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.
This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail section had some views and a ton of pleasant ridge walking! We joined up with our friend, Kris, and tackled it on an unseasonably hot spring weekend. Adam will cover day one and Christine will take over with day two!
Day One (12.3 miles)…
This section of the Appalachian Trail had us doing something we had not done before – arranging a shuttle. We have covered most of the AT within an hour or two of where we live using our own two cars to shuttle. But as we hike further from home, self-shuttling has become inconvenient and costly. If you are thinking of covering any sections of the AT, I would strongly recommend picking up the latest version of The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller (often referred as the AWOL Guide). It’s a must-have for planning purposes. Included in the book are elevation profiles, things to see along the trail, road junctions, as well as information on nearby towns, where to find the post office, grocery stores for resupplies, laundromats, hostels, and shuttle providers. This book is updated yearly, so the information provided is very current and helpful. Many thru-hikers carry these books along and they will often rip out pages of the AT once they have covered them, hopefully finishing the trek with nothing more than the binding. I will admit that it felt a little odd to call a number of an individual that I found in a book to find a ride, but these shuttle providers are some of the unsung heroes of the trail, helping to make the logistics of the trip much easier along the way. We worked out a pick up time and agreed on a price.
I arranged for our shuttle driver to meet us at Bears Den. We got there early, so we were able to explore a bit before our shuttle arrived. Bears Den is a hiker hostel, providing showers, lodging, and mail drops for long-distance AT hikers. Day-use hikers pay $3 to park in the lot. Bears Den looked like a stone cottage you would find in Europe. The grounds were kept up nicely and we were excited that this would be the endpoint on the trip. We met up with our shuttle driver, who took us on a scenic, horse-country drive to Harpers Ferry. The shuttle driver used to be the manager of Bears Den, but now just lives nearby. In addition to being a shuttle driver, he’s also a former thru-hiker (as many of these shuttle drivers are – after hiking, shuttling is one way they give back and keep in touch with the AT community.) On the ride, he told us about his favorite parts of the trail, what we would see, and even some tales about other shuttles he had provided. He explained that he had gotten one call in the wee hours of the morning recently to pick up a hiker that had been bitten and sprayed by a rabid skunk. Too say the least, these trail angels really go the extra mile for the hiking community.
We asked to be dropped off at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy & Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, WV. Thru-hikers and section hikers typically stop by the ATC Visitor Center and have a photo taken in front of the building. ATC staffers take a photo, assign you a hiker number, and have you write information about yourself on the border before adding it to a photo album. You can go back years later and check out all the people that have made it this far along the trail. Since this was the section that brought us through Harpers Ferry, it was time for us to have our photo done. Our trail names are “12th Man” (for my love of the Seattle Seahawks) and “Sugar Rush” (for Christine’s love of candy before tackling a big climb). It was fun to finally be officially added to the hiker album.
We had looked in advance and had seen the ATC was having the Flip Flop Kick Off weekend event. The hope was to have the hikers split their trip at this halfway point in WV to keep hikers from clustering together too much. One example would be north-bounders going from Georgia to Maine to stop here at this midway point and then go up to Maine and hike back down to WV. They had a cookout, vendors, games, and wildlife exhibits along the back lawn (throughout the weekend they were hosting pack shakedowns, talks, and bands). When we walked through with our backpacks, we heard a few people getting excited that ‘hikers were coming’. I didn’t have the heart to tell them we were just out for the weekend, but based on how clean and fresh-smelling we were, I’m sure most of them could have guessed we weren’t out for the long haul. We didn’t stay long at the event, since it was getting close to 11AM and we hadn’t even started our hike yet.
One of the volunteers pointed us to a blue-blazed trail that led to the Appalachian Trail. On our way to meet the AT, we walked across the grounds of former Storer College, a historically black college that opened its doors as a school to educate freed slaves. Open for 88 years, Storer’s funding was cut in 1955 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling came in to desegregate public schools. The school was forced to close. The blue blazes continued down a series of steps and before we knew it we were on the Appalachian Trail. We turned right to head south along the trail, heading downhill. The trail came to a quick road crossing and then headed up to the large bridge along US-340 that crosses the Shenandoah River. We walked along the roadside on the bridge with cars whizzing by, but the view off the side of the bridge was breathtaking. This river is dotted with large and small boulders in the rapid-infused river, causing this to be a hotspot for kayakers.
