Appalachian Trail – Jennings Creek to the James River
This 28.6 mile Appalachian Trail section is one of the toughest northbound sections in Virginia – you climb, and then you climb some more. The first nine miles are essentially ‘green tunnel’. The middle section has several great views. And, the last part is an easy downhill coast to the James River. We did this section over two nights – Adam will cover days one and three, and Christine will do day two.
Day One (8.7 miles)…
We started off our day by driving to the James River footbridge parking lot. I had arranged a shuttle to pick us up at 10 a.m. and then drop us off at our starting point at Jennings Creek. We enjoyed some breakfast at Cracker Barrel, but still arrived at the parking lot around 9:30 that morning. There were a few people in the parking lot that were getting ready to start hikes or taking breaks. One guy was hiking southbound to Roanoke and said he was looking for a ride to Glasgow so he could buy batteries to charge his phone. I found some extra batteries for my GPS, so I handed them over to him and told him I hoped it got him a little closer to Roanoke.
As 10 a.m. came and went, I got a little nervous that our ride might not show. I had some hope when a car pulled in to let off some thru-hikers, but it turned out not to be our ride. by 10:20 a.m., I thought we needed to see if we could figure out what was going on. There is absolutely no phone signal at the footbridge, so Christine waited in the lot while I drove until I could get a signal to make the call for the shuttle driver. I ended up having to drive for several miles before I got one bar and ended up having to leave a message. I turned around to get back to the parking lot and when I arrived, there was the shuttle driver with Christine. Whew! We loaded up our stuff and got on the road. Turns out, he had written down 10:30 for the trip. We were just glad we didn’t have to hitchhike or beg someone else to take us.
Our shuttle driver, Ken, was retired and spends most of his time during the spring, summer, and early fall taking care of AT hikers. He helps shuttle people where they need to go and picks up packages for AT thru-hikers to deliver to them. After talking with on the ride to our start point, we could tell that he is one of those true Trail Angels that just makes hiking the AT a bit easier for everyone.
It was probably about 11:15 when we finally started our hike. The Jennings Creek area had lots of parking and it was a nice place to pick up the trail. We headed northbound on the white-blazed AT, which started with a steep climb from the road. After 1.6 miles, we had climbed 1000 feet and reached the top of Fork Mountain. The trail then descends about 800 feet and we reached another stream past a powerline at 2.8 miles. The trail continues along the stream for a while, giving you a great water source if you need it. At 3.8 miles, we reached the Bryant Ridge shelter, which was a great spot to eat lunch. We joined a couple of thru-hikers (one from Germany) at the shelter, who were eating a quick snack and filling up water from the stream. The Bryant Ridge shelter was one of the nicer shelters and even had a high loft and a window that let in some nice sunlight.
After fueling up here, we had a big climb ahead of us. From the shelter, the trail climbs up and up. At 6.9 miles, we had climbed about 2000 feet from the shelter and reached a sign noting a small sidetrail on the left to a campsite. We continued our climb and at 8.1 miles, reached the top of Floyd Mountain. The trail from here began to descend and we reached the sign that pointed to Cornelius Creek Shelter at 8.7 miles. This day there was nothing exceptional to see on the trail, but we were at least glad to be settling in at camp.
When we arrived at the shelter, we noticed the thru-hikers we had seen at the Bryant Ridge shelter were setting up in the shelter. The trail behind the shelter that led to the privy had lots of campsites, but some of those were already taken. It was only 4 p.m., but we felt we needed to stake our claim quickly so we set up camp in one of the remaining spots behind the shelter. Within minutes, we already had others setting up other tents nearby. We knew this was going to be a crowded night. After we set up our tents, I went to go get water by the stream near the shelter. There was a pileated woodpecker climbing up a tree just a few feet away from me. I enjoyed having this moment with this often-skittish bird. The woodpecker eventually flew off and I was joined by someone also filling water. It turned out he was a JMU student who worked at our rec center and we had some mutual acquaintances.
