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Hiking trail guide: Signal Knob, Front Royal, Virginia.
Basic trail guide and my experiences
Signal Knob hiking trail in George Washington National Forest
Front Royal, VA 22630
United States of America
While Front Royal, Virginia is probably most famous for being the town at the northern tip of the Skyline Drive, there is another natural treasure just a few miles outside of town which has no admission fee, fewer crowds and offers great exercise and fabulous views. This is the Signal Knob hiking trail in George Washington National Forest.
My first attempt to hike to Signal Knob was on an unseasonably warm day in February 2008. In retrospect, it was fortunate that I did not make it to the top that time. A tree had fallen and blocked the trail and a storm was approaching so after about a mile and a half, I returned to the parking area. I say I was fortunate because that was my first hike of the season, I was out of shape, and the hardest part of the trail was ahead of me.
I returned in mid November and was determined to make it to the top this time. The sign in the parking lot indicated it was about 5 miles to the summit via the yellow trail. That sounded easy enough. For a while, I thought I was on the wrong trail though, because the trail markers were mostly orange, but I felt better when I found the occasional yellow marker.
The trail certainly looked familiar from my earlier hike. It does have a few "rewards" along the way for the effort. The first item of interest is a Forest Service house on your left, but it is posted with surveillance warnings, so keep going.
After about a mile and a half, the first scenic overlook is of Buzzard Rocks. The trail is a little rocky, but not too difficult and the vegetation along the trail may be worth a picture.
At Buzzard Rocks overlook, rest, drink some water and take a few pictures, The trail keeps climbing, and soon becomes very rocky and difficult, especially if there are leaves on the ground. The distance to the next overlook is only about ¾ of a mile, but don't be in any hurry. The rocky trail, while not very steep, is difficult to walk . In this section, it is important to pay attention to your walk as it is easy to slip. At the next overlook there is a sign indicating it is the Fort Valley Overlook. This is another great photo opportunity.
Beyond the overlook, the trail continues to be rocky for at least another mile and gains elevation. The trail becomes a little easier and the next major landmark is the junction with the white trail to Meneka Peak. To get to Signal Knob, do not follow that trail. Continue on the yellow and orange trail. A sign will indicate Signal Knob about a mile further down. Soon after the junction with the Meneka Peak trail, the television tower is visible off in the distance. The trail actually starts downhill slightly toward Signal Knob. I took a picture of the tower from this spot because it looked so far off in the distance, I did not think the trail would lead to it. I was wrong. This massive television tower reminded me that I had not escaped modern technology even 4 miles from the nearest public road. But, the trail does lead directly to the television tower (dedicated to someone helpful to Virginia Public Television). Signal Knob overlook itself is about 100 yards further down the trail from the television tower.
From Signal Knob, the view is mostly to the north and west. From there, I could clearly identify the water tower near the Family Dollar distribution center, about 5 miles north of Front Royal as well as the Frederick County water tower near Stephens City. I could just about see the outskirts of Winchester. The town of Strasburg was clearly visible and directly in front of me about ¼ mile straight down. Other notable landmarks were I-66, I-81, the rail line and off to the west, the ridges which form the border with West Virginia.
Some people choose to do a loop hike which takes you back to the parking area a different way, but I just did a round trip hike via the way I went up. That made the trip 9 miles and including 30 minutes at the top and several breaks for rest, water and pictures, total time was 4 hours, 45 minutes.
The walk was great exercise for my thighs and calves, but because I was somewhat out of shape, they hurt for about 3 days. The weather was fair and cool, with temperatures in the upper 40s and a steady breeze, especially at the summit. It was a Monday in the off season, but I still encountered other hikers. It was a pleasant excursion even though the leaves were past their peak of color and I recommend this trail to anyone who can endure that kind of distance and unstable terrain. Just be careful if you are unsteady or unable to walk 9 miles.
The only time of year I would hesitate to hike this trail is when there is snow and ice on the trail, simply because the terrain is often rough and rocky. The best time for Autumn color in this area is from late October into the first few days of November.
To get to the parking area from Front Royal, take 340/522 (north from town) to Rte 55 West toward Strasburg. At about 5 miles turn left onto 678 (Fort Valley Road) for about 3 ½ miles and the parking area is on your right.