This 28.6 mile Appalachian Trail section is one of the toughest northbound sections in Virginia – you climb, and then you climb some more. The first nine miles are essentially ‘green tunnel’. The middle section has several great views. And, the last part is an easy downhill coast to the James River. We did this section over two nights – Adam will cover days one and three, and Christine will do day two.
Day One (8.7 miles)…
We started off our day by driving to the James River footbridge parking lot. I had arranged a shuttle to pick us up at 10 a.m. and then drop us off at our starting point at Jennings Creek. We enjoyed some breakfast at Cracker Barrel, but still arrived at the parking lot around 9:30 that morning. There were a few people in the parking lot that were getting ready to start hikes or taking breaks. One guy was hiking southbound to Roanoke and said he was looking for a ride to Glasgow so he could buy batteries to charge his phone. I found some extra batteries for my GPS, so I handed them over to him and told him I hoped it got him a little closer to Roanoke.
As 10 a.m. came and went, I got a little nervous that our ride might not show. I had some hope when a car pulled in to let off some thru-hikers, but it turned out not to be our ride. by 10:20 a.m., I thought we needed to see if we could figure out what was going on. There is absolutely no phone signal at the footbridge, so Christine waited in the lot while I drove until I could get a signal to make the call for the shuttle driver. I ended up having to drive for several miles before I got one bar and ended up having to leave a message. I turned around to get back to the parking lot and when I arrived, there was the shuttle driver with Christine. Whew! We loaded up our stuff and got on the road. Turns out, he had written down 10:30 for the trip. We were just glad we didn’t have to hitchhike or beg someone else to take us.
Our shuttle driver, Ken, was retired and spends most of his time during the spring, summer, and early fall taking care of AT hikers. He helps shuttle people where they need to go and picks up packages for AT thru-hikers to deliver to them. After talking with on the ride to our start point, we could tell that he is one of those true Trail Angels that just makes hiking the AT a bit easier for everyone.
It was probably about 11:15 when we finally started our hike. The Jennings Creek area had lots of parking and it was a nice place to pick up the trail. We headed northbound on the white-blazed AT, which started with a steep climb from the road. After 1.6 miles, we had climbed 1000 feet and reached the top of Fork Mountain. The trail then descends about 800 feet and we reached another stream past a powerline at 2.8 miles. The trail continues along the stream for a while, giving you a great water source if you need it. At 3.8 miles, we reached the Bryant Ridge shelter, which was a great spot to eat lunch. We joined a couple of thru-hikers (one from Germany) at the shelter, who were eating a quick snack and filling up water from the stream. The Bryant Ridge shelter was one of the nicer shelters and even had a high loft and a window that let in some nice sunlight.
After fueling up here, we had a big climb ahead of us. From the shelter, the trail climbs up and up. At 6.9 miles, we had climbed about 2000 feet from the shelter and reached a sign noting a small sidetrail on the left to a campsite. We continued our climb and at 8.1 miles, reached the top of Floyd Mountain. The trail from here began to descend and we reached the sign that pointed to Cornelius Creek Shelter at 8.7 miles. This day there was nothing exceptional to see on the trail, but we were at least glad to be settling in at camp.
When we arrived at the shelter, we noticed the thru-hikers we had seen at the Bryant Ridge shelter were setting up in the shelter. The trail behind the shelter that led to the privy had lots of campsites, but some of those were already taken. It was only 4 p.m., but we felt we needed to stake our claim quickly so we set up camp in one of the remaining spots behind the shelter. Within minutes, we already had others setting up other tents nearby. We knew this was going to be a crowded night. After we set up our tents, I went to go get water by the stream near the shelter. There was a pileated woodpecker climbing up a tree just a few feet away from me. I enjoyed having this moment with this often-skittish bird. The woodpecker eventually flew off and I was joined by someone also filling water. It turned out he was a JMU student who worked at our rec center and we had some mutual acquaintances.
When we got back to our campsite, we began to make dinner, read books, and started a small campfire. Right around dusk, a large group of boy scouts arrived and there wasn’t much room. The only place left around was right near us; we were worried how they would keep us up but they were very respectful and kept it relatively quiet. As we overheard them talk, we heard they had a rough day. They had driven up and got lost somewhere on the trail and while they had parked just half a mile away from the road, they had walked for miles trying to find this shelter. They had rushed to set up camp and start to cook their dinner in the dark. One scout named Max was hungry when they arrived and asked what they had for appetizers. We got a laugh when we heard the scout leader tell him he could have a handful of unsalted nuts. I guess Max learned that the backcountry isn’t Applebee’s. After the fire faded, we crawled into our tent and drifted off to sleep.
Day Two (12.2 miles)…
Sunlight started filtering into our tent a little before 6:00 a.m. I unzipped my sleeping bag, stretched my legs, and changed from my camp clothes back into my hiking clothes. While Adam worked on packing up the tent and our sleeping gear, I made breakfast. Typically, we eat oatmeal, a honeybun, and some cheese. The goal for breakfast is always to eat lots of calories so we can hike for a while before needing a snack. On this trip, we swapped out the oatmeal for granola with Nido. Nido is a full-fat, enriched powdered milk found in most grocery stores’ Latino section. The Nido was fantastic – creamy, rich, and delicious with our maple-pecan granola.
After breakfast we were all geared up – backpacks on and ready to hike out – when suddenly I felt water running down the backs of my legs. Crap! At first I thought I had squished my Camelbak hose open, but it turned out to be a bit more serious. Even though the ‘locked’ arrows on my Camelbak lid were properly aligned, I guess the threads were still uneven. As soon as the gear inside my pack pressed against the reservoir, water started leaking out. All in all, a little over a liter of water gushed out into the bottom of my pack.
Adam took my Camelbak and the filter back down to the spring and refilled it while I worked on drying the spilled water. My pillow, sleeping pad, and sheet were all pretty wet, but I was most concerned about my sleeping bag. It was in a water-resistant compression sack. It felt wet on the outside, but I didn’t want to take the time to unpack it to check the inside. I guess my fate would be determined at camp that night! Within 10 minutes of the spill we were back on the trail.
I was pretty grouchy about all the wet gear, so I walked quietly behind Adam ruminating on the impending case of hypothermia I would probably get from sleeping in wet down. After a mile, we reached our first view of the day – a gorgeous vista from Black Rock Overlook. The view is located on a spur trail a couple hundred feet off the AT. After enjoying the mountainous view and taking a few photos, we headed down the trail. The going was pretty gentle for a while. We passed junctions with the Cornelius Creek and Apple Orchard Falls trails. We hiked to the falls and along Cornelius Creek earlier in the spring. It’s a great dayhike in this area.
After passing the junction with the Apple Orchard Fall Trail, we soon reached a gravel road at Parkers Gap. A flight of wooden stairs led uphill from the road. At the top of the stairs, we found two coolers of ‘trail magic’ for thru-hikers. One cooler had ice and bottled water and the other had a variety of snacks – fruit, cookies, and candy. We left the treats behind and began the tough 1.5 mile climb to the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain. On the open, grassy summit of Apple Orchard, we enjoyed more excellent views and a snack. We were even joined by a small garter snake trying to warm in the sun. The FAA radar dome sitting atop the summit is huge and plastered with NO TRESPASSING signs.
About a third of a mile north of Apple Orchard, we passed under The Guillotine – a round boulder perfectly balanced and wedged between two rock faces. Pretty neat! The trail went through a short and steep rocky section before reaching a pretty, sunny meadow. About a mile after the meadow, we popped out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We crossed the road and picked up white blazes again. We enjoyed pleasant, easy trail for another third of a mile to the Thunder Hill Shelter. We stopped in to rest and check out the shelter log. After leaving the shelter, the trail continued gently along. It was one of the prettiest parts of our hike – so many wildflowers! My favorite bloom to spot was a large patch of yellow lady’s slippers covering a hillside. They’re not as common as the pink ones, so it was a real treat to see so many at once. About 1.5 miles past the shelter, we reached the Thunder Ridge Overlook and decided it was a great spot to stop for lunch. Nearly 7 miles of hiking had burned off my breakfast and I was ravenous.
