Enjoy historic views on this this 10.4-mile loop as a dayhike or a leisurely overnight on the prominent north end of the Massanutten Mountain ridge in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Massanutten is a fifty-mile long ridge that stands alone in the center of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Because of its length, Massanutten forms a significant barrier to those crossing the valley from the main Blue Ridge (now occupied by Shenandoah National Park) in the east, to the Alleghenies in the west. As a result, its few passable gaps held significant strategic value to both Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War. It’s northern end, meanwhile, overlooks the western half of the valley, the towns of Strasburg and Winchester, and the road east to Front Royal. The wartime view from this perch and the value of the location to relay messages through the valley gave it a name that it still holds – Signal Knob.
Today, most of Massanutten lies within George Washington National Forest, and offers a variety of recreational opportunities. Its northern half splits into two ridges that surround intimate Fort Valley, a hollow that stands isolated from the rest of the Shenandoah, accessed through narrow, rocky gaps. Within Fort Valley, the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area surrounds a nineteenth-century iron smelting center and contains a picnic area, a campground, and trail access leading up into the ridges away from rushing Passage Creek. Here, the Signal Knob trek begins.
I walked this area many years ago, as part of a two-night backpacking trip across both ridges. More recently, I returned solo to scout a specific route as a dayhike, doing reconnaissance for a group trip that unfortunately fell prey to COVID restrictions. From my perspective, there’s a backcountry campsite just waiting for me to return… GPS data for my trip is located here, and may be a useful reference for the description below. (I also have a short YouTube video of the journey, linked at the bottom of the post).
From the Signal Knob parking area, walk north on the Massanutten trail, marked with orange blazes in the shape of a lower-case “i” – a tall bar with a small square above. The trail starts gently ascending a creek valley before turning to climb along the western ridge with occasional views of its eastern counterpart across Fort Valley. Though it’s a small range, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you feel immersed in the mountains here. On my particular trip, I spotted a black bear on the slope below me during this first climb, barely a half-mile into the hike. The climb is gentle but persistent, ultimately gaining about 1400 feet over the next 3.7 miles. A little past the 1.5 mile mark, the trail makes its first switchback at a point where the trees break to provide a view of Buzzard Rocks across the valley on the flanks of the eastern ridge.
After first switchback, following the trail south through a few rockslide areas requiring careful footing, the trail switches back again at a winter view facing south through Fort Valley at mile 2.3.
Moving north again, you can see 2393-foot Meneka Peak off to your left as the trail starts to level, the oaks shorten as a testament to the icy winter winds that blow across the ridgetop and keep their growth in check, and occasional laurels start to press in close to the trail. The trail eventually reaches the broad ridge crest, passing several good (dry) campsites as it curves around toward Meneka Peak. A side trail (white blazes) leads south over the peak from mile 3.5. Though not part of this description, the rocky path over Meneka offers a shortcut to this loop which, if backtracking from Signal Knob, reduces the elevation changes required.
Just past the intersection with the Meneka Peak Trail, the trail reaches its maximum elevation (~2325 feet) and you’ll start to get your first glimpses of Signal Knob itself, off to the right at the end of a ridgeline that curves back to the north. The trail continues to follow the narrowing ridge, and actually descends about 200 feet to the Knob, where you’ll first pass a broadcast tower and powerline cut for a public television station (views NE) before reaching a short spur trail, at mile 4.6, that leads to a rocky viewpoint overlooking Strasburg and Winchester.
As you enjoy the view, imagine soldiers stationed here, surveying troop movements in the valley beyond, and helping to coordinate the next assault on Winchester, which changed hands seven times during the Civil War.
From Signal Knob, the loop follows the gravel road that provides vehicle access to the TV tower, and descends steeply to the south, losing about 600 ft before flattening into a quiet valley. At mile 5.8, the trail is intersected by the blue blazed Tuscarora Trail, also called the Big Blue. The Tuscarora was built in the 1960’s as an alternate route of the Appalachian Trail when the latter trail’s route through northern Virginia was jeopardized by land development. It stretches 250 miles from the northern section of Shenandoah National Park, across the valley to the Alleghenies, and then north through West Virginia and Maryland, rejoining the Appalachian Trail in central Pennsylvania. Today, the Tuscarora and AT form a loop almost 500 miles in length.
We won’t be going that far. Instead, turn left on the Tuscarora and cross a small creek. If you were to notice the social trail leading left here at the creek’s edge, you’d find a very nice, large backcountry camping site where – when I DO return here with the group I was scouting this trip for – I will spend the night. Again. Whether you elect to stay here or not, take the opportunity to top off water and rest up, because the next stretch, though short, is the steepest part of the journey. From the intersection of the access road, the Big Blue climbs just over 400 feet in about 0.6 miles, cresting the ridge at mile 6.5, where the southern end of the Meneka Peak Trail rejoins the loop.
It’s all downhill from here. The trail gradually descends for almost four miles, meandering in and out of narrow hollows, occasionally intersecting with trails (e.g. Bearwallow) that lead south along the Massanutten ridge, and providing occasional views across Fort Valley to the eastern ridge. At mile 10.0, you leave the Tuscarora to rejoin the Massanutten Trail, and return the last 0.4 to your car.
As described, there are shorter loop options, and there are also longer options in the area that utilize both ridges, and extend farther south. Camping options abound, and as long as you’re a responsible outdoor steward and minimize your impact, you can spend the night without any of the permits required in the National Park next door. Regardless of how far you go, you’ll find this area to be an pleasant journey among rocky outcrops, mountain streams and deep hardwood forests, all with a patina of early American history.
Trailhead: Signal Knob (38.93498, -78.31996)
Length: 10.4 miles
Elevation Change: +/- 3,000 ft (Loop)
Camping: Yes, multiple sites
Water: Creek along tower access road below and south of Signal Knob
Maps: Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), Map G – Massanutten Mountain, North Half
GPS Data: Found Here, Gaia GPS
Get Out There!