Massanutten Death March

In which we learn to pay more attention to the map markings.
Motto of the day: 1 line good, 2 lines bad.

Mile Notes

  • Mile 3.4: Purple-blazed side trail to Mine Gap
  • Mile 4.6: Massanutten turns right, and the blue-blazed Tuscarora comes in the from left. Follow the Massanutten to pass by Strasburg reservoir.
  • Mile 8:  Cross the blue-blazed Tuscarora.
  • Mile 9.1: Signal knob
  • Mile 10.2: Bear right on Tuscarora to remain on the ridge line.
  • Mile 13.6: Massanutten comes in from the left and Tuscarora turns right to go down the mountain. Get on Massanutten.
  • Mile 14.8:  Purple-blazed side trail to Mine Gap
  • Mile 18.2: Back at Woodstock Tower

It began innocently enough: PATC maps of the Massanuttens, a new toy from Amazon, identifying tall things and lengthy routes by which to get to them. Having scaled Duncan Knob on our previous Massanuttencation, I seized upon Signal Knob at the northern end of the Massanutten range.

There were two apparent options:

  1. Start on the east side of the range, and take the Shawl Gap Trail up to hit High Peak, Buzzard Rock Overlook, Fort Valley Overlook, Maneka Peak, and finally Signal Knob, pinging back and forth between peaks like a pinball.
  2. Drive to the other side of the valley, and hike along the ridge.

Because the only road on the west side of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River becomes private about a mile past where we were staying, option 1 required driving alllllllll the way down the South Fork to a bridge, alllllll the way back up the other side past where we started, back over another bridge, and south again to the Shawl Gap parking lot. This offended our sensibilities, so we went with option 2: drive over the eastern ridge of the range, through Fort Valley, and up into the western ridge. The Massanuttens are a very elongated ring of mountains surrounding Fort Valley.

I found a seemingly-convenient access point to the Massanutten Trail along the western ridge that would make for a 19-mile round trip. It even had a nice little split option in the middle, so we could descend from the ridge on the way north to pass by a reservoir, then remain on the ridge on the way back. Since we would stay mostly along the ridge, there shouldn’t even be that much up and down, just distance. We’re trying to build up our distance endurance, so bumping up from last weekend’s 15.25 miles to 19 seemed like a good choice.

Rock bridge

Woodstock Tower to the Tuscorora Trail

We began at Woodstock Tower on the western ridge. The snow had melted enough that the road to the tower was open, so we were able to park 20 feet from the trail. We toodled happily north for 4.6 miles, enjoying easy ups and downs on a relatively rock-free* trail. We traipsed across rock bridges, saw lovely vistas, and expressed satisfaction with the dappled shade.

* Relative to, say, sections of the AT in Maryland, where you walk on slabs of rock that are jutting on edge out of the ground at random heights.

Overlook North of Woodstock Tower – west toward Woodstock

Down the Ridge on the Massanutten

At mile 4.6, the Tuscarora Trail comes in from the west, collides with the Massanutten Trail, and sends the Massanutten tumbling down the eastern slope of the ridge while the Tuscarora takes over the ridge line. We descended the Massanutten to what we had misread as a small section of road that connected two sections of the Massanutten. In reality, it was a small section of paved road which became a long section of dirt and gravel road. Long, wretched, boring, wretched, long section of road. Early on, we were accompanied by butterflies, but they soon tired of the road as well.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Strasburg Reservoir

After a few miles, we had a brief respite as the trail veered off the road and became an actual trail, with trees, shade, and everything, to go around a reservoir. After a half mile, though, it rejoined the Wretched Road of Wretchedness.

Atop Signal Knob

Atop Signal Knob

Up to the Knob

The trail continued to be a Wretched Road, devoid of shade, baking in the sun, all the way up to Signal Knob. We trudged, got sunburned, muttered about hiking being an activity done on trails, and were generally angsty and dissatisfied. My feet hurt. A lot.

The knob itself at mile 9.1 was pleasant — a brief side trail from the road goes to an overlook where you float above the valley, and there are rocks to sprawl on, trees to sit beneath, and a cold wind to ameliorate the slings and arrows of the shade-less climb.

Signal Knob Panorama (scroll to pan)

Down the Road

We floated down the Wretched Road with comparative ease, a cool wind keeping the sun from being hot. The mile down the knob to pick up the Tuscarora for our alternate route back passed with renewed enthusiasm.

Tuscarora Trail Along the Ridge

Rejoining the Tuscarora at mile 10.2 meant climbing back up to the ridge, which we attacked happily, glad to be under trees again. We were less excited to find that the Tuscarora had aspirations of being the Maryland AT, running directly along the very crest of the ridge over jagged slabs of rock jutting out of the ground on edge. We pined for the meetup with the Massanutten with its higher dirt to rock ratio.

Rats to the Barn

At mile 13.6, the Massnutten and the Tuscarora collide. The Tuscarora peels off down the western side of the ridge, and the Massanutten continues along the ridge. We rejoiced a bit, but my feet hurt so much that I was just trudging like a zombie. Every step was pain, but with 5 miles to go, there was nothing to do but shut the brain down and keep walking.

We made it back to the car just as the sun set, then navigated back through the valley using the trail map since evening brought with it a cessation of GPS satellite coverage.

Overlook North of Woodstock Tower (morning)

Overlook North of Woodstock Tower (evening)



  • Turkey, muenster, cucumber, tomato and romaine sandwich on Rudi’s spelt bread
  • Trail Crack™ (my patent-pending trail mix blend)
  • peanut butter pretzel pillows
  • homemade granola bars (dried blueberries, dried cherries, dried cranberries, roasted pecans, roasted sunflower seeds, toasted coconut)
  • 2 liters water (had some left at the end)


  • 40 to 60°F – I started off in a sleeveless wicking layer, a long-sleeved wicking layer and a fleece jacket with light-weight sweat pants. The two outer shirts went into my pack in short order, and by the time we were toiling up Signal Knob, I very much wanted a pair of shorts and had rolled my pant legs up.


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