Rockytop - Big Run Loop


Description: This is a strenuous 13.8 mile Circuit over some of the most rugged terrain in Shenandoah National Park. If you are in extremely good condition and are contemplating doing this loop as a day hike choose a day during the summer when the days are long. Otherwise, consider doing it as an over-night backpack. The rewards are fantastic views of the Shenandoah Valley, the southern end of Massanutten Mt and the initial ridges of the Alleghenies as well as the beautiful Big Run on the return leg. There are several refreshing swimming holes along the trail.


Be prepared for steep, rocky terrain with frequent exposure to sun during the northernmost part of the ridge walk. Good footwear and sun protection are a must here. Much of the forest was destroyed in a huge fire in 1986 and it has yet to recover. There is no canopy along this section. The 1400 foot descent into the Big Run watershed is pretty steep (1400 feet in less than 2 miles) with sections of loose rock as the tread. The best camping near the mid-point is at the junction of the Big-Run - Portal Tr and the Brown Mt Tr. You'll find a couple of isolated sites along an unofficial trail right on the stream.


To add to the difficulty of the ridge walk there are 7 fords of Big Run and one of Rocky Mountain Run. Most of the time these may be rock hops but during/after periods of heavy precipitation they can easily become wades.


Save some energy for the end of the trek as you will have to climb 1500 feet over about 2 miles before returning to your car.


Google Custom Directions


Special Note: Google Maps and other on-line mapping programs might suggest you use old fire roads that are no longer accessible by automobile. Use a real map to confirm your route. This trailhead is at the Brown's Gap Parking Area, 0.1 miles north of mile post 83 of Skyline Drive, on the west side.




Printable/Downloadable Map

View 3-D Map

Zipped National Geographic. TOPO! GPS and Universal GPX Files

GPS Text File for Non-TOPO! Users


Trail Notes: All trail junctions are signed. All trails are blazed except the unofficial trail that leads to campsites near the mid-point of the hike.


The northbound AT is in the back - right hand corner of the parking area. Follow the AT for 0.57 miles to the junction of the blue blazed Big Run Loop Tr. Turn left onto it. In another 0.67 miles come to a 4X trail intersection. Yellow blazed Madison Run Road Spur is to the left. The continuation of the Big Run Loop Tr (now blazed yellow for equestrian use) makes a sharp right here. You want to continue straight through the intersection onto blue blazed Rockytop Trail.


Pass the junction of blue blazed Austin Mountain Trail on the left in 0.42 miles from the last trail junction. In yet another 1.81 miles pass the junction of the blue blazed Lewis Peak Tr on the left. Up to this point the trail has been mostly flat or slightly uphill with a smooth or grassy tread and, for the most part, under a good canopy. For the next 3.5 miles or so the conditions change 180 degrees. The tread will become very rocky in parts with crossings through several talus rock formations, generally downhill and with frequent and prolonged exposure to the sun. This is where the views start.


In 0.34 miles from the Lewis Peak Tr junction arrive at a large talus rock formation just off of the left side of the trail. This is "the back" of Rockytop. There is no view over the Big Run Drainage from here but you will find a westward view of the valley and Massanutten Mt bracketed nicely by Lewis peak to the south and an un-named peak (you'll walk around it in a bit.) to the north. This is a great lunch spot but be on the lookout for rattlesnakes and copperheads as they both frequent this and other talus slopes along the way.


After lunch continue north on the Rockytop Trail. Initially the trail follows the Lewis Run drainage at a lofty elevation, crossing a couple of large talus slopes.

 Lewis peak will constantly be in site until you veer away from the drainage and climb via some short switchbacks and travel along the northern slope of the previously un-named peak. Almost endless views will continue for the next mile. Some of the trail is terribly overgrown here but it is still easy to follow. As mentioned in the description, the last 2 miles of the ridge walk is a rapid 1400 foot descent over some pretty loose rocks. There are a couple of switchbacks but they are of little help.


At the bottom of the descent turn right onto an old jeep road. This is yellow blazed Big Run - Portal Trail. The first 0.1 miles is on private property but you are within park boundaries soon enough. Descend on the road for 0.47 miles and cross Big Run on a well constructed metal bridge. If you wish to camp for the night turn left and follow the trail to a signpost at the northern terminus of the Brown Mountain Trail. To the left is an un-marked but obvious footpath. Follow it for about 100 yards to a campsite with wading pool on the left. There is yet another one about 100 feet further down the trail. If these are taken continue upstream on the Big Run - Portal Trail. There are some small, hidden campsites off of the trail about 500 yards up from the bridge.


