Thornton River Loop

  • Highlights: Appalachian Trail, stream crossings, wildflowers, history
  • Distance: 7.8 miles loop
  • Elevation change: 1,780 feet
  • Difficulty level: Strenuous
  • Trailhead Parking: Skyline Drive Thornton River Trailhead parking area mile 25.4, park fee required
  • Website: AllTrails
  • Beer Pairings: Iron Pipe Aleworks—Shapeshifter IPA & Gandalf the Haze IPA 

The Hike:

This hike doesn’t have amazing views or spectacular waterfalls. However, if you are looking for solitude and a pleasant walk in Shenandoah, this is the hike. It includes a section on the Appalachian Trail, Byrd’s Nest #4 trail shelter,  several river crossings, and traces of early settlers who lived here before the National Park. 

This loop hike combines several trails, so pay attention at trail junctions. The trail is well marked; however, due to the lack of foot traffic, it can be overgrown in summer and there were several down trees. We saw only four other hikers during a recent weekend hike, and they were all on the AT section of this hike.

Begin the hike at the unnamed parking area at milepost 25.4. There is a post at the end of the parking lot marking the Thornton River trail. This is our return trip. To reach the trailhead, face Skyline Drive and turn left. Walk about 100 yards and cross Skyline Drive at the trail post. Enter the woods climbing uphill on the blue-blazed Thornton River Trail for .3 miles to the junction with the AT. 

Turn left on the AT and follow the white blazes of the AT south. At 1.8 miles turn left on the yellow-blazed Neighbor Mountain Trail. Byrds Nest Shelter #4 is located in a small clearing at 2.4 miles. The late Senator Harry Byrd was a hiking enthusiast and donated the funds to build four trail shelters in Shenandoah.

The Neighbor Trail becomes a fire road and descends .3 miles to Skyline Drive. Cross the road and look for a trail post marking the blue-blazed Hull School Trail. The next two miles are downhill and rocky passing through forest of hardwoods. Make the first of several stream crossings and at 4.7 turn left on the blue-blazed Thornton River Trail.

The climb back to Skyline Drive begins and over the next 3 miles the hike gains nearly 1,200 feet. The grade is gradual and there are numerous stream crossing and relicts of early settlers to distract you from the elevation. Look for stone walls built by farmers in the days before the park. 

In the spring or after periods of heavy rain, the stream crossings may be a bit tricky due to high water. We had not trouble crossing in October and keeping our feet dry. At 6.7 miles find the rusted remains of an old vehicle chassis abandoned long ago. Continue the climb back to Skyline Drive and the parking area.

Hike Photos:

Click on an image below for an enlarged view.

Beer Pairing: 

There are several breweries located nearby in Sperryville (Hopkins Ordinary Beerworks and Pen Druid) and Hawksbill Brewing in Luray. We decided to try Iron Pipe Aleworks in Orange, Virginia about 35 miles south of Sperryville. This small-batch brewery has great beer, hand-made brick oven pizza, and indoor and outdoor seating. This family-owned brewery is dog and kid friendly.

Pete liked Shapeshifter, a west-coast style IPA made with Citra hops. It was nicely hopped with pine and resin notes. Kathy really enjoyed Gandalf the Haze, a hazy New England-style IPA. Both beers paired perfectly with a hand-tossed Margherita pizza.

Hike and drink responsibly. Never drink and drive. Stay safe, be responsible, and leave no trace.