Sugarloaf Loop: A Scenic Hike in Shenandoah National Park’s North District
Thursday was the perfect day for a hike, so I set off for Shenandoah National Park to hike the easy-going 5.1-mile Sugarloaf Loop in the park’s North District.
It’s a beautiful hike with far-reaching scenic views, but I will tell you that the views you see on AllTrails are a bit deceptive. Also, a bit closer to Skyline Drive.
On this hike, you’ll cross through wooded forest, take in mountain views and skip across streams. It’s a less popular trail, so you may not even see anyone on the hike.
The hike description on the Keyser Run Area map indicates this hike requires seven hours, but don’t be fooled. You can easily complete this hike in less than three hours.
|Elevation Gain||984 feet|
|Terrain||Mostly dirt & rock trails|
|Fee||$30 per vehicle (good for seven days)|
|Driving Directions||Click Here|
Arriving at the Trailhead
You’ll find a parking area at milepost 22. Here you’ll see the Piney River Technical Building, which housed the offices of park architects and engineers in the 1930’s.
These professionals developed plans for the Civilian Conservation Corps workers creating the park. This area was also home to NP-12 (aka “Camp Red Bird”) of the CCC.
As you walk past the building toward Skyline Drive, you will see the Piney River Trailhead sign on the right. Your hike on the Sugarloaf Loop begins here.
The First Steps
Walk past the large trail kiosk on the right and you will slowly descend along the forested Piney River Trail. Heads up, there is a four-way intersection at the .2-mile mark.
For this loop, you can turn left or continue straight ahead. I opted to turn left, starting on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail for a clockwise loop hike.
At the .4-mile mark, you’ll cross over Skyline Drive, but you’re soon back into the wilderness. Then, a quick reward at the .6-mile mark, but it’s very easy to miss.
In fact, I almost missed the rocky outcrop that wows with wildly scenic mountain views. A short path leads to the top of the rocks. It’s the perfect stop to re-hydrate.
Here, as far as I can tell, you are atop Sugarloaf Mountain. At least that’s what I could gauge from the AllTrails map (though AllTrails is not always entirely accurate).
Once you’ve taken in all the views, continue walking along the Appalachian Trail. At the 1.0-mile mark, the trail splits, but stay right for the Appalachian Trail.
If you were to turn left, you’d be on the Tuscarora-Overall Run Trail on the way to Overall Run Falls. I recently tackled this trail from another direction. So beautiful.
Okay, back to the AT. Continue on, but don’t go too quickly. In a few more steps, there’s a backcountry camping spot on the right that’s just right for a one-person tent.
A short path leads up to the flat space and a separate path leads away from the space. The east-facing views are a bit obscured, but it’s still quite a nice spot for sunrise.
Plan to cross over Skyline Drive again at the 1.4-mile mark. You’ll then reach a rocky outcrop on the left at the 1.6-mile mark with wide-open mountain and valley views.
The views are amazing, but you’re literally just above Skyline Drive. Like 10-15 feet above the road at Hogback Overlook.
I wished the views were “just for me” as a hiker. You know, not available to the average visitor driving along Skyline Drive, but hey, a view is a view. I was happy to take it.
I thought the real prize on this hike was the short section of Appalachian Trail that’s just past this overlook where you can see the mountains, but not Skyline Drive.
At the 1.7-mile mark, your time on the Appalachian Trail comes to an end. At the concrete trail marker, turn right on to the more narrow Sugarloaf Trail.
From here, it’s a simple but relaxing walk in the woods. You’ll descend and cross over a few streams before turning right onto the Pole Link Bridge Trail.
At the 3.5-mile mark, stay right for the Piney Branch Trail. You’ll then cross over the Piney River in a few more steps (more a creek than a river). Then, the ascent begins.
From here, it’s a slow ascent on the Piney Branch Trail all the way back to the trailhead. It’s a nice forested walk, but there are no other views or notable features.
From the parking area, this hike took me just over two hours to complete, including time spent ogling the views at the overlooks. It was far from seven hours.
The Piney River Trailhead is just across Skyline Drive from the Mathews Arm campground and picnic grounds.
For drinks, snacks, souvenirs and restrooms, Elkwallow Wayside is just two miles south on Skyline Drive (open seasonally).
Erin Gifford is the editor of Go Hike Virginia. She has completed more than 300 hikes in Virginia. She is also the author of three hiking guidebooks from Falcon Guides. Need help finding a hike? Check out the Trail Finder feature or send Erin a message.