This 9 mile hike’s distance could be cut in half if you have a car shuttle. When we hiked it, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed for ice/snow, so we ended up parking at Reeds Gap, walking 4.8 miles on the Appalachian Trail and then walking 4.2 miles back along the closed parkway. Typically, this would be an easy hike with a couple nice views. In our case, it was a challenging icy hike in (occasional) white out conditions!
As we slowly work on completing the entire Appalachian Trail through Virginia, we sometimes end up with small gaps in our contiguous miles. This 4.8 mile section was one of those and it was proving to be our nemesis. We had tried to share a shuttle with friends and park at both ends, but a closure of the parkway made those plans fall through.
Over our Christmas break from work, we tried to hike it by dropping Christine at one end and I would park at the other, passing in the middle, and then Christine hiking to the car and driving back to pick me up. It wasn’t preferable to do it this way because we like hiking together, but we really wanted to cover these miles. But on our way to the drop point, we saw several cars slide off the road (not far from a precipitous, cliff-side drop). Rain from the day before had left a thin sheen of ice on all the shady, curvy spots in the road.
One of the couples in a car that slid off the road was having a heated argument – he wanted to press on through the icy danger, but she wanted to call AAA and have the car towed off the mountain. We decided to backtrack and not risk it (especially not knowing the road conditions ahead), choosing to hike near Humpback Rocks instead. On our way to Humpback Rocks, we saw a park ranger making his way to the slippery road patch. They ended up closing the parkway just south of Humpback Rocks that day. The parkway closes quite often in the winter. Rangers would rather close the roads than risk having to come up and save people on the trails/roads when weather conditions could make it difficult.
After those failed attempts, we decided to try this section again. The weather forecast suggested a warming, clearing day, no snow in the near future. There had been a short bout of freezing rain the night before, so we were a little concerned about roads, but we knew we could at least make it to Reeds Gap and hike from there. When we arrived at Reeds Gap, we found a few other cars there, but it looked like they were attempting to hike Three Ridges. We found the sign for the Appalachian Trail and crossed SR 664 to head north on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. I was amazed at how icy the ground still was. It was manageable in normal hiking shoes, but still slippery in parts. Every step that I took left an icy footprint behind me, which made the trail look like an old Family Circus comic strip. At the least, they were good breadcrumbs left in case we needed to backtrack on the trail. Some of the branches from nearby trees were iced over and bowed over the trail, causing us to have to lift them over the trail. Some broken off pieces looked like broken antlers littering the ground.
After going about .5 miles, the Appalachian Trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway. At this point, the trail descended through some slippery areas, so we decided to put on our Yaktrax to provide some traction. I don’t know how we would have made progress without them. After going just another mile or so, it started to snow. At first, it was just a few flurries, but it was picking up. At 3.5 miles, we came to a sign pointing out a short trail to the Rock Point Overlook. The snow was coming down so fast at this point, visibility was at a minimum. We ate a quick snack and then proceeded. At 4.35 miles, we arrived at the Cedar Cliffs overlook. The snow had been falling so hard, it was hard to find the trail. It was at this point, I realized that hiking along the AT in the snow wasn’t the best idea – all the trees were covered with snow, covering up any white blazes that would have been on the trees. We were so close to finishing this section and didn’t want to turn back at this point. I had Christine stand in one area that we knew was close to the trail and within eyesight while I scouted ahead to try and find a semblance of trail under our feet. Eventually, I found the trail again and we proceeded.
I started to worry at this point about being able to drive back down from the mountain if the roads were going to be bad. We made a decision that when we reached the road, we would hike back along the Blue Ridge Parkway to hopefully save time and get us back to our car more quickly. At 4.85 miles, we arrived back at the Blue Ridge Parkway. We took a right and headed south along the parkway and we were soon very glad we had made this decision. We came across some great views at overlooks along the road that we didn’t have along the trail. And then the snow stopped and the sun came out to start melting the snow, which eased my nerves. The views were outstanding on the way back as we could see a defining line of snow that had hit the mountains and clear fields at the lower elevations.
While this hike had a little bit of danger due to the weather, it was a visual winter wonderland. This is the definition of winter hiking. We arrived back at the gate that was blocking the parkway at 9.0 miles and got back in our car. We decided to hit Devil’s Backbone on our return trip home and then also stopped at some other Nelson County 151 highlights – Bold Rock Cider’s new tasting room and Silverback Distillery. It really was a great adventure and it made me feel very lucky to have a wife that will go on such crazy undertakings with me.
NOTE: From research we have done, the starting point is called “Reeds Gap” in some sources and “Reids Gap” in others. We went with the first spelling since that was how it was listed on PATC and NatGeo maps.
Finishing this little 4.9 section of AT turned out to be more elusive than I ever would have believed possible. After a few attempts failed due to snow/ice, closed roads, and transportation problems, we finally successfully hiked from Reeds Gap to Dripping Rock!
On the day we accomplished this minor feat, conditions weren’t quite ideal. There had been a bit of freezing rain the night before, but the weather was forecast to warm and clear over the course of the morning. The Blue Ridge Parkway was still closed, so we couldn’t leave a shuttle-back car at Dripping Rock. This wasn’t a big deal – instead of hiking 4.9 miles once, we’d have to hike those same miles twice, making a total hike of almost ten miles. We left our car in the roadside parking on Route 664, next to the Appalachian Trail crossing. Route 664 (Reed’s Gap Rd.) crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and is kept open year-round.
At Reeds Gap, everything upright was coated with a thick glaze of ice. It was foggy and gray and raw. We headed north on the AT, our feet crunching though the crust of ice. It was so peaceful and beautiful.
The Appalachian Trail soon crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Three Ridges Overlook. The asphalt was like a skating rink! It looked like regular pavement, but it was as slick as a slip-and-slide. I could totally understand why the park service closed the road!
After crossing, there was a slight descent and the terrain became a little rockier. I started to lose my footing, so Adam helped me into my traction. The ice wasn’t thick enough or hard enough for Microspikes, so we went with Yaktrax. Mine are a touch too small for my boots, so getting them on is a two person effort. I brace on a rock and Adam yanks the Yaktrax with all his might until they snap into place! One day, I’ll buy some bigger ones. :-) Fitted with traction, we moved swiftly along with sure, confident footing. Snow started falling – flurries at first, then in earnest. It wasn’t supposed to snow, so we trekked on hoping the skies would soon clear up (like they were supposed to!) Ah… mountain weather at its unpredictable best!
