Brown Mountain Trail

Brown Mountain Trail

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(November 5, 2016) Clipping the trail from Brown Mountain Overlook to Brown Mountain.  I'm still having to cut back dead Mountain Laurel branches.  The fall colors near the ground are great!  They are the Sassafras (mostly yellow) and Black Gum (red) sprouts since the fire.  Also Blueberry plants have red leaves.  Most overhead leaves are off.  But with the fire, there are not so many dead leaves on the ground, so the trail is probably better than most years at this time.  A few fall wildflowers remain, in fact I counted 11 different kinds. 

(September 17, 2016) Parts of the trail had gotten rather overgrown before clipping today.  Worst part was across the summit of Brown Mountain, but it is clear now. 

(May 14, 2016) The first check of the Trail since the fire (10000 acres burned, 2nd largest in Shenandoah National Park history)--The fire burned the ground on both sides of the trail until 0.6 mile from Big Run.  Looking at the mountains where the fire was, most look green, some patches are brown, and some are black.  In all, the ground is burnt, and thus black.  The green parts are where deciduous trees have survived, and leafing out.  The brown parts are where there were pine trees, and the heat of the fire killed the trees, but did not burn the needles.  The black parts are where the trees were killed, leaving view of the ground.  The fire fighters tried to leave the trail in good shape, but since then, the many, many mountain laurel bushes that got burnt lean into the trail.  I worked to open up the trail, but was not able to clear the lower part of the trail.  Interestingly, the trail itself was not burnt, even when it had leaf litter on it.  Anyway, the trail is passable, there is a slight smell of smoke, and places are just scorched earth, almost not recognizable.  Very few mountain laurel plants survive to bloom this year, but a few started to bloom. It looks like very few blueberries will be produced this year.  But in upcoming years, we should see more mountain laurel blooms and blueberries, as these are trees that recover from fires well. 

(May 5, 2016) The fires spread to Big Run, but did not continue up Rockytop.  It did burn Patterson Ridge.  The entire circuit hike described on this page was within the fire burn zone.  Many trees appear to have survived, but some patches are scorched, more so on Brown Mountain than on Rocky Mount or Twomile Ridge.  Because of the many rains in the past week, all trails, including Brown Mountain Trail, have been reopened.  It may be a few weeks before I have a chance to check out the trail conditions. 

(April 23, 2016) The fire has spread to about 8000 acres, but has slowed down.  It spread over Rocky Mountain and Brown Mountain, so the Brown Mountain Trail, as well as being closed, has been burned.  Currently the fire is low on Brown Mountain toward Big Run.  Rocky Mount and Twomile Ridge are no longer burning or noticeably smoking.  There are parts of those mountains that are blackened, but the majority of the sides of those mountains still look green-to the extent the leaves came out.  The Skyline Drive is now closed between miles 65-87 (Swift Run Gap to Blackrock Gap). 

(April 19, 2016) The fire has spread to over 2000 acres, and the Brown Mountain Trail, as well as several other trails to the south, is/are closed.  I see the fire has encompassed Rocky Mount and Twomile Ridge, and has climbed high on Rocky Mountain.  The officals are now referring to it as the "Rocky Mount Fire". 

(April 18, 2016) A fire is burning just north of the Brown Mountain Trail.  Although it is referred to as the "Rocky Mountain Fire", it is NOT on Rocky Mountain, at least not yet!  But the Skyline Drive is closed between miles 65-79 (Swift Run Gap to Loft Mountain), and the trailhead of the Brown Mountain Trail is at mile 77, so although the trail is not officially closed (as far as I know), it cannot be reached on the Skyline Drive.  The fire started along the Rocky Mount Trail at a point closer to the Skyline Drive on Saturday April 16, but it has spread out past the summit of Rocky Mount, down to Twomile Run, and up onto Twomile Ridge. 

