Appalachian Trail – Powell Gap to Loft Mountain
This post covers the ten miles from Powell Gap to Loft Mountain, with an overnight stop at the Pinefield Hut. Sleeping inside a hut is typically something reserved for people out on multi-night trips, so we tented in a spot uphill from the hut. Hut sites offer the convenience of a spring-fed water source or stream (usually), a picnic table to cook on, a place to have a campfire (the only permissible place in Shenandoah’s backcountry) and access to a privy (no catholes to dig).
Adam and Christine Say …
We’ve found that with our backpacking trips, it’s usually easier to combine our thoughts into one large post. Here we go!
Even though this backpacking trip was scheduled weeks ago, we weren’t sure until the last minute that we were actually going to pull it off. It rained all week, Adam was having back spasms, our friends couldn’t make the trip and we were both coming off a particularly busy week at work. Sitting in the air-conditioned house, pajama-clad, and watching TV from the couch seemed quite a bit more appealing than heading out into the damp, buggy woods with 30+ pounds of gear strapped to our backs.
The thing that ultimately tipped the scale in favor of hitting the trail for an overnighter was actually all the 9/11 anniversary coverage. When Friday morning rolled around, Christine was feeling overwhelmingly sad. All week long, virtually every news outlet had been covering 9/11 – bringing all the horrific imagery and stories back to the forefront. Remembering and paying tribute is important to her, and she felt drawn to having a quiet, peaceful place to reflect without seeing any more images of people dying or cities burning. We both wanted to be in the woods – away from the TV, away from the internet, away from the radio.
We had a leisurely Saturday morning. Christine made a big breakfast with eggs and biscuits (for Adam), blueberry pancakes (for herself) and bacon (for both of us). After cleaning up dishes, Christine packed our camp food into Ziploc bags and put together bathroom kits. Adam worked on loading our backpacks. We decided to eat lunch at home and then headed off to the park around 1:00. We chose to hike south along the Appalachian Trail from Powell Gap to Loft Mountain, with an overnight stop at the Pinefield Hut. We brought two cars into the park to make the trip logistically easier, parking the return car at the Loft Mountain wayside.
We left one car in the grassy field next to the trail entrance at Powell Gap. After doing last minute pack checks, we headed off. The trail climbs immediately upward from the gap. You gain about 300 feet in just a few tenths of a mile. Within the first half mile, you pass a pretty eastern-facing view of the valley below. We stopped and made some pack adjustments. Adam insisted on taking over the burden of carrying our extra water. The south district of Shenandoah is famously dry, so we hauled a 3 liter Nalgene canteen so we’d have plenty of water for cooking and hiking on Sunday. Even with all the rain, we weren’t sure if the spring at the hut would be running. Christine bickered with Adam over the extra weight of the water, because she didn’t want him to make his back pain worse. In the end, he won and we headed down the trail with the extra 6.6 pounds of water hooked and freely swinging from a carabiner on the back of his pack. He was definitely carrying too much and it did slow his pace down a bit!
The Appalachian Trail between Powell Gap and Pinefield Hut is pretty uneventful. There are a few road crossings, several climbs and descents, and just the one open view. Most of the trail is just typical walking along a forest trail – pretty, but not remarkable.
On the descent toward Simmons Gap, a black shape caught Christine’s eye. She turned back and mouthed ‘BEAR!’ to Adam. Sure enough, a handsome yearling bear was perched on the hillside, quietly watching us pass. She managed to get an OK photo of the bear, but he was really too far up the hillside for our pocket camera’s zoom capabilities. We stood still and had a little stare-down with the bear for a few moments before he turned and lumbered up the hill. We’ve decided the park has two kinds of bears: 1) indifferent bears and 2) scared bears. The scared bears run as soon as a human comes into view. Indifferent bears may cast you a sidelong glance, but otherwise ignore you and continue along with whatever they were doing before you spotted them. We like the indifferent bears; they’re easier to photograph! We’ve never come across an aggressive bear in Shenandoah – thankfully.
At the trail crossing near the Simmons Gap Ranger Station, we stopped and had a snack of cashews. The cement post indicated that we had 2.2 miles to cover before reaching Pinefield Hut. We figured we’d make it there well before dinner time. As we were sitting on the grass eating cashews, another backpacker came up to us and asked which way it was to reach Brown Gap. We pointed the way (12 miles to the south), rested for a few more minutes and then continued. The trail climbing out of Simmons Gap was probably the hardest climbing of the day, but still fairly moderate. Christine noticed that Adam was really struggling with his pack weight, so we made some more adjustments and she took the big Nalgene canteen back.
