Appalachian Trail – Big Meadows to Bearfence
This 8+ mile segment along the Appalachian trail offers a couple nice views, a visit to an old cemetery and the opportunity to cross over one of the park’s most fun rock scrambles.
This winter, we planned to hike the 100+ miles of the Appalachian Trail leading through Shenandoah National Park. Sadly, our grand plans have been foiled by frequent closures of Skyline Drive. As mentioned in our last post, the road through the park closes if there is even a slight threat of a dusting of snow. So, this is the first section of AT that we’ve hiked since our Skyland to Big Meadows hike last spring.
We started out at the Big Meadows campground, leaving one car parked there and our other car parked at the southern terminus of our hiking route. The no-fee weekend made doing this segment hike logistically easier. We’d actually been planning to buy a second park pass to accommodate our need for two cars to do these segment hikes. The Big Meadows area was covered with a thin dusting of snow. The whole area was eerily quiet – no campers, no cars, the lodge and restaurants closed for the season. We saw so many bucks hanging out together in small groups – friends again after the animosity of mating season. One especially majestic buck greeted us at the trailhead. He watched us quizzically for a few moments before bounding back into the woods.
The trail was frosted with snow, and our footprints were (in many places) the first human ones set into the path. We saw lots of animal tracks along the way – deer, coyote, turkey, rabbit and bobcat. It took about the first half-mile of walking for me to warm up enough to be comfortable. Within the first mile, we passed two of the three viewpoints on our eight mile route. Both lookouts are directly behind the Big Meadows lodge area, and look into the western valley. I’m always struck by how barren winter is in our area when I get a sweeping view on a January hike. As far as the eye can see, everything is brown and faded – bare trees and a pale winter sky. Winter in places with lots of evergreens is so much prettier!
After a couple miles of hiking, we reached a cemetery – the largest I’ve seen within park boundaries. There were lots of people with the last name “Meadows” buried in this one. One tombstone was engraved with the name “Fairy Meadows” – a woman who lived in the early part of the twentieth century. What a neat name!
After leaving the cemetery, we made our way toward Milam Gap. We encountered a hiker dressed all in camouflage. He had a camera with a long lens and was headed in the direction of the cemetery. We could see his footprints in the snow. They were the only human prints in the snow coming from the opposite direction. The odd thing is… they disappeared abruptly and were replaced by dog tracks. There was no trail junction or other place he could have come onto the trail where the boot prints changed to dog prints. So… here’s my theory — werewolf of Shenandoah! I’m all for starting a new myth or legend. 🙂
I knew we were getting close to Milam Gap when we started seeing wizened, old apples in the snow. The area around the gap has many apple trees from an old orchard before the area was incorporated into the park. At the Milam Gap parking lot, we took a break to drink some water, stretch and look at our map. After a short rest, we crossed Skyline Drive and began the long climb up Hazeltop Mountain.
Along the way up we passed a few people at a backcountry campsite. In fact, we saw a couple groups of people on winter backpacking trips. I guess that camping in the snow could be fun, but I’ll just have to take their word for it. You can’t even have a fire in the backcountry in the park. It seems awfully bleak to go out and sleep in the snow without a campfire. I think I’ll stick to fair-weather backpacking.
The snow got sort of deep near the summit of Hazeltop Mountain. It was hard work climbing uphill in the snow. This summit has no view or marker. In fact, the only reason you know you’ve reached it is that the uphill climbing ends.
After the descent from Hazeltop, the hike continues on mostly flat terrain for a while until you get to Bearfence Mountain. For this stretch of of the hike, you’ll be pretty close to Skyline Drive. The road is often in view from the trail. You’ll climb a moderately steep slope until meeting up with the Bearfence Trail junction. If you have the time and energy, it’s worth taking the Bearfence trail loop across the rock scramble. You’ll get a third, beautiful, panoramic view from the scramble. The Bearfence trail crosses the AT again on the opposite side of the scramble, so taking this option doesn’t really add any mileage. Because of the snow on the ground, we opted to skip the scramble and stick to the AT. It was probably a good choice, because we found the trail across Bearfence mountain to be very icy. The ice was concealed by snow and was extremely slippery. I had a startling moment along this stretch of trail when I encountered a dead skunk wrapped around a tree branch. At first I thought it was a live skunk and I was about to be sprayed, but I was soon left wondering how on earth a dead skunk ended up there. Could a hawk have swooped it up and then dropped it? I really have no idea…
From this point, the trail meanders away from Skyline Drive, making the hike longer than you would expect it to be at this point. From Bearfence, the trail zig-zags down via a series of switchbacks. This section of trail is lined by rhododendrons, mountain laurels and hemlocks. It was really the only greenery we saw along the way. Eventually, the trail empties out into the parking lot marking the end of this section of Appalachian Trail.