We reached a small sign pointing us to the Rock Point Overlook. As we looked off the rocky outcropping, all we could see was clouds and swirling snow. Every now and then the clouds moved enough that we could see mountains on the other side of the gap. We ate a quick snack and moved on. The snow just kept coming down faster and faster. We started feeling a little worried about getting back to our car and finding Route 664 impassable.
In fair weather, there are more nice views along this stretch of the Appalachian Trail, but by the time we reached the vistas at Cedar Cliffs, we were practically in whiteout conditions. The white snow even camouflaged the white blazes on the trees. It was too bad, Cedar Cliffs had large rock ledges and would have been beautiful in clear conditions. About a half mile past the cliffs, we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and the pullout for Dripping Rock Spring. We made it – we finished our section! At that point, the snow was still coming down hard and fast. To save time, we had decided to hike the parkway back to our car. It’s easy to move at speed when the terrain is uncomplicated. We still needed traction because the road was extremely slippery and treacherous.
It turned out that the road was the better choice for scenery, too! We saw some of the most spectacular winter vistas from Rock Point, Ravens Roost, and other openings along the way. I felt really privileged to see this scenery that most people don’t get to see when the road is closed to vehicles. As we hiked along, the promised clearing conditions finally happened. The ice on the road melted quickly and we were treated to a stunning display of sunshine and ice – it was like walking through a shimmering crystal forest.
We got back to our car pretty quickly and found the car and the road both free of ice! We headed down the other side of Route 664 (past Wintergreen Resort) to go to Devil’s Backbone for lunch. The brewery was packed! All the other women there were wearing makeup, skinny jeans, and tall boots. I was sweaty, disheveled, and dressed sort of like Rainbow Brite. But whatever… they had (after an hour’s wait) beer and good food.
We decided to take the 151 route home so we could pass Bold Rock and Silverback. Bold Rock recently finished their new tasting room. It’s rustic and elegant – with fireplaces and wonderful farmland views. After beers at Devils Backbone, we skipped drinking cider, but I’m glad we took the time to check out their new facilities.
Silverback is the area’s new distillery. They’ll eventually have whiskey made using local grains. But for now, they have moonshine, gin, and vodka. You can do a flight of tastings of their three spirits – a half ounce of each, either straight or mixed into signature cocktails. We ended up sharing a flight of three mini cocktails – a Moscow Mule, a Gin and Ginger, and Monkey Tea. I’m not much of a liquor/cocktail fan, but the drinks were fun and tasty. I definitely recommend checking these two spots out if you happen to be in the area!
- Distance – 9 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1050 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. The icy conditions made it more of a challenge, but overall this would be a fairly easy hike with not as much elevation gain. The distance may make it a little more difficult for those that are not used to going this far.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. Again, the ice made this a bit more challenging, but this section of the AT was very well-maintained. There were a few loose, rocky sections.
- Views – 4.5. Most of what we were able to see was from the parkway, but I know the other overlooks would lead to panoramic views.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There was one small, frozen over stream that might work as a water source.
- Wildlife – 1. We saw lots of deer leaping into the woods, but I wouldn’t expect a lot of other wildlife, especially since this is a well-traveled section.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Just follow signs at the posts for the Appalachian Trail. Of course, since we lost the trail at one of the overlooks, we couldn’t give this a perfect score.
- Solitude – 3. Due to the nearby parking lot, I would expect this would be a place where people would explore the trail. Of course, most of the cars in the nearby parking lot are likely heading up Three Ridges from Reeds Gap instead.
Directions to trailhead: From I-64, take exit 96 for SR 624 toward Waynesboro/Lyndhurst. Turn on to S. Delphine Avenue and go 1.2 miles. The road becomes Mt. Torrey Road/SR 664. In 9.3 miles, turn left to stay on SR 664. Once you reach the top of the road in .8 miles, you will cross the Blue Ridge Parkway. Park at the large parking lot on the other side of the road. Across from the parking lot (and across SR 664), you will see the post and sign for the Appalachian Trail. Head north on the white-blazed trail.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This easygoing 6-mile hike offered solitude, great backcountry campsites, and nice views at the top! It was a perfect hike to tackle with a group of friends and dogs.
Back in January, we planned a little section hike along the Appalachian Trail with a group of friends. However, icy conditions closed the Blue Ridge Parkway, leaving us scrambling for an alternate plan. We stumbled across the Kepler Overlook on Hiking Upward and decided it would be a good ‘plan B’. Our group met for breakfast at Mr’ J’s Bagels (yay carbs!) in Harrisonburg before heading up to the trailhead.
We expected to have to park about a third of a mile from the official trailhead, but we found the forest service gate open and were able to leave our cars right at the hike’s start point. From the parking area, there are trails and forest service roads leading in several directions. This was probably the most confusing part of the hike. You want to go straight up the forest road with the permanently closed gate. If you don’t reach the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail within the first .3 mile of your hike up the road, you’ll know you’ve gone the wrong way!
At the junction with the Tuscarora trail, go left. You’ll pass another closed gate before coming to Cedar Creek. The crossing of Cedar Creek is fairly wide and might be tricky in wet conditions. We were able to negotiate the crossing with some careful rock hopping. Shortly after the crossing, you’ll come to one of the nicest backcountry campsites I’ve seen. Someone has taken the time to build wide benches, a large fire pit, and even a high counter-top for cooking. It would be a great group campsite with easy access to water.
From the campsite, continue to follow the blue-blazed trail. There was one place that the trail appeared to go straight, but actually turned. We all missed the turn and had to backtrack a few hundred feet where the trail crosses the stream again using a footbridge made of branches.
After crossing the stream, the trail climbs Tea Mountain. It’s never a tough climb, but it’s a steady uphill. The trail alternates between narrow footpath and wider road-like conditions. The trail follows along several switchbacks. At about 1.9 miles into the hike, you should see an unmarked side trail on the left. If you follow this side trail for a few hundred feet, you’ll reach a large rock jumble. From the top of the rock jumble you get a great view of the mountains beyond.
After taking in the view, return to the Tuscarora trail and continue uphill for about another mile or so until you reach the saddle between Tea and Little North Mountains. Along this ridge, there are several nice viewpoints and lots of open, flat space for camping. We took some time to explore a couple different vistas. The views were nice, but the sky conditions were really hazy.
After enjoying the mountaintop, we descended the way we came up. On our way home, we decided to check out a new farm brewery near Edinburg. Swover Creek is a working farm – they grow fruit and hops, raise chickens, and make sausage from locally produced meat. They’ve recently started a brewery and are working on building a tasting room in their old barn. We all tried a flight of their four beers (the persimmon ale was my favorite). We also had their house-made soft pretzels and mustard and enjoyed a sampling of their different sausages. It was a fun stop and I definitely recommend checking them out if you’re in the area!
