Appalachian Trail – Black Horse Gap to Jennings Creek
This 14.6 mile stretch of Appalachian Trail offers many splendid views as you closely follow the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When you are gifted a sunny 75-degree weekend in April, you must snatch it up and go backpacking! At least, that is my belief on the matter. We had just such a weekend in mid-April this year, so we decided to get out there and work on completing some more Virginia Appalachian Trail miles.
We’ve already completed all the miles between Jennings Creek, VA and Harpers Ferry, WV, so we decided to pick up the next section south – Black Horse Gap northbound to Jennings Creek. It was a relatively short route for an overnighter – twelve miles the first day and just three miles the second day. We always try to do about 20 miles on a one-night trip, but access to road crossings for our shuttle drop-off made fifteen miles the best logistical option for this trip.
We looked up shuttle options in our AWOL Guide, and ended up hiring Homer Witcher to give us a ride to our start point. Homer is a great trail ambassador – he’s in his 70s and still finds the time and energy to run on the AT most days. He, his wife, and children are all avid, lifelong hikers – completing multiple section and thru hikes. He told us he and his wife are planning another thru in 2017. We greatly enjoyed talking to him on the ride over to Black Horse Gap.
About a half hour later, we found ourselves standing along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Black Horse Gap. We found the trail easily and started our northbound walk. Over the first few miles of hiking, the AT crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple times – at Taylors Mountain and Harveys Knob. Both crossings offer panoramic vistas of the valley below. Most of the views in this section include a nice look at Sharp Top, one of the areas most popular mountains for day hiking. The terrain along this stretch of trail could best be described as rolling – there were lots of ups and downs, none dramatic. We passed a large group of Boy Scouts hiking along the trail. They turned out to be pretty much the only people we saw on our hike.
By 12:30, we reached our lunch stop at Bobblets Gap shelter. We ate and assessed our water supply. We knew we’d have another chance to resupply water at around the 8 mile mark, but read that the water source at Bearwallow Gap was iffy and seasonal. I still had over two liters of water, some in my Camelbak and a full Smartwater bottle. Adam filled his Camelbak to three liters and also had a full Smartwater. Our planned campsite at the Cove Mountain Shelter is dry (no spring, no stream) and the closest water source to camp is three miles away in either direction, so we tried to guess how much water we would need to cook and hike the next day. It’s a delicate balance between carrying too much heavy water and not enough, risking dehydration.
After lunch, we leapfrogged the same group of scouts again. They had decided to skip the shelter since they had moms and lunch waiting for them at a road crossing ahead. The post-lunch hiking was decidedly more uphill than the morning hiking. We gradually climbed, crossing the parkway two more times at Peaks of Otter and Mills Gap. At Mills Gap, we were able to get rid of our lunch trash at a roadside trashcan – being able to get rid of garbage is a real treat for any backpacker! We took a rest at Mills Gap, reclining on a picnic table in dappled shade. The temperatures weren’t that hot – maybe high 60’s, but the sun was incredibly strong and relentless through the mostly leafless trees. We both got sunburned despite using sunscreen.
After a little more climbing from Mills Gap, we started a nice descent to Bearwallow Gap and the VA43 road crossing. We passed a murky, dank wildlife pond along the way – maybe it’s the bear wallow! At the road crossing, we sat like a pair of hobos under the Blue Ridge Parkway road sign. People driving past looked at us like we were a novelty. There turned out to be plenty of water in the seasonal stream at the crossing, but neither of us had drunk much more water so we decided not to resupply again. That wasn’t the best idea – more about that later!
We crossed VA43 and immediately began the climb up Cove Mountain. Within the first hundred feet there was a sign reminding us about the dry conditions at Cove Mountain Shelter. We still were certain we had plenty of water. As we ascended, I said to Adam “This isn’t bad! The trail looked WAY steeper on the map!” Adam replied, “I hope you’re not jinxing us.” Well, I totally jinxed us. The trail got much steeper and due to past forest fires, we were climbing in direct, unrelenting sunshine at the hottest part of the day. We both went through much more water than we had planned for. I chewed gum to try and preserve what water I had left. We passed a couple small campsites along the ridge of Cove Mountain. We contemplated stopping for the day, but decided to press on to our planned stop.
The descent of Cove Mountain was incredibly beautiful. I think the area burned in 2011 or 2012, leaving spectacular open views along the ridgeline. I was thankful for such beautiful, distracting views the last couple miles because my feet were killing me. In addition to not refilling water when we should have, I made the mistake of trying out new gear on a long(ish) hike. For many years, I have hiked in Thorlo thick-cushion hiker socks with a pair of silk sock liners. I don’t get blisters -ever- with that combo. This time, I decided to wear my Darn Tough wool socks. They’re super popular with hikers and were always comfortable for me on day hikes – even long day hikes, but apparently I do need the extra cushioning I get from Thorlos when I’m carrying a heavier pack. Lesson learned – don’t mess with the tried and true, especially when it comes to your feet!
We hobbled into camp around 3:30 – almost 12 miles in about 6 hours included stops for lunch, rest, and photography – not a bad pace for our first trip of the season. We set up camp and spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and napping. Despite being dry, Cove Mountain Shelter is an idyllic spot. The shelter is typical, the privy is new, and there was space for a good number of tents both around and on the ridge above the shelter. Recently, I learned an interesting piece of trivia about the Cove Mountain Shelter from my friend Jeff Monroe (of Wandering Virginia). Apparently, this shelter used to sit at Marble Springs (where we camped on the second night of our Jennings Creek to the James River section). When the area around Marble Springs became designated wilderness, the shelter was moved to its current location on Cove Mountain.
