The prototypical Blue Ridge Parkway hike begins with sweeping views of velvety rolling mountains before diving into a gorge filled with unusual rock formations, grassy balds, and more than the occasional cow. At nearly 11 miles with significant loss and gain of elevation, the Rock Castle Gorge hike requires a sincere effort to complete but pays back every step in full.
What Makes It Great
The Rock Castle Gorge hike, located inside the Rocky Knob Recreational Area in southern Virginia, checks off a laundry list of items that make a hike great. It’s a loop, so no retreading familiar trail. There is a variety of terrain along its 10.8 miles. And there are many points of interest to keep it, well, interesting.
There are a couple points from which to access the loop, but beginning at the top, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, is easiest to find. Park behind the visitor contact station near BRP mile marker 169. Cross the road, pass the overlook (after a healthy dose of awe-inspiring blue ridge viewing), and turn right. This will allow you to tackle the steepest portion of the trail as a downhill and save some of the best views for last.
The trail continues to the floor of the gorge, bending left, and takes you, and your tired knees, along a very forgiving couple miles of smooth trail. You’ll pass the backwoods camping area – site of a former CCC campground - and a privately owned white house. This, along with a few crumbled ruins, are the reminders of a once robust community that thrived here over a century ago.
You know you’re quads are in for a special treat once the trail takes a sharp left turn. The hike climbs more than 1000 feet to meet back with the parkway, passing over rocky bluffs and thick forest on its way. When you hear the mournful moo of a cow, you’ll know you’re close to breaking out into the open. The trail passes through grazing lands – watch your step.
The final section of trail continues to follow the parkway rambling over wide open grassy balds and ducking back into forested outcrops. One of the best selfie spots is the old Appalachian Trail shelter (the AT used to pass this way) with a stunning rendition of the hazy blue ridge in the background.
Who is Going to Love It
While the bluffs along this part of the Blue Ridge Parkway attract all sorts of peak peepers and picnic packers, the Rock Castle Gorge Trail should be tackled by somewhat experienced hikers. It is a gem of the South East though, and well worth the effort for all hikers in good health. There are several lookouts along the BRP that serve as perfect lunch spots for anyone not ready to tackle the hike
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
As it runs along the parkway, and is a loop, there are several spots to park and jump on the trail. The parking lot near the visitor contact station never seems to fill and is an easy place to spot from the road and trail. The station has bathrooms but they may be locked. Dogs are allowed on the trail but should be leashed as hikers come in close contact to roving bands of grass-munching bovines.