The viewpoint had a constructed stone platform and a superb view! Across the valley, we could even see the huge talus slope of the Devils Marbleyard – another popular dayhike in the area. We got out our Alite chairs and food bags and settled in for a nice long break. I had cashews, dried pineapple, a big handful of Sour Patch kids, and an asiago cheese bagel filled with cheddar cheese slices. I felt so re-energized after I ate! By this time, I had ceased thinking about wet gear and hypothermia and was just really enjoying my day. While we were eating lunch, clouds moved in and a breeze picked up. We ended up moving on sooner than planned because I actually got sort of chilled. Before we hiked on, we made a quick detour up to the parkway so we could throw all our garbage away in a real trashcan instead of continuing to carry it with us. When you’re backpacking, always take advantage of trash cans!
The next 3.3 miles covered a huge descent with only a few tiny bumps of climbing. It was fast going and we reached Pettites Gap around 2:00 p.m. We knew we had one short but difficult climb ahead of us before reaching camp, so we took our packs off, leaned back against a huge old tree, and ate another snack. We knew the last climb would feel pretty brutal – and it did not fall short of that expectation!
High Cock Knob was beautiful – covered with blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. But it was extremely steep and rocky. It also had a false summit! We got to the top of a tough climb and started descending and thought ‘Yay… we’re done!!!’, only to have an even steeper ascent staring us in the face a few hundred yards later.
The climb down High Cock was equally steep – covered with loose, treacherous rocks. Several southbound hikers passed us coming the opposite direction. All of them asked ‘How much more climbing!?’ On the way down, Adam had an awful allergy attack. His throat almost closed and he had a difficult time catching his breath. It was pretty scary and he says he really doesn’t remember the last half mile of hiking. Fortunately, it mostly passed and his breathing eased.
Arriving at Marble Spring was like reaching an oasis in a desert! The large grassy campsite had a huge fire pit with log seats, a spring-fed water source, and plenty of room for multiple tents. We chose a secluded tent site uphill from the fire pit. I hung my sleeping bag on a branch to dry – it was a bit damp around the feet. Everything else dried out over the course of the day in my pack. Hooray – hypothermia was no longer an issue. We collected water. I napped in the tent while Adam read a book outside. Being at camp is the best! Around 6:00, I came out of the tent, ready to eat – again! Dinner was lasagna with extra cheese and mocha pudding for dessert.
When we first got to camp, we were alone. But, over the course of the afternoon, a group of four West Point grads out for the weekend and two thru-hikers arrived. Compared to the dozens of people camped the night before at Cornelius Creek, sharing a large campsite with six people felt really quiet and solitary. One of thru-hikers climbed into his tent long before sundown and never came back out. Everyone else (us, a thru-hiker named ‘Captain K’, and the four West Pointers) shared a campfire and conversation. It was interesting to hear everyone’s assessment of the trail that day. It was universally agreed that High Cock Knob was a tough way to end the day! While we sat around the fire, a whitetail deer circled us like a vulture for over an hour. Weird – maybe she wanted to the grassy area to graze? Eventually, the sun slipped behind the mountains, we ran out of firewood, and everyone headed off to their tents for the night. It was a long, hard day of hiking, but it had been full of beautiful views, colorful wildflowers, and blooming trees. One more day to go!
Day Three (7.7 miles)…
We were woken up a little earlier than normal by the sound of a fox screaming and then an incessant whippoorwill that sang for about an hour straight at the first glimpse of sunlight. We started off our third day with an earlier start than the previous day (also thanks to no leaking water bladders) and made our way from the Marble Spring campsite heading north again on the Appalachian Trail. Captain K also was getting ready for his day of hiking and was hoping to get to town to get his resupply package. We told him we would give him a ride to town if he was still at the parking lot.
Day two had been a tough, long day on the trail, so I was wondering if I had enough energy for the third day. I was surprised to find that Day three was much easier. A lot of that was because it was mostly downhill, but my muscles felt surprisingly ready to tackle the day. Our moods were also boosted by how pretty the trail was. While yesterday was a day filled with tons of rhododendron, today seemed to want to match it equally with mountain laurel along the trail.
The trail started off with a flat section. At .5 miles, we reached a junction with the south side of the Sulphur Spring Trail. At 2.3 miles, we reached the junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and at 2.8 miles, we reached the junction with the north side of the Sulphur Spring Trail (the Gunter Ridge trail is part of the Devils Marbleyard loop). The trail begins to descend more steeply at this point and we reached Big Cove Branch at 3.6 miles. The trail continues to descend until you reach Matts Creek Shelter at 5.5 miles.
The Matts Creek Shelter was fairly run down and from reading the entries in the trail log, the privy was scary as well. We ate a quick snack here, but quickly moved on. At 6.3 miles, the trail ran parallel to the James River, at time providing glimpses of this impressive river. We started to see people kayaking in the river, people going out for a quick stroll on the AT, and a couple of trail runners. We knew we were getting close to the end of our trip. At 7.5 miles, we reached the James River footbridge. At the footbridge was a family that had backpacked with a couple of kids. One of the kids (about 11 in my approximation) had asked us how far we went and we told him. He was impressed, since he had backpacked from Petites Gap (about a 10 mile trip). I told him that I thought he could do it one day, since he still had a smile on his face after backpacking 10 miles. I told Christine I think we just witnessed a kid that just found his love for backpacking. We crossed the James River footbridge and made our way back to the car.
When we got to the parking lot, Captain K was there. He said he had arranged someone to pick him up, so he was going to wait there for his ride. Before we had left, we had filled up a cooler with ice, put in a few drinks, and hoped they would be a cool reward for when we were done. I offered him a cold soda, which he gladly took. The day was already getting quite warm, but we were able to escape into our air-conditioned car. We drove to Lexington to eat lunch at Macado’s and then had a few beer samples at Devil’s Backbone to celebrate.
I’m so proud of how far we have come since Backpacking 101. We feel like we now have the confidence and ability to do multi-day trips with heavy packs. Every backpacking trip we go on, there are new challenges, new things to learn, and adventure just around the corner.
- Distance – 28.6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike* [Day One] [Day Two][Day Three])
- Elevation Change – 8100 ft. (Several official sources calculated this elevation total, my less reliable hiking phone app put it closer to 6,000.)
- Difficulty – 5. We are not going to sugar coat it – this was a very tough section with lots of climbing.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was dry and not too rocky. Stream crossings were small, shallow, and easy.
- Views – 4. Views from Black Rock Overlook, Apple Orchard Mountain, and Thunder Ridge were all excellent but none were true 360 degree views. We also enjoyed some nice views through the trees on the descent to the James River.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Matts Creek was lovely. And, of course you have to say something about the James River!
- Wildlife – 4. We saw deer, snakes, and had a whippoorwill and a screaming fox at night two’s camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Follow the white blazes and you practically can’t get lost. The only thing slightly tricky was the big hairpin turn at Marble Spring.
- Solitude – 2. We chose to hike this section on Memorial Day weekend… with perfect weather… during the thru-hiker bubble. While we didn’t see crowds on the trail, camping spots were very crowded.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista. Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s. Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing. To get to starting point for this section: Take a left out of the parking lot and go 5.6 miles on US-501N. Take a left on to VA-130W and go 6.2 miles. VA-130 ends here. Take a left to go on to US-11/Lee Highway heading south and then take the exit for I-81S. Go 1.7 miles and take a right across from the Exxon to stay on US-11S. Go .4 miles and then merge on to I-81S. Go 7 miles and take exit 168 to merge on to VA-614 toward Arcadia. Turn left on to VA-614/Arcadia Rd. Follow this as it becomes Jennings Creek Road. At 4.7 miles, you will reach the parking area and where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Head north to start your hike.
This 11-mile Appalachian Trail stretch had spectacular views of the valley and the James River!
When Adam and I first started hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, we focused on the trail through Shenandoah National Park. The park is close to our home, making it easy for us to bring two cars for a shuttle. We did short sections – most of our day hikes ranged from 6 to 8 miles. We did a couple sections as overnights, covering 10-12 miles total over two days. When we first started, those hikes really challenged me – but they also made me want more!
We’re now traveling further from home to complete sections, so we push to complete bigger miles to make the travel time more worthwhile. We’ve also found friends and businesses to help us shuttle along the way.
We met Lynchburg friends, Dennis and Tina to do this AT section from Punchbowl Mountain down to the James River. We’d never met them in person, but we’d chatted online about hiking and the Appalachian Trail for almost a year. We were really thankful for their good company on this hike!
We met early Saturday morning at the Foot Footbridge across the James River. ‘Foot Footbridge’ isn’t a typo. The bridge is named after hiking enthusiast, Bill Foot, who worked tirelessly (while also fighting cancer) to see that the bridge was built. It’s a beautiful and impressive bridge across the James River, and there is nothing else like it along the Appalachian Trail.
