Rising above the very deep valley of East Hawksbill Creek, Hawksbill is the tallest mountain in Shenandoah National Park, standing at 4,049 ft above sea level, and beating out neighboring Stony Man by 38 feet. Aside from its superlative height within the park, its dramatic prominence over its namesake creek (over 2,000 feet) makes Hawksbill an imposing mountain. Add clifftop views from its summit, and you have a very popular dayhike destination – particularly on weekends.
Popular hikes are popular for a reason, but you can enjoy most of the climb up Hawksbill in relative solitude on this loop. From the trailhead at the Lower Hawksbill Parking Area (Skyline Drive MP 45.6), you will see a welcoming sign, with a map, and a very wide path heading straight into the woods and up the hill. As inviting as it is… DO NOT take this path. Instead, take the easily-overlooked spur trail that leads to the right, and follow it 100 yards to the Appalachian Trail.
This route is longer than the direct route to the summit, totaling 2.9 miles to complete the loop. But in exchange for more mileage, this route offers more interesting views of the East Hawksbill Creek valley, a narrower and more intimate trail, and of course a gentler climb. It’s approximately 2 miles up, and 0.9 back down.
Reaching the AT, turn left (AT Southbound) and follow the famous white blazes as you climb and slab across the very steep north face of Hawksbill. You’ll cut across two rockslide areas, where you get clear views across the valley toward the cliffs of Crescent Rock, and the distant summit of Stony Man.
After about a mile, the AT will enter a saddle area where a secondary ridge extends off to the right towards Nakedtop. In this saddle, you will find an intersection with the Salamander Trail, marked by one of Shenandoah’s concrete posts with stamped metal bands. (Shortly beyond the trail intersection, a spur trail leads downhill to the right, to Rock Spring Hut, one of many 3-sided shelters along the Appalachian Trail. A spring can be found near the shelter – treat all water!)
The Salamander Trail is named for the endangered Shenandoah Salamander, whose range lies entirely within the park, and only on high mountain slopes such as Hawksbill. The name might just as easily describe the gentle undulations (it would be overkill to call them switchbacks) the trail takes on the way up the southern/western flank of the mountain. Nearing 4,000 feet, the trail opens up onto three different small cliffs offering northward views over the valley. Soon after this, the trail intersects a fire road also known as the Upper Hawksbill Trail. Turn left and follow the road to Byrd’s Nest #2, a day-use only shelter, and then to the summit!
Hawksbill’s summit sports a viewing platform built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, but the view is just as nice from the natural cliffs. The views to the north and west, out over the valley, are impressive. Stony Man looms along the main Blue Ridge to the north, and Old Rag Mountain cuts an impressive rocky figure to the northeast, standing apart (and much lower at only 3,284 ft) from the main ridge.
When you’re done soaking in the sights from the highest point in the Park, return past the Byrd’s Nest shelter, and take a left onto the Lower Hawksbill Trail. This is the road more traveled – a wide avenue straight back to the parking area, and closing the loop.
Video of my recent trip, to give a sense of the place!
Trailhead: Lower Hawksbill, Skyline Drive mile 45.6 (38.55605, -78.38679)
Mileage: 2.9, or 1.7
2.9 miles – via Appalachian Trail south, left on Salamander Trail to summit, return via Lower Hawksbill Trail.
1.7 miles – via Lower Hawksbill Trail to summit and back.