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.
QUICK TAKE: Massanutten Mountain, Virginia
DRIVE TIME: Massanutten Mountain is in northwestern Virginia, 80 miles west of Washington, D.C., (11/2 hours) and 120 miles (21/2 hours) southwest of Baltimore, Maryland.
THE WAY: To reach Signal Knob trailhead and the northern end of Massanutten Mountain from Washington, D.C., take I-66 to the Front Royal exit. Go west on VA 55 for 5 miles. At Waterlick, turn left on County Route 678 and travel 3 miles to the trailhead parking area on the right. To reach Massanutten Visitor Center and trails at the midpoint on Massanutten Mountain, take I-66 to Marshall. Follow US 17 to Warrenton and turn south on US 211 to New Market Gap.
TRAILS: There are nearly 50 trails on Massanutten Mountain totaling 150 miles, 30 miles of which are open to all-terrain vehicles and four-wheelers. The section of Massanutten Mountain West Trail between Woodstock Gap and Edinburg Gap has rock outcroppings with eye-popping vistas of Shenandoah Valley. But bushwhackers who navigate to the top of Catback Mountain will probably find the best view of all.
ELEVATION: Ranges from a low point of 680 feet along Passage Creek near Elizabeth Furnace to 2,552-foot Kennedy Peak.
CAN'T MISS: Fort Valley Overlook on Signal Knob Trail sweeps in steep Massanutten ridges and jagged interior knobs, which one well-traveled Forest Service employee says rivals anything out West.
CROWD CONTROL: The trails in the southern portion of Massanutten Mountain (south of US 211) are steep, rocky, sometimes poorly maintained but generally deserted.
PIT STOP: The Country Store, at the intersection of county routes 678 and 758, has a little bit of everything, including deli sandwiches.
WALK SOFTLY: Scatter stones from fire rings you find along trails.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club sells a detailed two-map set and 74-page Guide to Massanutten Mountain (revised in 1993). Send $18 to PATC, 118 Park St. SE, Vienna, VA 22180-4609; (703) 242-0693. The main trails of Massanutten are also covered in The Trails of Virginia: Hiking the Old Dominion, by Allen de Hart ($18.50, The University of North Carolina Press, 919-966-3561).
MORE INFORMATION: Lee Ranger District, George Washington National Forest, Windsor Knit Rd., Rt. 4, Box 515, Edinburg, VA 22824; (540) 984-4101.