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Appalachian Trail – Harpers Ferry to Bears Den Rocks

June 6, 2015

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!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Potomac River in Harpers Ferry

We crossed the Potomac River at the beginning of our hike out of Harpers Ferry.  Below: When we parked at Bears Den, we got to play with this adorable puppy while waiting for our shuttle driver; We had our official ATC section hiker photo made; It was Flip-Flop Kick Off when we visited; The ATC had vendors and information tents set up; Someone brought a hawk; Finally getting our hike underway!

Puppy at Bears Den ATC Photos Flip Flop Kickoff Day
Flip Flop Kick-Off Day Hawk En Route

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.

Leaving Harpers Ferry

Leaving Harpers Ferry on a tree-lined path.  Below: Red columbine – a favorite wildflower; The climb out of Harpers Ferry is steep and has very few switchbacks; Leaving the National Park area.

Red Columbine Steep Climb Out of Harpers Ferry Leaving the National Park

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.

So Many Redbuds

The woods were brilliantly colored with blooming redbuds. Below: Crossing powerlines gave us an open view; Taking a rest at Keys Gap on the VA/WV border; Christine does blister first-aid for Kris.

Crossing the Powerlines Resting at Keys Gap Blister Surgery

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.

Signing the Shelter Log

Christine signs the shelter log at David Lesser. Below: David Lesser is a fantastic shelter with a covered dining area, sleeping shelter and porch swing; Buzzards Rock is about a half mile south of the shelter; Laurel Springs boardwalk.

Porch Swing Buzzard Rocks Laurel Spring Boardwalk

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.

Campfire

We had a prime campsite on the ridge above the Blackburn Trail Center. Below: There was one nice view from the AT on the ridge just before the spur trail to the Blackburn Trail Center; Our little campsite; The Blackburn Trail Center was a welcome respite – cold sodas, clean well water, comfy chairs, and friendly people.

View Above Blackburn Trail Center Campsite Blackburn Trail Center

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.

Sunrise

Sunrise over the Blackburn Trail Center. Below: We decided to cook breakfast at the Trail Center instead of at our campsite; Oatmeal, coffee, cheese, honeybuns; Trillium on our way out of the Trail Center.

Breakfast Yum? Trillium

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!

Hiking Along the AT

The first few miles of our morning were easy and pleasant ridge walking. Below: Negotiating a big blowdown; Now entering the roller coaster; Native azalea in bloom.

Blowdown Entering the Roller Coaster Pinxter Azalea

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.

Ravens Rock

Adam takes in the spectacular view from Raven Rocks. Below: Kris rests in the shade; We saw a big black snake; The roller coaster is very rocky set of steep, closely spaced ups and downs.

Kris Rests Black Snake Roller Coaster Rocks

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!

Bears Den Rocks

One last view at the end of our hike. Below: The crossing of Rt. 7 at Snickers Gap is sketchy with lots of fast cars flying by; Smiles for our final big uphill;  The end of the line at Bears Den Hostel!

Snickers Gap Last Big Uphill We Survived

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!

Trail Notes

  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.

Backpacking Gear Review – 2015 Edition

May 29, 2015

Camp 2The 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

2015 2010
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.
Same
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.
Traded
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.
Traded
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.
Same
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
Stove: JetBoil
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.
Same

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.

Apple Orchard Falls – Cornelius Creek Loop

May 18, 2015

This 6-mile hike is jam-packed with spectacular stream scenery and waterfalls – the most impressive being the 200 foot Apple Orchard Falls.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Apple Orchard Falls

Beautiful Apple Orchard Falls plunges about 200 feet down the mountainside. Below: Even the fire roads were scenic on this hike; Abundant wildflowers including Dutchmans Breeches; There were several stream crossings to negotiate.

Fire Road Dutchmens Breeches Crossing

Christine Says…

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.

Christine checks out the creek early in the hike.

Christine checks out the creek early in the hike. Below: We hike the loop on the same day the Promised Land 50K was running.  It made for a crowded trail; Trillium was blooming everywhere; Pretty little rapids on the creek.

