This is a challenging hike due to the length and requires some logistics in setting up a car shuttle as it is a one way hike on the A.T. We recommend doing this hike from south to north on the A.T. as there is more down than up but even going down for a long time can have its own issues: knees, ankle, toes, blisters, etc. At the end of write up see Backpack Notes on doing this hike alternatively as a 2 or 3 day backpack trip.
Leave 1 car at the James River Foot Bridge AT Parking lot then drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) via Route 501 and head south on the BRP towards Sunset Field (MP 78.4, N 37.50788, W -79.52391).
Mile 0.0 – Elev 3438', the trail begins at the sign by heading down the paved path toward the Appalachian Trail.
Mile 0.2 – Elev 3329', at intersection bear right onto the Appalachian Trail and very quickly cross over Parkers Gap Road. Continue climbing 900' until you reach the FAA Radar Dome on Apple Orchard Mountain.
Mile 1.6 – Elev 4225', reach the meadow in front of the FAA Radar Dome, great views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west. Continue through the meadow, enjoying the views and then reach The Guillotine. This begins a mostly long descent until you reach Petites Gap. Note: This used to be the site of Bedford Air Force Station which was operational from 1954 to 1975. This website has some photos of what it looked like when it had buildings, you have to scroll until the 6th photo to see them. You will enter Thunder Ridge Wilderness just before The Guillotine.
Mile 1.8 – Elev 4045', The Guillotine, a popular place to take a photograph on the AT. Mostly downhill to Petites Gap from here
Mile 2.4 – Elev 3914', Cross BRP MP 76.3
Mile 2.7 – Elev 3937', Thunder Hill Shelter
Mile 3.6 – Elev 3620', Cross BRP MP 74.9, this is the last crossing of the BRP although you will be close to it at Petites Gap.
Mile 4.0 – Elev 3563', Thunder Ridge Overlook, a beautiful stone wall <1514> overlook with a great view, towards the North is the Devil’s Marbleyard.
Mile 5.9 – Elev 3309', Harrison Ground Spring, spring is on the right and uphill a short distance on a spur trail. We met a trail maintainer the day we hiked this and he said he has never seen this spring dry.
Mile 7.3 – Elev 2369', Petites Gap, USFS 35. Tough climb up to High Cock Knob, 700’ in 1.2 miles. As you begin the climb you are now in the James River Face Wilderness.
Mile 8.4 – Elev 3093', High Cock Knob, head down towards Marble Spring.
Mile 9.4 – Elev 2410', Marble Spring. If backpacking, this is your Day 1 Campsite, the spring is towards the back of the campsite and downhill. After the James River Face Wilderness Area was established in 1976, the Marble Spring Shelter in that area was removed, and later taken by helicopter to Cove Mountain, near Bearwallow Gap.
Mile 10.0 – Elev 2492', Sulphur Spring Trail (south crossing), stay straight on the AT
Mile 10.7 – Elev 2539', “Helicopter Pad”, there is an unmarked trail to your right to go up to the saddle with good views to the SouthWest, before this became over grown, there used to be good views to the North East also.
Mile 11.8 – Elev 2677', Belfast Trail, bear right onto the AT.
Mile 12.3 – Elev 2628', Sulphur Spring Trail (north crossing), stay straight on the AT
Mile 13.0 – Elev 1959', Big Cove Branch, cross creek and head to Matt’s Creek Shelter. Heading down to Matts Creek, you will start to see glimpses of the James River flowing through the Blue Ridge Mountains, in geologic terms this is referred to as a “water gap”
Mile 14.9 – Elev 901' Matt’s Creek Shelter, cross Matt’s Creek to reach shelter. There used to be a bridge over Matts Creek in front of the shelter. Over the next mile or so are some great swimming holes.
Mile 15.0 – Elev 898', Matts Creek Trail, stay straight on AT. In about 0.7 miles you will reach the James River and then parallel hike it until you reach the Foot Bridge.
Mile 16.7 – Elev 718', James River Foot Bridge, the longest foot bridge on the AT. Cross bridge to reach Parking Lot and second car.
Mile 16.9 – Elev 700', James River AT Parking Lot, drive back to Sunset field to pick up the other vehicle.
2 day/1 night backpack, your Day 1 campsite is at Marble Spring, mile 9.4. Day 2 your backpack ends at the James River AT Parking Lot
3 day/2 night backpack, continue across Route 130 heading north on the AT, reach the Johns Hollow Shelter in about 2 miles and spend 2nd night here.
Day 3 continue north on the AT up over Fuller Rocks, Big Rocky Row, Bluff Mtn, Punch Bowl Shelter, and finally reach the Blue Ridge Pkwy and small parking lot (Coordinates 37.6738,-79.3345, BRP Milepost 51.7) where your 2nd car will be.
Mileage: Day 1 – 9.4 miles, Day 2 – 9.5 miles, Day 3 – 9.3 miles.
