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Shenandoah National Park

Rip & Go: Mathews Arm Loop – Shenandoah National Park

Ramble through brilliant red and yellow fall foliage.

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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.



Key Skill

Heat-aware Hiking

Within Shenandoah’s nearly 200,000 forested acres lurk blistering poison ivy and disease-carrying ticks. Follow these tips to enjoy the Shennies rash-free.


Wear long sleeves and tuck pant legs into socks to avoid poison ivy (three-leaved plants that turn red in fall); apply deet to fend off ticks (we like 3M Ultrathon; If you touch a suspicious plant, wipe skin with rubbing alcohol, then rinse with water—removing poison ivy’s irritating urushiol oil within about an hour improves your chance of preventing or minimizing a reaction.


About eight to 48 hours after ivy exposure, an itchy, red, streaky, blistered (but non-contagious) rash will appear. Check daily for ticks; initially they look like inconspicuous black dots at the hairline, waistband, and sockline. You may not feel them even once they’ve begun burrowing.


Soothe ivy rashes with wet compresses and calamine lotion (or make a salve of cold water and oatmeal). Pluck embedded ticks with tweezers; pull straight out, slow and steady, then wash area with soap and water. Fever or new rash within a month? See a doctor.

See This

Shenandoah Salamander

This endangered, finger-length amphibian lives exclusively in moist soil under rocks and forest debris on the talus slopes of Shenandoah’s Pinnacles, Stony Man, and Hawksbill Mountains. Scientists don’t know how many individuals inhabit this tiny range, which includes a similar-looking, more common—and competing—relative, the red-backed salamander. Both sport a yellowish-red stripe on their backs, but the Shenandoah’s is much narrower—just one-third of its body.

Locals Know

About 98 percent of Shenandoah’s leaves change color each fall, usually peaking the second or third week of October. “We’ve got quite a diversity [about 150 to 200 species] of trees here,” park ranger Mara Meisel says. “So the color range is really tremendous.” Though rust-colored oak is the predominant hue, the park’s varied elevation, moisture, and forest age result in a patchwork of golden hickory and poplar, scarlet black gum and maple, and even purple dogwood. For classic dayhiker vistas, walk to Hogback Overlook just east of the Mathews Arm Loop trailhead. To gain views without the throngs of leaf-peepers, climb the 3,212-foot summit of South Marshall, a generally quiet 1.5-mile out-and-back on the AT (starting from Skyline Drive at mile 15.9). Also look for unexpected fall flair in the trailside understory, where spidery yellow flowers adorn the bare, twiggy branches of witch hazel.

On The Menu

Breakfast 1

On the road

Lunches 1 & 2

Tomato sandwich with garlic-olive oil dressing

Dinner 1

Spicy Tuna Linguine

Breakfast 2

Mathews Arm Almond Toast


Cheddar sticks, dried fruit

Spicy Tuna Linguine

A one-pot, Italian classic

8 ounces linguine

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1 pouch tuna in oil

Salt to taste

Boil pasta, drain, and set aside. Sauté spices in olive oil until garlic powder turns golden brown. Add tuna and heat until bubbling. Return linguine to pot, toss and serve.

Skyline Almond Toast

Cinnamon dresses up this surprisingly satisfying breakfast.

2 slices whole-grain bread

2 oz. almond butter

1 oz. honey

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pan fry bread until toasted. Spread almond butter on each slice, drizzle with honey, and sprinkle cinnamon on top. Repeat. Devour.

The Grocery List – (Aisle #) In nearest store below

whole-grain bread (entrance)

1 jar almond butter (2)

honey (2)

1 bag dried fruit (2)

1 pouch tuna (3)

linguine (4)

cinnamon (5)

dried oregano (5)

garlic powder (5)

red pepper flakes (5)

1 bag cheddar sticks (17)

2 tomatoes (produce)

Pack Olive oil, salt



260 Remount Rd.,

Front Royal, VA; (540) 622-2704

PIT STOP Taste the South with a house-rubbed pulled pork sandwich at Soul Mountain Restaurant, 300 E. Main Street, Front Royal, VA; (540) 636-0070.

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