Passing through old growth forest, over the northwest ridge on Hazel Mountain, then descending to Hazel River, this circuit hike starting on Skyline Drive has a wide diversity of scenery. The hike also has the added bonus of being one of the less frequented circuits in this very popular section of the Shenandoah National Park. The highlight is the waterfall and swimming hole on the upper section of Hazel River, but even on the hottest days the mountain water will be chilly!
Mile 0.44 - Turn right downhill staying on the Hazel Mountain Trail. Soon the trail will turn back to the left passing through a section of Mountain Laurel. As the trail begins to level out the upper section of Hazel River will become visible in places 200 yards on the right. Continue along the yellow blazed Hazel Mountain Trail to the junction where the White Rocks Trail comes in on the left.
Mile 4.85 - Turn left upstream on the yellow blazed White Rocks Trail, and soon arrive at the lower and last crossing of Hazel River. This crossing can be challenging and sometimes requires fording if the river is high. After crossing Hazel River the White Rocks Trail becomes very steep for the next 0.3 miles to the ridgeline. For the next 0.3 miles the trail passes over several knolls. Look for a break in the trees on the left, and 2 unmarked side trails on the right marking the White Rocks vista. There are views to the west of Skyline Drive in the distance. On the right/eastern side there are views of the Sperryville Valley. Continue on the White Rocks Trail for another 0.5 miles to the junction of the waterfall side trail.
Mile 6.63 - Turn left downhill towards the Hazel River, soon the trail becomes very steep for the remaining 0.1 miles to the river. There is a large swimming hole at this point, and 50 yards upstream the main waterfall and small cave. Return back to the White Rocks Trail.
Mile 6.83 - Turn left on the White Rocks Trail for 0.78 miles to the intersection of the Hazel River Mountain Trail you past earlier.
Mile 7.61 - Turn right on the Hazel Mountain Trail following it back uphill to the intersection of the Buck Ridge Trail.
Mile 8.64 - Turn left uphill staying on the Hazel Mountain Trail.
I did a variation of this hike that was more difficult and a few miles longer. Started at Broad Hollow trail off SR681 (this site also has a hike for that), hiked up to White Rocks trail, and then descended to the Hazel River. Instead of coming up that trail though, I took the Sams Ridge trail back up, then took the Pine Hill Gap trail down with a short (.5 mile) road walk back to the car. All told (with the waterfall side trip) it was almost 14 miles, with 4100 feet of elevation gain...took about 6.5 hours. Sams Ridge was a long slog up, I wouldn't recommend unless you were looking for an extra work out (I was). White Rocks look-out was awesome, even though you are low in elevation the view is panoramic. The big plus was that I didn't see anyone until about a half-mile from my car. I was in total solitude all day.
Date of Hike: Thursday, November 19, 2015
Usually you can expect several people on any SNP hike, but I didn't see one other person the entire time. Granted, it is mid-November and the leaves are all down, it's a Thursday, and it was drizzly and foggy all day, but I was pleasantly surprised to see no one else. I do think most people just hike down to the waterfall and back, though. I really liked this hike, as it had a bit of everything. On the ridge, the fog obscured any views, but I'm sure they were beautiful, and the mist and fog in the trees with no wind made it feel peaceful and quiet. There are several water crossings, and it may take finding a downed tree bridge a bit off the trail to make it across when the water is high and covering the rocks. I strained my knee on the long descent and it was a little difficult to manage with the leaves covering the scree and the rain dampening everything, but I wouldn't say the was a super challenging hike - maybe more around a 4 rating. The steep ascent doesn't last long, but there are a lot of short inclines after that one so it can wear you out by the end. Five hours is accurate to complete, but if you're a newbie hiker, I would recommend setting aside 6-6.5 hours for this hike. Best part was stopping at an overlook after to see the fog in the valley below at sunset - stunning!
