- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

WOODSTOCK, Va. — For couples, Big Schloss is one of the most accessible and best day hikes within driving distance of the Washington area. The 4-mile round-trip hike is about a two-hour drive west of the Capital Beltway and just a few miles west of quaint Woodstock. German pioneers christened Big Schloss in the early 19th century, thinking the huge, bare rock outcropping looked similar to a large castle standing above the mountains in their homeland. The views from Big Schloss are beautiful and rare.

Once off Interstate 81 at Woodstock, much of the scenery is almost old-time Virginia as you drive west through Columbia Furnace toward West Virginia. Along the way, you pass small antiques shops and country grocery stores.

Working farms and ranches line the country roads. Horses and Black Angus cattle dot the pastures. As you pass through the little villages of Silver City, Calvary and Millertown, old but newly painted churches are the largest buildings to be seen from the country lanes.

If you are lucky or observant enough, you will see a flock of wild turkeys, deer or maybe a hawk or two. In season, be sure to stop at one of the fruit stands along the way.

What makes this hike so special, beyond the stunning views, is that this walk is available almost any day of the year. As long as there is no snow or ice on the trail, your path is safe and easy to follow.

The Wolf Gap Campground, where you begin your trek, is modern and well-kept. There are nine campsites with grills and picnic tables, as well as maintained pit toilets, pump water, ample parking and trailer/tent sites. This is a popular hiking destination, but days can pass with no visitors, so you may be lucky and have the campgrounds to yourself.

The trail up to Big Schloss starts behind campsite No. 9. It steepens quickly, allowing you to complete the most challenging part of the hike first. Plus, there are plenty of large boulders along the way that make great resting spots. Because the area is so lovely and it is just 2.2 miles to scenic cliff-edge views, take your time. Have a sip of iced tea or explore the woods closest to the trail. On most days, if you sit quietly, you might hear woodpeckers, jays or noisy little gray birds nesting and scrounging nearby.

If you make this hike when the leaves are off the trees, as you move up the steepest part of the first half of the trail, look to your left about a mile away through the bare trees. You will see Big Schloss’ large stone outcropping shining gray-white. That is where you are headed. You will gain a new appreciation for the mountainous topography of the area if you do this hike after the leaves have fallen. November through March is a great time to appreciate this mountainous terrain.

About three-fourths of a mile up the steep, turning trail, the rewards of this hike become apparent. At the ridgeline, you turn to the left and continue on a somewhat flatter trail heading to Big Schloss.

Before you start walking, though, be sure to take in the incredible panoramic views to the east. You will spot other nearby mountains that also offer hikes, as well the Shenandoah Valley spreading out below, its little farms and houses dotting the landscape.

You are now walking on the border, with West Virginia on your left and Virginia on your right. If the weather is right, you might see low-hanging clouds below, an unusual event, to be sure. Normally, you would have to hike a much taller mountain range to enjoy a similar panorama.

While stopping at many of the overlooks along the way, take in the incredible views in both states. There are plenty more rocks made for sittin’ along the way, offering opportunities to rest, relax, sip cold drinks, take photos and breathe the crisp mountain air.

The path now becomes a bit challenging. At times, it is almost level, and then you will do some up-and-down walking as you get closer to Big Schloss. Keep your eyes open and camera ready as you walk this state border.

About three-fourths of the way out to Big Schloss, the trail turns right, and steeply, onto Forest Service 1004A, heading toward the cliff edge. Keep an eye out for the trail sign. If you proceed straight ahead, you will continue on the Mill Mountain Trail (Forest Service 1004) and hike down off the mountain. This is a popular horse trail as well.

After a steep — but short — hike up, you will be near the halfway point of your hike, where you will find a well-constructed wooden bridge that provides magnificent views of the area. Another five minutes of rock scrambling along the trail brings you atop the Big Schloss outcropping for one of the best views in all of Northern Virginia. On clear days, you can see for many miles on a 270-degree view.

Be sure to have lots of sunblock for your face and binoculars and camera for the views. If you wish to test your courage, you can walk to the very edge of Big Schloss. The view straight down is dizzying, so be careful. The more cautious adventurers approach the edge on hands and knees.

After soaking in the views, return the same way you arrived. Once you are back at your car and camp spot, break out the charcoal or use the abundant ground wood for your hot dogs or veggie burgers on the campsite grill. The loop through the campgrounds is another short side hike.

While your partner is getting lunch started, take a stroll around the campgrounds, checking out each campsite.

The trail to Big Schloss is about a two-hour drive from the Interstate 66 exit off the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) in Fairfax County. From I-66, get on Interstate 81 south and take the Woodstock exit; off the exit ramp to Woodstock, turn right onto state Route 42 south for about seven miles. Once you are in Columbia Furnace, turn right onto Route 675 (Wolf Gap Road) and drive for about 6 miles as the road follows a shallow river and then begins to climb to Wolf Gap; after about half of that distance, turn right and continue on Route 675 to the Wolf Gap Campground.

Big Schloss is part of the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. If you have questions, including local weather conditions, you can contact the Lee Ranger District at: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Lee Ranger District, 109 Molineu Road, Edinburg, VA 22824; phone 540/984-4101; e-mail [email protected]; Web www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/lee.

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