Appalachian Trail – Bearfence to Swift Run Gap
The Appalachian Trail from Bearfence Mountain to Swift Run Gap is a nine mile section. It doesn’t really offer any majestic views or pretty stream scenery, but it is a pleasant walk through classic Shenandoah forest.
This post should have been about our backpacking trip to White Rock in George Washington National Forest. We spent all morning on Saturday getting ready – making toiletry kits, forcing our sleeping bags into waterproof stuff sacks, testing batteries in our headlamps, filling our Camelbaks, et cetera. We even drove the nearly two hours over into West Virginia. The forecast called for a 30% chance of spotty showers, however, at the trailhead we found a steady deluge of cold rain. We sat in the car for about an hour and a half, waiting for the rain to pass by. It never did, so we bailed on our backpacking trip and headed home feeling completely bummed out.
The next morning, we woke to drizzle and clouds, but the local weather guy kept saying “Not a washout, don’t cancel outdoor plans, dry air moving into the area.” So, we decided to head out into the gloomy morning and finish our last section of Appalachian Trail in the central district of Shenandoah National Park. We had already hiked three sections – Big Meadows to Bearfence, Skyland to Big Meadows and Skyland to Thornton Gap, so that left the nine miles between Bearfence and Swift Run Gap.
It turned out to be a perfect day for this hike! The drizzle stopped shortly after we arrived in the park, and the cool, overcast weather was ideal for a hike through the woods. I always like cloudy weather when I’m going to be photographing scenes under the tree canopy. The clouds are like a giant softbox – filtering the light and making every scene look softly-lit and shadow-free. Sunny days in the woods always result in spotty/stripy uneven photos – the contrast between light and dark is too much.
It also was a fabulous day for enjoying the amazing display of wildflowers Shenandoah has underway right now. I saw everything from wild violets to expansive carpets of trillium to colorful and rather uncommon yellow lady slippers. The forest floor lining the trail was like an ocean of wildflowers – there were so many. It was so gorgeous! I think I must have said “Can you believe all these flowers!?” to Adam at least five or six times. I don’t think he was as moved as I was! For example, when I spotted the lady slipped, I gasped and said “Oooooh – oh, my gosh – look!” He thought I saw a bear cub, and was duly disappointed when he learned I only saw a flower.
In addition to all the wildflowers, we also saw many birds that we don’t see often down in the valley. We saw two mating pairs of Scarlet Tanagers, several Baltimore Orioles, many Eastern Towhees, Eastern Phoebes and a few Bluebirds.
This section of Appalachian Trail is a good example for why the path is aptly nicknamed ‘The Green Tunnel’. Even though the leaves were not fully out, the trail always felt like a narrow passage cutting through the greenest of greens. Everywhere you walk, trees form an umbrella overhead and ferns, grasses and other understory plants come right up to the trail’s edge. It’s such a peaceful setting.
We didn’t pass any grand views – really, the only spot you could really see off into the distance was one small peek through the trees shortly before passing the Pocosin Cabin. We also didn’t pass any streams bigger than small runnels that could be traversed by a single large step. We also didn’t see many other hikers. We ran into several AT thru-hikers. They’re probably the first of many we’ll see over the next couple months! Late May through the end of June seems to be when most of them pass through Shenandoah.
As we got closer to the South River picnic area, we started seeing a few more people – a man out looking for morels, a few couples walking the South River Falls loop, and lots of picnickers. We stopped at the picnic area and ate our packed lunch. It was a nice place to take a break before knocking out the last three miles of our hike.
Most of the last three miles we hiked just a few months earlier, when we did the Saddleback Mountain loop. There were several places along the trail that I remembered seeing covered with a dusting of snow last time we passed by. Green leaves dramatically change the scene! It didn’t look like the same place at all.
The last couple miles of our hike were all downhill back to Swift Run Gap. Overall, this nine-mile section of trail was really easy walking, with only about 1300 feet of climbing. And although it didn’t have the most impressive scenery, I enjoyed the hike very much. It was a great ‘consolation prize’ for our canceled backpacking trip!
