Signal Knob: Hike to a Historic Civil War Overlook Near Front Royal

I was eager to get out of the house – and eager to get a long hike under my belt – so I set my sights on the Signal Knob hike near Front Royal on a recent Wednesday.

This forested 10.7-mile hike in the George Washington National Forest was a good choice on a late-fall day. There was so much to see through the now barren trees.

But first, hunters. I knew it was hunting season, so I brought along my bright-orange ski hat. I was still surprised to see a half-dozen in the lot when I arrived at 8 am.

They were in head to toe camo. Well, they did have bright-orange caps, too. They also had a pack of hound dogs that were beyond eager to begin the hunt.

I walked over to speak with one of the hunters – primarily to calculate my level of safety. They were bear hunting. Or rather, “bear hounding” this day.

I’m not a hunter and don’t condone “bear hounding” (as I later learned what exactly it was all about), but I felt rather safe and set out to hike to Signal Knob.

Trail Stats 
Length10.7 miles
DifficultyStrenuous
Trail TypeLoop
Elevation Gain2,257 feet
Duration5-6 hours
TerrainMostly dirt & rock trails, some rock scrambles
Dog-FriendlyYes
FeeFree
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Arriving at the Trailhead

As you motor on to the parking area, you’ll pass open land with green lawns and small homes along Fort Valley Road. It feels like the outskirts of suburbia.

Signal Knob-Parking Area

Once you go by the welcome sign into George Washington National Forest, the landscape completely changes as you follow Passage Creek the next two miles.

You will feel a million miles away from civilization as you drive along the winding two-lane road through the dense national forest.

Now in the Passage Creek Day Use Area, the parking lot for the Signal Knob hike on the Massanutten Trail soon appears on the right-hand side.

The First Steps

The parking lot is large and the trailhead is relatively easy to locate. You can pick up the trail just past the “Road Closed” sign in the middle of the parking lot.

Signal Knob-Trailhead

Or better, access the trail from the north end of the parking area. Here you’ll see a small bench on the left and a wooden trail sign. Proceed for a counter-clockwise loop.

You can complete this trail clockwise or counter-clockwise. Going counter-clockwise, the first half is pretty rocky, the second half is much less so. This worked for me.

Signal Knob-Massanutten Trail

The hike begins with a mild ascent through the forest on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. At the .3-mile mark, you’ll see an old stone house on the left.

The stone house looks both fairly well-kept and abandoned at the same time. I imagine the road behind the “Road Closed” sign leads up to this mountain home.

Signal Knob-Massanutten Trail

As you continue on, you’ll see a small stream on the right, then a rocky talus slope on the left near the .5-mile mark. Take in the views through the trees with each step.

At the 1.5-mile mark, you will reach what is marked on the map as Buzzard Rock Overlook. However, it is not this Buzzard Rock Overlook, which is also in the area.

Signal Knob-Buzzard Rock Overlook

At the overlook, you’ll see a stone fire pit. Given the views are east-facing I imagine this must be a delightful spot to watch a brilliant sunrise around a campfire.

Proceed on and you’ll soon find rock scramble after rock scramble. They aren’t massive or especially challenging, but they do get tiresome after a little while.

Fort Valley Overlook

At the 2.3-mark, you’ll reach the Fort Valley Overlook. This narrow overlook is marked by a small trail sign on the left-hand side of the hiking trail.

Proceed on and you’ll pass a couple more fire rings with a good bit of space to set up tents for the night to enjoy north-facing views.

At the 3.4-mile mark, the trail splits. To the left is the white-blazed Meneka Peak Trail which leads to – yes, you guessed it – Meneka Peak.

Continue past this trail to stay on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. At the 4.3-mark, you’ll see another fire ring and a primitive camp site with west-facing views.

In a few more steps, you’ll reach a radio tower and transmission facility for the local public broadcasting station. I thought maybe this was why it was called Signal Knob.

I was wrong (as I learned post-hike). There actually is great historical significance to Signal Knob that dates back to the Civil War.

Confederate officers used Signal Knob as a lookout point during the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864. The lookout allowed them to surprise unsuspecting Union soldiers.

Continue walking past the radio tower and you will see a fire pit and a semi-obstructed overlook on the right. There are nice views, but this is not the overlook.

Keep walking and at the 4.6-mile mark you will reach the Signal Knob Overlook on the right. There is a wooden sign, so you will know you have arrived.

The overlook is quite large and offers wide-reaching, unobstructed views of the Shenandoah Valley. It’s the perfect spot to re-fuel and re-hydrate.

At the end of the overlook, get back onto the trail, which is now a gravel service road. Descend along this road until you reach a trail kiosk at the 5.9-mile mark.

Turn left here onto the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail. You’ll ascend for about .7-mile along mildly rocky terrain, but then it’s nearly all downhill back to the parking area.

At the 6.6-mile mark, the trail again intersects with the Meneka Peak Trail. Do not turn left. Proceed straight ahead to remain on the Tuscarora Trail.

From here, it’s mostly easy-breezy along the forested trail. Until you reach the 8.4-mile mark, that is. The trail sign indicates a right turn to Signal Knob Parking.

Do not turn right onto the Sidewinder Trail. This will not return you to your vehicle. It’s very confusing. Instead, stay straight on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail.

At the 9.3-mile mark, the trail intersects with a white-blazed trail. Continue straight ahead on the blue-blazed trail over a small creek.

You’ll see one last fire ring and campsite on the left at the 9.4-mile mark. At the 10.1-mile mark, stay left to get back onto the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail.

There is a group camping site and restrooms just down a spur trail to the right at the 10.4-mile mark. At last, you will reach the parking area at the 10.7-mile mark.

Wrap-Up Notes

From the parking area, the Signal Knob hike took me nearly 4.5 hours to complete. I definitely picked up speed on the back half on the final 4.0-mile descent to my car.

From here, Front Royal is less than a 20-minute drive. Re-fuel at a Main Street fave, like Front Royal Brewing Co. or L’Dees Pancake House.

Stroll the streets of historic downtown or sit awhile in the gazebo in the town square. From Front Royal, you’re also a short six-minute drive to Shenandoah National Park.