If you are ever near Floyd, VA, be sure to put this hike on your to do list. There is a heart pounding climb at the beginning of the hike, some gentle hiking through meadows on top of the ridge and then mostly down for the last 4.0 miles. You will see an old Appalachian Trail shelter, chimney of an old homestead and then the Austin House beside Rock Castle Creek.
There are multiple places to start this hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but we recommend starting at the convergence of Rock Castle Creek and Little Rock Castle Creek in the gorge. Basecamp at the primitive camping area 0.25 miles upstream on Rock Castle Creek on fire road, and do it as a day hike.
Mile 0.0 – From the parking area cross barrier and bridge, continue straight on fire road and in 0.10 miles make a sharp turn to the right on to the green-blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail.
Mile 0.5 – The trail starts to become much steeper, gaining almost 1100’ in 1.0 miles.
Mile 1.5 – The tough part of the trail is over, in 0.3 miles cross two bridges.
Mile 2.8 – You will climb the first of four fence stiles and into a pasture. The last stile will be around the 7.0 mile mark. Be prepared to dodge some cows, a huge bull and of course their cow patties over the next mile. As the Blue Ridge Parkway becomes visible, you will see the entrance to the Rocky Knob Campground and Visitor Center on your right. Follow short trail posts with arrows through the pasture, the trail hugs the pasture close to the Blue Ridge Parkway for the most part. There are great views over the next 4 miles.
Mile 3.7 – Reach Saddle Overlook, in 0.1 miles bear left at fork intersection. The trail is evident but there are no blazes as you go over Rocky Knob.
Mile 4.0 – Former Appalachian Trail Shelter, the AT was relocated to the west in the 1950’s. Continue on other side of shelter by the chimney following ridge line as other unmarked trails go right towards the parkway. There are a couple of other good viewing areas just after the shelter on your left. The top of the incline is Rocky Knob. Green blazes will start again in about a 0.5 miles.
Mile 4.4 – T-intersection, bear left onto Rocky Knob Trail.
Mile 4.8 – Rock Castle Gorge Overlook.
Mile 5.1 – 12 O'clock Knob Overlook. Comfort Station, Picnic Area and bathroom is just across the Parkway. Trail is now blazed Green and Blue. Trails over the next mile will come in from the right, stay left.
Mile 5.7 – Cross a fence stile into another meadow and bolder field.
Mile 6.1 – Black Ridge Trail intersection, stay left on Green-blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail. You are now in Grassy Knoll.
Mile 6.6 – Leave Grassy Knoll, go through a fence stile/gate. What goes up must go down, and you will be going down the rest of the way, and the first few miles will be steep.
Mile 8.1 – Intersection with fire road, bear left and follow Rock Castle Creek downstream.
Mile 8.9 – 2nd Metal Bridge
Mile 9.0 – 3rd Metal Bridge
Mile 9.2 – Austin House, privately owned, built 1916. Also there is an old barn just past the house.
Mile 9.5 – 4th Metal Bridge
Mile 10.4 – Primitive camp site. Permit required from Visitor Center or Rocky Knob Campground on the Parkway. You are not allowed to camp anywhere else on this trail besides this primitive camp site.
Mile 10.7 – Return to the parking area.
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Reviews For The Rock Castle Gorge Hike (5 Most Recent)
I'm 6', 230 lbs, and I managed this hike in 5 hours and 15 minutes, including 3 ten-minute breaks. I followed the instructions on the main page to the letter, and they worked very well! I will refer to their mileage points in this review.
Right after mile 3.4, it's clear where the next "Short trail post" marker is, but the NEXT one caused a small amount of uncertainty. It seems one can veer right, or go straight. I decided that the I'd go straight in the direction of the marker, and I found the next marker at the top of the hill (grass had grown up). Moral of the story: Just follow the parallel direction of the arrows, and you'll be OK.
The trail between 6.6 and 7.7 is amazingly beautiful, with two gully/stream crossings out of this world! In fact, I'm not sure why this hike isn't rated 6 for streams!!! There must be 10-12 crossings (no bridges), not to mention the bridges and the fact that you see and hear streams/creeks/gullies for most of this hike!
Between mile 8.1 and 8.9, two new "metal bridges" have been installed. Maybe the original author didn't mention them because they are large enough for vehicles (on fire road, after all), whereas the other 4 "metal bridges" are purely for foot traffic. At any rate, I was a little confused as I was counting bridges (and the distances weren't making sense), but I figured it out after I saw the metal foot bridges. :)
From 8.0 to 9.2 is a treat if you're into lots of cascades/mini-waterfalls, as Rock Castle Creek roars down to the valley floor. Both you and the creek need to descend from 2600' to 1700' but the creek does it a lot more abruptly, until it mellows out near Austin House. By then you're at the same elevation for the rest of the hike.
I can't wait to go back in do it in reverse!
Date of Hike: Tuesday, September 06, 2016
The trail is officially open according to the NPS:
Date of Hike: Friday, August 26, 2016
The trail is CLOSED. Stay off of it until it has been reopened. It is not just about your safety. If you attempt to hike this trail you are putting my husbands safety at risk. We have two children. Be better.