To continue the hike hike upstream on yellow blazed Big Run - Portal Trail. The first ford is about 0.27 miles from the bridge. Cross 3 more fords in another 0.47, 0.36 and 0.18 miles. I'm particularly fond of the swimming hole just above the last one. In 0.12 miles the trail splits with blue blazed Rocky Mountain Run Tr going to the left. Stay straight on the Big Run - Portal trail and soon ford Rocky Mountain Run. Just above this yellow blazed Patterson Ridge Trail comes in from the left. Stay straight on Big Run - Portal Trail.


Three more fords occur at 0.73, 0.24 and 0.19 mile intervals above Patterson Ridge Tr. In another 0.28 miles, to the left, is the best campsite in the area. It is on a bench paralleling the run under some still living Hemlocks. It wasn't mentioned as a potential campsite earlier because it is considerably beyond the mid-point of the hike. If you had the fortitude to continue on after reaching the drainage then this is your place. In another 0.68 miles you'll pass the last campsite along the trail. It is a flat area to the right of the trail. It is overgrown but has some pretty nice flat ground nonetheless. A hundred yards or so beyond that arrive at the junction of the Big Run Loop Trail. Turn right here (Yellow blazed) and climb steadily for 1.2 miles to a 4X trail junction. You walked through it at the beginning of the hike. Turn left onto the continuation of the Big Run Loop Trail (Now blazed blue.) and follow it to the AT. Turn right onto the AT and follow it back to your cars.


Printable/Downloadable Trail Notes

Critique This Outing


More Photos




Name: Hikermel
Date(s) of Hike:08/17/15
Hike Name: Rocky Top~ Big Run Loop
Ranking: 5

Outing Critique: A beautiful August day in Virginia, hot, but not as hot as it could have been. We were three women in our 50s, experienced and avid hikers. Still, I was a little nervous when I had a hard time finding anyone writing of doing the trail in a day! We set out from Brown Gap at 9:44 am returned at 3:41 pm. So six hours altogether including half an hour for lunch under the bridge on the lower portion of Big Run Portal Trail. Overall it was an awesome hike! Rocky Top trail was quite overgrown with weeds and seedling trees, and the water bars had suffered much damage from bears. We did see one young bear on Big Run Portal Trail. I would definitely do this loop again as a day hike. We found it to be easier than Three Ridges (AT- Mar Har Trail starting at Reed's Gap) which is about the same distance.


Name: Tom
Date(s) of Hike: 07/31/15
Hike Name: 
SNP-Rockytop-Big Run Loop
Ranking: 5

Outing Critique:Beautiful area of SNP, among the best in the park.  Relatively underused trails; during the three day weekend I saw seven people.

Hiked down the Big Run Loop Trail and the Big Run Portal Trail, past the intersections with Big Run Loop, Patterson Ridge, and Rocky Mountain Run Trail; set up camp approximately a quarter mile upstream from the Brown Mountain Trail.  Day hiking from base camp on Saturday; returned on Sunday.

Many of the campsites near the trail intersections are closed for overuse.  Still there are at least 15 established campsites open on Big Run Portal Trail  between Brown Mountain Trail and Big Run Loop Trail.  Some are well hidden, so keep your eyes open.  You should be able to find the seclusion you want.  Also, there are campsites of varying sizes, and if you are hiking alone you have a choice of a number of nice places.

You should be able to find an established campsite within 50 yards of every place the trail crosses the stream.  The four campsites at the intersection of Brown Mountain Trail and Big Run Portal Trail, near the bridge, are very nice, but overused.  Some of the campsites upstream are more secluded and less used.

Water is down a little but there is plenty for cooling off after a day hike.

Beware the hike back up to Skyline Drive on Big Run Loop Trail.  One of the more challenging short hikes in SNP on established trails, similar to Big Devil Stairs.  The
1.2 miles on Big Run Loop between the Portal Trail and Rockytop Trail is simply three long switchbacks.  On a warm day start early.  I maintained a steady pace, but it took three hours to get from Brown Mountain Trail to Skyline Drive via Big Run Loop Trail.