Promised Land 50K Runners Trillium Small Cascade on North Creek

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.

Bridge

There were several sturdy, well-constructed bridges on the trail toward the falls.  Below: Just before reaching the falls you climb through an opening between huge boulders; The viewing deck for the falls is very nice; Adam checks out the falls.

Boulders  Side View Falls

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!

Adam Says…

We got up early to hit the road and beat the crowds on this hike.  With 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 race stop 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.

Spring Green

A view into the valley on our way up the stairs. Below: Adam takes in a side view of the falls; Climbing the famous stairs, the smaller waterfall above Apple Orchard Falls.

Side View of Apple Orchard Stairs  Small Falls Above Apple Orchard

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.

Walking the Cornelius Creek Trail

Christine walks along in the rain. Below: Most of the hike closely follows water; A lovely little cascade on the Cornelius Creek Trail; Post hike beers at Apocalypse Ale Works.

Cornelius Creek Small Falls on Cornelius Creek Post Hike Beers at Apocalypse

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.

Moormans River & Big Branch Falls

May 12, 2015

This 4.5-mile hike is close to Charlottesville and is extremely popular for its beautiful river scenery, swimming holes, and waterfalls.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam at the Falls

Adam at the Falls. Below: The beautiful Moormans River; Sugar Hollow Reservoir; Lunch stop after the hike.

Moorman's River Reservoir Crozet Pizza

Adam Says…

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.

Stream Crossing

Christine rock hops across the stream. Below: The river was beautiful and clear; Adam checks out the rock wall at one of the crossings; Rapids from above.

Pretty River Rock Wall Scenic River

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.

Christine Says…

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!)

Lower Falls

The lower falls are really pretty. Below: A view of the upper and lower falls; Rock hopping; One crossing was too deep to rock hop – so we waded.

Looking up the Falls First Attempt  Better Wading

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!

Dam and Reservoir

The dam and reservoir. Below: Yum – Crozet Pizza; Flight at Starr Hill.

Crozet Pizza Starr Hill Beer

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.

Furnace Mountain – Austin Mountain Loop

April 26, 2015

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

On the Shoulder of Austin Mountain

Adam crosses one of the large talus slopes on the side of Austin Mountain.

Christine Says…

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.

Crossing Madison Run

Adam crosses Madison Run. Below: Pretty sun rays on the fire road; Walking up Furnace Mountain; Small talus slopes and views on the Furnace Mountain trail.

Browns Gap Fireroad Climbing Furnace View from the Furnace Mountain Trail

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!

Overlook on Furnace Mountain

The view from Furnace Mountain. Below:  From Furnace Mountain you can see the massive talus slopes on Austin Mountain; Looking back at Furnace Mountain; Junction of Furnace Mountain and Trayfoot Mountain trails.

View of Austin Mountain from Furnace Mountain Looking Back at Furnace Mountain Furnace-Trayfoot Junction

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!

Adam on Blackrock Summit

Adam takes in the view from Blackrock Summit.  Below: View from the Trayfoot Mountain trail; Arriving at Blackrock summit; Playing on the rocks.

View from Trayfoot Trail Blackrock Summit Blackrock Summit

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!

Adam Says…

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.

Junction of Trayfoot with the Appalachian Trail

The junction of the Trayfoot Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Below: Hiking the AT; Arriving at Browns Gap and the fire road; The junction with the Austin Mountain Trail.

Appalachian Trail Spur Trail Junction of Big Run & Austin Mountain Trails

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.

Talus Slopes

Huge talus slopes on Austin Mountain.  Below: Views from the Austin Mountain Trail; Talus slopes and a view of Furnace Mountain; Descending Austin Mountain.

Walking the Austin Mountain Trail Looking at Furnace Mountain from Austin Mountain Steep Descent of Austin Mountain

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.

Madison Run

Pretty Madison Run.  Below: Crenulations on Austin Mountain; Adam coming down to the fire road; Walking the fire road back to the car.

Spires on Austin Mountain Return to Fire Road Walking the Fire Road

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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. 

