This is a lollipop (or lariat) hike, almost entirely within federally designated wilderness, that takes you to the largest watershed in Shenandoah National Park. It also reaches the most remote parts of the entire park – you will find yourself over four miles away from the closest public trailhead. For this reason, this is also a great route for an overnight backpack, as there are multiple fine campsites along Big Run (though no facilities – so be sure to know how to camp using Leave No Trace principles!)
Adding to the journey’s interest is the fact that this entire area burned in the Spring of 2016 in the second largest fire in Shenandoah National Park history. The Big Run Portal Trail served as the southern boundary for the fire, and the Brown Mountain Trail slices through the middle of the burn zone. The forest heals fairly quickly, however, and each trip through the area reveals changes as the forest recovers.
This hike alternately can be completed as a clockwise loop (heading downhill to Big Run from the first trail intersection) or counter-clockwise (remaining on the Brown Mountain Trail). If hiking this as a day hike, we recommend descending to Big Run at the beginning. If you first hike the entire Brown Mountain Trail, you will have an unrelenting climb of 1400 feet over the last three miles of this hike. Hiked in either direction, there is a stiff climb over the last 0.7 miles of the trek, as you return to the high point of the journey – the trailhead.
This is a challenging hike, so here are a few caveats. Be sure to bring plenty of water and/or a filter if hiking this route in the summer. Parts of this loop are exposed to the sun and can be very dry. Also bring a good map of the area as there are multiple trail intersections along the way. The best trail map for this area is the PATC Map 11 –Shenandoah National Park South District (available for sale within the Park), as it is regularly updated and checked for accuracy. And Big Run may be difficult or impossible to ford in times of high water. A good map can help you plan for alternative routes if you are challenged in any stream crossings.
Mile 0.0 – Parking for this hike is located at the Skyline Drive’s Brown Mountain Overlook, located just north of Milepost 77. A short rock wall forms the boundary of the overlook, which provides parking for about a dozen vehicles and a great view of the Big Run drainage. A break in the rock wall is where the blue blazed Brown Mountain Trail starts. Take this downhill from the overlook.
Mile 0.7 – Reach a saddle where the Rocky Mountain Run Trail meets the blue blazed Brown Mountain Trail. You can choose either direction here, but turning left down the Rocky Mountain Run Trail is recommended and is described here.
Mile 1.9 – Descend steadily for over a mile via a series of switchbacks past burned trees. Drop from over 2800 feet elevation at the start of the hike to just under 1400 feet elevation at this point. Cross Rocky Mountain Run twice in quick succession.
Mile 2.6 – Cross Rocky Mountain Run a third time.
Mile 2.8 – There is a nice campsite to the left of the trail here, alongside Rocky Mountain Run.
Mile 3.5 – The Rocky Mountain Run Trail ends where it meets the yellow blazed Big Run Portal Trail. Go to the right here. The first of several nice campsites can be seen almost immediately on your left as you start down the Big Run Portal Trail, on your left, next to Big Run. The Big Run Portal Trail is an old fire road, no longer used as a road now that this is federally designated wilderness. Horses are allowed on the Big Run Portal Trail, but not on the other two trails that compose this hike.
Mile 3.7 – Cross Big Run, the first of several crossings of this stream. Crossing may be difficult or impossible during times of high water.
Mile 5.1 – To the left of the trail, along Big Run, is the last campsite of the hike, located under some conifers with access to the stream, just upstream from the metal bridge described in the next section.
Mile 5.3 – The intersection with the blue blazed Brown Mountain Trail is here, but continue on the Big Run Portal Trail for a few more feet to come to a metal bridge spanning Big Run. Here you can get the full effect of the “Portal,” which are high rocks on either side of the stream. This bridge is a wonderful spot to soak in the solitude, listen to the birds, and look at the trees. Take your time here! Continuing on the Big Run Portal Trail past the bridge would take you out of federally designated wilderness. The trail continues a little further to the Rockytop Trail, which heads back to the Skyline Drive several miles south of your trailhead. There is no public access to this valley from outside of the national park. It is as remote as you can get in Shenandoah National Park. Make sure you have enough water for the rest of your hike. Once you leave Big Run there are no more water sources on this hike. This hike’s entire climb lies in front of you, as you are at the low point of the hike right now, and the high point is back where you left your vehicle.
Mile 6.5 – Backtrack a few yards to the intersection with the Brown Mountain Trail and take a left at the concrete mileage post. Take a right at the second post, only a few feet further, and start climbing Brown Mountain. As you climb, you will notice that there is not much tree cover in this part of the hike. This is the result of a 1986 fire that was started, like the 2016 fire, by a camper’s careless use of fire. Another reminder to please be careful if making this an overnight!
Mile 7.4 – After ascending multiple switchbacks over rocky trail where you can catch views of the Big Portal area as you climb, and further west see the southern tip of the Massanutten range, you will crest the top of Brown Mountain and come to a rocky area with some obstructed views of nearby mountains. Only about 500 feet further, if you care to climb the steep slope on your right side of the trail after the trail cuts to the left of the ridge, you crest at a spot with spectacular views. But it isn’t marked, and there is no trail.
