Story by Beth Cole and Jordan Pye
Every trail has a story behind it. In the Shenandoah Valley, these stories go back for generations. Prominent peaks and sites on the mountain ranges set the scene for battles during the Civil War. Trails in the Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest were built in part by the Civilian Conservation Corps founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create jobs during the Depression. Across the Valley, backpacking and camping excursions immerse hikers in the Appalachian wilderness where they can follow the footsteps of soldiers, pioneers and presidents. Here are some of the scenic and historic hikes within just an hour’s drive of Harrisonburg.
During the Civil War, Furnace Mountain was a hot place to be. At the top of the mountain was a furnace used by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War to produce iron, according to Michael Seth, a history professor at James Madison University. Seth is a member of Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, a volunteer organization that helps to maintain many of the hiking trails in the Valley. The furnace was taken down years ago, but Seth said that, especially during the winter, you can still find pieces of iron scattered around the trail.
Getting up there is also a bit of a historic trek. The Furnace Mountain Fire Road, where the trail begins, was originally used as the main road to Charlottesville, Seth said. When the National Park was dedicated in 1935 the road was closed, but the road was once the shortest route from Harrisonburg to the other side of the mountains. There are a few different ways to get to Furnace Mountain. One is for the more rugged adventurist — a 13-mile loop starting at Brown’s Gap off Skyline Drive, circling around Austin Mountain Trail to Furnace Mountain Trail and back via the Trayfoot Mountain Trail. A shorter 7-mile hike is also off Skyline Drive via Trayfoot Mountiain Trail.
Summitpost.org suggests the simplest hike of all. From Harrisonburg, take Port Republic Road to the end and turn left at Browns Run Gap. This road turns into Furnace Mountain Fire Road, and there are places to park along the side. Walk down a little way until the post for Furnace Mountain Trail comes up. It’s about a 4-mile hike to the summit and back. While it is shorter, the hike is steep, and there are places where the trail gets very rocky and narrow.
A sleeping bag, a mat, two pounds of granola, trash bags, a bottle of water, Aquamira tablets, a couple of aspirin, at least one map and a pen — for a total of 15 pounds. That’s all Kate Kessler needed as she hiked all 2,184 miles of the Appalachian Trail. She tackled the trek in sections, and after more than five years of effort, she completed the journey in 2006. Kessler, a Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communications professor at James Madison University, passed away January 8. What she left behind, among many things, was a love of the outdoors.
“She was very personable and was always someone to learn from and share the love of the outdoors with,” said Steven Irons, a senior computer science major and former honors program student of Kessler’s who joined her on the Appalachian Trail. Kessler taught a wide variety of classes, including an honors course on the Holocaust and the rhetoric of a democracy. She was also involved in many organizations on campus, leading Safe Zones and participating in the Honor’s Council. “She was very student-centered, student-oriented,” said Sarah O’Connor, a WRTC professor and Kate’s friend. “She was involved with students in many ways, not just in the classroom.”
In 2009, Kessler designed an honors class around one of her biggest passions — the Appalachian Trail. She and a group of students spent four weeks learning the trail. They hiked part of the trail beginning at Rockfish Gap and ending at Hawksbill Gap for a total of 67 miles. Each day the mileage increased, ending with a 33.5-mile hike. “I encouraged her to teach that class because I thought her stories were so powerful,” said Maureen Shanahan, associate director of the Honors Program, who first worked with Kessler in 2005. Student participants in the course were able to experience Kessler fully in her element: out on the trail. “I always felt she was excited about whatever discoveries we made, she was very encouraging,” said senior biotechnology major Sarah Lott, who took the course.
Kessler told students there was no shame in being unable to finish the trail, but no one went home early. “She was always there making sure we were happy with the experience,” Lott said. “I think sometimes we exceeded her expectations.” The challenge in continuing the course will be finding someone with Kessler’s experience and attention to detail, Falk said. She knew how to keep students safe in the wilderness and recommended the best socks for hiking. “Kate was very special at balancing the experience and providing what students need,” Falk said.
Kessler battled with five different cancers in her lifetime, including melanoma, fallopian and ovarian. “She had gone through several times of thinking that her illness was terminal and then coming through it and being okay,” O’Connor said. “She was a very peaceful person.” O’Connor said Kessler would often talk about her experiences on the trail. She said when she couldn’t find lodging, she would cover herself with leaves and sleep off the trail. She also shared stories of the people she met along the trails, but she spent much of the hike solo. “She said she was never lonely,” O’Connor said. “She really seemed to enjoy the solitude and that time to think and just be out in nature.”
If the difficulty of the trail itself isn’t breathtaking enough, the views certainly are. Almost immediately as you make your way up the trail, there are views of the valley below. From the top, you can see the entire Valley area from Massanutten down toward Staunton. The trail is beautiful year-round, from the changing colors of fall to the mountain laurel, which lines much of the trail, blooming in the summer.
