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.
Calculate roughly how many calories you could burn on the The Priest hike:
Reviews For The The Priest Hike (5 Most Recent)
We did a single overnight backpack up to the top of Priest, stayed over, and back the next day. Parking overnight at the trailhead (Priest Wilderness parking area on Rt. 56) was fine - space permitting, at your own risk of course. Looked like several groups were doing it. Be warned this time of year: camping at the top was cold and VERY windy. Be prepared. Otherwise, fairly straightforward, there are good sites around the Priest shelter and several other spots around the peak. The hike itself is, on the whole, moderately difficult. The distance isn't bad and trail quality is good, but 3000' is just a lot of work. I'm not in especially good shape, and my legs sure were glad I wasn't trying to go up and down the same day. The ridgeline is special and beautiful, though, worth the effort.
Date of Hike: Saturday, June 16, 2018
This hike is no joke.† There is no "warm up" before the climb.† My husband said it perfectly, "It's like climbing stairs all the way up".† There are very very few spots that kind of† "levels out", but not enough to really count.† Over all a challenging but pleasant hike in the trees.† You pass a few streams along the first mile and a half.† You are pretty much shaded by trees the entire time so it makes for a nice temperature even when the sun is out.† The pay off would be much better if there wasn't people up there.† But it is a well known spot so there was 6 other people that arrived after us and we saw a dozen more going up on our way back down.† Also, if your are tracking this hike with GPS, and going NOBO on the trail, the turn off to the view is at about 4.75 miles from the sign saying "The Priest Wilderness, George Washington National Forest".† Making this hike just over 9.5 miles.† And we didn't really go off trail till the side trail to the view.
Date of Hike: Sunday, January 15, 2017
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.