PATC’s 90th Anniversary Hike #4: Skyland – Corbin Cabin Area

Signs of trail maintenance on the AT near its junction with Nicholson Hollow Trail
This 9.3-mile route consists of two loops connected by an out-and-back segment in Shenandoah National Park (SNP). Ascents along the way total 1800 feet. The hike follows the current path of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Skyland, passes Stony Man Mountain, visits Corbin Cabin, and returns on a historic part of the AT now called the Passamaquoddy Trail.

The hike touches or passes near sites where pivotal events in AT development occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Even as work continued on the AT between Harpers Ferry and Front Royal, PATC’s early members camped at Thornton Gap in April of 1928 to plan the route south into what is now SNP’s Central District. Despite roads approaching Sperryville that were “barely passable at times,” and despite having to pack their equipment up and along the Blue Ridge from there, the trail builders worked quickly. On October 6 of that year, club bulletin #5 declared the trail from Thornton Gap to Skyland open.

Skyland Resort and its owner were significant factors in the trail’s progress. Skyland predates both the AT and SNP. Its founder, George F. Pollock, played a role in developing both. An early ally of PATC’s founders and an energetic advocate, he helped to convince various agencies that the AT should follow the Blue Ridge past Skyland rather than taking a ridge farther west. When the National Park Service was considering creation of a park in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the 1929-1933 presidency of Herbert Hoover, Pollock joined PATC in promoting the idea. Skyland cabins and campgrounds served as a base for PATC’s trail builders and, a few years later, for construction of the first stage of Skyline Drive. The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also worked in this area, relocating AT segments to make room for the Drive. Among sites within hiking distance are Hoover’s retreat at Rapidan Camp; the site of PATC’s first cabin; Corbin and Lambert cabins (the core of Lambert being among the oldest of the club’s facilities, dating from before the Civil War); the ruins of the mountaineer community in Nicholson Hollow; and Stony Man Mountain.

Useful references: PATC’s “Appalachian Trail Guide to Shenandoah National Park;” PATC Map #10; “Breaking Trail in the Central Appalachians,” by David Bates (PATC, 1987); “A Footpath in the Wilderness,” edited by Carol Niedzaliek (PATC, 2003); ”Origin of the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park . . .” by Walter W. Mallonee (1995 monograph); “Skyland, the Heart of Shenandoah National Park” by George F. Pollock (Virginia Book Co., 1960); “Shenandoah Secrets” by Carolyn and Jack Reeder (PATC, 2011).
Getting there: From the capital area, take I-66 west and US 29 south to Warrenton, VA. From Warrenton, take US 211 west to the Thornton Gap entrance to Skyline Drive. Go south on Skyline Drive past milepost 41 to Skyland’s north entrance on the west side of the Drive. Park in Stony Man Trail Parking Lot on the right.
Fees: $25 per carload for a 7-day pass; 7-day pass for those who hike or bike in is $10; $50 annual pass

The Trail

The view from Stony Man Cliff can be breathtaking, but
sometimes the AT there is a walk among clouds above 3000 feet

0.0     From the right side of the parking lot, hike north on the Stony Man/AT Trail. Pets other than those with thru-hikers on the AT are not allowed on this shared segment of the trail. [PATC’s trail builders, SNP planners, and Skyline Drive’s engineers and construction crews were all enthusiastically welcomed and supported at Skyland. However, George F. Pollock, Skyland’s founder, and PATC volunteers both reported some difficult relationships with local folk. While Pollock employed many at Skyland, he reported that other locals stole or trashed his property, and that one beat him badly during a chance encounter in Nicholson Hollow. After that encounter, Pollock wrote that he carried a pistol whenever he ventured into the hollow again. PATC volunteers recounted both helpful locals, including some who opened their cabins to shelter them, and – on one occasion – some who set brush fires to drive them away.]
0.4     At a 3-way junction, fork right to descend and continue on the AT. Alternatively, go straight for an optional side trip to Stony Man’s summit, then return to the AT. [At 3,837 feet, this is the AT’s highest elevation in SNP. Stony Man was the locus of copper mining in the 1800s; the Miner’s Lode Copper Company dug a shaft 50 feet into the mountain in the 1850’s. Pollock’s father was a member of the mining venture, which at one time held rights to over 5,000 acres in this area. While the venture failed, an 1887 visit by young George left a strong impression. Though the area was nearly inaccessible, he returned years later to build the Skyland complex.]
1.0     Take in the fine view over Shenandoah Valley from Little Stony Man cliff, then descend via a series of switchbacks. [Copperheads and rattlesnakes were among the challenges faced by workers on both the AT and Skyline Drive; heavy leather boots were preferred and some claimed that fangs of venomous snakes were broken off in them. On one documented occasion, a power shovel working on the Drive brought up a nest of snakes, sending eight to ten men and a larger number of snakes “about equally frightened” off in every direction. Despite such challenges, the Drive section between Big Meadows and Thornton Gap was completed by crews working out of Skyland in 1932.]
1.2     Continue north on AT, past a left turn to Passamaquoddy Trail. Ahead, the trail runs near Skyline Drive and passes two short access paths leading to parking lots along the Drive.
2.3     Turn right to follow blue-blazed Nicholson Hollow Trail. Ahead, pass a turnoff for Crusher Ridge Trail and angle left across Skyline Drive to descend into the hollow. [Nicholson Hollow was home to about 20 families along the Hughes River. Before Prohibition, the residents made apple brandy from Milan apples said to be the finest in the country. For transport to markets, they carried their goods to the community of Nethers at the bottom of the trail. Rumor has it that illicit production and transport continued during Prohibition.]
4.0     Cross the headwaters of Hughes River.
4.2     At a concrete marker, continue descending Nicholson Hollow Trail past its junction with Indian Run Trail (also blue-blazed). Shortly, cross Indian Run. [Tree species here and elsewhere in the park have changed radically since PATC’s crews cut the trails. Chestnuts were once a rich source of food for people and animals alike. Blight in the early 1930s turned dense stands into skeletons, and little evidence remains of them. More recently the Woolly Adelgid, an invasive insect from East Asia, has decimated majestic hemlock groves.]