After Adam and I got acquainted with Dennis and Tina in the parking lot, we hopped in our car and made our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway to our start point – the Punchbowl Mountain Overlook. We left off here last fall after completing a 17 mile section from Hog Camp Gap.
The morning began with our only significant climb of the day- about 1400 feet over two miles to the summit of Bluff Mountain. About half a mile into our ascent, we detoured to visit the Punch Bowl Shelter. The shelter is a little bit run down and sits next to a murky, muddy, mosquito-haven of a pond. The shelters to the north and south of Punch Bowl (Brown Mountain Creek and Johns Hollow) are both much nicer places to stay the night.
After our short stop, we continued our climb to the spectacular open top of Bluff Mountain. We were swarmed by no-see-ums and gnats, but we still enjoyed the (almost) 360 views and watching the morning fog burn off the valley. The remains of a fire tower foundation still sit on the summit. Immediately upon leaving the summit, we stopped at the Ottie Cline Powell memorial. The marker tells the sad tale of a little 4-year old boy lost in the mountains in 1891.
From there, we had four miles of gentle downhill or practically flat ridge walking. It was delightful! Wildflowers were blooming like crazy! The woods smelled fresh, green, and earthy. Even though it was a warm, humid day, the cool mountain breezes made for perfect hiking weather. Along the ridge, we passed junctions with a couple trails – Saltlog Gap and Saddle Gap. I’ve heard these trails are pretty overgrown and don’t know much about them. From there, we enjoyed several great views along the ridge. The views far exceeded my expectations for hike, and I really enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the James River. About 7 miles into the hike, we passed the junction with the Little Rocky Row trail, and reached Fuller Rocks – another lovely view point.
After that view, we descended the mountain along 21 switchbacks. At first the descent was pretty steep, but eventually it moderated and entered a stand of enormous old trees. Dennis even took the time to hug a couple of them.
At 9.2 miles, we took the short side trail to visit Johns Hollow Shelter. The camp is located in a peaceful, open spot in the woods. The shelter is typical, but the tent area behind the shelter is especially nice. There was lots of flat, grassy space to pitch
After leaving Johns Hollow, we hiked about another half mile in the woods before crossing a gravel forest road. After the road, we quickly reached Rocky Row Run – a beautiful mountain stream that eventually feeds into the James.
The stream was very scenic and we all enjoyed the sound of the flowing water. There were lots of blooming wildflowers and rhododendron along the creek. We crossed a couple small wooden bridges along the way, before popping out on the side of Route 501. From there, we crossed the highway and returned back to the Foot Bridge and parking area at 10.6 miles (11 if you include mileage from shelter visits).
We all decided to walk across the bridge to check out views of the James! It was a beautiful view – especially looking back to all the distant rocky outcroppings we had stood upon earlier in the day. Standing on the bridge, my mind drifted to the next section south – wondering what it would be like and what challenges and gifts would lie ahead on the trail.
Dennis and Tina – thanks for hiking with us! Can’t wait to meet up again.
This section of the Appalachian Trail was one we had contemplated doing for a while. We have covered now a section of contiguous miles that includes from this point up to Front Royal. It is easier to say, “We have walked from Front Royal to the James River” than to say “We have walked from Front Royal to a place off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of the James River”.
As Christine mentioned, when traveling further away from home the next concern is wondering if we need to bring two cars or figuring out if we can get someone to help us shuttle. It can be hard to find some friends that want to go trekking in the woods for over 10 miles. So, we were very glad to meet Dennis and Tina. They have done this section a number of times before but were willing to do it again with us.
This section was a surprise to us. We hadn’t seen enough nice pictures from these overlooks to know if it would be worthwhile to check. But, we hiked on a very clear day that made the scenery gorgeous.
After meeting up, we drove to our starting point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We met a few guys in the parking lot that were doing a multi-day backpack as well. We crossed the parkway and headed up the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading southbound. The beginning of the trail started a steep ascent. It was already a warm, muggy day, so with the extra work of going uphill I got sweaty very early in the hike. In .4 miles, we reached the side trail to the Punchbowl Shelter. The side trail was mostly downhill to the shelter. When we arrived, there was nobody staying there. The shelter is in a nice shady spot, but we could tell the insects were swarming near the pond. We checked out the trail log in the shelter and then made our way back up to the Appalachian Trail.
The trail continues to be mostly a steep climb until you reach the top of Bluff Mountain at 2.0 miles. There were great views to the west from the trail. The bugs were relentless (at least to me) from this open area, so while I would have liked to stay up there longer, I wanted to quickly get back into the woods and away from the bugs. We saw a brilliant indigo bunting flying around the treetops from the overlook. As soon as you get out of the clearing and back into the woods, you see the memorial for Ottie Cline Powell on the ground to the left.
The trail then begins a steep, downward descent. At 3.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Saltlog Gap Trail, but stay on the AT. The trail mostly levels out as you walk along a ridge for a while. At 4.6 miles, you reach a junction with the Saddle Gap Trail. Staying on the AT, the trail begins to climb a more gradual ascent until you reach Big Rocky Row at 6.1 miles. The views from this area were my favorite, as you got to see the James River below snaking through the landscape of mountains.
From here, the trail descends and you reach Little Rocky Row at 7.3 miles, also giving you nice views along the way as you walk down the ridge line. The rest of the hike is basically all downhill from this point until you reach the James River. At 9.2 miles, we reached the a short side trail that took a very sharp turn to Johns Hollow Shelter. We checked out this shelter and came across another two section hikers that were enjoying a week along the AT. There was a nearby stream for replenishing water and a privy. After eating a quick snack, we returned to join the AT again.
The trail again was mostly flat or downhill. We crossed the stream at 9.4 miles and then crossed the gravel VA 812 road to continue on the AT. As we were walking along, Dennis started talking about black snakes and within minutes we saw one directly on the trail as if he had summoned it. The forest through this section had many larger trees along the way and then opened up to beautiful rhododendron plants that were aligning the stream on both sides. It was such a serene setting. At 10.3 miles, we reached the Lower Rocky Row Run bridge. We crossed the run and then at 10.6 miles we were back at US 501. We crossed the road which had the trail lead us right to the parking lot where we started.
We already plan to get back together sometime with Dennis and Tina for a backpack trip sometime in the near future. It is always great to find like-minded people to experience the outdoors together!
- Distance – 11 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2062 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. 11 miles is a little on the long side, but after climbing to the summit of Bluff Mountain early in the hike, the rest of the terrain is easy to moderate.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Consistently well-maintained trail. Some parts of the trail are narrow along a steep hillside, but still easily passable.
- Views – 5. Super views from Bluff Mountain, nice views along the ridge, and then amazing views of the James River.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. The final stretch of this hike follows pretty Rocky Row Run, and of course – you end at the James!
- Wildlife – 1. We saw a black snake.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. Just keep following those white blazes south. The trail is easy to follow and well-marked.
- Solitude – 3. We saw a fair number of hikers along the way, including quite a few northbound thru-hikers, but you never feel like the trail is crowded.
Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista. Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s. Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing. To get to your start point: Leaving the parking lot, turn right on to US-501S. Go .8 miles and continue straight to take VA-130 E. Go 2.8 miles and then turn left on to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway and go 9.8 miles until you reach the small parking lot for Punchbowl Mountain where the Appalachian Trail crosses the parkway. Cross the road and you will see the Appalachian Trail marker which has the trail leading uphill.
This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail section had some views and a ton of pleasant ridge walking! We joined up with our friend, Kris, and tackled it on an unseasonably hot spring weekend. Adam will cover day one and Christine will take over with day two!
Day One (12.3 miles)…
This section of the Appalachian Trail had us doing something we had not done before – arranging a shuttle. We have covered most of the AT within an hour or two of where we live using our own two cars to shuttle. But as we hike further from home, self-shuttling has become inconvenient and costly. If you are thinking of covering any sections of the AT, I would strongly recommend picking up the latest version of The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller (often referred as the AWOL Guide). It’s a must-have for planning purposes. Included in the book are elevation profiles, things to see along the trail, road junctions, as well as information on nearby towns, where to find the post office, grocery stores for resupplies, laundromats, hostels, and shuttle providers. This book is updated yearly, so the information provided is very current and helpful. Many thru-hikers carry these books along and they will often rip out pages of the AT once they have covered them, hopefully finishing the trek with nothing more than the binding. I will admit that it felt a little odd to call a number of an individual that I found in a book to find a ride, but these shuttle providers are some of the unsung heroes of the trail, helping to make the logistics of the trip much easier along the way. We worked out a pick up time and agreed on a price.