(April 9, 2016) A windy day.  But only one blowdown to remove, even though we've had a LOT of windy days this year.  A few early wildflowers are out, mostly at lower elevations (such as Serviceberry and Trailing Arbutus, which aren't out yet at the top of the mountains).  There was a calm area around the Slab, but it was very windy, and loud, down at Big Run.  I met a hiking group from Richmond, members of ODATC. 

(October 16, 2015) Fall colors are here!  Although the leaves are still majority green, there are a lot of bright colors with the red of Black Gums and some Maples, and yellow of Birch, Hickory, and others.  The trail is in good condition, but it has some fallen leaves on it.  Big Run is about normal flow. 

(August 30, 2015) It's been dry for a while, so Big Run is low and easy to cross.  There are just a few blueberries left. 

(July 24, 2015) Blueberries!  Best crop for years!  There are still a lot of green berries, so there will be some for weeks to come, but they will be fewer and smaller.   

(June 20, 2015) The last of the Mountain Laurel is still blooming at the higher elevations, while blueberries have started to ripen. 

(May 25, 2015) Mountain Laurel has begun to bloom, and probably will be great for the next 2 weeks or more.  At the highest elevation it is just starting and at low elevations near peak, although some plants are just beginning. 

(April 14, 2015) Spring has come to the Blue Ridge mountains!  Serviceberry trees are in full bloom, particularly on the ends of Rock Mountain.  There are also prevalent Trailing Arbutus and Blueberry blooms, although they are early in their blooming season.  We also have the earliest Dwarf Crested Iris and Phlox. 

(October 4, 2014) Fall colors are starting-most Black Gums are changed but not too colorful.  Exception is at the Shenandoah Valley Overlook, where several Black Gum trees have intensely red leaves.  Big Run is low and easy to cross on the Big Run Portal Trail. 

(August 2, 2014) Blueberries are ripe, some may be there a few weeks.  Best season for some time, although not as plentiful as what I remember in the 1990s.  Big Run is down some now, not high, but more flow than usual at this time of year. 

(June 28, 2014) Mountain Laurel blooms now gone; now blueberries are just starting to ripen.  Big Run is high for the summer.  Lots of hikers out.  Trail is fairly clear, and weed whacked for first 200 yards. 

(May 26, 2014) Spring has come, and though later than some springs, the Mountain Laurel is blooming--at lower elevations.  Just small buds at the higher elevations, not quite peak below 2000'.  Interestly, they are less out near Big Run.  A recent rain has Big Run flowing strong.  There has been recent reconstruction of the grade from the Skyline Drive down to the first switchback. 

(November 2, 2013) Fall colors are still prominent, especially at lower elevations.  Red Maple trees sport brilliant leaves, mostly yellow punctuated by reds.  Blueberry and Black Huckleberry leaves are red, although likely to fall away soon.  Sassafras leaves are mostly bright yellow, though some are orange.  Low elevation oaks are red to rust, with some a dull yellow, mostly pretty seen from above. 

 

(October 14, 2013) Government shutdown ended--Skyline Drive is open again. 

 

 

 

(October 1, 2013) Due to the Federal Government shutdown, The Brown Mountain Trail is not accessible. 

(July 9, 2013) The first 200 yard of the trail from the Overlook has been weed-whacked, so the grass is cleared. 

(July 6, 2013) Mountain Laurel bloom is past, and blueberries are starting to ripen.  Much clearing of brush just below the Brown Mountain Overlook has been done, but grass is high. 

(June 15, 2013) The Mountain Laurel are in bloom, at peak at the highest elevations, just a few blooms left down lower.  The Brown Mountain Overlook is still closed, but the grass behind the wall has been trimmed.  The trail is all clear, but a little close near the overlook.  Besides the Mountain Laurel, notable flowers blooming were Goats Rue and Wild Indigo is starting to bloom.  No ripe blueberries yet. 

(May 18, 2013) Spring has come, and even some Mountain Laurel are in bloom in the lower elevations--more to come.  There is a lot of high grass behind the rock wall of the Skyline Drive, much less once you get to the trail.  The large tree over the trail at 2 miles is still there.  There is also the option of climbing over the upper end.  Fast plant growth is happening, but I got the trail mostly clear.

