Hiking Signal Knob in Autumn
Signal Knob is located just across the valley from Shenandoah National Park is George Washington National Forest, which also features many beautiful hikes and mountain vistas.
We had been to Signal Knob last November, but it has been cold and rainy, so we couldn’t see any of the views and we hiked the shorter loop. On October 9 we went back and hiked the longer Signal Knob loop trail of 9.9 miles.
Despite only being early October, when we got out of the car to put on our hiking gear it felt almost like winter. You start out along the Massanutten National Recreation Trail at the north end of the Signal Knob Parking Lot.
Wildflowers at the Trailhead
Luckily, it was still early enough in autumn to see a variety of wildflowers.
Bushy Aster, Rice Button Aster, or Aster dumosus, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms August to October. It favors sandy, open sites and sometimes marshy ground. A native wildflower, it grows along most of the east coast of North America, as well as in southern states, and Ontario. It is most widely found in southern states. This plant grows up to three feet tall and it can be white or pale lavender in color.
Late Purple Aster
Late Purple Aster, Spreading Aster, or Symphyotrichum patens, 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 dry open woods and dry fields. You can identify it both by its dark purple color, it’s clasping leaves surrounding the the stem, and differentiate it from the New England Aster by the number of petals — while the New England Aster has 40-50 petals, the Late Purple Aster has 15-25.
Stiff Aster, Bristly Aster, or Aster linariifolius, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms August to October. A native plant, it grows throughout eastern and central North America. It favors dry clearings and rocky banks. You can find this flower in colors ranging from deep lavender to shades of pink and white.
The path up the mountain is not too strenuous, but it is rocky. Make sure to bring sturdy shoes, or preferably hiking boots, if you go. There are not too many wide vistas from the trail, but there are a few view points from which you can see the neighboring mountains.
Buzzard Rock Overlook
From this overlook you can see the mountain line that features hikes such as Buzzard Rock (just out of view here to the left), Duncan Knob, and Strickler Knob. This point is 1.5 miles from the parking lot. After another 0.7 miles you reach Fort Valley Overlook, which has a smaller viewing window through a bunch of trees.
After Fort Valley Overlook, you keep going another 1.2 miles until you reach a fork in the road. If you want to go for a slightly shorter hike, you can turn left at this point onto the Makeaka Peak Trail. However, for the longer loop, you continue along the Massanutten National Recreation Trail until you reach Signal Knob at the TV tower there.
View of Signal Knob
View of Signal Knob from the Massanutten National Recreation Trail.
Wildflowers on the Trail
Along the Massanutten Trail we saw a variety of wildflowers.
Combleaf Yellow False Foxglove
Combleaf Yellow False Foxglove, or Aureolaria pectinata, is a member of the Figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) and blooms July to October. A native wildflower, it grows throughout the southeastern United States. The northern reach of its distribution is in Virginia.
Spanish Needles, or Bidens bipinnata, are a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and bloom late summer to early fall. A native plant, it grows throughout most of the United States, except the northwestern region. It has been introduced in some areas of Canada.
The nectar and pollen from the flowers attract many types of bees, while the seeds are eaten by various birds. The spiky ends of the seeds help them to attach to passing animals and humans, thereby distributing themselves.
The view from Signal Knob is nice, but would be much better if it wasn’t interrupted by this pole…
While we were up there we saw one poisonous snake hiding near the TV tower. As with other places you can hike in Virginia, watch out where you step!
The fire road down from Signal Knob summit, which is actually just a continuation of the Massanutten National Recreation Trail, is a great place to spot a variety of wildflowers and plant life. Unfortunately, by the time that we got there in early October, most of the plants were already fading. However, we still were able to see a few.
Frost Aster, White Heath Aster, Hairy White Oldfield Aster, or Symphyotrichum pilosum, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms September to October. A native plant, it grows mostly throughout eastern and central North America.
The Panicled Aster, or Aster simplex, is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) and blooms August to October. A native flower, it grows throughout North America, except in the far north. It enjoys damp thickets, meadows, and shorelines. It grows in colonies, spreading by rhizomes — underground stems.
The Return Trail
1.3 miles from Signal Knob summit you turn left onto Tuscarora Trail. There is a campground close to the turnoff point. Nearby we spotted some little orange mushrooms.
Chanterelle Waxy Cap
The Chanterelle Waxy Cap, or Hygrocybe cantharellus, is a member of the Waxcap or Waxy Cap family (Hygrophoraceae) and can be found July to October. It grows in woodlands, in fields, and on roadsides. They exist in both North America and Europe.
From the turnoff point onto Tuscarora Trail, you have 4.9 miles to go to reach the parking lot.
Violet Wood Sorrel
Violet Wood Sorrel, or Oxalis violacea, is a member of the Wood Sorrel family (Oxalidaceae). Normally it blooms April to June, but it often blooms again in autumn. A native wildflower, it grows throughout most of the United States, except some states in the West. This plant favors open woods, banks, rocky ground, and prairies.
The Blatchley’s Walkingstick, Blatchley Walkingstick, or Manomera blatchleyi, is a type of Walking Stick, or stick insect. These insects can usually be found in bushes and on small trees. They can camouflage to hide from birds and other predators. We were surprised when we looked close at it – the face looks like an elongated mini-lobster!
The hike back to the parking lot is a lot easier than the way up. Besides being downhill, it is a lot less rocky. The Tuscarora Trail is also a popular path for mountain bikers, particularly the last 4.1 miles.
Oriental Lady’s Thumb
Oriental Lady’s Thumb, Long-bristled Smartweed, or Polygonum caespitosum, is a member of the Buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) and blooms June to October. It reaches heights of one to three feet and can be found in waste spaces and along streambeds. Naturalized from eastern Asia, it now grows throughout most of eastern and central United States. It can be distinguished by the long bristles on the leaf sheath — the structure at the base of a leaf stem that partly surrounds it for protection.
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.
Recommended as a Moderate Hike
We noticed that the forest starts to get much more quiet in the fall and winter, as the animals and birds start to find shelter. It makes for solitary and peaceful hiking conditions in a way that is different from the spring and summer.
Overall, the 9.9 mile loop is not strenuous. The only tough part is during the first few miles when you walk over a bunch of rocks. But you could think of that as a deep foot massage. The views are not amazing, but you can still see a few along the way. However, the other parts of the trail can be a bit boring at times. It’s still a good hike – we’ve been there twice already. If you’re looking for length, but not a strenuous climb, I would recommend this loop trail.