The Kepler Overlook hike was one that we had been wanting to do since we heard about it from our friends at Hiking Upward. This hike leads to nice views as you climb up to Little North Mountain.
The trail started off as we went past the closed gate up the fire road. There is a sign just past the gate showing the inter-connected trail system. Continue up the fire road for about .3 miles and then take a right on the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail. The Tuscarora Trail leads down to Cedar Creek. Cross a small stream at .5 miles and you will reach a nice campsite. Continue along the trail and the trail takes another stream crossing (this time over a small log bridge with a branch handrail). The trail turns quickly to the left as you begin your climb up Tea Mountain. At 1.9 miles on a switchback, you reach an unmarked side trail. Following this for about .1 miles will take you to a rock outcropping with some views to the west. Backtrack to rejoin the Tuscarora Trail.
At 2.5 miles, the trail reaches a Saddle between Tea Mountain and North Mountain. From here, climb up North Mountain. The trail levels out at 3.0 miles at a large area for backcountry camping. From here, you have two options for views. Cut through the campsite to the right along the ridge for a nice view. You can also go to the left and make your way again towards the ridge to get more views to the east.
We enjoyed our hike with friends and dogs. You can check out Clark’s YouTube video below. We were amazed at how much he was enjoying the hike and even took some time to enjoy the view himself.
After the hike we hit Swover Creek Farm to try out their brewery. Since the tasting room is not yet built, we enjoyed our beer in the farmhouse. I have described this when talking to friends as if you were to go over to your grandmother’s house and drink beer. We got our flight of beers from the small room downstairs and then took them upstairs to the larger “living room”. There were some large tables and older furniture, so it really felt like a visit to your grandmother’s. All of the people that were there were local people and one man brought a thermos to fill with beer instead of a growler. They brought out samples of their sausage they made on the farm and we ended up buying some to take home. It was such a warm, home environment and we thought they did a great job with the small-batch beers they had made. This was a perfect post-hike stop.
Our friends brought their lab (Clark) and shepherd (Maia) along on the hike! They were great trail dogs to have along for the day!
Clark was fitted with a GoPro — so don’t miss seeing the hike from his point of view! :-)
- Distance – 6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1120 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. A pretty easy hike with a bit of steady, moderate climbing.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Trail was in great shape.
- Views – 3.5. Nice, but slightly obstructed by trees.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Cedar Creek is pretty and a solid water source.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything, but there are plenty of deer and bear in the area.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. There are a couple places where it’s easy to lose the trail. Also, there are several trails and fire roads from the parking area that can easily be confused.
- Solitude –4. We saw only a small handful of people on a nice, sunny, winter weekend day.
Directions to trailhead: Take exit 291 on I-81 heading west on SR 651. Go 1.5 miles and take a left on SR 623. Go 4 miles and take a right on to SR 600. Go 4.4 miles and take a left on SR 603/Van Buren Road. Continue on Van Buren Road for 2.7 miles and you will see parking on the left. There are two parking areas here, but pass the first parking area to get to the second parking area which is on the lefthand side. Park here and retrace your path a short distance to see the closed gate and the fire road where your hike will start.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 3.8 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail completed a short 1.9 mile gap in unbroken Appalachian Trail mileage we left after hiking the Three Ridges circuit in 2012. After you cross the scenic Tye River footbridge, the hike doesn’t boast any views or unique scenery. It’s a moderate uphill climb to a junction marker in the woods.
We have been working on section hiking some of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia. Hopefully one day, we will have the entire section that crosses Virginia on here. In doing it in sections, we have ended up with a few small gaps between sections. This gap was created when we hiked Three Ridges and did it as a loop trail that included a return trip on the Mau-Har trail. I got a text from my friend Bryce from Hiking Upward that mentioned he was going to try and hike Spy Rock the next day. I mentioned that we were trying to get this section done as well, so he agreed to accompany us on this section also. It was January 1st and we wanted to start the year off right with a great day of hiking.
We parked our cars at the lot on 56 where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Tye River. We crossed the road and almost immediately you come upon a large suspension bridge that crosses the Tye River. We knew this was probably the highlight of the trip, so we took some time to get some pictures across the bridge and of the Tye River from under the bridge.
After crossing the bridge, the trail takes a few switchbacks and then starts a fairly steep uphill through the woods. Looking back from the trail, we were able to see some obstructed views of Pinnacle Ridge and The Priest, but when spring hits these views will likely be more obstructed. On our climb up, we saw a dog come racing towards us. As it turns out, it was a bear-hunting dog, as it had a large radio collar around his neck. The dog barely stopped at all and barreled past on a mission to try and find a bear. We continued our hike up and came up to the sign post that marked the trail junction with the Mau-Har trail. From this point, you could continue on the Appalachian Trail to the right to reach Chimney Rock and Three Ridges or take a left on to the Mau-Har Trail, to reach the Maupin Field Shelter. We tapped the post to mark that we had completed this section and made our way back.
After our hike, we got in our cars and stopped by Crabtree Falls, which had frozen water on the sides. This iconic waterfall is always a nice place to visit any time of year. Our next stop was to hike up to Spy Rock. When we first arrived, the parking lot was full of cars and vans. We felt defeated and were about to make the decision to not do the hike, when someone came down the trail and mentioned that a few car loads were getting ready to leave. We waited just a couple of minutes and two parking spaces opened up. We hiked up to Spy Rock, which was covered in snow in some parts. At the top of the trail, Bryce decided he wanted to bushwhack to another rock outcropping that would look back on Spy Rock. So, we set a plan to try and take pictures of each other from the different summits. The climb up Spy Rock was pretty dangerous, since the water that falls into the cracks that your normally use to help pull yourself up was frozen, making it very treacherous. When we got up to the top of Spy Rock, the wind was blowing so hard and the temperatures from the wind chill put it way below freezing. We waited for a few minutes at the top. We eventually saw Bryce making his way to the rock outcropping. We took a quick photo of him and then made our way off Spy Rock, since we felt we could get frostbite fairly quickly up there. We reconvened where we had split up and then made our way back down the mountain. We got back to our cars and headed to Staunton for lunch.
This area where we hiked is a real sweet spot for Virginia hiking. You have The Priest, Three Ridges, Crabtree Falls, and Spy Rock all within a few miles. If you want a place to get a few great days of Virginia hiking, this is a great destination. We were glad to reconnect again with Bryce and getting another AT section checked off our to-do list.
