Three Ridges Wilderness
This 13.2 mile circuit can be done as a day-hike, but we recommend extending the beauty and wildness into an overnight backpacking loop. Take your time, and you’ll be treated to panoramic views, lovely mountain streams, demanding climbs and peaceful campsites.
We had long been planning a three-day backpacking trip across Mt. Rogers, but as the day of the trip drew closer, we started seeing the term ‘Appalachian soaker’ thrown around in weather forecasts. We’re fine with passing showers and fleeting thunderstorms, but we didn’t want to get pinned down on Mt. Rogers on a wet and stormy night.
Fortunately, the weather in central Virginia was far more favorable, so we ditched our Mt. Rogers plan, and decided to hit another backpacking circuit on our list – Three Ridges. This route, which makes use of the Appalachian Trail and the Mau-Har Trail, is known as one of Virginia’s most rugged hikes. Everything we read about the circuit in advance of our trip emphasized the hike’s strenuous nature. With roughly 6,800 feet of elevation change, you’re almost never walking on flat trail. It’s a constant onslaught of heart-pounding climbs and knee-grinding descents. But along with the challenging terrain, you get spectacular views, beautiful streams and lovely campsites.
We started out early Saturday morning. The first stop was fuel… for ourselves. We had a huge breakfast at The Chuckwagon in Harrisonburg.
If you have a chance, stop by and indulge in one of their homemade 4-inch biscuits (Adam’s favorite is ‘The Round-Up’) or a stack of their amazingly fluffy pancakes. (Sadly… Chuckwagon closed in January 2012) With full stomachs, we made our way to Reed’s Gap at mile marker 13.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When we got to the parking area, the lot was already jam-packed, mostly with heavy-duty construction vehicles left idle for the weekend. Just as we were about to give up and find a parking spot further down the parkway, one car pulled out and left an opening for us!
We started the Map My Hike app on Christine’s phone, hoisted our packs, and headed south along the Appalachian Trail. From the parking area, the trail hugs the edge of a meadow, which was full of blooming yellow ragweed and purple thistle. It was such perfect weather for backpacking – sunny skies, low humidity and a crisp breeze. The trail almost immediately began to climb uphill over Meadow Mountain. The climbing was steady, but never difficult, for about .8 of a mile.
At the top of the ridge, there was a small dry campsite with obstructed views. Department of the Interior boundary markers were all along the ridge. We spotted at least three or four right next to the trail. After walking briefly along level ridge, the trail descended to Maupin Field Shelter. The shelter site had tons of space for tents (many of the tent sites were flat, soft and grassy), a typical AT three-sided hut, a metal bear-hang post and a picnic table. The area also had an informational kiosk with trail notes and wilderness-usage policies. There was also a child’s orthodontic retainer tucked into a Ziploc and pinned to the board. We’re guessing there is now one retainer-less Boy Scout and a less than happy mother!
After Maupin Field Shelter we began climbing again, over Bee Mountain. The climbing was slightly more strenuous, but definitely manageable. In several places, rock steps were set into the trail to make the climbing easier. Along the way, we started playing ‘Categories’. It’s pretty basic – each player designates a category, then players take turns naming items that fit within that category. For example, categories might include Movies Based on Comic Books or Items You Need on a Backpacking Trip. It’s pretty mindless, but it kills time. Whoever successfully names the last item for the given category wins the round. The best category of the day was Complaints Uttered When Hills Are Steep. We won’t share the specifics of our trail talk here, but it was pretty funny to reflect on this topic! Bee Mountain didn’t offer any views and was followed by a short descent before tackling the more serious climb up Three Ridges Mountain.
