The Priest has been on my hiking bucket list for about 8 years now. Before we were married, Billy and I hiked Crabtree Falls, and when we got to the top we saw the trail sign for The Priest, and debated on continuing on, since I vaguely remembered hearing about the views from hikers I knew before college. We decided not to, since we weren’t sure we would have been able to complete it before dark, and we hadn’t brought the food and water to add an extra 5 or so miles to our hike.
But it’s been on the list.
When I was first selected as a trailblazer for the 10K Women Trail Project, I immediately thought of The Priest as a place I would like to lead a hike. I don’t know why this one was still so high there. Maybe some part of me just remembered hearing how intimidating it was. Maybe it was the proximity to another trail I was familiar with. Maybe it was, especially after having children, the idea of doing a trail that would take the better part of the day and not just be a casual hike layered into a day already filled with other activities.
I decided in January, The Priest was going to be my March hike. I didn’t want to do it in January since I felt the views would be better in the spring. No weekend seemed to work in February, we’re going to be out of town in April, and I was just too impatient to wait for May, so March seemed perfect. I didn’t know if anyone would be willing to commit to that kind of mileage with me, but I was going to give it a shot anyway, even if I did it by myself.
So, I met up, 40 minutes after I said I would be there, with fellow trailblazer Stefanie, one of her friends I’ve hiked with before, and another one of the Richmond HIB moms, who is quickly becoming someone I feel like I must have been sisters to in another life.
Ahead of the hike, I asked a few other HIB moms in my local branch if they felt we should bring our kids, or do it as women-only. The consensus was that our kids would probably slow us down past the point of being able to complete the hike in a day, so I posted it as women-only, with the exception of nursing babies in carriers. Of course, a few days after that a friend-of-a-friend I invited said she had done it with all FOUR of her kids, so I was second-guessing myself…but as this blog largely reviews trails from a kid-friendly standpoint, I am so glad we left the littles at home.
Reviews will say the trail is not so much steep as it is just unrelenting. This is very, very true. But for the parent of small children–unless you routinely get out with your kids on long trails, it’s easy to forget just how much time it takes to go short distances when you have toddlers and preschoolers setting the pace. Even doing the last three Hike It Baby 30 challenges where I am constantly logging both my time and my miles, I completely overestimate how far I can go in a certain amount of time. My thought going into this hike was, “I’m used to following a preschooler, and having 50lbs worth of toddler, carrier, and gear on my back! This trail will fly by with only me to worry about!”
What I didn’t really think about, was the false perception of time-to-miles. Moving at an adult pace certainly gave all of us the impression that we were covering a lot more distance than we actually were. I don’t think I really felt overtaxed physically on this hike, but I definitely did mentally. Without my kids there, I thought for sure I was moving much faster than I was, when in reality, we were all moving at the pace of a group where 3/4 of us were used to traveling with children 2 and under, and our brains’ idea of “adult pace” didn’t entirely match up with our lungs’ and legs’. Being in shape for a mom of two, whose only real exercise is frequent toddler-paced hikes, does not mean being in shape for the average adult hiker, unburdened except for their own gear.
That said–it was an incredible hike. The first mile or so follows a stream that was extremely active this time of year, so we had the beautiful sound of running water to bring us fully into the forest. Once we left the stream, it wasn’t long before we entered what we called a rhododendron tunnel. It was, of course, far too early for them to be in bloom, but being able to see green, after so many months of the brown of Virginia winter, was rather magical.
Halfway to the summit is the first viewpoint, and that by itself is pretty amazing. Another group of hikers came up not long after we reached this point, and one of the guys who had hiked The Priest before joked, “Don’t get too comfortable, this is only the Choir Boy!”
Of course–he also told us we had less than a mile still to go, but at least his sense of humor was well in tact.
The next mile or so was more switchbacks, but we started to see more and more snow on the north side of the mountain, and in the last mile the elevation increased, along with the rocks, and snow that covered half our trekking poles in places. The snow made it difficult, combined with the mental fatigue of thinking we were closer to the summit than we actually were, and the physical fatigue of being super hungry by this point. Jordi had her four month old son in a carrier (because she is the ultimate adventure mama badass!), and he kept wanting to nurse so she was really burning through calories!
We finally reached a point where the trail seemed to level out, and not long after that saw the spur off to the right…to some of the most gorgeous panoramic views I’ve seen on a hike. I love the Blue Ridge Mountains. I really and truly do. But so many of the views look onto the valleys, and onto farms, roads, and other signs of civilization. It’s one of the reasons I like Blackrock so much, now that I’m thinking about it–the view are of nature. And that’s the case on The Priest, only you’re looking at so many other peaks, and the view is so expansive, it just fills you up with how incredible the world is. Oftentimes on a summit, it makes the world feel small. But this made the world feel huge. To look out and see so much, and know that it was still only a small glimpse of just how much is out there.
We took a pretty lengthy lunch, mostly out of reluctance to leave the world we had climbed up to see, but time was getting late, and all of us had long drives home.
This hike is an out-and-back unless you combine it with Crabtree Falls, so we just retraced our steps back down (not an easy feat until we got low enough to be out of the snow), and we were all thoroughly exhausted once we reached our cars.
A bonus to this hike? It’s not far from the Blue Mountain Barrel House, which boasts some of the best craft beer in Virginia, along with a great view of the sun setting over the mountains. Sadly I had to get home since I’d promised my kids I would be home by bedtime and was already running late, but I wish I could have stayed to really enjoy the Barrel House the way it is meant to be enjoyed.
Overall Family Friendly Rating: 1.5/5. I’m giving an extra half a star just because there aren’t any real hazards on this hike, it’s just long, and from a small child’s perspective, a little boring. I didn’t find it boring at all, but because of the length and incline there isn’t a lot of time to allow for playing in the stream or climbing on rocks, and I know my kids would be whining about whether we were almost done before we got a mile in. The viewpoint is a little dangerous because of the drops, but not as much as I would say Humpback Rocks is, and there is a lot of flat land for them to run around and explore, without getting too close to the dropoffs. I’m glad I didn’t take them on this hike, but when they are older I would like to combine this with Crabtree Falls for an all-day hike with both a waterfall and a view.