This has always been my favorite day hike in the area. I like hikes that reward long climbs with great views, and the Massanutten East ridge has both long climbs and great views in abundance. As four years had passed since our last visit we were very much looking forward to doing this hike again.
A group of five people participated in the hike on April 2nd. We managed to squeeze in a great day of hiking between rain showers that exited the area just as we were starting and the bitter winds that came in that night. The weather on the ridge was sunny and breezy, and a lot of layers were added and taken off depending on whether we were climbing and also whether we had any protection from the wind.
The hike starts at the north end of the Buzzard Rocks trail, climbs to the ridge and goes south along the ridge with numerous ups and a few downs. The Buzzard Rocks trail has white blazes. At Shawl Gap (3.9 miles from the start), the Buzzard Rocks trail ends and the hike continues south along the Tuscarora Trail, which is blazed blue. There are also orange blazes along this section, a legacy of when this section was also called the Massanutten East trail. Over the years the trails have stayed the same but the names have changed a couple of times. At 10.8 miles, after a roughly one mile climb out of Veach Gap, the hike follows the Tuscarora Trail and blue blazes east off the ridge for about 1.5 miles to the end of the hike while the orange blazes continue straight along the ridge.
One of the five people on the hike, Cliff Garratt, used his GPS to give us some great information about the hike. The total distance is 12.3 miles, with 2820’ of gain and 2722’ of descent. As noted above, the distance from the ridge down to the end of the hike along the Tuscarora (blue-blazed) trail was only 1.5 miles, not the two miles that I’ve been assuming. This is the main reason that the hike was less than the advertised 13 miles. Up until this last section the mileages were almost exactly aligned with what is listed in the trail guide.
We got started shortly after 10:00 AM and finished shortly after 4:00 PM. According to the GPS our total time was 6:04, our moving time was 5:02 and our stopped time was 1:01 (a little round-off error there). Our speed while moving was 2.4 mph, which is respectable for a hike with a lot of elevation gain where we wanted to make sure that we took in the views.
In terms of elevation, we started at 736’ and ended at 875’, which does not quite agree with the 98’ difference between feet of gain and descent. The high point was 2230’, which looks to be the last peak before descending to Sherman Gap. The second highest point was 2206’, which is the high point on the south side of Sherman Gap as the trail climbs and turns to the east. The height of the highest point before dropping down to lunch was 2010’. We had lunch at the usual rock that is off to the right side of the trail about 0.4 miles north of Shawl gap and 3.5 miles from the start.
There had obviously been a fire on the ridge south of Sherman Gap where the trail turns to the east and you get the great views of the Shenandoah River. It made the river visible in more places from the trial.
The large pothole in the parking lot at the Buzzard Rocks trail that had been present back in 2009 had been fixed. The parking lot itself has been expanded, with the expansion generally north of the existing lot, parallel to the road (619). However, it is steep enough up to the expansion that it should perhaps only be undertaken by vehicles with high ground clearance. When we got to the trail head the lot was mostly empty, but when we returned at the end of the hike the lower section was completely full, with three pickup/SUVs in the expanded section.
The entrance to the parking lot on the Tuscarora Trail at the end of the hike had been somewhat improved with a little bit of gravel since the last time we were there . With a car full of five people we were able to gingerly edge the Subaru out of the lot without scraping the bottom of the car.
The overall trail was generally in good shape. I think early spring is the best time to do this hike, both because of the great views and because sections of the trail get moderately overgrown later in the year. At a couple of places in the trail one could see the multi-flora rose had already grown to an extent that you knew it would not be long before it started to intrude on the trail.
The numerous redbud trees on the lower slopes of the southeast side of the ridge were in bloom, adding to the beauty of the day.