Appalachian Trail – Punchbowl Mountain to the James River
This 11-mile Appalachian Trail stretch had spectacular views of the valley and the James River!
When Adam and I first started hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, we focused on the trail through Shenandoah National Park. The park is close to our home, making it easy for us to bring two cars for a shuttle. We did short sections – most of our day hikes ranged from 6 to 8 miles. We did a couple sections as overnights, covering 10-12 miles total over two days. When we first started, those hikes really challenged me – but they also made me want more!
We’re now traveling further from home to complete sections, so we push to complete bigger miles to make the travel time more worthwhile. We’ve also found friends and businesses to help us shuttle along the way.
We met Lynchburg friends, Dennis and Tina to do this AT section from Punchbowl Mountain down to the James River. We’d never met them in person, but we’d chatted online about hiking and the Appalachian Trail for almost a year. We were really thankful for their good company on this hike!
We met early Saturday morning at the Foot Footbridge across the James River. ‘Foot Footbridge’ isn’t a typo. The bridge is named after hiking enthusiast, Bill Foot, who worked tirelessly (while also fighting cancer) to see that the bridge was built. It’s a beautiful and impressive bridge across the James River, and there is nothing else like it along the Appalachian Trail.
After Adam and I got acquainted with Dennis and Tina in the parking lot, we hopped in our car and made our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway to our start point – the Punchbowl Mountain Overlook. We left off here last fall after completing a 17 mile section from Hog Camp Gap.
The morning began with our only significant climb of the day- about 1400 feet over two miles to the summit of Bluff Mountain. About half a mile into our ascent, we detoured to visit the Punch Bowl Shelter. The shelter is a little bit run down and sits next to a murky, muddy, mosquito-haven of a pond. The shelters to the north and south of Punch Bowl (Brown Mountain Creek and Johns Hollow) are both much nicer places to stay the night.
After our short stop, we continued our climb to the spectacular open top of Bluff Mountain. We were swarmed by no-see-ums and gnats, but we still enjoyed the (almost) 360 views and watching the morning fog burn off the valley. The remains of a fire tower foundation still sit on the summit. Immediately upon leaving the summit, we stopped at the Ottie Cline Powell memorial. The marker tells the sad tale of a little 4-year old boy lost in the mountains in 1891.
From there, we had four miles of gentle downhill or practically flat ridge walking. It was delightful! Wildflowers were blooming like crazy! The woods smelled fresh, green, and earthy. Even though it was a warm, humid day, the cool mountain breezes made for perfect hiking weather. Along the ridge, we passed junctions with a couple trails – Saltlog Gap and Saddle Gap. I’ve heard these trails are pretty overgrown and don’t know much about them. From there, we enjoyed several great views along the ridge. The views far exceeded my expectations for hike, and I really enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the James River. About 7 miles into the hike, we passed the junction with the Little Rocky Row trail, and reached Fuller Rocks – another lovely view point.
After that view, we descended the mountain along 21 switchbacks. At first the descent was pretty steep, but eventually it moderated and entered a stand of enormous old trees. Dennis even took the time to hug a couple of them.
At 9.2 miles, we took the short side trail to visit Johns Hollow Shelter. The camp is located in a peaceful, open spot in the woods. The shelter is typical, but the tent area behind the shelter is especially nice. There was lots of flat, grassy space to pitch
After leaving Johns Hollow, we hiked about another half mile in the woods before crossing a gravel forest road. After the road, we quickly reached Rocky Row Run – a beautiful mountain stream that eventually feeds into the James.
The stream was very scenic and we all enjoyed the sound of the flowing water. There were lots of blooming wildflowers and rhododendron along the creek. We crossed a couple small wooden bridges along the way, before popping out on the side of Route 501. From there, we crossed the highway and returned back to the Foot Bridge and parking area at 10.6 miles (11 if you include mileage from shelter visits).
We all decided to walk across the bridge to check out views of the James! It was a beautiful view – especially looking back to all the distant rocky outcroppings we had stood upon earlier in the day. Standing on the bridge, my mind drifted to the next section south – wondering what it would be like and what challenges and gifts would lie ahead on the trail.
Dennis and Tina – thanks for hiking with us! Can’t wait to meet up again.
This section of the Appalachian Trail was one we had contemplated doing for a while. We have covered now a section of contiguous miles that includes from this point up to Front Royal. It is easier to say, “We have walked from Front Royal to the James River” than to say “We have walked from Front Royal to a place off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of the James River”.
