A heavenly hike to the Devil's Marbleyard
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Hikers jump between the cliffs of Arnold Valley atop boulders in the Devil's Marbleyard, a unique boulder field near Glasgow in the James River Face Wilderness. The legends and the facts about the boulder field's origin conflict, but almost everyone agrees it is a fascinating area to hike.
- Location: In the James River Face Wilderness Area. The Devil's Marbleyard is the featured attraction on the Belfast Trail, which can be reached by following Route 759 south of Natural Bridge for 1.7 miles, then turning left on Route 781 for 1.3 miles. The trailhead is on the left along a section of road that has houses to the right.
- Length: It's only 1.4 miles to the Devil's Marbleyard, or a 2.8-mile round trip. Add a little more for climbing up and down and all around the "marbles."
- Elevation: Route 781 is just over 1,000 feet. The Marbleyard covers an 8-acre area between 1,500 and 2,000 feet.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): of 3.5.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): of 2.5: A steady but rocky climb, moderately steep at times, leads to the Devil's Marbleyard. It's not terribly hard or long, though. If you plan on scurrying up the boulders at the Marbleyard, which you should if you make it there, it's a 3.5 if you go very far up them. You'll need your both hands in addition to your feet.
- Of interest: The 200-million year old sandstone blocks of Devil's Marbleyard bear some tiny holes bored by prehistoric worms in what was then just sandy soil.
- Beware: The devil may get his due at the marbleyard by twisting ankles and banging knees. The gaps between these enormous boulders are a good place to get a foot stuck, and from time to time, you may even encounter a rock that teeters a little. Just step with care.
- Description: The Belfast Trail passes through the remains of an old Boy Scout camp and follows Belfast Creek gradually uphill to the Devil's Marbleyard, which is an unmistakable jumble of huge white boulders to the left of the trail. Climbing onto the boulders opens up some good views of the area, but it is the boulder field itself that is the star of the show.
As I climbed up this peculiar pile of rocks on the side of a mountain, surveying golden trees cloaking a green valley and silver shafts of sunlight splitting the clouds, I wondered why it is that the devil gets gets the due for places like this.
Here in Virginia, the devil has a marbleyard, and he has the kitchen I walked through yesterday near McAfee Knob. In Wyoming, the devil has a tower. In countless states, he has a canyon or a den. What if we instead called this marvelous heap of stones God's Rock Collection?
The only thing satanic about this hike was a few summertime gnats stirring around my sweaty head on this warm Oct. 25 afternoon. But by the time I reached a level rock to rest upon about three-fourths of the way up this rockslide in freeze frame, this scene from the Devil's Marbleyard looked more like a slice of heaven.
It was another hazy day, but sometimes when the sun angle is just right, distant ridgelines will seem to shimmer in the haze instead of being shrouded by it. This was such a day. Perhaps the most awe inspiring sight was watching the sun shafts pierce holes in the clouds and shine like spotlights on valley floor.
My decision to leave my dog Cindy at home for this hike was a good one. Cindy didn't care for these big boulders the last time we were here. A bigger dog would probably be fine and go nuts over this place, but for a smaller dog, there are lots of cracks and holes to fall in and hard climbs to make. For a human, this is true, too, and I was glad I could devote my full attention to where I was going instead of what my pooch was up to.
The size of the boulder field was surprising. Just when I thought I was reaching the top, a whole new level of big rock chunks appeared above. I got a full body workout, as I used my hands and legs to scramble up these varying-sized blocks of sandstone. It's important to note that the rocks here are not rounded and smooth as the name "marbleyard" would imply: many have sharp edges. Gloves would help. This would be a good place to get a foot hung or fall and crack a skull. It's probably not advisable to come alone, but I usually don't heed my own advice.
One interesting phenomenon was how the trees were colored on the right side of the ravine formed by the small creek the trail follows and how they had lost all their leaves on the left. I figured that this was because the left part of the gorge was on the north slope of a hill and got less sun than the right side, which faced the sun.
To reach the parking area for the Belfast Trail, take Virginia 130 to Natural Bridge Station. Turn south on Virginia 759. Follow 759 about three miles before turning left on 781. The well marked parking area is about 1.3 miles down Virginia 781. Detailed maps of the area, including other trails and routes, are available at the Glenwood Ranger District headquarters, northwest of Natural Bridge Station on Virginia 130.
The hike up is steeper and rockier than I remember. It's badly eroded in spots. The foliage was colorful and the stream crossings were nice.
This hike is probably not one of the most popular in the sense of having a parking lot crammed with 60 cars every gorgeous weekend, a la Sharp Top or McAfee Knob. It's more out of the way and the parking lot can't hold more than about eight cars. But this is a spot that every Virginian with even an inkling of interest in the outdoors seems to have been at least once and is fascinated by. It is one of the most talked-about natural wonders of Western Virginia if not one of the most-visited.
I met just two people, headed up as I was headed down. When I got back to the trailhead, I saw their truck -- with a Colorado license plate.
The devil didn't make them come here.