Top things to do in the George Washington National Forest

Top things to do in the George Washington National Forest

Right outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia are two immense forests belonging to the Blue Ridge Mountains: The Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest. The Shenandoah is undoubtedly the more popular of the two, leaving the other an unexplored haven for outdoor adventure. We recently spent a weekend in the George Washington National Forest and wanted to share with you some activities for making the most of your visit to the park.

Camping at Hone Quarry Campground

We actually were visiting the George Washington Forest for our engagement photo shoot. Reviews of the Hone Quarry Campground mention vistas, pine trees, several creeks, rock crags and a waterfall.  We fell in love with the idea of a natural and secluded photo shoot, so this is where we decided to make camp and set up our home base for the weekend.

There were about 10 campsites, all equipped with a fire ring, grill, and picnic table. Some were covered in pine trees, others were fairly open and exposed to the sky above. We chose a more open plot right next to the creek. We pitched our tent and then set out to find our next adventure.

After some exploring and hiking, we returned to site for some hotdogs and smores over the fire. We finished off a bottle of Cab and headed to bed around 11pm. By this time there were still only two other camp sites occupied, but I would imagine it would be much busier in the summer.

Engagement camping photoshoot
Camping at the Hone Quarry Campground in the George Washington National Forest. Photography by the amazing Jamie of Mirage Photography.

Falling asleep was easy. I am used to sleeping in packed campgrounds where plots are situated almost on top of one another. There is no privacy, and no noise barrier between you, barking dogs, crying kids, and drunkies singing to a guitar by the fire….oh wait that singing drunkie is usually me.  This campground though was much better dispersed. The camping plots were a far enough distance from one another that there was still some privacy. When we went to sleep, the only sounds came from the babbling brook behind our tent.

As a side note, I will mention that the campground has vault toilets. This was something new to me, so I was completely confused when I stepped into the bathroom. After a quick google search, I discovered that these bathrooms are a solution for backcountry sites with no running water. Basically, waste is held in an underground vault, between 750 and 1,000 gallons in size, and then emptied periodically. Apparently, they have figured out how to make these toilets without the offensive odor leading the U.S. Forest Service to call them the “sweet smelling toilet”.  I am so happy to say, that their nickname is pretty accurate. No smells make for happy campers.

Taking a dip at the Swimming Holes

Exploring the Hone Quarry Recreation area, we continued down Hone Quarry Rd. to see what we could find. Within a mile from the campground, the road dead ends next to Hone Quarry Reservoir, a blueish man-made lake with a climbing tower situated in the middle of it. Scott and I instantly gasped with excitement when we saw it. We both had flashbacks to jumping off this tower into the water below during crazy summers as JMU students. Ironically we had not gone together, yet we both had similar stories.

Continuing to explore the area, we drove along Briery Branch Rd. toward Reddish Knob. Again, we passed by another man-made lake with a climbing tower in the middle of it. This one was the Briery Branch Reservoir. Now we were just confused. These two reservoirs were almost identical, so we had no idea which one it actually was that we went to over 10 years ago.

After returning home, I researched “jumping tower near JMU” and discovered that the one we had leaped off of was indeed neither of those. We had actually gone to Union Springs Hollow Lake, just a few miles north of where we were. That is where we would have found the 33 ft. “Union Tower” which we both jumped off of years ago.

Union Tower is at least 20 feet deep around the tower and safe for jumping. Scott and I can attest to that, along with a few hundred students and locals who have also taken the leap. It is truly a hidden gem for thrill seekers, as we only found out about this place during our time as students at JMU. This is not to say that people don’t jump off of the towers at Hone Quarry Reservoir and Briery Branch Reservoir. It is possible that they do, but I really have no idea how deep those waters are so I would not advise it.  Union Tower at Union Springs Hollow Lake is the only one I will vouch for as safe for adrenaline junkies wishing to jump.

Trying some Mud Bogging

Now this was a new term to me. When we pulled up to both Hone Quarry Reservoir and Briery Branch Reservoir, I noticed to the right, huge patches of upturned grass and mud with deep tire marks running through them. To the left were 10 or so parked SUVs and Wranglers completely covered in mud. It was obvious the vehicles went off-roading, taking turns making donuts in the dirt. I just had no idea there was a name for this other than, “off-roading”. Apparently, I was witnessing the aftermath of “Mud Bogging”, a motorsport whereby a vehicle is driven through a pit of mud.

Hiking in the George Washington Forest

We chose this campground because of its proximity to the hiking trails, lookout points, and a “15 ft. waterfall”. Unfortunately, we found that the trails are not well maintained, paths are overgrown or impeded by large fallen trees, and trail blazes are weak in some areas. I mean on the plus side, this is probably what makes the trails less popular than those in the Shenandoah. Therefore, you are likely to have a much quieter and peaceful hike on one of these trails.

If you do decide to explore, there are three hiking trails within feet of the campground, Oak Knob, Hidden Rocks Cliffs and Hone Quarry Ridge/Mountain Trail.

Hidden Rocks is an easy 2.5-mile out-and-back hike featuring a small waterfall, and large granite wall for rock climbing (See below).

Oak Knob is about a 7.9 mile loop, with views overlooking Hone Quarry Reservoir and the valley.

Hone Quarry Ridge is a 5 mile loop through streams, wooded areas, and an abandoned fire road.

Rock climbing/bouldering at Hidden Rocks

This area is popular with rock climbers for its large crags which are perfect for climbing and bouldering. Taking the Hidden Rocks hiking trail, follow the yellow blaze and you will find the 4 separate areas for rock climbing: Lower Hidden, Hidden Cracks, Upper Hidden & Hidden Hilltop.

For more information check out the Outbound Collective’s article on Hidden Rocks.

Taking in the view at Reddish Knob

About half an hour’s drive from Hone Quarry Campground is Reddish Knob, one of the highest points in Virginia (4,397 ft). Although there is an option to hike to the summit, most people choose to drive it since there is a scenic gravel road that takes you straight there. This is often called the “parking lot in the sky”, and you can see why from the video footage below. From here, you can enjoy a spectacular 360 degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Virginia/West Virginia border.

Although Reddish Knob is open year round, I would not necessarily recommend driving to the top in winter. After a recent snowfall, we tried to drive to the summit along with another group of friends. Their car got stuck within 5 minutes. We made it a little further in our SUV, but after we slid toward the guard rail a few times, we called it quits and pulled an “Austin Powers reverse” on the narrow road.

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George Washington National Park Adventures

Cecilia is a bubbly Filipino-American with an affinity for constant change...that or a 10 second attention span. Refusing to sit still, she travels the world, in pursuit of adventure, excitement and meaningful experiences. She holds a Masters degree in International Development and Public Policy, and a BA in Business Management.

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