Date of Hike: Saturday, July 25, 2015
Fantastic hike for the summer! Hiked this with my girlfriend, who is new to hiking, so I was hesitant at first given the difficulty rating. Don't let it scare you! While this is strenuous and certainly shouldn't be someone's first hike, I'd venture to say that most hikers will be able to handle it if they take their time. We did the hike as written and it gets better as you go starting off as a standard forest hike without much elevation change at first. Just know that you will deal with spider web after spider web at this first portion, which seems to be hiked rarely. The river portion is a fantastic area to take a break and possibly even swim, though we opted to swim later on at the falls. We did this in the middle of the summer and while there were not many views given the dense foliage, you could see some of the surrounding mountains at times and I imagine it would be gorgeous in the spring or fall.
The portion that earns this hike its "strenuous" rating is the steep incline at the end of the river coupled with the fact that the rest of the trail is mostly uphill. After the initial steepest portion, though, it levels out and continues with only modest elevation gains. We saw a young bear at the top of the initial steep portion.
While you will likely be tired, don't skip out on the falls/cave hike! While its a steep downhill trail, the falls are great and have a few spots to swim. The only other hikers we saw on the whole trail were at this spot, and there were a lot of them, but otherwise it was a great hike to find some solitude. I recommend having a stick to help with the climbs and spider webs if you go on this hike.
Date of Hike: Tuesday, April 28, 2015
I don't like water crossings for the sake of water crossings, and this trail has plenty of that. However, it's a real nice hike with a couple caveats.
As of my hike date, the Hazel River Trail segment was in need of attention. 5 large trees blocked the trail at a few different points. The last three river crossings weren't safely passable without wading in 6-12 inches of fairly fast water. I had to go off-trail to find a suitable crossing point for one of the crossings - even wading would be dangerous. The crossings may be a seasonal issue and the park will likely fix the trees soon enough. For now, I strongly suggest bringing reliable hiking sandals and switching in to them once you get to the river trail and switching out just before you start the steep climb.
I agree with some others - this trail is not easy but the steepness is a bit overstated. The steep section is right after the Hazel River Trail segment and while quite steep is mostly graded with a few small flat sections to catch your breath. Much easier than stone step steep sections (like those on the Cedar Run/White Oak trail). Honestly the toughest part was going down to and up from the falls. Very steep stone steps. But you shouldn't skip out on the falls - it's a real nice lunch spot.
Once they fix up the Hazel River Trail segment, this is a 5 star hike. Until then, make sure to prepare for the tricky Hazel River Trail segment and a couple tough steep sections.
Date of Hike: Sunday, April 12, 2015
Followed @Odospamkill's advice (thanks!) and shortened the hike into a neat 8.5-mile loop with the challenging climb early on by parking near Hungry Horse Lane (plugged into WAZE navigation app for directions with no problem). This has you starting at the bottom of the loop and cuts out the back-and-forth connection to Skyline Drive. The final stretch of driving to Hungry Horse Ln was a bit intimidating due to dirt road, leaving me wondering if I was in the right place or if I'd miss the parking / trail-head. The road, however, is well maintained and easily passable in any car (though probably not advisable after significant rainfall) and there's no way to confuse or miss the spot.
Walk about 0.2 miles up Hungry Horse Lane and the trail-head is on your right (not immediately after the National Park sign where a path crosses the river, just up from that). There are multiple river crossings and not always good rocks to stay dry, so had to get a bit creative finding the right spots to cross. The hike starts off very easy and beautiful through the woods for about 2/2.5 miles. Always keep right, cross the stream one last time and then climb. It is steep but quick, and well maintained.
Going down to the Falls is the first left after the climb. It is 0.2 miles out of the way in each direction, and also very steep. The Falls themselves were underwhelming but still worth the detour. Back on the main path, stay left at the next intersection, straight at the one after that (Hazel River trail goes off to the left, keep right and instead take a left about 0.1 miles later at the next intersection onto the blue-marked Sam Ridge Trail). The next intersection keep left, going back down to meet the trail again just past the trail-head at Hungry Horse Lane. I printed the map / directions here and figured the route out easily despite the modified approach.
Given a relatively late start we didn't encounter any other hikers. The overall difficulty was moderate, the climb not tough, but the river crossings are a challenge, the descent also steep, and the trail wasn't always well maintained (many large fallen trees). I would not recommend the hike for anyone with knee or balance problems or for young children.
A great hike, would definitely do it again, with many thanks for the recommendation for the shortened loop.