For our next five posts we’ll be sharing hikes in the Adirondacks High Peaks region. Up first… Flume Knob – this surprisingly tough 4-miler leads to a beautiful view looking toward Wilmington and the Jays.
Well… here we are in New York’s Adirondacks! We’ve wanted to visit the High Peaks region for years, and finally got around to making it happen. We found a delightful cabin in the woods on VRBO.com and rented it for a full week. We arrived late on a Saturday evening, so Sunday was the first day we had to hike. We had seen signs along the way to our cabin saying ‘ALERT: Lake Placid Heavy Race Traffic Sunday’. What we didn’t know was that it was the day of the Lake Place Ironman and most roads in the area would be closed in at least one direction – some roads closed completely.
We had initially selected a nice 9-mile waterfall loop – away from Lake Placid, in hopes of avoiding the race traffic. With GPS coordinates set and maps in hand, we set out toward our trailhead. Our GPS kept re-routing us and the drive time to the trailhead fluctuated wildly from 20 minutes to an hour and 10 minutes. Finally, we came upon a police officer directing traffic. All the rerouting on the GPS was due to real-time road closures for the Ironman. Boooo! We were forced onto a very long, one-way, circuitous route around the race – a route that took us nowhere near our planned hike. At this point, cell service was gone and we didn’t have any way to select a new hike that we could actually get to. So we drove and drove. We watched racers passing by on their bicycle leg in the closed lane of traffic. We both agreed it was a pretty disappointing start to the trip – after spending 11 hours in the car on Saturday, we were ready to hit the trail!
Eventually, we came upon a sign for High Gorge Falls. I told Adam ‘Go there – I remember reading about that place. It looked pretty!’ As it turned out, we had the entirety of this popular tourist stop all to ourselves. I guess no one else even tried to fight the Ironman traffic. We walked the network of trails and marveled at the impressive waterfall plunging through the chasm! After about an hour, we’d seen all there was to see and decided we’d try and figure out a way to get back to the house and spend the afternoon relaxing and enjoying our comfy little cabin. But as luck would have it, we passed a sign on the road labeled ‘Flume Trails’. Adam looked at me and we knew instantly that we were going to stop and check it out. The sign was brown and had little hiker stick figures – and that was good enough for us! Sure… it wasn’t the hike we planned. And yes – we had no idea how long the trail was, how difficult the trail was, or even where it led.
Fortunately, signage at the trailhead indicated that there was a 4-mile out-and-back to Flume Knob. We agreed that knobs usually have decent views and set off along the trail. The trail soon became a network of trails. Some signs indicated the way to Flume Knob, others made no mention of it. Trail names changed quickly from Corridor to Connector to Flume Knob. We just kept hiking uphill, following the path that looked most worn, and then verifying we were still on the right route any time Flume Knob was mentioned on a sign.
I took very few photos on the hike up, because my hands were being kept busy swatting at the army of mosquitoes unleashed in the forest. Bug spray didn’t slow them down – not even a little bit. What had become as an easy, gradual climb became steeper and steeper as we hiked along. I was hiking as fast as I could to outrun the mosquitoes, but the terrain slowed my pace. The trail climbed upward without the ameliorating effect of switchbacks. There were several sections of trail that were washed out and covered with loose, slippery scree. There was a small rock pass that had a rope to help hikers pull themselves upward. There were a couple small blow-downs to negotiate. It was pretty tough going for a little while. After the hike was over, I read a description of the terrain on the Lake Placid website – they used the word ‘aggressive’.
It was all worth it in the end! The view from Flume Knob was magnificent! We climbed around the side of a boulder and came out on a rocky outcropping with super views of the Adirondacks. We could even see tiny specks of triathletes on the road in the valley below. The viewpoint also had enough of a breeze to keep the insects at bay. We enjoyed the view for a while until we were finally joined by a large family group. They had been down in the valley cheering a family member along in the Ironman and decided to climb Flume Knob after he passed by.
The hike down was slow going until the terrain moderated. There were many places that were steep and covered with loose footing. We covered those parts with care and the added help of trekking poles. Once we descended a bit, we were able to complete the hike relatively quickly. When we got back to the trailhead, we took some time to explore Flume Falls. The falls are right next to the parking area and are definitely worth a look!
While it wasn’t the hike we planned, the day turned out really nicely overall! Sometimes it’s fun to let go of expectations and see where fate takes you. That said — I still don’t think I’m a fan of the Ironman!
Christine did a great job with explaining the circumstances of doing this hike over other things we were considering for the day. What she didn’t mention was the day before on our drive up, we decided that it would be nice to stop at a brewery on our way up to stretch our legs and give our dogs a chance to get outside. We opted for Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, NY. I haven’t been a big baseball fan since I was a teenager, so I have been a little out of the loop for the timing of baseball events. When we arrived at Ommegang at 2:45PM, they said they were closing at 3PM for a private event (which wasn’t announced on their website). I started seeing lots of people arriving Red Sox gear (which I thought was odd for New York). It turns out they were closing things for a private party for Pedro Martinez for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame the next day. I was quite ticked and now have a little disdain for Pedro Martinez. Experiencing road closures this day that were keeping us doing the hike we wanted, I was not feeling the New York love.
The tough climbing on the hike and the incessant mosquitoes had me a little worried about how hiking would be overall in the Adirondacks. However, I will say that if you can just pull off the road, pick a random trail and find views like these, the Adirondacks are quite impressive. And luckily, those mosquitoes were the worst on this hike compared to the others we tried. What was looking to be an irritating day turned out to be great. It is amazing how a little bit of hiking and scenery can change your outlook quickly.
When we first pulled into the small parking lot for this hike, we were quickly joined by several other cars filled with people. We thought they were just friends and families of Ironman participants and wouldn’t want to hike. When we started to see them get on the trail, we decided to get our stuff together quickly to possibly get ahead of them so we weren’t stuck amidst a large group. We were able to start ahead of most of the pack and made our way. As you can see from the map below, there are a lot of interconnecting trails on this hike. You may see people heading out for mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing, or hiking along these trails.
Our experiences with “knobs” typically means some rocky outcropping with decent views, so we decided to give Flume Knob a try. The path started off from the parking lot and we soon took a right to head uphill on the trail as the signs directed. As Christine mentioned, because of the interconnecting trails that happened early on the hike, they didn’t always post the direction to Flume Knob. We did keep pressing forward on the widest, well-traveled trail and we eventually came on to other signs that showed we were going the correct way.
We kept a fast pace as best we could, more for survival purposes. Stopping for a quick drink from a water bottle would mean you would be attacked instantly by the flying piranha-like mosquitoes. The grade of the trail was very tough, with extremely steep sections to climb, often requiring you to pull yourself up with your hands to reach the higher step. Christine got a good deal of sap on her hands from grabbing ahold of trees to help hoist herself up and down. We felt this was one of the hardest two miles with the steepness of terrain. We eventually made it to the top, which just required climbing up a large boulder to a nice view. The viewpoint was a large slab of rock and we took a few moments to take in the view before others arrived.
We had it all to ourselves for about 20 minutes before the other families started to arrive. It turns out all of them were family members or friends of those participating in the Ironman. Their goal was to do a hike for the day and then meet up with them later. When getting to the view, one man asked one of the children if the view was worth the climb and she said “No”. But they pointed out to her that when she reflects back, she would change her mind. I think we would both say the views were worth the climb. On a clear day, you have miles and miles of mountains with barely any sign of civilization around you.
We made our way back down and started to see even more families making the trek up. When we arrived back at our car, we took a side path from the parking lot which led down to a beautiful waterfall. The waterfall has several platforms where the water drops into the gorge and is worth seeing. If you cross the road from the parking lot, you can look down into the gorge to see even more impressive sights.
We felt we made the most of the day. Getting great views on a random hike made us more excited for future hikes in this area.
- Distance – 4 miles
(There are no MapMyHike stats from this hike because we forgot to stop tracking at the end of our hike – oops!)
- Elevation Change – 1326 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The climbing on this trail is mostly concentrated into a short, extremely steep section. There are no switchbacks to alleviate the climb – it is straight up the mountainside!
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was nice easy footing for the first half of the ascent. The footing was trickier with loose dirt and some eroded spots on the climb. There was one section aided by a rope hand-pull.
- Views – 4. Beautiful views over the valley and looking toward bigger peaks.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. There is an impressive waterfall gorge right at the beginning of the trail. Don’t miss seeing it at either the beginning or end of your hike.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw/heard red squirrels, chipmunks and birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 1.5. The signage on this network of trails is quite confusing. There are many foot and bike trails that cross multiple times in the woods. Not every sign lists the destination of Flume Knob. We basically continued on whatever trail seemed most uphill and checked our progress with the signs that did list Flume Knob.
