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Beauty and Sadness: The Little Devil Stairs/Piney Branch Loop by Lee Sheaffer

Hiker climbing the Stairs about mid way up
Hiker climbing the Stairs about mid way up

Shenandoah National Park is a hiker’s park. Never mind that eighty five percent of the visitors never lose sight of their car. With their extensive trail system, almost any part and feature of the park is accessible to anyone willing to walk away from the overlooks. This eight mile loop contains no overlook and does not come close to Skyline Drive but might be the most beautiful hike in the park. It is full of history, both geologic and a darker human history around the formation of the park. The rocks of Shenandoah National Park are between 1.2 billion and 520 million years old. During that time a lot of things can happen.

One of those things is Little Devils Stairs, a fault system which caused a narrow gash in the side of the mountain. Add the eroding effect of Keyser Run and you have a rugged narrow canyon unlike anything else in the park. In contrast, Piney Brach is a more traditional stream cutting a wide hollow with thick forest, waterfalls and near the bottom remnants of a small community that existed before the land was made into a park.

The hike begins at one of the many back doors to the park. A good map is essential in finding the trail head and PATC’s map 9; North District of Shenandoah National Park is the best one available. The trail starts, as most do at the base of the park, as what was once on old road. There is evidence of past occupation here with stone fences and terraces used for farm plots as people tried to scratch out a living on this steep terrain.

Waterfall on Piney Branch
Waterfall on Piney Branch

After passing the embankments of an old bridge the trail narrows and becomes rugged and steep. Quickly, you enter a defile of rushing water and high walls. While it is a bit more treacherous, ascending the Stairs after a storm ad a bit of mystique as mist rises up the canyon to invisible heights. Stop often both to catch your breath (something you will need to do with this grade of climbing) and to take in the many wonders of the geology and the way flora has adapted to this low light environment of a narrow canyon.

The trail crosses the stream many times as it picks it way up and over many gaps and boulders and it is hard to decide whether this is a single waterfall you cross many times or a series of cascades. Either way the flow of water is distinctly and steeply downhill. Finally the canyon ends at a small waterfall and a short climb up to a fire road.

This area is known as fourway and instead of taking the fire road back to the trail head continue straight ahead on the flat Pole Bridge Link Trail. This trail will take you to the Piney Branch Trail and a different way that water and geology interact. As with most hollows in Shenandoah National Park, Piney Branch hollow is formed by eons of cold fast moving water, slowly eroding away the ridge as it moves toward the Chesapeake.

Looking up stream
Looking up stream

At the beginning of this trail you can hear the fast moving water, but you can’t see it. The Mountain Laurel is so thick that there is little to see except the tunnel carved through the tangled grove. When the Laurel are in bloom, this is a delight to both sight and smell. The trail does descend to creek level and crosses into an area of rushing water, thick forest and boulders thrown haphazardly about.

Just beyond this stream crossing is a small side trail leading down to stream level just at the point where the stream plunges over a cliff at a large waterfall. While the waterfall is spectacular, looking up stream is the reason to come here. The combination of rock, fast flowing water, moss, trees and ferns make this view the most peaceful and serene in the park. While there are many places to spend eternity, this perfect combination of nature’s elements make this place high on the list. Just setting on a rock with water flowing beside you and looking into the dappled paradise makes this hike and life in general worthwhile. After contemplating beauty for a while continue down a steep path past more rushing water and thick forest until the trail levels and widens to an old road bed.

It is obvious that people once lived and worked here. The slopes are terraced, there are stone walls running parallel to the path and in spring daffodils still bloom in abundance. At what was once obviously a street intersection go left and climb steadily up the Hull School Trail. Pass the appropriately named Submarine Rock and continue a steady climb back to the fire road. Hull School Trail ends in a flat area with tall trees and a small fenced in cemetery. The cemetery contains the remains of the Bolen’s and their relatives. Take notice of the graves with a death date of 1918 or 1919, many of them children. This is a result of the great flu epidemic which swept through the country during World War One.

