts. And while we consider Shenandoah our “home park,” driving there from Northern Virginia can take a while.
We spent a weekend at Big Meadows Lodge, and planned to hike Riprap and Wildcat Ridge Loop Trail, one of the most popular routes in the south district. The hike includes a section of the Appalachian Trail, forming a 9.8 mile circuit. The combination of trails, which circumnavigates Rock Mountain, is also commonly called Riprap Hollow.
An early start is crucial, especially since the trail is relatively long and strenuous. The loop starts along Skyline Drive, with parking options at mile markers 90 and 92. The lot at mile 90 is the official “Riprap Parking Lot,” while the one at mile 92 is called “Wildcat Ridge Parking Lot.”
Staying at the lodge was a fun new experience for us – and it allowed us to get to the trailhead in just over an hour. As we headed down Skyline Drive, we enjoyed the ambience and scenic overlooks. Eventually, we came to the small parking lot at mile marker 90 – which was totally full. So we drove two more miles to 92, where there were still some parking spaces.
We planned to hike the loop counter-clockwise, starting on the Appalachian Trail. Then we’d take Riprap Trail to Wildcat Ridge Trail, which leads back to the trailhead. The loop could also be hiked clockwise, and we’ll probably try that next time. Going counter-clockwise allows you to arrive at the viewpoints sooner, but you’ll have a steeper ascent on Wildcat Ridge at the end of the route. Hiking clockwise allows you to hit a swimming hole earlier, and you’ll ascend Riprap Trail more gradually.
Our route started on Wildcat Ridge Trail, where we hiked for a few minutes before turning right (northbound) on the AT. This loop is also a good option for backpacking. But the week we were there, signs were posted notifying hikers that backcountry camping was closed due to black bear activity.
This part of the AT is relatively flat, and there were occasional views through the trees to our left (west). It was June, so we only saw a couple blooming wildflowers – mainly rattlesnake hawkweed. On a log, we also saw a huge fishing spider. I’m not really a fan of spiders, but this one was interesting to see. Mountain laurel lined the trail, though it had mostly finished flowering, so we only glimpsed a couple of white flowers.
Riprap Trail – Views
After hiking for 2.8 miles, we reached the Riprap trailhead along Skyline Drive at mile marker 90. A short distance later, we turned left onto Riprap Trail. There are two viewpoints that we wanted to check out along the trail, Calvary Rocks and Chimney Rock. But first, we made our way through some switchbacks and passed by a large talus field.
Shortly after, we reached our first viewpoint along the right side of the trail near Calvary Rocks. Looking northwest from the viewpoint, we saw the Shenandoah Valley and towns below. As we continued on the trail, we saw some rock formations on our left – the true Calvary Rocks. We didn’t have time to explore, but you could go off-trail and scramble around.
As we continued, we quickly came to the next viewpoint – Chimney Rock. As we gazed out again to the northwest, we thought that this view was better than the one at Calvary Rocks. For a shorter hike, this is a good spot to turn around, but we kept going. The views to our right continued as we followed the quickly narrowing trail along a ridgeline.
We gradually began descending the rocky trail to Cold Spring Hollow. Wild azalea and mountain laurel were all around us – unfortunately no longer flowering. We also found blueberry bushes beside the trail, which we hadn’t expected. Most of the berries weren’t quite ripe, but we found a couple that were and snacked on them.
Riprap Trail – Water Features
Eventually, we were hiking parallel to a small stream that flows into Meadow Run. The stream moves through a pretty gorge area with a few small waterfalls. After that, we encountered a few posts that read “No Camping.” We believe these are old and can be disregarded. There’s nothing about this area being closed to camping on Shenandoah’s website, and a couple campsites are scattered around.
From here, the trail crosses the stream and follows it for a good ways. About 0.3 miles after the gorge area, we came to a stunning swimming hole. We relaxed for a bit, watching the stream gently cascade into the pool. We weren’t prepared to go swimming, but a couple of other hikers were. I would love to come back sometime to take a dip.
After leaving the swimming hole, the trail became a bit harder to follow, as there was a side trail leading to an old shelter. The shelter was removed when the area became a wilderness, but we found some signs pointing to its former site. We made sure to look for the blue blazes, and once we were on the right track we quickly made it to the next intersection. Riprap Trail continues to the boundary of Shenandoah NP, but we turned left onto Wildcat Ridge Trail to head back to the parking lot.
Wildcat Ridge Trail
Crossing the stream one last time, we started to ascend. While Wildcat Ridge trail isn’t too long, it has the steepest elevation gain of the loop. We had a constant uphill climb, with a few switchbacks, for about 2.6 miles until we reached the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. There were a few views on the way, but nothing too impressive.
At the intersection of Wildcat Ridge Trail and the AT, we spotted an eastern cottontail rabbit – though we see them more frequently in our yard than while hiking. From there, it was a quick walk back to the parking lot. We climbed into the car and drove back to Big Meadows Lodge, where we had a delicious dinner as we watched the sun set.
This was a great hike, and we know we’ll be back again. Views and water features meant there was a lot to see along the way. We recommend doing the full loop if you can, but if not, Chimney Rock is worth a visit. I wish the loop was closer to where we live so we could hike it more easily.
Riprap and Wildcat Ridge Loop Trail
Date: Saturday, June 22, 2019
Type: Loop dayhike
Total Distance: 9.6 miles (15.5 km) round trip
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 2382 feet (726 m)
Time: 7 hours, including lunch and breaks
Trail Markings: White blazes for the AT, yellow for horse trails, and blue for everything else
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Crowds: Low to moderate
Water: Various streams, creeks, waterfalls, swimming holes
Highlights: Multiple views, wildflowers, waterfall, swimming holes
Notes: This route can be done clockwise or counterclockwise.
Directions to Wildcat Ridge Parking (mile marker 92): Google Maps Directions
Directions to Riprap Parking (mile marker 90): Google Maps Directions
- 0.0 mi – From Wildcat Ridge Parking Lot, begin on blue-blazed Wildcat Ridge Trail. If you parked at the Riprap Parking Lot, start at the 2.8 mile trail direction after taking the short spur trail from the parking lot to the AT.
- 0.1 mi – Turn right onto the white-blazed Appalachian Trail
- 2.8 mi – Continue straight on the AT, past the intersection with the trail that leads to Riprap Parking Lot.
- 3.2 mi – Turn left onto Riprap Trail
- 3.9 mi – Calvary Rocks Viewpoint
- 4.3 mi – Chimney Rock Viewpoint
- 6.3 mi – Swimming hole
- 6.9 mi – Turn left onto Wildcat Ridge Trail
- 9.5 mi – Continue straight on Wildcat Ridge Trail at the intersection with the Appalachian Trail
- 9.6 mi – Back at Wildcat Ridge Parking Lot
- Riprap Parking Lot | Skyline Drive Mile Marker 90
- Wildcat Ridge Parking Lot | Skyline Drive Mile Marker 92
- Calvary Rocks Viewpoint | 38.1871442,-78.7732787
- Chimney Rock Viewpoint | 38.1865942, -78.7788787