- Solitude – 3. It’s hard for us to judge the popularity of this trail. We hiked it on a day that traffic was mostly impeded by the Lake Placid Ironman. Most people stayed away from the race course because the logistical issues it caused with traffic in the area. We saw a few other hikers, most of them knew someone racing and were hiking to pass the time until they could meet up with their racing friend.
Directions to trailhead: From the intersection of Route 73 and Route 86 in Lake Placid, follow Route 86 toward Wilmington. Continue for 10.5 miles to the Flume Parking on the left. Coordinates for the parking lot are 44.3701899,-73.8363359.
Not to be confused with Silers Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this 8.8 mile hike in Nantahala National Forest has some of the best views in the southern Appalachians – mountains roll out in every direction from the summit. The hike is moderate and doesn’t require any tough climbing or tricky terrain.
We thought this video really showcased how amazing the view is from Siler Bald! Sorry it’s so shaky!
One thing we hoped to do on our trip was to hike some new piece of the Appalachian Trail. While it would have been nice to complete a larger section of the trail, when you only have one car you are stuck with doing some out-and-backs. When we were researching some different options we came upon Siler Bald. My first thought was “Didn’t we already hike this another time?” Oh, that was SilerS Bald, not Siler Bald. I always get a kick out of how many mountains and hikes have similar names. We have come across several Chimney Rocks in our travels. It reminds me of the unoriginal naming of cities in New England. You can find multiple Manchesters, Andovers, Portsmouths, Dovers, and Salems in the New England states, as if their goal is to get you lost when you try to navigate with your GPS. The nice thing about both of these similarly-named balds is they have great views so you can’t go wrong.
There wasn’t a GPS signal when we started this hike, so it was a little difficult to find the starting point. I had a map of the area and we were able to find the parking lot easily enough. The Appalachian Trail crosses over Hwy-64 near the parking lot. The southbound path is easy to find, it takes off from the parking lot. However, the northbound path was harder to find. I crossed the road and walked down the road heading east for about a hundred feet. Then, I saw the AT cut through on a small, overgrown path. I signaled back up to Christine that I found it and we began our hike.
Heading into the woods, the white-blazed trail starts on a very gradual uphill slope. Like many parts of the AT, this hike can be called a green tunnel – one path cutting through lush, green forest. We reached a waterfall and forest service road in .2 miles, followed shortly by a stream crossing and a nice campsite area. The trail then continues uphill as you pass by Swinging Lick Gap at 1.1 miles and Panther Gap at 2 miles. Right before the sign of Panther Gap, we were startled as 5 grouse took off across the trail just ahead of us. When you are walking along the trail with nothing but the sounds of the woods around you, a big move from the brush can you make you almost leap out of your hiking boots. From Panther Gap, the trail then goes slightly downhill for about a quarter of a mile before going gradually uphill. We eventually reached a junction trail at 4.2 miles. The trail branches off to the Siler Bald Shelter, which is about .5 mile from this junction (this trail eventually loops around to the other side if you see it out after the summit). We didn’t take the trip to the shelter since we were getting hungry and wanted to make our way to the views.
Continuing on the AT, we met another junction with the Siler Bald summit trail. From here, we took the path up the hillside, requiring us to almost bushwhack through this thick, tall grass and brush for a short distance before we came out of it. We climbed a very steep .2 miles to reach the summit of Siler Bald at 4.4 miles. As you are climbing up, if you look behind you the views start opening up of the mountains around you, but when you reach the summit the views are spectacular. Having hiked without seeing anyone the entire day, we were surprised to see a thru-hiker at the top. He was hoping to get a ride into town, having a craving for a pizza. We talked with him for a while and were pleased to find out he was from Virginia as well. He made a call to have someone meet him at the trailhead and he was off in a flash. We ate our lunch and enjoyed the views all to ourselves. On our way back down, we did come across a few other people that were out for a backpacking trip. This hike is one that has outstanding views for a minimal effort and is not as well-traveled.
Three and a half days in the Smokies just aren’t enough! On our 2015 stay, we tried two new hikes in the park (Ramsey Cascades and Gregory Bald), revisited an old favorite (Charlies Bunion), and then picked something new! For our final hike of the trip, we chose a hike outside the park borders – Siler Bald. This hike is located just south of the park in Nantahala National Forest. It offers a spectacular, panoramic vista from a spur just off the Appalachian Trail.
We parked our car at Winding Stair Gap. There is a good-sized lot along Hwy-64. From the parking area, we crossed the highway and picked up the Appalachian Trail heading north. In the first couple tenths of a mile, we crossed a footbridge over a pretty small waterfall. On the other side of the bridge, there was a kiosk with information about the forest. Shortly after the sign, we crossed a wider stream with a lovely backcounty campsite next to it.
We hiked along, enjoying the abundance of interesting wildflowers and fungi. The climb was steady and slow. It was by far the easiest hike of our trip. We chuckled at the random sign posts in the woods declaring that a particular spot was a ‘gap’. None of the gaps really seemed to be low points between mountains, nevertheless their were signs indicating that we had passed through Swinging Lick Gap, Panther Gap, and Snowbird Gap. Other than enjoying the pleasant weather and small things along the trail, there’s nothing grand along the way to Siler Bald. The grandeur all comes shortly after you reach a grassy clearing about 4 miles into the hike.
From the grassy clearing, climb the spur trail steeply up through the meadow for .2 miles. When we visited, the meadow was full of tall grasses and daisies. At the very top, we reached a flat opening that looked out across what seemed like all of the southern Appalachians. We had great views of Standing Indian mountain, Wayah Bald, Lake Nantahala, and even into Georgia.
There’s a marker at the top of the bald declaring the mountain’s name and elevation (5,216 feet). There’s also an established fire pit and plenty of room for several tents. What a place to watch both sunrise and sunset!
Adam and I ate our lunch (so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on this trip), took lots photos, and spent some time chatting with a fellow Virginian we met atop the summit. Rambling Wreck was his name, and he was doing a flip-flop thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He was really the only person we saw all day until we were almost done with our hike.
As we enjoyed the bald, darker clouds started to roll in. We knew thunderstorms were forecast for later in the day, so we decided to make our way down. The descent from the bald is nearly as magnificent as being on top – walking downhill with all the mountains laid out before me was breathtaking! I was probably paying too much attention to the view, because the toe of my shoe got hooked on a root hidden by deep grass. I took one of those epic falls that happen so fast you can do nothing to stop and catch yourself. I faceplanted and ended up with several deep, painful bruises, but nothing that stopped me from hiking on. When you’re a regular hiker, these things are bound to happen sooner or later!
The hike down went quickly and soon we arrived back at our car. We decided to make the drive out to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for our next stop. On the way, we were pounded by thunderstorms. I’m glad we missed them on the trail! At the NOC we grabbed an outdoor riverside table at Big Wesser Brew and BBQ (one of our favorite spots) and shared nachos and a couple beers. Super day!
- Distance – 8.8 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1737 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. The climbing on this trail is all easy to moderate until the last couple tenths of a mile, up to the top of the bald.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was nice, smooth, dirt with very few rocky sections.
- Views – 5. Breathtaking, expansive, amazing, beautiful!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There were a couple small streams and a small waterfall near the beginning of the hike.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw some bear scat on the trail, so I’m sure bear sightings happen in this area.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is clearly blazed and the spur to Siler Bald is pretty obvious.
- Solitude – 4. We saw one thru-hiker atop the bald and one group of four men backpacking together. It has immensely more solitude than trails in GSMNP.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.12175, -83.54435. It is located on US 64, 11 miles west of Franklin, NC. There is a spacious parking lot at Winding Stair Gap. From the parking lot, cross the road, head east about 100 feet, and begin hiking north along the Appalachian Trail.
Gregory Bald is famous for its brilliant display of flame azaleas each June. On prior trips to the Smokies, we were in the area too early to catch the bloom. This time, we hit it just right, and enjoyed this wonderful, challenging 9.5 mile hike (includes .5 mile of walking the trails around the bald). The views and blooms did not disappoint!
Goodness… we’re doing a lot of hiking and not much writing! Here we are in mid-August, still playing catch-up on hikes from June. We have a backlog of twelve (yikes!) hikes to write about.
The first is this wonderful climb to Gregory Bald that we did on our Smokies a couple months ago. Typically, we visit the Smokies in late May. Mid-spring is a gorgeous time of year for cool temperatures, wildflowers, and smaller crowds. This year, we had to put our trip off until mid-June. It was much hotter and the park was more crowded, but the timing gave us the opportunity to finally climb Gregory Bald when the flame azalea was at peak.