As Christine mentioned, when traveling further away from home the next concern is wondering if we need to bring two cars or figuring out if we can get someone to help us shuttle. It can be hard to find some friends that want to go trekking in the woods for over 10 miles. So, we were very glad to meet Dennis and Tina. They have done this section a number of times before but were willing to do it again with us.
This section was a surprise to us. We hadn’t seen enough nice pictures from these overlooks to know if it would be worthwhile to check. But, we hiked on a very clear day that made the scenery gorgeous.
After meeting up, we drove to our starting point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We met a few guys in the parking lot that were doing a multi-day backpack as well. We crossed the parkway and headed up the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading southbound. The beginning of the trail started a steep ascent. It was already a warm, muggy day, so with the extra work of going uphill I got sweaty very early in the hike. In .4 miles, we reached the side trail to the Punchbowl Shelter. The side trail was mostly downhill to the shelter. When we arrived, there was nobody staying there. The shelter is in a nice shady spot, but we could tell the insects were swarming near the pond. We checked out the trail log in the shelter and then made our way back up to the Appalachian Trail.
The trail continues to be mostly a steep climb until you reach the top of Bluff Mountain at 2.0 miles. There were great views to the west from the trail. The bugs were relentless (at least to me) from this open area, so while I would have liked to stay up there longer, I wanted to quickly get back into the woods and away from the bugs. We saw a brilliant indigo bunting flying around the treetops from the overlook. As soon as you get out of the clearing and back into the woods, you see the memorial for Ottie Cline Powell on the ground to the left.
The trail then begins a steep, downward descent. At 3.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Saltlog Gap Trail, but stay on the AT. The trail mostly levels out as you walk along a ridge for a while. At 4.6 miles, you reach a junction with the Saddle Gap Trail. Staying on the AT, the trail begins to climb a more gradual ascent until you reach Big Rocky Row at 6.1 miles. The views from this area were my favorite, as you got to see the James River below snaking through the landscape of mountains.
From here, the trail descends and you reach Little Rocky Row at 7.3 miles, also giving you nice views along the way as you walk down the ridge line. The rest of the hike is basically all downhill from this point until you reach the James River. At 9.2 miles, we reached the a short side trail that took a very sharp turn to Johns Hollow Shelter. We checked out this shelter and came across another two section hikers that were enjoying a week along the AT. There was a nearby stream for replenishing water and a privy. After eating a quick snack, we returned to join the AT again.
The trail again was mostly flat or downhill. We crossed the stream at 9.4 miles and then crossed the gravel VA 812 road to continue on the AT. As we were walking along, Dennis started talking about black snakes and within minutes we saw one directly on the trail as if he had summoned it. The forest through this section had many larger trees along the way and then opened up to beautiful rhododendron plants that were aligning the stream on both sides. It was such a serene setting. At 10.3 miles, we reached the Lower Rocky Row Run bridge. We crossed the run and then at 10.6 miles we were back at US 501. We crossed the road which had the trail lead us right to the parking lot where we started.
We already plan to get back together sometime with Dennis and Tina for a backpack trip sometime in the near future. It is always great to find like-minded people to experience the outdoors together!
- Distance – 11 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 2062 ft.
- Difficulty – 3.5. 11 miles is a little on the long side, but after climbing to the summit of Bluff Mountain early in the hike, the rest of the terrain is easy to moderate.
- Trail Conditions – 4. Consistently well-maintained trail. Some parts of the trail are narrow along a steep hillside, but still easily passable.
- Views – 5. Super views from Bluff Mountain, nice views along the ridge, and then amazing views of the James River.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. The final stretch of this hike follows pretty Rocky Row Run, and of course – you end at the James!
- Wildlife – 1. We saw a black snake.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. Just keep following those white blazes south. The trail is easy to follow and well-marked.
- Solitude – 3. We saw a fair number of hikers along the way, including quite a few northbound thru-hikers, but you never feel like the trail is crowded.
Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista. Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s. Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing. To get to your start point: Leaving the parking lot, turn right on to US-501S. Go .8 miles and continue straight to take VA-130 E. Go 2.8 miles and then turn left on to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway and go 9.8 miles until you reach the small parking lot for Punchbowl Mountain where the Appalachian Trail crosses the parkway. Cross the road and you will see the Appalachian Trail marker which has the trail leading uphill.