Compton Peak Trail, located in the north district of Shenandoah National Park, is a 2.4 mile moderate, out and back hike that boasts summit views and unique geological formations. This trek is not crowded, unlike many other short summit hikes in SNP. It is a great excursion for families and adults who want to peer into the valley below or gaze up at towering, rock columns formed millions of years ago.

Stormy skies over blue-grey mountains
Northern views from Compton Peak West

Our first hike to Compton Peak

Hiking map of Compton Gap

My first opportunity to hike Compton Peak was July 2, 2016, and I blew it!  My husband and I were section hiking the Appalachian Trail northbound through Shenandoah National Park.  We parked at Neighbor Mountain Parking Area, near milepost 27, walked the tiny connector trail and followed the white blazes to Compton Gap.  Our hike was 18+ miles and instead of turning onto the Compton Peak trails a mile before our final destination, we marched past.  Why? 

Neither of us can recall a sound reason.  Based on the timestamp of my map and photos, it was not getting dark. I am certain that there was not a thunderstorm to chase us off-trail, as I vividly remember the only dangerous weather during the AT-SNP venture, and it was not that day.  (Plus a google search of weather history proved that it was a sunny 90 degrees).  Maybe I was tired, as I had wrapped up 2 years of cancer treatments the month prior, and was still getting back to “normal”.   My pace, however, was steady, fluctuating between 19 and 24 minute-miles, so exhaustion doesn’t seem very likely. My only conclusion is that I had AT “tunnel vision”.  I was hyper-focused on those bright white marks and either didn’t notice the blue blazes or, worse, I didn’t care. 

A wiser wanderer

What a difference a few years and a several hiking projects make!  During the early AT days, I worked hard to get from point A to B.  Along the way, I missed out on views, taking unplanned pathways and exploration. My hiking style changed in 2017 and has continued to evolve.  I still hustle along the trail, but often it is to make up for the time that I spent exploring rocks, trees, flowers, views and wildlife, and not because I “need” to finish 20 miles under 8 hours. Hiking all of Shenandoah’s trails has given me the opportunity to make up for the missed blue blazes off the AT. We have since hiked the Compton trails twice, taking time to look up, down and all around!

An adventure reminder: Stop and wonder while you wander along the trails.

Green trees and foliage border a inclining brown trail
The Appalachian Trail near Compton Peak

Melon and yellow colored Columbine flower
Columbines border the eastern spur trail in June

Hiking to Compton Peak

Trailhead parking

Compton Peak is closest to the Front Royal park entrance and only 6 miles south of the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (Skyline Drive milepost 4.6). The Compton Gap Parking Lot, at milepost 10.4, has space for 14-16 vehicles. A trailhead sign includes a map and information about the accessible hikes from the parking area.

Concrete Compton Peak trail marker

Hiking the Compton Peak trails

Cross Skyline Drive and follow the white Appalachian Trail blazes southbound. The trail gradually climbs in elevation. After .8 mile, the Compton Peak trail intersects the AT, a stone mile marker designating the pathway to both the East and West Peaks. Sky blue blazes mark the trail pathways. I suggest hooking a left and trekking to Compton Peak East first since this spur trail is more challenging than its western counterpart. The .2 mile walk to the rock formation is downhill and includes some narrow rocky sections.

Compton Peak East

The top of the rock formation will appear on your right. Be sure to continue down the trail to see the underside of rock mass. It is from below that you will see the remarkable columns of stone, although hints of columns are visible from the top section.. We climbed atop the formation on our way back to the AT with the hopes of seeing a view of Mount Marshall. Unfortunately, the view was obstructed in both 2020 and 2023.

Brownish grey rock mass in the woods
Top of the columnar jointing mass, just off the Compton Peak East trail

The path to the underside of the columnar mass is rocky and a bit steep, so use caution. The path levels out, but remains rock strewn, with many that wobble and shift. Vegetation that includes thorny plants creep and wind along sections of the rocks.

Rock formation, rocky path, green plants and trees
The path at the bottom of the rock formation
Stacks of rock columns molded together as a green gray rock mass on Compton Peak trail
Columnar jointing on Compton Peak

Retrace your steps to the AT, cross the trail and continue on the rocky path to Compton Peak West for fabulous northern views of the national park. Be cautious as you step to the overlook as there is a big step down to access the outcropping.