There are a couple routes up to the bald. The most common route is probably the ascent along the Gregory Ridge trail. It’s an 11.3 mile hike with just over 3,000 feet of climbing. It’s more popular because it’s easier to access by car and is supposedly a little more scenic along the way. We chose to climb via the Gregory Bald trail from Parson Branch Rd. It’s a shorter hike with less elevation gain. It’s also much harder to get to! Parson Branch Rd. is a one-way, seasonal road (closed in the winter) that requires 4WD/AWD. We had four 8-9 mile hikes planned in 3.5 days, so the shorter/easy route appealed to us. Thankfully, our little Subaru proved up to the challenge and we successfully jolted and bumped along the rugged road until eventually reaching the trailhead.
We got there pretty early, but there were already tons of other cars filling the small lot and lining the dirt road. We geared up and hit the trail. Honestly, there isn’t much to see along the 4.5 mile walk to the bald. It’s a lovely wooded trail, but there aren’t any noteworthy features until you reach the bald.
Adam and I walked along, chatting and talking about past hikes. Suddenly, Adam froze in his tracks and said ‘SNAKE!’. It was a beautiful, dark-colored timber rattler sunning itself across the trail. Adam hates snakes, but I find them beautiful and fascinating. He stepped back while I tried to get a few photos – which proved difficult with my wide angle lens. I tossed some small pebbles near the snake to encourage him off the trail. He obliged and we were on our way!
Near the ridge, we passed Sheep Pen Gap campsite. It was occupied by a group of extremely well-equipped horse campers. They had a full camp kitchen, coolers, and canvas tents big enough to stand in – definitely the opposite of our ultralight gear! There was a piped water source near the campsite. It was flowing nicely, but it was definitely water you’d want to boil or filter due to the large amount of horse manure in the area.
About a half mile past the campsite, we emerged onto the bald. It was absolutely exploding with color – azaleas in red, salmon, pink, orange, gold, and white! I can understand why people come from all over to witness this display first-hand. On top of the amazing floral display, the summit also offered panoramic views. We ate our lunch overlooking Cades Cove and then spent some time walking around and admiring all the different colored azaleas. We even met a fellow JMU grad on the summit.
The longer we stayed atop the bald, the more people arrived, and we decided it was time to make our way down. The descent went very quickly, as the trail had easy, uncomplicated footing. About a mile from the parking lot, we ran up on the JMU alumni we had met earlier. He and his girlfriend were stopped in the middle of the trail. A bear had just crossed in front of them and they were waiting and making sure it was safe to proceed. Adam and I were disappointed that we had missed seeing the bear.
We ended up walking the last mile with them, chatting about hiking and the Bonnaroo festival they had just attended. Before we knew it, we were back at the car! The remaining stretch of one-way Parsons Branch Rd. was an adventure, too. I think we must have driven our car through at least a dozen streams before eventually coming out on the famous Tail of the Dragon road. I’ll let Adam talk more about that! It was a fun day, and I’m so glad I finally got to see the famous Gregory Bald azalea bloom!
The hike to Gregory Bald has been one we have been considering for years. Some of the balds in the Smoky Mountains have been quite overgrown, since the park service has wanted to return them to their natural state over time. I was preparing myself to be disappointed, but luckily that was not the case. The day we visited was the peak of the blooming azaleas and the skies were so dramatic that it was a photographer’s paradise.
Gregory Bald is named after Russell Gregory, a resident of Cades Cove who died in 1864. Russell lived in a stone house near the summit during the spring and summer, while his cattle grazed on the summit. A Union support, Gregory was killed by a Confederate soldier while protecting his land and cattle. The Cherokee had named this mountain “Tsitsu’yi”, meaning “Rabbit Place” and it was believed that the chief of all rabbits lived on the summit.
As Christine mentioned, the drive was a chore. To access Parson Branch road, we had to go through Cades Cove most of the way. Drives to me to Cades Cove are always frustrating to me. Before you even get to the Cades Cove area, people were driving 12mph in an area where you can go much faster. When we arrived in Cades Cove finally, we had more of the same. Nobody would pull over to let us pass on the one-way road. Instead, we had people in front creeping a long at 5mph with doors opened on both sides of their mini-vans to enhance their wildlife/scenery viewing. What felt like 500 hours later, we finally were able to turn off the Cades Cove loop onto Forge Creek Road. Once we turned on to Parson Branch road, the gravel road became extremely steep and filled with potholes and uneven road. While we don’t do a lot of “offroad” driving for hiking, this was one of the roughest stretches of roads I’ve driven. We made it to the top of the hill eventually and found the full lot and line of cars on the side of the road. We parked along the side of the road as best we could, I crawled to the passenger’s side to escape the vehicle, and we made our way to the trailhead.
The hike up to Gregory Bald was a steady uphill, but the trail was in decent shape and not rocky, to allow for easy footing. The trail was mostly shaded by trees all around, so it kept the sun and heat off of us for most of the day. Other than seeing the rattlesnake, it was mostly uneventful – a nice walk through the woods without a lot to see.
Around the four-mile mark, we reached the Sheep Pen Gap campsite area on the right. Shortly after the campsite, there is a junction with the Wolf Ridge Trail. Take a left here to stay on the Gregory Bald Trail to reach the summit. This short section of trail was much steeper, but the terrain was still comfortable. After a couple of tenths of a mile, a side trail shot to the right leading to a small clearing with the first of the azalea blooms. We decided to press on to the summit which was just ahead. When we stepped into the scene from the summit, it was breathtaking. The shape of the ridge doesn’t always give you the best views of mountains all around you, but the colors were all around. There was lush green in the grass, reds and oranges around us in every direction from the azaleas, blue skies with large, puffy white clouds in the sky. It reminded me of one of those beautiful yet sadistic jigsaw puzzles you get where you could only group things by a few colors, taking forever to solve. We ate our lunches under this gorgeous spectacle and then spent a long time exploring the summit on all of the interweaving foot trails, searching for all of the different color variations of azaleas.
We made our way back down the way we came. When we got back to the car, we proceeded down the mountain on the one-way road. The road was in a little better shape on this side of the mountain. There were several stream crossings we had to make with our car; we weren’t scared to cross through the shallow water, but it reminded me of what you may see occasionally on SUV commercials. When we got on to the main road, we took a right and found ourselves on the Tail of the Dragon on US-129. This dangerous section of windy roads includes 318 curves over 11 miles. Since it is a popular destination for motorcycles that like to live dangerously, we passed several photographers stationed on the side of the road that take pictures all day of all the cars and motorcycles that pass. They sell the photos online for people to buy. The first couple of ones I thought were ridiculous, but then I put up my “heavy metal” hand gesture and rock-out face to the last photographer. When I got back to the hotel, I looked it up online and laughed -the Subaru Outback is not the epitome of a vehicle living on the wild side.
- Distance – 9.5 miles (includes distance to the bald, and a half mile of walking the network of trails on the bald)
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The climbing on this trail is relentless and moderate to strenuous.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was smooth, uncomplicated dirt.
- Views – 5. Gorgeous and made even moreso by the blooming azaleas.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There were a couple very low streams that were usable as water sources, but not scenic.
- Wildlife – 4.5. We saw a timber rattlesnake and the couple right ahead of us crossed paths with a black bear!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is easy to follow and the one junction is well-marked
- Solitude – 2. The trail is one of the park’s most popular.
Directions to trailhead: Do not attempt to access this trailhead without an AWD vehicle. Parson Branch road is one-way, gravel, and very rough. You will traverse steep inclines, deep potholes, and many small streams in your vehicle. Our Subaru Outback did fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to attempt the drive with less.
From Gatlinburg, TN, take US-441S into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1.6 miles, take a right on to Fighting Creek Gap Road. Stay straight until you reach Cades Cove as Fighting Creek Gap Road becomes Little River Gorge Road, Laurel Creek Road, and Cades Cove Loop Road over the next 30 miles. Once you enter Cades Cove and pass the visiting station, stay on the loop road for 5.6 miles. Then turn right on to Forge Creek Road. In 2.1 miles, turn right on to Parson Branch Road (this road is closed November-March). Continue up the one-way Parson Branch road for about 3.5 miles until you reach the small parking lot on the right. The trailhead is across the road. The parking lot only has room for a couple of cars, so you may need to park on the side of the road during weekends or the summer.
We’re back in the Smokies region for the next three hikes! Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park. It’s also one of the most popular – despite the fact that the hike is a strenuous 8-miler!
