The Appalachian Trail (Maine to Georgia) through the Natural Bridge National Forest extends along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Rockfish Gap at its northern end to Hotel Mons at its southern - a distance of about 90 miles. Features of interest may be found in every mile of its length. Landscapes of indescribable beauty are stretched out at one's feet, mountain wildernesses in all their grandeur are encountered time and time again, while occasionally a garden-like plateau is crossed, where a nature lover would like to build a hut and just live, yes, live! The wild gorge where the historic James River breaks through the Blue Ridge is the despair of every photographer who has seen it, while within a few miles is one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world - The Natural Bridge of Virginia.
The occasional cliffs proclaim to the geologist that he is in a metamorphic region, and fine examples of upturns, folds, and faults are to be seen along the trail. Paralleling the Blue Ridge on the west side is a secondary ridge that is apparently formed entirely of quartzite, which gives some noteworthy features. Near the town of Glasgow there are three mountains which seem to have been carved out by a Gargantuan chisel and are shaped like four-sided pyramids, far outrivaling those built by man in Egypt. The Rocky Row Mountain, in the Blue Ridge itself, has a projecting ledge traversing it just below its crest, which appears as a great band extending along the mountain, and is plainly traced even from a distance of 40 miles.
The forests are made up of oaks, hickories, walnuts, pines, cedars, hemlocks, beeches, lordly poplars, and even the bear oak is found in abundance. Flowering trees and shrubs abound, such as the service. dogwood, sourwood, and tulip (called by the natives "cucumber") and commonly seen is a fringe tree in full bloom surrounded by a wealth of rhododendron. The greatest glory of these mountains however, is the mountain laurel, which is to be found along the entire trail, blooming just before the azaleas fade. Black-haw and lindens are fairly alive with honey bees. From the trailing arbutus and the bloodroot in the spring through the violets, trilliums, wildroses, pink and yellow lady slippers, to the last asters of the autumn, there is always a wealth of wild flowers, and even in the winter there is an abundance of the crimson dogwood berries, the blue-black of the hew, the crimson of the winterberry, and the blue of the gum.
While the hiker rarely sees them, there are bear and elk in these mountains, and hunters bring a few black bear in every season. Squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and rabbits abound, despite the red and gray foxes. There are birds of many a feather. It is a treat to take a trip along any part of the trail with a real ornithologist, and there are some real ones who frequent the trail.
One of the most intriguing pictures in the collection of the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club shows a dozen or more hikers on the top of a large boulder craning their necks, looking up in the sky. Upon inquiry it will be learned that they were watching a bird combat -- it was a first-class fight. The hawks brought up some reinforcements and were left with the honors.
The scenery along this section of the trail should not be summarily dealt with for it embraces some of the most beautiful landscapes, and some of the wildest mountains. From Rockfish Gap can be seen what has been called by many travelers the most beautiful landscape in the world. Numberless globe trotters have stood there and looked and looked: yes, looked and looked again, and finally, with an indrawn breath have said, "Oh! See! Look at the wonder God has made for us to enjoy!"
Seven miles away is a cliff projecting from the north end of the Humpback Mountain that is of sufficient elevation to give a wonderful panorama - 50 miles of the beautiful Valley of Virginia, across the valley is a stretch of nearly a hundred miles of the North Mountain and mountains from the middle distance extend along the Blue Ridge away into the distance. From here can be seen the cities of Charlottesville and Staunton and the town of Waynesboro. Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, is readily "picked up," and the location of Montpelier, Ashburn, and Pine Knot can be pointed out by one familiar with the landscape. The Massanutten Mountain, which rises abruptly out of the valley, can be seen far down the valley, while to the east can be seen the Rockfish and Mechum River valleys. This is truly a wonderful viewpoint, and is easily reached by a three-quarter mile climb from the Howardsville Pike.
Southwest of the Humpback is the Devil's Knob from which the rugged mountains spread out about the Bald Mountain make a fine panorama. Off to the left is the Three Ridges - a lonesome mountain, out there by itself, looking as though it might have been "sent out to reconnoitre," rearing its sharp top nearly 4,000 feet into the air. It must afford a wonderful view. The Forest Service has a trail to its top.
Straight ahead, above the nearer mountains, is that massive group consisting of the Priest, Cone, and Main Top Mountain, with the Spy Rock showing its rounded head in the midst. This group may be seen from crests all along the trail. One feature, however, can be seen only from the Bald Mountain - the upper cataract of the Crab Tree Falls, the water fairly glistens in this 500- foot drop. These falls lie about three miles off the trail, east of Montebello, and have a total drop of about 1,100 feet. Numbers of visitors come here during the springtime when the streams are full.
Beyond Montebello the trail climbs by easy grades to the top of Rocky Mountain (elevation 4,010 feet), from which a panoramic view is possible. To the east the foothills of the Blue Ridge, cut off in part by Mount Pleasant and its neighbors, Cole, Bald Knob, and the Cardinal, on the west, the Alleghanies are plainly visible, while the North Mountain is stretched across the picture as though an artist had drawn a level line there. There are numerous excellent viewpoints along the trail, and every view, even of the same mountain, is different.
The next notable viewpoint is the Bluff. The Forest Service maintains a watchman's tower on this mountain, which is several hundred feet higher than any nearby ones. Should the hiker call while the watchman is on duty, he will admit you to his tower and point out objects of particular interest, and explain how, by use of his oriented map and alidade, he locates the smoke of an incipient fire, and through the telephone at his elbow he notifies headquarters, so that the fire fighters can be directed to the spot. The panorama from the Bluff is regarded by many as the most beautiful on the trail.
About five miles above Camp Concord in the James River Gorge, the great rock ledge so apparent in the Rocky Row crops out, and where the trail crosses this ledge is the best viewpoint for the gorge. From this point may be seen the entire gorge, as well as part of the Valley of Virginia and the mountains northeast along miles of the Blue Ridge. This point is 1,500 feet above the James River, which is less than a mile away.
The trail surmounts Thunder Hill and the Apple Orchard Mountain a few miles farther on. The first mentioned is 4,000 and the second 4,224 feet high, the latter being the highest mountain in the Blue Ridge in Virginia. A watchman's tower is to be found on Apple Orchard, and the courtesies extended at the others will be repeated here. The name of this mountain arose from the fact that all forest trees near its summit have a low, bunched growth, giving the appearance of apple trees. Here, again, is a sweeping panorama, and on account of the elevation the view is extensive.
At Mons are the Peaks of Otter. Sharp Top affords in all probability the finest view. Its regular slopes and rock-surmounted top coupled with its separated location, make it, in itself, a striking peak, and the view from its top both near and far is uninterrupted, except by its sister peaks. A trip to its top is always enjoyed.