When we got back to our campsite, we began to make dinner, read books, and started a small campfire. Right around dusk, a large group of boy scouts arrived and there wasn’t much room. The only place left around was right near us; we were worried how they would keep us up but they were very respectful and kept it relatively quiet. As we overheard them talk, we heard they had a rough day. They had driven up and got lost somewhere on the trail and while they had parked just half a mile away from the road, they had walked for miles trying to find this shelter. They had rushed to set up camp and start to cook their dinner in the dark. One scout named Max was hungry when they arrived and asked what they had for appetizers. We got a laugh when we heard the scout leader tell him he could have a handful of unsalted nuts. I guess Max learned that the backcountry isn’t Applebee’s. After the fire faded, we crawled into our tent and drifted off to sleep.
Day Two (12.2 miles)…
Sunlight started filtering into our tent a little before 6:00 a.m. I unzipped my sleeping bag, stretched my legs, and changed from my camp clothes back into my hiking clothes. While Adam worked on packing up the tent and our sleeping gear, I made breakfast. Typically, we eat oatmeal, a honeybun, and some cheese. The goal for breakfast is always to eat lots of calories so we can hike for a while before needing a snack. On this trip, we swapped out the oatmeal for granola with Nido. Nido is a full-fat, enriched powdered milk found in most grocery stores’ Latino section. The Nido was fantastic – creamy, rich, and delicious with our maple-pecan granola.
After breakfast we were all geared up – backpacks on and ready to hike out – when suddenly I felt water running down the backs of my legs. Crap! At first I thought I had squished my Camelbak hose open, but it turned out to be a bit more serious. Even though the ‘locked’ arrows on my Camelbak lid were properly aligned, I guess the threads were still uneven. As soon as the gear inside my pack pressed against the reservoir, water started leaking out. All in all, a little over a liter of water gushed out into the bottom of my pack.
Adam took my Camelbak and the filter back down to the spring and refilled it while I worked on drying the spilled water. My pillow, sleeping pad, and sheet were all pretty wet, but I was most concerned about my sleeping bag. It was in a water-resistant compression sack. It felt wet on the outside, but I didn’t want to take the time to unpack it to check the inside. I guess my fate would be determined at camp that night! Within 10 minutes of the spill we were back on the trail.
I was pretty grouchy about all the wet gear, so I walked quietly behind Adam ruminating on the impending case of hypothermia I would probably get from sleeping in wet down. After a mile, we reached our first view of the day – a gorgeous vista from Black Rock Overlook. The view is located on a spur trail a couple hundred feet off the AT. After enjoying the mountainous view and taking a few photos, we headed down the trail. The going was pretty gentle for a while. We passed junctions with the Cornelius Creek and Apple Orchard Falls trails. We hiked to the falls and along Cornelius Creek earlier in the spring. It’s a great dayhike in this area.
After passing the junction with the Apple Orchard Fall Trail, we soon reached a gravel road at Parkers Gap. A flight of wooden stairs led uphill from the road. At the top of the stairs, we found two coolers of ‘trail magic’ for thru-hikers. One cooler had ice and bottled water and the other had a variety of snacks – fruit, cookies, and candy. We left the treats behind and began the tough 1.5 mile climb to the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain. On the open, grassy summit of Apple Orchard, we enjoyed more excellent views and a snack. We were even joined by a small garter snake trying to warm in the sun. The FAA radar dome sitting atop the summit is huge and plastered with NO TRESPASSING signs.
About a third of a mile north of Apple Orchard, we passed under The Guillotine – a round boulder perfectly balanced and wedged between two rock faces. Pretty neat! The trail went through a short and steep rocky section before reaching a pretty, sunny meadow. About a mile after the meadow, we popped out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We crossed the road and picked up white blazes again. We enjoyed pleasant, easy trail for another third of a mile to the Thunder Hill Shelter. We stopped in to rest and check out the shelter log. After leaving the shelter, the trail continued gently along. It was one of the prettiest parts of our hike – so many wildflowers! My favorite bloom to spot was a large patch of yellow lady’s slippers covering a hillside. They’re not as common as the pink ones, so it was a real treat to see so many at once. About 1.5 miles past the shelter, we reached the Thunder Ridge Overlook and decided it was a great spot to stop for lunch. Nearly 7 miles of hiking had burned off my breakfast and I was ravenous.