Before dinner, Adam found a good tree and slung the rope for our bear hang. As we prepared dinner, we rationed out our water, so we’d have enough for breakfast and our second day of hiking. We were both pretty thirsty and wished we had filled up to the maximum at Bearwallow. We even ended up drinking our dishwashing water. Lots of ‘Leave No Trace’ folks always drink their wash water, but it’s also acceptable to broadcast water away from camp. We usually broadcast. But this time, we enjoyed a lovely ‘tea’ flecked with a mélange of buffalo chicken, macaroni and cheese, and crème brulee. Mmmm! Even after conserving water, we really didn’t have much left for both breakfast and tomorrow’s hiking.
As we were finishing dinner, Boy Scouts started rolling into camp – first two, then five more, then another four, then the final three an hour later. We were sure they had come off the trail at VA43. They’d been hiking since 9:30 a.m. – many of them were first time backpackers, a few were first time hikers! The troop was from Roanoke Rapids, NC. They were nice folks, but clearly new to backpacking, as they took the time to remove our bear hang from the tree, thinking it was litter! Adam was not happy about having to get the rope back over the precarious branch, but in the end he agreed it was a little bit funny.
After dinner, we hiked up the hill behind the shelter to catch sunset. The view was lovely! As soon as the sun went down, it got cold pretty quickly. The dry, breezy conditions precluded a campfire, so we crawled into our tent a little after 8:00 p.m. I fell asleep but was woken several times during the night to sounds of foxes, whippoorwills, and owls! Despite the interruptions, it was a peaceful night and I was so glad to be out in the woods again!
We knew our next day on the trail was going to be quite easy. We woke up early before the Boy Scouts were even stirring. It was quite chilly, so we were probably moving a little faster in the morning to get the blood flowing. We packed away all of our stuff and enjoyed a breakfast of Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies and coffee. The plan was to have hot granola with Nido, but we didn’t have enough water left to make both hot cereal and coffee, so coffee and cookies won. We left the shelter area and were on our way in a little over an hour. Just about .2 miles away from the shelter, we came to a nice western morning view from the top of Cove Mountain. The trail continued to ascend, but it was hardly noticeable. From camp, the trail ascends about 200 feet in .8 miles. At this point, the trail descends the rest of the way. We were impressed with the views through the trees along the way.
The trail on the descent was easy walking for the most part. The trail had just a few longer switchbacks on it, but it was a nice, peaceful walk in the woods. It was just a short amount of time before we could hear the sound of water from Jennings Creek and around 3.2 miles we were back at Jennings Creek Road. We took a right and crossed over the creek for some picturesque creek scenes before getting to our car on the left side of the road.
We had previously planned to get to Sonic in Waynesboro for a celebratory lunch and a stop at Rockfish Gap Outfitter’s Anniversary Sale (where I got a new Osprey Atmos pack), but arriving at the car around 9 a.m., we knew we had some time to kill. We decided to stop on our way at the Virginia Safari Park near Lexington. If you are a fan of animals, this is a must-see place to visit. We drove through the loop (we could even see rhinos through the window) with a bucket of feed while zebras, emus, alpacas, elk, and yaks tried to rip it from our hands. After driving through the loop, we also walked through their other exhibits, where we could see giraffes at eye level, walk among kangaroos, and see other animals through cages – tigers, hyenas, and monkeys. I believe this was our third time visiting and there are always new additions every time we visit.
This section of the Appalachian Trail has some wonderful scenery on it. If you are looking for a shorter, overnight trip with lots of views along the way, this hike won’t disappoint – just plan for water.
- Distance – 14.6 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
- Elevation Change – 1650 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This was a pretty easy backpacking route. It was perfect for our first outing of the season and gentle injury recovery.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in typical Appalachian Trail shape for this part of Virginia – well maintained and nicely graded.
- Views – 5. There are many fantastic viewpoints along this route. Most of them come from overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway – which you’ll cross multiple times on this route.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. This is a quite dry stretch of trail. There is a small, low-flow spring at Bobblets Gap and a seasonal stream at Bearwallow Gap. There is NO WATER SOURCE at the Cove Mountain Shelter, so plan ahead.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw several deer and had a barred owl and a whippoorwill in camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well marked and easy to follow. There are road crossings and several other trail junctions, but the white blazes are easy to follow in most place.
- Solitude – 3. We actually saw very few people on this hike considering the beautiful weather and its proximity to the parkway.
* 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: Take exit 168 off of I-81 toward Arcadia, VA. Turn on to State Route 614/Arcadia Road off the exit. Arcadia Road becomes Jennings Creek Road. After 4.5 miles, you will see a large gravel parking lot after crossing Jennings Creek and you will see a sign for where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Park in this lot. Coordinates 37.529352, -79.622693 To drop off second car and start your hike: Continue down Jennings Creek Road from where you parked (not arriving the way you came). In 1.8 miles, turn right on to State Route 618/McFalls Creek Road. Go 4.1 miles and then turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow this for 8.6 miles until you reach the small pulloff on the right side for Black Horse Gap. With not much space here for a vehicle, you will likely want to park along the side of the road. Just a few feet on the fire road, you will see the sign for the Appalachian Trail junction. Coordinates: 37.424611, -79.757202. Head right and start on the trail.