Our May vacation plans fell through due to a sick pet, but we were fortunate enough to slip away on a last-minute four day trip to the Smokies in mid-June. When we vacation, we tend to go hard. We try to pack in as much as we can during every waking moment of the day. While it may not be as relaxing as some people like on vacation, we feel we want as many experiences as possible. We like to tell each other that we can be tired and act like zombies at work for the first day back, so we stay “on the go” during vacation. So, to maximize our time, we woke up around 4:30 a.m., packed up the car, and headed out to the Smokies. When we got to the trailhead, it was a little after noon and the temperature and humidity made it feel like over 100 degrees. We typically like to start hiking (especially in the warmer months) early in the morning before you can feel the height of the day’s heat. This time, we were stuck with it. The small parking lot for the trail was packed with cars, so we ended up having to park a little down the road. So, we quickly got on the trail and pushed on. Most of the trail was fairly shady, so not being in direct sunlight helped.
The trail starts on a wide gravel fire road which made for easy footing. One family had ventured out before us when we were trying to find parking. We saw the mother of the family doubling back along the trail, looking for the rubber foot that was lost on one of her children’s trekking poles. When we came upon the rest of the family, it looks like they sent the mom off about a mile to look for it. We felt bad that the mom was spending all of this time searching while the rest of the group was just relaxing. At 1.5 miles, you reach an area that comes to edge of the stream. To the left, the trail goes through a deep tunnel of rhododendron. It is here the trail begins to climb and the trail becomes narrower.
At 2.1 miles, we reached a long foot log bridge. As I’ve stated before, I hate man-made things when it comes to heights. We had just passed another family on the hike, so I thought I would try to cross before they got there. I got a little ways along, chickened out, and returned to the start of the bridge. I knew it would take me a while to muster the strength to do it and I didn’t want to feel the pressure of judging eyes as I made my way across. I debated internally if I should just wait here and let Christine continue on, but I knew I would regret not making it to the falls. We let two families go by, one boldly taking selfies on the log. After they were out of sight, I decided to give it another try. As you can tell from the picture above, the bridge is only wide enough for an average person’s feet. I’m not sure how far the drop would be if you fell off, but I would guess you would likely break something if you fell. I decided to shuffle my feet side-by-side, while gripping the handrail white-knuckled. During half of the traverse, I could feel the bridge bounce slightly up and down with each step, not easing my comfort-level at all. I finally made it across and double-checked my map. I was hoping there was a loop on this hike, but since this is a straight out-and-back hike, I’d have to face this beast again. I rested on the other side a while, because I felt like I had just burned 2000 calories through the stress and adrenaline used crossing the log.
At 2.6 miles, we came across the three large tulip poplars. The size of these trees was truly impressive! There was a large group of high school JROTC students stopping here, so we decided to take time to appreciate them more on the way back. We continued up the steep trail, which was very tough in this muggy, hot weather. Eventually, at 4.0 miles, we arrived at Ramsey Cascades. The waterfall is probably 90 feet across and plunges down through cascading rocks over 100 feet. The rock outcropping to view the falls was packed with people, but we waited a while and eventually most of them left. This is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the Smokies, so it was worth the sweat and effort (and maybe even crossing that log bridge).
We made our way back fairly quickly since the hike was mostly downhill. We stopped to enjoy the large tulip trees along the way. When I got to the bridge this time, I folded up my trekking poles (which I didn’t do on the way across initially) and immediately went across. I was much quicker this time across, but it still took a toll on me. I rested again, ate some jelly beans to replenish my sapped energy, and continued back. The rest of the trip was easy and we made quick time back to our car.
We cranked up the AC in the car and drove to our hotel in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg was even hotter than the trail, so it was hard to get cooled down for the rest of the day. But, we were so glad we made the trip out to view Ramsey Cascades.
It was a little nuts to hop into the car at five in the morning just so we could pack one more day of hiking into our whirlwind, too-short, almost-completely-unplanned trip to the Smokies. We’ve visited the area for three consecutive years, but there are still so many mountains and streams for us to explore. We love coming back to this area!
The first hike on deck was Ramsey Cascades. It’s one of the park’s most popular and impressive waterfalls, and we’ve wanted to hike it for a while now. We arrived to the area a little before mid-day, so we decided to fuel up with a quick lunch at The Sub Station. It had great reviews on Yelp and it was right along our route. We scarfed down pulled pork sandwiches and then made our way to the Greenbrier section of the Smokies.
Arriving right at noon, the parking lot was already jam-packed with cars, so we had to find a pull off further down the road. As soon as I stepped out of the car, the heat and humidity hit me like a sucker punch. I looked at Adam and said, “We’re not used to this heat… this is going to be a brutal hike!” The area went on to set several heat records during our visit.
The first part of the hike followed an old gravel road. It climbed steadily uphill, but was nicely graded and easy to traverse. We saw lots of rosebay rhododendron starting to bloom along the trail. We also enjoyed the constant sound of running water from the Little Pigeon River.
About a mile and a half in, the gravel road ended and the route became a narrow footpath through the lush green forest. This section of the hike followed alongside the Ramsey Prong which drains down the side of 6621-foot Mt. Guyot – the second tallest mountain in the park. As we walked, I tried to focus on the loveliness of the trail instead of how I was feeling. I was utterly gassed. The heat was getting to me and making me feel weak and lightheaded. I kept drinking water, but it just made the sandwich I’d had for lunch churn in my stomach. Maybe eating had been a bad idea. I kept pushing my physical discomfort to the back of my mind and focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, it just what you have to do!
At 2.1 miles, we reached the narrow log bridge that Adam described so thoroughly. The Smokies are full of these split log bridges, but this was the longest and highest one we’ve seen! I suppose these log bridges keep streams cross-able when water is high (as opposed to a rock hop) and are less expensive than real bridges to build/maintain. I like the way they blend into the natural scenery so nicely.
After crossing the bridge, we soon reached a grove of giant, old growth trees. There are three tulip poplars that you’ll notice immediately. They rise, straight and proud, from the forest floor – all of them dwarfing the other trees around them. They were such impressive trees!
The last mile to the falls was increasingly steep and rocky. We climbed stone steps, crossed another L-shaped log bridge, scrambled over boulders, and stepped over a couple shallow streams before reaching the falls. At first, we could just see it through the woods, but after climbing over one last large boulder, we came to a big clearing.
The falls were so impressive, plunging over 100 feet down the mountainside into a beautiful pool. There were tons of people gathered on the rocks. It was hard to find a place to sit and relax, but we eventually did. Despite warning about treacherous conditions, people were still swimming, wading, and climbing on rocks around the falls. We saw one young teenager come very close to taking a terrible fall onto the rocks. He was lucky that he caught himself at the last minute.
We stayed and enjoyed the falls for quite a while. This gave me a chance to cool off and eat a little sugary snack. That definitely made me feel better and helped my dizziness and fatigue. Eventually, the crowd thinned and we had the falls to ourselves. Or I should say mostly to ourselves with the exception of bees! I don’t know why it is, but there are massive numbers of bees living in hives around the falls. There are hundreds of them and they’re constantly buzzing around. Fortunately, they’re not aggressive and seemed happy to share the falls. Just be careful about sitting or putting your hands down. I’m sure they’d sting if someone tried to squish them!
After taking a bunch more photos, we made our way back down the trail. The downhill hiking went really quickly. Adam crossed the scary log bridge boldly on the return trip. We were back at the parking lot in half the time it took us to climb up!
Before we got in the car, I was very tempted to jump into the Little Pigeon River. The spot where we parked was right next to a deep, cool swimming hole. Adam told me it was a bad idea and that I’d be soaking wet in the car – so phooey – I passed on my chance to plunge in!
We had a short drive into Gatlinburg from the hike. Because we didn’t plan ahead for this trip, our choices for lodging were fairly limited – but we picked a winner. We ended up stayed at the Mountain House Motor Inn. It was clean and comfortable, with a super-strong air conditioner. It was also located within walking distance of all the downtown restaurants and shops.
We checked in, showered, and headed out for a great dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery! What a great first day of this mini vacation.
- Distance – 8 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2240 ft.
- Difficulty – 4.5. The trail starts off fairly easy and gradual, but becomes steeper and rockier after the first 1.5 miles. The last few tenths of a mile to the falls are a scramble over boulders.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail is rocky in places. There is also a long, narrow log bridge that might intimidate some hikers. It crosses a chasm over a stream and feels precipitous to anyone afraid of heights.
- Views – 0. No views here – it’s all about the stream scenery!
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. The stream is beautiful and Ramsey Cascades is one of the park’s prettiest waterfalls.
- Wildlife – 0. There were so many people on the trail we didn’t see any animals.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is simple to follow. There aren’t any turns or junctions.
- Solitude – 1. The trail is one of the park’s most popular.
