While other Virginia Appalachian Trail hikers are flocking to Grayson Highlands or Shenandoah loops, you can find just as much scenic eye candy and a lot more solitude exploring the James River Face Wilderness. As the Commonwealth’s officially designated wilderness, the 9,000-acre area sits where the mighty James cuts through the Blue Ridge Mountains, creating a craggy wooded escape that offers picture-perfect vistas and one of the most diverse arrays of vegetation in the region—particularly in the James River Gorge. In addition to 26 miles of trails, the James River Face also connects to the 2,000-acre Thunder Ridge Wilderness to the south.
FROM THE GAP TO THE BRIDGE
Hike the 11 miles of the A.T. that runs through the James River Face Wilderness from Petites Gap to the river. Along the way you’ll cross 3,073-foot Highcock Knob and enjoy views of Peaks of Otter and the Alleghenies. The trail drops down to the James River, spanned by the 625-foot James River ‘Foot’ Bridge—the longest bridge on the A.T. The bridge is named in honor of thru-hiker Bill Foot, who long championed the bridge project.
BIG ROCK PLAYGROUND
One of the most unique spots in the wilderness area is Devil’s Marbleyard, an eight-acre hillside of loose quartzite boulders that can be reached on the Belfast Trail, which intersects the A.T. You’ll hop over car-sized rocks as you make your way through the craggy labyrinth.
BEGINNING WITH BALCONY
Boaters just starting to dip their paddles into whitewater can cut their teeth on the class II-III Balcony Falls of the James, which is best run on a five-mile stretch from Glasgow to Snowden.