I arranged for our shuttle driver to meet us at Bears Den. We got there early, so we were able to explore a bit before our shuttle arrived. Bears Den is a hiker hostel, providing showers, lodging, and mail drops for long-distance AT hikers. Day-use hikers pay $3 to park in the lot. Bears Den looked like a stone cottage you would find in Europe. The grounds were kept up nicely and we were excited that this would be the endpoint on the trip. We met up with our shuttle driver, who took us on a scenic, horse-country drive to Harpers Ferry. The shuttle driver used to be the manager of Bears Den, but now just lives nearby. In addition to being a shuttle driver, he’s also a former thru-hiker (as many of these shuttle drivers are – after hiking, shuttling is one way they give back and keep in touch with the AT community.) On the ride, he told us about his favorite parts of the trail, what we would see, and even some tales about other shuttles he had provided. He explained that he had gotten one call in the wee hours of the morning recently to pick up a hiker that had been bitten and sprayed by a rabid skunk. Too say the least, these trail angels really go the extra mile for the hiking community.
We asked to be dropped off at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy & Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, WV. Thru-hikers and section hikers typically stop by the ATC Visitor Center and have a photo taken in front of the building. ATC staffers take a photo, assign you a hiker number, and have you write information about yourself on the border before adding it to a photo album. You can go back years later and check out all the people that have made it this far along the trail. Since this was the section that brought us through Harpers Ferry, it was time for us to have our photo done. Our trail names are “12th Man” (for my love of the Seattle Seahawks) and “Sugar Rush” (for Christine’s love of candy before tackling a big climb). It was fun to finally be officially added to the hiker album.
We had looked in advance and had seen the ATC was having the Flip Flop Kick Off weekend event. The hope was to have the hikers split their trip at this halfway point in WV to keep hikers from clustering together too much. One example would be north-bounders going from Georgia to Maine to stop here at this midway point and then go up to Maine and hike back down to WV. They had a cookout, vendors, games, and wildlife exhibits along the back lawn (throughout the weekend they were hosting pack shakedowns, talks, and bands). When we walked through with our backpacks, we heard a few people getting excited that ‘hikers were coming’. I didn’t have the heart to tell them we were just out for the weekend, but based on how clean and fresh-smelling we were, I’m sure most of them could have guessed we weren’t out for the long haul. We didn’t stay long at the event, since it was getting close to 11AM and we hadn’t even started our hike yet.
One of the volunteers pointed us to a blue-blazed trail that led to the Appalachian Trail. On our way to meet the AT, we walked across the grounds of former Storer College, a historically black college that opened its doors as a school to educate freed slaves. Open for 88 years, Storer’s funding was cut in 1955 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling came in to desegregate public schools. The school was forced to close. The blue blazes continued down a series of steps and before we knew it we were on the Appalachian Trail. We turned right to head south along the trail, heading downhill. The trail came to a quick road crossing and then headed up to the large bridge along US-340 that crosses the Shenandoah River. We walked along the roadside on the bridge with cars whizzing by, but the view off the side of the bridge was breathtaking. This river is dotted with large and small boulders in the rapid-infused river, causing this to be a hotspot for kayakers.
At the end of the bridge, the trail leads down stairs and goes under US-340 to the other side. The trail then begins its steepest climb in this section as you ascend towards Loudoun Heights. At 1.4 miles, you cross over WV 32 and at 2.0 miles, we reached the top of Loudoun Heights and a sign for the VA-WV border. Take a right to stay on the Appalachian Trail. The trail goes downhill and levels out for an easy walk and we had our lunch along the side of the trail. At 4.4 miles, we came to some power lines, which created some open views to the side. The trail begins to climb slowly. At 5.9 miles, we arrived at Keys Gap parking lot and took a short break to fix a blister forming on Kris’ foot. We crossed over WV 9 and continued our slow ascent. At 8.9 miles, we reached the side trail that led to the David Lesser Memorial Shelter. This shelter was a nice stop and there was even a swing to kick our feet up and enjoy a snack. We were tempted to stay here for the evening, but decided to push onward. At 9.4 miles, we reached a small side trail that led uphill a short distance to a view at Buzzard Rocks.
Getting back to the trail and pushing on, we came to the Laurel Springs boardwalk at 10.4 miles. This was a long stretch of planks to walk on, which protects the trail from getting too harmed during wetter times. After the boardwalk, the trail continues to climb. Around 12 miles, there is a small trail to the right which gives you the best views of the day. At 12.1 miles, we reached the junction sign that pointed us to the Blackburn AT Center. As we descended the steep trail, we became worried as we saw lots of tents along the hillside (most belonging to a large group of Boy Scouts), wondering if we would have a place to camp. We found the last open site and set up our camp.
I struggled a lot this day. About four weeks earlier, I had pulled a muscle in my back. My doctor said it could take a few months to heal. I had been taking muscle relaxers and alternating ice and heat on my back for weeks. While I felt I could do this trip, I was dealing with a pinching pain with every step and it hurt even worse whenever I was going uphill. This challenge took a lot out of me and by the end, I had enough and wasn’t enjoying myself. Sometimes you just hit rock bottom.
Kris had told us a story about five miles into the trip about how after an extremely long bike ride how she had gone into a store and drank a soda and how great it tasted. Well, that thought of a refreshing, cold soda lasted with me for the rest of the day. After we set up camp, we walked steeply down to the Blackburn AT Center to get water. We talked to the caretakers, Chris and Sandra, for a while and they pointed out where we could fill up our water from their well. Sandra then went into her kitchen and said, “Can I get you a cold soda?” I can only imagine what my face would have looked like at that moment, but I felt such euphoria. The soda tasted like sweet ambrosia to me and their kindness had fully restored my faith in humanity. The caretakers were so nice to us and great conversationalists. They maintain a lot of the trails throughout this area also. The Blackburn AT Center is definitely a place I would like to visit and possibly stay again.
We made our way back up to our campsite for the evening and cooked our meals. We set up a small fire and talked until it got dark. We retreated to our tents, sleeping under a full moon. It was a tough day, but we made it.
Day Two (8.4 miles)…
I love the feeling of being naturally awoken by the rising sun and sound of singing birds. When morning came on this trip, I peeked out the mesh of our tent door and saw the pinks, purples, and golds of dawn spreading across the valley below our campsite. It was gorgeous! The Boy Scouts camped nearby were starting to stir – lots of muffled voices and tent zippers unzipping.
Adam, Kris, and I were all awake and out of our tents a little before 7:00. I went and got our bear hang down and started deflating my sleeping pad and pillow. We collectively decided to pack everything up and take our stove and food bags down to the Blackburn Trail Center for a civilized breakfast. The picnic table and comfortable seating were more inviting than sitting in the dirt near our fire pit.
Adam had oatmeal and a jumbo honeybun. I had oatmeal, coffee, and cheese sticks. Kris tried a Mountain House egg dish and declared it ‘odd and spongey’ – most of it ended up in the compost pile. After finishing our meal, we said a regretful goodbye to Blackburn. What a great place to camp for a night!
After the short, steep climb from the trail center back to the Appalachian Trail, the first few miles of hiking for the day were pleasant and fairly flat. We made quick progress – enjoying abundant wildflowers and blooming trees. We passed through Wilson Gap before reaching the northern end of the ‘Roller Coaster’ four miles into our hike for the day. The Roller Coaster is 13.5 miles of steep, closely-spaced, rocky ups and downs. (we just did the northern portion of the roller coaster on this section… more to come on our next section south.)
A little over a half mile into the Roller Coaster we reached the spectacular viewpoint of Raven Rocks. There were already plenty of dayhikers enjoying the view, but we found our own little spot to rest. We all took our packs off and reclined on the rocks. It was a beautiful spot with panoramic views. We were lucky enough to visit when the native Pinxter azaleas were in bloom.
After leaving Raven Rocks, we had a steep rocky descent that led to a shallow stream crossing. After the stream, there was another steep climb and another steep descent to another shallow stream. I guess it’s called a roller coaster for good reason! Ups and downs, followed by mores ups and downs. By the time we got to this part of the trail, the day had already become fairly hot and humid, and we all felt pretty tired on the climbs. It’s always a little surprising how much tougher climbing can be in the direct sun and heat with a large pack. The oddest part of this section was all the blood we saw on the trail. For about 2-3 miles there were fresh droplets of blood on the ground every 5-6 feet. I guess someone really had a bad day on the roller coaster!