Directions to trailhead: From Gatlinburg, TN, take US-321 N/East Parkway for about 5.5 miles. Turn right onto Greenbriar Road. Follow this for 3.1 miles before turning left onto Ramsey Prong Road. Go 1.5 miles and you should reach the parking lot for the trailhead. The trailhead starts at the end of the parking area.
This 10.2 mile hike in the George Washington National Forest has nice views of Strasburg. It also has rocks – lots and lots of pointy rocks.
Picking day hikes is getting challenging for us – we’ve done most of the popular ones in the area. Yet, somehow, Signal Knob had repeatedly escaped our notice. We figured a pleasant Sunday in early June was a perfect day to tackle something new!
We started our day early with a big breakfast in Harrisonburg. Then we stopped for donuts at Holy Moly in Strasburg. We decided to save the donuts for post-hike, but Holy Moly is so popular (especially on the weekend) that we didn’t want to take the risk of them selling out.
Parking at the Signal Knob trailhead is abundant and completely off-road. When we arrived there was a small handful of other cars there. We started out from the trail on the north side of the parking area – look for orange blazes (Massanutten Trail) and a GWNF information board. The trail climbed steadily right away. We passed a really neat stone cottage right along the trail very early in our hike. It was in great condition and still looked in-use. Right after the cottage, we stepped over a small stream and continued uphill. The lower parts of the trail were lined with wild roses and sweetpeas. As we climbed higher, mountain laurel became abundant. The trail was openly exposed to the sun and offered some nice views along the way.
At 1.5 miles, we reached an opening in the trees which gave a backlit view of Buzzard Rocks on the other side of the valley. I can’t look at Buzzard Rocks without recalling the horrible ankle sprain I suffered there several years ago! We chatted with an older gentleman at the overlook – he warned us that the trail was about to get rocky! He wasn’t kidding! For the next 1.25 miles, the trail was a loose jumble of pointy, shifting rock.
At about 2.5 miles, we passed the marked Fort Valley Overlook. The view was mostly overgrown, but I can imagine it lovely when the trees were smaller! Gradually the rockiness tapered off; and so did the climbing. The trail became a pleasant stroll through the woods. We passed several nice campsites and passed the junction of the Meneka Peak trail at about 3.5 miles. The last .8 of a mile to Signal Knob was ever-so-slightly downhill.
When we reached the WVPT building, we thought the open vista behind the building might be the view. We chatted with a pair of hikers there and asked ‘Is this the only view up here?’ Both of them said ‘Yes… it’s the only view we’ve ever seen and we’ve hiked here lots of times.’ We took them at their word and felt a little underwhelmed by the view – it was obstructed by powerlines and disrupted by a steady buzz from the broadcast tower. Not wanting to doubt them directly, I whispered to Adam ‘This can’t be it… there’s no view of Strasburg and there’s supposed to be one!’ We decided to explore further before hiking down the fireroad. I’m glad we did!
Leaving the WVPT tower, do not follow the fire road downhill. Go past the tower and look for a trail than runs parallel to the ridge. If you follow it a short distance, you’ll come to a marked overlook – Signal Knob. We spent some time at the knob relaxing and enjoying a bit of breeze. Signal Knob is a nice overlook, but not a spectacular one. It’s a bit closed in and overgrown. And, if I’m being 100% honest, looking down into Strasburg with its housing developments, water towers, and roads just isn’t as breathtaking as looking out into raw wilderness. I did also enjoy our ‘company’ at the summit – for whatever reason, Signal Knob was hopping with toads. We saw dozens of them! I’ve never seen so many together!
After enjoying the view, we followed the trail slightly downhill past the overlook. A trail marker directed us toward the Tuscarora Trail. We soon merged onto the fire road we had seen near the broadcast tower. We followed it downhill for almost a mile before reaching another trail junction.
The turn onto the Tuscarora trail is marked with another national forest information board. There is also a nice bench at the junction – probably an Eagle Scout project! Turning onto the Tuscarora Trail, you’ll immediately cross Little Passage Creek. It was a very easy rock hop. From there the trail climbs uphill for a little less than a mile. This section was a bit steeper than what was required to reach Signal Knob, but still squarely moderate.
Along the ridge, we passed the other side of the Meneka Peak trail. Looking at how these trails interconnect is interesting and definitely opens up some longer loop options. At about 6.4 miles, the trail passed through a small grassy area and began to descend steadily. There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the rest of the hike. It was just a walk through the woods. We saw a big bird’s nest of some sort. We saw tons of ripening blueberries. We passed some boy scouts on a weekend backpacking trip. We passed the pink blazed Sidewinder trail at 8.1 miles. We crossed a stream. At around 9.5 miles we passed a spur trail to Elizabeth Furnace. At this point the blazes went back to orange.
We found this part of the hike a bit confusing. Our maps and GPS disagreed on distances for waypoints late in the hike. There was also a lot of trail construction and rerouting going on. New paths were cut into the woods all over the place. Fortunately they all went in the same general direction. We tried to follow the most established paths. A little over a half mile past our last trail marker, we spotted a parking lot through the trees. Adam thought it was a different one from where we started, but our MapMyHike app indicated we made a full loop and we popped out on the south side of the lot where we had started our hike several hours earlier.
The day had become hot, humid, and overcast, so we were glad to be back at the car! We shared just one of the donuts (Peach Bellini!) so we could save room for a big lunch at Spelunker’s in Front Royal. On the way to lunch, we talked about the hike a bit. We both agreed that it wasn’t one of our favorites. I think it’s popular because of its vicinity to northern Virginia, but of the knobs in the Massanutten/Fort Valley area – I like Strickler and Duncan quite a bit more!
We have had many people recommend Strickler Knob to us over the years. Knowing of its popularity, we thought it would be a good idea to get an early start. When we arrived, there were not many cars there, but from the size of the parking lot we knew it was a matter of time.
We started out on the north (right) side of the parking lot. The orange-blazed Massanutten trail started off our loop hike. The trail starts uphill and soon passes a large stone cabin on the left, while you can see a stream below to the right. You cross over the stream and then loop back in a northerly direction. At 1.5 miles, we reached Buzzard Rocks overlook. We talked there to an older man who was out for some morning exercise. He warned us of about a mile of pointy rocks ahead. Since he was hiking solo, he told us he doesn’t want to risk hurting himself and just goes to this overlook and back.
The trail takes a sharp left turn and then within a few minutes, we found the rocky area we had been warned about. Wear comfortable shoes, as the rocks were pointy and you always had to look at your feet to navigate through safe footing.
At 2.4 miles, we arrived at the sign for the Fort Valley overlook. The trees and leaves have this very obstructed now, but you can get a glimpse of the valley below. At 3.4 miles, we arrived at the junction with the white-blazed Maneka Peak trail, but continue on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. The trail leveled out at this point, giving us a nice forest walk until we reached the broadcast tower at 4.3 miles. We walked behind the building on a small path and saw nice views on the backside of the tower. We were feeling disappointed when the two girls had said this was the view. My idea of views doesn’t include power lines cutting through the landscape. There were lots of bugs flying around us, so we didn’t stay here long.
We pushed on from the tower and saw that there was a huge fire road leading down, but the trail blazes seemed to continue forward back into the woods. We decided to take this route and then within a short distance came to the real view. We both felt bad that these girls, who had been up here several times, had always missed the real view up here. The view here did give us nice views of Strasburg below. I noticed that one of the rocks had a plaque below it that was put in here for a couple that loved coming up here.
The trail then loops back and does join the fire road very shortly. We walked down the steep fire road and came upon another hiker who had just hiked up the fire road to the summit. The fire road was a fairly steep descent and had nice wildflowers along both sides. At 5.5 miles, we came across a bench and a junction with the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail. We took this trail to start our return trip. The Tuscarora Trail was more overgrown and the climb up Meneka Peak was the steepest climb on this hike. We were finally finished with the uphill at 6.4 miles and then the trail descends on the other side of the ridgeline just as steeply.
The trail descends for a good distance. At 8.1 miles, we passed by the pink-blazed Sidewinder trail and the trail leveled out a little more. We continued on and the trail became orange-blazed again at 9.5 miles. We followed the orange-blazed trail through the tricky section mentioned above and then arrived back at a lower section of the parking lot at 10.2 miles.
Overall, I was underwhelmed on this hike. The views were nice, but I have seen a lot better view hikes. I can imagine that in a few years, the trees and bushes may obstruct the main view even further.
Because of the inner-connectivity of all the trails in this area, there are many options for backpacking loops through this trail system. The loop that we chose didn’t have a lot to offer after the summit. If I was doing this again, I would likely do just an out-and-back hike to the summit, making this an 8.6 hike.