The climb up Three Ridges consisted of several steep pushes, with nice stops for views all along the way. The first view, Hanging Rock, was very impressive, so we decided to break for lunch and enjoy the amazing vista. As we ate our Panera bagels (Cherry-Vanilla with Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter for Christine and French Toast with Peanut Butter for Adam), we noticed two dogs fitted with radio collars – doubtlessly bear hunting dogs set loose in the woods for pre-season practice. Both dogs were female; both were emaciated and showed signs of over-breeding. We hate to cast aspersions or generalizations on any group of people, but we are not fans of hunters that use this type of technology to hunt bears. You can read a description of how hounds are used for bear hunting on this California government site. Both of the dogs were pretty persistent about trying to steal our food. The bolder dog, who was heavily perfumed by a skunk encounter, came within inches of snatching Christine’s bagel right out of her hand.
While we sat at the overlook, we had a chance to chat with three Southbound AT hikers – Happy, Fats and BeeSting. All three had started in Pennsylvania in August and were making their way toward Georgia. Happy was already there when we arrived, so we got to talk with him for a good bit while he waited for his companions to show up. He was from Las Vegas and on his first long-distance hike. He told tales of his shoes breaking down on the Pennsylvania rocks, getting caught in a vicious cold-front driven storm on Bearfence Mountain, and his epic weight loss (40 pounds in less than a month!). He was a nice kid and we enjoyed talking to him and telling him about some of the things he has to look forward along the trail in Virginia – The Priest, Spy Rock, Cove Mountain, McAfee Knob the Grayson Highlands. He told us the friendliest place he’d stopped on the trail was the town of Waynesboro.
After a while, Fats and BeeSting came along. They were a young couple from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. We didn’t talk to them as much, because we wanted to press on and make our way to camp by mid-afternoon. Happy left a few minutes ahead of us, and we were sure we wouldn’t see him again. Thru-hikers are known for keeping a blistering pace!
Upon leaving the vista, there was quite a bit more uphill climbing before we finally reached the true summit/highpoint of Three Ridges Mountain. At the highpoint, we ran into a group of three women out on the same circuit we were hiking. We chatted briefly about the great weather before leaving them to enjoy their lunch.
After the high point, the long, seemingly endless descent to Harper’s Creek began. It wasn’t always super-steep. Sometimes it almost leveled off. As we were walking along, we saw a bear dash off through the brush. We were both glad that the bear hunting dogs hadn’t pestered the bear into a tree. A few steps later, we heard an exuberant voice shouting into the wind – ‘Woooooo!’ ‘Yeaaaaaah’! ‘Echo Echo Echo’ and ‘I’m on TOP of the WORLD’. As the voice drew nearer, we guessed it was Happy having a ‘mountain moment’. Sure enough, he called to us through the trees so we could share the nice view spot he had found a little ways off the trail.
We left the spot before he did, knowing that there would be more views along the way. One unnamed view on the left side of the trail was especially beautiful. We stopped for photos and a pack-less rest. A bit further along, we saw a huge flat, upright rock that looked just like a tombstone. Immediately past that, we noticed a faint trail that climbed up steeply through the woods to a jumble of rock. We guessed correctly that we had found Chimney Rock. It was a great place to sit, and every bit as scenic as the very first overlook on Three Ridges. We enjoyed looking down into the valley, dotted with homes, streams and a large Christmas tree farm. The Priest, one of Virginia’s most beautiful and distinct mountains, loomed impressively across the way.
After Chimney Rock, the last real vista was a wide flat shelf of rock overlooking the scene below. After that, the downhill got pretty bad. It was the bone-jarring, steep, type of downhill that makes your knees beg for mercy! We both slipped a couple times on the descent. It was probably all the fallen acorns – if your boot hits them just right, they sort of function like tiny roller-skate wheels. Adam managed to hyperextend his knee on one slip, and hiked in a significant amount of pain the rest of the day. Christine hit a loose flat rock and rode it like a surfboard until she finally landed hard, but unharmed, on her rear end.
Honestly, the uphill on this hike is moderately hard, but the downhill is brutal. Anyone in reasonable condition should be able to handle the physical demands of the ascents along the trail, but if you have bad knees, the descents are nothing short of punishing. We both tried to keep our packs on the light side for this trip. Christine’s pack was 22 pounds and Adam’s was 29… but that was before water. After a dry week, we weren’t sure if Harpers Creek would be flowing, so we both carried quite a bit of extra water – 3.5 liters for Christine and 4 for Adam. We knew there was a chance we wouldn’t need it, but when it comes to water it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
After over two miles of switchbacks, dangerous acorns and tricky rocks, the colorful domes of tents came into sight. We had reached Harpers Creek Shelter – our stop for the evening. We found the shelter itself empty, but most of the tent sites adjacent to the shelter had already been claimed by a large group of Boy Scouts from Fluvanna County.
