Appalachian Trail – Ashby Gap to Bears Den Rocks (The Roller Coaster)
This 13.5 mile Appalachian Trail section includes quite a bit of the infamous AT ‘Roller Coaster’. The trail is rocky and the ups and downs are pretty constant. There are two nice viewpoints along the route, good camping spots/shelters, water sources, and a finish at Bears Den Hostel.
The infamous “Roller Coaster”…. for years we have heard of how tough this stretch of the Appalachian Trail is and this was our chance to experience the grueling ups and downs that gives this section its epithet. We have previously covered 3.9 miles of the northern section of the Roller Coaster in our coverage of the AT from Harper’s Ferry to Bear’s Den. The distance between the southern and northern terminus signs marking the Roller Coaster covers 13.4 miles. From looking at elevation maps, we realized that most of the ups and downs are in the section between Bears Den and the Rod Hollow Shelter. There are about 10 significant climbs along the Roller Coaster that range from 250-450 feet of climbing (and typically over just about a quarter of a mile). This is a great section of trail if you want to get in shape. Since there aren’t a lot of views along the trail, you will find a lot of hikers on the trail are either trying to cover AT miles or are training for long-distance hikes or longer trail runs.
We dropped off our first car at Bears Den Hostel and paid our $3 day-use parking fee. We had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up and he was there within a minute of us arriving. Many times on the trail, you meet interesting people – he was a business consultant, counselor for people with drug addictions, and a school bus driver (and finds times to shuttle hikers). When we heard about how he balanced everything in his life, we were truly amazed. He dropped us off on the side of the road on US50 and we found the white blaze to head north on the Appalachian Trail.
We pushed into the woods and soon the sounds of speeding cars was behind us. We started off with a gradual climb. We were hiking near the end of the peak of fall color, so looking all around we saw brilliant colors of yellow and orange in the trees around us. One of the challenges of hiking after many leaves have fallen is that it can make it difficult to ensure you are still on the trail. We were able to navigate easily with all the white blazes on the trees marking the AT, but retrace your steps if you don’t see any for a while. Early on this section, you come across a couple of streams at 1.4, 2.0, and 2.8 miles. At 3.6 miles, we reached the side trail for the Rod Hollow Shelter (.1 miles west of the trail). We wanted to eat a snack, so we made our way to the shelter to find the small shelter, as well as a covered picnic table for overnight campers to cook food away from where they sleep. The shelter also has a privy and a piped spring left of the shelter if you need a reliable water source.
Heading back to the trail, we continued north and at 4.2 miles, we reached the sign marking the southern end of the Roller Coaster. We knew we had some significant work ahead of us for the rest of the way. The first hill rose up steeply and descended to a spring at Bolden Hollow. At the bottom, I tweaked my knee – ugh! This gave me shooting pains for the rest of the trail. I knew I had to decide to push on to the end of the hike or turn around and bail. I decided to put on a knee brace (I always keep one in my pack) to give it some support. This helped for about half a mile, but the pain was almost unbearable. Every step was filled with pain that was begging me to give up. I just thought of all the amazing thru-hikers that fight through pain on most days of the trail and decided I wasn’t going to let myself surrender. We pushed onward and upward, reaching the next peak at 6.3 miles. At 7.1 miles, we reached a footbridge that goes over Morgan Mill Stream and also has a small campsite off to the side. We stopped here for an extended break to eat some lunch. At 7.6 miles, we reached the gravel road known as Morgan Mill Road. Crossing the road, there is a slight up and down before reaching another stream at 8.3 miles.
After a mostly level part of the trail (relatively speaking), we then began to ascend up Buzzard Hill. Near the top, we took a small side trail that led us up to a nice viewpoint. I rested a bit on a tree overlooking the valley and then we proceeded back to the main trail. The trail descends steeply from Buzzard Hill and now for overcompensating for my one knee, my other started to hurt. Time to put on another knee brace (from Christine’s pack this time). We made it to another stream (yes, lots of water sources on this trail) and rose up another steep section to get to Sam Moore Shelter at 9.7 miles. We stopped for a snack and another rest before making the final push. I knew there was only one more major hill before the last push up to Bears Den, which gave me a small glimmer of hope.
We pushed up the next ascent, which then descends to another stream at 11.0 miles. Another small bump of a climb was ahead and we came to another footbridge at 12.2 miles. From here, it was just about .5 miles of a steep climb that led to Bears Den rocks. We took some time to enjoy the views from the rocks. So many people just drive to Bears Den and take the short trail to the rocks to enjoy the gorgeous views; but today, we truly earned it. I took a little time to reflect on how I battled through this pain and I can’t believe I made it. We took the trail leading us off the AT and to the Bears Den hostel. We went down the gravel road and made it back to our car. It was an exhausting day.
Overall, if it wasn’t for my injury, I don’t think the Roller Coaster is as hard as most people make it out to be. It does have lots of ups and downs and you may wonder why they didn’t make the trail go around some of these hills instead of up every one of them. The ascents and descents are relatively short, so you don’t have to do a grueling 5 mile climb up one steep mountain. If you are in good hiking shape, you should be able to handle the elevation. I would also recommend going in the peak of fall color – while there aren’t a ton of views until the end, the forest through this area is pretty when filled with color.