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.

Appalachian Trail – Reeds Gap to Dripping Rock

March 22, 2015

This 9 mile hike’s distance could be cut in half if you have a car shuttle.  When we hiked it, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed for ice/snow, so we ended up parking at Reeds Gap, walking 4.8 miles on the Appalachian Trail and then walking 4.2 miles back along the closed parkway. Typically, this would be an easy hike with a couple nice views.  In our case, it was a challenging icy hike in (occasional) white out conditions!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Snow Along the Blue Ridge Parkway

It’s a real treat to walk the Blue Ridge Parkway when it’s closed to vehicular traffic. Fresh snow made the view spectacular. Below: The parking area at Reeds Gap was icy when we arrived; Adam walked along the iced Appalachian Trail; Everything was fully coated with a glaze of ice.

Reids Gap Parking Icy Appalachian Trail Coating of Ice

Adam Says…

As we slowly work on completing the entire Appalachian Trail through Virginia, we sometimes end up with small gaps in our contiguous miles.  This 4.8 mile section was one of those and it was proving to be our nemesis.  We had tried to share a shuttle with friends and park at both ends, but a closure of the parkway made those plans fall through.

Over our Christmas break from work, we tried to hike it by dropping Christine at one end and I would park at the other, passing in the middle, and then Christine hiking to the car and driving back to pick me up.  It wasn’t preferable to do it this way because we like hiking together, but we really wanted to cover these miles.  But on our way to the drop point, we saw several cars slide off the road (not far from a precipitous, cliff-side drop).  Rain from the day before had left a thin sheen of ice on all the shady, curvy spots in the road.

One of the couples in a car that slid off the road was having a heated argument – he wanted to press on through the icy danger, but she wanted to call AAA and have the car towed off the mountain.  We decided to backtrack and not risk it (especially not knowing the road conditions ahead), choosing to hike near Humpback Rocks instead.   On our way to Humpback Rocks, we saw a park ranger making his way to the slippery road patch. They ended up closing the parkway just south of Humpback Rocks that day.  The parkway closes quite often in the winter. Rangers would rather close the roads than risk having to come up and save people on the trails/roads when weather conditions could make it difficult.

Ice Falls

There were several rock face covered with snow melt and re-frozen run-off. They made pretty ice formations. Below: Christine cross the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Three Ridges Overlook.  The pavement was like a skating rink; Adam makes his way downhill; In many places branches were bowed across the trail.

Christine Crosses the BRP Walking the AT in Ice Through the Branches

After those failed attempts, we decided to try this section again.  The weather forecast suggested a warming, clearing day, no snow in the near future. There had been a short bout of freezing rain the night before, so we were a little concerned about roads, but we knew we could at least make it to Reeds Gap and hike from there. When we arrived at Reeds Gap, we found a few other cars there, but it looked like they were attempting to hike Three Ridges.  We found the sign for the Appalachian Trail and crossed SR 664 to head north on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  I was amazed at how icy the ground still was.  It was manageable in normal hiking shoes, but still slippery in parts.  Every step that I took left an icy footprint behind me, which made the trail look like an old Family Circus comic strip.  At the least, they were good breadcrumbs left in case we needed to backtrack on the trail.  Some of the branches from nearby trees were iced over and bowed over the trail, causing us to have to lift them over the trail.   Some broken off pieces looked like broken antlers littering the ground.

After going about .5 miles, the Appalachian Trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At this point, the trail descended through some slippery areas, so we decided to put on our Yaktrax to provide some traction.  I don’t know how we would have made progress without them.  After going just another mile or so, it started to snow. At first, it was just a few flurries, but it was picking up.  At 3.5 miles, we came to a sign pointing out a short trail to the Rock Point Overlook.  The snow was coming down so fast at this point, visibility was at a minimum.  We ate a quick snack and then proceeded.  At 4.35 miles, we arrived at the Cedar Cliffs overlook.  The snow had been falling so hard, it was hard to find the trail.  It was at this point, I realized that hiking along the AT in the snow wasn’t the best idea – all the trees were covered with snow, covering up any white blazes that would have been on the trees.  We were so close to finishing this section and didn’t want to turn back at this point.  I had Christine stand in one area that we knew was close to the trail and within eyesight while I scouted ahead to try and find a semblance of trail under our feet.  Eventually, I found the trail again and we proceeded.