The viewpoint had a constructed stone platform and a superb view! Across the valley, we could even see the huge talus slope of the Devils Marbleyard – another popular dayhike in the area. We got out our Alite chairs and food bags and settled in for a nice long break. I had cashews, dried pineapple, a big handful of Sour Patch kids, and an asiago cheese bagel filled with cheddar cheese slices. I felt so re-energized after I ate! By this time, I had ceased thinking about wet gear and hypothermia and was just really enjoying my day. While we were eating lunch, clouds moved in and a breeze picked up. We ended up moving on sooner than planned because I actually got sort of chilled. Before we hiked on, we made a quick detour up to the parkway so we could throw all our garbage away in a real trashcan instead of continuing to carry it with us. When you’re backpacking, always take advantage of trash cans!
The next 3.3 miles covered a huge descent with only a few tiny bumps of climbing. It was fast going and we reached Pettites Gap around 2:00 p.m. We knew we had one short but difficult climb ahead of us before reaching camp, so we took our packs off, leaned back against a huge old tree, and ate another snack. We knew the last climb would feel pretty brutal – and it did not fall short of that expectation!
High Cock Knob was beautiful – covered with blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. But it was extremely steep and rocky. It also had a false summit! We got to the top of a tough climb and started descending and thought ‘Yay… we’re done!!!’, only to have an even steeper ascent staring us in the face a few hundred yards later.
The climb down High Cock was equally steep – covered with loose, treacherous rocks. Several southbound hikers passed us coming the opposite direction. All of them asked ‘How much more climbing!?’ On the way down, Adam had an awful allergy attack. His throat almost closed and he had a difficult time catching his breath. It was pretty scary and he says he really doesn’t remember the last half mile of hiking. Fortunately, it mostly passed and his breathing eased.
Arriving at Marble Spring was like reaching an oasis in a desert! The large grassy campsite had a huge fire pit with log seats, a spring-fed water source, and plenty of room for multiple tents. We chose a secluded tent site uphill from the fire pit. I hung my sleeping bag on a branch to dry – it was a bit damp around the feet. Everything else dried out over the course of the day in my pack. Hooray – hypothermia was no longer an issue. We collected water. I napped in the tent while Adam read a book outside. Being at camp is the best! Around 6:00, I came out of the tent, ready to eat – again! Dinner was lasagna with extra cheese and mocha pudding for dessert.
When we first got to camp, we were alone. But, over the course of the afternoon, a group of four West Point grads out for the weekend and two thru-hikers arrived. Compared to the dozens of people camped the night before at Cornelius Creek, sharing a large campsite with six people felt really quiet and solitary. One of thru-hikers climbed into his tent long before sundown and never came back out. Everyone else (us, a thru-hiker named ‘Captain K’, and the four West Pointers) shared a campfire and conversation. It was interesting to hear everyone’s assessment of the trail that day. It was universally agreed that High Cock Knob was a tough way to end the day! While we sat around the fire, a whitetail deer circled us like a vulture for over an hour. Weird – maybe she wanted to the grassy area to graze? Eventually, the sun slipped behind the mountains, we ran out of firewood, and everyone headed off to their tents for the night. It was a long, hard day of hiking, but it had been full of beautiful views, colorful wildflowers, and blooming trees. One more day to go!
Day Three (7.7 miles)…
We were woken up a little earlier than normal by the sound of a fox screaming and then an incessant whippoorwill that sang for about an hour straight at the first glimpse of sunlight. We started off our third day with an earlier start than the previous day (also thanks to no leaking water bladders) and made our way from the Marble Spring campsite heading north again on the Appalachian Trail. Captain K also was getting ready for his day of hiking and was hoping to get to town to get his resupply package. We told him we would give him a ride to town if he was still at the parking lot.
