2 February 2017 – We finally get a sunny day, so I took my dog, Ceilidh (pronounced Kaylee), to spend the afternoon walking the two Compton Gap trails. These family friendly short hikes are a good choice for family hiking, including young children or older people.
Compton Gap, at milepost 10.4 on Skyline Drive, is the south end of the 10-mile long Dickey Ridge Trail, which runs north to the Front Royal entrance of Skyline Drive. It is across the road from a point where the Appalachian Trail (AT) touches the Skyline Drive shoulder, providing easy access to the AT.
It is also the starting point for two shorter walks. These total about five miles, and except for one short, optional climb, are easy. Both are shown on the map at the Compton Gap parking lot. The fine, cold weather brought out several family groups, and I saw both small children and one older person (besides myself) conquering the steepest part of these hikes.
The longer, the Compton Peak trail, takes the AT south for about a mile of steady, easily climbing to a well marked cross trail. I was surprised to see patches of snow along the trail, given that the last snowfall was several weeks ago. Some of that snow had refrozen into small ice patches, so keep an eye out for slippery spots. The climb is rocky, so hiking shoes that can grip well on rock surfaces are required. The trail winds up the hill, past several rock outcroppings that at first glance look like erratics – large boulders dropped by receding glaciers in the last ice age. Actually, they are parts of the greenstone bedrock that are harder than the surrounding stone and have therefore eroded more slowly.
At just about a mile the AC crosses a well-marked east-west trail. Turn right on this to go to a nice view to the west. With the leaves down it is easier to see than it might be in summer.
Take the trail back across the AC and down the slope for perhaps a third of a mile to a large rock outcropping. Follow the trail around to the left of the rock and down a steep stone stair to come out underneath. From there you can see the full structure – thick columns of stone rising out of the bedrock. This is the one steep part of the hike, but it is short and the footing is solid, so it should be well within the capabilities of most day hikers, even young children.
Fort Windham Rocks & Trailside Spring
From there retrace your steps to the parking lot. If you feel like doing more, take the Dickey Ridge Trail, which starts at the north end of the parking lot, a short distance to a marked cross trail. Go left to the Fort Windham Rocks, a tall greenstone outcropping. A narrow footpath to the right spirals around and up the back of the formation to a nice view both of the three rock blades that crown it and of the Great Valley and the distant main range of the Appalachians to the west.
When you get back to the Dickey Ridge Trail, you can optionally walk east and down the slope on the cross trail to a small spring. This is well marked with a concrete post with a yellow band at the start of the short side trail to the spring and another concrete post at the spring, itself.
The Compton Peak walk is 2.4 miles. The Windham Rocks walk is another 0.8 miles, and the walk to the spring adds about another mile down and back. The entire walk took me just over three hours, including stops to take photos.