Blue Ridge Parkway | BLACK RIDGE TRAIL (MP 169)

Rocky Knob Hiking Trails (click to enlarge)

Rocky Knob Hiking Trails (click to enlarge)

Length: 3-mile loop
Time: 2 hours
Difficulty: easy to moderate

The Black Ridge Trail is one of my favorites on the Blue Ridge Parkway because a portion of the trail allows you to get out in the open and see the views instead of being stuck hiking through a dingy forest and looking at nothing but trees. The trail overlaps with a stretch of the Rock Castle Gorge Trail that runs from the Rocky Knob Information Station to Grassy Knoll. This is the open part of the hike. The rest of the hike, though in the forest, remains interesting for it passes farms and the ruins of a mountain home.

You can pick up the trail at either the Information Station or the Twelve O’Clock Knob Overlook. I parked at the overlook, which I feel is the best place to begin the hike. This will start you out on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. Look for a swath cut through the grass at the left side of the parking lot near the trail map sign. This is a connector trail that will take you to the actual Rock Castle Gorge Trail. When you come to the intersection, take a right to set off hiking in a clockwise direction and towards the Grassy Knoll. You will pass directly below the parking area, and from here you can get a better photo of the mountains than from above, as there are less obstructions in the way.

View from the Rock Castle Gorge Trail below the Twelve O'Clock Knob Overlook parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway

View from the Rock Castle Gorge Trail below the Twelve O’Clock Knob Overlook parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Rock Castle Gorge Trail is marked with green blazes (painted swatches on tree trunks), and the Black Ridge Trail is marked with blue blazes. When the two trails are merged, you will find both blue and green blazes painted on the trees. The blazes appear every few minutes and they let you know that you are on the correct trail. However, you won’t need to rely on the blazes here, for this section is straightforward and there are no points of confusion until you reach the Grassy Knoll.

Blue and green blazes mark the overlapping Black Ridge and Rock Castle Gorge Trails that run along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue and green blazes mark the overlapping Black Ridge and Rock Castle Gorge Trails that run along the Blue Ridge Parkway

The first part of the hike makes a very gradual ascent along a ridge. On your left is the steep drop off into Rock Castle Gorge, and while the trail passes through the forest at this point, you do have a view of the gorge. In fact, just a short ways down the trail you can get an even better photograph than from the parking area at Twelve O’Clock Knob.

View of Rock Castle Gorge from the Blue Ridge Parkway's Rock Castle Gorge Trail

View of Rock Castle Gorge from the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Rock Castle Gorge Trail

In about fifteen minutes you will come to a short stretch of open area. The Blue Ridge Parkway will be in view, and depending on the time of year, you may find yourself surrounded by wildflowers. I did the hike on October 1st and found many flowers being pollinated by bees. I was able to get a nice photo of them at work.

Bees pollinating flowers along the Blue Ridge Parkway in October

Bees pollinating flowers along the Blue Ridge Parkway in October

After this short stretch of open field, you will head back into the forest. Ten minutes later you will come to a ladder you must climb in order to scale a barb-wire fence. It is at this point that the open air portion of the hike begins.

Ladder helps hikers over a barb-wire fence on the Blue Ridge Parkway's Rock Castle Gorge Trail

Ladder helps hikers over a barb-wire fence on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Rock Castle Gorge Trail

The trail follows the fence-line it until it arrives at the Grassy Knoll. Along the way you will notice big piles of cow manure. This area is actually used for grazing by farmers who for years have worked with the National Park Service to farm portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This agriculture program was designed to give travelers views of Appalachian farm life. Here, cows graze freely, and though I did not see any, there was plenty of evidence that they had been through here recently.

Rock Castle Gorge Trail follows the barb-wire fence near the Blue Ridge Parkway

Rock Castle Gorge Trail follows the barb-wire fence near the Blue Ridge Parkway

Once you reach the Grassy Knoll you will begin a moderate ascent to the top. If it’s a sunny day, you may need some sunscreen because this is pretty much an open field. Being able to see the Blue Ridge Parkway and the surrounding mountains is a welcome departure from the enclosed forest where you can barely see sunlight. Of course on a hot summer day I might be complaining instead of praising, but on October 1st the air was cool, the sun was out, and a few clouds dotted the sky.

