Editor's note: For most, unless you live in the neighborhood, it's too late in the season to check this hike off your to-do list, especially after the snowstorm associated with Superstorm Sandy. But the following story just might plant the seed for next summer, or the summer beyond that, and the story will be parked in our Shenandoah National Park Essential Guide for future reference.
There are many nice hikes in Shenandoah National Park, some that ramble on for miles, some that run just a short way to a wonderful payoff. Dark Hollow Falls is one such payoff, but the hike is just a mile-and-a-half roundtrip, rather short if you were looking for a good leg stretcher. You can, however, easily extend that hike by more than a few miles by weaving in some other trails and fire roads.
Tack on a short piece of the Rose River Fire Road, and another of the Stony Mountain Trail, and finally a leg of the Rapidan Fire Road, and you'll have a nice hike of about 6 miles that will entail several hours. Plus, you'll have some great solitude in the mountains, as these are not mainstream hiking corridors in the park.
I was tempted to embark on this circuit in mid-October when the hike down to Dark Hollow Falls, while nice, was just too short. And, being late in the season, the falls weren't exactly seething and frothy. So I looked at my maps and wandered on down past the falls to the Rose River Fire Road. From there, you can explore the Rose River Loop Trail, a 4-mile loop that takes you past the 67-foot Rose River Falls and through the forest.
But you also can head up the Rose River Fire Road and, after 1.1 miles, veer off to the right and tackle the Stony Mountain Trail. This is another short, 1.1-mile, leg that climbs up the flanks of Doubletop Mountain. Now, in the fall the Stony Mountain Trail can be hard to follow, as it really doesn't seem to get much traffic and the heavy deluge of leaves practically blends the trail right into the rest of the mountainside. But with a little caution, and by keeping an eye out for yellow trail blazes on trees along the path, you should be fine.
A highlight of this segment of the loop for me was hearing an owl (perhaps a long-eared or short-eared owl) hooting off in the forest. The end of the trail comes out on the Rapidan Fire Road. This is the route the Park Service takes to bring visitors to Camp Hoover, aka Rapidan Camp.
This dirt and gravel road climbs slightly uphill as it leads you 2.9 miles back to Big Meadows. The lack of traffic, and the thick forests on either side of the road, make this an enjoyable stroll back to civilization. And if you watch the forests carefully, you just might see a rafter, or gang, of turkeys, as I was fortunate enough to see strutting through the woods.
This is certainly an unusual hike in Shenandoah, using the legs of two different trails and two different fire roads to form a loop, but you're unlikely to encounter any wheeled traffic while enjoying a sprawling forest and its wildlife. Whether it's passable in winter is hard to say, depending on the snowfall, but as the accompanying photo shows, you should be able to make it down to Dark Hollow Falls at least.
If You Go
Dark Hollow Falls To Stony Mountain Trail To Big Meadows
Trailhead: Dark Hollow Falls Trail, Skyline Drive milepost 50.7
Difficulty: Moderate due to climb up Stony Mountain Trail
Payoff: Upclose view of Dark Hollow Falls, quiet forest setting, possibility of seeing or hearing wildlife.
Cautions: In fall Stony Mountain Trail can seem to vanish beneath thick layers of leaves. In winter snow and icy can create slippery conditions.
Maps: National Geographic's Trails Illustrated Shenandoah, #228, and the park's Big Meadows Road and Trail Map.