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This hike, with an 1,850-foot drop to the gorge from the Blue Ridge Parkway (and of course the parallel 1,850-foot climb back up to it), is often touted as a hike that can take you into two seasons in one walk, which it has done several times for us (spring-summer or winter-fall). We had a hard time, on this record-warmth January day, figuring out which two we might be in; it was pretty much early fall the whole way.
There are several entry points to the loop, and this one--from Rocky Knob--is the one we do most often. It has its advantages, including going down the steeper of the two sides of the trail from parkway to gorge.
It also has its disadvantages, including the fact that Gail's favorite spot for lunch is only about a third of the way into the walk, leaving much of the gorge, the climb and the walk across the ridge parallel to the parkway still to come, all of which is hard on he who cannot keep up with the relentless Greatest Day Hiker Of Them All, who said, after this 10.6-miler that felt like 14 to me . . . "not as hard as I remember it," or some such.
Even if there were not dual seasons on this day, the trail still offers great variety, with the steeps, the long, pretty, easy stream-side walk and the striking high balds, all helping establish the loop as a sort of Virginia Hiking in Miniature walk. (See the accompanying slideshow for sample images for all realms.)
There were lots of people out on the trail this day, with most apparently parking at the little lot off of Va. 605--a low spot along the gorge that allows walkers a nice foray along the water with the giant climbs.
This was a good walk for all three of us: It was the dog's longest trek since returning to the trail after multiple ACL/PCL/MCL/ACLU/NFL knee surgeries. It was satisfying for me in that it is a strenuous, lengthy, real damn hike, the likes of which we haven't done so much of late. And of course for The Day Hiker it was yet another chance to CRUSH ME with her casual, pretty much unconscious hiking prowess.
Rock Castle Gorge loop from Rocky Knob Campground at Parkway milepost 167.1. 10.6 miles
How to get there: Milepost 167.1 of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Va.