At the end of the bridge, the trail leads down stairs and goes under US-340 to the other side. The trail then begins its steepest climb in this section as you ascend towards Loudoun Heights. At 1.4 miles, you cross over WV 32 and at 2.0 miles, we reached the top of Loudoun Heights and a sign for the VA-WV border. Take a right to stay on the Appalachian Trail. The trail goes downhill and levels out for an easy walk and we had our lunch along the side of the trail. At 4.4 miles, we came to some power lines, which created some open views to the side. The trail begins to climb slowly. At 5.9 miles, we arrived at Keys Gap parking lot and took a short break to fix a blister forming on Kris’ foot. We crossed over WV 9 and continued our slow ascent. At 8.9 miles, we reached the side trail that led to the David Lesser Memorial Shelter. This shelter was a nice stop and there was even a swing to kick our feet up and enjoy a snack. We were tempted to stay here for the evening, but decided to push onward. At 9.4 miles, we reached a small side trail that led uphill a short distance to a view at Buzzard Rocks.
Getting back to the trail and pushing on, we came to the Laurel Springs boardwalk at 10.4 miles. This was a long stretch of planks to walk on, which protects the trail from getting too harmed during wetter times. After the boardwalk, the trail continues to climb. Around 12 miles, there is a small trail to the right which gives you the best views of the day. At 12.1 miles, we reached the junction sign that pointed us to the Blackburn AT Center. As we descended the steep trail, we became worried as we saw lots of tents along the hillside (most belonging to a large group of Boy Scouts), wondering if we would have a place to camp. We found the last open site and set up our camp.
I struggled a lot this day. About four weeks earlier, I had pulled a muscle in my back. My doctor said it could take a few months to heal. I had been taking muscle relaxers and alternating ice and heat on my back for weeks. While I felt I could do this trip, I was dealing with a pinching pain with every step and it hurt even worse whenever I was going uphill. This challenge took a lot out of me and by the end, I had enough and wasn’t enjoying myself. Sometimes you just hit rock bottom.
Kris had told us a story about five miles into the trip about how after an extremely long bike ride how she had gone into a store and drank a soda and how great it tasted. Well, that thought of a refreshing, cold soda lasted with me for the rest of the day. After we set up camp, we walked steeply down to the Blackburn AT Center to get water. We talked to the caretakers, Chris and Sandra, for a while and they pointed out where we could fill up our water from their well. Sandra then went into her kitchen and said, “Can I get you a cold soda?” I can only imagine what my face would have looked like at that moment, but I felt such euphoria. The soda tasted like sweet ambrosia to me and their kindness had fully restored my faith in humanity. The caretakers were so nice to us and great conversationalists. They maintain a lot of the trails throughout this area also. The Blackburn AT Center is definitely a place I would like to visit and possibly stay again.
We made our way back up to our campsite for the evening and cooked our meals. We set up a small fire and talked until it got dark. We retreated to our tents, sleeping under a full moon. It was a tough day, but we made it.
Day Two (8.4 miles)…
I love the feeling of being naturally awoken by the rising sun and sound of singing birds. When morning came on this trip, I peeked out the mesh of our tent door and saw the pinks, purples, and golds of dawn spreading across the valley below our campsite. It was gorgeous! The Boy Scouts camped nearby were starting to stir – lots of muffled voices and tent zippers unzipping.
Adam, Kris, and I were all awake and out of our tents a little before 7:00. I went and got our bear hang down and started deflating my sleeping pad and pillow. We collectively decided to pack everything up and take our stove and food bags down to the Blackburn Trail Center for a civilized breakfast. The picnic table and comfortable seating were more inviting than sitting in the dirt near our fire pit.
