To get this Blue Ridge Mountain sunset, be forewarned: This hike is not for the faint of heart. It is a challenge. In fact, it can be agonizing and torturous at times, which is why I suppose hikers often find some type of symbolism between the grueling trek up and the hike’s name.
You should know I’m not the only person who feels this way either. George Washington National Forest’s ‘The Priest’ hiking trail carries several warnings such as the ones I have written, along with others that contain the words “fear,” “unrelenting,” and “difficult.” This is due to the mountain’s steep elevation gain of over 3,000 feet in the short four mile-distance to the summit.
However, let me be clearer: If you are up for a challenge, this trail will deliver rewards grander than I can write — and I should know because so far, I’ve yet to find a Virginia mountain to overshadow this one.
Maybe I should introduce myself first: I’m a hiker, camper, and backpacker and my passion is seeking that feeling found only in the solitude of forests. Because I am from Virginia, I find my boots walk mostly on trails in this state – and Virginia is a special state for hiking. Beyond strolling through the many sites that hold historic significance, there is also the fabled Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park, and Great Falls National Park, along with George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. As if that weren’t enough too, there’s more, particularly my favorite part: Virginia is one of fourteen states to not only hold the coveted Appalachian Trail (AT) but contain more of the infamous white blaze than any other state, and The Priest falls along the AT.
While all seasons undoubtedly carry their own appeal here, spring holds the most draw. During this time, the forest is transformed into a garden, which means if you are strong enough (or, eh, stubborn enough) to face this monster mountain, trail magic appears right when you need it most. Blooming mountain laurel, rhododendron, turkeybeard, lady slipper orchids, and more line the white blaze so much so that you may start to question if the plants were purposely placed there.
The trail continues over mossy creek rocks and further into the forest where – in May – every possible hue of green is vibrant. That is when you reach a little easterly vista that overlooks apple orchards and George Washington National Forest mountains.
Even though this point is only 2,000 feet above the trailhead, the feel of your calves burning and lungs gasping for air will allow a welcomed stop. Plus, it seems your penance to get here did not require a priest for your sudden death and so, for that reason alone, a moment of celebration is due the only way a hiker knows – throwing your arms out wide.
Another benefit of pausing here is the chance encounter with an Appalachian Trail hiker and on this May day, time aligned.
He emerged from the forest with light but purposeful footsteps. Behind him, The Priest’s summit; ahead, the trail down which would take him north all the way to Maine. Pausing on the rocks, the hiker stopped next to my husband and me to admire the view.
“Wow,” he exhaled and as he spoke, he took off his pack to sit with us on the mini-summit. As a rule, I try not to talk to AT hikers unless they speak to me first. I can imagine the solitude that exists in their minds and the jarring reality of day hikers, and I understand they have points to reach within a certain time. Here though, this hiker seemed content to pass minutes with us and so we talked about his thru-hike thus far, asked for his biggest AT advice, laughed at his food craving, and then learned his trail lesson.
“You lose sense of time,” he answered in a voice as calm and steady as his stride. “You wake and you walk. You walk and you sleep. And you do it all over again. Before I was working and had places to be — always places to be. Here, nature waits for you. There is no ‘time.’ I have nowhere to be and that’s been the hardest aspect to wrap my mind around.”
“You wake and you walk. You walk and you sleep. And you do it all over again. Before I was working and had places to be — always places to be. Here, nature waits for you.”
We talked a bit longer before a comfortable silence surrounded us. “Well, I guess I need to keep going,” the man said, rising to slide his arms through his pack straps once more. “I was hoping to hit a place not far from here” and then he hesitated before smiling. “Not that it matters – I could easily stay here and camp and be content with that. But there’s daylight left so I’m going to go. It was nice talking to you both.”
Then he was gone and his journey on meant it was our time to continue, too, until we reached the summit of The Priest.
Here is where I can say with all confidence, if you are looking for a day hike, do not skip this one. However, if you are looking for a camp, this is the best mountain. True beauty is found here.
Regardless if there is a sunrise, sunset, or mid-day view, this mountain gives new meaning to the word ‘holy.’ It could be because of the sheer strength it took to get the short distance to the top or it could be because there are few Virginia hikes that outshine it. Or it could be because nature should be blessed for providing all that trail magic to make the journey down a heck of a lot easier.