As we continued climbing, we spotted the hiker headed toward Brown Gap stopped in the middle of the trail. We didn’t see anything, so we continued climbing until we were right behind him. He turned and said ‘There’s a rattlesnake on the trail!’ Christine replied ‘Ooooh, where?’ But as soon as she peered over his shoulder, she immediately saw the large snake laid out, almost completely spanning the trail. He wasn’t moving or rattling. We speculated that maybe he was dead or in a state of torpor. We stood and looked at him for a good five minutes. Finally Adam climbed off the side of the trail, making a wide arc around the snake (since he is definitely more fearful of snakes than Christine). Christine followed suit, as did the other hiker. As soon as we all passed, the snake slowly slithered off the trail and coiled up in the leaves about a foot off the path. We got a few exciting photos of the snake before we headed off to finish our climb uphill.
Eventually the trail leveled off for a while before gently descending to Pinefield Gap. Climbing downhill, we both noticed how much bear scat there was along the trail. This area obviously has a pretty healthy population of black bears. After one final road crossing, we had just two tenths of a mile left until we got to the shelter.
Pinefield Shelter lies just a couple hundred yards off the AT. As we were walking down the side path to the shelter, we heard voices and laughter. We were greeted at the shelter by six other hikers – a mix of thru-hikers, section hikers and weekenders. Peak use of AT shelters happens May- June, so we were a little surprised to see so many people at Pinefield. Everyone was really friendly and they already had a great campfire going. We chose a tent site up the steep hill behind the shelter.
We quickly set up the tent, inflated our sleeping pads and fluffed our bags before heading back down to the shelter to socialize and cook dinner. We had a repeat favorite dinner from Backpacker’s Pantry – Pad Thai and Chocolate Cheesecake for dessert. Two of the others hikers in for the night, Brendan and Ayla, had purchased a bag of marshmallows and were roasting them over the fire. Talk centered heavily on food for much of the evening. If there is one thing hikers have in common, it’s hunger! We set our camp chairs near the fire and enjoyed an evening of conversation and a little music. Ayla had a flute and Brendan carried a small guitar. It was a pleasant evening, and you really can’t beat a good campfire!
Sometime after dark, we climbed back up the hill to our tent by the light of Adam’s headlamp. Christine listened to the new book in the Game of Thrones series on her iPod and Adam continued to read his John Muir book. As we relaxed in the tent, we began to notice that our tent site wasn’t quite flat. It was on just enough of a slope that you can feel, even if you can’t see it!
Christine had a decent night of sleep – occasionally waking to the hoot of an owl or the sound of Adam thrashing around next to her. He didn’t sleep well at all! He still hasn’t figured out the best way to get comfortable with his sleeping set-up. In the morning, everything had shifted to the downhill side of the tent. Adam was crammed up along the tent wall and Christine was practically on top of him!
Almost everyone was up early, cooking breakfast and packing up their gear. We took down our tent and shoved everything back into our packs. We fired up our JetBoil and made oatmeal and coffee. We didn’t even use all the extra water we had hauled down to camp, so we shared with everyone else. Incidentally, the spring was running at Pinefield so we didn’t even need to carry all that extra water. Oh well… better safe than sorry.
Our second day of hiking was a little tougher, but a little more rewarding in terms of views and scenery. Ivy Creek, which we passed near the end of the hike, was actually running much more than usual Our packs were lighter, since most of the food and water were gone. The forest was beautiful and misty, with golden sunrays cutting down between the trees. Spider webs covered with dew glistened in the morning sun. We crossed paths with the hiker we had met at Simmons Gap the day before. He was headed north, and looking for water. We were kind of surprised, because he must have passed at least three decent water sources that morning returning from Brown Gap.
We reached the junction of the AT and the trail down to the Ivy Creek maintenance building around 10:15 a.m. It was a quick downhill walk of .6 miles back to Skyline Drive. We got to the Loft Mountain Wayside around 10:30. Even though it was still on the early side, we wanted lunch! The cook behind the counter was nice enough to make us fries and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches even though they were technically still serving breakfast. It really hit the spot!
After lunch we passed through the gift shop and picked up a couple 75th Anniversary Shenandoah souvenirs – a magnet and a Christmas ornament. We’d been meaning to get something from the anniversary all season. Park shops are only open for a few more weeks, so we figured it was now or never.
We were back home before 1:00, which was perfect! We had the rest of the day to relax and clean up before heading back to work on Monday.
- Distance – 10 miles
- Elevation Change – 2500 feet over five different climbs
- Difficulty – 3. Mostly uphill climbing on this hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in pretty good shape. Some areas were slightly overgrown and there were a few tree blowdowns, but otherwise, it was fine.
- Views – 3.5. Some nice eastern views on the climb up from Powell Gap and nice western views near the Rockytop overlook.
- Wildlife – 4. We saw many signs of bears along the trail (and saw one), we saw our first timber rattlesnake, and several pileated woodpeckers.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Not many turns on the Appalachian Trail, but a few turns to make it to the Loft Mountain wayside.
- Solitude – 4. You will likely see people near Powell Gap and Loft Mountain, but not a lot in between.
Directions to trailhead: Mile 70 on Skyline Drive, park in the large field. You’ll see the post for the Appalachian Trail from the lot and head south.