Rocky Knob's Rock Castle Gorge
An up-and-down hike that will give you a Blue Ridge mountain high
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Rock Castle Creek tumbles over numerous rocks and forms many small waterfalls as it parallels the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. It's this little creek that over the course of many eons has cut this 1,800-foot deep gorge along the Floyd-Patrick county line.
- Location: Rocky Knob Recreation Area, milepost 167, Blue Ridge Parkway near the Floyd-Patrick County line. It's about 50 miles south of Roanoke, or a little more than an hour's drive on the parkway.
- Length: 10.6 miles.
- Elevation: From 3,572 feet at its highest point on Rocky Knob near the Blue Ridge Parkway to 1,700 feet at its lowest point in the Rock Castle Gorge.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 3.5. Another Appalachian sampler hike. Features include open vistas, a cascading stream, plentiful and varied flora and fauna, and a boulder field.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 3.5: Or maybe 3.6 or 3.7 It's a tough trail for a long dayhike or to pack extra weight for an overnight snooze by Rock Castle Creek. Get ready for an 1,800-foot descent and an equal climb, each in less than 2 miles. Most of it is moderate, but some of it is quite steep and rocky.
It's a mile and a half of pretty steep descending through here. The scenic highlight of the descent is an area of rock chunks, some as big as houses, known as the Bear Rocks. Not far after this, the trail finally bottoms out at Rock Castle Creek, with a resting bench placed with a view over some small waterfalls.
I've always said that the hardest trails aren't those where you start out climbing right out of the trailhead. It's those where you start by going downhill.
If you start the Rock Castle Gorge Trail at the Rocky Knob Recreation Area on the Blue Ridge Parkway, you will find out just how difficult downhill hiking can be. That's because what goes down must come back up on this 10.6-mile loop, and in this case, that means about 1,800 feet.
The Rock Castle Gorge Trail is pretty simple, made up of three roughly equal parts: It's one part folllowing a ridgeline at over 3,000 feet with spectacular views, one part following a gurgling stream through a thickly forested hollow at 1,700 feet, and one part straining knees, ankles or lungs on steep descending or climbing to get between the two.
But the sights make it worth the gasps. Much of trail on the ridge near the Blue Ridge Parkway traverses grassy fields, opening up magnificent vistas west toward the lopsided hump of Buffalo Mountain and east toward the tamer hills and valleys of the Piedmont. The creekside portion in the gorge is an enchanting saunter along a creek that sings a melody as it washes through boulders and rocks.
You can start from any of the Rocky Knob Recreation Area overlooks to the left of the Blue Ridge Parkway, heading south from Roanoke. Starting from the Saddle Overlook is a good choice since you get a short but steep climb to Rocky Knob out of the way first instead of having this be your last stretch after already making a rugged 1,800 feet climb out of the gorge.
The white-blazed Rock Castle Gorge Trail bounces up and down some along the ridgetop for about three miles, reaching Rocky Knob (3,572 feet) and Grassy Knoll (3,480 feet), along the way. From Rocky Knob, be sure and absorb the view from the from small log shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. If you look downward, way downward, you will see where you will be a few miles later: deep in the Rock Castle Gorge. Grassy Knoll -- not to be confused with the infamous one in Dallas -- offers a view more the other direction across its own rock-strewn, cattle-grazed field (hence the fence-crossings along the way) and other similar ridges rolling toward the horizon. It's a pleasant place to stop. This is how I imagine Scotland looks.
After the Knoll, it's time for the descent. After a split in which the Black Ridge Trail turns right, the Rock Castle Gorge crosses a fenceline and enters a patch of woods encircling a communications tower. It angles across more open grassy areas, then dives into a densely wooded area where you will come along a stream. The trail will weave in and out of several of these drainages, crossing little creeks, some with samll waterfalls, that run down into Rock Castle Creek below. The forest is thick and there are a number of large downed trees. One of these is the one which crashed down a few hundred feet in front of me during a late July hike. As of November 2000, that tree remained across the trail, although many others before it had been cut away.
For nearly four miles, the trail is wide and mostly level, as it follows an old road paralleling this pleasant stream and crossing it thrice. (It's even a bit downhill, mostly, since the road is following the trial downstream.) Deep in this protected valley, it's likely to be either several degrees cooler or warmer than it was on the ridge, depending on the situation, as it's sheltered from both sun and wind. The 1,800-foot distance is enough that a snow up top may be a cold rain down here, a 35-degree rain up top may be icing the trees down here, or a 90-degree day up top may be only in the mid 70s down here. Be prepared for these changes.
The most unusual sight along the way is the vacated two-story house about halfway along the creek portion of the hike. Unlike many structures you will see along hiking trails, this one is in no apparent state of disrepair, and appears ready to move into tomorrow. What a great place this must have been to live!
A half-mile past a primitive campground (ranger's permit required), the trail reaches the end of its creek segment. A country road and at least one house are visible straight ahead before the trail makes a sharp left turn and starts angling upward. This is state route 605, which can be used as an alternate trailhead less than a mile from Virginia 8. You could start here and get the climbing out of the way first instead of saving it for last, as we're doing on the hike described.
For a while, the return climb doesn't seem all that bad -- a gradual rise up and above a small stream, through a neat hardwood forest. But up ahead, it becomes unforgiving, scratching along rock ledges on a sometimes eroded footpath. The views that open to your right and behind are breathtaking -- and worth stopping to take a breath to see. To further complicate things, there may be some downed trees to get around on this toughest stretch. You'll be quite ready for the top when you get through this.
After the steep part, the trail makes several gradual rises back to the parkway. Crossing the parkway leads to the Rocky Knob campground, but the Rock Castle Gorge Trail turns left for more climbing across a grassy hillside. Vistas in several directions across the rumpled landscape of Southwest Virginia announce themselves as your tired legs buckle for one final seemingly long ascent. It's less than a mile to the Saddle Overlook trailhead now, as the trail marches through a stile into another wooded area and then emerges at the end.
If the Rock Castle trail is a little too much for you, the Black Ridge Trail is only three miles and stays on top of the ridge throughout, following part of the course of the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. Inquire at the visitor information center in the recreation area.