Name: John Yancey                                                                                                    Hike: Rocky Top-Big Run

Date(s): 10/03-05/14                                                                                               Rating: 3.7


Critique: I just finished hiking the Rocky Top/Big Run loop with another father and our 11 year old sons and let me start by saying it was a great trip.  Your map and trail notes were spot on and very helpful.  I printed the map and notes and gave them to the boys and let them guide us along the trip.  It improved their map reading skills and gave them a sense of where we were and where we needed to go throughout the trip.  We made the trip a three day/two night back country experience.  We camped the first night at the bottom of the Rocky Top ridge at the junction where it meets the Big Run loop at the campsite you listed to the left after the steel bridge.  It was one of the best campsites I have used in a very long time.

Day one:  We started our hike at about 1030 on Friday October 3rd and arrived at the campsite at about 1800.  The trail was quite strenuous with regards to the terrain.  While mostly downhill the rockiness of the last half of the trail made for slow hiking and some fear of twisted ankles but, the reward of the campsite by the water was worth every grueling step.  The temperature during the day was a perfect 67 degrees and a little overcast which provided ample protection from hiking all day in the sun.  We did not encounter another hiker the entire day.  We made camp and bathed in a small wading pool and had a great supper.  Then made sure all our gear was put away and off the ground as the threat of a cold front was clearly going to make for a stormy night.  Throughout the hike there were numerous signs of bear activity as well as scat, so we were a little concerned about making sure our food was hung properly.  This proved to be the most difficult part of my day trying to find a decent tree in the dark but finally found a decent enough place and hung the food just as the rains began.
Day one:  Strenuous = 4.  Views = 4, Privacy = 5, Wildlife = 2, Campsite = 5.  Overall day one = 4

Day two:  We broke camp after a relaxing breakfast at 1030 and started up the Big Run trail at an easy pace.  We stopped for lunch at one of the pools that was full of small Brooke trout and let the boys fish for about two hours.  They caught several hungry little trout and had a great time.  We then made our way towards the "best campsite" you listed but it was already taken so we continued to the trail junction and camped just past where our climb out would start the next day.  The hike was fairly easy and absolutely beautiful.  We saw more and more bear sign but no bears.  This might have been because our boys were talking, laughing and singing while they hiked and to be honest were somewhat loud.  At any rate the temperature was in the low 60's and the sun was shining and we had a great time hiking and taking in the scenery.  We saw only 8 people the entire day with one of them being the person in the "best campsite" and a group of three making camp about .2 miles to the north of  our campsite.  The campsite we used was just south of the Big Run Loop trail junction and while it was flat and would have been really nice it was completely overrun with poison ivy.  I have hiked the AT from Georgia to West Virginia and numerous other trails and parks throughout the United States and Europe and have never seen so much poison ivy in my life.  Luckily, we spotted the danger and maintained vigilance and nobody got exposed.  Again, I had some issue trying to find a decent place to hang our food but managed.  During the night the cold front moved in with gusto and the temperature dropped to a chilly and breezy 45 degrees.
Day two:  Strenuous = 2.  Views = 4, Privacy = 4, Wildlife = 3, Campsite = 3.  Overall day two = 3.5

Day three:  We broke camp and started our accent at 1045 and made it to the 4X crossing we passed on the first day in just under two hours and then made it back to the parking area with ease.  On the way up the views were incredible as the cold front cleared the skies and really showed off the beauty of this area of the park.  We encountered 17 people during our climb and everyone was, as has always been my experience, very friendly and did not detract from the beauty of the hike.
Day three:  Strenuous = 4.  Views = 5, Privacy = 3, Wildlife = 2, Campsite = n/a.  Overall day three = 3.33

Summary:  All and all this was a great trip although maybe a little tough for a couple of 11 year old city boys on their first ever back country hiking/camping trip.  I plan on doing this one as a two day/one night trip for myself and hope to see more wildlife.  Your notes and map truly were some of the best notes I have used and I want to thank you for putting in the work and making our hiking/camping trip easy to navigate and worry free.




Name: Dan M.                                                                                                               Hike: Rocky Top-Big Run

Date(s): 04/05-06/14                                                                                               Rating: 5


Critique: I have spent a lot of time in SNP, and this by far has to be my favorite hike. I did this in early April as an overnight with my girlfriend. This hike has everything that SNP has to offer. Great views of the valley and rolling mountains. Talus slope crossings. Great wildlife. Stream crossings and a nice walk along a beautiful stream. The trail directions were spot on except THE LAST TWO MENTIONED CAMPSITES ARE NOT THERE. The last two campsites have no camping signs posted in them. I assume they were over used and the park wants to rehab the nature in that area. So if you do this as an overnight and do not want to stop 7 miles in. Make sure you understand there are no official camp sites on the hike. The other thing that I feel the writer left out is you will not come to an area where you can refill your water until the first set of campsites (midpoint Approx. 7 miles in). I did this in April so I was okay with the water I brought. But in the summer, if you don't have enough water this could be tough. You are exposed for a large part of the beginning of this hike if done as the writer dictates the directions. This is a MUST DO hike in SNP. Enjoy!


