Shenandoah National Park – Little Devils Stairs & Overlook Loop Trail

Little Devils Stairs & Overlook Loop Trail Loop

This weekend my husband and I hiked one of our favorite loop trails in Shenandoah National Park – Little Devil Stairs. The original loop is 6 miles long, but if you include side trips to Mount Marshall Overlook on Skyline Drive as well as Little Hogback Overlook on the AT (as we did), it adds up to about 9 miles. It was our third time hiking this trail.

Starting Out

The day started out cool and fresh, with the first hints of autumn all around us from the foliage starting to change color, to the leaves lightly carpeting the trail, and their scent.

You start out at Little Devils Stairs Trailhead and cross over streams several times along Little Devils Stairs Trail.

Wildflowers on the Trail

With autumn in the air, you can be sure to encounter a variety of Asters during a hike in Shenandoah.

White Wood Aster
White Wood Aster

White Wood Aster

White Wood Aster, or Aster divaricatus, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms July to October. Native to eastern North America, it grows in dry open woods.

There seem to be several varieties that can be classified as “White Wood Aster.”

Short's Aster

Short’s Aster

Short’s Aster, or Symphyotrichum shortii,  is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms September and October. Native to North America, it grows throughout the east and Midwest, but not in New England. It attracts pollinators such as butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. Its seeds attract a wide variety of birds: cardinals, finches, sparrows, thrashers, , chickadees, nuthatches,  and turkeys.

White Micrathena

White Micrathena

The White Micrathena spider, or Micrathena mitrata, is a small orb-weaving spider that is typically foundin mixed hardwood forests. They are often seen in summer and fall. They can be found in eastern North America.

We saw this one in action hunting bugs flying into its delicate web.

Rock Cliffs

Little Devils Stairs

After a mile and a half or so you reach dramatic cliffs that stand what must be at least 100 feet high next to a river. Unfortunately, this time the river was mostly dry. Along the way, there are several sections of this trail that are strenuous and where you have to climb using your hands as well as your feet. It’s no wonder they named it “Little Devils Stairs.”

Keyser Run Fire Road Wildflowers

After hiking 2 miles along Little Devils Stairs Trail, you reach a crossroads with Keyser Run Fire Road. If you just want to do the 6-mile loop, you turn left. If you want to see mountain vistas, you turn right to shuttle back and forth to the viewpoints.

Keyser Run Fire Road going toward Skyline Drive is a treasure trove of wildflowers. In the summer you can see more variety, but on this autumn day in late September we saw many different flowers: Asters, Goldenrod, Daisies, Evening Primrose, Milkweed, Great Lobelia, and more. The flower colors were varying shades of purple, yellow, and white.

Common Evening Primrose

Common Evening Primrose

The Common Evening Primrose, or Oenothera biennis, is a member of the Evening Primrose family (Onagraceae) and blooms June to September. It grows throughout most of North America and in fields and along roadsides.

Common Evening Primrose

The flowers open in the evening and close to noon (we saw it at midday). Evening Primrose oil has many medicinal uses, including treatment for skin disorders and symptoms related to pregnancy.

Milkweed

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca, is a member of the Milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae) and blooms June to August. A native plant, it grows throughout central and eastern North America. It favors old fields, roadsides, and waste places. When flowering, it attracts butterflies. It is also a larval host for Monarch butterflies.Milkweed

Here you see the pod and seeds. The pod opens up and lets the seeds fly in autumn and winter. We plucked a couple off and tested how far they would go – they float on the wind for quite some distance!

Stiff-leaved Aster

Stiff-leaved Aster

Stiff-leaved Aster, or Ionactis linariifolius, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms August to October. A native plant, it grows throughout central and eastern North America in dry clearings and rocky banks. The color of the flower ranges from deep lavender to shades of pink and white.

Little Devils Stairs Loop Side Trips

After walking for 1 mile along Keyser Run Fire Road, you reach Skyline Drive. There are two options for views, and likely time to do both.