(April 13, 2013) It was a long winter with several snows in March, then it turned hot the previous week.  The Brown Mountain Overlook is closed for construction, but you can park on the east side of the Skyline Drive just south of the overlook.  There is a designated crossing, and you can walk on or behind the wall to the trailhead.  The entire trail is clear, except a very large tree over the trail about 2 miles from the Skyline Drive, and you can squeeze under it.  Red Maples and Serviceberry trees are in bloom, and many Trailing Arbutus are blooming. 

(November 3, 2012) Oop!  Looks like I neglected updates for a while...
Anyway, it snowed this past week.  Three inches remain at the higher elevations; none remain on Brown Mountain on down.  The snow brought some branches down, but no live tree branches, and I cleaned them up today.  There was a group of 14 hikers passing as I stopped for lunch.  Big Run is running fairly full, and I would expect it would be a challenge to cross. 

(June 2, 2012) The Mountain Laurel are still blooming, but in decline.  Most are still in bloom at the high elevations (high on Rocky Mountain), while almost gone low on Brown Mountain.  Interestly, the best show is at the bottom, near Big Run.  Apparently it is cooler there than a little higher.  I found a few ripe blueberries--a record early.  Due to lots of light rain, there has been a lot of woody growth, but I cleared it out.  Next I'll trim the grass near the overlook. 

(April 21, 2012) It is an early spring, and many wildflowers and leafings are weeks earlier than usual.  Already I saw a Mountain Laurel blooming!  (But most of them still have only tiny flower buds.  But blooming in April!)  On the other end, there were still a couple of Trailing Arubutus still in bloom--all others were gone.  There is a big difference in the leafing at the higher elevations than at the lower ones.  On top of Rocky Mountain, the leaves are still tiny; the are well out down near Big Run.  I found a large number of Polygala out (I thought they had died out a couple of years ago), and the two types of pink Azalea are starting to bloom.  I saw only two budding Pink Lady's Slipper--I hope they aren't dying out.  Big Run's water is still fairly high, so you probably have to wade if you're doing the circuit hike. 

 

The Brown Mountain Trail is a 5.3 mile trail in the Southern Section of the Shenandoah National Park.  It is my opinion that it is one of the most scenic in the park.  It has many surprises for those who will look around. 

The Brown Mountain Trail starts at the Brown Mountain Overlook at mile 77 on the Skyline Drive (12 miles south of US 33) and leads west over Rocky Mountain and Brown Mountain and then descends to the Big Run Portal, where Big Run squeezes between the foot of Brown Mountain and the Rockytop ridge.  Note - Brown Mountain is not visible from Brown Mountain Overlook--it is hidden behind taller Rocky Mountain. 

This trail is part of a circuit hike described in the PATC publication, Circuit Hikes in the Shenandoah National Park.  The circuit hike follows the length of the Brown Mountain Trail, then leads up the Big Run Portal Trail and the Rocky Mountain Run Trail, finishing on the first 0.7 miles of the Brown Mountain Trail.  It is described as "Strenuous - recommended for experienced hikers only", probably because the last 2 or 3 miles are fairly steep uphill (other hikes with more climb don't have the "for experience hikers only" warning in them).  The total length of the circuit is 10.1 miles and it has a total uphill climb of 2600 feet. 

The features of this hike are: Rocky Mountain, Brown Mountain, and Big Run. 

