This 12.6 mile hike gives you several breathtaking views to the west and a visit to an AT overnight shelter. Instead of doing our normal ‘Adam Says‘ and ‘Christine Says‘ segments, Adam is going to cover the first day and Christine will cover the second.
From the Elkwallow Wayside, follow the short spur trail at the northern parking lot for .1 miles until it reaches the junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Turn right, heading north and you will almost immediately cross Skyline Drive. The trail begins to climb. At 1.4 miles, the trail crosses Skyline Drive again and continues to climb. At 2.5 miles, the climbing reaches an end as you reach the junction with the Tuscarora Trail. At mile 2.9 and mile 3.2 you will cross Skyline Drive a few more points crossing over Hogback Mountain. At the cross at mile 3.2, you are on a fire road for a very short while (that is used for people bringing in hang gliders) and the AT goes into the woods. At mile 3.4 you reach some nice views and where the hang gliders take off for a descent over the mountains. At mile 3.6, you will reach a junction with a side trail that leads to a spring. The trail begins to descend at this point. At mile 4.3, the trail begins to slightly ascend until you reach a nice viewpoint at mile 4.4. The trail descends again and crosses Skyline Drive again at mile 5.0. At mile 6.0, you reach the side trail which leads .2 miles to the Gravel Springs Hut. For the start of our second day, from the Gravel Springs Hut, rejoin the AT at 6.4 miles. At mile 6.6, the trail crosses Skyline Drive again and continues to ascend. At mile 7.4, you reach a great viewpoint on South Marshall Mountain. The trail continues to climb up and crosses Skyline Drive at mile 8.2. The trail then ascends steeply up North Marshall Mountain and leads to another nice view at 9.4. The trail ascends for another quarter of a mile and then descends steeply down the trail. The trail crosses Skyline Drive again at mile 11.0. The trail ascends over a short bubble of a hill and then reaches the Jenkins Gap Trail junction at mile 12.5. Take a right at this junction and reach the Jenkins Gap Trail parking lot at mile 12.6.
Day One – Adam Says…
I noticed the weather forecast was saying that we had a 0% chance of rain on Friday and only a 10% chance of rain on Saturday. Since we have opted to cancel a few backpacking trips recently due to rain, we felt we couldn’t resist these odds and decided to take the day off work to work on this section of the Appalachian Trail. We had bought two annual park passes last year, with one expiring at the end of May. We felt the pressure of getting this hike in since it required two vehicles for the shuttle.
It took us a while to get our act together to make sure we were ready for the trip. We started loading our packs, made sure we had instructions for our dog sitter, and picked up some lunch along the way from Subway. We drove up to drop a car off at the Jenkins Gap parking lot and then made our way back down to the Elkwallow Wayside. We ate our lunch outside and saw a few thru-hikers that we wondered if we would see later that evening. Christine was really cold sitting in the wind outside the wayside. Her legs were covered with goosebumps and she kept pulling her jacket tighter and tighter around her ribs. She told me that she was really worried about the cooler temperatures, and hoped she would warm up once we started hiking.
We finally started off on our hike around 1:30PM. We strapped on our 30 lb. packs on to our backs and started climbing up the hill. While we had been hearing the loud screams of the seventeen-year cicadas near our house, we were pleasantly surprised to hear they were not out in Shenandoah National Park. We stopped at a few points on the uphill climb to take in the views from Hogback Mountain. One nice thing about this hike is that the views were mostly on the uphill climbs, so it gives you a reason to take off your heavy pack and enjoy the scenery. A couple of thru-hikers we had seen at Elkwallow passed us near the hang glider launch. We’re always amazed at how fast they hike. I guess hiking every day has its pay-offs!