- Distance – 10.2 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2159 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. The climbing on this trail is all easy to moderate, but the distance and loose/rocky footing increase the difficulty rating.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The trail is rocky and shifty – especially the middle part.
- Views – 3. There are descent views from Signal Knob and the WVPT broadcast facility. While other reviews give the vistas on this hike top marks, we thought they were just OK. The WVPT view had powerlines and the Signal Knob view is starting to get a bit overgrown and looks out toward an suburban area.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There were a couple small streams that could be used as water sources. We believe they dry out pretty quickly based on the fact that they were already on the low side after a week of rainy days.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw lots of cute toads hopping around, and supposedly this is a good place for a potential bear sighting.
- Ease to Navigate – 2.5. The blazing in this area is very thorough, but trail junctions are inconsistently marked. As of June 2015, it appears the forest service is working on a reroute of the last .5-.75 miles of the hike. There are lots of unmarked trails that criss-cross the established, blazed trail.
- Solitude – 3. We saw a good number of couples and solo hikers out for a day hike. We also saw a group of college students and a boy scout troop out backpacking.
Directions to trailhead: From I-66, take exit 6 for US-340/US-522 for Front Royal/Winchester. Turn on to US-340S/US-522S/Winchester Road. Go 1.2 miles and take a right on to VA-55W/W Strasburg Road. Go 5.1 miles and take a left on to State Route 678/Fort Valley Road. Go 3.4 miles until you reach the large parking lot on the right. Park here. The trail starts on the right side of the lot. You will see the wooden information board that will mark the beginning of your hike.
This 28.6 mile Appalachian Trail section is one of the toughest northbound sections in Virginia – you climb, and then you climb some more. The first nine miles are essentially ‘green tunnel’. The middle section has several great views. And, the last part is an easy downhill coast to the James River. We did this section over two nights – Adam will cover days one and three, and Christine will do day two.
Day One (8.7 miles)…
We started off our day by driving to the James River footbridge parking lot. I had arranged a shuttle to pick us up at 10 a.m. and then drop us off at our starting point at Jennings Creek. We enjoyed some breakfast at Cracker Barrel, but still arrived at the parking lot around 9:30 that morning. There were a few people in the parking lot that were getting ready to start hikes or taking breaks. One guy was hiking southbound to Roanoke and said he was looking for a ride to Glasgow so he could buy batteries to charge his phone. I found some extra batteries for my GPS, so I handed them over to him and told him I hoped it got him a little closer to Roanoke.
As 10 a.m. came and went, I got a little nervous that our ride might not show. I had some hope when a car pulled in to let off some thru-hikers, but it turned out not to be our ride. by 10:20 a.m., I thought we needed to see if we could figure out what was going on. There is absolutely no phone signal at the footbridge, so Christine waited in the lot while I drove until I could get a signal to make the call for the shuttle driver. I ended up having to drive for several miles before I got one bar and ended up having to leave a message. I turned around to get back to the parking lot and when I arrived, there was the shuttle driver with Christine. Whew! We loaded up our stuff and got on the road. Turns out, he had written down 10:30 for the trip. We were just glad we didn’t have to hitchhike or beg someone else to take us.
Our shuttle driver, Ken, was retired and spends most of his time during the spring, summer, and early fall taking care of AT hikers. He helps shuttle people where they need to go and picks up packages for AT thru-hikers to deliver to them. After talking with on the ride to our start point, we could tell that he is one of those true Trail Angels that just makes hiking the AT a bit easier for everyone.
It was probably about 11:15 when we finally started our hike. The Jennings Creek area had lots of parking and it was a nice place to pick up the trail. We headed northbound on the white-blazed AT, which started with a steep climb from the road. After 1.6 miles, we had climbed 1000 feet and reached the top of Fork Mountain. The trail then descends about 800 feet and we reached another stream past a powerline at 2.8 miles. The trail continues along the stream for a while, giving you a great water source if you need it. At 3.8 miles, we reached the Bryant Ridge shelter, which was a great spot to eat lunch. We joined a couple of thru-hikers (one from Germany) at the shelter, who were eating a quick snack and filling up water from the stream. The Bryant Ridge shelter was one of the nicer shelters and even had a high loft and a window that let in some nice sunlight.
After fueling up here, we had a big climb ahead of us. From the shelter, the trail climbs up and up. At 6.9 miles, we had climbed about 2000 feet from the shelter and reached a sign noting a small sidetrail on the left to a campsite. We continued our climb and at 8.1 miles, reached the top of Floyd Mountain. The trail from here began to descend and we reached the sign that pointed to Cornelius Creek Shelter at 8.7 miles. This day there was nothing exceptional to see on the trail, but we were at least glad to be settling in at camp.
When we arrived at the shelter, we noticed the thru-hikers we had seen at the Bryant Ridge shelter were setting up in the shelter. The trail behind the shelter that led to the privy had lots of campsites, but some of those were already taken. It was only 4 p.m., but we felt we needed to stake our claim quickly so we set up camp in one of the remaining spots behind the shelter. Within minutes, we already had others setting up other tents nearby. We knew this was going to be a crowded night. After we set up our tents, I went to go get water by the stream near the shelter. There was a pileated woodpecker climbing up a tree just a few feet away from me. I enjoyed having this moment with this often-skittish bird. The woodpecker eventually flew off and I was joined by someone also filling water. It turned out he was a JMU student who worked at our rec center and we had some mutual acquaintances.
When we got back to our campsite, we began to make dinner, read books, and started a small campfire. Right around dusk, a large group of boy scouts arrived and there wasn’t much room. The only place left around was right near us; we were worried how they would keep us up but they were very respectful and kept it relatively quiet. As we overheard them talk, we heard they had a rough day. They had driven up and got lost somewhere on the trail and while they had parked just half a mile away from the road, they had walked for miles trying to find this shelter. They had rushed to set up camp and start to cook their dinner in the dark. One scout named Max was hungry when they arrived and asked what they had for appetizers. We got a laugh when we heard the scout leader tell him he could have a handful of unsalted nuts. I guess Max learned that the backcountry isn’t Applebee’s. After the fire faded, we crawled into our tent and drifted off to sleep.
Day Two (12.2 miles)…
Sunlight started filtering into our tent a little before 6:00 a.m. I unzipped my sleeping bag, stretched my legs, and changed from my camp clothes back into my hiking clothes. While Adam worked on packing up the tent and our sleeping gear, I made breakfast. Typically, we eat oatmeal, a honeybun, and some cheese. The goal for breakfast is always to eat lots of calories so we can hike for a while before needing a snack. On this trip, we swapped out the oatmeal for granola with Nido. Nido is a full-fat, enriched powdered milk found in most grocery stores’ Latino section. The Nido was fantastic – creamy, rich, and delicious with our maple-pecan granola.
After breakfast we were all geared up – backpacks on and ready to hike out – when suddenly I felt water running down the backs of my legs. Crap! At first I thought I had squished my Camelbak hose open, but it turned out to be a bit more serious. Even though the ‘locked’ arrows on my Camelbak lid were properly aligned, I guess the threads were still uneven. As soon as the gear inside my pack pressed against the reservoir, water started leaking out. All in all, a little over a liter of water gushed out into the bottom of my pack.
Adam took my Camelbak and the filter back down to the spring and refilled it while I worked on drying the spilled water. My pillow, sleeping pad, and sheet were all pretty wet, but I was most concerned about my sleeping bag. It was in a water-resistant compression sack. It felt wet on the outside, but I didn’t want to take the time to unpack it to check the inside. I guess my fate would be determined at camp that night! Within 10 minutes of the spill we were back on the trail.
I was pretty grouchy about all the wet gear, so I walked quietly behind Adam ruminating on the impending case of hypothermia I would probably get from sleeping in wet down. After a mile, we reached our first view of the day – a gorgeous vista from Black Rock Overlook. The view is located on a spur trail a couple hundred feet off the AT. After enjoying the mountainous view and taking a few photos, we headed down the trail. The going was pretty gentle for a while. We passed junctions with the Cornelius Creek and Apple Orchard Falls trails. We hiked to the falls and along Cornelius Creek earlier in the spring. It’s a great dayhike in this area.
After passing the junction with the Apple Orchard Fall Trail, we soon reached a gravel road at Parkers Gap. A flight of wooden stairs led uphill from the road. At the top of the stairs, we found two coolers of ‘trail magic’ for thru-hikers. One cooler had ice and bottled water and the other had a variety of snacks – fruit, cookies, and candy. We left the treats behind and began the tough 1.5 mile climb to the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain. On the open, grassy summit of Apple Orchard, we enjoyed more excellent views and a snack. We were even joined by a small garter snake trying to warm in the sun. The FAA radar dome sitting atop the summit is huge and plastered with NO TRESPASSING signs.
