Wilderness-seekers exiting the Washington, D.C., megalopolis every weekend are of a distinctly two-track mind: Shenandoah National Park or the mountains of West Virginia. What lies between the two-Massanutten Mountain-is one of the best kept hiking secrets in the East.
Like a 50-mile-long by 4-mile-wide island, Massanutten Mountain rears up from the floor of Virginia’s fabled Shenandoah Valley in a series of rampart-like, north-south running ridges. Wedged between these walls is 1.1 million acres of George Washington National Forest and 150 miles of hiking trail.
This slice of wild country has a look and feel that’s quite different from the well-trod Blue Ridge and Appalachian ranges only 12 miles to either side. For instance, Fort Valley, at the northern end of the range, is a mountain bowl enclosed by jagged knobs, not the weather-flattened ridgetops typical of the neighborhood.
Massanutten isn’t a wilderness. The forest is plied by loggers, hunters, mountain bikers, downhill skiers, and a fair number of roads, although only two byways breach the mountain fortress cross-wise. In recent years, the Forest Service worked with equestrians and all-terrain vehicle and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts to build trails.
Don’t be discouraged, though, because it’s easy to find peace and quiet. The backbone of the Massanutten trail system is a series of ridgetop pathways, like Massanutten Mountain East Trail (35 miles), which becomes Massanutten South Trail (19 miles) when it enters the more remote and less explored area below US 211. There’s also Massanutten Mountain West Trail (17 miles) that traverses the northern tip of the massif. In a few years, completion of a missing link will create a 75-mile loop around the perimeter of Massanutten Mountain. From any of the vista-rich trails you can contemplate the Blue
Ridge and Appalachian mountains and relish the fact that you’re not wrestling with the crowds at either one.