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Blue Ridge Parkway
Rock Castle Gorge Trail, Black Ridge Trail, Rocky Knob Campground, Picnic Area and Visitor Center
Rocky Knob is an accurate description of the shape of the mountain that bears its name. Rocky Knob was one of the first developed areas built on the Parkway. Rock Castle Gorge, known for its beautiful rock crystalline quartz formations, was once home for several mountain families whose lives we remember through the apple orchards and abandoned stone chimneys. One of the Parkway's most popular attractions, nearby Mabry Mill (milepost 176.1), was a gristmill and sawmill for many years in the early part of this century.
Today the Rocky Knob Recreational Area covers more than 4000 acres. It offers many diversions for visitors, including hiking trails, a visitor center, campground, backcountry camping and picnic area. Interpretive talks and demonstrations are given in the summer months at Mabry Mill and four trails offer a variety of scenic and historical wonders.
The lush and forested slopes of Rock Castle Gorge suggest that man has been an infrequent visitor here, but that is not the case. A century ago this gorge supported a substantial community of 30 families. Most residents were farmers who raised hogs, grew corn, hunted and harvested wild plants. The community's traditional life was altered dramatically in the late 1800's when industry entered the area. Independent mountaineers quickly became dependent on the cash income that nearby cotton mills and timber companies provided. Over the years, people moved elsewhere to work. By the 1920's, fewer and fewer families called this rugged area home.
In the decades that followed, nature has reclaimed the gorge. Today, more than 60 species of native trees, 25 species of delicate ferns and over 200 species of wildflowers shade and color the gorge and its remnants of old home sites and gristmills. Wild turkey, fox, bear, deer, bobcat and other animals roam the forest, plying their ancient patterns and rhythms of life. In 1984, the Rock Castle Gorge Loop Trail was designated a National Recreational Trail in recognition of its outstanding features.
Rock Castle Gorge Trail (10.8 mile loop)
The Rock Castle Gorge Trail, blazed with green, is a moderate to strenuous 10.8 mile loop with elevations ranging from 3,572 feet at Rocky Knob to 1,700 feet at the confluence of Rock Castle and Little Rock Castle Creeks. Parts of the trail are rocky and several sections are quite steep. To avoid the most strenuous uphill sections, hikers can begin at the Rocky Knob Campground and head downhill toward Rock Castle Creek.
From the campground, the trail descends over 1,000 feet in 3 miles, passing through a cove hardwood forest of oaks, hickories, tulip trees, basswoods, maples, magnolias and a stand of aspens. Along the ridge, there is a beautiful display of mountain laurel. This is a good place to look for evidence of home sites.
The 2.8 mile section of trail along Rock Castle Creek follows the gated fire road. Within 0.5miles, it passes a back-country campground on the site of a former Civilian Conservation Corps complex. A permit is required and may be obtained free from the Rocky Knob Campground, Ranger Station or Visitor Center. Camping in Rock Castle Gorge is permitted only at this designated back-country site. The large white house on the left is privately owned and is not open to the public.
After steadily climbing beyond the house, there are excellent views of the creek, 100 feet below. This area has a fabulous display of wildflowers in April and early May. Rock Castle Cascades on the left is a prominent landmark.
Turn right at the trail junction where the trail passes through a hardwood forest. Here soil is moist, deep and rich. It supports a highly diverse herbaceous layer, as well as unusual cove tree species like black maple. The Rock Castle Gorge Trail gains 875 feet in the next 1.5 miles. After 0.5 mile, the trail goes through an extensive boulder field known as the Bare Rocks, and a ridge near the rim of the gorge has an impressive stand of Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel.
From Grassy Knoll back to the campground the trail parallels the Parkway and presents views of Rock Castle Gorge, the Piedmont, and the countryside north of Floyd, Virginia. The trail to Rocky Knob is narrow and steep, and affords outstanding views. Just downhill from Rocky Knob, an Appalachian Trail shelter serves as a reminder that the famous "AT" used to wind its way along this part of the Blue Ridge Parkway before relocating to the west in the 1950s.
Black Ridge Trail (3 mile loop)
The Black Ridge Trail, blazed with blue, is a moderate three mile loop that is most conveniently started and finished at the Rocky Knob Visitor Center. Passing through second growth forest to a seldom-used gravel road, it includes good views to the north from atop Black Ridge, then crosses the Parkway to join the Rock Castle Gorge Trail for its return to the Visitor Center. There are excellent views from this section of trail into Rock Castle Gorge and the Piedmont. You'll also pass a chimney from an old home.
Rocky Knob Picnic Area Trail (1.3 mile loop)
The yellow blazed Rocky Knob Picnic Area Trail is an easy 1.3 mile loop and offers a pleasant walk through a mature forest of large oaks, ashes, hickories, Fraser magnolias, hemlocks, and other native trees and shrubs. The area is excellent for bird watching, particularly in the nesting season. The picnic area consists of 72 tables, restrooms, phone and picnic shelter.
Rocky Knob Summit & Shelter Hike (1.1 mile loop)
The 3572 foot summit is known for it's spectacular views, especially of Rock Castle George. Did you know that once was the path of the famous Appalachian Trail and the Rocky Knob Shelter was one of the first shelters along the AT? The trail was relocated to the west 60+ years ago.
This popular 1.1 mile loop hike could be called a classic Blue Ridge Parkway leg stretcher. The hike starts from the Saddle Overlook at milepost 168.0 by heading south on the green blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail. Almost immediately there is a trail junction and veer right on the red blazed trail. You will be coming down the other trail from the summit.
Another red trail goes left, however stay right. At 0.5 miles turn left on the green blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail. The green blazed trail climbs the crest of the ridge with great views. After a brief dip, the trail ascends and reaches the summit. At 0.9 miles reach the historical Rocky Knob Shelter. The trail now steeply descends past the red trail trail junction and bring you back to the Saddle Overlook at 1.1 miles.
Rocky Knob Campground & Cabins
At milepost 167.1 is the Rocky Knob Campground and features 81 tent and 28 trailer sites, restrooms and a dump station for RVís with a campfire circle that accommodates up to 150 campers. VA 758 is accessed on the West Side of the Parkway at milepost 174.1 and leads to the Rocky Knob Cabins one mile away.
To avoid confusion, the major trails in the Rocky Knob area have blaze markings in different colors. All connecting trails are blazed in red. There are pictures, a trail map and campground map below.
Several miles north of Rocky Knob at milepost 154.5, the Smart View Loop Trail, an easy to moderate three mile loop around the Smart View Picnic Area, offers good views into Piedmont Virginia. The trail is level for the most part and is generally dry and smooth underfoot. For most of the three miles, the trail passes through mature woods and has a good display of wildflowers in April and May. Several signs mark access points from the Picnic Area to the trail.
All of these hikes are featured in the hiking guide book Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway.
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