The Signal Knob trail in the George Washington National Forest leads to a panoramic overlook of the Valley on the northern tip of the Massanutten Mountains. The summit looks out over the town of Strasburg. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops used the knob to survey each others’ positions, and both sides used flags, lanterns and other signals to communicate with troops in other parts of the valley.
The Confederate signal corps used the knob frequently from 1862 to 1864 to communicate their status and positions to friendly troops across the valley. Confederates made the first strike in the Battle of Cedar Creek after identifying Union troop positions from the vantage point, according to Bill Coughlin, contributing editor of the Historical Marker Database. To get to the trail from Harrisonburg, take Interstate 81 north and take Exit 296 toward Strasburg. Follow VA-55 E John Marshall Highway through town and through the third left turn at a traffic light onto East King Street, then drive five miles until a right turn on Fort Valley Road (Route 678). The main parking lot lies less than a mile past the sign for George Washington Forest. The trail begins on the right-hand side of the parking lot, and following the orange trail route described by HikingUpward.com, it took 2½ hours to reach the summit view of Signal Knob.
The orange trail continues from the summit and merges with a longer blue trail that loops back to the parking lot, creating a circuit around Meneka Peak that totals about 10 miles. The full loop takes approximately si hours including a lunch break, so plan to spend the whole day and get an early start to ensure enough daylight hours to complete the trek.
The trail itself is very rocky with a few steep inclines in parts, not recommended for bikes or dogs, so it’s hard to imagine poorly-shod Civil War soldiers traversing the peak without a struggle. Mountain laurel encloses parts of the trail, large rocks lay scattered across the switchbacks and pine needles litter the ground at higher elevations. For a slightly shorter hike, after reaching Signal Knob double back one mile and take the white trail that bridges across the peak and connects with the blue trail and back to the start.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created a series of programs meant to bolster the job market. Among those programs was a conservation program that developed and maintained many of the natural parks in the nation, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The Massanutten mountain range is home to the original camp of the CCC, Camp Roosevelt, created in 1933. Kaylor Knob is one of the original trails designed by the group.
There are two ways to hike to the Kaylor’s Knob summit. One way, a roughly six-mile hike, begins in the George Washington National Forest. Take Route 33 east to Route 602. Turn left onto Route 636; this road becomes Cub Run Road. Shortly after entering the forest, an orange-blazed trail marks Massanutten South Trail on the left, which begins the trail, according to SummitPost.org. Follow until it forks after a stream, following Second Mountain Trail, which is blazed blue. This trail forks again where the Kaylor’s Knob Trail begins.
Accordng to Seth, if you are looking for more history, white markers near the beginning of the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail lead to the restored Boone Run Shelter, one of the original shelters in the area. Also, at the end of Cub Run Road, there are views of Catherine Furnace, a restored iron smelter. Another, shorter hike begins at the Overlook in Massanutten Resort off Del Webb Dr. and the hike is popular among mountain bikers. The pink and blue trail to Kaylor Knob is roughly 1.7 miles from the parking lot, so round-trip the hike is a little over three miles and takes about two hours to complete.
The walk itself is not strenuous. The gradual incline and almost sandy pathway make for an easy stroll for bikers, hikers with dogs or families with children. Even before spring has fully arrived, the vegetation along the path glows minty green from the lichen that cover the damp limbs of shrubs, tree branches and rotting logs. The view at the clearly marked Kaylor Knob summit overlooks Peterfish Gap and Hartman Knob, but on a foggy day the clouds descend almost on the trail and obscure the view. Fortunately, it still makes for a good picnic spot.
After a rough year in office, President Hoover decided he needed to escape the stresses of Washington, D.C. Of course, he came to the Appalachians.
Rapidan Camp, also known as Hoover Camp, was built as the first presidential retreat in 1929. Lou Henry Hoover played a big part in the development, helping to design the cabins around the natural landscape. She described her vision for the camp as a “rather biggish establishment.” Marines helped to build and maintain the camp, and had their own camp near the President’s house. There were 13 cabins in the area that housed Hoover’s family, cabinet members and international guests, according to the National Park Service (NPS) website.
Only three are still standing: “The Brown House” (as opposed to the White House), where Hoover and his wife stayed, “The Prime Minister’s House,” where the British Prime Minister stayed, and “The Creel.” Hoover certainly knew how to pick a vacation spot. The 1.5-mile hike to the camp begins across from the Milam Gap parking area on the Appalachian Trail. It’s a mild hike, with a couple of tricky spots where the trail crosses over the streams and at Big Rock Falls. Mill Prong Trail leads down into the camp area.
Gravel paths lead to various houses and landmarks within the site, including the Prime Minister’s House and a giant, outdoor fireplace Hoover used for photo opportunities. The first house on the trail, The Creel, was once used by White House aides and is now being used to house NPS staff, according to signs at the site. Hemlock Run, a small stream that runs through the camp, was not a convenient work of mother nature that just happened to enhance the camp. Hoover created this artificial stream by diverting it from Laurel Prong. The stream was also supposedly stocked with fish whenever Hoover came to visit.