Adam had oatmeal and a jumbo honeybun. I had oatmeal, coffee, and cheese sticks. Kris tried a Mountain House egg dish and declared it ‘odd and spongey’ – most of it ended up in the compost pile. After finishing our meal, we said a regretful goodbye to Blackburn. What a great place to camp for a night!
After the short, steep climb from the trail center back to the Appalachian Trail, the first few miles of hiking for the day were pleasant and fairly flat. We made quick progress – enjoying abundant wildflowers and blooming trees. We passed through Wilson Gap before reaching the northern end of the ‘Roller Coaster’ four miles into our hike for the day. The Roller Coaster is 13.5 miles of steep, closely-spaced, rocky ups and downs. (we just did the northern portion of the roller coaster on this section… more to come on our next section south.)
A little over a half mile into the Roller Coaster we reached the spectacular viewpoint of Raven Rocks. There were already plenty of dayhikers enjoying the view, but we found our own little spot to rest. We all took our packs off and reclined on the rocks. It was a beautiful spot with panoramic views. We were lucky enough to visit when the native Pinxter azaleas were in bloom.
After leaving Raven Rocks, we had a steep rocky descent that led to a shallow stream crossing. After the stream, there was another steep climb and another steep descent to another shallow stream. I guess it’s called a roller coaster for good reason! Ups and downs, followed by mores ups and downs. By the time we got to this part of the trail, the day had already become fairly hot and humid, and we all felt pretty tired on the climbs. It’s always a little surprising how much tougher climbing can be in the direct sun and heat with a large pack. The oddest part of this section was all the blood we saw on the trail. For about 2-3 miles there were fresh droplets of blood on the ground every 5-6 feet. I guess someone really had a bad day on the roller coaster!
At about 7.5 miles into our hike we descended to Snickers Gap. We stepped out of the woods onto busy Route 7. Cars were flying by at 55-65 mph. We had to cross the road and then walk up the shoulder of the road until reaching the trail again. When your legs are fatigued, it’s hard to run fast across a four lane highway. It was like Frogger with backpacks!
On the other side of Route 7 was our last climb of the day! We walked uphill for another .6 miles to the rocky outcropping of Bears Den Rocks. We spent some time relaxing and enjoying the view before walking a few more tenths of a mile to the Bears Den hostel where we had left our car parked. We posed for a group victory photo in front of the hostel, took off our boots and packs, and sunk into the wonderful air-conditioning of the vehicle.
We were all starving, so we stopped for a quick lunch at the Horseshoe Curve Restaurant right out on Route 7. The restaurant had been advertised in our AWOL Guide and on the back of the trail information kiosk at the road crossing, so we decided to give it a go. Sandwiches, french fries, and cold drinks definitely hit the spot! Even though we were all filthy and tired, we also decided to make a stop at Veramar Vineyard to share some wine and toast our hike. We got a bottle of their Seyval Blanc and found a few Adirondack chairs with a view of the ridge we had just traversed.
It was a great weekend for our first backpacking trip of the season. Honestly, the more I backpack, the more I WANT to backpack! I love being out on the trail!
- Distance – 20.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
- Elevation Change – 3882 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. The distance makes this tough, but overall is manageable.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape. We only came across one tree blowdown the entire trip.
- Views – 3. The best views of the trip were from Bears Den rocks at the end of the trip.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There wasn’t any streams and only one reliable water source on the first day (at the Blackburn AT Center). The second day, there were several streams through the area of the Roller Coaster.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see much wildlife on this section. There were lots of pretty songbirds at the Blackburn AT Center.
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. Pay attention to signs for the AT. It should be fairly easy to follow.
- Solitude – 2. We saw a good number of people throughout the trail, but most were where you would have expected them – the shelters, hiking a short distance from Harpers Ferry, and at Bears Den Rocks. We also saw several trail runners on the Roller Coaster.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: To get to Bears Den to leave one car, from I-81, take exit 315 for VA-7 E toward Berryville. Turn left on VA-7 E and go 17 miles. Turn right on State Route 601 and go .4 miles. A sign shows you are entering Bears Den. Go to the second parking lot and leave a car there. Be sure to pay for your day-use fee.
