One of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), the 3.1-mile hike to Mary’s Rock is a good cardio workout and well worth the effort. Although there are several options for hiking to this summit, I always opt to hike from the Panorama parking area because there is plenty of parking and it’s just right off the entrance (so no long drive on Skyline Drive).
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I’ve completed this hike many times and in all four seasons. My favorite time to hike Mary’s Rock is during the summer – the lush trees provide shade for much of the climb, there are lots of dogs on the trail, the energy among the throng of hikers huffing and puffing their way to the top, and of course sightings of thru hikers (traveling the 2,100+ miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in one continuous trip). Regardless of the season, a cloudless day is the best time to experience the dramatic views from the summit. Cloudy days provide their own magic – it literally feels like you’re sitting among the clouds.
My dog, Sophie (a 10-lb Chiweenie), loves this hike even though I keep her on a leash. Because of the popularity of this hike, there are a lot of dogs on trail during the summer. Also, SNP is one of the few national parks that allow dogs on hiking trails but they do require dogs to be leashed in return.
There are several routes to Mary’s Rock. My favorite is the south approach from the Panorama parking lot, which is located just south of the Thornton Gap entrance. The hike starts at the blue-blazed approach trail located at the end of the parking area and climbs nearly 1,210 feet in less than two miles.
Within minutes, the approach trail connects to the white-blazed AT. From this point forward the trail is a steady and steep climb. Follow the AT by bearing left and go up a set of wooden stairs. Shortly after the first set of switchbacks is the steepest part of the hike. The steepness of the climb lessens as you round the second set of switchbacks among a field of boulders. Enjoy the short respite because the trail begins a steep climb again just after the half-mile mark.
Shortly before the 1-mile mark is a good stopping point. There’s a glimpse of the views to come from the summit here (most clear in the winter when tree leaves aren’t blocking the view). The final hill (a tempting false summit) is usually covered by mountain laurels. The no camping sign a little beyond this point is the 1.5-mile mark. A few tenths of a mile later the trail splits. Follow the blue-blazed spur trail on the left to the summit of Mary’s Rock (the AT continues to the right and away from Mary’s Rock). The trail opens to a rock outcropping and just a little further is another viewpoint. On a cloudless day, the summit offers unparalleled views of some of the recognizable mountains in SNP – Old Rag, Stony Man, and Hawksbill.
I tackle steep climbs by taking the slow approach with lots of breaks, so this hike usually takes me about 3.5 hours including a leisurely break at the summit.
This hike can also be done from the Meadowspring Trailhead and is the shortest route (2.6 miles) to Mary’s Rock. The parking is limited here (only 12 spots), so be sure to arrive early if you want to hike this route. The longest and flattest route (7 miles) is from the Pinnacles parking area.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- SNP charges an entrance fee ($30 for a car and good for seven consecutive days, $60 for an annual pass to SNP, or $80 for an annual interagency pass that gives you access to all areas managed by the National Park Service).
- 1,200 feet of elevation gain in less than 2-miles is a steep climb.
- Dogs must be leashed (according to SNP rules and because there are lots of dogs on trail).
- High traffic trail.
GEAR FOR THE HIKE
- 10 essentials (always!)
- Sturdy shoes (comfortable, regular athletic shoes will do the trick)
- Hydration and snacks for humans and dogs
- Trekking poles if you have knee issues
The Panorama parking area (coordinates: 38.6383692, -78.3136365) is right off the Thornton Gap entrance, the closest to the D.C. area. And there’s more than 50 parking spots, so you’re not likely to struggle for a parking spot.
The Panorama parking area has flush toilets and drinkable water.