Our hike of this section is significant because it closed a gap in our continuous Appalachian Trail miles! We’ve now hiked an unbroken 265 miles from Harpers Ferry to a road crossing south of Bryant Ridge Shelter (near Lexington, VA). We still have many, many miles to go, but 265 miles makes a noticeable mark on a trail map! Our tentative plan is to start working on the miles in southern Virginia later this spring, but with an elderly pet we don’t like to leave behind and a case of ankle tendinitis, I’m not sure how far we’ll get this year.
The roller coaster terrain wasn’t as challenging as I expected it to be. The hills were mostly small and short, and there is doubtlessly tougher terrain many places along the trail. I think the section’s harsh reputation might come from a couple things. First, climbing uphill feels like it should come with a reward in form of a vista; you climb uphill – you earn a view! On the roller coaster, the ups and downs mostly happen a tunnel of forest with nothing particularly noteworthy to see. Hikers call terrain like this PUDs – short for pointless ups and downs. They can be a little demotivating. I mean, honestly, if there is nothing to see at the top of a mountain, you may as well walk around it rather than over it! Second, I think most thru-hikers are ready to get out of Virginia by the time they reach the roller coaster. After 500+ miles in the state some hikers are feeling emotional doldrums known as the Virginia Blues, and the ups and downs just add to the tedium.
But, we’re not thru-hikers, so the hike of the roller coaster was just another fun day on the trail for us. I wish Adam hadn’t been in so much pain for most of the hike. At a road crossing, I suggested he bail out. I offered to run ahead and come back with the car to get him. I give him a ton of credit for gutting it out and hiking through the pain. He really didn’t want to miss any of the miles. You never know what you’ll see along the AT – even the most mundane miles can bring unexpected sites and experiences. For example, on this section we passed the 1,000 mile marker! It was just a plain sign stuck to an unremarkable tree, but still a memorable site to pass by.
The view from Buzzard Hill was a nice surprise on this hike. Our AWOL guide marked Bears Den as the only view along the way. (note: each vista worth seeing is typically marked with a camera icon in the guidebook). According to AWOL’s opinion, Buzzard Hill didn’t warrant a camera icon. I would disagree – the view was definitely worth a stop and the big dead tree on the rocky outcropping was fun to climb on. We took a long, restful break at the spot.
Another noteworthy thing we passed on the route was a glimpse through the trees of Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center. We could see a firing range and several large buildings in the compound. The center is a major relocation site for the highest level of civilian and military officials in case of national disaster. On 9/11, many members of congress were evacuated to this spot. It’s interesting that such a key feature of our national security lies so close to the trail!
By the time we got to Sam Moore shelter, both of us were vaguely wishing we had done this stretch as an overnight. We had originally considered making it our last backpacking trip of the season, especially since there were so many nice camping spots and water sources along the route. But the weather was chilly and there was rain in the forecast, so we opted for a hot meal and the comfort of our own bed.
We arrived at Bears Den around 3:00. We took photos and spent some time enjoying the last weekend of peak fall color. Eventually, we hobbled back to our car and headed back toward home. On the way, we stopped at Woodstock Brewery for beer and flatbread pizzas. It was Halloween, and the brewery staff was dressed in elaborate costumes. My favorite was probably the bartender dressed as a squirrel. One of their beers is called ‘Tipsy Squirrel’, so the costume was especially fitting. I joked that we were dressed up as smelly, tired hikers — which was not far from the truth!
- Distance – 13.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 3200 ft.
- Difficulty – 4.5. The trail has lots of ups and downs and this is a long distance, but is great for training for longer distance hikes.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was well-maintained. A lot of the Roller Coaster is rocky, so it makes for some careful footing.
- Views – 4. The views from Buzzard Hill are decent, but the best views are from Bears Den rocks.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Most of the streams aren’t scenic, but there are lots of them which provides great water sources.
- Wildlife – 2. There wasn’t a lot of larger wildlife on the trail, but we did see some deer and a fence lizard at Buzzard Hill.
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. Leaves on the ground made this tougher. The confusing parts of the trail were finding the trail leaving the summit of Buzzard Hill and finding the right path leaving Bears Den rocks back to the hostel.
- Solitude – 3. For most of this section of trail, we rarely came across anyone. Bears Den rocks should have lots of people enjoying the views.
* 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: First car: The Bears Den Hostel is located near VA-7, almost halfway between Berryville and Purcellville. From Berryville, take VA-7 East for about 8 miles before turning right on SR-601. Go .5 miles and turn right (you will see a sign on the right for Bears Den). Go .5 miles down the gravel road until you reach the parking lot. Leave one car here for your finish to your hike. Coordinates: 39.110111, -77.853890. Second Car: From Bears Den, head from the parking lot back to SR-601. Take a right and follow SR-601/Blue Ridge Mountain Road for 10.5 miles until you reach US-50. Turn right and park the second car on the side of the road. The AT crossing is just west of the “School Bus Stop 1000 feet” sign. Coordinates: 39.017014, -77.964454