Date of Hike: Sunday, June 26, 2016
The trail is still officially closed as of June 2016, although we were able to finish the entire 10.8 mile loop without too much difficulty. We encountered a couple of other hikers but mostly had the trail to ourselves. Besides the issues mentioned in the earlier 2016 review, the main challenges were washed-out areas in very steep sections of the trail, and also some downed trees in areas covering the trail. I would also echo the earlier comment that I would not consider doing this trail during or too soon after a heavy rain. It had rained a few days before our hike and the trail was still slippery and fording some of the streams was challenging. With higher water, some of these crossings would be really dangerous and/or impossible. Stinging nettles were also growing heavily in several parts of the trail, so if I did it again in the summer, I would wear long pants.
This is always a challenging hike, but with the trail in its current condition, it is extremely strenuous. However, the beauty more than made up for the challenges!
Date of Hike: Saturday, March 26, 2016
(Note: these are the conditions we encountered the date we hiked it, March 26, 2016. Depending on additional rainfall or subsequent repairs, you may encounter different conditions them we did).
The Rock Castle Gorge Trail is officially closed because of damage related to flooding over the winter of 2015–2016. However, the trail is still very hikable although, as always, I definitely would not attempt the entire 10.8 mile loop hike or the steep sections into and out of the gorge (and add to that now the fire road at the bottom) any time soon after a significant rain. We saw several other people hiking the entire loop, and others doing out-and-back hikes along the ridge paralleling the Parkway and also along the old fire road at the bottom of the gorge.
The main damage is related to one area of total washout and several areas of partial washout of the old fire road in the bottom of the gorge. In other areas, the previously relatively smooth and even surface of the fire road has been strewn with rocks of various sizes, sometimes also accompanied by shallow water or mud/mushy ground, making sections of it a little slower and more attention-demanding than they used to be. For most of these, you can just tread from rock to rock through the short sections that are wet, or step over narrow areas of wash. The area of total washout of the fire road is near the southern end, not too far from where the trail heads up to or down from the ridge along the Parkway, depending on whether you're hiking the loop clockwise or counterclockwise. The area of total washout is, at this point, 10 to 15 feet wide and 5 to 6 feet deep in one area requiring clambering down and back up dirt sides (if a person has good jumping skills, there's a narrow area about 3 to 4 feet across which is also 5-6 ft deep, but we did not want to chance it). The other areas of partial wash can be stepped over or walked through/beside without difficulty. The most impressive area of washout is between the primitive campground and the parking area/gate along the old CCC Campground Road, where a linear 60-70 ft long, up to 10 ft wide and 5 ft deep section of the road has been washed away. The other half of the road is still present beside this washout, allowing the section to be hiked, but the road is now impassable to vehicles, rendering the campground unserviceable and the entire rest of the fire road inaccessible to vehicular (park vehicles and the Austin house property owners) traffic.
The Rock Castle Gorge Trail hike is beautiful, but relatively strenuous, especially the section on the north end of the loop where there is an average 20% grade over a mile (with steeper sections of what I would estimate to be up to 35% in areas). You should definitely be in reasonably good shape and have some miles in your legs before tackling this one. (My husband and I actually used this as a training hike for our one-day rim-to-Phantom Ranch-to-rim hike at Grand Canyon). I find hiking poles to be beneficial especially for the steep and rocky areas of ascent/descent. Definitely take plenty of water with you, as there is no water along the route unless you have a filter to use for the stream in the gorge (and bearing in mind that there are cattle in pastures along creeks which drain into the gorge). The main "usual" hazards along the trail are drifts of leaves which cover the trail and obscure roots/rocks, especially in fall, winter and early spring, and which can also make footing slick, and steep rocky sections especially on the north end of the loop. Wear proper foot gear, pay attention to footing, think about poles, be prepared (proper clothing, adequate water and food) and you'll be OK.
The trail is a great hike any time of year, but is especially beautiful in the springtime. Wildflowers begin poking their heads up usually in late March to early April, and are in full swing by late April. There are up to 200 wildflower species along the route. There is a great degree of diversity especially on the southern (longer but less steep) ascent/descent, where a variety of microcosms create many different unique niches for innumerable varieties of flora.
Which way to hike the loop and where to start? Well, there are many many choices. You can start at either end of the old fire road at the bottom of the gorge, or start at one of the parking areas along the Parkway. You can hike it clockwise or counterclockwise. We have done pretty much all permutations. I prefer to hike it counterclockwise, in order to do the steepest section in the uphill direction because I feel it is safer going uphill on the steep grade than downhill. You will be hiking uphill for a bit along the Parkway, but then get a nice gradual downhill on the fire road in the gorge. You can either park at the bottom and get the really steep section over with early in the hike, or start at the top along the Parkway with the more open, scenic pastureland early in the hike, enjoy wildflowers on the more gradual descent into the gorge and continue more gradually downhill walking in the direction of the Rock Castle River at the bottom of the gorge, have a nice lunch stop in the primitive campground, and save the nasty uphill for later in the day just after your lunch break (with a really nice flattish section afterwards to recover on). We like to park beside the Parkway at the Rocky Knob Campground area (across the road from which there is an access through the fence into a cow pasture and into the trail) and go counterclockwise. Allow about seven hours including your lunch stop if you are an average-speed hiker, longer if you are slower or are stopping frequently to take photos and admire the scenery.