Name: Janet Emily                                                                                                    Hike: Rocky Top/Big Run Loop

Date(s): 08/07-09/13                                                                                              Rating: 4


Critique: First - thank you so much for this site. It is the most helpful planning site I have found for any area of the US. We followed the route as outlined in the description, but made it two overnights so we could spend more time in the area. For the ridge section, I would add that the nice lunch stop appeared to be the only nice lunch stop. I mistakenly thought I would find another spot farther on, but eventually we hunkered down in some shade right on the trail. The campsites near the bridge were wonderful and we loved the wading pool. The water was warm enough for a refreshing bath. On Day 2 we took a side hike up Brown Mountain Trail. This is roughly 1000 feet over 1 mile so we left our packs at the camp site. There are no pre-made viewpoints, but at the .9 mile mark you'll see a fairly open area that you can climb up and perch on a rock outcrop for a wonderful view. We failed to discover the "best camp site" mentioned. We found one site that could have matched the description, but did not match the GPS distance. The site offered room for 3 tents and was wide, under some hemlocks. But the creek access along the full length of the site was guarded by lush stinging nettles. I found one path through them to collect water. Also, this site was completely hidden from the trail. You have to look for it to find the faint manpath to it. We liked the first campsite better. Also, the last campsite on the trail, just short of the connector to Big Run Loop trail, is bare minimum. It is on the creek side, but there is no water access. On the other side of the trail the site is marked "No Camping". Maybe the "best camp site" was one of these marked "No camping". We were glad we went back to find the "best camp site" and found a good one. We saw a school of Brown Trout, maybe 50 fish, in a pool 1/4 mile prior to our second camp site. Right after a ford. My husband caught 4 trout in a hurry, but they were not quite big enough to eat. It was August. We walked out the final 3 miles the next morning and loved the climb out. Just beautiful, and we were fresh enough to enjoy it.




Name: Melissa                                                                                                            Hike: Rockytop-Big Run Loop
Date: June 2-3                                                                                                            Rating: 4

Critique: My husband, myself, and a friend of ours did this hike as an overnight. We did the loop in reverse as shown on this site, and if I were to do the hike again, I would do it that way again.

I have literally spent hundreds of nights out of doors backpacking, and the campsite we had on this trip was definitely "top tier." This campsite is not located by a symbol on the map! It is on a shelf above the stream and shows signs of frequent tent use and good care (no trash, unsightly fire messes, etc). This is located along the trail at a ford south of the bridge crossing 1-2 miles. Camping = 5.

Describing the trail is somewhat difficult, as the trail's two "sides" are completely different. Nevertheless, I can say that this trail is NOT as strenuous as advertised. Our first day (remember, we are doing this in reverse) was downright easy, a stroll through the woods on a well-marked path. Boredom did not set in, however, as we had some beautiful water to look at and fords to navigate.

Our second day brought the only real climb of any note if you are doing this in reverse. The hike was completely different. Out of the valley, it was rocky and exposed, leading to some nice views. We were also rewarded by seeing two bear cubs and one mama crash around in the brush on the opposite hillside.

Views= 4

Solitude was not high, though my prediction is it would be a little better not on a holiday weekend. Solitude= 2.5

This all sounds good, right? Umm... here's the thing. Our hike was almost ruined by the massive amounts of ticks. During the whole hike, in a time span of less than 24 hours, I found exactly 38 ticks on my person. These included deer ticks and dog ticks of all kinds. Thankfully it is now over a month later, and I have not come down with a tick-borne illness. My dog and hiking partners were also beset by these pests, though as I was hiking in front for the most part, I got it worst of anyone.

I would rate this hike a 4 IF it is hiked not in late spring/early summer. I am rating it a 4 because I believe that is its potential, though our experience was not quite a "4" due to the ticks.