It also brings up an uncomfortable fact about the park. Almost all of what is Shenandoah National Park today was inhabited. These people lived hard lives, made a living from the land and buried their dead in the hill and hollows. Most were poor and had no claim to the land they lived on. When the desire to create eastern national parks surged through the halls of power, it was easy to remove those who had no power.

Bolen Cemetary
Bolen Cemetary

Shenandoah means “daughter of the stars.” Like the image of its name, it is a beautiful place, now wild with thick forest, canyon and waterfall. It is a very special place to me and the many people who peer over its overlooks and delve into its deep back country. It was also a special place to those who lived, toiled and died in these hills. It is said that these hills are sad, while they have gained much, they lost something to become the jewel we so enjoy.

This article is adapted from my hike of the month column in PATC’s monthly Potomac Appalachian. To see this and all the other articles go to and scroll to hike of the month on the right hand column “News Flashes”. This will take you to a list of all the hikes since January 2010. This particular hike appeared in the June 2011 issue. The list will also give you map information, length and altitude gain. A description of this hike can also be found in The Appalachian Trail Guide to Shenandoah National Park (with side trails).

Lee Sheaffer with his hiking partner Penfold
Lee Sheaffer with his hiking partner Penfold

About Lee Sheaffer

LEE SHEAFFER has edited two guide books for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. Appalachian Trail Guide to Shenandoah National Park with side trails; Twelfth Edition 1999 and the Hiking Guide to the Pedlar District, George Washington National Forest. He is a former president of the PATC and writes a monthly Hike of the Month column for their newsletter the Potomac Appalachian. He is currently co-chair for the upcoming Appalachian Trail Biennial to be held in July of 2015 at Shenandoah University in Winchester VA.


  1. Lee,
    Your right about Shenandoah, Its funny to be on the AT through there and you run into people driving through the park and they look at you like your a caveman, because they haven’t left the AC in the family truckster for more then 5 min.

  2. Lee,I love your little dog Penfold. How did you teach him to avoid the snakes down there? He sounds pretty bright, but that has to be a concern.

    • First, Penfold is a Jack Russell Terrier, if you don’t hike them everyday, they will do it anyway. They really don’t care if it is out on a trail or around the walls of your house, they are going to go. She has never been interested in snakes, we have passed a few and I always pick her up when I see a snake (as well as bears) but she has shown little interest in snakes.

  3. I live about 35 miles from the SNP so it’s my “home” hiking area and I probably do 30-40 hikes there every year. The hike described by Lee is a good one. I’d estimate the length at about 10.5 miles.

    This hike can also be extended another 4 miles or so by taking a right turn at the Fourway intersection described by Lee and hiking a mile up the fire road to where it meets Skyline Drive. Then cross Skyline Drive (near Milepost 19) and in a few hundred feet go left (south) on the AT. Follow the AT for just a few miles until it comes out on Skyline Drive near Milepost 22. From there, cross the Drive and immediately take a left onto Pine Branch Trail. Follow the Pine Branch Trail for a mile or so until it meets the Pole Bridge Trail. From here, you pick up the directions provided by Lee.

  4. Lee – I think you must have photo shopped the picture of you and Penfold…I’ve been in and around that same spot dozens of times, but never alone! Where are the hordes of people? :-)

    • Mike, Sometimes when you hike mid week you do get the place to yourself. Where the picture was taken there were people about, just no right then.

  5. I lived in Virginia for a few years in my teens and my father took us to Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Parkway many times. I think my first backpacking was there with my dad and brother and we stayed in a shelter on the AT. I haven’t done the hike you mentioned but I hope to do so someday.

  6. Was that picture of you and Penfold taken at Mather Gorge in Great Falls Park? I always enjoyed the hike down Difficult Run to the river (we hiked down Difficult Run itself because the trail didn’t exist back then) and the canal towpath on the Maryland side of the park was especially beautiful.

  7. Charlotte Elizabeth

    Wait so is that the Potomic River behind you? I did lots of rock climbing there as a kid and in the Great Falls area.

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