Appalachian Trail – Powell Gap to Swift Run Gap

This section of the Appalachian Trail gives you stunning views from the summit of Hightop Mountain.

Summit of Hightop Mountain
Adam and Wookie enjoy the summit of Hightop Mountain.

Adam Says…

We started off our hike by parking one car at the Swift Run Gap entrance and one car near the Powell Gap trailhead around mile marker 70 on Skyline Drive.  The trail immediately starts with going uphill.  Get used to it, because 3.6 miles of this hike is uphill.  You gain 1250 feet of elevation during this stretch.  For 1.7 miles, the hike from Powell Gap until you cross Skyline Drive again at Smith Roach Gap was overgrown in many parts.  I can imagine that maintaining this section of trail was more challenging this year with all the rain, but we wish we had a weed-whacker with us to keep the grass and weeds from brushing up against our legs.  The mountain laurel during this section was so abundant.  It gave good cause to pause from huffing and puffing up the trail.  After crossing Skyline Drive and continuing the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, you will continue your ascent.  The trail was not as overgrown in this section.  At mile 2.7, you will reach a blue-blazed spur trail that leads to the Hightop Hut, adding .2 mile to your hike.  At mile 3.6, you will reach the summit of Hightop Mountain which has an overlook with valley views.  The trail begins to descend at this point, through some slightly-rocky terrain.  At 5.1 miles, you will cross Skyline Drive again.  Continue to follow the trail until you reach Swift Run Gap at 6.4 miles.

Wookie on the Appalachian Trail
Wookie on the Appalachian Trail.  Below:  The mountain laurel were gorgeous along the trail.

Mountain Laurel Walking along the AT

I really think Wookie enjoyed himself on this trip.  It was his longest hike ever, but he pushed on through. We are always amazed at how we think he would be exhausted for the rest of the day, but he runs around the house as soon as he gets home like a puppy on crack.  I think it is his way of boasting to our other dogs that he got to do something fun.

The views are always nice at the top of Hightop Mountain.  This trail does get some decent traffic (especially in the area between Swift Run Gap and the summit), since it is really the first hike you could possibly do in the southern section of the park if you are driving from the north.  We had met the thru-hiker “Shenanigans” at Hightop Hut, who talked to us for a while.  He had heard of the Bearfence Mountain hut being closed.  Rangers had put up a sign letting people know that the hut was closed, which helps the thru-hikers plan on where they were staying next.  His goal was to make it up to Big Meadows, which would have given him a hike of close to 30 miles for the day.  We went to check out the Trail Days festivities at Big Meadows Lodge and talked to one of the ridgerunners.  These ridgerunners are hired by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club to basically hike the maintained trails through the area, talking to hikers, and checking in on the huts/cabins along the way.  He told us that the Bearfence hut was going to be re-opened, so hopefully Shenanigans had a closer place to stay if he wasn’t feeling like doing a ton of miles that day.

Christine Says…

A couple days after we returned from our Virginia Highlands trip, we decided we were ready to go for another hike.  After all, June 4th was National Trails Day, and we couldn’t let the day go by without hiking somewhere.  We didn’t want to go anyplace that required a lot of driving.  We also wanted to do something shorter, so we could bring Wookie along.  Pugs are not the best hiking dogs, but Wookie always enjoy accompanying us on less strenuous hikes on cooler days.  In the end, we settled on another Appalachian Trail section.  Swift Run Gap is only a 10-15 minute drive from our house, so we decided to do the 6.4 mile section between Powell Gap and Swift Run Gap.

Hightop Hut
We stopped at Hightop Hut and chatted with the thru-hiker ‘Shenanigans’.  Below: One of the Skyline Drive crossings; Columbine in bloom.

Crossing Skyline Drive Blooming Columbine

This section of trail is about 65% uphill.  It’s never unbearably steep uphill, but for almost the first four miles, you are almost always climbing.  The trail goes by one nice view, from the summit of Hightop Mountain.  It also takes you by Hightop Hut, which is another overnight stop for multi-night backpackers and thru-hikers.

On the particular day we hiked, much of the trail was lined with mountain laurel at their peak bloom.  2011 has been a fantastic year for mountain laurel.  Spectacular, abundant, lush blooms have been everywhere across the mountains.

At the summit of Hightop Mountain, we encountered two hikers and their dog.  Their dog clearly wanted to eat Wookie for breakfast, so we were extra glad she was leashed!  We enjoyed the views and the breezes.  Hightop has a great view of Massanutten Mountain – one of the most distinct and impressive mountains on our local skyline.

