Appalachian Trail – Hog Camp Gap to Punchbowl Mountain
This 17 mile overnight backpacking trip had beautiful views from Cole Mountain within the first two miles of the hike. The rest of the hike was less scenic – mostly walking through quiet woods and along seasonally low streams. The Lynchburg Reservoir and the swinging bridge over the Pedlar River were noteworthy features on the second day. Adam will cover day one and Christine will take over with day two!
Day One (8.1 miles)…
We started off our trip by leaving one car where the AT crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Punchbowl Mountain overlook. From the lot, we could see the AT southbound, but we didn’t see where we would return to our car from the north. It turns out it was just below us on the other side of the parking lot, but the morning fog made it a little hard to spot. We dropped our car off and then headed to Hog Camp Rd, to start our journey.
From Hog Camp Gap, we headed south on the Appalachian Trail. The trail started off through a wooded section uphill, fairly steeply in some parts. Around 1.1 miles, the trail opened up to the beautiful, wide-open bald clearing that is Cole Mountain. We have hiked Cole Mountain before as a loop and I do think it is one of the more under-appreciated hikes in Virginia. The panoramic vistas make this look like something you would picture in an outdoors magazine. You can’t help but want to stop and take a look at the scenery around you. The way we split this section might not have been the best plan for enjoying vistas. We knew we had the best views of the trip done in the first 1.5 miles of the hike. But that is one of the biggest lessons I learned from hiking this section – you have to hold on to what you may have just seen, because there is no certainty about what is to come ahead.
After reaching the summit of Cole Mountain, the trail descends and again enters the forest. Around 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a spur trail that led to the Cow Camp Gap overnight shelter and a water source. We continued on the trail which starts an ascent up Bald Mountain. We reached the summit at 3.5 miles and were hoping for some nice views at the top, but found that Bald Mountain wasn’t very bald (there were a few obstructed views through the trees). We found a clearing and camp spot and had our lunch there before continuing on. The rest of the day, the trail was a descent so our climbing was done (at least until tomorrow).
We crossed over USFS 507 at 5.5 miles and eventually came to US 60 and the Long Mountain wayside at mile 6.3. We stopped at one of the picnic tables and took a break to eat a snack and give our backs a relief from the weight. Local people just park on the roadside here and have a picnic at this spot. It is also a way to do a longer out-and-back to Cole Mountain without parking or driving on a rough, gravel road. After resting, we crossed US 60, spotting a sign for the continuation of the Appalachian trail to the right. We continued our descent and at 7.1 miles, we reached Browns Creek, a reliable water source for a good stretch of trail. At 8.2 miles, we reached the Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, our stop for the night.
The Brown Mountain Creek area is interesting from a historical/archaeological standpoint. Much of the land along the creek was part of a large plantation predating the Civil War. After the war, the land was primarily a settlement for freed African-Americans. Houses, farms, orchards and even a gristmill could be found along the creek. You can still see stone walls/stairs, pieces of metal, and other artifacts along the creek.
When we first got to the shelter, there was still a smoldering fire in the fire pit, so we realized someone had been there recently. We also noticed a large pile of fresh bear scat next to the shelter. While we didn’t think a bear had been roasting marshmallows by the fire, we felt it may be wise to not set up camp directly at the shelter. We found a nice campsite right by the creek and decided that would be a better spot. There was a boy scout troop that was camping on the other side of the creek. We worried about them being too loud over the course of the night, but they were fairly well-behaved (except for trashing the privy – but that’s another story). We set up our tent, filtered water for tonight and tomorrow, and began to unwind.
We cooked dinner up at the shelter (Good To-Go Herbed Mushroom Risotto)* and played Zombie Fluxx, a card game where the rules and objectives for winning constantly changed. I always enjoy bringing a card game along the trail – the weight isn’t too bad for the entertainment it can provide. We played a few hands (I recall Christine being better at killing zombies than I was) and then went back to our campsite after I hung our bear bag. We started off reading books by headlamp outside our tent (continuing with the zombie trend I was reading Night of the Living Trekkies), but the bugs were awful. We retired to our tent probably around 7:30, read for a little while longer, and went to bed very early. We always typically go to bed around nightfall when backpacking, but hiking with the extra weight always makes you feel a little more physically exhausted.
* Good to Go is a new backpacking food manufacturer. They use healthy ingredients and much less sodium. We thought it was one of the best dehydrated meals we’ve had on the trail! We added a foil packet of chicken breast to our dinner.
Day Two (9.1 miles)…
Day two started earlier than expected (and with the added bonus of a huge, swollen mosquito bite on my eyelid – I looked like I’d been punched!) Like most Boy Scout troops we’ve met along the trail, the one camping near us on this trip was awake, packed up, and on their way before sun-up. This had pros and cons. One con was all the crunching boots and headlamps moving around our tent in the dark. A pro was the opportunity we had to enjoy the creekside in peace and solitude before starting our hike for the day. The solitude also meant I could find a place to dig a cat hole in complete privacy without having to worry about Boy Scouts spotting me! I would have used the privy near the shelter, but let’s just say the privy turned out to be another con of camping near a big scout group. One of them had completely defiled the privy and there was no way I was going in there!
