Many folks express great fear when thinking about hiking The Priest from VA 56. Although The Priest isn’t found on the list of the 50 highest mountains in Virginia, it rises straight up from the valley floor and forms part of an impressive skyline when driving in from the Tye River Valley. This hike involves a 3000 foot elevation gain (higher than any trail in West Virginia), however the trail is seldom steep along the way, and can be better characterized as “unrelenting” rather than difficult. Once the trail starts climbing, it maintains a remarkably constant 13% grade for 3.6 miles before steepening slightly for the last 0.3 mile to the summit.
Coordinating with a second vehicle as a shuttle, you can combine this hike with a descent along the Crabtree Falls Trail to check off two great hiking destinations in less than 10 miles with less downhill stress on the knees (and more company) than hiking back down The Priest.
Mile 0.0 – The hike starts at an A.T. parking area on Virginia Route 56. The lot holds about 20 vehicles, and can be crowded on nice weekends. From this spot, southbound hikers climb The Priest and northbound hikers climb Three Ridges. Be sure to lock your vehicle and keep anything of value out of sight – stories abound of occasional break-ins here through the years. And, if climbing The Priest, go the correct way - don’t cross the highway! Enter the woods to the left of the information kiosk.
Mile 0.1 – Enter into The Priest Wilderness after passing the wilderness boundary sign and begin climbing. Remember, federal wilderness regulations prohibit parties of more than 10 people within wilderness areas. Leave no trace!
Mile 0.6 – After ascending via several switchbacks, the A.T. cuts left on an old woods road.
Mile 3.9 – Reach the summit after numerous false summits and switchbacks. If you hiked here in late May or early June, you may have seen the Eastern Turkeybeard flower, which grows above 3500 feet elevation along the trail, along with a few thru-hikers. Continue on the A.T. for approximately 0.4 mile, over level ground.
Mile 4.3– After passing numerous smaller trails that lead to potential campsites and dead ends, follow a well worn trail right to a large set of rocks on the western edge of the summit. These rocks give an overview to the west and north, including Three Ridges and mountains in Shenandoah National Park. By looking carefully, you can see the Blue Ridge Parkway knifing through the mountains several miles away. Return the way you came if you have a single vehicle.
Mile 8.6 – Return to your vehicle after following the same route back down the mountain.
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Reviews For The The Priest Hike (5 Most Recent)
Parked at the lot on Rt 56 and did an out-and-back (about 9 miles total) to the Priest shelter. FANTASTIC view at the summit IF you head off the trail when if flattens out (through an obvious camping site just off the trail, about a half mile before the sign pointing to the shelter) to the right. Don't miss that 20 yd detour! It took us 5 hours round trip which included stopping for lunch and photos. I think we hike at a moderate pace.
Date of Hike: Sunday, January 01, 2017
From a trail runner perspective, this is one of my favorite challenging runs in the area. The SOBO AT from route 56 is shy of 9 miles out & back. The trail starts with about 700' of elevation per mile and then continues to increase to about 850' of elevation per mile. It is nearly continuous uphill with very few areas of relief. The trail gets rocky in some areas as you get about 3 miles from the trailhead. There are a couple of creek crossings early which are easy to avoid getting shoes wet. Overall the hike/run is a great indication of your physical state.
Date of Hike: Saturday, June 18, 2016
After swearing off The Priest after last December's hike, I have actually returned several times since and am gonna give it an additional star. I still don't feel that this hike would be very rewarding for your casual hiker, but for anybody looking to get their climbing legs together it doesn't get any better than SOBO Priest (starting on Rt.56 and heading S). It's probably the hike that gives you the most bang for your climbing buck in the entire state...3000' in 4 miles. During June/July, you will encounter the wave of AT thru-hikers and meet some pretty interesting folks. I also encountered a black bear, startled him actually rounding a sharp turn in the trail but thank goodness he was scared more than I was and took off running. I also encountered my first ever timber rattlesnake, a beautiful black-phase in a rocky area approaching the summit. The races I do require lots of climbing so The Priest has become by go-to training ground. I also plan to begin section hiking the AT next spring and will be back to condition myself for that endeavor.