For the second vehicle: Head out of Bears Den and turn left on State Route 601. In .4 miles, take a left on VA-7 W. In about 4 miles, take a right on to State Route 612/Shepherds Mill Road. Follow this for 4.3 miles until it ends at US 340. Take a right here and continue to follow US 340 N for 14.6 miles through Charles Town and approaching Harpers Ferry. At the Econo Lodge, take a left on to Union Street. Follow that .4 miles and take a right on to Washington Street. Follow that .2 miles to reach the ATC Center. If someone is not dropping you off, you should ask inside where you could leave a car overnight, since there are parking restrictions near the center.
The last time we did a gear review it was 2010 and we were brand new to backpacking! We bought a lot of our gear based on reviews, recommendations, and cheap prices. In the five years since then, we’ve made a lot of changes to what we carry on overnight trips. We’ve both managed to make our loads significantly lighter!
Gear List – The Basics
|Pack: Gregory Z65 (Adam)
This pack has served well, but due to wear-and-tear (including mouse-eaten hipbelt pockets), 2015 will probably be this pack’s last year on the trail. Overall has fit well and does allow for air to get between your back and the pack, which is a great feature to keep you cool.
|Pack: Osprey Aura AG 50 (Christine)
The Z55 I was using is designed for a man and never really fit me properly. I tried an Osprey Viva 65 in 2014. It was a decent pack, but had more capacity than I needed. I also found that the pack’s simple suspension made it ride heavier than what was comfortable. The new Osprey anti-gravity suspension technology is nice and I’ve really been enjoying carrying this pack. Sometimes 50 liters is a tight squeeze, but it forces me to make wise packing choices. The only things I don’t care for are the center-back placement of the water port and the split compartment in the pack lid. The water port is too tight and it’s proximity to the frame makes it hard to shove the drinking hose through the opening. The split compartment lid means the compartments are both smaller. One large compartment would have been better for me personally because I like to stow my snack bag in the pack lid. Sometimes I have a hard time fitting my treats in either of the smaller zippered areas.
|Gregory Z55 (Christine)|
|Tent: Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2
In 2014, we upgraded our tent and saved over 3.5 pounds of pack weight. The Copper Spur is certainly a tight fit for two tall(ish) people, but the saved weight is worth it for more comfortable trail miles. The tent fits compactly inside Adam’s pack and he no longer has to strap our shelter to the outside of his pack. Honestly, we only notice the tightness of the space for a few minutes while we’re falling asleep, but once we’ve drifted off the small quarters are fine.
|Mountain Hardware Drifter 3|
|Sleeping Bag: L.L. Bean Semi-Rectagular Down (Adam)
This used to be Christine’s bag, but we traded so she would stay warmer. I sleep hot, so the trade worked out well for both of us! Easy to get in and out and compresses down nicely in the pack.
|Sleeping Bag: Sierra Designs Tomichi (Christine)
Adam and I traded bags because this one is just a little warmer due to the tighter mummy fit. When I first started out, I didn’t like the snugness of a mummy, but now I do. It’s cozier and I stay warmer. Both of our bags are considered ‘summer bags’, but they’ve always been warm enough for spring/summer/fall in Virginia. We also have silk Cocoon liner for added warmth if needed. When it’s really warm in summer, we both leave sleeping bags home in favor of a Thermarest sheet and tech blanket. We don’t camp when it’s cold, so we don’t own winter bags.
|Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core
We both have and really like this pad. It has served well and we plan on continuing to use them.
|Water Purification: Sawyer Mini
In 2015, we switched to a Sawyer Mini after seeing most thru-hikers favoring them over older style pump filters. We really like it. We bought both 32 and 64 oz pouches. The carry weight is almost nothing. The unit requires no assembly and very little field maintenance. We store the Sawyer in an easily accessible spot in our pack and can quickly filter water at any source we cross. The ease-of-use factor means we’re carrying less water in our packs. The weight savings between 3 liters of water and a liter and a half of water is mind blowing! The only challenge is when there are just standing water sources. Non-flowing water would be a challenge to expand the bag. We also carry Aquamira as a backup. And yes… Christine is still paranoid about giardia and feels a little creeped out drinking water from random streams and springs in the woods.