The overlook provides northwestern views of Shenandoah National Park. If you look carefully, you can see Skyline drive traversing Dickey Ridge.

The view from Compton peak: purple clouded sky above green mountains and rocky ledges
Northwestern views from Compton Peak

Return to the parking area by walking from the overlook to the AT marker and turn left. The AT path is downhill, .8 mile to Compton Gap parking lot.

Follow the blazes

If you are used to using a compass, you may be confused about the peak names. The Compton Peak East trail follows a south and slightly eastern direction, whereas, the West trail is north-northwest. If you don’t care about cardinal directions, just stick to the blazes and you will be fine! The trails are well marked.

Sky blue painted blaze on a tree on a rocky trail
Blue blaze marking the Compton Peak West trail in Shenandoah National Park

Compton Peak Trail Map and Details

Access my map on AllTrails by clicking the map image below.

Hike difficulty classifications (link)
Route typeOut and back
Trail difficulty level
Geographic locationShenandoah National Park, North Section
Trailhead parking optionsCompton Gap Parking Lot, milepost 10.4
Trail amenitiesNone. Restrooms available at Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, milepost 4.6
Elevation - trailhead2,405'
Elevation - highest peak2,907'
Elevation gain700'
Total mileage2.4 miles
Water sourcesNone on the trail. Water available at Dickey Ridge Visitors Center, milepost 4.6
HighlightsNorthern views of SNP (West Peak) and columnar jointing (East Peak)

NPS – Compton Gap map

Columnar Jointing

A geologic wonder is located on Compton Peak East. It looks as if someone stacked stone columns onto a large pile in the middle of the forest. This extraordinary rock mass was formed 570 million years ago as the result of volcanic activity. The stone columns are made of basalt, the earth’s most common volcanic rock and most abundant bedrock. Basalt is located on ocean floors and under much of the land surfaces. Compton Peak is unique because, as the magnesium and iron lava cooled, the basalt contracted and cracked into prismatic columns. The process is similar to when a mud puddle dries. As the water evaporates from the mud, it contracts and cracks into a geometrical design. Columnar jointing occurs when the hot lava cools and pools into multisided columns.

Learn more about columnar jointing

Read more about my adventures in Shenandoah National Park

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God-loving, healthy lifestyle enthusiast, mother, grandmother, animal obsessed and married to my best friend. Life is good!


  1. Jessica Rdoriguez Reply
    Your photos are beautiful. What a great reminder to let be present in the moment- to know that even the smaller trails (or seemingly smaller moments in life) offer just as much awe as the seemingly grand ones. I also really like the information about a trail that is great for newbies & families.
    • Cori Strathmeyer Reply
      Thank you, Jessie! I appreciate your compliment. I love your comparison between trails and life. You are right about being present. 🙏
  2. I've hiked this trail twice. Most recently (August 2023) the out and back started from the Compton Gap parking lot. Starts out steep-ish but when you hit the ridge it's an easier trek. Stopped by both overlooks. The side trail to the left goes to to columnar jointing spot. It's a steep-ish walk down to the spot and the trail curves around to the left to see the best view. The side trail to the right goes to an overlook and has a great viewpoint. Hiked another 4 miles on the AT, past Jenkins Gap and turned around where the AT meets Skyline Drive. The first time I hiked this started from Front Royal, hiked into the park, up to Comptons Gap parking lot and up to the overlook and columns. It was February and while it was in the low 50s when we started, by the time we got into SNP there was snow on the ground (I was prepared). Hiking up from the parking lot to the overlooks there was around 6-8" of snow and ice. Highly recommend micro spikes and hiking poles if you go that time of year. Views from the overlook was windy but you could see for miles! Trail was well maintained no matter the season. A great hike!
  3. Cori Strathmeyer Reply
    Thanks for sharing about your hikes. I love winter hiking ... you get to see an entirely different view. And you bring up a great point to be prepared. I carry micro spikes in the winter, too. I (almost) always hike with at least 1 pole. My other hand is generally on my dog leash. I know that your love of Virginia and hiking is great and may even rival my own passion ;). Thanks for your comments, Spike!

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