It was a fun day and great to be out hiking again! The thing that has struck me so far with our two trail segments is how easy to moderate the AT is through Shenandoah. I’ve always heard thru-hikers remark that Shenandoah is “flat” and “all the mountain summits require more than 200 feet of climbing”. Those claims are a bit of a stretch, but walking the AT through Shenandoah is definitely much easier than hiking the blue and yellow blazed trails in the park.
With Shenandoah National Park having a free weekend, we took advantage and drove two cars up so we could do a shuttle hike to cover more ground. We dropped off our first vehicle at the small parking lot near the Bearfence Mountain Hut at mile 56.8 on the western side. Keep in mind, this is not the main Bearfence Trail parking, which is around mile marker 56.4. We then combined into one car and drove to the Big Meadows Campground. The campground was closed, so we had to walk through the parking lot at the picnic area until we made it to the short spur trail that leads to the Appalachian Trail. We started on the trail heading south to make it back to the car. The Appalachian Trail is always marked with white blazes. The trail at this point is relatively flat. You’ll begin to see the lodge to the left and in about .3 miles, you’ll reach a junction with the Lewis Springs Falls Trail. Just continue on the AT. Around .5 miles, you will start seeing some lovely views of the valley below. There is a short path on the left side of the trail that is marked with a post for a view from Blackrock. This trail is often closed due to the nesting of peregrine falcons. If you decide to add this overlook, it is an uphill .2 miles to the view. The trail shortly begins to descend about 300 feet over the next mile.
At 1.7 miles, you will reach the Tanners Ridge Administrative Road. You will see to your right a large family cemetery. It is nice that families that once lived on the mountain are still allowed to be buried here. I can’t think of a more restful spot than being placed in a national park. Pick up the AT directly across the road and continue south. At mile 2.7, you will come to the Milam Gap parking lot. You will cross Skyline Drive from here to continue on the AT. The trail begins a gradual climb that will gain about 550 feet of elevation over 2 miles. At mile 4.7, you will reach the summit of Hazeltop Mountain. We did not see a marker for the summit, but you will know that you have passed it when you start descending again. The descent is more severe as you lose about 600 feet of elevation in .6 miles. At 5.3 miles, you will reach the junction with Bootens Gap (a parking lot and a horse trail).
The trail ascends again and at 6.8 miles, you will reach the junction with the Bearfence Mountain Trail. Stay on the AT heading south. After the junction, you reach the steepest and slickest ascent over the rock-covered trail. Passing the Bearfence rock scramble on your left, you will continue to rise for another . 4 miles. At mile 7.3, you will begin to descend and it is less than a mile back to the parking lot and your vehicle.
The trail was more difficult than I was expecting. I had first thought that we should do about 10 miles of the trail, but snow on the trail made for harder work. The most snow was up on Hazeltop Mountain, which we saw some remains of snowshoe tracks. While our feet didn’t sink deeply in the snow at any point, it made for tricky footing and sometimes you had to lift your legs up a little higher than normal. At some point, I slipped through some frosty areas and wrenched my knee slightly. Hiking up and down Bearfence was quite tough for me, but I’m glad we didn’t do an extra two miles.
One aspect of the trail that I thoroughly enjoyed was being able to see coyote tracks on the trail. We’ve seen a coyote up in this area frequently during the fall. While some local farmers hate the nearby coyotes for their predatory habits, I enjoy seeing them in the protected park area. I also enjoyed seeing several bucks along the trail that greeted us at the beginning of our hike and followed nearby for the first mile of the trail.
The one regret I had during our hike was that I forgot to pack my Jetboil stove. I would have liked to have paused and had some hot chocolate along the way in the snow.
- Distance – 8.25 miles
- Elevation Change – about 1000 feet
- Difficulty – 2.5. There are several climbs of 500-600 feet, but the trail is mostly easy walking.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Since most is on the AT, the trail is very well-maintained.
- Views – 2.5 We enjoyed the western views near Big Meadows.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 3.5. We saw lots of impressive bucks and saw coyote tracks in the snow.
- Ease to Navigate –5. Just follow the white blazes!
- Solitude –3.5. You may see some hikers on the AT due to the proximity to Big Meadows. Bearfence is also a popular hike, so you’ll likely see people in that area as well.
Directions to trailhead: We left one vehicle at mile 56.8 in the small parking lot on the western side of Skyline Drive. We then drove to Big Meadows and followed the signs to the Big Meadows campground. Normally, you can drive right up to the trailhead. It is on the westernmost side of the parking lot of the picnic area at the campground.