Rocky Mountain

       There are two summits of Rocky Mountain: the east peak at about 2830' and the west peak at 2864'.  Rocky Mountain is seen from the Skyline Drive for a few miles including at Brown Mountain Overlook.  The Brown Mountain Trail goes near the top of the rocky east peak, where a hiker can climb the rocks up to the top, but it skirts the north side of the west peak, staying about 80' below the wooded summit. 
        There are views east from the east peak toward the Skyline Drive and main Blue Ridge including from Hightop to the northeast and Loft Mountain/Big Flat Mountain to the south.  (Big Flat Mountain is where the Loft Mountain Campground is.)  On the west side of Rocky Mountain there is a burn area from a 1986 forest fire with views of Brown Mountain, Rockytop, and the
Shenandoah Valley with the Massanutten range.  Near the saddle between Rocky Mountain and Brown Mountain, but still on the Rocky Mountain side there is a view north from the trail that includes a ridge coming down from the east peak and also Twomile Mountain and Rocky Mount.  There are rocks on the south side of the trail near this point, and great views to the south if you climb to the top.  From there you can see the Big Run valley, Rockytop, and other mountains to the south: Lewis Peak, Trayfoot, Cedar Mountain, and Loft Mountain/Big Flat Mountain. 

Brown Mountain

         Brown Mountain rises only about 50 feet from the saddle between it and Rocky Mountain, but at 2590' it stands high above the Shenandoah Valley, which is about 1000' at the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.  Prominent on Brown Mountain are King and Queen Rocks, two nearly vertical cliffs side by side on a ridge projecting north from Brown Mountain's summit.  These are plainly visible from US 340 at the base of Brown Mountain, but also from US 33 east of Harrisonburg from several places.  In fact there are three places when these rocks are visible straight ahead as you go east on this highway.  
         There is a west peak of Brown Mountain, elevation 2192'.  There are some great views from cliffs at this summit, which is south of the Brown Mountain Trail.  
        On Brown Mountain there are views from the valley view (west), elevation 2360', south from two sets of rocks at about 2280'; from the slab on the north side of the west peak at about 2080' and from the burn area near Big Run at about 1400'.  There are also numerous views through openings in the trees, often revealing King and Queen Rocks. 

Big Run

        Big Run is the stream with the largest watershed in the Shenandoah National Park, a total of 11 square miles.  Eventually it flows into the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, about halfway between Grottoes and Elkton.  It drains a valley between the Rocky Mountain/Brown Mountain ridge and the Rockytop ridge.  At the foot of these ridges, Big Run takes a meandering course between the "toes" of these ridges, which make some cliffs by the trailless portion of this creek. 
        The source of Big Run is near the Loft Mountain Wayside, at an elevation of 2640'.  It flows west through trailless Eppert Hollow about 2 miles then turns north at an elevation of 1540' and then it is followed by the Big Run Portal Trail, a horse trail.  About 2 miles downstream, at 1350' it is joined by Rocky Mountain Run, its biggest tributary.  About 1-1/2 miles downstream from there, elevation 1230', there is a metal bridge the Big Run Portal Trail crosses, which is also the point where the Brown Mountain Trail ends.  Below that Big Run winds between the toes of the ridges for 1/2 mile and then 2 miles away from the west base of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.  Shortly before reaching the river, Big Run is bridged by US 340 and the Norfolk Southern Railroad.  In dry periods, particularly in the summer, Big Run goes dry (water goes underground) in this final section. 


Looking at Big Run off the bridge at the Portal


        Big Run has several pools deep enough for swimming, some as much as 6' deep.  However, big storms will alter the creek bed so some pools will appear, disappear, or greatly change in depth as a result of a big storm.  Big Run is warmer than most streams in the summer, and is good for swimming even for those who can't endure cold water. 


Looking up Brown Mountain and Big Run from next crossing up from bridge.