|Katadyn Hiker Pro|
|Hydration: Camelbak 3L
We both carry a 3L Camelbak in our pack. Christine usually carries about 1.5 liters of water. Adam carries a bit more. We like having the extra capacity so we can stock up on water if we’re going to be hiking across a dry area. We both also carry an empty, light plastic bottle (like SmartWater). Disposable-type plastic bottles weigh nothing and are handy to have for mixing drink powder into water at camp. We both get tired of plain water and like having a bottle to mix lemonade or Gatorade powder for a flavored drink with dinner.
|Nalgene bottles and Camelbaks|
We like our JetBoil. It’s compact, boils water quickly, and is easy to use. We don’t ‘cook’ at camp. Everything we eat simply requires the addition of boiling water, so we like the simplicity of this all-in-one system over a separate cookpot and stove.
Other Bits & Pieces
- Trail Comfort: Trekking Poles. We are both still using the same trekking poles we had in 2010. Neither of us can imagine ever hiking without them. They take so much strain off your knees and make it easier to balance with a pack on uneven terrain.
- Camp Comfort: Crocs. Yes, they are still dorky, but you can’t beat their weight or comfort around camp (as long as you wear them with socks).
- Camp Comfort: Headlamps. We both have good quality (Petzl/Black Diamond) headlamps.
- Safety: Downsized First Aid Kit. We used to carry a large, fully-stocked first aid kit — just in case. It was quite heavy and essentially had larger quantities of the items in a smaller kit. Now we carry a small kit with bandages, gauze, blister care, painkillers, antihistamines, anti-bacterial wipes/ointment, cortisone cream, anti-diarrheal, tweezers, and duct tape. It fits in a small case about the size of a hand and covers all the basics and necessities. It’s a calculated risk to not have splints, large ace bandages, scissors, safety pins, and a manual – but it saves a pound of pack weight.
- Safety: Dealing with Ticks. We treat our clothes and gear with Sawyer Permethrin throughout spring, summer, and fall. Lyme disease is becoming more prevalent, and permethrin reduces the risk of having ticks attach. We spray our shoes, socks, hiking clothes, and camp/sleep clothes. If we’re going somewhere that’s very dense and brushy, we also use DEET on bare skin.
- GPS Unit: Unnecessary. Adam used to carry a Garmin handheld GPS unit. Now we just carry a compass, printed map of the area/AWOL Guide page, and a smartphone. We used to bring those items in addition to the GPS unit and found it redundant. We use the MapMyHike app on our phone to help with calculating routes and either carry maps or pre-print routes using AllTrails.com.
- Space Saver: Compression Sack. Instead of just a regular stuff sack, we now use Sea to Summit compression sacks for our sleeping bags. It makes them really compact and small. Why did we wait so long to get these?
- Comes in Handy Often: Collapsible Bucket. When water is running low or slow, the Sea to Summit bucket makes it easy to gather a large amount of water at once. We can then take water back to camp for filtering and cooking at our leisure. The bucket is free standing, weighs 2.8 ounces, and holds 10 liters of water.
- Luxury Item We Carry: Alite Monarch chairs. I know that chairs seem like a waste of pack weight and space to some. Yes… the chairs add a little over a pound (1 pound, 5 ounces to be specific) to our load. Many would point out that you can sit on the ground, lean against a tree, or use your pack as a backrest. While all these things may be true, nothing beats being able to be off the ground and semi-reclined with back support after a long day on the trail. Christine went chairless on an overnight earlier this year. She regretted it.
- Luxury Item We Carry: Cocoon Ultralight pillows. A lot of people will use their clothes bag, a jacket, or empty pack for a pillow. We found all of those options to be too slick and lumpy. Cocoon’s pillows pack down smaller than the size of a fist and weigh less than 6 ounces. It’s another luxury item that we find well worth carrying.