We found a mostly flat and smooth tent site across the creek, about 50 yards south of the shelter. We figured it was a perfect spot – we were close to the shelter and could use it for a ‘kitchen’. Also, the privy was on our side of the stream, but far enough from the tent that it wouldn’t be annoying when people went to use it.
For the most part, Harpers Creek wasn’t flowing. There were several shallow pools in the streambed, which gave us plenty of access to water, but also provided a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Christine immediately noticed bites forming welts on her legs, so she quickly changed out of her shorts and into long pants. She tried to change behind a large boulder, but she’s pretty sure the Boy Scouts saw her in her underpants, but hey… modesty sort of goes out the window in the backcountry.
Within twenty minutes, the tent was up, the sleeping pads were inflated, and sleeping bags were in place. We set aside all the food, cooking implements, water filter and bear bags to take over to the picnic table at the shelter. The Harpers Creek shelter was small and kind of dingy. There was no shelter log. Actually, the only thing in the shelter was a sodden pair of ‘tighty-whiteys’.
Adam set about collecting water. We recently picked up a very handy collapsible bucket made by Sea to Summit. It folds down to about the size of a deck of cards and weighs just a few ounces. But, it allows us to collect up to nine liters of water at once. Typically, we pump water through our Katadyn straight into the bucket. Then we cover the bucket with a bandanna and usually have plenty for dinner, breakfast and bottle refills.
While Adam filtered water, Christine worked on collecting wood for a campfire. It was already starting to get chilly, so it was a perfect night for a fire. As is the case at most shelters, good firewood is hard to find. There is always plenty of tinder/kindling, but the larger, long-burning pieces of wood are at a premium. In the backcountry, we only use downed wood that we can break by hand.
Christine made a teepee-style campfire with larger pieces of wood on the outside, and a tinder-packed center. All of the wood collected from the forest floor was cold and damp, so the fire had a hard time catching at first. A little squirt of alcohol-based hand sanitizer took care of that problem, and within a few minutes a small fire had sprung to life.
With the campfire going, water collected and the campsite set, it was time for dinner! We keep saying we’re going to prepare our own fancy homemade backpacking meals, but when the time comes we always seem to find ourselves reaching for Mountain House or Backpacker’s Pantry. It’s just easier, and for the most part, the packaged food is really tasty (notable exception – Natural High’s Banana Cream Pie – worst dessert EVER.) Our menu for the evening included Chili Mac with Beef as the entrée and Cheesecake for dessert. Christine brought several sticks of cheddar cheese to mix into the chili and single-serving plastic bottles of Merlot. It was quite the feast!
After dinner, we put up our bear hang. Oddly, this shelter did not have a metal post like most AT shelters in this part of Virginia. We had to find a tree with a free branch. After the food was secured, we settled into our camp chairs and enjoyed the fire. Some people we’ve met along the trail think the camp chairs are a waste of pack space, but they fold down to about the size of a water bottle and weigh just about a pound. We find them well worth the extra weight for the back-resting comfort they provide. We might not carry them on a long multi-day trip when every bit of pack space counts, but for a weekend trip, we like having creature comforts.
As we sat by the fire, we watched a little piece of comedy unfold on the other side of the stream. A couple of the older Scouts had been assigned the task of hanging the group’s food. We watched as they missed getting the rock and rope over the tree branch, dozens and dozens of times. The boys took turns making fun of one another for their off aim. Eventually, they got the rope over a branch. They celebrated with a high-five and a ‘Woot!’. But, the branch snapped off the tree as soon as they tried to hoist the weight of many food bags. Eventually they went for help and settled on a less-than-perfect, but still functional tree. All in all, it took them over an hour to get their food hung.