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Reviews For The James River Face Wilderness Hike (5 Most Recent)
My girlfriend and I did this as an overnight out and back trip starting at the James River Foot Bridge and going to the Marble Spring camp site(we didn't want to take 2 cars). The hike starts out great winding along the river and then by Matt's creek. If you wanted to do this as a more of a quick group camping trip/ gear shakedown there is a substantial amount of space for tents just past the Matt's Creek shelter along either side of the creek itself. There was a warning posted on the shelter about increased bear activity in the area so I wouldn't cut corners on hanging your bear bag up. Once you cross the creek there, is a pretty long uphill until you get up on the ridge line. On the ridge line there is a side trail which leads to a small overlook of the river rapids. Other than this overlook, we did not find many open views along the trail. From this point up until about 1.5 miles from Marble Spring is a LOT of uphill (maybe that's why the hike was planned going the other direction). What we believed to be the helicopter pad did not offer much of a view and was rather overgrown. Marble Spring campsite was great, and we had the whole site to ourselves. It is very open with plenty of room for tents, and has a small fire pit with log benches. The spring was only about 100 yards from the site. There is what appeared to be the remnants of an old fire road along the back of the site where someone decided to setup another small fire ring. Up the fire road there were several large trees with branches perfect for a bear bag. As far as solitude goes, we only saw 5 people over the course of two days and only ran into one person while actually on the trail. The temperature was in the mid to high 90's so that might have been a factor in the amount of people on the trail.
Summary: This trip was a good summer hike with plentiful water sources, open campsites, and seclusion, but lacked the views that many other routes offer. I would like to do this again starting at the sunset fields parking lot.
Date of Hike: Monday, July 04, 2016
July 4th was a great weekend to hike this bit of trail! The ATC keeps a list of trail shuttle services, if you only have one vehicle. Look for ones out of central Virginia servicing rockfish gap and south. Under $30 is a fair price. And be sure to thank these trail angels for all that they do.
This 17 miles was a workout. It's noticeably downhill back to the river but the walks up hill to Apple orchard and up from petites gap to highcock knob really push you. We enjoyed it.
Water was running in all the listed places. Close enough together that you don't need to carry more that 2 liters each, assuming you filter water at these sources when you need to refill.
Date of Hike: Saturday, April 11, 2015
Did the hike in two segments over 4/11 and 4/12. Started from Sunset Field. Being the first hike this season, it was a pretty tough test of fitness with the 900' elevation gain in the first 1.5 mile, then the 700' gain from Petite's Gap to Highcock Knob.
The downhills can be tough on the knees. If I had paid more attention, I wouldn't have carried all the water that I did.
Sidenote: I lost a hat somewhere between Petite's Gap and Marble Spring. It's a "Virginia is for Lovers" trucker hat. White label on black panel front with an off-white/brown mesh in the back velcro strap. I'm not holding out hope of finding and returning it, but if you do, wash it and give it a good home. :)
Date of Hike: Tuesday, May 06, 2014
I did this hike as a 3 day out and back starting and ending at the James River. I stayed at Thunder Hill shelter on day 1 and at the intersection of the Belfast Trail on day 2 so I could visit the Devil's Marbleyard the next morning. The campsites at the Helicopter Pad and at Belfast Trail are dry, but the source at Marlble Spring was flowing well. On the whole, this hike has very few flat sections so it's a physical challenge both ways (with almost entire days of uphill or downhill depending on which direction you take). However, the views were great and plenty of wildflowers were in bloom. Overall it was a nice hike and I'll probably come back in the fall to try and see if I can fit in the hike to Big Rocky Row and Punchbowl mtn. If you're willing to do over 10 miles a day then you can easily complete this hike as an out and back in three days.
Date of Hike: Friday, May 02, 2014
My wife and I, along with two friends, did this as a 2 night backpacking trip. We arrived Friday late afternoon, and hiked to the Thunder Hill Shelter, passing by the FAA Dome and the Guillotine rock formation. The spring at the shelter was running well (it's actually more of a cistern). There were some great views from the clearing at the FAA Dome. In general the views were great most of the trip due to the trees not yet leafing out at this altitude. There was a good amount of climbing to reach the Thunder Hill Shelter, but it was not too bad. Day 2, we hiked to Marble Spring camping area, and let me say, there is a butt kicker of a hill in this section. You end up hiking down pretty far to Pettite's Gap, and then the up to High Cock Knob is grueling...1 mile or so with no switchbacks!! Nice views at the top, which would probably not be visible 2 weeks from now. Then back down to Marble Springs for night 2. Not a lot of great, level sites, but tolerable, and a really nice spring down the hill from the camping. Day 3 we left Marble Springs, and had some generally easy ups, and then a really long, and hard downhill to the Matt's Creek Shelter, with a lot of nice panoramic views of the river...my knees were dying. From Matt's Creek Shelter to the footbridge, was nice and level for the most part, and hiking alongside the James River was nice. All in all, a great hike, and we will definitely come back again.