Overlook

Views from the first overlook were practically lost to the swirling snow. Below: Sign pointing the way to the overlook;  Snow started coming down harder while we were stopped at the overlook; Within 15 minutes, the icy ground was covered with a generous dusting of snow.

Sign to Overlook Snow Getting Snowier

I started to worry at this point about being able to drive back down from the mountain if the roads were going to be bad.  We made a decision that when we reached the road, we would hike back along the Blue Ridge Parkway to hopefully save time and get us back to our car more quickly.  At 4.85 miles, we arrived back at the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We took a right and headed south along the parkway and we were soon very glad we had made this decision.  We came across some great views at overlooks along the road that we didn’t have along the trail.  And then the snow stopped and the sun came out to start melting the snow, which eased my nerves.  The views were outstanding on the way back as we could see a defining line of snow that had hit the mountains and clear fields at the lower elevations.

While this hike had a little bit of danger due to the weather, it was a visual winter wonderland.  This is the definition of winter hiking.  We arrived back at the gate that was blocking the parkway at 9.0 miles and got back in our car.  We decided to hit Devil’s Backbone on our return trip home and then also stopped at some other Nelson County 151 highlights – Bold Rock Cider’s new tasting room and Silverback Distillery.  It really was a great adventure and it made me feel very lucky to have a wife that will go on such crazy undertakings with me.

NOTE: From research we have done, the starting point is called “Reeds Gap” in some sources and “Reids Gap” in others.  We went with the first spelling since that was how it was listed on PATC and NatGeo maps.

Christine Says…

Finishing this little 4.9 section of AT turned out to be more elusive than I ever would have believed possible. After a few attempts failed due to snow/ice, closed roads, and transportation problems, we finally successfully hiked from Reeds Gap to Dripping Rock!

On the day we accomplished this minor feat, conditions weren’t quite ideal.  There had been a bit of freezing rain the night before, but the weather was forecast to warm and clear over the course of the morning. The Blue Ridge Parkway was still closed, so we couldn’t leave a shuttle-back car at Dripping Rock.  This wasn’t a big deal – instead of hiking 4.9 miles once, we’d have to hike those same miles twice, making a total hike of almost ten miles.  We left our car in the roadside parking on Route 664,  next to the Appalachian Trail crossing. Route 664 (Reed’s Gap Rd.) crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and is kept open year-round.

At Reeds Gap, everything upright was coated with a thick glaze of ice.  It was foggy and gray and raw.  We headed north on the AT, our feet crunching though the crust of ice.  It was so peaceful and beautiful.

We're nuts

Adam questioned how wise it was for us to hike on a day with such rapidly changing weather. Below: There were some broken trees along the parkway; Adam takes in Ravens Roost;  A little ‘Christmas Story’ reenactment.

Back on the BRP First Views from the BRP Stuck

The Appalachian Trail soon crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Three Ridges Overlook.  The asphalt was like a skating rink!  It looked like regular pavement, but it was as slick as a slip-and-slide.  I could totally understand why the park service closed the road!

After crossing, there was a slight descent and the terrain became a little rockier.  I started to lose my footing, so Adam helped me into my traction.  The ice wasn’t thick enough or hard enough for Microspikes, so we went with Yaktrax.  Mine are a touch too small for my boots, so getting them on is a two person effort.  I brace on a rock and Adam yanks the Yaktrax with all his might until they snap into place!  One day, I’ll buy some bigger ones.  :-)  Fitted with traction, we moved swiftly along with sure, confident footing.  Snow started falling – flurries at first, then in earnest.  It wasn’t supposed to snow, so we trekked on hoping the skies would soon clear up (like they were supposed to!) Ah… mountain weather at its unpredictable best!