I don’t really have anything to add about the hike! It was just a pleasant walk in the woods that finished a hole in our continuous AT miles. It was great to see Bryce (Hiking Upward) and spend the first day of 2015 on the trail!
After a couple little hikes, we all went for a decadent lunch and beers at Byers St. Bistro in Staunton. They have great sandwiches and a nice variety of beers on tap. Check it out if you’re in the area.
- Distance – 3.8 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1100 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. The climbing is steady and moderate the entire way up.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. Well maintained, smooth trail.
- Views – 0. No views other than a few glimpses through bare winter trees.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. The stream and waterfalls are a little further up trail from this spot.
- Wildlife – 0. We did see a hunting dog – that probably scares wildlife away.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There’s really no place to go wrong here.
- Solitude –2. This trail leads up from a very popular AT access point. You can expect to see a good number of people.
Directions to trailhead: From I-81, take exit 213A to head on to US-11 South towards Greenville. Go 8.2 miles and take a left on to US-56. Go 16.6 miles down US-56 and you will come to a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail on the right-hand side of the road. Park here and then cross the road to start hiking on the Appalachian Trail heading north.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 14.7 mile route offers wilderness, beautiful views, and stunning stream scenery (even a small waterfall!) It’s a wonderful, moderate overnight backpacking loop; or a really challenging day hike. We set out intending to camp along Jeremy’s Run, but it didn’t quite go as planned!
The final weekend of October 2014 was so beautiful – perfect, made-to-order backpacking weather. We decided to head out on one more overnighter before the weather turned cold. We invited our friend, Kris, to come along. She loves the outdoors as much as we do, and I was sure she’d enjoy this loop. Don’t miss her guest blogger entry later in this post! It had been several years since we last hiked in the vicinity of Jeremy’s Run, and I was really looking forward to camping along the beautiful stream.
After stocking up on some lunch provisions at Elkwallow Wayside, we finally hit the trail around 11:00. We figured we had a little over eight miles of hiking on our first day, so starting late morning would get us to camp before 3:00, with plenty of daylight left to pitch tents, cook dinner, and relax.
We started out at the Elkwallow Picnic Area. A short spur trail leads downhill to the junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. The AT descends for about .3 of a mile before coming to a junction with the blue-blazed Jeremy’s Run Trail. Follow the Appalachian Trail, veering to the left. The trail ascends for a little over a mile before coming to a more level ridge. You’ll pass the junction with the Thorton River trail, continuing south on the AT. At just over four miles into the hike, you’ll reach the junction with the yellow-blazed Neighbor Mountain trail.
We decided this junction would be a nice place to stop for lunch (hummus – my favorite trail lunch of late – easy to eat and lots of quality calories!). After a relaxing, thirty-minute break, we took the turn onto the Neighbor Mountain trail. The path meandered across the ridge. For the first couple miles, it was mostly walking in the woods. There was a nice breeze and gorgeous sparkling sunshine was filtering through golden leaves. It was everything you want fall to be!
Even though there is no view, the summit of Neighbor Mountain is marked with a cement post. At the summit, I noticed I had picked up a ‘hitchhiker’ along the way – a walking stick bug was clinging to my pants. I wonder how far he had come with me. I picked him off, and set him on a fallen log off the trail.
Between six and seven miles into the hike, there are a few excellent views of the Massanutten ridge and Three Sisters. There was a forest fire in this area several years ago, so the view was pretty open and expansive. We all paused a while to enjoy the fall foliage. It was so wonderful to see colorful mountains rolling our before us. We talked about how privileged and blessed we all felt to be out on such an amazing day!
The last mile and a half of the day was steady downhill, meandering across switchbacks until the Neighbor Mountain trail reached the bottom of the valley and Jeremy’s Run. As soon as you reach the stream, campsites are everywhere. The first few we passed were already taken, so we ended up returning to the hidden campsite we used several years earlier. It’s a flat spot under the trees shortly before the first water crossing.
And here’s where the story takes an unexpected turn…
We all worked on pitching our tents and setting up camp. I set up our tent while Christine worked on inflating our sleeping pads. Kris was on the other side of the clearing working on setting up the one-person tent she had borrowed, when she suddenly she groaned, “Uh… guys – I think we might have a little problem.”
As it turned out, the tent bag only held the rain fly and the poles. The ground cloth and the actual tent were missing in action. She hadn’t checked the bag before hitting the trail. We spent the next 45 minutes trying to improvise a shelter with everything and anything we had. We tried piling three people in our Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 (bad idea). We discussed whether or not the evening would be suitable for cowboy camping under the stars. We talked through a few different scenarios: 1) we all hike back immediately, 2) I sleep under the tarp while Kris and Christine sleep in the tent, or 3) I hike back to the car tonight and pick them up in the morning. I was least excited about the second option because the area felt tick-infested with the wet leaves. We debated the options for a few minutes, but ultimately, we decided the best choice was to keep the group together and make our backpacking trip into a very long day hike.
We knew we only had a little over an hour of daylight left – the sun sets early behind the mountains surrounding Jeremy’s Run. We rushed to pack everything up as quickly as we could. Cooking a hot dinner would have required getting more water, so we opted to just eat a few snacks from our bags. We started off at a quick pace. I twisted my knee at the first major water crossing we had to make, which made the rest of the trip pretty painful. But sometimes, you just have to suck it up and hike.
We soon passed another great campsite next to a small waterfall. The trail meanders along and across Jeremy’s Run, requiring lots of rock-hopping across the stream. The sun was dipping down quickly and we soon found that we needed to put on our headlamps. Christine and Kris had legit headlamps, but I was using a small clip-on headlight that didn’t have the lumen output needed for a night hike. When it reached dusk a few miles from our campsite, we came across a couple with a dog. They asked us how far it was to the campsites and if they were all taken. The guy was carrying an outrageous amount of gear and the girl looked completely miserable. We knew they were going to be hiking to the campsites by nightfall and setting up camp in the dark. I’m not sure if this was her first venture into overnight camping, but based on the daggers she was shooting him with her eyes, it may be their last. They warned us they had seen a couple of bears just ahead of us, so we were on full alert.
As it became fully dark, we still had a few stream crossings to make, which made it quite hazardous. I reminded myself that the water wasn’t that deep so if we stepped in the water, we would probably be OK. Another danger of night-hiking is the ability to lose the trail. We really had to pay attention to the ground and try to keep an eye out for occasional blazes to make sure we would stay on the trail. Hiking in the fall after most of the leaves have covered the trail provides an extra challenge. Because I had a weaker headlamp, it was hard for me to lead along the trail since the lights from Christine and Kris were blasting my shadow ahead of me on the ground. And then, I heard large noises in the woods, which I’m guessing was the bears that we had been warned about. We kept talking loudly and playing some games to keep our minds sharp (animals/foods/colors that start with each letter of the alphabet) as we hiked along.
