Saturday, July 30 dawned a touch overcast at Big Meadows Campground, and Sean, Bethany, and I took our time getting up, making our breakfast, and getting ready for our day’s adventures. Bethany remarked that she appreciated our leisurely attitude because on other camping trips, her companions had been more of the up-and-going-at-dawn types. Sean and I certainly have our moments of that approach…or on more recent trips wandering off in our pajamas before coffee…but nothing we were planning for the day required rushing around and packing activity into the long daylight hours of late July.
By the time we had gathered up our day-hiking gear, the sun had broken through, dappling the fern-filled forest floor with warm light.
We piled into the rental car, and began the hour’s drive north on Skyline Drive and then out of the Park to the east at Thornton Gap. Our ultimate goal was the Little Devils Stairs Trailhead.
We stopped at a pullout on Skyline Drive a bit north of Big Meadows. The ostensible reason for the pullout was a view of Old Rag Mountain, picturesquely framed by meadow and forest.
To me, the meadow was far more interesting. Here above 3,000 feet in elevation, I felt as though I’d stepped into an Illinois prairie. Many of the wildflower species were those I was accustomed to seeing in the remnant prairies near Chicago.
We continued north, stopping again at an overlook beneath Thoroughfare Mountain. Again we had an easterly view into the mountains and the Virginia Piedmont beyond.
At Thornton Gap, we headed east on highway 211, descending from the mountains into the rolling foothill farmland of Rappahannock County, Virginia. Eventually our route turned northwest on backroads before we reentered the Park at the parking lot for Little Devils Stairs Trail.
Our hike, Little Devils Stairs, was a 5.4-mile loop with an elevation gain/loss of 1,390 feet. Traveling counter-clockwise, our route ascended Little Devils Stairs along Keyser Run’s course through a canyon, then it descended back to the parking lot along Keyser Run Fire Road.
The trail was indicated by blue rectangular blazes, and its initial course ran just to the edge of private property beyond the Park boundary.
The trail was shaded by tall hardwoods, and we all three noted that although we were in Virginia, the forest felt like that of our native southeast lower Michigan. Truly the Carolinian Forest, even with some variation of species, stretched from the Carolinas to the Great Lakes. Here the Tulip Trees were bigger and more prevalent than in Michigan, but still I knew Tulip Trees from my childhood.
This was a familiar forest.
Soon we reached Keyser Run, a small creek making its way along the canyon floor. Our trail began to follow it north/northwest.
We came upon a large rock covered with a multitude of cairns.
We continued on, noticing more of the forest and its understory.
Video: Brandon Hayes
We crossed Keyser Run multiple times. Its babble was our constant companion on the trail.
In addition to the wildflowers that increasingly bordered the trail, we identified some of the trees from their leaves, including the cat-shaped leaves of Tuplip Trees (Yellow Poplars).
The bottom of this canyon had once been farmed, and a remnant wall was still visible under the canopy of the forest that now surrounded it.
The trail had begun to rise on a gentle, though noticeable, grade when we found a Maple fallen across our route. It had fallen very recently, since its leaves still looked fresh. It was just on the edge of a shallow ravine. So we skirted around the tree and into the ravine to pick up the trail, which ran directly across it.
From here, the trail began to run uphill more earnestly, and the canyon began to close in. Although it was still overcast, it was bright, and the air was humid.
Now some of the trees were truly large, easily over one-hundred years old and possibly much older than that.
We came upon a large snail and watched it for a while as it showed us first its head…
…and then its foot.
Encouraged to be even more observant, we spotted the first of many, many millipedes that we would share the trail with as we began to climb the “stairs” of Little Devils Stairs.
Now the trail climbed up in earnest, often with rock stairs. As the canyon narrowed, we were hiking up a series of lush and rocky ledges, crossing and recrossing Keyser Run. This was the heart of the hike, filled with forest, rushing water, and rocky outcrops.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Although Keyser Run wasn’t in flood and rarely spilled over a lip into a dramatic waterfall, it did descend in a series of lovely, picturesque cascades. As we hiked farther up, we were more and more pleased with our choice of hike.
We took our time since we were in no particular rush. We only encountered maybe six other hikers on the trail, which was a delight for a Saturday in July.
Keyser Run was littered with enough large logs and sometimes whole trees that its power when it was in flood appeared to be somewhat formidable, particularly as the canyon walls steepened further.
At times the canyon walls were sheer cliffs, but these were often obscured by the forest. It had a very different feel that it would had we been hiking 1,390 feet up a canyon in the arid West or even in the Sierra Nevada. Here we were always surrounded by trees and roofed by their canopy.
The scale of our surroundings revealed itself in glimpses rather than vistas.
The trail truly became a staircase surrounded by boulders and forest and closely hewed to the route of Keyser Run. We had reached the steepest, most scenic section.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Video: Brandon Hayes
And then suddenly the canyon opened up again and the trail crossed Keyeser Run for the final time.
To the right, we saw the highest cascade (both in height and elevation) that we would encounter.
Video: Brandon Hayes
The trail then rose in gentle switchbacks into the woods, which were again open as we approached a high ridge and left the narrow canyon.
After the switchbacks, the trail climbed gently toward the ridge and the forest understory thickened in response to more sunlight.
And then we emerged from Little Devils Staircase Trail into the wide, graveled path of Keyser Run Fire Road. Our ascent had taken a bit more than two and a half hours, although it had not felt nearly so long. We turned left on the road and began our descent in a wide arc back down the mountains toward the parking lot. As narrow and steep as the ascent in the canyon had been, we remarked that we would not have wanted to have done it in reverse since the fire road ascended at a fairly steep, non-stop uphill grade. We were happy to be walking down it.
Despite its being a maintained fire road, the wildness of the landscape quickly reasserted itself in the form of a pile of Black Bear scat.
As we walked, we encountered butterflies. Two in particular kept just ahead of us on the road, and Sean was able to capture some video of them interacting with each other.
Video: Sean M. Santos
Down we went. As we walked, we kept an eye out for a turn off to the left that according to the hiking guide led up to a promontory and a vista overlooking the canyon.
With the sunlight afforded by the ridge and the width of the trail, a whole different group of wildflowers greeted us from those that thrived in the shady canyon.
By the time the road leveled out a bit, we realized that we had missed the turn off to the vista. Since we weren’t tracking our route with GPS, we weren’t quite sure how far back we’d missed it. Disappointed, we continued our descent. We had been looking forward to the view from the promontory since otherwise, the forest had been relatively dense and had offered only glimpses of the canyon and mountains beyond the ridge and slope the road descended.
Near the end of our hike, we arrived at Bolen Cemetery, another remnant from the pre-Park days when people lived in these mountains.
The graves dated from as early as the 1870s to as late as the 1940s, and they ranged from very simple to relatively ornate.
We continued on, passing the turn-off for Hull School Trail.
The road’s grade steepened again, and we dropped rapidly into a forest of large old trees.
Soon we were again skirting the border of the Park. Then we rounded a bend and were back in the parking lot.
All told, the 5.4-mile loop took us about 4.5 hours. Back at the car, we had a snack before driving back into the Park.