Day two had been a tough, long day on the trail, so I was wondering if I had enough energy for the third day. I was surprised to find that Day three was much easier. A lot of that was because it was mostly downhill, but my muscles felt surprisingly ready to tackle the day. Our moods were also boosted by how pretty the trail was. While yesterday was a day filled with tons of rhododendron, today seemed to want to match it equally with mountain laurel along the trail.
The trail started off with a flat section. At .5 miles, we reached a junction with the south side of the Sulphur Spring Trail. At 2.3 miles, we reached the junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and at 2.8 miles, we reached the junction with the north side of the Sulphur Spring Trail (the Gunter Ridge trail is part of the Devils Marbleyard loop). The trail begins to descend more steeply at this point and we reached Big Cove Branch at 3.6 miles. The trail continues to descend until you reach Matts Creek Shelter at 5.5 miles.
The Matts Creek Shelter was fairly run down and from reading the entries in the trail log, the privy was scary as well. We ate a quick snack here, but quickly moved on. At 6.3 miles, the trail ran parallel to the James River, at time providing glimpses of this impressive river. We started to see people kayaking in the river, people going out for a quick stroll on the AT, and a couple of trail runners. We knew we were getting close to the end of our trip. At 7.5 miles, we reached the James River footbridge. At the footbridge was a family that had backpacked with a couple of kids. One of the kids (about 11 in my approximation) had asked us how far we went and we told him. He was impressed, since he had backpacked from Petites Gap (about a 10 mile trip). I told him that I thought he could do it one day, since he still had a smile on his face after backpacking 10 miles. I told Christine I think we just witnessed a kid that just found his love for backpacking. We crossed the James River footbridge and made our way back to the car.
When we got to the parking lot, Captain K was there. He said he had arranged someone to pick him up, so he was going to wait there for his ride. Before we had left, we had filled up a cooler with ice, put in a few drinks, and hoped they would be a cool reward for when we were done. I offered him a cold soda, which he gladly took. The day was already getting quite warm, but we were able to escape into our air-conditioned car. We drove to Lexington to eat lunch at Macado’s and then had a few beer samples at Devil’s Backbone to celebrate.
I’m so proud of how far we have come since Backpacking 101. We feel like we now have the confidence and ability to do multi-day trips with heavy packs. Every backpacking trip we go on, there are new challenges, new things to learn, and adventure just around the corner.
- Distance – 28.6 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike* [Day One] [Day Two][Day Three])
- Elevation Change – 8100 ft. (Several official sources calculated this elevation total, my less reliable hiking phone app put it closer to 6,000.)
- Difficulty – 5. We are not going to sugar coat it – this was a very tough section with lots of climbing.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was dry and not too rocky. Stream crossings were small, shallow, and easy.
- Views – 4. Views from Black Rock Overlook, Apple Orchard Mountain, and Thunder Ridge were all excellent but none were true 360 degree views. We also enjoyed some nice views through the trees on the descent to the James River.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3. Matts Creek was lovely. And, of course you have to say something about the James River!
- Wildlife – 4. We saw deer, snakes, and had a whippoorwill and a screaming fox at night two’s camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Follow the white blazes and you practically can’t get lost. The only thing slightly tricky was the big hairpin turn at Marble Spring.
- Solitude – 2. We chose to hike this section on Memorial Day weekend… with perfect weather… during the thru-hiker bubble. While we didn’t see crowds on the trail, camping spots were very crowded.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
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 starting point for this section: Take a left out of the parking lot and go 5.6 miles on US-501N. Take a left on to VA-130W and go 6.2 miles. VA-130 ends here. Take a left to go on to US-11/Lee Highway heading south and then take the exit for I-81S. Go 1.7 miles and take a right across from the Exxon to stay on US-11S. Go .4 miles and then merge on to I-81S. Go 7 miles and take exit 168 to merge on to VA-614 toward Arcadia. Turn left on to VA-614/Arcadia Rd. Follow this as it becomes Jennings Creek Road. At 4.7 miles, you will reach the parking area and where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Head north to start your hike.