The only loop hike that follows a river in the Todd Lake area of the GWNF, this hike has several nice view points, as well as a 4.2 mile hike along the banks of North River. The best time of the year for this circuit is in the late summer or early fall, when the river is lower. With eight fords of North River, it can be a challenge when the water is high.
NOTE: You are required to ford North River 9 more times in the final 4.2 mile section of this hike. If the river is high, it could take significantly longer than the 6 hour hike time to complete.
After fording North River the purple blazed trail turns right, and a yellow blazed connector trail turns left down river. Turn left on the yellow blazed trail, and in 0.2 miles arrive at the intersection of the white blazed Wild Oak Trail.
Turn right uphill on the white blazed trail for 0.3 miles where it meets the intersection of the 100 yard out/back lookout trail. Take the lookout trail for the best vista on the hike. After returning to the white blazed trail, continue uphill as the trail becomes increasingly steep for another 1.6 miles before arriving at the final two good vista points on the hike. The first is to the east and Harrisonburg VA, and the second in another 100 yards, to the west.
From the ridge and second vista, continue another 0.8 miles over the hike high point on Lookout Mountain, then descend to the saddle in the ridge and intersection of yellow blazed trail TR513. Continue uphill on the white blazed trail for 1.2 miles passing over another rise and arrive at the un-maintained Bear Draft Trail. Continue straight on the white blazed trail for 0.3 miles, where the trail turns right downhill following a narrow Forestry Service (FS) road for 0.2 miles to the intersection of a wider FS road.
Turn right downhill following the the FS road as it winds down to the valley in 2.0 miles. Where the FS road veers left, near the valley floor, turn right onto an unmarked grass covered FS road, and in 100 yards pass through a closed gate. Follow the FS road down to the banks of North River, and intersection of the purple blazed North River Gorge Trail.
Turn right on the purple blazed trail and in 0.3 miles make the first of 9 fords across North River. There are several nice campsites on the trail, the first just after the second ford, and a large group campsite after the 8th ford 3.6 miles from the first campsite. From the large group campsite, after the 8th ford, continue on the right side of the river to the intersection of the yellow blazed trail in another 0.1 miles.
Re-cross North River staying on the purple blazed trail for 200 yards, then turn right uphill on the yellow blazed trail for the remaining 0.1 miles back to the parking area.
Interactive Hike Map BelowPrintable
Topo Hike Map (PDF)
Hike route in Drag the map with your mouse using the icon Zoom with the controls on the left
Click the icons in the map below for location shots
Calculate roughly how many calories you could burn on the North River Gorge hike:
Reviews For The North River Gorge Hike (5 Most Recent)
This is a good one. Especially along the river it's really great -- lots of solitude, nature, and the peaceful sound of the North River. What more could you want? The hardest thing about this loop in my opinion is finding your way around. The trails aren't very well identified, so if you don't study where you're going before-hand or have a map, you'll probably get lost (like me). That being said, getting lost adds a whole new element of excitement and adventure, so go out there and get lost, and when you finally come out to a road, hitch a ride back to your car!
Date of Hike: Saturday, August 16, 2014
I did this hike as a hike/run. I ran the North River Gorge as an out and back last summer when the water was relatively high and I loved it, so I was looking forward to doing this circuit hike. The hike did not disappoint!
I started at the White Oak Trail parking lot which added some mileage to the hike (13.6 versus 12). The hike up was not bad. The steeper switchbacks were tempered by easier sections. The ridge afforded beautiful views and I encountered two bears. One bear hurriedly scrambled down a tree on the east side of the ridge and I saw just a flash of fur and a heavily shaking tree. The second bear was on the trail facing me, though still a good distance away. He was big and beautiful! We stood there looking at each other and he eventually turned and walked into the woods perpendicular to the trail. I am always awed when I encounter a bear in my travels.
I had considered taking the unmaintained Bear Draft Trail as a cut-off to the fire road but I never saw it -- so I'd consider it a former trail that is completely overgrown, at least in summer. The directions to the fire road descent were easy to follow. The fire road had some pretty views of Big Bald Mountain on the way down.
Once you reach the gate at the end of the fire road descent you turn right and almost immediately see the entrance to the North River Gorge trail. The water was very low and I probably could have forded each river crossing with dry feet. I'm a water-loving type though so I got wet when I could and would have loved for the water levels to be higher.
I finished the 13.6 mile loop in 4 hours including a few stops for photos and the two stops for tip-toeing by the bears. Overall it was a beautiful hike with doable elevation gain, views, flora, and fauna.
Leah Huyard/Rachael Brenneman
Date of Hike: Tuesday, June 10, 2014
The first part of the hike was enjoyable. We spent the night along the Bear Draft Trail. (the un-maintained trail which is basically just a sign) We walked down to the creek where we were supposed to find the purple blazes and ford the river about 9 times. To our dismay, we could not find any purple blazes. We walked up and down the river for about 3 hours. They simply were not there. In the end, we had to hitchhike 10-12 miles back to our car. Perhaps the forest service should repaint the purple blazes on the trees that are supposed to have purple blazes. Or just take better care of the trail.
Date of Hike: Saturday, February 15, 2014
I see this hasn't been reviewed in quite a while! My husband and I intended to do neighboring Grooms Ridge, but accidentally ended up on this one. Glad we did - it was certainly an experience! The views from the ridge were beautiful, and walking along and crossing the river was cool (literally…). We didn't have to cross the river more than four times as we found ways around, but thankfully the water was fairly low. Yes, it was definitely freezing on our bare feet, but it was actually pretty refreshing and makes a good story haha. The campsite at the intersection of the white blazed and Bear Draft trails was less than desirable, though. I wish we'd found a different one. Several animals passed by us during the night, including howling coyotes and barking foxes -- which is fine and totally expected -- but the PERSON walking past our tent at 3am was not! A little strange! We saw many trail runners on the way in on the first day, and barely anyone the next. One said we were crazy for staying overnight, but we love winter hiking and camping.
Date of Hike: Sunday, May 30, 2010
Great adventure. Wasn't expecting the river to be as swollen and flowing fast as it was. First ford across the river was the deepest (waist deep for me at 6') Nice uphill climb for the first 90 minutes... not much traffic... one mountain biker. Few more mountain bikers on the backside. Unmarked trail at bottom of FS road is little tricky to find. Once on the purple blazed North River Trail the fun begins... 1st ford is easy, 2 and 3 are challenging as the river is moving pretty good at these points, 4-6 are average , 7&8 are above average (depth and flow) and then back to the deepest ford (seemed a lot easier going back across after the other 8 crossings). Total time was 4hrs 30 mins. Look forward to doing this one again in late summer to compare.