About a third of a mile north of Apple Orchard, we passed under The Guillotine – a round boulder perfectly balanced and wedged between two rock faces. Pretty neat! The trail went through a short and steep rocky section before reaching a pretty, sunny meadow. About a mile after the meadow, we popped out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We crossed the road and picked up white blazes again. We enjoyed pleasant, easy trail for another third of a mile to the Thunder Hill Shelter. We stopped in to rest and check out the shelter log. After leaving the shelter, the trail continued gently along. It was one of the prettiest parts of our hike – so many wildflowers! My favorite bloom to spot was a large patch of yellow lady’s slippers covering a hillside. They’re not as common as the pink ones, so it was a real treat to see so many at once. About 1.5 miles past the shelter, we reached the Thunder Ridge Overlook and decided it was a great spot to stop for lunch. Nearly 7 miles of hiking had burned off my breakfast and I was ravenous.
The viewpoint had a constructed stone platform and a superb view! Across the valley, we could even see the huge talus slope of the Devils Marbleyard – another popular dayhike in the area. We got out our Alite chairs and food bags and settled in for a nice long break. I had cashews, dried pineapple, a big handful of Sour Patch kids, and an asiago cheese bagel filled with cheddar cheese slices. I felt so re-energized after I ate! By this time, I had ceased thinking about wet gear and hypothermia and was just really enjoying my day. While we were eating lunch, clouds moved in and a breeze picked up. We ended up moving on sooner than planned because I actually got sort of chilled. Before we hiked on, we made a quick detour up to the parkway so we could throw all our garbage away in a real trashcan instead of continuing to carry it with us. When you’re backpacking, always take advantage of trash cans!
The next 3.3 miles covered a huge descent with only a few tiny bumps of climbing. It was fast going and we reached Pettites Gap around 2:00 p.m. We knew we had one short but difficult climb ahead of us before reaching camp, so we took our packs off, leaned back against a huge old tree, and ate another snack. We knew the last climb would feel pretty brutal – and it did not fall short of that expectation!
High Cock Knob was beautiful – covered with blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. But it was extremely steep and rocky. It also had a false summit! We got to the top of a tough climb and started descending and thought ‘Yay… we’re done!!!’, only to have an even steeper ascent staring us in the face a few hundred yards later.
The climb down High Cock was equally steep – covered with loose, treacherous rocks. Several southbound hikers passed us coming the opposite direction. All of them asked ‘How much more climbing!?’ On the way down, Adam had an awful allergy attack. His throat almost closed and he had a difficult time catching his breath. It was pretty scary and he says he really doesn’t remember the last half mile of hiking. Fortunately, it mostly passed and his breathing eased.
Arriving at Marble Spring was like reaching an oasis in a desert! The large grassy campsite had a huge fire pit with log seats, a spring-fed water source, and plenty of room for multiple tents. We chose a secluded tent site uphill from the fire pit. I hung my sleeping bag on a branch to dry – it was a bit damp around the feet. Everything else dried out over the course of the day in my pack. Hooray – hypothermia was no longer an issue. We collected water. I napped in the tent while Adam read a book outside. Being at camp is the best! Around 6:00, I came out of the tent, ready to eat – again! Dinner was lasagna with extra cheese and mocha pudding for dessert.
When we first got to camp, we were alone. But, over the course of the afternoon, a group of four West Point grads out for the weekend and two thru-hikers arrived. Compared to the dozens of people camped the night before at Cornelius Creek, sharing a large campsite with six people felt really quiet and solitary. One of thru-hikers climbed into his tent long before sundown and never came back out. Everyone else (us, a thru-hiker named ‘Captain K’, and the four West Pointers) shared a campfire and conversation. It was interesting to hear everyone’s assessment of the trail that day. It was universally agreed that High Cock Knob was a tough way to end the day! While we sat around the fire, a whitetail deer circled us like a vulture for over an hour. Weird – maybe she wanted to the grassy area to graze? Eventually, the sun slipped behind the mountains, we ran out of firewood, and everyone headed off to their tents for the night. It was a long, hard day of hiking, but it had been full of beautiful views, colorful wildflowers, and blooming trees. One more day to go!
Day Three (7.7 miles)…
We were woken up a little earlier than normal by the sound of a fox screaming and then an incessant whippoorwill that sang for about an hour straight at the first glimpse of sunlight. We started off our third day with an earlier start than the previous day (also thanks to no leaking water bladders) and made our way from the Marble Spring campsite heading north again on the Appalachian Trail. Captain K also was getting ready for his day of hiking and was hoping to get to town to get his resupply package. We told him we would give him a ride to town if he was still at the parking lot.
Day two had been a tough, long day on the trail, so I was wondering if I had enough energy for the third day. I was surprised to find that Day three was much easier. A lot of that was because it was mostly downhill, but my muscles felt surprisingly ready to tackle the day. Our moods were also boosted by how pretty the trail was. While yesterday was a day filled with tons of rhododendron, today seemed to want to match it equally with mountain laurel along the trail.
The trail started off with a flat section. At .5 miles, we reached a junction with the south side of the Sulphur Spring Trail. At 2.3 miles, we reached the junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and at 2.8 miles, we reached the junction with the north side of the Sulphur Spring Trail (the Gunter Ridge trail is part of the Devils Marbleyard loop). The trail begins to descend more steeply at this point and we reached Big Cove Branch at 3.6 miles. The trail continues to descend until you reach Matts Creek Shelter at 5.5 miles.
The Matts Creek Shelter was fairly run down and from reading the entries in the trail log, the privy was scary as well. We ate a quick snack here, but quickly moved on. At 6.3 miles, the trail ran parallel to the James River, at time providing glimpses of this impressive river. We started to see people kayaking in the river, people going out for a quick stroll on the AT, and a couple of trail runners. We knew we were getting close to the end of our trip. At 7.5 miles, we reached the James River footbridge. At the footbridge was a family that had backpacked with a couple of kids. One of the kids (about 11 in my approximation) had asked us how far we went and we told him. He was impressed, since he had backpacked from Petites Gap (about a 10 mile trip). I told him that I thought he could do it one day, since he still had a smile on his face after backpacking 10 miles. I told Christine I think we just witnessed a kid that just found his love for backpacking. We crossed the James River footbridge and made our way back to the car.
When we got to the parking lot, Captain K was there. He said he had arranged someone to pick him up, so he was going to wait there for his ride. Before we had left, we had filled up a cooler with ice, put in a few drinks, and hoped they would be a cool reward for when we were done. I offered him a cold soda, which he gladly took. The day was already getting quite warm, but we were able to escape into our air-conditioned car. We drove to Lexington to eat lunch at Macado’s and then had a few beer samples at Devil’s Backbone to celebrate.
I’m so proud of how far we have come since Backpacking 101. We feel like we now have the confidence and ability to do multi-day trips with heavy packs. Every backpacking trip we go on, there are new challenges, new things to learn, and adventure just around the corner.
- Distance – 28.6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike* [Day One] [Day Two][Day Three])
- Elevation Change – 8100 ft. (Several official sources calculated this elevation total, my less reliable hiking phone app put it closer to 6,000.)
- Difficulty – 5. We are not going to sugar coat it – this was a very tough section with lots of climbing.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was dry and not too rocky. Stream crossings were small, shallow, and easy.
- Views – 4. Views from Black Rock Overlook, Apple Orchard Mountain, and Thunder Ridge were all excellent but none were true 360 degree views. We also enjoyed some nice views through the trees on the descent to the James River.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Matts Creek was lovely. And, of course you have to say something about the James River!
- Wildlife – 4. We saw deer, snakes, and had a whippoorwill and a screaming fox at night two’s camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Follow the white blazes and you practically can’t get lost. The only thing slightly tricky was the big hairpin turn at Marble Spring.
- Solitude – 2. We chose to hike this section on Memorial Day weekend… with perfect weather… during the thru-hiker bubble. While we didn’t see crowds on the trail, camping spots were very crowded.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista. Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s. Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing. To get to starting point for this section: Take a left out of the parking lot and go 5.6 miles on US-501N. Take a left on to VA-130W and go 6.2 miles. VA-130 ends here. Take a left to go on to US-11/Lee Highway heading south and then take the exit for I-81S. Go 1.7 miles and take a right across from the Exxon to stay on US-11S. Go .4 miles and then merge on to I-81S. Go 7 miles and take exit 168 to merge on to VA-614 toward Arcadia. Turn left on to VA-614/Arcadia Rd. Follow this as it becomes Jennings Creek Road. At 4.7 miles, you will reach the parking area and where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Head north to start your hike.