After Hightop, the last couple miles of the hike were pretty easy – lots of downhills and flat.  We were back at the car by lunchtime, so we decided to drive up to the Big Meadows area to have lunch and check out the PATC display for Trails Day.

We were able to say hello to one of our instructors from Backpacking 101.  We also chatted with trail maintenance crews and participated in a demo of their big two-man saw.  We happened to catch one of the ridgerunners at a ranger display and were able to chat with him about a bear incident we heard about near Bearfence Mountain Shelter.  Apparently, a bear was getting too bold for his own good near the shelter.  He had even started exploring tents in search of food.  The last straw was when the bear destroyed an unoccupied tent belonging to a thru-hiker.  The bear was trapped and transported to a less populated area of the park.  While rangers worked on trapping the bear, the shelter was closed, forcing hikers to push on another 10-12 miles to the next shelter.

We enjoyed a nice picnic lunch at Big Meadows – burgers, fries and blackberry milkshakes (YUM!).

wookieWookie Says…

This is the first time in quite a while that I’ve been invited out on a hike!  It was a nice cool morning, so Christine and Adam decided to bring me along on a 6.4 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail.  It’s the longest hike I’ve ever been on!

I had a lot of fun trotting along the trail.  I like walking second in line, because I feel safer between my two humans.

When we got to Hightop Hut, I considered stealing some trailmix from the thru-hiker, but Christine wouldn’t let me.  Instead, I got to drink a bowl of water from my collapsible dog dish.  On the summit of Hightop Mountain, I met a big, black and white spotted dog.  She was really loud and scary.  I think she would have attacked me if she had free run.  Being so small, I always appreciate dog owners that follow the rules and keep their canine hiking companions on six foot leashes.

On the last mile of the hike, I started getting really tired.  I could barely hold the curl in my tail, I was so exhausted.  When we got back to the car, I stretched out on the floor between Christine’s feet and took a nap until we got to Big Meadows.

At lunch, I even got some well-earned treats – a few fries and some of Christine’s burger patty. I would have liked to taste a blackberry milkshake, but I don’t think anyone was willing to share.  Lots of people wanted to pet me and say hello at National Trails Day.  I guess hiking pugs are sort of unusual!

Trail Notes

  • Distance 6.4 miles one-way with a shuttle required.
  • Elevation Change – 1250 feet
  • Difficulty – 2.5  The trail is over halfway uphill, with a few steeper sections.
  • Trail Conditions – 3The trail between Powell Gap to Smith Roach Gap was overgrown.  Otherwise the trail is fairly well-maintained, but there are a few loose rock sections going downhill.
  • Views – 4.  Great views.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw a few deer and a scarlet tanager on the trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5. Just stay on the Appalachian Trail. 
  • Solitude – 2.5  The promixity to the beginning of the south district of Shenandoah National Park make this popular for the last three miles of the trail.

Directions to trailhead: On Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, go to mile 70 in the South District of the Park.  Park on the side of the road, near the sign for Powell Gap.  You will see the beginning of the trail on the eastern side of the road.  Follow the white blazes.

4 thoughts on “Appalachian Trail – Powell Gap to Swift Run Gap

  1. Pam

    I can’t believe there is another hiker pug. We had one who LOVED to hike and did many miles with us. Everyone was quite shocked a pug would hike. We lost him last year. Pugs imprint on your heart. Happy Trails!


    • virginiatrailschristine

      Awww – that’s so great to hear about another hiking pug. Wookie is older now, and mostly retired from the trail, but he still loves mini hikes. I’m sorry you lost your pug last year. I hope he had a long, happy life. 🙂


  2. Trail Sherpa

    Great trail report and awesome pics! I’m from PA but now live in Las Vegas. Much different terrain here but I really enjoy seeing the photos from hikers like you that still get to put boot to trail along the AT. Thanks for sharing this report!

    Stop by our community of hikers and backpackers at when you have a chance. Your reports and the level of detail would be a great addition to the conversations.


  3. jasonshukis

    I’ve never heard of the concept of ridgerunners, that’s a really neat program. The picture of Wookie with the mountain laurel in the background reminds of a certain stretch of our hike in April. I remember being awestruck at a few of the dense thickets we passed through and trying to imagine how impressive it must be in-season. And by the way, I can sympathize with your desire for a weed-whacker. I did a hike a few weeks ago notorious for harboring blood-thirsty ticks and I groaned every time I had to crash through some overgrown brush.


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