We made our way down the mountain at this point. Backpacking uphill seems to be where you feel the weight the most, but going downhill has its own challenges – you feel the weight differently in your legs and have to be extra careful of your footing. We made it to the Gravel Springs Hut around 4:30PM and checked out the nearby area. There weren’t any other hikers there yet, so we were wondering if we were going to have this all to ourselves that night. We scouted out some of the campsites near the shelter. There were five campsites. We started to pitch our tent at the first campsite, but we realized we wouldn’t have enough of room to put up the fly. And with the night forecast to go into the upper 30’s, we definitely wanted the extra layer of insulation on our tent. We ending up moving to the largest of the sites, but this site was more sloped. We pitched our tent so that our feet were on the lowest, downhill part of the slope. We filtered some water and I began to work on cooking dinner while Christine gathered some kindling for a campfire. In most places in Shenandoah National Park, you can’t set fires in the backcountry, but this shelter had a large stone fireplace. We ate a dinner of Backpacker’s Pantry Sweet and Sour Chicken (which was delicious and definitely something we would have again) and Natural High’s Banana Cream Pie (which we didn’t like the taste or consistency).
One of the highlights of staying at an AT shelter, is the people that you get to meet. Around 5:30, we met our first group of hikers that were planning on staying at the shelter. There was a gentleman named Don from Indiana, who had suffered a knee injury from hiking the AT previously, but was returning for a hike through Shenandoah to Harper’s Ferry to test his knee on an extended trip. He was accompanied by two brothers from Florida. The older brother, Adam had decided to introduce backpacking to his younger brother (who wasn’t enjoying it as much). The original plan was to hike the AT through SNP and return back. However, they had recently decided they would stop at Front Royal and then find a way back to Waynesboro that didn’t involve hiking. Next, two women came along and set up tents at two more of the campsites. They were out on a two night trip and had parked a car nearby so they could slackpack most of the trail. Shortly afterwards, Standing Bear arrived. Standing Bear was a thru-hiker that had started his trip from Georgia around the end of February. He told us a lot that night about how he has been attracting a lot of recent trail magic, from margaritas at a campsite to meals and lodging along the way. He told everyone that he was very good at ‘Yogi-ing‘. We then had another thru-hiker join us named Mountain Goat. When you looked at Mountain Goat’s legs, he just looked like a tough beast and he was working on trying to do over 25 miles a day to finish the trail quickly. As dusk approached, the last group of thru-hikers joined us – Rat Bucket and Sketch. They had purchased a couple of bottles of wine and were making their 6-mile trip from Elkwallow to the hut drinking wine instead of water. They were of course a little happier than most of the hikers when they arrived at the cabin. We hung out for a while, sitting around the campfire and talking about what areas the hikers had enjoyed the most (Grayson Highlands was the unanimous vote) along the way and food (which seems to be a constant discussion with thru-hikers).
Around 9:00, we headed back to our tent. I continued to read my book that I have been only reading while backpacking – a book of John Muir’s writings and Christine listened to her iPod. We fell asleep to the sound of nearby owls. The slope really affected my sleeping as my fitted sheet for my air mattress kept coming off and I would wake up in fetal position at the bottom of the tent and would have to fight back up to the top.
Day Two – Christine Says…
I woke up as soon as the birds started chirping and the first hints of light filtered through the trees. It was cold, so I pulled my sleeping bag tighter around me and cinched its hood around my head. I had slept really well despite the fact I had repeatedly slid downhill to the bottom of the tent. I heard others nearby starting to stir as well – tent zippers sliding, the privy door slamming and the whoosh of camp stoves firing up. I didn’t want to leave the warmth of the tent, but I did. There’s always so much that needs done to break down camp before eating breakfast.
Adam and I are usually pretty efficient and can have our whole campsite broken down and backpacks repacked within about half an hour. The first step is always to shove our sleeping bags back into their stuff sacks. Then we repack our sheets, crunch down our pillows and let the air out of the sleeping pads. Once the bedding is stowed away, we pack up the tent and any clothing that was left strewn about the site. Yes… we really carry all this stuff! As you might have guess, we are not lightweight backpackers. We carry a lot of creature comforts and luxury items (pillows, sheets, chairs, books, card games, etc). When we go on longer trips, we’re really going to have to reevaluate our gear and make some sacrifices. 🙂
When we walked down to breakfast, our backpacks were pretty much fully loaded and ready to go for the day. The only things left to pack were our food, dishes, stove and water filter – and we always keep those items near the top of our packs. When we got down to the hut, almost everyone was already up and working on breakfast. We got our two bags (trash and food/other stuff that has a scent) down from the bear hang and joined the rest of the group at the picnic table. Breakfast was coffee and instant apple cinnamon oatmeal. You see a lot of oatmeal and granola at backpacker breakfasts. Clif bars and bagels are pretty popular too. Although, this particular morning, one pair of hikers even had a container of fresh berries!
