Hikes of all levels at Douthat; views second to none
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Log steps and a guide wire help ease a steep descent on the Blue Suck Falls Trail.
- Location: About an hour's drive northwest of Roanoke, just north of Clifton Forge. Just take US 220 west off Interstate 81 at the Daleville exit. Follow 220 until it turns left into Clifton Forge. Stay right and go under Interestate 64 on Route 629. The state park visitor center is about 7 miles on the left.
- Length: Take your pick! There are more than 40 miles of trails in Douthat State Park, providing all sorts of loops, some connecting with trails outside the park in the surrounding George Washington National Forest. The two loops I will describe here are 9 miles for the Stony Run-Blue Suck Falls loop and 6 miles for the Beards Gap-Mountain Top-Mountain Side circuit.
- Elevation: From 1,300 feet at the trailheads on 629 to 3,000 feet on Middle Mountain
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): of 3.5: Gorgeous views. Waterfalls. Pleasant forests. Bluffs. Rock formations. Honestly, it's probably a 3.7 or so, but I round to halves.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): of 3: For as much climbing as these trails do, they're not that hard, at least the ways I went. The Stony Run trail edges up Middle Mountain on broad switchbacks, gaining elevation slowly. The Beards Gap trail runs up Beards Mountain a little more steeply, but it's only about a mile.
The words "developed" and "natural" often don't jibe together. But Douthat State Park, located about an hour's drive northwest of Roanoke, is well developed and features an immaculate trail system that winds through a gloriously beautiful natural setting.
It is sheer joy to hike at Douthat. For the quality of the trails and the ease in following them, Douthat's trail system is among the very best I've found anywhere in my hiking travels. The trails are well-maintained with signs at every junction, color-coded to match the trail blazes. To get lost here, you would really have to be trying.
What the trails lead to is the biggest joy. Dedicated as one of the state's first six state parks during the Depression with structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Douthat is chock full of the kinds of natural attractions that exemplify the Appalachians: waterfalls, tumbling streams, mountain overlooks, jutting rocky bluffs, and a mixed forest that explodes in the spring with blossoms and again in the fall with the colors of the rainbow.
If you're someone who has an interest in hiking but hasn't yet taken that bigger step into being a really avid one, this is the place to go for a moderate challenge. If you're someone who just likes a pleasant, peaceful walk in the woods, Douthat offers short, easy trails, too, such as the Heron Run and Buck Lick trails, each under a mile.
The two routes I'm going to describe briefly are both pleasant, but neither easy nor particularly short. They both climb from trailheads on the park's central road to mountaintops, then loop back, only backtracking previously hiked trails a short distance back to the trailhead.
Stony Run-Tuscarora Overlook-Blue Suck Falls-Locust Gap loop
This hike is reminiscent of another loop of similar length (about 9 miles) and elevation gain (about 1,700 feet) I've already reviewed: Hoop Hole. It's similar in how it follows a stream up, then leaves the stream to edge along its upper drainage hollow to hike over a mountaintop, then follows the mountain's ridgeline before dropping down and following another stream on the lower portion. Both trails even have a Stony Run -- here it's the left side of the loop, at Hoop Hole, it's on the right.
But there is one huge difference in the two: The quality of the trail.
Unlike Hoop Hole, where one is apt to lose the upper portion of the trail in 2 or 3 spots and get scratched by innumerable bushes growing halfway across it, the trails here are super easy to follow and wide enough that being attacked by shrubs is rarely a problem.
The Stony Run trailhead is on the left about a mile before the Visitor Center. It's the first large trailhead, with a developed parking area and signboard, on the left in the park. (It does cost a dollar or two to visit the park, depending on day of week and time of year. Envelopes for paying can be found at the trailheads and entering the visitor center area. Honor the honor system. For parks like this, it's money well spent.)
For the first 2.5 miles or so, the Stony Run Trail is smooth and true, ever so gradually edging upward through a mixed forest as it follows and occasionally splashes across its namesake creek. About a mile and a half in, the Locust Gap Trail intersects, taking off to the right. We will return this way, but for now, keep going straight.
At 2.5 miles, a short spur trail crosses the creek and runs along its left side to Stony Run Falls. (Unlike nearly every other trail in the park, this one isn't marked. I blew right past this, not realizing at the time where it led). The main trail stays right. This is a sign that the climbing will soon commence in earnest. The trail curves hard to the right to begin the first of seven switchbacks that will conquer Middle Mountain. It's not that steep, but after so much relatively level hiking, your calves will begin to complain a little.