At about 7.5 miles into our hike we descended to Snickers Gap. We stepped out of the woods onto busy Route 7. Cars were flying by at 55-65 mph. We had to cross the road and then walk up the shoulder of the road until reaching the trail again. When your legs are fatigued, it’s hard to run fast across a four lane highway. It was like Frogger with backpacks!
On the other side of Route 7 was our last climb of the day! We walked uphill for another .6 miles to the rocky outcropping of Bears Den Rocks. We spent some time relaxing and enjoying the view before walking a few more tenths of a mile to the Bears Den hostel where we had left our car parked. We posed for a group victory photo in front of the hostel, took off our boots and packs, and sunk into the wonderful air-conditioning of the vehicle.
We were all starving, so we stopped for a quick lunch at the Horseshoe Curve Restaurant right out on Route 7. The restaurant had been advertised in our AWOL Guide and on the back of the trail information kiosk at the road crossing, so we decided to give it a go. Sandwiches, french fries, and cold drinks definitely hit the spot! Even though we were all filthy and tired, we also decided to make a stop at Veramar Vineyard to share some wine and toast our hike. We got a bottle of their Seyval Blanc and found a few Adirondack chairs with a view of the ridge we had just traversed.
It was a great weekend for our first backpacking trip of the season. Honestly, the more I backpack, the more I WANT to backpack! I love being out on the trail!
- Distance – 20.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
- Elevation Change – 3882 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. The distance makes this tough, but overall is manageable.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape. We only came across one tree blowdown the entire trip.
- Views – 3. The best views of the trip were from Bears Den rocks at the end of the trip.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There wasn’t any streams and only one reliable water source on the first day (at the Blackburn AT Center). The second day, there were several streams through the area of the Roller Coaster.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see much wildlife on this section. There were lots of pretty songbirds at the Blackburn AT Center.
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. Pay attention to signs for the AT. It should be fairly easy to follow.
- Solitude – 2. We saw a good number of people throughout the trail, but most were where you would have expected them – the shelters, hiking a short distance from Harpers Ferry, and at Bears Den Rocks. We also saw several trail runners on the Roller Coaster.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: To get to Bears Den to leave one car, from I-81, take exit 315 for VA-7 E toward Berryville. Turn left on VA-7 E and go 17 miles. Turn right on State Route 601 and go .4 miles. A sign shows you are entering Bears Den. Go to the second parking lot and leave a car there. Be sure to pay for your day-use fee.
For the second vehicle: Head out of Bears Den and turn left on State Route 601. In .4 miles, take a left on VA-7 W. In about 4 miles, take a right on to State Route 612/Shepherds Mill Road. Follow this for 4.3 miles until it ends at US 340. Take a right here and continue to follow US 340 N for 14.6 miles through Charles Town and approaching Harpers Ferry. At the Econo Lodge, take a left on to Union Street. Follow that .4 miles and take a right on to Washington Street. Follow that .2 miles to reach the ATC Center. If someone is not dropping you off, you should ask inside where you could leave a car overnight, since there are parking restrictions near the center.
The last time we did a gear review it was 2010 and we were brand new to backpacking! We bought a lot of our gear based on reviews, recommendations, and cheap prices. In the five years since then, we’ve made a lot of changes to what we carry on overnight trips. We’ve both managed to make our loads significantly lighter!
Gear List – The Basics
|Pack: Gregory Z65 (Adam)
This pack has served well, but due to wear-and-tear (including mouse-eaten hipbelt pockets), 2015 will probably be this pack’s last year on the trail. Overall has fit well and does allow for air to get between your back and the pack, which is a great feature to keep you cool.
|Pack: Osprey Aura AG 50 (Christine)
The Z55 I was using is designed for a man and never really fit me properly. I tried an Osprey Viva 65 in 2014. It was a decent pack, but had more capacity than I needed. I also found that the pack’s simple suspension made it ride heavier than what was comfortable. The new Osprey anti-gravity suspension technology is nice and I’ve really been enjoying carrying this pack. Sometimes 50 liters is a tight squeeze, but it forces me to make wise packing choices. The only things I don’t care for are the center-back placement of the water port and the split compartment in the pack lid. The water port is too tight and it’s proximity to the frame makes it hard to shove the drinking hose through the opening. The split compartment lid means the compartments are both smaller. One large compartment would have been better for me personally because I like to stow my snack bag in the pack lid. Sometimes I have a hard time fitting my treats in either of the smaller zippered areas.
|Gregory Z55 (Christine)|
|Tent: Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2
In 2014, we upgraded our tent and saved over 3.5 pounds of pack weight. The Copper Spur is certainly a tight fit for two tall(ish) people, but the saved weight is worth it for more comfortable trail miles. The tent fits compactly inside Adam’s pack and he no longer has to strap our shelter to the outside of his pack. Honestly, we only notice the tightness of the space for a few minutes while we’re falling asleep, but once we’ve drifted off the small quarters are fine.
|Mountain Hardware Drifter 3|
|Sleeping Bag: L.L. Bean Semi-Rectagular Down (Adam)
This used to be Christine’s bag, but we traded so she would stay warmer. I sleep hot, so the trade worked out well for both of us! Easy to get in and out and compresses down nicely in the pack.
|Sleeping Bag: Sierra Designs Tomichi (Christine)
Adam and I traded bags because this one is just a little warmer due to the tighter mummy fit. When I first started out, I didn’t like the snugness of a mummy, but now I do. It’s cozier and I stay warmer. Both of our bags are considered ‘summer bags’, but they’ve always been warm enough for spring/summer/fall in Virginia. We also have silk Cocoon liner for added warmth if needed. When it’s really warm in summer, we both leave sleeping bags home in favor of a Thermarest sheet and tech blanket. We don’t camp when it’s cold, so we don’t own winter bags.
|Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core
We both have and really like this pad. It has served well and we plan on continuing to use them.
|Water Purification: Sawyer Mini
In 2015, we switched to a Sawyer Mini after seeing most thru-hikers favoring them over older style pump filters. We really like it. We bought both 32 and 64 oz pouches. The carry weight is almost nothing. The unit requires no assembly and very little field maintenance. We store the Sawyer in an easily accessible spot in our pack and can quickly filter water at any source we cross. The ease-of-use factor means we’re carrying less water in our packs. The weight savings between 3 liters of water and a liter and a half of water is mind blowing! The only challenge is when there are just standing water sources. Non-flowing water would be a challenge to expand the bag. We also carry Aquamira as a backup. And yes… Christine is still paranoid about giardia and feels a little creeped out drinking water from random streams and springs in the woods.
|Katadyn Hiker Pro|
|Hydration: Camelbak 3L
We both carry a 3L Camelbak in our pack. Christine usually carries about 1.5 liters of water. Adam carries a bit more. We like having the extra capacity so we can stock up on water if we’re going to be hiking across a dry area. We both also carry an empty, light plastic bottle (like SmartWater). Disposable-type plastic bottles weigh nothing and are handy to have for mixing drink powder into water at camp. We both get tired of plain water and like having a bottle to mix lemonade or Gatorade powder for a flavored drink with dinner.
|Nalgene bottles and Camelbaks|
We like our JetBoil. It’s compact, boils water quickly, and is easy to use. We don’t ‘cook’ at camp. Everything we eat simply requires the addition of boiling water, so we like the simplicity of this all-in-one system over a separate cookpot and stove.
Other Bits & Pieces
- Trail Comfort: Trekking Poles. We are both still using the same trekking poles we had in 2010. Neither of us can imagine ever hiking without them. They take so much strain off your knees and make it easier to balance with a pack on uneven terrain.
- Camp Comfort: Crocs. Yes, they are still dorky, but you can’t beat their weight or comfort around camp (as long as you wear them with socks).
- Camp Comfort: Headlamps. We both have good quality (Petzl/Black Diamond) headlamps.
- Safety: Downsized First Aid Kit. We used to carry a large, fully-stocked first aid kit — just in case. It was quite heavy and essentially had larger quantities of the items in a smaller kit. Now we carry a small kit with bandages, gauze, blister care, painkillers, antihistamines, anti-bacterial wipes/ointment, cortisone cream, anti-diarrheal, tweezers, and duct tape. It fits in a small case about the size of a hand and covers all the basics and necessities. It’s a calculated risk to not have splints, large ace bandages, scissors, safety pins, and a manual – but it saves a pound of pack weight.
