Field Trip

Into the Woods at Shenandoah National Park

Sheaffer hikes through a
Sheaffer hikes through a "green tunnel," a path surrounded by dense foliage, on Piney Branch Trail in Shenandoah National Park. (Photos By Sean Kelly)
By Sean Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 19, 2007

The sweeping autumn views from Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park have been well-documented, but the feel of fall deep inside the park, immersed in its colorful woods, is also captivating. The park offers a variety of short to moderate hikes on marked trails that allow casual hikers to experience this splendor all within a short drive of Washington. Despite the drought, Shenandoah's woods are still green and full of life. Signs of black bears and bobcats were plentiful, autumn colors were beginning to arrive and, although the streams and creeks were low, water ran cool and clear.

I had teamed up with friend Lee Sheaffer, president of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, for an eight-mile circuitous hike through a section of the park's North District. Our hike was a strenuous, all-day affair, but on this page we list shorter treks that offer unique views for those with less time or energy.

We parked in a gravel lot at the lower trailhead of Little Devils Stairs, off Route 522 near Sperryville. The forest engulfed us quickly, but through its tall oaks, maples, sycamores and hickories, we could see patches of blue peeking down from the sky through Shenandoah's healthy-looking canopy. However, even on beautiful days, trails can present tricky footing. This steep, two-mile section required much concentration.

About two-thirds up Little Devil Stairs, we stopped for a well-earned breather and observed the natural effects of a geological fault that occurred a million years ago, forming smooth granite walls that towered on each side of us. At this higher elevation, autumn's subtle seasonal changes were evident in the forest; leaves were turning bright red or greenish yellow but still clinging to their branches despite a gentle breeze.

Next to us, in a small, peaceful creek, were seven wild brook trout facing upstream in a clear pool from which they were unable to swim because the water was shallow.

Surprises abound on such hikes. At one point Sheaffer snatched a greenish leaf from a small tree on the edge of our path. He crushed it in his hand and held it to my nose. It had a lemony aromatic scent.

"Sassafras," he said.

From Little Devil Stairs we headed a short distance on Pole Bridge Link before coming to Piney Branch Trail. There we walked through a "green tunnel," a trail surrounded by dense foliage and woods but with enough room for hikers to pass through. This one extended for miles, with leaves sporting an autumn tint.

On the ground an occasional aster bloomed on the edge of the path, white or purple petals smiling in the early afternoon sun.

We descended along a somewhat treacherous path to Piney Branch Creek, a little-known treasure of the park.

Our last ascent of almost a mile up Hull School Trail was a workout after our long hike. The woods were thick, and small flutters of changing leaves occasionally drifted by. At the top, we inspected an old cemetery encased by stone walls. It was a quiet, secret place. A burial ground for those who worked and lived on the land before the government turned it into a park.

The four hours it took to complete our hike had flown by.

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