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Thornton River - Northern SNP, Virginia

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Length Difficulty Streams Views Solitude Camping
10.5 mls
Hiking Time:
Elev. Gain:
5.0 hours plus a half hour for lunch
2,180 ft
Shenandoah National Park
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Park at the Elkwallow Wayside parking area. 38.73858, -78.30950

By Trail Contributor: Michael Gergely

This hike winds along scenic Thornton River, one of the Shenandoah National Park's North District's prime attractions, passing remnants of old homesteads left over from before the Park's creation. There are also small pools on Thornton River, and a nice vista on Piney Ridge. The trail starts and ends at Elkwallow Wayside on Skyline Drive, making it easy to pick up supplies or some cool refreshments at the end of a summer’s day hike.

  • Mile 0.0 - From the eastern end of the Elkwallow Wayside parking area, cross Skyline Drive to join the white-blazed Appalachian Trail (AT).
  • Mile 0.9 - The AT comes to a four-way intersection with the Range View Fire Road. Turn right onto the Range View Fire Road and in 150 feet take a second right onto the blue-blazed Piney Ridge Trail.
  • Mile 2.8 - Piney Ridge Trail descends along the ridgeline to an intersection with Fork Mountain Trail. Keep right onto Fork Mountain Trail and continue to descend along the ridge.
  • Mile 4.0 - Fork Mountain Trail passes through a grove of redbuds before ended at a T-intersection with the yellow-blazed Thornton Hollow Trail at the foot of Fork Mountain. Turn rightand take Thornton Hollow Trail down into the valley below.
  • Mile 4.6 - In 0.6 miles the Thornton Hollow Trail meets Thornton River Trail and Hull School Trail at a four-way intersection. Turn right onto Thornton River Trail as it begins to climb back up the valley. There are several crossing points of Thornton River over the next 0.5 miles - after heavy rains or snowmelt these crossings may require getting your feet wet. Many small streams and tributaries run alongside the trail. Scattered flowering crabapple trees can be found along the valley, which are often a sign of old settler homesteads.
  • Mile 5.0 - The trail passes a series of intact stone walls left over from before the SNP that once marked farm fields.
  • Mile 6.4 - Another relic from before the Park - a rusted and overgrown car chassis sits beside the trail as a reminder of the valley’s previous inhabitants.
  • Mile 7.4 - Thornton River Trail ends at a parking lot on Skyline Drive. Continue straight ~100 yards along Skyline Drive and cross to an AT connector trail. Follow the connector trail uphill to reach the AT.
  • Mile 7.7 - The connector trail ends at the AT. Turn right onto the AT to head north towards Elkwallow Wayside.
  • Mile 9.8 - After a sharp bend the AT intersects with Jeremy’s Run Trail on the left. Keep right and continue following the AT.
  • Mile 10.0 - Keep left and pass by a side trail that goes to the Elkwallow picnic area on the right.
  • Mile 10.4 - Keep right at a split in the trail to take a short connector trail back to the Elkwallow Wayside parking lot.
  • Mile 10.5 - Return to the trail start at Elkwallow Wayside.
Early April
Thornton River Hike Comments
Archived Comments

By: Jamey Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, April 28, 2018
I did an eight-mile variation. I parked at the Hull School Trail lot on Skyline Drive, headed up the AT, down the Thornton River Trail, and up Hull School. The AT section was pretty, and the Thornton River Trail is very easy. Except for the first one, the river crossings were tricky with high, fast water covering most of the stepping stones by a couple inches. Careful steps, poles, and good, waterproof boots kept me dry. At the post at end of the Thornton River Trail, it's a sharp right onto the Hull School Trail to ascend back to Skyline Drive. I took the second, more obvious right and went a ways in the wrong direction on Hull School before realizing my mistake. I crossed paths with two hiking parties that had also taken a wrong turn at the post, although they had meant to head up Thornton River. After getting back to the correct turn, which was narrow and flooded and thus easy to miss, I had a tough river crossing, because several large trees had fallen and crisscrossed the river. Going up the Hull School Trail, there were several more windfalls to go over, under, and around.