We reached a small sign pointing us to the Rock Point Overlook.  As we looked off the rocky outcropping, all we could see was clouds and swirling snow.  Every now and then the clouds moved enough that we could see mountains on the other side of the gap.  We ate a quick snack and moved on.  The snow just kept coming down faster and faster.  We started feeling a little worried about getting back to our car and finding Route 664 impassable.

Blue Ridge Parkway

There were many beautiful views along the parkway. Below:  It was neat to see the snowless valley below; During the last few miles of walking, the sun came out and melted the snow off the road; Another pretty valley view.

Views along the BRP Almost Melted Starting to Clear

In fair weather, there are more nice views along this stretch of the Appalachian Trail, but by the time we reached the vistas at Cedar Cliffs, we were practically in whiteout conditions.  The white snow even camouflaged the white blazes on the trees. It was too bad, Cedar Cliffs had large rock ledges and would have been beautiful in clear conditions.  About a half mile past the cliffs, we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and the pullout for Dripping Rock Spring.  We made it – we finished our section!  At that point, the snow was still coming down hard and fast.  To save time, we had decided to hike the parkway back to our car.  It’s easy to move at speed when the terrain is uncomplicated.  We still needed traction because the road was extremely slippery and treacherous.

It turned out that the road was the better choice for scenery, too!  We saw some of the most spectacular winter vistas from Rock Point, Ravens Roost, and other openings along the way.  I felt really privileged to see this scenery that most people don’t get to see when the road is closed to vehicles.  As we hiked along, the promised clearing conditions finally happened.  The ice on the road melted quickly and we were treated to a stunning display of sunshine and ice – it was like walking through a shimmering crystal forest.

Sunny Skies and Snow

Sunshine and snow make for a beautiful combination!  Below: Once the sun came out the snow melted really quickly.

Almost Melted

We got back to our car pretty quickly and found the car and the road both free of ice!  We headed down the other side of Route 664 (past Wintergreen Resort) to go to Devil’s Backbone for lunch.  The brewery was packed!  All the other women there were wearing makeup, skinny jeans, and tall boots.  I was sweaty, disheveled, and dressed sort of like Rainbow Brite.  But whatever… they had (after an hour’s wait) beer and good food.

We decided to take the 151 route home so we could pass Bold Rock and Silverback.  Bold Rock recently finished their new tasting room.  It’s rustic and elegant – with fireplaces and wonderful farmland views.  After beers at Devils Backbone, we skipped drinking cider, but I’m glad we took the time to check out their new facilities.

Silverback is the area’s new distillery.  They’ll eventually have whiskey made using local grains.  But for now, they have moonshine, gin, and vodka.  You can  do a flight of tastings of their three spirits – a half ounce of each, either straight or mixed into signature cocktails.  We ended up sharing a flight of three mini cocktails – a Moscow Mule, a Gin and Ginger, and Monkey Tea.  I’m not much of a liquor/cocktail fan, but the drinks were fun and tasty.  I definitely recommend checking these two spots out if you happen to be in the area!

Devil's Backbone

We stopped for lunch at Devil’s Backbone. Below: We checked out the new taproom for Bold Rock.  It’s very cozy and elegant.  We didn’t stay for cider on this trip; We also stopped by Silverback distillery and shared a flight of miniature cocktails.

Bold Rock Silverback

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 9 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1050 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.  The icy conditions made it more of a challenge, but overall this would be a fairly easy hike with not as much elevation gain.  The distance may make it a little more difficult for those that are not used to going this far.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  Again, the ice made this a bit more challenging, but this section of the AT was very well-maintained. There were a few loose, rocky sections.
  • Views  4.5.  Most of what we were able to see was from the parkway, but I know the other overlooks would lead to panoramic views.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There was one small, frozen over stream that might work as a water source. 
  • Wildlife – 1.  We saw lots of deer leaping into the woods, but I wouldn’t expect a lot of other wildlife, especially since this is a well-traveled section.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Just follow signs at the posts for the Appalachian Trail.  Of course, since we lost the trail at one of the overlooks, we couldn’t give this a perfect score. 
  • Solitude – 3.  Due to the nearby parking lot, I would expect this would be a place where people would explore the trail.  Of course, most of the cars in the nearby parking lot are likely heading up Three Ridges from Reeds Gap instead.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From I-64, take exit 96 for SR 624 toward Waynesboro/Lyndhurst.  Turn on to S. Delphine Avenue and go 1.2 miles.  The road becomes Mt. Torrey Road/SR 664.  In 9.3 miles, turn left to stay on SR 664.  Once you reach the top of the road in .8 miles, you will cross the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Park at the large parking lot on the other side of the road.  Across from the parking lot (and across SR 664), you will see the post and sign for the Appalachian Trail.  Head north on the white-blazed trail.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Kepler Overlook