View from the Grassy Knoll and the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Rock Castle Gorge Trail

View from the Grassy Knoll and the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Rock Castle Gorge Trail

It is at the Grassy Knoll, exactly one mile into the hike, that the Black Ridge Trail splits from the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. It took me 50 minutes to walk this mile because I was constantly stopping to take photos of all the wonderful views. Even though the trail is uphill most of the way, the incline is gradual and you won’t even break a sweat in the cooler weather. Furthermore, the terrain is fairly smooth so you don’t have to constantly look down to avoid twisting an ankle on rocks or roots. This first mile is a pleasure to hike.

Hike up the Grassy Knoll on the Blue Ridge Parkway's Rock Castle Gorge Trail

Hike up the Grassy Knoll on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Rock Castle Gorge Trail

When you get to the top of the hill the two trails split. A sign clearly marks the way. You now head downhill on the Black Ridge Trail and will soon once again be following the barb-wire fence, though portions are missing the wire. The trail comes to another open field, and if you aren’t paying attention, you will be inclined to make a sharp left turn to continue following along the fence. However, there is a trail marker in the middle of the field that directs you to cut across it and head towards a wood rail fence in the distance. Though you can’t see it from here, the Blue Ridge Parkway is on the other side of the fence.

After splitting with the Rock Castle Gorge Trail, the Black Ridge Trail crosses a field and heads towards the Blue Ridge Parkway

After splitting with the Rock Castle Gorge Trail, the Black Ridge Trail crosses a field and heads towards the Blue Ridge Parkway

When you get to the wood rail fence, be on the lookout for a ladder that will take you over it. The Black Ridge Trail continues on the other side of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once across, you will be on the same side as the Rocky Knob Information Station and the Picnic Area. This portion of the hike is fairly flat and easy.

Black Ridge Trail continues on the other side of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Black Ridge Trail continues on the other side of the Blue Ridge Parkway

The second part of the Black Ridge Trail continues through the field of tall grass until coming to a house, at which point you will take a right. The trail is now marked with blue blazes only.

Take a right at the house to stay on the Blue Ridge Parkway's Black Ridge Trail

Take a right at the house to stay on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Black Ridge Trail

The trail is now a wide, grassy path and was probably once a road. While certainly anti-climatic to the first mile, it is still enjoyable if for no other reason than it is flat and easy. Just a few minutes down this trail is an old shed full of junk. I guess some people just can’t bring themselves to throw stuff away.

Old shed along the Blue Ridge Parkway's Black Ridge Trail

Old shed along the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Black Ridge Trail

While the trail continues down the wide, former road, in about a mile there is a short stretch of rocky terrain. If this was still a road you’d almost need a 4-Wheel Drive to pass over it. However, it doesn’t last long and you will soon be back on a smooth, grassy trail and passing alongside a pasture.

A short patch of rocky terrain mars the otherwise smooth Black Ridge Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway

A short patch of rocky terrain mars the otherwise smooth Black Ridge Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway's Black Ridge Trail runs along a pasture for a short distance

The Blue Ridge Parkway’s Black Ridge Trail runs along a pasture for a short distance

The walk along the pasture only lasts a few minutes. Once beyond it, the trail heads downhill and narrows into a more traditional hiking trail as it runs though a gully, which, while it lasts, is like walking on the bottom of an old creek bed. In fact, in about ten minutes it actually merges with a creek that you have to cross, so when it rains I’m sure the gully floods with water. Make a right turn after you cross the creek (the turn is clearly marked).

Black Ridge Trail crosses a creek that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Black Ridge Trail crosses a creek that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway

In just a few minutes you will come to an old chimney, the only thing that remains of a mountain cabin that once stood here.

A chimney along the Blue Ridge Parkway's Black Ridge Trail is all that remains of an old mountain cabin

A chimney along the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Black Ridge Trail is all that remains of an old mountain cabin

From the chimney, the trail begins a moderate climb, lasting about ten minutes until coming to the intersection with the Picnic Loop Trail, 2.75 miles into the hike. A trail marker directs you to take a right, back towards the Rocky Knob Information Station. On your way is an intersection marked only by a large rock slab. I’m not sure where heading straight will get you—probably back to the Information Station—but unless this is where you parked, there is no reason to detour towards it. Turn right at the rock slab for the shortest way back to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Once at the road, look right and you will see the Twelve O’Clock Knob parking area.

Turn right at the rock slab to return to the Blue Ridge Parkway

Turn right at the rock slab to return to the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Black Ridge Trail is exactly three miles long and took me two hours to hike. I walk slowly and I took many photos, so completing the hike in 1.5 hours is certainly doable for most people. For those who cannot hike the 11-mile Rock Castle Gorge Trail in its entirety, this trail is an enjoyable and shorter alternative.

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Last updated on November 7, 2023
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