Peaks & Highpoints of Virginia
The Priest & Maintop Mountain • Highpoint: Nelson County
• George Washington National Forest
• Appalachian Mountains

View of the general
area around Maintop

βð walks down
from Maintop

Out on the rocky viewpoint
looking east

Now looking west

Me on the rocks

Date: August 3, 2006 • Elevation: 4,063 feet (P), 4,040 feet (M) • Prominence: 763 feet (P), 560 feet (M) • Distance: 12 miles • Time: 8 hours • Gain: 2,500 feet • Conditions: Humid, breezy, then nasty thunderstorms

MainPB (Maintop)PB (Priest)

Two hilltops that emanate off of Blue Ridge vie as the county highpoint for Nelson County. The Priest has a 4,063-foot spot elevation, while Maintop Mountain's summit is not marked, but within a 4,040-foot contour. Thus, the two peaks are too close to call to declare one higher than the other. Since they lie along a common ridge with good trails, we would hike them both in one long outing.

βð and I were staying at the Wintergreen resort a few miles to the north. We had been battling hot and humid weather down low the previous couple days. Higher up in the mountains, we had cooler temperatures but the humifity persisted.

The two peaks can be hiked as two separate smaller hikes, since both have decent roads that get close. However, we wanted a longer day and opted to visit both on one long hike. We left Wintergreen early and rolled into a let-in point for the Appalachian Trail near the Montebello State Fish Hatchery, a mile or so south of the village of Montebello.

When we rolled in about 7 a.m., we were the only ones in the lot. Given our last few days of oppressive humidity and heat down low, we very much enjoyed the cooler temperatures of the highlands and the gentle breezes. It was still quite humid but not nearly as hot.

From the lot, we walked an access road about a mile until it petered out, morphing into the Appalachian Trail. The trail was steep in places but well constructed and easy to follow. We kept a good pace and soon emerged onto a small flat area, where the "better" trail went off to a lookout called Spy Rock. The Appalachian Trail went left and curled up to the summit of Maintop Mountain, with the last little bit requiring us to hop over rocks.

Our hike took an hour and 20 minutes, an uphill climb of 1,300 feet in slightly less than two miles. The top seems to be a large cairn along the trail, no off-trail bush-exploring needed. We stopped for a moment to celebrate, then walked a little farther to an open rocky area where we took our first long break. The weather was holding up well.

Staying on the Appalachian Trail, we continued eastbound and dropped 750 feet in 2.5 miles, coming to an old two-track road in Cash Hollow, then to another road marked 826 on the map, elevation 3,319 feet. The gradient was lenient the whole way and the forest a lush green. We had sunny weather and moderate humidity. This segment took 90 minutes.

From this lowpoint, we continued eastbound on the trail, regaininig the 750 feet in about 2 miles to top out on The Priest, taking yet another 90 minutes. The summit is a ridge about a quarter-mile long, with a couple bumps and about four rock outcrops that could be the highest point. We tagged each, some easy to get to and others covered over in forest branches and brush, not to mention potential critters. The views up here were limited, due to the heavy foliage.

By now, the gentle breezes had stopped and the humidity started to spike. It was now hot and uncomfortable. We were covered in sweat and lots of forest crud. But we were feeling pretty good and happy to have summitted both peaks. Now, it was just a matter to get back to our car, six miles away.

As we walked out, we spotted a rock arrow pointing to a side trail that looked like nothing special. We followed this trail about 150 feet to where it suddenly opened up to one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen. We were atop massive rock outcrops. Beyond these outcrops was leafy "brush", which were actually the tops of trees: we were atop a cliff band, possibly a hundred feet above the forest floor to the north. The views were magnificent, and we spent almost an hour here relaxing and enjoying this remarkable viewpoint.

We descended back to Road 826 quickly, then opted to walk that out to the main highway, then back to the Fish Hatchery to our car. This road covered less than 4 miles and was tedious, but easy. The road was not too bad, but we had a tiny rental sedan which might not have handled this road very well. In about an hour, we were back to the main highway (VA-56). We had 0.3 mile to the Fish Hatchery Road, and another 0.3 mile to our car. We were almost done with no reason to think otherwise.

Suddenly, the weather went to hell all at once. The humid air combined with the sunny weather and the orographic effects of the mountains conspired to spawn an intense, highly-localized thunderstorm, literally out of thin air. Rain began to fall as we jog-hiked the highway. Now on Fish Hatchery Road, the rain started to come down in torrents.

We were essentially running at this point. A guy had left the Fish Hatchery and was driving out. He gave us a little wave as he exited. Then a lightning bolt hit somewhere close by because the thunder that followed was instantaneous and unbelievably loud. The echo rumbled for a good 10 seconds.

The Fish Hatchery guy had doubled back and was essentially ordering βð into his car (I was ahead by a dozen or so feet). He said he saw the bolt hit beside her in his rear-view mirror. She said she felt a pop, perhaps a lesser bolt actually zapped her. In any case, he was insistent, and then ordered me as well. We crammed into his small sedan, and he drove us a measly 500 feet to our car. That's how close we were! But under the circumstances, getting a lift from him was most welcome. We thanked him repeatedly.

The storm had knocked out power to the nearby region. We stopped into a small general store in Montebello but their lights were out and their refrigerators not refrigerating. We drove back to Wintergreen and found a store there to get drinks. The hike had covered 12 miles in 8 hours, with the sudden storm, rain and lightning a frightening way to end the day!

(c) 2004, 2021 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.