At 4.25 miles from our intended campsite, we finally came across a concrete marker post. This post marked the junction with the Knob Mountain cutoff trail, so we knew were getting closer. We kept straight on the Jeremy’s Run Trail and at 5.15 miles, we reached our first junction with the Neighbor Mountain Trail. It was now just .3 miles straight ahead until we reached the parking lot where we started. We made the last climb with renewed energy and celebrated that we made it through this adventure.
It was definitely one of the longest hikes we have done in a day and with the extra weight on our back, was one of the toughest. We got back in the car and decided to go out to dinner to celebrate with drinks and food at Ciro’s in Elkton, VA. We were physically exhausted and hungry, but it was quite an adventure we will never forget.
One takeaway I had from this trip was that we were all great at hiking together. When we faced the challenge of not having two functional tents, we kept our wits about us, made a quick decision and went with it. There was no complaining and we just relied on each other to get through. If we had panicked or become overly upset, it could have led to a dangerous situation. It is through this challenge, that we learned that having good hiking partners that work well together is a great trait to have for survival. We all vowed to come back to this spot to camp together sometime in the spring to get the full experience through camping on Jeremy’s Run. After the hike, Kris bought her own tent and I bought a better headlamp.
Backpacking 101- It doesn’t matter if you were up late celebrating your birthday and borrowing some equipment…ALWAYS double check your equipment or your trip will not be so fly!
I was excited to be hiking with friends on a beautiful fall day. We have always shared an appreciation of nature, lots of conversations and tons of laughter. I guess that is why we handled our little upset so calmly and reasonably. Although, I’m pretty sure I said “Adam, just because I am a girl doesn’t mean you have to give up your tent. I will cowboy up. Now, everyone hand over any booze or sleep aides you may have!” Of course that didn’t fly.
Ultimately we laughed at the situation, even as we crossed that creek 14 or so times and in the dark. And I learned a few things on this trip: I am capable of hiking 15 miles with a 25 lbs pack in a day, Little Debbie Peanut Butter pies are so tasty and 400 calories, it was time to purchase my own backpacking tent, a packing checklist is important and a good attitude goes a long way.
I vowed to return to Jeremy’s Run and hike early enough to snag the sweet waterfall camp spot, I also plan to cowboy camp sometime just to prove I can (my dog will protect me).
Christine and Adam- you two are SuperFly!
- Distance – 14.7 miles
(We had issues with MapMyHike on this trip, so we have partial stats. We have the Neighbor Mountain segment and most of the Jeremys Run to Elkwallow segment. We’re missing the portion along the Appalachian Trail and a few early tenths of a mile along Jeremy’s Run. Technical issues!)*
- Elevation Change – 2610 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. The terrain is fairly moderate throughout the hike, but the length ups the difficulty rating.
- Trail Conditions – 3. Sections along the Appalachian Trail and Neighbor Mountain are in great shape. The Jeremy’s Run trail is rocky and has at least 14 water crossings – some of them can be challenging!
- Views – 3.5. The views descending Neighbor Mountain are beautiful, but never fully open/panoramic.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. The stream is beautiful and scenic.
- Wildlife – 5. We saw a bobcat! Hikers we passed at sunset told us there was a bear ahead, but we couldn’t see anything in the dark. But, the last time we hiked in this area, we saw three bears. We have also seen/heard owls, pileated woodpeckers, and whippoorwills.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The junctions are clearly marked and easy to follow — unless you’re hiking in the dark! :-)
- Solitude –1. It’s the most popular backpacking loop in the park’s northern district.
Directions to trailhead: From the US-211 entrance of Shenandoah National Park, head north for 9 miles on Skyline Drive. Take a left towards the Mathews Arm Campground. In .7 miles, you will reach a parking lot. The trail takes off next to the outdoor bathroom.
This is a great alternative to the ‘classic’ ascent of Old Rag. You still get the same stunning summit, but this 5.4 mile route lets you bypass all the road walking, lessens your vertical gain, and skips the famous rock scramble (which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about rock scrambles!)
Old Rag is one of those classic Virginia hikes that most avid hikers in the state want to do at some point. The views are truly spectacular, but the most popular route up Old Rag includes a technical rock scramble with exposed ledges and big drops. Some people might have a fear of heights or not be fit enough to tackle the scramble. The route via Berry Hollow is perfect for people wanting a ‘low key’ route to the peak.
We were on our way to hike White Oak Canyon, but the parking lot was completely full. Not wanting to give up for the day, we consulted our maps and noticed we were right next to Berry Hollow and the alternate route up Old Rag.
We arrived at the small parking lot at Berry Hollow and also found a very full lot. However, after waiting just a few minutes, some hikers came down the trail and said about 3-4 cars would be leaving in the next ten minutes as they were returning from an overnight/sunrise hike. So, we waited and sure enough, several spaces cleared up. I would recommend arriving at the lot early in the morning, because there is only space available for about 12 vehicles.
You begin the hike by making your way past a closed gate. You can see the path marked on the kiosk to the right of the trail. This route starts on the wide Berry Hollow fire road, which goes along the Berry Hollow stream for a while. Hiking the trail during a peak fall day, we were surrounded by brilliant yellows from fallen leaves on the trail and up above. At .8 miles, you reach a junction with the Saddle Trail. Take a right on to the Saddle Trail, which you will take all the way to the summit.
The Saddle Trail is more narrow and rocky, but is mostly a moderate climb. The steepest part of this trail comes between 1.2 and 1.5 miles as you gain about 300 feet of elevation in .3 miles. At 1.4 miles, you will pass by the Old Rag shelter which is only available for day use. At 2.15 miles, the trail gets another steep push to the summit. Continuing up the trail, you will also pass the Byrds Nest Shelter at 2.25 miles, another day use shelter. The trail does start to open up to some views along the way as you’ll pass a couple of rock outcroppings that give you nice views or a good excuse to stop if you need a breather.
You arrive at the base of the summit which is marked by a sign. A short path leads up to the rocky summit. At this point, you can decide how adventurous you want to be at the summit. There are lots of nice ledges to enjoy the views, but some will want to scramble up the boulders to try to get even higher vantage points. Be very careful at this summit, especially if you have kids. People get injured often on this trail, most often at the rock scramble or at the summit.