March 14, 2015

This easygoing 6-mile hike offered solitude, great backcountry campsites, and nice views at the top! It was a perfect hike to tackle with a group of friends and dogs.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam takes in the beautiful ,but hazy, view from the top.

Adam takes in the beautiful, but hazy, view from the top. Below: Walking to the trail from the parking area.  This was really the only confusing part of the hike; Crossing Cedar Creek; Right after crossing the creek there is a superb campsite with hewn benches and a high hewn counter-top for cooking.

Start of Hike Crossing Cedar Creek Nice Campsite

Christine Says…

Back in January, we planned a little section hike along the Appalachian Trail with a group of friends. However, icy conditions closed the Blue Ridge Parkway, leaving us scrambling for an alternate plan. We stumbled across the Kepler Overlook on Hiking Upward and decided it would be a good ‘plan B’. Our group met for breakfast at Mr’ J’s Bagels (yay carbs!) in Harrisonburg before heading up to the trailhead.

We expected to have to park about a third of a mile from the official trailhead, but we found the forest service gate open and were able to leave our cars right at the hike’s start point.   From the parking area, there are trails and forest service roads leading in several directions.  This was probably the most confusing part of the hike.  You want to go straight up the forest road with the permanently closed gate.  If you don’t reach the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail within the first .3 mile of your hike up the road, you’ll know you’ve gone the wrong way!

Hiking Along

The group hikes along the trail. Below: Crossing a small footbridge: Clark and Maia on the trail; Adam makes his way uphill.

Stream Crossing Clark & Maia Adam Climbs Uphill

At the junction with the Tuscarora trail, go left.  You’ll pass another closed gate before coming to Cedar Creek.  The crossing of Cedar Creek is fairly wide and might be tricky in wet conditions.  We were able to negotiate the crossing with some careful rock hopping.  Shortly after the crossing, you’ll come to one of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve seen.  Someone has taken the time to build wide benches, a large fire pit, and even a high counter-top for cooking.  It would be a great group campsite with easy access to water.

From the campsite, continue to follow the blue-blazed trail.  There was one place that the trail appeared to go straight, but actually turned.  We all missed the turn and had to backtrack a few hundred feet where the trail crosses the stream again using a footbridge made of branches.

After crossing the stream, the trail climbs Tea Mountain.  It’s never a tough climb, but it’s a steady uphill.  The trail alternates between narrow footpath and wider road-like conditions.  The trail follows along several switchbacks.  At about 1.9 miles into the hike, you should see an unmarked side trail on the left.  If you follow this side trail for a few hundred feet, you’ll reach a large rock jumble.  From the top of the rock jumble you get a great view of the mountains beyond.

Spur Trail

Adam enjoys the first view of the hike. Below: A light dusting of snow on the shady side of the mountain; There were plenty of nice campsites along the ridge; The view was pretty but very hazy.

Dusting of Snow Campsite on the Ridge Hazy View

After taking in the view, return to the Tuscarora trail and continue uphill for about another mile or so until you reach the saddle between Tea and Little North Mountains.  Along this ridge, there are several nice viewpoints and lots of open, flat space for camping.  We took some time to explore a couple different vistas.  The views were nice, but the sky conditions were really hazy.

