When Caroline and I were driving along Shenandoah National Park’s epic Skyline Drive last week, we stopped to check out Dark Hollow Falls, but also at the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows to pick up a hiking guide.
The views from that visitor center, incidentally, are pretty great, so definitely make sure to stop by as well when you’re in the park. We were looking for challenging hike in the southern part of the park (living in Charlottesville, we’re nearest to the southern entrance) and our eyes fell upon the Trayfoot Mountain-Paine Run Loop to do the following day.
This 9.6-mile (15.4-kilometer) loop starts at the Blackrock Gap parking lot at milepost 87.4 (just under 20 miles from the southern entrance) and is an absolute beauty. Our guide mentioned it as one of the best hikes to spot black bears in Shenandoah National Park, as it heads deep into the unspoiled wilderness to the west of Skyline Drive and foot traffic is pretty low. It was right.
After leaving the parking lot, the trail follows the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the other side of the road for a bit before crossing it again, for about 1.3 miles (2.1-kilometers) until it reaches Blackrock Summit. This mountain top is one of the most striking in the entire national park, a spectacular pile of large rocks offering exceptional views. (This would be a superb place for some sunset photos, so I’ll definitely be back there in the near future.)
From Blackrock Summit, the Trayfoot Mountain Trail descends a little before heading up toward the summit of Trayfoot Mountain, a distance of no more than approximately 1 mile (1.6 kilometers). After scaling Trayfoot Mountain, which poses no challenge whatsoever and doesn’t offer any views, the trail continues along the ridge, gently making its way downhill. I found this to be an extremely enjoyable part of the hike, a section lined with wildflowers, winding its way along the ridge. The foot of Trayfoot Mountain is reached after a gentle downhill of about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers).
This last section of the Trayfoot Mountain Trail and the first part of the Paine Run Trail is where you’re most likely to spot a bear—the two trails intersect near a mountain stream deep in the wilderness, far removed from the traffic of Skyline Drive, and is an obvious preferred drinking spot for black bears and other wildlife.
To continue this loop, you have to cross the stream—wade across or trust your balancing skills while skipping over the rocks. The Paine Run Trail then continues along the other side of the stream and slowly makes its back up the other side of the valley. Also a horseback riding trail, the Paine Run Trail is much wider and rockier than the Trayfoot Mountain Trail.
The trail crosses a number of smaller mountain streams that flow into Paine Run, which now lies on your left. Often, hikers will have a nice view of the three-dotted slope that leads to the stream, a place ideal for bears. About halfway up the Paine Run Trail—we had been keeping our eyes and ears peeled for wildlife—a noise in a tree startled us and, when looking up, we saw a medium-sized black bear jumping down. After it hit the ground, it ran off in the opposite direction as fast as it possibly could. It happened pretty quickly and I didn’t even have time to point my camera at it, which hung around my neck just in case.
The rest of our hike, scanning the woods for more bear activity even more, we didn’t see any signs of wildlife anymore, except for one turkey that crossed the trail in front of us.
The Paine Run Trail is about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) long in total from its base at the intersection with the Trayfoot Mountain Trail to the Blackrock Gap parking lot. While that trail, being a multi-purpose trail, is less fun to walk on than the Trayfoot Mountain Trail, which is made for hiking alone, the fact that it runs through an area home to black bears makes it absolutely recommended.
All in all, I thought the Trayfoot Mountain-Paine Run Loop was a fantastic hike. It combines a spectacular view from Blackrock Summit at the beginning with beautiful forest scenery, solitude (we didn’t see a single other hiker that day) and one of the best areas to spot black bears, the abundance of these iconic animals being one of the main reasons you should visit Shenandoah National Park.
Happy as we were to have seen one bear during our hike, we were absolutely thrilled to see a mother bear and her three cubs casually crossing Skyline Drive on our way back, bringing our black bear total at five for that day.
Trayfoot Mountain-Paine Run Loop Photos
Trayfoot Mountain-Paine Run Loop Details
Distance: 9.6 miles (15.4 kilometers)
Hike duration: 4 hours
Outing duration: 4.5 hours
Trailhead location: Milepost 87.4 on Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park
Hiking guide: Hiking Shenandoah National Park – A Falcon Guide