The wind was incredibly strong on this day at the summit. It is usually quite windy at the summit, but with the colder temperatures, it was freezing at the top. We ate some snacks at the top, trying to shelter us from the wind, but decided quickly to get away from the exposed ledges to try and stay a little warmer.
We headed back the way we came. When we arrived back at our car, the lot was still at capacity, so we did luck out with a spot. After our hike, we went to one of our favorite places to eat, The Barbeque Exchange, in Gordonsville, VA and then hit Horton Vineyard for wine sampling on our way back home.
We were so pleased with this alternate route up Old Rag. I think we will probably use this as our go-to route for future hikes up the mountain.
I make no secret of the fact that I am not a huge fan of the Old Rag Ridge Trail. Scrambling is not my favorite, but my primary issue is simple trail overuse. I think the park lets too many people hike the trail each day and that the mountain is becoming damaged beyond repair. We’ve hiked Old Rag on days that people are queued up all across the ridge, waiting in line for the people ahead of them to tackle obstacles. I wait in line in daily life enough that I’m simply not willing to wait in line on a mountain trail. It feels wrong! I also don’t prefer the significant amount of road walking necessary to complete the route via Weakley Hollow. In the end, more than half the trail is road walking. That said, I did really enjoy this ascent via Berry Hollow.
It was our anniversary weekend, peak fall color, and a perfect bluebird day to boot. We were sort of nuts to try hiking any of the park’s most popular trails, but somehow we were lucky enough to score a parking spot.
The walk up Berry Hollow fire road was gorgeous. The sun filtering through the fall leaves made a canopy of warm golden light. The road was carpeted with leaves of every color. We really didn’t see many people at all until we reached the junction of the fire road and the Saddle Trail.
The Saddle Trail is a moderate ascent. There are rock steps and interesting boulder jumbles to admire along the way. Through the trees we could see the rocky summit looming ahead. As we climbed the views became more impressive. After passing the second shelter (Byrds Nest), the trail passes out of tall hardwood forest into stand of stunted, windblown trees and tangled rhododendron.
There are a couple nice views from the trail before you reach the actual summit. We took time to enjoy each of them. At the summit, there was a large crowd already congregating. Most people posed for photos and then found places behind the boulders to shelter from the wind. We stayed and enjoyed the summit until it became too crowded.
The way down was quick and easy! We even did our traditional ‘Old Rag Jog’ – it’s basically a slow run to make the fire road terrain pass quicker. On our way out, we stopped by Graves Mountain to get apples, pumpkin, and cider. Then we headed for a big barbecue feast and a wine tasting. It was a perfect fall day and a great way to celebrate our anniversary.
- Distance – 5.4 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1725 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This is a solid, moderate hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape in most places. There were a few muddy, mucky places between Byrds Nest and the Old Rag Shelter.
- Views – 5. Gorgeous views at the top and several nice views along the way.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There is one small stream along the fire road.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything but squirrels, but there is apparently a nuisance bear near the Old Rag shelter.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There is just one well-marked junction.
- Solitude –0. It’s Old Rag… expect to see many, many people.
Directions to trailhead: From Madison, VA on Route 29, take US-29 Business Route into Madison, VA. Turn on to VA-231 north. In 5.4 miles, take a slight left on VA-670. Follow this for 3.6 miles and take a slight right on to state route 643/Weakley Hollow Road. Follow this road for about 5 miles, which becomes a gravel, fire road and ends at the parking lot for the trailhead.
This hike is easy for a 7-miler! Gentle grades along an old roadbed take you to a lovely view of the Shenandoah River and mountains beyond!
Throughout fall 2014, our employer (and alma mater), James Madison University, participated in the Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge. Basically, students and employees accrued points for outdoor activities. The school that compiled the most points in the end won a prize of cash and outdoor gear. One component of the competition was completing a collection of eight local hikes. The list included many hikes we had already done (Old Rag, Humpback Rock, Fridley Gap, High Knob Fire Tower). Veach Gap was one of the only hikes on the list we hadn’t done, so we decided to check it out.
From the end of Veach Gap Rd. in Fort Valley, the hike begins along the Veach Gap Trail (blazed in gold), which is an old road bed. Supposedly, this trail is what remains of the historical Morgan’s Road. General George Washington requisitioned the road during the Revolutionary War. It was built to be used as a path of retreat from Yorktown. As we all know from history, the war went America’s way, and the retreat route was never needed. The road was still used locally for many years before falling into disuse and transitioning into a trail.
At one mile in, the Veach Gap trail crosses Mill Run. This is really the only potentially confusing spot to navigate on the hike. The trail crosses at a diagonal, so look carefully for the gold blazes on a tree slightly upstream. Shortly after crossing the stream, you may notice a rock formation in the shape of an upside down ‘U’. This is called an anticline, and it’s a very unusual geological feature in our area. I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but we didn’t even stop to look at the anticline. I forgot it was there, and my mind was more focused on fall colors, lofty views, and potential wildlife sightings. But, if you’re a geology buff – don’t miss this feature!
A short distance after crossing the stream, the Veach Gap trail merges and becomes jointly blazed with the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail and the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail. The three trails share the route for (at most) a couple tenths of a mile. AT 1.2 miles, you’ll come to another trail sign. To the right, the trail heads in the direction of the Little Crease Shelter. Stay to the left (blazed orange and blue), headed up Little Crease Mountain and toward Sherman Gap. About a half mile after this intersection, you’ll pass a marked group campsite on the right.
Continue meandering uphill along a gentle grade. At three miles, the trail becomes a bit steeper with switchbacks. There was a significant forest fire here in 2012, so the canopy is thin and allows nice views along the climb. We saw lots of charred stumps and blueberry bushes along the increasingly rocky trail. Eventually, the trail leveled out along the ridge. We soon reached The Point Overlook – a small outcropping of rocks overlooking a sweeping bend on the Shenandoah River.
We had a snack, took a few photos, and spent some time chatting with a fellow hiker (Hi, DJ!) before heading back down the way we came. Veach Gap was really a lovely hike to enjoy at the peak of fall foliage season. After getting back to our car, we made the short drive into Front Royal so we could enjoy burgers and shakes at Spelunkers. Great day!
When we were reviewing the peakbagging hikes that were listed for JMU students/faculty to try for the Outdoor Nation competition, we were surprised to see this one on there. My guess is the coordinators looked up hikes that were close to Harrisonburg without thinking of what would be seen on the hike. We initially thought this wouldn’t be that nice of a hike, since we hadn’t heard anyone mention it before to us, but the views made this a pleasant surprise.