NPS workers taking a break from Corbin
Cabin week-long upkeep maintenance

4.3     At the concrete post by Corbin Cabin, turn left onto Corbin Cabin Cutoff Trail and cross Hughes River. [Restored and added to PATC’s cabins inventory in 1953, this dwelling is much older. Corbin was reputedly the chief supplier of moonshine to Skyland and other consumers during the Prohibition era. The Corbin Cabin cutoff trail was the route used by Virgil Corbin to carry water to the men who worked on Skyline Drive. Corbin’s price for the water wasn’t recorded, but construction workers on the Drive earned 20 cents an hour.]
5.8     After a steep climb, cross Skyline Drive and a parking lot to the AT. Turn left to return to Skyland. [A right turn on the AT here leads about a mile north to the site of Sexton Shelter (See map). Built in 1930, Sexton was what’s called a cabin in today’s terminology. It was PATC’s first. Moved to George Washington National Forest and rebuilt twice, Sexton finally closed in 1986.]
6.5     Cross Crusher Ridge Trail and continue straight on AT. [Blue-blazed Crusher Ridge Trail goes downhill and west from this junction to Lambert Cabin. Darwin Lambert, the late owner of the cabin, was a major contributor to PATC and Shenandoah conservation in several ways. Donated to the club in 2007, the cabin has a core that dates to the 1830s – probably the oldest element in PATC’s inventory. Crusher Ridge Trail was named for the old wagon road used to haul a rock crusher to the Skyline Drive construction site.]
6.7     At the junction first encountered at the 2.4-mile point, continue south on AT past the turnoff to Nicholson Hollow Trail.
7.8     At the junction first passed at 1.3-mile point, fork right onto Passamaquoddy Trail, which soon curls south along a ledge on Stony Man’s western slope. [Passamaquoddy follows the original AT alignment. Skyline Drive’s designers took advantage of much of PATC’s work when the Drive was built in the early 1930s. The National Park Service then realigned the AT, with much of the work being done by young men in the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC also built camps and other facilities in SNP.]
7.9     Enjoy view from rock ledge at Passamaquoddy Overlook. Ahead, take in views of the cliff face and a small waterfall on the uphill side of the trail.
8.8     A concrete marker at Furnace Spring marks the junction of Passamaquoddy Trail and Skyland Fire Road. Turn left onto the road and then immediately left again to follow the yellow-blazed Furnace Spring Trail. Initially the trail parallels Passamaquoddy in the reverse direction, then it turns uphill and goes through a relict grove of hemlocks.
9.3     Left turn at a T intersection leads 100 yards to the end of the hike in the same parking lot where the hike began. [The 4th conference of AT organizations was held in 1930 at Skyland. Some 160 people attended, including Forest Service and Park Service representatives. There was much to celebrate and much more to plan.]
Download the Map
(Adobe PDF File)
About this series. . .
Between 1927 and today, PATC’s founders and their successors built a 240-mile section of the Appalachian Trail, created the Tuscarora Trail, made dozens of cabins and shelters available to hikers, and took on maintenance responsibility for over 1000 miles of paths in the club’s 4-state service area. The hikes described in this series pass landmarks in PATC’s history and celebrate nine decades of remarkable evolution in our national trail network. Larry Broadwell and William Needham co-write the series, and Brian Goudreau provides maps. Tom Johnson contributed to this entry.