Trail Distances

0.0 - Brown Mountain Overlook (elevation 2844') at mile 77 on the Skyline Drive.  The view is of Rocky Mountain plus to the north (Twomile Ridge and Rocky Mount), Massanutten Peak and Lairds Knob are visible to the right of Rocky Mountain, and to the left of it are the Big Run valley, the Rockytop ridge, and in the background to the south is Trayfoot.  The Brown Mountain Trail begins in the break of the rock wall, descending through an area cleared in 2006 for better viewing. 
0.7 - After descending in the woods with occasional switchbacks, the trail comes to a concrete signpost in a saddle (elevation 2390') at the intersection with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail, which descends to the left.  This is the return trail for the circuit hike. 
1.6 - Rocky Mountain east summit (elevation 2830').  The trail goes along the left side of some rocks with views of the main Blue Ridge (Skyline Drive).  There is easy climbing up the rocks to the top. 
2.4 - After skirting the west summit of Rocky Mountain on the right side, the trail comes to a burn area from the May 1986 fire.  Here the trees are short enough that there are good views of Rockytop, Brown Mountain, the Shenandoah Valley, and Massanutten Mountain. 
2.8 - Just before the saddle between Rocky Mountain and Brown Mountain, there is a good view north (right) of the ridge coming down from the east summit of Rocky Mountain, of Twomile Mountain, and Rocky Mount.  There are big rocks on the left of the trail, and if you climb to the top, there is a great view of the Big Run valley and Rockytop ridge. 
3.0 - After a short ascent, the trail reaches the east summit of Brown Mountain (elevation 2590').  No view here. 
3.3 - Shenandoah Valley view, elevation 2330'.  A side path to the right leads to some rocks with a good view of the Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountain. 
3.4 - View of Big Run from "Spine Rocks", which are a continuation of the vertical layers that make up King and Queen Rocks and the Shenandoah Valley view.  From this point, you can also look up Rocky Mountain and see the rocks at mile 2.8. 
3.9 - After skirting the west peak of Brown Mountain, the Trail crosses "The Slab" where the rock layer is tilted same as the side of the mountain.  There are good views here of King and Queen Rocks, and if you climb to the top and look over, there is a great view of the Big Run Portal far below.  If the water level is up, you can hear Big Run from there. 
4.7 - At a small cliff (elevation 1590'), there is a view of the Big Run Portal below the bridge.  If you look the right place, you can see the metal bridge as well. 
5.0 - Entering another burn area, there is a broad view of the Big Run Portal and the foot of the Rockytop ridge with its cliffs and rockslides, seen over the short trees that have grown back since 1986. 
5.3 - At the base of the mountain, come to a concrete signpost, turn left, and very soon emerge on the Big Run Portal Trail (yellow blazed), with the metal bridge of Big Run (elevation 1240') to the right.  To the left, it is 1.4 miles (and four crossings of Big Run) to the Rocky Mountain Run Trail, which leads back to the Brown Mountain Trail at mile 0.7. 

 

Geology and Flora

        The entire Brown Mountain Trail goes over members of the Chilhowee group of Cambrian rocks, which are sandstone/quartzite.  Most of the trail is on the white to pink quartzite of the Erwin or Antietam formation, which makes up all of the cliffs of the hike.  These rocks have Skolithus trace fossils--believed to be vertical burrows of worms, which make it fairly easy to determine the original bedding plane of these rocks, and see how much they have been tilted.  On the descent to the saddle where the Rocky Mountain Run Trail comes up, plus some between the summits of Rocky Mountain, the rock is the black sandstone of the older Hampton formation. 
        At places, such as the Rocky Mountain east summit, and the King and Queen Rocks to Spine Rocks area, the rock layers are tilted 90°.  Other places the tilt is much less.  As you get close to Big Run, you can see some plunging cliffs on the Rockytop ridge that have their corresponding cliffs on Brown Mountain.  These rock layers continue to plunge deep under the Shenandoah Valley (don't be fooled by the near level valley floor!) as far as the axis of Massanutten Mountain, where they are miles underground. 

  
   Looking out between King and Queen Rocks       King and Queen Rocks viewed form Slab


        The sandstone and quartzite of these rocks are fairly pure Silicon Dioxide, and are rather poor in nutrients.  Because of this, there are many trees found in the Shenandoah National Park which do not grow on these mountains.  
        Trees commonly found on Rocky Mountain and Brown Mountain are: Chestnut, White, Black, Red, Blackjack, and Scrub Oaks; Pitch, Virginia, Table Mountain, and White Pine; Hickory, Red and Striped Maple, Birch, Black Gum, Serviceberry (Shadbush), Sassafras, Chestnut, and Chickapin.  The Chestnut Oaks are the most common oaks on the heights of the mountain in fairly mature forest.  
        Shrubs include Mountain Laurel, Early Azalea, Minibush, Blueberries, and Black Huckleberries. 
       