When we pulled up to the parking lot, we saw a few cars already in the parking lot and a group getting ready to hit the trail when we did. Of course, we saw vehicles for hunters, so we were a little worried about how this trail was being used overall. We were glad that we had brighter clothes on, which is always a precaution to consider during hunting season. We started off on the gold-blazed Veach Gap trail by crossing through the gate and walking on the fire road. The trail was very flat and passed through some younger forest. We were greeted with sights and sounds of Mill Run to the left of the trail.
We soon came across two bow hunters, that seemed to be milling around, more about enjoying the outdoors than they were about hunting. At .35 miles, the fire road turns into trail. At 1.2 miles, take a left at the junction and join the blue and orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. The trail continued a slow, gradual climb heading northeast. At 3.0 miles, the trail takes a sharp, southern route and at 3.2 miles, it switches back to the normal northeastern direction. On our climb up, we passed by a large group of boy scouts that were covering some miles over the weekend, but were looking to camp near the crossing at Mill Run. The slightly-obstructed views of the mountains beside us were so colorful in this peak fall setting.
As you climb up to the ridge, you start seeing a lot of the forest fire damage. Since this happened in 2012, you start seeing some of the plants starting to grow in place of those that burned. We reached the ridge and followed it for about .15 miles. At 3.5 miles, we found a pile of rocks marking a short climb to the overlook where we stopped. The true highlight of the view is seeing the bends of the Shenandoah River from this rocky perch. There wasn’t a ton of room at the top that was unobstructed, but it was enough for a few people to take in the view.
If you feel like you would like a view hike with a good amount of solitude, this may be a great selection.
- Distance – 7 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1100 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. This is an easy hike to a nice viewpoint.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape in most places. Dry, fallen leaves made some of the descents slippery.
- Views – 3.5. The view of the bends of the Shenandoah River is nice, but slightly obstructed.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. The stream along the early part of the trail is really pretty.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see anything but a few birds and squirrels.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. There are a few junctions and a few unmarked trails that cross the route, but you should be fine if you follow the blazes.
- Solitude –4. We did see a troop of Boy Scouts and a handful of others hiking in this area on a perfect fall weekend near peak foliage color, but generally this area is very quiet.
Directions to trailhead: From Luray, VA, take SR 675/Camp Roosevelt Road. Go .8 miles and take a left to stay on SR 675. In 2.2 miles, take a right to stay on SR 675. In 7.8 miles, take a right on to SR 678/Fort Valley Road. Follow this for 9.7 miles and then take a right onto SR 774/Veach Gap Road. Follow this about .75 miles to the end of the road, where you arrive at a parking area. The trail starts after you walk around the gate.
This 17 mile overnight backpacking trip had beautiful views from Cole Mountain within the first two miles of the hike. The rest of the hike was less scenic – mostly walking through quiet woods and along seasonally low streams. The Lynchburg Reservoir and the swinging bridge over the Pedlar River were noteworthy features on the second day. Adam will cover day one and Christine will take over with day two!
Day One (8.1 miles)…
We started off our trip by leaving one car where the AT crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Punchbowl Mountain overlook. From the lot, we could see the AT southbound, but we didn’t see where we would return to our car from the north. It turns out it was just below us on the other side of the parking lot, but the morning fog made it a little hard to spot. We dropped our car off and then headed to Hog Camp Rd, to start our journey.
From Hog Camp Gap, we headed south on the Appalachian Trail. The trail started off through a wooded section uphill, fairly steeply in some parts. Around 1.1 miles, the trail opened up to the beautiful, wide-open bald clearing that is Cole Mountain. We have hiked Cole Mountain before as a loop and I do think it is one of the more under-appreciated hikes in Virginia. The panoramic vistas make this look like something you would picture in an outdoors magazine. You can’t help but want to stop and take a look at the scenery around you. The way we split this section might not have been the best plan for enjoying vistas. We knew we had the best views of the trip done in the first 1.5 miles of the hike. But that is one of the biggest lessons I learned from hiking this section – you have to hold on to what you may have just seen, because there is no certainty about what is to come ahead.
After reaching the summit of Cole Mountain, the trail descends and again enters the forest. Around 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a spur trail that led to the Cow Camp Gap overnight shelter and a water source. We continued on the trail which starts an ascent up Bald Mountain. We reached the summit at 3.5 miles and were hoping for some nice views at the top, but found that Bald Mountain wasn’t very bald (there were a few obstructed views through the trees). We found a clearing and camp spot and had our lunch there before continuing on. The rest of the day, the trail was a descent so our climbing was done (at least until tomorrow).
We crossed over USFS 507 at 5.5 miles and eventually came to US 60 and the Long Mountain wayside at mile 6.3. We stopped at one of the picnic tables and took a break to eat a snack and give our backs a relief from the weight. Local people just park on the roadside here and have a picnic at this spot. It is also a way to do a longer out-and-back to Cole Mountain without parking or driving on a rough, gravel road. After resting, we crossed US 60, spotting a sign for the continuation of the Appalachian trail to the right. We continued our descent and at 7.1 miles, we reached Browns Creek, a reliable water source for a good stretch of trail. At 8.2 miles, we reached the Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, our stop for the night.
The Brown Mountain Creek area is interesting from a historical/archaeological standpoint. Much of the land along the creek was part of a large plantation predating the Civil War. After the war, the land was primarily a settlement for freed African-Americans. Houses, farms, orchards and even a gristmill could be found along the creek. You can still see stone walls/stairs, pieces of metal, and other artifacts along the creek. If you’re interested in reading more, this online article had a good overview of the area.
When we first got to the shelter, there was still a smoldering fire in the fire pit, so we realized someone had been there recently. We also noticed a large pile of fresh bear scat next to the shelter. While we didn’t think a bear had been roasting marshmallows by the fire, we felt it may be wise to not set up camp directly at the shelter. We found a nice campsite right by the creek and decided that would be a better spot. There was a boy scout troop that was camping on the other side of the creek. We worried about them being too loud over the course of the night, but they were fairly well-behaved (except for trashing the privy – but that’s another story). We set up our tent, filtered water for tonight and tomorrow, and began to unwind.
We cooked dinner up at the shelter (Good To-Go Herbed Mushroom Risotto)* and played Zombie Fluxx, a card game where the rules and objectives for winning constantly changed. I always enjoy bringing a card game along the trail – the weight isn’t too bad for the entertainment it can provide. We played a few hands (I recall Christine being better at killing zombies than I was) and then went back to our campsite after I hung our bear bag. We started off reading books by headlamp outside our tent (continuing with the zombie trend I was reading Night of the Living Trekkies), but the bugs were awful. We retired to our tent probably around 7:30, read for a little while longer, and went to bed very early. We always typically go to bed around nightfall when backpacking, but hiking with the extra weight always makes you feel a little more physically exhausted.