This hike finished our Central District section hike of the Appalachian Trail. Please see our Skyland to Thornton Gap, Skyland to Big Meadows, and Big Meadows to Bearfence entries to read about the entire hike through this section. We hope to continue working on sections in the South and North districts of Shenandoah National Park to complete this section of the AT.
We left one car at the Swift Run Gap entrance to the park and then drove up to the Bearfence Mountain parking lot around mile 56.8 on Skyline Drive (keep in mind there is also a Bearfence Trail parking lot around mile 56.5, so be sure to park at the correct lot). There is a parking lot on both the west and east sides of Skyline Drive. The Appalachian Trail picks up near the parking lot on the eastern side of Skyline Drive. Head south on the white-blazed AT. The trail descends slightly and you will soon come across a spur trail to the Bearfence Mountain Hut, that can be used for overnight backpackers. The .1 mile spur trail is steep and may be slippery on the way down, but it is always interesting to see these huts along the AT. Continue along the AT and the trail ascends slightly. You will be able to see spur trails along the way to the Lewis Mountain Campground and picnic area. After passing by this area, the trail will descend again. At 2.7 miles, you will cross over the Pocosin Fire Road as you start a 500 foot ascent. At the 4.0 mile mark, you will reach the peak of Baldface Mountain and then begin your descent. At 5.5 miles, you will reach the South River Picnic Area to your right. This is a great place to stop and eat a snack or use the restroom. Once you get past the South River picnic area, you will shortly come across another fire road. Take a left at this road to continue on the AT. You will follow this road uphill a short distance and then you will find the entrance back on the AT on the right-hand side of the road. Keep following the AT as it ascends the Saddleback Mountain. You reach the peak of Saddleback Mountain around mile 7 on your hike. You then descend for the next two miles back to the Swift Run Gap station.
The highlights of this hike were really all the bird sightings and the wildflowers. There seemed to be a trillion trillium on the trail. We really enjoyed seeing all the Baltimore Orioles (no sign of Cal Ripken, Jr.) and the Scarlet Tanagers. With the rain being so heavy this spring, the colors were bursting.
We enjoyed hiking the little side trail down to Bearfence Hut and chatting with a group of section hikers. They had spent a rainy night in the shelter and were gearing up to hike another 8+ miles to the Big Meadows area. One of the group was a boy, maybe eight or nine. He asked if we were thru-hikers and talked about how much you have to eat when you’re hiking. It was nice to see a kid learning to love the outdoors.
We also diverted down the trail to Pocosin Cabin for Christine to take a couple photos, but ended up staying only briefly because we didn’t want to disturb the party that had rented the cabin. They had an adorable long-haired German Shepherd puppy named ‘Chance’. He greeted us near the privy and was in full play mode!
I did feel a little out of shape on this hike. It seems that after I hit the seven mile mark, my legs tend to cramp and I have to hobble along the trail. Hopefully this will improve over the next few months. The first part of the hike was great, but then fatigue started to set in for me. Christine has been doing a ton of training with weights and cardio this spring, so she felt really energetic the entire hike. Personally, I thought it was great to see the car at the finish line!
- Distance – 9.25 miles. This includes the shorter spur hikes to Bearfence Hut, Lewis Mountain Campground, Pocosin Cabin and South River Picnic Area
- Elevation Change – 1350 feet in three main climbs.
- Difficulty –2. This is a pleasant and easy section to hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Very nicely maintained and easy to walk. There are several rocky sections.
- Views – 1. You get one decent view near Pocosin Cabin.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 3.5. You will likely see deer and you may even see some black bears during the warmer months.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Follow the white blazes. The one tricky place is where you cross the fire road that leads to South River Spring and the PATC maintenance hut. As you come out on the fire road, follow it downhill to pick the AT back up. You should see a white blaze.
- Solitude – 2. You will likely see people along the trail, especially near South River and Lewis Mountain.
Directions to trailhead: Park at mile 56.8 on Skyline Drive at the Bearfence Mountain parking. The trail begins near the eastern parking lot.