The Massanutten Trail in the Shenandoah Valley is a treasure for all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts, but especially for adventure-craving mountain bikers with nerves of steel. The 70-mile trail loops around the historic Fort Valley, tracing the rippling ridges of the northern portion of Massanutten Mountain: a 50-mile long by 6-mile wide massif rising up from the floor of the Shenandoah Valley and dividing the Shenandoah River. Located just 80 miles from Washington, D.C., the trail weaves through a sizeable slice of the George Washington National Forest. The loop treats off-road riders to spectacular views of the Blue Ridge and Great North Mountain, offering firsthand insights into the region’s rich history, and providing plenty of technical terrain.
History of the Massanutten Trail
Beyond the vast recreational potential, the extensive Massanutten Trail is also steeped in local history. General George Washington once surveyed the area, the 2,106-foot Signal Knob along the northern corner of Massanutten Mountain was used as a lookout and strategic communication point in the Civil War, and the first of the camps for President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) opened on the eastern slope of Massanutten Mountain during the Great Depression.
The current iteration of the Massanutten Trail was completed in 2002. The idea was first proposed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) back in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the United States Forest Service (USFS) began collaborating in the late 1980s that the idea became a reality. Besides the PATC and the USFS, a handful of other regional trail organizations came together and created a now legendary trail crew, Massarock.
The eastern portion of the Massanutten Trail was cobbled together from portions of track crafted by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the U.S. Forest Service, and the collection of historic routes lining the mountain.
The bulk of the Massanutten Trail is rocky singletrack, interspersed with a few stretches along gravel forest roads, particularly around Veach Gap and Duncan Hollow. The terrain is challenging and thrillingly technical. It’s loaded with obstacles, ridge rides, adrenaline-charged descents, and plenty of punishing climbs. Some of the less-frequented sections of the rugged route can become overgrown—especially in the spring and summer—and portions of the trail are not ridable under even the best of conditions, so expect to encounter periodic hike-a-bike situations. The rock- and root-scattered singletrack also means the Massanutten Trail is a slow ride, with a top speed of about five miles an hour.
Besides bestowing well-deserved bragging rights, the Massanutten Trail also has plenty of highlights. The route is scattered with ridge rides and panoramic vantage points, like a lofty section of trail leading to the Woodstock Tower, which offers views of the dramatic ‘Seven Bends’ of the Shenandoah River.
And don’t worry – there are plenty of endorphin-triggering descents to compensate for all the grating climbs, like the cruise into Edinburg Gap from Kerns Mountain. Riders also have the chance to spot forest residents like black bears, white-tailed deer, and about 175 different species of birds along the route.
Although the Lee District of the George Washington National Forest and portions of the Massanutten Trail are popular with day hikers and weekend warriors, the mountainous loop still feels like a wilderness ride. If you aren’t ready to tackle it all at once, there are also three Forest Service campsites dispersed along the route, all easily accessible from the trail (Camp Roosevelt Recreation Area, Little Fort Campground, and Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area).
Quick Tips: Getting the Most of Your Trip
What to Pack
While sections of the Massanutten Trail are also popular with hikers, runners, and equestrians, especially in warmer seasons, there are also isolated stretches of singletrack along the route and extensive sections without easy road access. Plan to bring a portable repair arsenal, including a standard multi-tool, patch and repair kit, and emergency first aid supplies.
Also, plan on toting plenty of water. While the scattered forest service campgrounds offer a chance for refills, some of the facilities are closed seasonally.
The Massanutten Trail circuit is designated by orange blazes. Pick up a detailed map of the Massanutten Trail from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (Map G-Massanutten Mountain-North Half) or from National Geographic Maps (Massanutten and Great North Mountain).
The trail is popular with outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts, so expect to potentially encounter horses along some stretches of the circuit. During part of the year, hunting is also allowed in portions of the George Washington National Forest, including the Peters Mill Run area, so be sure the check the guidelines from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Access and Resupply Points
While the leafy loop is essentially a forest ride, there are several places to resupply mountain bikers scattered along the Massanutten Trail. Road access points include Edith Gap (SR 675), Crisman Hollow Road (at the southern end of the circuit), Edinburgh Gap, Woodstock Tower (on the seasonal Woodstock Tower Road), and in the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area (Fort Valley Road). All of the camping areas scattered along the route are also road-accessible, make it easy to do a supply drop or to meet up with non-mountain-bikers for the evening.
There are also several starting points for the Massanutten Trail, with parking available for off-road riders. Easily-accessible parking for the Massanutten Trail is available at the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area and in Edinburgh Gap (along SR 675). If possible, plan to finish at the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area, and grab one of the campsites beside Passage Creek, one of the Shenandoah Valley’s picturesque trout streams.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated in partnership with Shenandoah County.
Featured image provided by Chris Connelly