- Luxury Item We Carry: Thermarest sheet. It’s just 4 ounces and it makes laying on the sleeping pad a lot more comfortable. You never feel sticky or clammy with the sheet.
This 6-mile hike is jam-packed with spectacular stream scenery and waterfalls – the most impressive being the 200 foot Apple Orchard Falls.
Apple Orchard Falls has been on our ‘must hike’ list for years now, and I’m so glad we finally got out there and did it! It’s a bit of a drive from our home-base of the central Shenandoah valley, but it was well worth the trip! We hiked it on a cool, rainy day in mid-April. We thought we’d have the trail all to ourselves, but as our car bumped along the forest road nearing the parking area, a runner went by. Then three more runners… and then a cluster of ten. Pretty soon we realized that there was some kind of race going on in the vicinity. It turns out we picked the same day as the Promise Land 50K for our hike. We ended up sharing the first half of our six-mile route with 300+ trail runners.
They were all friendly folks, but it was a little stressful to constantly be looking over my shoulder, watching to make sure there wasn’t a racer on my heels, needing to pass. I certainly didn’t want to get in anyone’s way as they cruised toward victory or a personal record! I still enjoyed the gorgeous stream scenery as we ascended alongside North Creek. The sound of the water was soothing. The hillsides along the trail were covered with trillium and purple wild geraniums. The air was filled with a light misty rain and all the trees were unfurling their brilliant spring green leaves. With all these pleasures along the trail, I tried my best not to let the constant stream of passing racers disrupt the zen-like peace.
The trail was in great shape and ascended steadily and moderately uphill. There were several sturdy footbridges across the creek on our hike up. Around 1.3 miles into the hike, the climb became a little steeper and rockier. Right before reaching the base of the falls, we passed through a jumble of huge boulders. At first, we could only see the falls through the trees. They were majestic, but obscured by the foliage. We continued uphill, making a wide switchback before coming to a curved wooden bridge and a viewing platform at the base of the fall’s largest plunge.
Adam set up my tripod and I spent some time photographing the waterfall from a variety of angles. I wish the trees around the falls had been a little more ‘leafed out’. The green would have made an even more attractive frame for the falls, but it was still very nice. I was challenged by the rain – which was beginning to fall at a steadier pace. Droplets kept landing on my lens, and making blurry bubbles on each of my photos. I used a hat as an umbrella as much as I could. While we were enjoying the waterfall, the bulk of the racers passed us by.
After leaving the falls, we climbed the 175 stairs above the falls. About halfway up the stairs, we caught our one open view of the hike – a pretty peek out over a spring green valley. Shortly after the top of the stairs, we passed another small waterfall. There was a nice established campsite near the smaller fall. What a idyllic place to spend a night! In fact, we saw many great campsites all along this loop. I think it would make a great beginner backpacking trip or short gear shakedown route.
About a third of a mile past the small waterfall, we reached Apple Orchard Road, which is a grassy fire road that connects to the Cornelius Creek trail. The racers all continued uphill toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. We turned right and followed the fire road for about a mile to its intersection with the Cornelius Creek Trail. Fire roads are typically sort of dull, but this one was actually quite nice – lush green, curvy, and decorated with wildflowers – more trillium, geraniums, violets, and enormous dense patches of Dutchman’s Breeches.
The Cornelius Creek trail was probably my favorite part of the hike. The racers were off our tail, and I could fully focus on the spring forest and sound of flowing water. The rain was coming down steadily, so my photo opportunities were a bit limited. Hopefully, I captured enough to adequately convey the feel of Cornelius Creek. It was lovely with so many small cascades and swimming holes. The only real challenge on this part of the hike were the two significant stream crossings. The first (pictured at the top of the post) was wide, but not very deep. Our toes got a little wet. But the second was quite deep, wide, and fast-moving. We packed all of our camera gear and electronics away in dry bags and plunged in. Even rock-hopping, the water came halfway up to my knees. The footing was small, shifty, and slick! Thankfully, we made it across without falling completely into the water! The last bit of walking was done with sodden shoes and socks – that squishy feeling is always so weird!
