PATC’s 90th Anniversary Hike #5: Piney Ridge – Hull School Area

The Route is an 11-mile circuit hike starting at the Overall Run Parking lot adjacent to Milepost 21 on Skyline Drive and proceeding south on the AT to the intersection with the side trail to Range View Cabin. Descending Piney Ridge and Knob Mountain trails to Hull School Trail, the hike crosses Piney Branch to ascend to the Bolen Cemetery. The third leg ascends Keyser Run Road to the four-way at the top of Little Devil Stairs to return to the starting point via Pole Branch and Sugarloaf trails.

Hikes 1 thorough 3 in this series followed the initial PATC activities in establishing the AT from Harper’s Ferry to Manassas Gap in 1927 and 1928. Hike 4 covered the subsequent extension from Thornton Gap to Skyland in the early1930’s in the Central District of Shenandoah National Park (SNP); the AT was officially completed to Swift Run Gap in September 1934. Hike 5 is in the Northern District of SNP and will discuss the impact of the Civilian Construction Corps (CCC) and the formal establishment of SNP in 1935 with an emphasis on the effects of these developments on the PATC and on the “mountain folk” who lived in the area.
Distance: 11.0 miles

Total ascents: 1100 feet
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. Proceed north on Skyline Drive just before milepost 21 to the Overall Run parking area on the left.
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
0.0 From the left side of the parking lot by the Overall Run information sign, go south on AT.
0.4 Concrete post on the right marks the intersection the AT with the Tuscarora Trail, which descends past Overall Run, the tallest waterfall in the park at 93 feet. [In 1968, private ownership of land in northern Virginia led to the formation of a committee to lay out a bypass trail that would extend westward over mostly undeveloped lands and reconnect to the AT in central Pennsylvania. This would serve as the alternate AT should the need arise. The PATC laid out the southern section, originally called the Big Blue. The 252 mile long trail was officially opened on October 11, 1981].
0.8 Scenic overlook of Shenandoah Valley
1.0 Cross Skyline Drive (SLD) [The original AT was laid out by the PATC using the “New England” method in which vegetation was removed without any concern for the grade of the tread. When the Civilian Construction Corps (CCC) was established in 1933 and SLD was initiated, the original AT was essentially obliterated. The CCC built the new AT per National Park Service standards with full trail grading. The PATC reportedly very impressed with the new, improved AT].
1.2 Piney Branch Trail intersects on the left, crossing to a parking area on Skyline Drive to the right. Continue straight on the AT.
1.4 Intersection with old forest road; keep left as road goes straight at cement post marks AT ahead.
1.8 Go left at post marking short trail to Range View Cabin, just downhill from the intersection. Note the fine stonework of the cabin and signs for the privy on the left and for a spring at the bottom of the glade. Proceed to the right uphill on the mowed grassy strip. [Range View Cabin was one of the first PATC cabins to be built along the AT. When construction started in 1933, local hoodlums harassed the workers and vandalized the site to the point that the PATC corresponded with the local sheriffs to seek redress. Ultimately the problem was solved by the stone mason that was hired by PATC to complete the cabin. Known in the hollow as a “bad man” his reputation served to dissuade the ruffians; the shotgun that he propped up at the work site contributed].
1.9 Turn left at the cement marker where the Piney Ridge Trail proceeds downhill.
2.6 Enter an area that extends for about a half mile dominated by white pines [It is evident from the size of the white pines that they have been here for several hundred years and are the basis for the name Piney Ridge for the mountain and Piney Branch stream at its base. The lack of undergrowth is due to the covering of pine needles, which make the soil too acidic for most other plants.]
3.8 Small rock cairn on the right marks a short side trail that leads to an overgrown cemetery [Contrary to modern burials in established cemeteries, the mountain people buried their dead in family plots that adjoined their homes. As sons and daughters frequently took up residence nearby and parents and grandparents passed on at home, these cemeteries became family burial grounds. This area was the family burial plot of the Dwyer family; two of the ancestral graves have been recently provided new stones to mark the final resting place of the patriarch Thomas (1796-1870) and his wife Mary (1790-1865). The graves of sons and grandsons are in varying stages of degradation.]
3.9 Concrete post marks the intersection with Knob Mountain trail as the Piney Ridge trail goes left downhill. Continue straight on the Knob Mountain trail.
5.2 Turn left on the Hull School Trail where Knob Mountain trail ends. [The Hull School was about one-half mile to the right adjacent to the Thornton River. It provided elementary education to the children of the area, notably those of the Dwyer and Bolen families. Those who continued their schooling beyond grade 6 had to take a bus to the Sperryville High School, now “The Schoolhouse” on Route 211 about 3 miles from the SNP park boundary.]
5.7 Turn left at the concrete post as the Piney Branch Trail which joins from the left goes straight ahead, exiting the park in 1.5 miles. Shortly cross the Piney Branch stream.
5.9 Turn right continuing on Hull School trail uphill as Piney Branch trail joins at the cement post.
6.7 Turn left as Hull School trail ends on Keyser Run Road. The Bolen Cemetery is conspicuous just beyond the turn. Continue uphill on Keyser Run Road [This relatively large cemetery is the Bolen Family Plot, with the remains of the patriarch John Henry Bolton (1831-1914) and his wife Mary (1836-1918) with recently installed headstones in addition to many other relatives, including some Dwyers. The Bolen Family was quite prosperous, owning 1,000 acres, an eight bedroom house, and numerous outbuildings. A plaque with a poem entitled ‘Why the Mountains Are Blue’ is an elegy to the people who were evicted and relocated when Shenandoah National Park was established; this was likely especially bitter for the Bolens.]
7.1 Intersection with an old road or access on the left. What may be the foundation stones for one of the Bolen’s outbuildings are just beyond the brush line at the end of the access road. Continue up Keyser Run Road. [The traditional name of the road was Jinney Gray Road for one of the residents that lived on it. Legend has it that she was quite fetching and many suitors plied these paths. The National Park Service changed the name to Keyser Run Road in 1980].
8.8 The cement post on the left and intersecting trails mark “4-Way” where Little Devil Stairs joins from the right and the Pole Branch Link goes left. [According to Darwin Lambert, the first park ranger in SNP and author of ‘The Undying Past of Shenandoah National Park’: ‘One day, I asked Winfield Sisk, aged 13, to lead me to the Devil Stairs – the bigger of the two. He told me the gorges of Little Devil Stairs and Big Devil Stairs ‘ain’t different in size. It’s the devils that’s different’ He thus introduced me to the realm of haunts. He didn’t know if they were stillers but he reckoned they’d been some kind of human.’] Turn left on Pole Branch Link trail.
9.3 Turn right on Sugarloaf trail to ascend to the AT
10.7 Turn left on AT
10.9 View on the right of Hogback Mountain and SLD below. [The proximity of the AT and SLD at this point is a good example of the CCC work that so effectively positioned both vehicle and foot conveyances by grading to make the vistas equally grand.]
11.0 Reach the Overall Run Parking area and the completion of the circuit.
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.