Virginia Road Trip: Buzzard Rock and Thoroughfare Gap

Memorial Day weekend is great time to be in Washington DC—if you are a fan of motorcycles, parades, and ceremonies.  We decided to go the other direction on Sunday, heading west toward Front Royal and the George Washington National Forest.

We had heard about an “easy hike” near Front Royal, called “Buzzard Rock” that features a nice overlook of the Shenandoah Valley.  Not nearly as well-known as more popular hikes such as Old Rag, White Oak Canyon, or Dark Hollow Falls we guessed that it would not be very crowded.

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 Looking North from First Outlook

We arrived at the trailhead at 10:00 AM—later than advisable if you want to beat the crowds, but there were still a couple spots left in the small parking lot.  It’s a 4-mile roundtrip, with a gradual elevation gain of about 650 feet along a fairly well-marked trail.  It’s a pleasant walk up to the first overlook where one is rewarded with some nice scenery of the Valley below.  There is also a good view of a fish hatchery along Passage Creek (Image below).

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Fish Hatchery as seen from First Outlook

While the views at the top were nice, I would not place this trail on my top 10 list for Virginia hikes within a 2-hour drive of Washington.   But that’s OK, because the more interesting portion of the day was still ahead.

Our mission was to find the secret route to Chapman’s Mill, a massive historic stone structure that is in full view (about 100 yards away) of thousands of cars on Interstate 66.  My previous solo attempts had ended in failure, but now that I had the assistance of a skilled navigatrix and her wonder dog Smokey, I felt confident that success was finally within my grasp.

 Virginia 04The Ruins of Chapman’s Mill, (walls now stabilized and braced)

To give you a small sense of the challenge, Chapman’s Mill is located on Beverly Mill Road and once you drive past the mill on I-66 heading east, you must drive 8 more miles and then backtrack the same distance on State Road 55 to get there.

Virginia 05Partially collapsed Interior Wall (much work remains)

Chapman’s Mill was originally built in 1742 and, at 7 ½ stories, is thought to be the tallest stacked stone building in the United States.  The mill is located in Thoroughfare Gap, a narrow passage in the Bull Run Mountains.  The Gap was used by migrating buffalo and traveling American Indians long before Europeans arrived in the area.

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Detail of Wall, Showing Stacked Stone Technique

The gap quickly became a major route to the rich farmland of the Shenandoah Valley, was a strategic route in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War and its importance as a trade route was enhanced with the arrival of a rail line (still operating today) in 1852.Virginia 06

Interior View, showing Rusting Cogwheel (about 6-foot diameter)

The mill was a major food storage and distribution center for the Confederate forces until mid-1862 and was burned by the Confederates when they departed the area.  Rebuilt after the war, it continued to operate as a mill, passing through several owners until it ceased operations in 1946.

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Interior View Showing a Stabilizing Cross Beam

Abandoned for years, it escaped demolition in the 1960s from the planned route for I-66 through the efforts of local citizens and preservation groups.  In 1998, it was torched by an arsonist. The devastation was so extensive that the building seemed doomed to extinction.  But shortly thereafter, a non-profit group obtained the property and launched a restoration campaign.  Phases 1 and 2 (Stabilizing the walls, conducting archaeological research on the site) are completed and fudraising is underway to continue the restoration.

 Virginia 08Smokey, the Wonder Dog, Contemplates the Scene


The mill is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays.  Click here for more information.

13 thoughts on “Virginia Road Trip: Buzzard Rock and Thoroughfare Gap

  1. Happy Memorial Day Weekend! Jack and I will put the mill on our list of things to do because I really enjoyed the history and pics of it.


    • Thanks, Kathy. Let me know what you think after you see it. As I indicated in the post, it’s hard to locate, but if you take the exit for US 15 (a few miles before you see it), you’ll save some miles. At the exit ramp head south, then right on to Virginia 55, look for Turner Road, turn right to cross back over I-66, then a left on Beverly Mill Road to the end. The gates are shut during the weekdays and you can’t see it if they are not open. Good luck!


    • Yes, it was quite impressive, especially after I looked up the history. They apparently have information programs, there were about 5 benches set up in the mill as if for a lecture. But there was no one there on Sunday afternoon to answer questions, so checking the web site before venturing out is probably a good idea. If you go, let me know what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Greg. I first noticed it a couple years ago when I was heading out I-66 for some reason or another and it was mostly the fact that it seemed not to have a way to access it that I got interested in finding how to get there.


  2. Great images and loved reading a bit of the history. I can understand your satisfaction at finally making your way there after spotting it from the freeway.


  3. I drive by the mill every day on my commute to work. I have not yet made it over there when it is open but plan to this year. It is amazing to have such history so close to my home.


    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, it’s pretty interesting. Despite its proximity to the Interstate, it takes a bit of navigation to actually get there. I’m sure you’ll like it when you visit. As I recall, they are primarily open on weekends and with a fence, you can get very close when they are closed.


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