Also, another important note is that the trailhead that "google custom directions" will take you to is not the correct one. If you are coming from the south, you will need to keep going about another 4 miles.
M.R.Hyker Note: I've triple checked the Google Maps Waypoint and it is correct. There is another access point about 0.7 miles further north at the Big Run Overlook. The next access point to this hike is yet another 3 miles north at the Patterson Ridge Trail and there is no parking area there. Preceding critiquers did not note this problem. Did you load the way point into a GPS? Perhaps you made an error?


Name: Blackmamba549                                                                                           Hike: Rocky top-Big Run
Date: March 16-18/12                                                                                              Rating: 5

Critique: Tough Hike. Got food poisoning in the Valley of Browns Mt. trail so that didn't help with the the strenuousness that followed. Pretty views from the Mt tops but the valleys winding rivers and peaceful scenery gave the trail its uniqueness. Plan on doing it again when i am back to full strength!


Name: Jason                                                                                                               Hike: Rocky Top-Big Run Loop
Date: 09-02 to 03-2010                                                                                            Rating: 5

Critique: Did this as an overnight hike, which made for two very manageable 7 mile days. Hike out on Rocky Top is easy with numerous great views. Second half of Rocky Top trail is very exposed, very rocky, and very downhill. Quite tough on the knees. Big Run watershed is beautiful. There are at least probably 10 primo sites along Big Run in the first mile of Big Run Portal Trail, so if one or two are full don't worry. We saw two bear (and I have seen bear other times I have hiked in the Big Run area, so this area obviously has its fair share) and the need to hang your food is very apparent. Big Run is full of trout (mainly small ones) and also saw several snakes around the stream.

Agree with others that the hike out of the Big Run watershed is strenuous but there are certainly many tougher climbs in SNP. This hikes get a 5 in my book, as it is one of the few longer loop hikes in SNP that does not seem like 75% of the hike is uphill (only 1.5 miles towards the end is a legitimate climb) and the isolated Big Run watershed is one of the more serene areas of the park and you probably won't have to share it with many because of the hike to get there.


name: WoodbridgeVa                                                                                               Hike: Rocky Top - Big Run Loop
Date: June 19, 2010                                                                                                   Rating: 5

Critique: Good hike and not quite as strenuous as advertised. I started from Brown's Gap about 6:30 am on the fire road, then up the horse trail to the Rocky Top trail, continued as described in trail guide. The trail surface was actually quite good every where except the far northern section of the Rocky top trail and the descent to Big Run, which is as steep as described. Saw 3 bears and 3 people the entire hike; but the bears ran off before I could get pictures. Lower part of Big Run is one of the most scenic sections of SNP I've been in yet. The climb out was not as tough as I expected and I completed the hike by 4:30 pm.


Name: Bryan                                                                                                               Hike: Rocky Top/Big Run Loop
Date: 4/7 and 4/8/10                                                                                               Rating: 4.5

Critique: Great hike! Great views for the first half as you slowly descend along the ridge tops to the western edge of the mountains to a point where you can see a large swath of the Shenandoah valley below and the Alleghenies in the background. Views for me were amplified because the trees at this elevation hadn't leafed out much yet. When leaves are in full form, I imagine the views will be less abundant, but still pretty amazing. I've been spoiled hiking out west in the Rockies, and I felt like I was in the Rockies at some points along this hike. I found the description on this website to be very accurate and easy to follow. The only reason I can't give this hike a 5 is because I didn't see much wildlife. :(
Make sure to hang your food if you go!


Name: The Tick                                                                                                           Hike: Rockytop- Big Run Loop
Date: 10/11/09                                                                                                          Rating: 5

Critique: This is a great hike that I have avoided for a long time since it was so far south in the park. I was a little apprehensive at first doing this hike as it is stated that you must be in great condition and I am in slightly less than ideal shape. Started out the hike at about 9:30 and it initially starts up a fairly steep incline. This continued for a short period and in the beginning it feels like we were coming to trail junctions pretty frequently. We started up the mountain and although the grade was steep it was not overwhelming. When we got to the top of Rockytop we sat on one of many large rockslides and enjoyed the view. Continued on to Big Run where the decent was very rocky and lots of loose footing. When we got to the bottom, we got to ford Big Run several times and where there were many 6 inch trout in one of the pools. Continued back to the car and ended the hike on a fairly steep grade but thankfully it was over shortly. Great hike, definitely long but we finished at 4:00 so we never faced impending darkness. Would do again. Great hike.


VA Hikes MD Hikes WV Hikes PA Hikes Contact Us Home