* Good to Go is a new backpacking food manufacturer. They use healthy ingredients and much less sodium. We thought it was one of the best dehydrated meals we’ve had on the trail! We added a foil packet of chicken breast to our dinner.
Day Two (9.1 miles)…
Day two started earlier than expected (and with the added bonus of a huge, swollen mosquito bite on my eyelid – I looked like I’d been punched!) Like most Boy Scout troops we’ve met along the trail, the one camping near us on this trip was awake, packed up, and on their way before sun-up. This had pros and cons. One con was all the crunching boots and headlamps moving around our tent in the dark. A pro was the opportunity we had to enjoy the creekside in peace and solitude before starting our hike for the day. The solitude also meant I could find a place to dig a cat hole in complete privacy without having to worry about Boy Scouts spotting me! I would have used the privy near the shelter, but let’s just say the privy turned out to be another con of camping near a big scout group. One of them had completely defiled the privy and there was no way I was going in there!
Breakfast was instant oatmeal, honey buns and coffee. I’ve learned the hard way after running out of gas on past backpacking trips that one packet of instant oatmeal (140 calories) is not enough to fuel me across nine miles. The Little Debbie Honey Bun has been a revelation for me. I think it has the magical balance of fat and sugar I need to power through my morning miles. They also hold up great in my pack – no smushing and no crumbling. Some people like a healthier, protein-packed breakfast, but give me a honey bun!
The first five miles of our second day were easy. The terrain was a very gradual overall descent with a couple brief uphill climbs. The first mile or so followed Brown Mountain Creek. The trail followed roughly parallel to the stream for much of the way. I kept thinking how beautiful this area would be when water levels were higher. We eventually crossed the creek via a wooden footbridge. At this spot there was a small, but pretty, waterfall cascading into a plunge pool. The flow was down to a trickle, but it was still a lovely spot.
Departing Brown Mountain Creek, we walked through serene, quiet forest for a couple more miles. There were two small stream crossings along the way. The first didn’t seem to have a name, but the second was Swapping Camp Creek. Both of these creeks end up flowing into the Lynchburg Reservoir. At around 3 miles into our hike, we started seeing glimpses of the reservoir through the trees. We followed an off-trail footpath steeply down to the shores of the water for a couple photos. We saw several herons hunting in the mud. There were ‘no camping’ signs posted everywhere, but there were also several well-used fire rings. I’m guessing there are quite a few people that ignore the regulations and attempt to stealth camp in this area.
We climbed back up to the Appalachian Trail and continued south, skirting the eastern side of the reservoir. At around 4.8 miles we came to the lowest elevation point of our hike – the Pedlar River crossing. The trail crosses the river on a picturesque, bouncy suspension bridge. From the middle of the bridge, we could see early fall colors reflecting from the trees onto the water’s surface. After crossing the bridge, we came out on gravel-surfaced Reservoir Road. We followed that briefly until we spotted another white blaze for the Appalachian Trail.
At this point, we began our toughest climb of the whole 17 miles. The 2-mile ascent of Rice Mountain begins pleasantly enough. The trail follows parallel to Little Irish Creek (which was running low and barely noticeable) and passes through a small plot of old growth forest. There is an extremely weather-beaten sign explaining tree sizes in the area and how the area is used to study the local watershed. Early parts of the climb are well-graded and moderate, but about .75 mile in, the trail pretty much goes straight up the mountain without the moderating benefit of switchbacks. I wanted to push through the climbing and put it behind me, but Adam was ready for a snack. We found some big rocks about 1.5 miles up the mountain and took a candy break. After a half mile more climbing, we reached the ridge of Rice Mountain. The forest was especially pretty along the top of the mountain – very open with lots of nice shade trees.
On the descent of Rice, we had one nice view through the trees. We also saw more brilliant red fall colors and a lot more thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel. There really wasn’t anything remarkable to see or say about our last couple miles of hiking. The terrain was rolling – there was a general uphill trend, but with small downhills as well. There were no views or streams to speak off. The lack of scenery gave me lots of time to fret over my feet. Two toes on my right foot had dislocated earlier in the day and were becoming increasingly painful. With each step, it got a little harder to bear my weight plus the weight of my pack. I think if there had been waterfalls or great views, I would have been more easily able to distract myself. But on this particular day, all I could think was ‘Ouch – when will this hike be over?’
At almost the end, we had one final road crossing at the junction of Robinson Gap Rd. and Panther Falls Rd. After just another third of mile, we came up a small hill and found ourselves back at the parking area for Punchbowl Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to end a hike. It felt great to take my boots off and change into a pair of Oofos. While I enjoyed the great weather, the opportunity to be out, and the nice views from Cole Mountain, this wasn’t one of my favorite backpacking trips.
- Distance – 17.2 miles [Day One] [Day Two]
- Elevation Change – About 2900 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. Mostly for distance, but the descent of Bald Mountain is a real knee-grinder and the climb up Rice Mountain (Day 2) is surprisingly challenging.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is in nice condition all across this stretch of AT.
- Views – 5 (for Day 1) – The views from Cole Mountain are indisputably spectacular. Enjoy them early in your hike… they’ll be the last real views of the trip.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. This was hard to judge because of the unusually dry late summer/early fall. I think under normal circumstances, Brown Mountain Creek would be beautiful with lots of small cascades and rapids.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see any wildlife beyond a cute bullfrog in the creek. But, there was LOTS of bear scat around Brown Mountain Creek Shelter.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Just keep following the white-blazes and pay attention at road crossings/trail junctions to stay on the Appalachian Trail.
- Solitude – 3. We saw quite a few people around Cole Mountain and spent the night at Brown Mountain Creek with a Boy Scout Troop. We saw only one person along the trail on the second day.
Directions to trailhead: Requires a shuttle. We parked one car where the AT crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway near Punchbowl Mountain. This is mile 51.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 6 miles south of where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets with US 60. From this point, we drove our other car back north on the Blue Ridge Parkway for 6.0 miles and took the exit leading us to US-60 East. We headed 4.3 miles on US 60 E before taking a left on SR 634/Coffeytown Road. Follow this for 1.6 miles before taking a right on SR 755/Wiggins Spring Road. Follow this gravel, bumpy road for 2.7 miles until you reach the parking area where the AT crosses the road. Follow the white-blazed Appalachian trail heading south.