Breakfast was instant oatmeal, honey buns and coffee. I’ve learned the hard way after running out of gas on past backpacking trips that one packet of instant oatmeal (140 calories) is not enough to fuel me across nine miles. The Little Debbie Honey Bun has been a revelation for me. I think it has the magical balance of fat and sugar I need to power through my morning miles. They also hold up great in my pack – no smushing and no crumbling. Some people like a healthier, protein-packed breakfast, but give me a honey bun!
The first five miles of our second day were easy. The terrain was a very gradual overall descent with a couple brief uphill climbs. The first mile or so followed Brown Mountain Creek. The trail followed roughly parallel to the stream for much of the way. I kept thinking how beautiful this area would be when water levels were higher. We eventually crossed the creek via a wooden footbridge. At this spot there was a small, but pretty, waterfall cascading into a plunge pool. The flow was down to a trickle, but it was still a lovely spot.
Departing Brown Mountain Creek, we walked through serene, quiet forest for a couple more miles. There were two small stream crossings along the way. The first didn’t seem to have a name, but the second was Swapping Camp Creek. Both of these creeks end up flowing into the Lynchburg Reservoir. At around 3 miles into our hike, we started seeing glimpses of the reservoir through the trees. We followed an off-trail footpath steeply down to the shores of the water for a couple photos. We saw several herons hunting in the mud. There were ‘no camping’ signs posted everywhere, but there were also several well-used fire rings. I’m guessing there are quite a few people that ignore the regulations and attempt to stealth camp in this area.
We climbed back up to the Appalachian Trail and continued south, skirting the eastern side of the reservoir. At around 4.8 miles we came to the lowest elevation point of our hike – the Pedlar River crossing. The trail crosses the river on a picturesque, bouncy suspension bridge. From the middle of the bridge, we could see early fall colors reflecting from the trees onto the water’s surface. After crossing the bridge, we came out on gravel-surfaced Reservoir Road. We followed that briefly until we spotted another white blaze for the Appalachian Trail.
At this point, we began our toughest climb of the whole 17 miles. The 2-mile ascent of Rice Mountain begins pleasantly enough. The trail follows parallel to Little Irish Creek (which was running low and barely noticeable) and passes through a small plot of old growth forest. There is an extremely weather-beaten sign explaining tree sizes in the area and how the area is used to study the local watershed. Early parts of the climb are well-graded and moderate, but about .75 mile in, the trail pretty much goes straight up the mountain without the moderating benefit of switchbacks. I wanted to push through the climbing and put it behind me, but Adam was ready for a snack. We found some big rocks about 1.5 miles up the mountain and took a candy break. After a half mile more climbing, we reached the ridge of Rice Mountain. The forest was especially pretty along the top of the mountain – very open with lots of nice shade trees.
On the descent of Rice, we had one nice view through the trees. We also saw more brilliant red fall colors and a lot more thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel. There really wasn’t anything remarkable to see or say about our last couple miles of hiking. The terrain was rolling – there was a general uphill trend, but with small downhills as well. There were no views or streams to speak off. The lack of scenery gave me lots of time to fret over my feet. Two toes on my right foot had dislocated earlier in the day and were becoming increasingly painful. With each step, it got a little harder to bear my weight plus the weight of my pack. I think if there had been waterfalls or great views, I would have been more easily able to distract myself. But on this particular day, all I could think was ‘Ouch – when will this hike be over?’
At almost the end, we had one final road crossing at the junction of Robinson Gap Rd. and Panther Falls Rd. After just another third of mile, we came up a small hill and found ourselves back at the parking area for Punchbowl Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to end a hike. It felt great to take my boots off and change into a pair of Oofos. While I enjoyed the great weather, the opportunity to be out, and the nice views from Cole Mountain, this wasn’t one of my favorite backpacking trips.
- Distance – 17.2 miles [Day One] [Day Two]
- Elevation Change – About 2900 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. Mostly for distance, but the descent of Bald Mountain is a real knee-grinder and the climb up Rice Mountain (Day 2) is surprisingly challenging.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is in nice condition all across this stretch of AT.
- Views – 5 (for Day 1) – The views from Cole Mountain are indisputably spectacular. Enjoy them early in your hike… they’ll be the last real views of the trip.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. This was hard to judge because of the unusually dry late summer/early fall. I think under normal circumstances, Brown Mountain Creek would be beautiful with lots of small cascades and rapids.
- Wildlife – 2. We didn’t see any wildlife beyond a cute bullfrog in the creek. But, there was LOTS of bear scat around Brown Mountain Creek Shelter.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Just keep following the white-blazes and pay attention at road crossings/trail junctions to stay on the Appalachian Trail.
- Solitude – 3. We saw quite a few people around Cole Mountain and spent the night at Brown Mountain Creek with a Boy Scout Troop. We saw only one person along the trail on the second day.
Directions to trailhead: Requires a shuttle. We parked one car where the AT crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway near Punchbowl Mountain. This is mile 51.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 6 miles south of where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets with US 60. From this point, we drove our other car back north on the Blue Ridge Parkway for 6.0 miles and took the exit leading us to US-60 East. We headed 4.3 miles on US 60 E before taking a left on SR 634/Coffeytown Road. Follow this for 1.6 miles before taking a right on SR 755/Wiggins Spring Road. Follow this gravel, bumpy road for 2.7 miles until you reach the parking area where the AT crosses the road. Follow the white-blazed Appalachian trail heading south.