- Safety: Dealing with Ticks. We treat our clothes and gear with Sawyer Permethrin throughout spring, summer, and fall. Lyme disease is becoming more prevalent, and permethrin reduces the risk of having ticks attach. We spray our shoes, socks, hiking clothes, and camp/sleep clothes. If we’re going somewhere that’s very dense and brushy, we also use DEET on bare skin.
- GPS Unit: Unnecessary. Adam used to carry a Garmin handheld GPS unit. Now we just carry a compass, printed map of the area/AWOL Guide page, and a smartphone. We used to bring those items in addition to the GPS unit and found it redundant. We use the MapMyHike app on our phone to help with calculating routes and either carry maps or pre-print routes using AllTrails.com.
- Space Saver: Compression Sack. Instead of just a regular stuff sack, we now use Sea to Summit compression sacks for our sleeping bags. It makes them really compact and small. Why did we wait so long to get these?
- Comes in Handy Often: Collapsible Bucket. When water is running low or slow, the Sea to Summit bucket makes it easy to gather a large amount of water at once. We can then take water back to camp for filtering and cooking at our leisure. The bucket is free standing, weighs 2.8 ounces, and holds 10 liters of water.
- Luxury Item We Carry: Alite Monarch chairs. I know that chairs seem like a waste of pack weight and space to some. Yes… the chairs add a little over a pound (1 pound, 5 ounces to be specific) to our load. Many would point out that you can sit on the ground, lean against a tree, or use your pack as a backrest. While all these things may be true, nothing beats being able to be off the ground and semi-reclined with back support after a long day on the trail. Christine went chairless on an overnight earlier this year. She regretted it.
- Luxury Item We Carry: Cocoon Ultralight pillows. A lot of people will use their clothes bag, a jacket, or empty pack for a pillow. We found all of those options to be too slick and lumpy. Cocoon’s pillows pack down smaller than the size of a fist and weigh less than 6 ounces. It’s another luxury item that we find well worth carrying.
- Luxury Item We Carry: Thermarest sheet. It’s just 4 ounces and it makes laying on the sleeping pad a lot more comfortable. You never feel sticky or clammy with the sheet.
This 6-mile hike is jam-packed with spectacular stream scenery and waterfalls – the most impressive being the 200 foot Apple Orchard Falls.
Apple Orchard Falls has been on our ‘must hike’ list for years now, and I’m so glad we finally got out there and did it! It’s a bit of a drive from our home-base of the central Shenandoah valley, but it was well worth the trip! We hiked it on a cool, rainy day in mid-April. We thought we’d have the trail all to ourselves, but as our car bumped along the forest road nearing the parking area, a runner went by. Then three more runners… and then a cluster of ten. Pretty soon we realized that there was some kind of race going on in the vicinity. It turns out we picked the same day as the Promise Land 50K for our hike. We ended up sharing the first half of our six-mile route with 300+ trail runners.
They were all friendly folks, but it was a little stressful to constantly be looking over my shoulder, watching to make sure there wasn’t a racer on my heels, needing to pass. I certainly didn’t want to get in anyone’s way as they cruised toward victory or a personal record! I still enjoyed the gorgeous stream scenery as we ascended alongside North Creek. The sound of the water was soothing. The hillsides along the trail were covered with trillium and purple wild geraniums. The air was filled with a light misty rain and all the trees were unfurling their brilliant spring green leaves. With all these pleasures along the trail, I tried my best not to let the constant stream of passing racers disrupt the zen-like peace.
The trail was in great shape and ascended steadily and moderately uphill. There were several sturdy footbridges across the creek on our hike up. Around 1.3 miles into the hike, the climb became a little steeper and rockier. Right before reaching the base of the falls, we passed through a jumble of huge boulders. At first, we could only see the falls through the trees. They were majestic, but obscured by the foliage. We continued uphill, making a wide switchback before coming to a curved wooden bridge and a viewing platform at the base of the fall’s largest plunge.
Adam set up my tripod and I spent some time photographing the waterfall from a variety of angles. I wish the trees around the falls had been a little more ‘leafed out’. The green would have made an even more attractive frame for the falls, but it was still very nice. I was challenged by the rain – which was beginning to fall at a steadier pace. Droplets kept landing on my lens, and making blurry bubbles on each of my photos. I used a hat as an umbrella as much as I could. While we were enjoying the waterfall, the bulk of the racers passed us by.
After leaving the falls, we climbed the 175 stairs above the falls. About halfway up the stairs, we caught our one open view of the hike – a pretty peek out over a spring green valley. Shortly after the top of the stairs, we passed another small waterfall. There was a nice established campsite near the smaller fall. What a idyllic place to spend a night! In fact, we saw many great campsites all along this loop. I think it would make a great beginner backpacking trip or short gear shakedown route.
About a third of a mile past the small waterfall, we reached Apple Orchard Road, which is a grassy fire road that connects to the Cornelius Creek trail. The racers all continued uphill toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. We turned right and followed the fire road for about a mile to its intersection with the Cornelius Creek Trail. Fire roads are typically sort of dull, but this one was actually quite nice – lush green, curvy, and decorated with wildflowers – more trillium, geraniums, violets, and enormous dense patches of Dutchman’s Breeches.
The Cornelius Creek trail was probably my favorite part of the hike. The racers were off our tail, and I could fully focus on the spring forest and sound of flowing water. The rain was coming down steadily, so my photo opportunities were a bit limited. Hopefully, I captured enough to adequately convey the feel of Cornelius Creek. It was lovely with so many small cascades and swimming holes. The only real challenge on this part of the hike were the two significant stream crossings. The first (pictured at the top of the post) was wide, but not very deep. Our toes got a little wet. But the second was quite deep, wide, and fast-moving. We packed all of our camera gear and electronics away in dry bags and plunged in. Even rock-hopping, the water came halfway up to my knees. The footing was small, shifty, and slick! Thankfully, we made it across without falling completely into the water! The last bit of walking was done with sodden shoes and socks – that squishy feeling is always so weird!
When we got back to the car the first thing I did was take off my soaked shoes and socks and put on flip flops! Then we were off on our way for a well-deserved lunch at Peaks of Otter!
We got up early to hit the road and beat the crowds on this hike. It was a gloomy day with some rain scheduled around the early afternoon, we wanted to make the best use of our day. When we first saw the runners on the gravel road, I thought well at least they are going in the opposite way. We parked our car at the end of the road and there was a way-station set up for people to check in, get some snacks and water and keep running. Little did we know we would see most of them all again on the trail.
We got out of our car and found out that there were going to be runners on the trail. We thought we would at least try to get a head start, so we jumped on the trail right away. We took the blue-blazed Apple Orchard Falls trail left of the kiosk that came to a wooden bridge almost immediately. We soon came across the first runner of the day on the trail, who we heard ended up coming in 2nd in the race. Along the trail, there were funny signs to try and inspire the runners along the way (and most were done with Game of Thrones references). At .2 miles, take a right at the intersection to stay on the trail.
The trail continues along North Creek for a steady uphill. At 1.2 miles, you reach a couple of bridges and a small creekside campsite. Crossing over the second bridge, the trail becomes steeper uphill. Eventually, you get some views of the falls to the right as you make the climb up. But don’t worry, the trail leads right up to the falls. The climb up to the falls is also very steep. But, as you reach the falls at 2.0 miles, there is a nice bench and platform, inviting you to take your time to enjoy the views. We stayed here for a while and saw a ton of runners pass by. Some of them just took a quick glance, some walked slowly by, but one guy stopped to take a picture. I guess the runners had different levels of competitiveness and different levels of exhaustion at this stage of the race.
The trail continues on and winds around the hillside before beginning a series of stairs. Along the climb, there was a nice viewpoint that gave you glimpses of mountains to the west. We continued uphill along the trail until we reached another waterfall around 2.3 miles. There was a nice campsite by this waterfall also and we thought it would be a great overnight stop for a backpacking trip. At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a fire road. We took this fire road to the right. At 3.7 miles, the trail meets a junction with the Cornelius Creek Trail. We headed straight to start the Cornelius Creek Trail. This trail descends quite steeply. As we had seen the runners on this trail when we first arrived at the parking lot, I felt that I too was having to run down the steepness of this trail in the beginning. Be careful where you step, since the trail is incredibly steep and filled with loose rock, begging for a twisted ankle or fall. At 4.2 miles, the trail runs along Cornelius Creek.