Our campfire died around 9:00, so we headed back to the tent. Adam read by headlamp and Christine listened to a book on her iPod. For one of the first times ever, we both fell asleep quickly and slept soundly through the night. We were actually awoken by voices and headlamps at what seemed like the middle of the night. Christine rolled over and asked Adam ‘Is it around midnight and these kids are up late or is it morning already?’ It turned out that the Scouts were awake and cooking/packing up at 5:30 a.m. We lazed around in the tent for another hour until the sun came up.
The Scouts actually hiked out around 7:00, just as we were getting breakfast together. Usually, we’re the early risers and the first out of camp! We made maple-brown sugar oatmeal with freeze-dried bananas and coffee and hot chocolate for breakfast. We both ate two packs, knowing that we had a tough day of hiking on the Mau-Har Trail.
After breakfast, we broke down camp. Adam’s hyperextended knee was still pretty sore, so Christine stowed some of his gear in her pack to make his load a little lighter. While she was transferring gear, she noticed that a mouse had chewed through the little mesh compartment on the hipbelt of Adam’s pack! The only thing in the compartment was a set of car keys, so we’re really not sure why it was appealing to a mouse. It reminded Adam of one of his favorite books as a kid – The Mouse and the Motorcycle. He thought this mouse was trying to make a sequel with their car.
We left Harpers Creek around 8:00. On our way out, we passed four or five other groups that had been tenting near the shelter. All told, there were probably somewhere between 25 and 30 people camped along the creek that night. Quite a tent city!
After leaving the shelter site, we followed the Appalachian Trail for almost a mile, largely uphill, to its junction with the Mau-Har Trail. The odd trail name is a combination of Maupin and Harpers – the names of the two shelters the trail runs between. The Mau-Har was designed by a man named Angelo Filippi. One funny review we read of the hike evidently thinks ‘designed’ is too kind a word for the trail. The review states:
“We started from Reeds Gap and heading down the Mau-Har, cussing Angelo Philippe [sic] the whole dang way. I swear he unfolded a map, put it on the ground, pulled out a piece of string, dropped the string onto the map and said “There! That is where the trail should go!” What a jerk!”
To be fair, the trail was clearly designed to follow scenic Campbell Creek as closely as possible and following a creek that goes tumbling through a deep gorge is going to require some rugged climbing. The Mau-Har trail descended very steeply to the creek. Adam grimaced in pain from his knee injury on every downhill step. The weight of his pack, combined with the steep trail was almost more than he could bear. This was some of the gnarliest downhill we’ve ever done.
Eventually, we got to the spur trail that leads to a series of small waterfalls. Adam decided to stay put and rest his knee while Christine explored the falls. She took off with the camera, hoping to get a few documentary shots for the blog. A few minutes later, Adam decided to follow. He had heard there was a geocache hidden by the falls (known as “firedogs fishbowl”), but he had forgotten to input coordinates into his GPS. He looked for it, but without coordinates it was pretty close to impossible to find. The waterfalls were all very small due to low water flow. In spring, with snowmelt and heavier rain, the creek is probably spectacular!
From the waterfall spur trail to the Maupin Field shelter, the Mau-Har climbs very steeply uphill. At first, the trail is very rocky as it passes through the canyon. You wind your way between and over boulders. Sometimes you have to stow your trekking poles in one hand to pull yourself up over a big step. It reminded us very much of hiking the gorge at Little Devils Stairs. The terrain was very similar. After leaving the canyon, the trail becomes less rocky, but no less steep. A series of sweeping switchbacks carry you relentlessly uphill. Eventually the grade becomes more moderate in the last half mile before you arrive at the Maupin Field shelter.
Near the end of the climb, Adam announced that he was going to stop at the shelter and ‘eat every single bit of anything edible left in his snack bag’. Two packs of oatmeal, bananas and hot chocolate burn off pretty fast when the climbing is tough! He proceeded to eat a Luna Bar, ShotBlox, a bag of cashews and a bunch of mini candy bars. He reined himself in and skipped eating a dry packet of cocoa mix.