After a couple a miles of climbing, with better and better views popping out between the trees, the Tuscarora Overlook trail takes off to the right. (Continuing straight leads to the Middle Mountain Trail, which climbs higher near the crest of the 3,100 foot mountain). The Tuscarora Overlook Trail leads a half-mile to a spur trail, veering right, that takes you a few hundred yards to the park's signature overlook point on a clearing beside a small cabin. From here, you are treated to a fabulous view over blue-green ridgelines (or white, light green, gray or multi-colored, depending on the season), one after the other in procession to the eastern horizon. I would love to see the sun rise from this point. The park's lake looks like a puddle below, and Interstate 64 a couple of stitches on a hillside off to the right.
Back on the Tuscarora Overlook Trail, another half-mile of walking will bring you to an intersection with a hard, haripin left leading back up to the Middle Mountain Trail and a right dropping down on the Blue Suck Falls trail. We'll be going right here, but a left would enable an interesting mountaintop loop (returning on the Stony Run Trail) that I might have to try sometime.
The Blue Suck Falls trail switchbacks down the rocky mountainside much more steeply than the Stony Run Trail climbed it. Along the way, you pass Lookout Rock, barely off the trail to the left, which is pretty much what its name says it is. Further down is Blue Suck Falls, which definitely do not do what the middle name suggests.
The falls are actually on a short loop off the main trail, marked with a sign to the right. The main trail stairsteps down a steep incline to the creek. There's a wire to hold onto as you make this steep descent. However, you can follow the Blue Suck Falls access trail to the right a few hundred feet to the falls, which are a multicascade drop that's extremely scenic. There's even a stone bench to sit on in front of the falls. The trail passes right beside the lower portion of these falls, crosses the creek, the turns left back to the main trail. Just follow the trail down the creek from there.
A half-mile later is the intersection with the Locust Gap Trail. A right takes you back through a mixed forest to the Stony Run Trail in a little over a mile, which leaves you a mile and a half from the trailhead by going left. Or, keep following the Blue Suck Falls route back to the visitor center, and turn right on the highway and walk a mile to the trailhead.
Beards Gap-Mountain Top-Mountain Side loop
These trails do exactly what you think. Beards Gap runs up through a hollow to a slightly lower gap in the 2,600-foot Beards Mountain. Mountain Top rolls up over the top of Beards Mountain. The Mountain Side Trail clings precariously to the side of Beards Mountain.
Beards Gap, which takes off out of the back of the visitor center parking lot on wooden planks, is one of those sleeper trails. The creek is not the biggest and its cascades are not the largest, but it's such a pleasant trickle through an enchanting gorge laced with intriguing rock formations and tiltling bluff lines. After following the creek for about three-quarters of mile, occasionally crossing it and returning across as creekside trails almost always do, the Beards Gap Trail gets more serious about climbing and switchbacks rapidly up the ridge. As you rise, be sure and look back on the little mini-canyon through which you just passed.
Up at ridgeline, there's a little shelter with a bench and a map of the trail system. This is another example of how the state park has done a wonderful job of making this gem of a park user-friendly without trampling its beauty. From the Beards Gap-Mountain Top trail intersection, we're going left. The trail bends left and then back right a few hundred yards to a triple intersection. The trails are clearly marked with signs: Buck Hollow is the first left, Mountain Side the second left and Mountain Top straight. Let's go straight.
The Mountain Top trail begins a gradual ascent, switchbacking some, to reach the highest point of the Beards Mountain ridgeline. The views are not overwhelming here because of the forest, but I always find something magical about following a narrow ridgeline. The trail actually scrapes the edge of the park territory, and the boundary line with the George Washington National Forest, when it's near the high point. After that it drops downward, and turns back to the left some, until it meets the Mountain Side Trail. Turn left there.
I find the Mountain Side Trail to be the most intriguing trail I've hiked in the park. It's a path suspended on the side of the mountain, a little more than halfway up. As you might suspect, there are plenty of viewpoints along the way, for long stretches. These aren't sheer bluffs you're tiptoeing on, but the steep slopes would result in an uncomfortable slide if you step a little off the trail, so be careful. After a mile and a half, it returns to three-way junction described two paragraphs above. Either backtrack to the Beards Gap trail or take a right on the Buck Hollow Trail, then left on the Wilson Creek Trail after descending the mountain, to return to the visitor center.
Camping, cabins and even a restaurant are available in the park, plus fishing and swimming in season. There are some plans for a large golf course on a portion of the park. I won't make a big political statement about that, but suffice it to say, man's best chemical-treated grass is a weak substitute for Mother Nature's ugliest sights.