After enjoying the mountaintop, we descended the way we came up.  On our way home, we decided to check out a new farm brewery near Edinburg.  Swover Creek is a working farm – they grow fruit and hops, raise chickens, and make sausage from locally produced meat.  They’ve recently started a brewery and are working on building a tasting room in their old barn.  We all tried a flight of their four beers (the persimmon ale was my favorite).  We also had their house-made soft pretzels and mustard and enjoyed a sampling of their different sausages.  It was a fun stop and I definitely recommend checking them out if you’re in the area!

Adam Says…

The Kepler Overlook hike was one that we had been wanting to do since we heard about it from our friends at Hiking Upward.  This hike leads to nice views as you climb up to Little North Mountain.

The trail started off as we went past the closed gate up the fire road.  There is a sign just past the gate showing the inter-connected trail system.  Continue up the fire road for about .3 miles and then take a right on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail.  The Tuscarora Trail leads down to Cedar Creek.  Cross a small stream at .5 miles and you will reach a nice campsite.  Continue along the trail and the trail takes another stream crossing (this time over a small log bridge with a branch handrail).  The trail turns quickly to the left as you begin your climb up Tea Mountain.  At 1.9 miles on a switchback, you reach an unmarked  side trail.  Following this for about .1 miles will take you to a rock outcropping with some views to the west.  Backtrack to rejoin the Tuscarora Trail.

Nice View - Kepler Overlook

One of the rocky outcroppings along the ridge. Below: Time for a group selfie; Kris takes in the view; Descent.

Selfie More Views Descending

At 2.5 miles, the trail reaches a Saddle between Tea Mountain and North Mountain.  From here, climb up North Mountain.  The trail levels out at 3.0 miles at a large area for backcountry camping.  From here, you have two options for views.  Cut through the campsite to the right along the ridge for a nice view.  You can also go to the left and make your way again towards the ridge to get more views to the east.

We enjoyed our hike with friends and dogs.  You can check out Clark’s YouTube video below.  We were amazed at how much he was enjoying the hike and even took some time to enjoy the view himself.

Van Buren Furnace

Van Buren Furnace sits near the trailhead. Below: Post-hike beers at Swover Creek;  Pretty farm chicken!

Beers at Swover Creek Swover Creek Chicken

After the hike we hit Swover Creek Farm to try out their brewery.  Since the tasting room is not yet built, we enjoyed our beer in the farmhouse.  I have described this when talking to friends as if you were to go over to your grandmother’s house and drink beer.  We got our flight of beers from the small room downstairs and then took them upstairs to the larger “living room”.  There were some large tables and older furniture, so it really felt like a visit to your grandmother’s.  All of the people that were there were local people and one man brought a thermos to fill with beer instead of a growler.  They brought out samples of their sausage they made on the farm and we ended up buying some to take home.  It was such a warm, home environment and we thought they did a great job with the small-batch beers they had made.  This was a perfect post-hike stop.

guestdogsClark and Maia Say…

Our friends brought their lab (Clark) and shepherd (Maia) along on the hike!  They were great trail dogs to have along for the day!

Clark was fitted with a GoPro — so don’t miss seeing the hike from his point of view!  :-)

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1120 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  A pretty easy hike with a bit of steady, moderate climbing.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Trail was in great shape.
  • Views  3.5.  Nice, but slightly obstructed by trees.  
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Cedar Creek is pretty and a solid water source.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything, but there are plenty of deer and bear in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.  There are a couple places where it’s easy to lose the trail.  Also, there are several trails and fire roads from the parking area that can easily be confused.
  • Solitude –4.  We saw only a small handful of people on a nice, sunny, winter weekend day.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  Take exit 291 on I-81 heading west on SR 651.  Go 1.5 miles and take a left on SR 623.  Go 4 miles and take a right on to SR 600.  Go 4.4 miles and take a left on SR 603/Van Buren Road.  Continue on Van Buren Road for 2.7 miles and you will see parking on the left.  There are two parking areas here, but pass the first parking area to get to the second parking area which is on the lefthand side.  Park here and retrace your path a short distance to see the closed gate and the fire road where your hike will start.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

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