This 11-mile Appalachian Trail stretch had spectacular views of the valley and the James River!
When Adam and I first started hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, we focused on the trail through Shenandoah National Park. The park is close to our home, making it easy for us to bring two cars for a shuttle. We did short sections – most of our day hikes ranged from 6 to 8 miles. We did a couple sections as overnights, covering 10-12 miles total over two days. When we first started, those hikes really challenged me – but they also made me want more!
We’re now traveling further from home to complete sections, so we push to complete bigger miles to make the travel time more worthwhile. We’ve also found friends and businesses to help us shuttle along the way.
We met Lynchburg friends, Dennis and Tina to do this AT section from Punchbowl Mountain down to the James River. We’d never met them in person, but we’d chatted online about hiking and the Appalachian Trail for almost a year. We were really thankful for their good company on this hike!
We met early Saturday morning at the Foot Footbridge across the James River. ‘Foot Footbridge’ isn’t a typo. The bridge is named after hiking enthusiast, Bill Foot, who worked tirelessly (while also fighting cancer) to see that the bridge was built. It’s a beautiful and impressive bridge across the James River, and there is nothing else like it along the Appalachian Trail.
After Adam and I got acquainted with Dennis and Tina in the parking lot, we hopped in our car and made our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway to our start point – the Punchbowl Mountain Overlook. We left off here last fall after completing a 17 mile section from Hog Camp Gap.
The morning began with our only significant climb of the day- about 1400 feet over two miles to the summit of Bluff Mountain. About half a mile into our ascent, we detoured to visit the Punch Bowl Shelter. The shelter is a little bit run down and sits next to a murky, muddy, mosquito-haven of a pond. The shelters to the north and south of Punch Bowl (Brown Mountain Creek and Johns Hollow) are both much nicer places to stay the night.
After our short stop, we continued our climb to the spectacular open top of Bluff Mountain. We were swarmed by no-see-ums and gnats, but we still enjoyed the (almost) 360 views and watching the morning fog burn off the valley. The remains of a fire tower foundation still sit on the summit. Immediately upon leaving the summit, we stopped at the Ottie Cline Powell memorial. The marker tells the sad tale of a little 4-year old boy lost in the mountains in 1891.
From there, we had four miles of gentle downhill or practically flat ridge walking. It was delightful! Wildflowers were blooming like crazy! The woods smelled fresh, green, and earthy. Even though it was a warm, humid day, the cool mountain breezes made for perfect hiking weather. Along the ridge, we passed junctions with a couple trails – Saltlog Gap and Saddle Gap. I’ve heard these trails are pretty overgrown and don’t know much about them. From there, we enjoyed several great views along the ridge. The views far exceeded my expectations for hike, and I really enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the James River. About 7 miles into the hike, we passed the junction with the Little Rocky Row trail, and reached Fuller Rocks – another lovely view point.
After that view, we descended the mountain along 21 switchbacks. At first the descent was pretty steep, but eventually it moderated and entered a stand of enormous old trees. Dennis even took the time to hug a couple of them.
At 9.2 miles, we took the short side trail to visit Johns Hollow Shelter. The camp is located in a peaceful, open spot in the woods. The shelter is typical, but the tent area behind the shelter is especially nice. There was lots of flat, grassy space to pitch
After leaving Johns Hollow, we hiked about another half mile in the woods before crossing a gravel forest road. After the road, we quickly reached Rocky Row Run – a beautiful mountain stream that eventually feeds into the James.
The stream was very scenic and we all enjoyed the sound of the flowing water. There were lots of blooming wildflowers and rhododendron along the creek. We crossed a couple small wooden bridges along the way, before popping out on the side of Route 501. From there, we crossed the highway and returned back to the Foot Bridge and parking area at 10.6 miles (11 if you include mileage from shelter visits).
We all decided to walk across the bridge to check out views of the James! It was a beautiful view – especially looking back to all the distant rocky outcroppings we had stood upon earlier in the day. Standing on the bridge, my mind drifted to the next section south – wondering what it would be like and what challenges and gifts would lie ahead on the trail.
Dennis and Tina – thanks for hiking with us! Can’t wait to meet up again.
This section of the Appalachian Trail was one we had contemplated doing for a while. We have covered now a section of contiguous miles that includes from this point up to Front Royal. It is easier to say, “We have walked from Front Royal to the James River” than to say “We have walked from Front Royal to a place off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of the James River”.
As Christine mentioned, when traveling further away from home the next concern is wondering if we need to bring two cars or figuring out if we can get someone to help us shuttle. It can be hard to find some friends that want to go trekking in the woods for over 10 miles. So, we were very glad to meet Dennis and Tina. They have done this section a number of times before but were willing to do it again with us.
This section was a surprise to us. We hadn’t seen enough nice pictures from these overlooks to know if it would be worthwhile to check. But, we hiked on a very clear day that made the scenery gorgeous.
After meeting up, we drove to our starting point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We met a few guys in the parking lot that were doing a multi-day backpack as well. We crossed the parkway and headed up the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading southbound. The beginning of the trail started a steep ascent. It was already a warm, muggy day, so with the extra work of going uphill I got sweaty very early in the hike. In .4 miles, we reached the side trail to the Punchbowl Shelter. The side trail was mostly downhill to the shelter. When we arrived, there was nobody staying there. The shelter is in a nice shady spot, but we could tell the insects were swarming near the pond. We checked out the trail log in the shelter and then made our way back up to the Appalachian Trail.
The trail continues to be mostly a steep climb until you reach the top of Bluff Mountain at 2.0 miles. There were great views to the west from the trail. The bugs were relentless (at least to me) from this open area, so while I would have liked to stay up there longer, I wanted to quickly get back into the woods and away from the bugs. We saw a brilliant indigo bunting flying around the treetops from the overlook. As soon as you get out of the clearing and back into the woods, you see the memorial for Ottie Cline Powell on the ground to the left.
The trail then begins a steep, downward descent. At 3.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Saltlog Gap Trail, but stay on the AT. The trail mostly levels out as you walk along a ridge for a while. At 4.6 miles, you reach a junction with the Saddle Gap Trail. Staying on the AT, the trail begins to climb a more gradual ascent until you reach Big Rocky Row at 6.1 miles. The views from this area were my favorite, as you got to see the James River below snaking through the landscape of mountains.
From here, the trail descends and you reach Little Rocky Row at 7.3 miles, also giving you nice views along the way as you walk down the ridge line. The rest of the hike is basically all downhill from this point until you reach the James River. At 9.2 miles, we reached the a short side trail that took a very sharp turn to Johns Hollow Shelter. We checked out this shelter and came across another two section hikers that were enjoying a week along the AT. There was a nearby stream for replenishing water and a privy. After eating a quick snack, we returned to join the AT again.
The trail again was mostly flat or downhill. We crossed the stream at 9.4 miles and then crossed the gravel VA 812 road to continue on the AT. As we were walking along, Dennis started talking about black snakes and within minutes we saw one directly on the trail as if he had summoned it. The forest through this section had many larger trees along the way and then opened up to beautiful rhododendron plants that were aligning the stream on both sides. It was such a serene setting. At 10.3 miles, we reached the Lower Rocky Row Run bridge. We crossed the run and then at 10.6 miles we were back at US 501. We crossed the road which had the trail lead us right to the parking lot where we started.
We already plan to get back together sometime with Dennis and Tina for a backpack trip sometime in the near future. It is always great to find like-minded people to experience the outdoors together!
- Distance – 11 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2062 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. 11 miles is a little on the long side, but after climbing to the summit of Bluff Mountain early in the hike, the rest of the terrain is easy to moderate.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Consistently well-maintained trail. Some parts of the trail are narrow along a steep hillside, but still easily passable.
- Views – 5. Super views from Bluff Mountain, nice views along the ridge, and then amazing views of the James River.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. The final stretch of this hike follows pretty Rocky Row Run, and of course – you end at the James!
- Wildlife – 1. We saw a black snake.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. Just keep following those white blazes south. The trail is easy to follow and well-marked.
- Solitude – 3. We saw a fair number of hikers along the way, including quite a few northbound thru-hikers, but you never feel like the trail is crowded.
Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista. Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s. Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing. To get to your start point: Leaving the parking lot, turn right on to US-501S. Go .8 miles and continue straight to take VA-130 E. Go 2.8 miles and then turn left on to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway and go 9.8 miles until you reach the small parking lot for Punchbowl Mountain where the Appalachian Trail crosses the parkway. Cross the road and you will see the Appalachian Trail marker which has the trail leading uphill.