Date of Hike: Friday, May 13, 2016
We started our hike on Friday (the 13th) at roughly 930am from the Reeds Gap parking lot. At that time on a weekday I was the first car in the parking lot. That is an important note as when we returned Saturday evening at 6pm the lot was full and people were parking along the highway. We decided to see what we were made of and set out Friday morning to make it to the top of the Priest by cutting down the Mau-Har Trail and eventually picking back up the AT. This was our group of 3's first time in this section of the AT and admittedly we didn't realize what we were in for. We had great weather and enjoyed our trek down the AT, transition onto and through the Mau-Har and by 130pm were connecting back on the AT heading south bound for the Priest. We stopped at the Tye River to filter/refill our water supply at 230pm and were heading up the Priest by 315pm. We reached the first scenic views on the Priest at 515pm and passed what would be our eventual camp by 6pm. There is a very nice campsite 3.5 - 4 mi up the Priest before you reach the top. At this point we were 12 mi into our trip, the up/down of it all took its toll on us and we decided to make camp and forgo the summit knowing that every mile further up the Priest was an extra mile back to Reeds Gap the next day. We had a great JetBoil/MtnHouse breakfast and were out of camp by 740am Sat. We were back down the Priest and to the Tye River Sat by 930am. We made it back up the mtn and to Harpers Creek Shelter by 12pm. Our original plan was to make it to the top of the Priest on Friday and make it back up to Maupin Field Shelter by Saturday night to camp. The counterclockwise Mau-Har loop trek on the AT back through Chimney Rock, Three Ridges and Bee Mtn was brutal. We experienced a storm front at Three Ridges with rain and a 15 degree temp drop. 10-12 mi into our day 2 and having to deal with the uphill associated with going counterclockwise on the loop was a great mental test. We made it to Maupin Field Shelter Sat at 5pm after leaving camp at 740am 4 mi up the Priest. We were 14 mi into the day and gassed. After being rained on for 3 hrs and only being 2 mi from Reeds Gap we decided to trek out. Saturday ended back at Reeds Gap, 16 mi in and my strongest test to date. The Mau-Har loop is a scenic trail with a lot of up and down. It is challenging in its own right for a day or overnight hike. Adding the Priest should not be taken lightly. I officially do not recommend this variation of the Mau-Har Loop/Priest trek to anyone shy of peak physical condition. If you are up for a great mental/physical test - park at Reids Gap and trek day 1 to the Priest Shelter (by way of the Mau-Har, this is 13-14+ mi all up/down). Wake up day 2 and head back down/up/down/up etc. staying on the AT all the way to Maupin Field Shelter (this is 15-16+ miles all up/down). A challenging part of this section is that you have very limited flat footing and almost every step is uneven. At this point you are 2 miles from Reeds Gap which you can decide to knock out (as we did) same day or camp at Maupin and lick your wounds. As mentioned earlier we got into much more of a hike than expected but came out stronger mentally/physically on the other side! (I will post this variation of the route in The Three Ridges section as well)
Date of Hike: Sunday, December 20, 2015
I did The Priest as the second leg of a one day ruck of the Three Ridges & Priest circuit. I began on Rt.56 along the Tye River as this gave me a mid-way break point at my truck before continuing up The Priest. SOBO Priest is also a much greater challenge than NOBO (3000' gain over 4 miles). I really wish they'd write it up as a separate or alternative hike on this site. The trail starts out gentle and gets progressively steeper the higher you climb. There was a big mental aspect to the ascent as well. There were a good half-dozen times I thought I was nearing the peak, only to be fooled and having to continue climbing. The trail also became rockier on the way up. By the time I reached the summit, I told The Priest to go F himself before hammering down the mountain in the dark. Hike took me 5 hours and ended a 22.5 mile/7500' gain, 11 hour trek with a weighted ruck. For me, this hike has minimal rehike value. It was simply a 4.5 mile long climb with little variety and minimal overlooks. YMMV.