At Maupin Field, we read the shelter log. Entries talked about the skunky, food-nabbing bear dogs (someone had named them Bagels and Muffins). A southbounder left a warning to northbounders about 20-30 miles of dry hiking. Someone even left a really nice pair of ladies LaSportiva for someone to claim.
The last 1.6 miles retraced our route from the morning before. We had a gradual climb up and over Meadow Mountain and then back to our car at Reeds Gap. We drove back toward home along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at Humpback Rocks to wash our hands with soap and running water. Our last stop was the Sonic in Waynesboro for more ‘refueling’. We definitely earned some tater tots and CreamSlushes!
Three Ridges turned out to be a great alternative to our planned Mt. Rogers trip! While the terrain was challenging, we think most people accustomed to backpacking/hiking would be up for the challenge and would enjoy the beautiful and wild scenery offered by this loop.
The one issue we would like to bring up is a discrepancy about the length of this hike. Most sources list the loop at 14.4 miles. Based on our information (maps, GPS, trailer marker posts), here is how we would break down the segment distances on the trail.
0.0 miles – Start from parking lot on Reeds Gap, heading south on the Appalachian Trail and begin your ascent.
.8 miles – The trail reaches the first ridge and shortly begins to descend through some switchbacks
1.6 miles – Reach the junction with the Fire Road (which heads to Love Gap). Take a left to stay on the Appalachian Trail and pass a few side trails that lead to campsites at the Maupin Field Shelter. The trail begins to climb again.
2.0 miles – Reach the summit of Bee Mountain
3.7 miles – Reach some great views from Hanging Rock. Continue to climb further up through the woods.
4.2 miles – Reach the summit of Three Ridges
5.8 miles – Great viewpoint of the eastern ridge
5.9 miles – Reach the tombstone and take an immediate right up the path to reach Chimney Rock and the best views on the trail. Rejoin the trail and descend steeply.
7.5 miles – Arrive at Harpers Creek Shelter across the creek and your stay for the night. The next morning, cross back over the creek and continue on the Appalachian Trail.
7.6 miles – Cross Harpers Creek and the trail begins to ascend very steeply.
8.5 miles – Reach the junction with the blue-blazed Mau-Har trail. Turn right and follow the trail that parallels Campbell Creek.
10.0 miles – Reach a sign designating a short yellow-blazed trail to a few waterfalls. The waterfalls are only a few hundred feet off the Mau-Har trail. Retrace your steps and continue on the Mau-Har trail.
11.5 miles – Reach the Maupin Field Shelter. Continue straight past the shelter to rejoin the Appalachian Trail.
11.6 miles – Take a left on the Appalachian Trail to retrace your steps back to your vehicle.
13.2 miles – Return to the Reeds Gap parking lot.
- Distance – 13.2 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike [Day One] [Day Two])*
- Elevation Change – About 3900 feet
- Difficulty – 5. This hike is no joke. The downhill areas are steepest on the Appalachian Trail coming down from Chimney Rock and the uphill on the Mau-Har trail is equally brutal.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The trail starts off quite nicely, but once you reach Three Ridges, expect a rocky slide downhill and loose footing uphill for much of the hike. The Mau-Har Trail was pretty overgrown in places.
- Views– 5. Absolutely amazing. Chimney Rock and Hanging Rock provide some of the nicest views.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. You’ll be near a stream most of the second day and there are a few small waterfalls. The water wasn’t flowing too strongly though.
- Wildlife –3. We did see a bear. Oh yeah, and the mouse ate through part of Adam’s backpack, so there is some wildlife out there.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trails were fairly well marked and signs were at the junctions.
- Solitude – 2. This is a tough hike, but it is popular for backpackers, trail runners, and day visitors to the shelters.
Directions to trailhead: On Blue Ridge Parkway, south of Humpback Rocks. Park at mile marker 13.7 at Reeds Gap in the large lot. Head south on the Appalachian Trail, marked with white blazes on a tree near the left of the open field.