When the Trail Goes Cold

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If you’re serious about hiking in Virginia you have very likely come across GoHikeVirginia.com, an in-depth hiker’s resource founded by Northern Virginia outdoor writer Erin Gifford. We sought out Erin to get her thoughts on hiking Shenandoah National Park—in winter. While the idea of hiking at this time of year does not appeal to everyone, for those hardy enough to try it, it can be a genuinely memorable experience. The crowds you see in fall are long gone. Views are vastly different and may literally sparkle as iced-over trees reflect sunlight. Yes, it’s cold and there may be some dicey footing crossing icy streams, but if you’ve never tried this exhilarating outdoor experience, bundle up, turn on the heater, and head for Skyline Drive.

SVTA: What is it about winter hiking in SNP that attracts you?

Erin: I love the oneness with nature you can only experience in the cold of winter. Visitors are few and the crisp air allows you to more fully experience the park. With fewer leaves, you can also enjoy more far-reaching valley views.


SVTA: Any precautions about hiking in winter?

Erin: Because weather conditions can vary tremendously from home to the park, it’s wise to call the park’s phone line at 540-999-3500, option 1 for current road and weather conditions. This will tell you whether Skyline Drive is open. It’s also wise to keep in mind when the sun will set to ensure you return to your car before dark if you do not have a flashlight. In winter, nearly all facilities, including visitors’ centers, convenience stores, lodging, and campgrounds are closed.


SVTA: Many Virginia tourists travel with families. Do you think it’s important that kids be exposed to hiking?

Erin: Especially now, when screen time is up (way up) because of the pandemic and distance learning, kids need to spend time outside, away from screens. Kids need to breathe in the fresh air, scramble rocks, hopscotch across streams, and splash in waterfall basins. They need to be awed taking in colorful sunsets from rocky outcrops and spotting wildlife tracks in freshly-fallen snow. In nature, kids can collect experiences using all of their senses. Kids can’t stay inside all winter long. They need to get outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Even rainy, muddy hikes can be fun. A couple of my favorite trails with kids that are good picks for winter are Blackrock Summit and Little Stony Man. Both are not long and have varied terrain, like wooded forest and giant boulders. They also have scenic vistas.


SVTA: What are your favorite trails in SNP?

Erin: I really like the Whiteoak Canyon Trail to Lower Whiteoak Falls. I did this one a couple of months ago. It’s a fairly easy hike alongside the Robinson River to the falls. The trail originates from a boundary trailhead near Sperryville. It’s very relaxing and there are a couple of fun water crossings. There’s even a nice swimming hole. Hikes with quick payoffs are favorites too, like Millers Head Trail and Blackrock Summit. Both are short hikes with incredible vistas you can reach in less than a mile. One last pick would be Calvary & Chimney Rocks. This underrated out-and-back hike shares a trailhead with the better-known Riprap Loop. Calvary & Chimney Rocks follows 1.6-miles of the 9.8-mile Riprap Loop, but kids and adults will be intrigued by the flat top rocks at Chimney Rock.


SVTA: Any particular trail you would recommend for hikers who want to see remnants of the old residents of SNP?

Erin: One of my favorites is the Mary’s Rock hike. There are two ways to the summit, but I like the route which originates across from the Meadow Spring parking area. Within the first .5-mile of this hike, you’ll reach an old stone chimney. This is all that remains of a former home of one of more than 450 families that lived within park boundaries in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Another favorite is Little Devils Stairs. Toward the end of this loop hike, you’ll reach a family cemetery with a wrought-iron gate.


SVTA: Give us an idea of what you’d pack for, say, a four-hour hike in SNP in winter? What would you wear?

Erin: Given the higher elevation, you need to remember that it’s typically colder within Shenandoah National Park than in Northern Virginia (where I live), for example. So it’s wise to dress with this in mind. Of course, I wear layers. I wear one or two pairs of wool socks, then a pair of thermals and hiking pants to keep my legs warm. On top, I’m generally wearing a t-shirt, a light pullover, a hoodie, a zip-up jacket, and a puffy jacket. I am usually on the trail by 8 a.m., when it’s coldest, so I tend to start out with more layers. I also wear a knit hat and gloves. I wear a mask too when passing other hikers on the trail. In terms of what’s in my daypack, I bring the basics, like a water bottle, some trail snacks, and first-aid supplies. Also, hand and foot warmers, just in case.


SVTA: Is there a hiking app that you use?

Erin: I use AllTrails Pro. It’s $30 per year (there is also a free version), but the benefit of the pro version is that I can download or print out trail maps. The app is also a great help in discovering new trails. This is key at Shenandoah National Park, which has more than 500 miles of trails in the park. I can also rate hikes for other hikers, see how other hikers have rated hikes I’m considering and record hike distances as I’m hiking them.


SVTA: Have you ever had a GPS fail due to a bad signal in SNP?

Erin: Yes. This is one reason I like AllTrails Pro. Since I am able to download trail maps, I can reduce my chances of getting lost since the app uses my GPS to track where I am in relation to the trail map. This also helps me to find trailheads.


SVTA: What would you say to someone who has never hiked in winter? 

Erin: When you’re inside, there so many things that call to you – laundry, social media, the never-ending news media cycle. When you’re outside, especially in winter, you can slow down and allow yourself to be at peace in nature. Away from television and household chores. It’s cathartic to stop on a hike every once in a while to just listen to woodpeckers pecking, wind blowing through the trees, water burbling in steams. It’s a great way to relax and reset in winter when the trails are less-trafficked and you can savor the peace and serenity.


About Erin Gifford

Erin Gifford is the founder of GoHikeVirginia.com, a website she created in April 2020 to introduce fellow nature lovers to the hiking trails of Virginia. She is also currently working on a guidebook for Falcon Guides on the best family hikes in Virginia. She has written outdoor and travel articles for The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Northern Virginia Magazine, CNN.com, AAA World and Parents. In her spare time, Erin enjoys road trips, exploring national parks and running half-marathons.

Banner photo of Rose River courtesy NPS/Brett Raeburn.  Find out more about exploring Shenandoah National Park in Winter here. 




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