Mile 8.7 – The trail dips and rises several times before summiting Rocky Mountain, with occasional nice views along the way. Shortly afterward is the best overlook on the trail, looking west towards the Skyline Drive and your vehicle – waiting for you at the trailhead. If you still have a snack or water, you will want to stop here and enjoy the view.
Mile 9.6 – The trail drops off of the crest of Rocky Mountain and descends to complete your loop at the intersection with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail at a saddle in the ridge. The last 0.7 miles involves a backtrack uphill to the Skyline Drive and your vehicle.
Overnight backpack, with camping at the last site. Saw 4 bears the first day, had to ford the Big run multiple times. 2nd half all uphill with some interesting environment changes due to the fire... including a LOT of blueberry bushes. 2nd half is moderately overgrown with several downed trees (nothing crazy) and encroaching shrubbery.
Date of Hike: Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Done as a quick midweek overnight/sunrise hike, camping at the last site mentioned (at mile 5.1). This is definitely the most scenic of the campsites with the high walls of the portal rising over you and easy water access, but also has the smallest available footprint. I was able to rock hop almost all the Big Run crossings without too much trouble. The final one (mile 4.8) required wading. Trail is in good condition overall but could use some clearing in the spring - especially from miles 5.3-9.6, where a number of decent sized trees are down on the trail. Agree with previous reviewers, this loop has a little bit of everything - I will probably start recommending it over Riprap as a great south SNP sampler.
Date of Hike: Sunday, January 14, 2018
This is an exceptionally enjoyable circuit for SNP...exceptional scenery including miles of accompanying a stream that grows into a small river as tributaries join it, with numerous small falls and cascades, and miles of ridgeline with long views on one side of the trail, at this time of year. If you long for alpine streams, like what you'd see in the Rockies, this is a hidden gem. I've hiked dozens of trails in the SNP and in GW national forest, and this is an instant favorite that I will definitely do again.
Intensity is substantial: I rank the difficulty of all my hikes relative to Old Rag, the gold standard in this area, and this is a little more difficult than that in amount of total physical exertion (not technically, tho). I can no longer run long distance due to hip problems, so I rely on these long day hikes to achieve that feeling of being depleted, of having to push forward even when exhausted. To arriving back at my car a different man than the one who left it a few hours prior. This hike will definitely do that for you, if you are a seasoned trekker also seeking that experience.
At 15 degrees fahrenheit, I didn't expect to see anyone else out here, and I did not. Though it did not rain for a couple days prior, Big Portal was completely impassable without wading through the 4 crossings that Big Portal trail takes. At 10-15 degrees air temperature, this was not fun (it's 1-2 feet deep and about 20' wide). After wading across the first two, with my toes still thawing out when I arrived at the third crossing, I decided, F this, I'll just stay on the North side and blaze my way through the woods for the next 1/2 mile until I meet up with the trail when it comes back over to this side. Well...it was not a mere walk in the woods! Turns out the trail crossed to the south side because the north side became a near cliff face for most of that 1/2 mile. Fortunately, I had a powerbar and a good collapsible staff in my pack...wasn't easy, but it can be done, if you're looking for a challenge! In retrospect, if I was going to circumvent 2 stream crossings, it would have been easier to do this on the first two which were only a tenth of a mile apart.
The best alpine vista on this route imo -- not a mountaintop, but still spectacular -- is accessed by backtracking upstream along the north side of the stream in the streambed (was low enough to do on this day) upstream from the metal bridge about 100-150 yards, and then turning to look downstream (south-westward). The portal walls frame the sides of your view, with the stream disappearing out of the center of your view. Someday when I invest in a good SLR, I'm gonna come back here with a wide angle lens and a tripod and photograph this. Its the view that I took with me and stored in my memory, that comes drifting back in my daydreams over the past few days since experiencing it. I love when a landscape gets lodged in my memory like that. It's one of the aspects of trekking that impels me to keep going out weekend after weekend, chasing that natural beauty.
Date of Hike: Saturday, November 4, 2017
This was my 3rd hike in Shen NP and favorite so far (other 2 were White Oak/Cedar Run & Jones Run/Doyles River). Doing it over, though, I think it might be a bit easier in the opposite direction. Also, the number of crossings of Big Run is pretty ridiculous and the trail seems to cross at areas where rocks aren't available--on most I had to cross 50 yds up or downstream. The climb back up the Brown Mountain trail was a bit tiring, but once near the top, I really enjoyed the ups and downs back to the first split. The red bushes mentioned by the other poster on top of Brown Mtn were really colorful for this late in the year. Didn't really see much for animals and only a couple groups hiking. Really enjoyed the hike on an interesting weather day in and out of the clouds.
Date of Hike: Sunday, October 8, 2017
This hike had everything that I like, nice variation between rocky and rock less sections, streams (with about ~6 stream crossings), beautiful vistas, and ridge line hiking. As of Oct 2017 the higher sections are recovering nicely from the 2016 burn. I'm not sure if it's Mountain Laurel or some other bush but it is thiriving at the higher elevations and is full of red and orange color. This is the perfect time to do this hike as the entire trail had nice color of some sorts. Yellows dominate the lower portions while oranges and reds surround you as you get higher. Some trails just give you a feeling of adventure and this one definitely delivers. I will do this hike again, probably next weekend!