When we got back to the car the first thing I did was take off my soaked shoes and socks and put on flip flops! Then we were off on our way for a well-deserved lunch at Peaks of Otter!
We got up early to hit the road and beat the crowds on this hike. 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.
The trail continues along North Creek for a steady uphill. At 1.2 miles, you reach a couple of bridges and a small creekside campsite. Crossing over the second bridge, the trail becomes steeper uphill. Eventually, you get some views of the falls to the right as you make the climb up. But don’t worry, the trail leads right up to the falls. The climb up to the falls is also very steep. But, as you reach the falls at 2.0 miles, there is a nice bench and platform, inviting you to take your time to enjoy the views. We stayed here for a while and saw a ton of runners pass by. Some of them just took a quick glance, some walked slowly by, but one guy stopped to take a picture. I guess the runners had different levels of competitiveness and different levels of exhaustion at this stage of the race.
The trail continues on and winds around the hillside before beginning a series of stairs. Along the climb, there was a nice viewpoint that gave you glimpses of mountains to the west. We continued uphill along the trail until we reached another waterfall around 2.3 miles. There was a nice campsite by this waterfall also and we thought it would be a great overnight stop for a backpacking trip. At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a fire road. We took this fire road to the right. At 3.7 miles, the trail meets a junction with the Cornelius Creek Trail. We headed straight to start the Cornelius Creek Trail. This trail descends quite steeply. As we had seen the runners on this trail when we first arrived at the parking lot, I felt that I too was having to run down the steepness of this trail in the beginning. Be careful where you step, since the trail is incredibly steep and filled with loose rock, begging for a twisted ankle or fall. At 4.2 miles, the trail runs along Cornelius Creek.
Cornelius Creek was a long exposure photographer’s dream. There were so many spots where you saw small waterfalls and swimming holes along the way. Contrasted with the lush green forest, it was truly beautiful to see. We did have to cross Cornelius Creek a couple of times and with any recent rain, you are likely going to get your feet wet. Be careful as there are some deep holes along the creek crossings that could have you up to your waist if you don’t step carefully. We made it across and continued our hike. The rain was coming down fairly steadily, so we didn’t stop a lot for fear of ruining camera gear, but it was one of the most beautiful creekside hikes you will see in Virginia. Right before you return to the parking lot, you’ll see a large campsite (with even a rope swing put in). We got back to the parking lot at the 6 mile marker.
On our way back home, we took a detour and drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to have lunch at Peaks of Otter. My family used to picnic here yearly, so this spot always holds a near and dear place in my heart. We had a nice lunch with music from a local singer. We decided also to stop by Apocalypse Ale Works brewery for one of our favorite post-hike things to do – beer sampling. The drive back home was rainy most of the day, but we felt like we had accomplished a lot on a dreary day.
- Distance – 6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1438 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This is a great moderate hike!
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is very pleasant to walk. Sturdy bridges and a wide viewing platform are available so the walk up to the falls along North Creek is pleasant and safe. There are a couple crossings on the Cornelius Creek descent that can be tricky when there has been recent rain.
- Views – 2. There is one nice view when you’re climbing the stairs after visiting Apple Orchard Falls.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. Spectacular – you are within view of the stream for most of the hike.
- Wildlife – 1. Too many people to see much wildlife!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The signs make this route pretty easy to follow. There are several places where trails go in multiple directions, but this route is well marked.
- Solitude – 0. It’s supposedly the most popular hike in Jefferson National Forest. It was cool and rainy when we hiked it, so there weren’t many other day hikers. But there were 300+ racers on the trail with us.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 168 for VA-614 toward Arcadia. Turn on to VA-614 heading east and go 3.3 miles. Turn left on to North Creek Road. Go 2.8 miles and turn right on to an unnamed road*. This road is a gravel road. Follow it for 2.2 miles until you reach the large parking lot. The trail starts left of the kiosk. Right of the kiosk, the trail going uphill is your return route. *Since this unnamed road can’t be found on GoogleMaps, I would suggest printing the trail map above to have a way to find this road.