Looking for something a little different in the Shenandoah National Park? In addition to waterfalls and vistas of the Shenandoah Valley, the park offers stunning canyon views on the Big Devils Stairs hike which we recommend for our guests at Vaucluse Spring who want a moderate hike in the Northern section of the park.
First, we recommend stopping in Front Royal at the Blue Wing Frog. They open daily at 8 am and specialize in preparing picnic/back-packing lunches that are a cut above standard fare.
Fully provisioned, head on into the park on Skyline Drive. The starting point for the hike is at the Gravel Springs parking lot at mile marker 17.6, but plan on stopping at some of the overlooks along the way. The ones on the right overlook the Massanuttan Mountain and the Shenandoah Valley; on the left you will see the Piedmont area of Rappahannock County.
The “Super Star” of the Northern District overlooks is the Range View overlook at mile marker 17. It’s the only one where you can look south over top of Skyline Drive. On a clear day you can see all the way to Stoney Man, 14 miles away, Old Rag off to the southeast and the Appalachians to the southwest. And look straight down over the edge where you will be hiking shortly, just out of view.
From the parking lot at Gravel Springs, follow the Appalachian Trail’s (AT’s) white blazes down the hill, paralleling the fire road. Turn left at the Bluff Trail unless you want to go just a tad further on the AT to check out the Gravel Springs hut. When I was there in June at 7:00 in the morning it was like a mini-rush hour of AT thru-hikers breaking camp and hitting the trail for the day. After that flurry of activity, I saw no one for the rest of my hike.
Follow the Bluff trail around the side of the mountain. Just before you get to the right turn onto the trail down to Big Devils Stairs you will cross a trickle of water that is the inauspicious beginning of the canyon.
The trail parallels the canyon, winding through large stands of very mature mountain laurel. On June 1 of this year, the craggy old mountain laurel had sparse blooms, but the shrubs lining the stairs down to the overlook were stunning. If you ever had the dream to get married in the park, I would say plan for June 1 at the Big Devils Stairs overlook. It was magical! And, the perfect place to eat your picnic lunch and enjoy the view. Watch hawks and vultures soar above the canyon, and rest up for the return trip back the same way you came in.
I’ve read that you can continue hiking down to the park boundary and then slog your way back up along the bottom of the canyon to the bluff trail. Sounds pretty extreme to me, what with rattlesnakes and stinging nettles, but some folks like a challenge. I recommend re-tracing your way back the same way you came in, safe and sound.
You can see detailed directions for the Big Devils Stairs hike on Hiking Upward‘s website, although I recommend taking the AT all the way to the Bluff Trail rather than using their suggested fire-road/horse-trail shortcut. The Horse Trail doesn’t cut that much off the distance and it has a lot of 6” rocks with plenty of ankle-twisting potential for people, and can’t be all that great for horses either. How do horses know where to put their feet anyway? A mystery. Along with how Big Devils Stairs got its name exactly, although it’s not hard to imagine a giant devil stomping his way up the mountain and creating giant stair steps.