Cornelius Creek was a long exposure photographer’s dream. There were so many spots where you saw small waterfalls and swimming holes along the way. Contrasted with the lush green forest, it was truly beautiful to see. We did have to cross Cornelius Creek a couple of times and with any recent rain, you are likely going to get your feet wet. Be careful as there are some deep holes along the creek crossings that could have you up to your waist if you don’t step carefully. We made it across and continued our hike. The rain was coming down fairly steadily, so we didn’t stop a lot for fear of ruining camera gear, but it was one of the most beautiful creekside hikes you will see in Virginia. Right before you return to the parking lot, you’ll see a large campsite (with even a rope swing put in). We got back to the parking lot at the 6 mile marker.
On our way back home, we took a detour and drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to have lunch at Peaks of Otter. My family used to picnic here yearly, so this spot always holds a near and dear place in my heart. We had a nice lunch with music from a local singer. We decided also to stop by Apocalypse Ale Works brewery for one of our favorite post-hike things to do – beer sampling. The drive back home was rainy most of the day, but we felt like we had accomplished a lot on a dreary day.
- Distance – 6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1438 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This is a great moderate hike!
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is very pleasant to walk. Sturdy bridges and a wide viewing platform are available so the walk up to the falls along North Creek is pleasant and safe. There are a couple crossings on the Cornelius Creek descent that can be tricky when there has been recent rain.
- Views – 2. There is one nice view when you’re climbing the stairs after visiting Apple Orchard Falls.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. Spectacular – you are within view of the stream for most of the hike.
- Wildlife – 1. Too many people to see much wildlife!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The signs make this route pretty easy to follow. There are several places where trails go in multiple directions, but this route is well marked.
- Solitude – 0. It’s supposedly the most popular hike in Jefferson National Forest. It was cool and rainy when we hiked it, so there weren’t many other day hikers. But there were 300+ racers on the trail with us.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 168 for VA-614 toward Arcadia. Turn on to VA-614 heading east and go 3.3 miles. Turn left on to North Creek Road. Go 2.8 miles and turn right on to an unnamed road*. This road is a gravel road. Follow it for 2.2 miles until you reach the large parking lot. The trail starts left of the kiosk. Right of the kiosk, the trail going uphill is your return route. *Since this unnamed road can’t be found on GoogleMaps, I would suggest printing the trail map above to have a way to find this road.
This 4.5-mile hike is close to Charlottesville and is extremely popular for its beautiful river scenery, swimming holes, and waterfalls.
For people that are looking for a nice family-friendly waterfall near Charlottesville, look no further than this hike. In fact, it was rare to not see groups of people that weren’t hiking as a family. Most of the families with smaller children tended to stop along the river at some of the crossings to eat a snack or try and skip stones. And I can’t think of any hike that I’ve been on where I have as many dogs on a trail. So, if you want to take Fido for a walk (and a possible dip in the river) near Charlottesville, this would be a great spot as long as your dog is friendly with other dogs. We saw a couple of dogs that were running full speed chasing each other and crashing into the water. The park requires all dogs to be leashed, but we saw many (most!) people breaking this rule.
When we arrived at the trailhead, there were a ton of other cars here. There are two parking lots on this hike – the first being the larger lot and the second being a half-mile further up a rough road, but I would recommend having a four-wheel drive due to the uneven ground (even though we did see a convertible BMW driving on here with reckless abandon). The first, main parking lot was full, so we ended up parking along the roadside just a short distance prior to the first large parking lot. From the parking lot, there are two trails. You want to take the one that continues up the gravel road heading north (North Fork Trail). Walking up the gravel road, we came to the second parking area at .5 miles. There is a large closed gate directly behind the lot where the trail continues.
Most of the trail gives you nice views of the Moormans River as you are walking by. In .75 miles, you reach your first of four river crossings. There had been a recent, heavy rain so we were expecting these to be a little challenging. The first three of the rock crossings were fairly easy to rockhop across. The fourth crossing however required us to get our feet wet in the fast-flowing current. We brought our crocs to change into for just this occasion and the cold water was refreshing. It always makes us a little nervous carrying camera equipment though when the water is moving fast and you are not 100% sure of how deep the water is or if the rock you are putting your foot on is stable. The water ended up halfway up my calf at one point, so if there has been a lot of rain, be careful.
At the 2.0 mile marker, the trail starts to gain some elevation. At 2.15 miles, we took the side trail to Big Branch Falls. You arrive at the lower falls fairly quickly, but continue further and you will see the larger Big Branch Falls at 2.25 miles. Because of the recent rains, the water was flowing nicely over the top, but probably during the dry summer months, this would be less impressive. After we took some time to enjoy the falls, we headed back the way we came to get back to our car at 4.5 miles.
After our trip, we headed to nearby Crozet, VA to try Crozet Pizza. We had heard about how wonderful their pizza was for about 25 years now and I’m glad to say that we finally got to try it. Then, we stopped right down the road at Starr Hill brewery to sample a few post-hike beers.
What a beautiful March day we had to hike Moormans River! It was the first day in a long time that actually felt warm. Early wildflowers were starting to bloom and the sunshine felt great. We started out pretty early, but found the parking lot already completely full at the trailhead. We had to find a place alongside the gravel road with enough room to park our car. After we were situated, I started MapMyHike, grabbed my camera, and started hiking.
I pointed my camera up to take a shot of the first trail marker, and the camera wouldn’t even turn on! Hmm… I had recently charged the battery, so it didn’t really make sense. I pulled out the battery and memory card to reset everything, and still no power. I figured that I had finally killed my Canon Rebel T2i. That camera has accompanied me on countless hikes. It’s been rained on, bumped against rocks, left sitting out overnight in the damp. I’m not careful with it at all, because I find I just don’t take photos when my camera is safely packed away in its padded, waterproof bag. I knew it would eventually meet this end. So… today, you get photography from my cell phone! Honestly, my phone takes decent photos – just not quite as nice as my dSLR. (Fortunately, when I got home, I found that the battery was drained after all. I guess I stored it accidentally with the power button depressed. The Rebel lives to fight another day!)
The water was flowing beautifully and we really enjoyed the sights and sounds of running water all through our hike. The trail was one of the easiest we’ve hiked in a long time. It’s relatively level and not too rocky. The stream crossings were all moderate to easy, with the exception of the final one. The last crossing required us to put on water shoes and wade across. We saw several people attempt to rock hop, but they all ended up with wet boots.
When we reached the spur trail to the falls, there were several groups of people at each viewing point. We waited our turn and spent a few minutes enjoying and taking photos of the upper falls. One group had climbed up to the top of the falls and was picnicking on the rocks alongside the cascade. A man with the group walked out to the precipitous, domed edge of the falls several times. We were worried he might slip and have a nasty fall to the rocks below. Thankfully that didn’t happen!
On our way back down, we scrambled off the trail to a rock shelf beneath the lower falls. On the climb back up, I stuck my trekking pole in a hidden hole. When the pole suddenly dropped and vanished under the weight of me climbing up, I slipped and smashed the bridge of my nose into the trekking pole handle. Wow – did that hurt! I thought I hit hard enough to break the skin open, but thankfully it was just swollen and lightly bruised. Between that and the broken camera, it was not one of my luckier days on the trail!
The hike back went very quickly. After we got back to the car, we made our way to a great lunch at Crozet Pizza and a flight of beers at Starr Hill. It was a fun day! I would definitely recommend this hike when there has been significant, recent rain. The falls dry up pretty quickly.
- Distance – 4.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 625 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. The hike is not difficult with the distance and elevation, but the stream crossings could be a challenge.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is heavily-used and well-maintained.
- Views – 1.5. You do get some elevated views of the river. Views from the top of the dam (after the hike) are really nice too, but don’t count in the score because they’re not technically part of the hike!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 4. The waterfalls are nice to see (but could be disappointing in dryer months), but the highlight is probably walking along Moormans River.
- Wildlife – 0. Due to the location and popularity, I wouldn’t expect to see much.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Once we knew where to go from the parking lot, it was easy to navigate.
- Solitude – 1.5. I would expect on a nice day, you should see lots of people. Go early to beat the crowds and to get parking. But, there weren’t as many people going all the way to Big Branch Falls.