Adam and I were the first to leave the hut. We climbed up the short, but steep, access trail back to the AT and headed north. The early part of the morning’s hike took us past several gorgeous views from the Marshalls. We spent time at each of them, taking photos and enjoying the cool, crystal-clear morning. While we were at the first view, Rat Bucket caught up with us. We took a photo of him and he returned the favor for us before heading quickly down the trail. Once again, I marveled at the speed and distance covered by thru-hikers. Most of these folks are covering 20-28 miles a day through Shenandoah National Park.
At the next view, Mountain Goat caught up and passed us. He only briefly stopped to check out the vista. I guess when you hike big miles, you don’t have time to meander and pause at every pretty spot along the trail. While we were stopped at this spot, we had a quick snack of PowerBar Energy Blasts. They’re basically caffeinated gummy candy, but the website makes them sound like they magically give you Lance Armstrong-like endurance and help your muscles recover. Maybe they don’t do all that, but they sure do taste good! And they have sugar and caffeine – both of which seem to help me hike stronger.
At the third viewpoint, Standing Bear passed us, but we ended up leapfrogging him a little further down the trail and didn’t see him again. Nor did we see any of the other folks from the hut. All but two people staying at Gravel Springs had been northbound, so I suppose they just stayed at camp a bit later.
The trail was so beautiful and lush and green! Even when there wasn’t a view to enjoy, the hike itself was so lovely. The climbs were never too hard and the descents were never too steep. We crossed Skyline Drive several times. We saw lots of dayhikers… two of them were even dressed in their ‘Sunday Best’ clothing. They were walking south along the trail, not in the vicinity of any views or special attractions. Neither of them looked in the least bit happy and both of them looked hot and uncomfortable. I see people like that and wonder if this hike was a spontaneous decision. I wonder if they know where they’re going, or if they just set out on a trail thinking ‘Hmmm… if I walk on a trail, eventually I’ll see something!’
We made it back to our car at Jenkins Gap around 10:30 or so. We had plans to meet my parents at Skyland for a Mother’s Day lunch at noon, so I brushed my hair and changed into my less-dirty clothes. We had plenty of time to kill, so we stopped by the Elkwallow wayside for more snacks and drinks. When we got to Skyland, it wasn’t even 11:30, so we relaxed in the lobby until they arrived. We had a nice lunch together and then headed home. It was a fun trip, and I can’t believe we only have several more miles of Appalachian Trail to hike in Shenandoah!
- Distance – 12.6 miles
- Elevation Change – 1900 feet.
- Difficulty – 3. Despite the two big climbs of elevation, we didn’t feel that it was overly difficult.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great condition and was well-maintained. There were only a few rocky areas that you had to worry about footing.
- Views – 4.5. We were impressed with the views along this section. The best views were from South Marshall Mountain, but there were probably 4-5 areas to take in the expansive views.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. There were no streams or rivers nearby, but there was a reliable water source at Gravel Springs Hut.
- Wildlife – 3. Someone had written in the hut trail journal they had seen a few bears on the way down to the hut that day. We did see a deer and the woods were filled with pileated woodpeckers, owls, and other birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There are some side trails, but just consult the cement posts to keep following the Appalachian Trail.
- Solitude – 3. We ran into most of the people around the Jenkins Gap to North Marshall mountain. I would imagine this would be fairly popular since it is closer to the northern end of Shenandoah National Park.
Directions to trailhead: Park one vehicle at the Jenkins Gap lot at mile 12 on Skyline Drive. Then travel down south to mile 24 at Elkwallow Gap Wayside. The spur trail to the Appalachian Trail starts from the northern parking lot.