(1) Little Hogback Mountain Overlook on the Appalachian Trail

  • Cross Skyline Drive, turn left, and walk for about 10-15 minutes along the AT

(2) Mount Marshall Overlook on Skyline Drive

  • Stay on the same side of Skyline Drive as the parking lot at the end of Keyser Run Fire Road, walk on the grass and/or on the stone fence for about 10 minutes

Mount Marshall Overlook

Either place is good to stop at and eat lunch. On this day the view of Shenandoah Valley from Little Hogback Mountain Overlook was hazy, so we backtracked and headed over to Mount Marshall Overlook.

Mount Marshall Overlook

Perhaps since Little Devils Stairs loop trail was my first hike in Shenandoah National Park, and this view my first mountain view from Shenandoah, I especially enjoy this viewpoint. I love the many layers of mountains you can see.

There are usually several types of wildflowers in the grassy areas next to Skyline Drive and at the overlook point. This day we saw Common Mullein, Thimbleweed, and Knapweed.

Common Mullein

Common Mullein

Common Mullein

Common Mullein, or Verbascum thapsus, is a member of the Figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) and blooms June to September. Naturalized from Europe, it now grows throughout North America, favoring fields, roadsides, and waste places. The fluffy leaves used to be used as warm padding for shoes in winter by Native Americans and colonists alike. Tea made from the leaves was used to treat colds, coughs, and asthma. The leaves can be applied to the skin to soothe sunburn and inflammation.

The Return Trail

More Wildflowers on Keyser Run Fire Road

We saw some more varieties of wildflowers on the loop trail back down Keyser Run Fire Road.

Great Lobelia

Great Lobelia

Great Lobelia, Great Blue Lobelia, or Lobelia siphilitica, is a member of the Bellflower family (Campanulaceae) and blooms August to September. A native flower, it grows throughout eastern and central North America, favoring rich lowland woods, meadows, and swamps. Despite the fact that all parts of the plant are poisonous, it used to be used for treating a variety of ailments, including syphilis (hence the name).

Wavy-leaved Aster

Wavy-leaved Aster

Wavy-leaved Aster, Wavyleaf Aster, or Symphyotrichum undulatum / Aster undulatus, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms August to November. A native species, it grows throughout eastern North America in dry woods, thickets, and clearings. Their pale lavender color is lovely.

Continuing along Keyser Run Fire Road we saw some more sights.

Calico Aster

Calico Aster

Calico Aster

Calico Aster, or Aster lateriflorus, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms August to October. A native wildflower, it grows throughout eastern and central North America. It favors fields and thickets. The name comes from the fact that the disk flowers in the center are first yellow and later turn purplish red, so that the flowers on one plant or even a single head can include both colors at the same time.

Keyser Run Fire Road Viewpoint

The fire road itself is not too interesting, but the forest scenery is nice and Keyser Run Fire Road does have one viewpoint.

Keyser Run Fire Road

The leaves just start to turn colors in Shenandoah at the end of September, and mid to late October is the best time to view fall foliage there.

Northern Red-bellied Snake

Northern Red-bellied Snake

The Northern Red-bellied Snake, or Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata (yes, that is the scientific name, not a typo), is a harmless small woodland snake. Here you can see a baby one. It was very tiny and hanging out in the middle of the path. It’s good to watch where you step out in nature, not only for dangerous snakes, but to protect wildlife as well!

Bolen Cemetery

Bolen Cemetery

The Bolen Cemetery is located near the end of Keyser Run Fire Road and offers a poignant reminder of the people who used to live in the mountains that are now Shenandoah National Park.

The National Park Service writes:

“When the idea to create Shenandoah National Park crystallized in the late 1920s, people were living here. They were families with homes, livelihoods, churches, and schools. They planted their crops, raised their livestock, and planned their futures. By the time President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1936, most of these families were gone, moved out to the valley to the west and the foothills to the east. The Bolen family lived in the Keyser Run area for generations; many of their ancestors are buried in the family cemetery at the bottom of Keyser Run Fire Road. Bolen descendants maintain that cemetery still.”

Bolen Cemetery

Just after the cemetery, you turn left and go downhill for about 10 minutes to reach the parking lot.

Recommended as a Wildflower Hike

Now, can you see why this loop trail is one of my favorites in Shenandoah National Park? There is so much variety and beauty in this 9-mile hike.

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  1. Pingback: Shenandoah National Park: Little Devils Stairs & Overlook Loop Trail Part 2 – Digital Botany

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