Directions to trailhead: From I-64 near Charlottesville, take exit 124 for US-250W. Turn right on 250-W and go 5 miles. Take the Country Road 654/Barracks Road exit. Turn right on Barracks Road and go 2 miles. Continue on SR 601/Garth Road for 9 miles. Continue straight on to Sugar Hollow Road for 5.5 miles. When you pass the Sugar Hollow Reservoir on the left, you are getting close. The road turns into gravel and you will eventually arrive at the first large parking area. Park here and walk further up the road for .5 miles until you reach the second parking area and closed gate.
This 12-mile loop combines numerous park trails into one great route! You’ll pass by several gorgeous viewpoints, walk along pretty Madison Run, and cross massive talus slopes. It’s a challenging hike with about 3,000 feet of climbing.
The Austin Mountain – Furnace Mountain Loop has the reputation of being one of the park’s toughest and longest day hikes. Not only is the terrain rocky and rugged, there is also a serious amount of climbing involved. Essentially, you climb up from the valley floor, traversing several mountains along the way – Furnace, Trayfoot, Blackrock, and Austin. While you don’t technically reach the summits of Austin or Trayfoot, you come within a couple hundred feet of these viewless/inaccessible summits.
Most sources begin this hike from the Browns Gap parking area on Skyline Drive. For us, it’s a much shorter drive to start down in the valley, at the park perimeter near Grottoes. We parked along the roadside where Browns Gap Rd meets the Madison Run fire road. This is a popular park entry point for hikers and equestrians alike. It can get crowded if you don’t get an early start on the day.
After walking up the Madison Run fire road for a short distance, the Furnace Mountain trail begins on the right with a rock-hop crossing of Madison Run. For a little over a mile, you’ll ascend Furnace Mountain before coming to a cement post that marks the spur trail to the summit of Furnace Mountain. The spur trail is about half a mile and leads to a fantastic viewpoint. You can see Skyline Drive if you look carefully. If you look across the gorge, you’ll see the huge talus slopes of Austin Mountain that you’ll cross later in the hike. On this particular day, we skipped the side trail to the summit of Furnace. We had hiked Furnace Mountain just a few weeks earlier and knew we had many miles to go and other views to enjoy along the way.
The ascent continues in earnest along the Furnace Mountain Trail. Eventually, you’ll come to a junction with the Trayfoot Mountain trail. Take a left and descend. This trail is an old road bed, so it’s wide and nicely graded. After a few tenths of a mile, you’ll come to another cement marker post. Follow the trail to the right in the direction of Blackrock Summit. This rocky jumble will be your best view on the hike! We chose to eat lunch at this spot. That probably wasn’t the best of ideas, because the strong wind made the summit bitterly cold. It’s no fun to eat PB&J with your teeth chattering and while you’re wearing gloves. Needless to say, we ate quickly!
Rounding Blackrock Summit leads you to the Appalachian Trail. To continue this route, head north on the AT for a couple miles until you reach the Browns Gap parking area on Skyline Drive. This section of AT is fast going – it’s practically flat and uncomplicated. You’ll pass the Dundo picnic area along the way. If you run out of water, there is a clean tap at the picnic area.
From the Browns Gap parking area, follow the fire road downhill for .8 of a mile. A cement post on the right marks the Madison Run Spur Trail. This trail will go steeply uphill to a junction with the Rockytop and Big Run trails. Bear to the left on the Rockytop trail. Follow the Rockytop trail for several tenths of a mile until you reach another cement marker for the Austin Mountain trail. If you hike when leaves are off the trees, you’ll get some great ridge views in this area.
Once you turn left onto the Austin Mountain trail, you’ll have a little over 3 miles to go before you hit fire road again. The terrain starts off easily enough, following a lovely ridge overlooking Dundo Hollow and Furnace Mountain (from earlier in your hike). The views are really nice, and it’s impressive to look back on all the distance you’ve traversed!
But a little over a mile along the Austin Mountain trail, the talus slopes begin. From there, it’s an endless field of loose rocks for nearly a mile. When you think you’re done with rocks, surprise… there are more rocks! Don’t miss looking up and behind you – the cliff-like wall of Austin Mountain looks like a crenulated castle wall. After you cross the last talus slope, you have a steep, knee-grinding descent back to the Madison Run fire road.
Once you reach the fire road, you just have a easy .6 mile road-walk back to your start point. The stream is especially scenic along this stretch. After getting back to the car, we decided we had earned milkshakes! It was a fun day and a great challenge!
We decided to try and tackle this loop since we wanted to get some good training for some longer hikes. While we were able to get out and do a few good hikes over the winter months, this was definitely a challenging hike to do before we (or at least I) had gotten my “summer trail legs”. This particular hike did a toll on me, especially the last couple of miles.
The water across Madison Run was running a little higher and faster than normal, but we were able to rockhop across and begin our hike. The hike up Furnace Mountain is a steady uphill, but does lead to some nice views along the way. There is one section that has a small talus slope that we thought was impressive, but little did we know what Austin Mountain would bring later in the day. At the junction of the spur trail, we met a couple that was doing the same loop but camped along Madison Run that morning. They had started from the Browns Gap parking area in Shenandoah National Park, but had a day of mostly uphill climbing this day. As Christine mentioned, we decided to skip the overlook and made our way to Blackrock Summit.
At Blackrock, the wind was incredibly strong and cold. There was still ice in the crevices between the rocks in most places. We sat out to eat some lunch, but our hands were trembling in the cold, which made for challenging and rushed eating. We quickly got out of there and joined the Appalachian Trail, heading north. We made quick time on this flatter section of trail and crossed Skyline Drive. The trail stays close to Skyline Drive until you reach the Dundo picnic area (which does have bathrooms if you need it).
Passing the picnic area, we crossed Skyline Drive again after 6.5 miles. After crossing the road, we made our way through the parking lot and crossed the gate blocking the fire road. Heading down the fire road was easy walking. At mile 7.3, we spotted the cement post on the side of the road, leading up the Madison Run Spur Trail. This section was steep but short as we reached the crest and junction with the Rockytop Trail. We took a left here which continues uphill and reaches the junction with the Austin Mountain Trail around 8.2 miles. Bear to the left and the trail begins to go downhill finally.
Right before this junction, my IT bands near my right knee began to hurt. Sometimes when one knee begins to hurt, you tend to overcompensate with the other. We came across a hiker that was hiking up and he warned us there was a mile of loose rock to walk on. We soon reached the huge talus slopes. When you have one leg giving you pain, the last thing you want to see is loose rock footing for as long as you can see. The views of the slope were impressive, as well as looking across the mountainous valley to see Furnace Mountain, but the pain was keeping me from having the best of times. With vultures ominously circling above my head, I felt they didn’t have much faith I would make it. Just when we thought we had reached across the slopes, the trail turns back and works it way down the mountain, giving us lower parts of the slopes and more rocks. We finally reached the bottom of the trail and joined the Madison Run Road at 11.2 miles. It was a flat walk along the side of a picturesque creek until we made our way back to the car in .8 miles.
While this was a tough hike, it was rewarding. This hike has great views, unique geology, and a picturesque creek. If you don’t want to tackle it in one day, it would make a nice backpacking loop, but I would recommend starting at Brown’s Gap to split the hike and leave you camping by the water source of Madison Run.
- Distance – 12 miles Add .5 mile, each way, if you take the spur trail out to the overlook atop Furnace Mountain. You can make a shorter, easier loop if you descend via the fire road and skip Austin Mountain)
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2900 ft.
- Difficulty – 4.5. The length and amount of climbing make this tough.
- Trail Conditions – 2. While the trail was well-maintained, the footing on the talus slopes brings this score down due to the challenge of walking on loose rock for over a mile of the trail.
- Views – 4. You have nice views from Furnace Mountain if you add that spur, but Blackrock Summit and views along the Austin Mountain Trail make it worthwhile.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Madison Run is a nice wide stream and reliable water source year-round.
- Wildlife –2. We didn’t see much, but there have been bear sightings along the Austin Mountain portion of the trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 2.5. There are lots of trails that cross, so pay attention to the signs. The trickiest is around the Blackrock Summit area.
- Solitude – 3. You will likely see people at Blackrock summit, but not a lot of activity elsewhere.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 256 heading east towards Weyers Cave. Go 6.6 miles and take a left on US-340/Augusta Avenue. Go .1 miles and take a right on Cary Street. In .2 miles, continue on to VA-663/Brown’s Gap Road. In 1.9 miles, turn right on to the dirt fire road. Follow this 1.1 miles and you will reach the parking area. Look for the concrete post for Furnace Mountain which will have you instantly rock-hopping across Madison Run to start your hike.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.