Spy Rock: Hike to Spectacular 360-Degree Mountain Views Across Nelson County, Virginia

Last Updated on November 27, 2021 by Erin Gifford

Honestly, I can’t recommend the Spy Rock hike in Nelson County, Virginia more highly, especially as a fall foliage hike. Five stars, friends.  

I completed this leafy hike near Montebello on Monday and it was worth every ounce of effort to reach the summit for postcard-perfect 360-degree views.

Appalachian Trail

While the hike is five stars, the parking situation is more like one star. Eesh. If you can, plan to do this hike on a weekday. You will thank me.

The drive in along gravelly Meadows Lane is one I would suggest for a weekday, too. It’s a very narrow road. I would not have wanted to drive this with many other cars.

Trail Stats 
Length5.9 miles
DifficultyModerate
Trail TypeOut-and-Back
Elevation Gain1,270 feet
Duration3-4 hours
TerrainMostly dirt & rock trails
Dog-FriendlyYes
FeeFree
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Spy Rock Directions

First things first, let me share how to get to the trailhead. You’ll want to use the driving directions for Spy Rock Trail via Cash Hollow.

These directions are good (not all AllTrails directions are good) and drop you off right at the trailhead. You’ll see a sign pointing you to Spy Rock and the Appalachian Trail.

Spy Rock Trail Trailhead

To get here, however, you must drive 3.2 miles along a narrow, gravelly road. Thankfully, there are no potholes, though there are two small stream crossings.

As you turn onto this road (Meadows Lane) from State Route 56, a sign warns that this road is only recommended for four-wheel drive vehicles.

Meadows Lane to Spy Rock Trailhead

I have a minivan and had no problems. Just take it slow, especially since you will encounter two stream crossings. They are very small and did not pose a problem.

This trailhead is the best starting point for this hike. You may read about a start from behind the Montebello Fish Hatchery, but that parking lot is no longer open to hikers.

Stream Crossing on Meadows Lane
Stream Crossing on Meadows Lane

The U.S. Forest Service closed that parking lot and associated trail to Spy Rock in December 2020. Do not use the AllTrails directions for “Spy Rock” (3.1 miles).

Spy Rock Parking

The tough part about the closure of the parking lot at the state fish hatchery is that parking at the new trailhead is an issue. As in, there really is no close parking.

Spy Rock Trailhead Parking

At the new trailhead, there is room for two or three cars to park along Meadows Lane. The alternative is to continue on Meadows Lane to Crabtree Meadows.

At Crabtree Meadows, you will see a parking lot that is suitable for at least 15 or 20 cars. There is also a vault toilet. From here, it’s a .6-mile walk to the trailhead.

Crabtree Meadows Parking Area

The walk from the Crabtree Meadows parking area to the trailhead isn’t terrible, but of course, it tacks on an extra 1.2 miles to your total mileage for the day.

Spy Rock Hike

From the trailhead, the hike to Spy Rock begins on Cash Hollow Road (also called Spy Rock Trail). It’s essentially a gravel fire road that leads to the Appalachian Trail.

Spy Rock Gate

Walk around the “Foot Travel Welcome” gate and begin your ascent along this wide trail. Note the good-size primitive campground on your left as you begin to hike.

At the .5-mile mark, you will reach a trail sign. Turn right for the southbound Appalachian Trail to Spy Rock. The trail is behind you. Essentially, make a U-turn.

Appalachian Trail Sign on the Way to Spy Rock

Follow the white blazes as you gently ascend the iconic trail. While Spy Rock is the big prize, there are a few small rewards along the way.

At the 1.8-mile mark, wide-open south-facing views are a real treat. You’ll definitely want to stop to savor the vistas and snap a few photos.

You will hop off the Appalachian Trail at the 2.7-mile mark. Turn left for the blue-blazed spur trail that leads to Spy Rock.

You’ll see a wooden Spy Rock sign, then a large trail kiosk with what to know about camping and protecting rare plants while at Spy Rock.

Spy Rock Trail Kiosk

In the final .2-miles to the bare rock at Spy Rock you will climb steps, then scramble Spy Rock to reach the top and be awed by views across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Note the sign on the right before you scramble to the top. Stay within the fenced in area in order to protect a rare plant known to grow on just two high-elevation peaks.

Spy Rock Rock Scramble

Even with the low fence, you will not feel restricted. You will also be able to take plenty of photos from within the fenced in area that do not include the fence.

For those not keen to scramble to the summit of Spy Rock, there is a gorgeous wide-open view just to the left of the final rock scramble.

Spy Rock Summit

There is plenty of space for everyone on top of Spy Rock. It’s a great spot to enjoy a snack or take a lunch break. From here, re-trace your steps to your vehicle.

Spy Rock Camping

For those eager to camp near Spy Rock, you’re in luck. There are plenty of primitive camping spots for car campers and backpackers.

As you drive in – along Meadows Lane – there are at least a half-dozen spots tucked away with parking spaces. There’s even a camp site to the right of the trailhead.

Spy Rock Fire Ring

You’ll see another camp site to the left after you go around the “Foot Traffic Welcome” gate at the very beginning of this hike. From here, you’ll see fire rings here and there.

Once you turn left onto the spur trail for Spy Rock at the 2.7-mile mark, there are large camp sites (big enough for small groups) on both sides of the trail.

Camping at Spy Rock

These two sites are the closest camp sites to Spy Rock. Camping is not allowed at or near the Spy Rock summit. Note that there is also no water source.

It’s free to camp in the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest and sites are fairly plentiful near Spy Rock. All camp sites are first-come, first-served. 

Wrap-Up Notes

From the trailhead, the 5.9-mile out-and-back Spy Rock hike in the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest took me just over 2.5 hours.

This is a beautiful Central Virginia hike and one that I highly recommend in fall. The colorful fall foliage was so spectacular. I could have sat at the summit all day.

Post-hike, I suggest a drive to the Crabtree Meadows parking area (if you want to continue hiking). From here, there are two short and scenic hikes.

The first is a 2.5-mile hike from the back of the parking lot that leads to the viewing platform atop Crabtree Falls. There are plenty of spots to sit and revel in the views.

Crabtree Falls Viewing Platform

The second hike is a 3.7-mile hike that starts at the front of the lot and leads to Pinnacle Rocks. It’s a quiet, less-traveled trail with big, big views.

Alternate Route

For an alternate route, with plentiful parking to boot, tack Crabtree Falls onto the Spy Rock hike. You will, however, also more than double the length of this hike.

Crabtree Falls Near Montebello, Virginia

Start at the Crabtree Falls Day Use Area on State Route 56. It’s a moderate 1.7-mile hike (one-way) to the top of the falls.

Sit and savor the views across the Blue Ridge Mountains and Tye River Valley from the viewing platform. Then, continue south on the Crabtree Falls Trail.

Crabtree Creek

You will walk alongside burbling Crabtree Creek for 1.3 miles until you reach the Crabtree Meadows parking area.

From here, turn right and walk .6 miles to the Spy Rock trailhead, then make your way to the summit. This out-and-back hike is 13.1 miles.