By: Hatchet Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, March 10, 2018
Very nice conditioning hike, not rocky, good trail tread, runs along the Thornton River which is nice. There are a couple of river crossings but nothing hard. I went counter-clockwise from the Elkwallow Picnic Area and my GPS logged it at 11 miles. Water is good (for filtering). Near the end is a long, steady, not too steep climb great for a cardio/endurance workout. Parking is great with a bathroom.

As of 10 March 2018 there was some significant blow-down from the great Northern Virginia windstorm of 2018, we cleared as much as we could during the hike. The trail is definitely passable, but some big trees came down taking out other big trees. It was a sight for sure. I'll be doing this hike again.

By: Hobo Hiker Rating: Date of Hike: Monday, January 16, 2017
The highlight of this hike is Thorton river and the rippling mountain water sounds.

I hiked this on a cold 30 degree morning with an overcast. Skyline had a recent snow so it had just been re-opened. I started at 7:30am and the parking lot was completely empty. In January the Elkwallow Wayside store and food deli is closed. It's possible the bathrooms located at the trailhead are also closed. I didn't try the bathrooms. I had a small problem finding the trailhead to start. The trailhead is located towards the northern entrance of the parking lot near the front corner of lot(maybe three spaces from the road) but no real sign. The leaves were off the trees but I never found a clear view of any good valley vistas. The first parts starts out in a pine grove so it was nice to smell some pine. I didn't see any bears, just some deer.

It rained/snowed two days before so Thorton river had some nice mini waterfalls and the sound of water could be heard long before seeing the actual river/stream. You do have to cross the river with no bridges. Parts of the river are 12 feet wide with no real way to cross. You have to wander up or down the river looking for a good set of rocks to cross on or just go for it and get your feet wet. The rocks are very slick so be careful. The climb up and over to the AT trail was a little steeper than I expected from the elevation profile. Nothing that needs the use of hands or rock scrambling but for some reason seemed more challenging than I expected. I gave it 4 stars for the river.

By: Steve Rating: Date of Hike: Wednesday, July 13, 2016
A nice, interesting hike that's kind of a mirror image of the Jeremy's Run hike on the other side of Skyline Drive. The hike up Thornton River is probably the most picturesque part. The indicated "vista" on Piney Ridge was apparently overgrown, as I didn't see anything looking like a vista I had the specific vista waypoint from the GPX file -- I went there but didn't see much. Maybe look again in the winter. Much of the route, until you start going up at Thornton River, is narrow and overgrown, but fairly smooth -- your legs will be brushing against plants along the sides of those trails. Also, I ran in to over 100 single, invisible spider web strands across the trails route apparently hadn't been walked in a while, but I saw bootprints. It was so annoying I waved a stick in front of me for a while to clear them away. Next time I'd wear a hat and maybe something to cover my face. Near the start of the Piney Ridge Trail the map indicates "Range View Cabin" there's a road leading there a short distance off the route -- I detoured there and saw it. Maps also show an "Elkwallow Shelter" near Elkwallow Gap, but I didn't see any shelter. After such a long distance it was tough on the final inclines reaching the end, but not too bad -- the rating of 3 for difficulty is appropriate. I wondered though if it might be more comfortable going in the reverse direction.

By: NH_Hiker Rating: Date of Hike: Saturday, June 4, 2016
The weather didn't look very promising so we decided to try out this hike, which I knew had limited views.  Instead of starting from Skyline Drive, we instead started at the entrance to the park.  Parking was limited on the side of the road, and there were lots of "No Trespassing" signs.  I wasn't sure if this applied to walking down the road, or just going into the woods along the road.  I decided to try it anyways because we were already there, especially because the PATC guide listed this as an access point.  No problems going in, although this access point added an additional 2.5 miles to the hike.  We went counterclockwise up the Piney Ridge trail...never did find the supposed vista on that trail.  Weather was sticky, but it cleared once in awhile and the rain held off.  Overall it was a nice hike, but just a walk in the woods so I probably won't do it again.  Some of the old home sites were cool though.  I wouldn't recommend starting where I did though, it just seemed a bit sketchy with all the no trespassing signs.

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