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Backpacker Magazine – October 2010

Rip & Go: Mathews Arm Loop - Shenandoah National Park

Ramble through brilliant red and yellow fall foliage.

by: Alex Geller and Sarah L. Stewart

The Ash Canopy near Thornton River Trail (Tim Seaver)
The Ash Canopy near Thornton River Trail (Tim Seaver)

Download a printable version of this entire trip right here.
Do It This 16.8-mile loop serves up a weekend classic: waterfall-filled hollows, lush forests, and gorgeous backcountry campsites. Take Skyline Drive to Mile 21 and the trailhead (1). Follow the Appalachian Trail .2 mile before turning right and beginning a gentle southbound descent on the shady Sugarloaf Trail, then east on the Pole Bridge Link Trail (2), beneath a canopy of maple and ash that burn crimson and orange in October. After crossing Keyser Run Road, yellow poplars line the path to Little Devils Stairs Trail (3). Begin the rocky 1,200-foot descent down Keyser Run, preparing for wide and slippery crossings of the stream pouring into the narrow gorge.

Rest at the hollow’s end before heading southwest on Keyser Run Fire Road and veering right as you pass through a gate (4) just 30 yards later. Continue south on Hull School Trail, exploring the quiet Jenkins/Keyser cemetery, bearing the ancestral graves of frontier family members evicted in the 1930s. Trace the western base of 2,531-foot Pignut Mountain (5) before turning left onto Piney Branch Trail for .1 mile (6). Cross Piney River and turn right to return to the yellow-blazed Hull School Trail. At the four-way junction (7), take a right onto Thornton River Trail. Head north, passing between narrowing granite walls and winding along a sinuous river. The path swerves left after a short ford of North Fork Thornton River (8). Go right off-trail and camp in a sheltered glade .1 mile later.

Next day, hike up the Blue Ridge, cross Skyline Drive, and stay left on the Thornton River Trail (9). Turn right onto the AT, and climb the wooded ridgeline for two miles. Head left onto Elkwallow Trail (10) and begin the sharp climb up Jeremy’s Run. At Mathews Arm Campground, cross the road to pick up Mathews Arm Trail (11). Climb the Tuscarora Trail (12), and power 500 feet up the western ridge of Hogback Mountain. Head left on the AT (13) to the trailhead.

Trip Planner
The Way From Front Royal, take Skyline Dr. south to mile marker 21 and park in the lot on the right after Hogback Overlook.
Gear up Weasel Creek Outfitters, Inc., 221 East Main St., Front Royal, VA. (540) 622-6909
Permit Required (free); available at the Front Royal Entrance Station.
Trip data
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Nov 13, 2010

It will cost you $15 to get onto the Skyline Drive. That ticket is good for 7 days.


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