 

Best Times to Go

        Perhaps I should first state what the bad times to go are.  They are:
1. When the water is high so that crossing Big Run (there are no bridges for the circuit hike which has four Big Run crossings) becomes hazardous.  In such case, the hike out and back is still suitable, for there are no stream crossings on the Brown Mountain Trail itself. 
2. In late fall, when the leaves first fall off, the trail is covered with leaves in many places, and it is easy to slip and fall. 
3. When there is ice on the trail.  Usually, when this happens, the Skyline Drive is closed, so you couldn't get there anyway. 
        Good times to go are:
1. Dry winter days - During the winter, there are more clear days, with great views of the nearby mountains, hollows, Shenandoah Valley, and Massanutten Mountain.  On clear enough days, you can also see across the valley to the "western mountains", that is, North Mountain and Shenandoah Mountain and other ridges west of the valley. 
2. Spring - There are several kinds of wildflowers in bloom in the spring.  I think the best time is early May.  Flowers in bloom then include Early Azalea (which also have a sweet aroma), Dwarf Crested Iris, Blueberries, Huckleberries, and Minibush are found many places along the trail.  There is one spot near the center point of the trail where there is a patch of Pink Lady's Slippers, at a point where the trail makes a right turn on the west side of Rocky Mountain.  In later spring, late May to early June, Mountain Laurel thick with white to pink flowers, are found along most of the length of the trail--I highly recommend this time, too.  Also in early June are Silkgrass in certain spots in the burn areas. 
3. Summer - From mid June into August is when the Blueberries and Black Huckleberries are ripe.  They are most prevalent in the burn areas, but can be found over most of the length of the trail.  Mid to late July is the best time to find these berries.  Also, after a long, hot hike, few things are better than to find a good swimming spot.  This you can find below the bridge at the end of the Brown Mountain Trail in the Big Run Portal.  Here the water can be warm enough for those who don't like cold water--it's almost as warm as a swimming pool.  There is also a good deep spot just above the fourth crossing of Big Run above the bridge on the Big Run Portal Trail, just below the intersection with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail.  Here the water is noticeably cooler than down at the bridge--just what you need before a long, hot climb back to the Skyline Drive!  During the summer, it is less likely that the water will be too high to get through, and more bearable if you have to wade. 
4. Fall - Some of the best fall colors I've seen in this region are along this trail.  Depending on which year, the reds of the scrub and red oaks near the Big Run Portal can be great.  The peak is usually near the end of October, but in one week it can change a lot.  The maples have a great combination of colors throughout October.  Some are red, some yellow, and there is a progression through a given tree (the top changes first, then the ends of the branches, and finally the interior near the trunk).  Black Gums turn a nice red, usually in early October, but some start to turn in the midst of summer. 




Huckleberry plants in the Rocky Mountain burn area, fall colors.


Big Run Portal, in fall colors. 

History

        The Brown Mountain Trail was built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s in the preparation of the Shenandoah National Park.  It was built as a fire trail, with a narrower tread than the hiking trails.  A larger proportion of the old fire trails have been abandoned, but this one became a blue-blazed trail maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club some time before 1970.  
        In May 1986 there was a fire that started at the Big Run Portal and spread up the mountain in places, and it even reached the Skyline Drive at one point (between the Ivy Creek Overlook and Loft Mountain Wayside).  This left the current burn areas on parts of the trail. 
        For most of its history, the trail was named the "Rocky Mountain - Brown Mountain Trail". 
        I have been overseeing the Brown Mountain Trail since 1999.  At that time, it was badly grown in, and it took some time to clear the growth of small trees. 

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