We did this hike mid-week in September to celebrate my birthday! It was our only backpacking trip together in all of 2020. We did get out to car camp once earlier in the year, and I went backpacking in the fall with a girlfriend. But, overall 2020 was definitely the least I’ve hiked and backpacked in many, many years. The pandemic made traveling difficult and honestly… trails were so overcrowded with new hikers that it just wasn’t that enjoyable to hike most of the time.
We picked this area because it’s less visited than most other parts of the park, and we had never done this particular loop before. The trail was relatively easy until we passed the junction with the Lewis Mountain Trail. From there until we reached the Big Run basin, the trail was extremely rocky and overgrown. Parts of the trail are not really even trail – it’s just blazes and talus slopes.
The low foot traffic on this trail meant that tree limbs and undergrowth impeded our progress. My clothes kept catching on thorns and branches, and I had to stay on high alert for back-swinging branches that Adam passed first. Despite the challenging and rugged terrain, there were excellent views along the trail. I especially liked the long descent toward Big Run. Forest fires over recent years have left open vistas from the trail. It’s like walking on a balcony affixed to the side of a mountain; with continual views as you go.
We were both pretty tired of rocky footing by the time we got to the old road bed of the Big Run Portal. After crossing the metal bridge over Big Run, we explored an unmarked footpath paralleling the stream and found excellent campsites. The sites were clear and flat, and nicely distanced from the stream (backcountry regulations for Shenandoah dictate that you must be 10 yards from a stream.)
We set up camp. Adam got to try his UGQ quilt for the first time, and I got to test my Nemo Tensor pad. We collected water from the stream and found our Sawyer Squeeze completely clogged (probably leftover from silty water sources we used on our trip out west in 2019) We ended up having to treat our water with Aquamira. I always carry it as a backup in case my filter malfunctions. We had freeze-dried meals for dinner – sweet and sour chicken and risotto with chicken. They were both Backpackers Pantry, which I’ve decided is my least favorite brand of backpacking meal. For dessert, I had carefully packed two pieces of leftover birthday cake in a crush-proof container. Yum! We carried our small bear canister on this trip to save the hassle of doing a bear hang.
We played many rounds of Uno until the sun went down and then retired to the tent to read.
Turn-by-Turn for Day 1
Follow the AT north from the parking lot at Browns Gap (around MM 83 of Skyline Drive) for about .6 miles.
Look for the cement post marking the blue-blazed Big Run Trail, turn left.
Follow the Big Run Trail for .65 miles to a four-way intersection
Follow the trail straight onto the blue-blazed Rockytop Trail
Pass the junction of the Austin Mountain Trail in .4 miles (staying on Rockytop)
Pass the junction of the Lewis Mountain Trail in 1.8 miles (staying on Rockytop)
Follow the Rockytop Trail for another 3.5 miles, crossing many talus slopes with westward views showcasing Massanutten Mountain and Lewis Peak. The last two miles is a long (almost 1500′) descent into the Big Run basin.
At the bottom of the descent, turn right onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Portal Trail. It follows an old roadbed for about a half mile until you reach a large, sturdy metal bridge over Big Run.
Look for campsites after the bridge crossing – there are many and they’re all quite nice!
Adam Says (Day 2)
We had a good night of sleep and got up early to get breakfast started and continue our hike for the day. Rejoining the main Big Run Portal trail, we soon passed another large campsite to the right of the trail. The trail started off fairly flat as we were walking along the Big Run area. One difficult aspect about this section of the trail are all the water crossings.
There were several water crossings that made it difficult to follow since it wasn’t very clear where the blazes were on the other side. In fact, on one stream crossing, we missed a blaze on the left on an “island” about halfway across the stream. Our map did not indicate the partial stream crossing. We went past this and fully crossed the stream, only to find no blazes. We bushwhacked and scouted around for about 20 minutes before going back across and then we saw the not-so-obvious blaze that we had missed the first time. This trail is really not a very popular trail, so foot traffic doesn’t create as obvious of a trail as you would see in more popular sections of the park. A few more trail blazes would definitely help navigate this Big Run Portal Trail.
We continued along and passed the junctions with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail and Patterson Ridge Trail. When we reached the junction of the Big Run Portal and the Big Run Trail, we paused for a bit to gather some energy before the big climb up. This area used to have some established campsites, but these have been removed.
The climb up from here is brutal and relentless. Shortly after we started up this steep section of the Big Run Trail, a bear jumped off the trail and was booking it into the woods. The bear clearly had a lot more energy than we did and I’m sure my heavy-breathing up the trail had startled it. This uphill was quite a challenge for me, where my lack of hiking this year was showing. We paused for a bit at the four way junction.Taking a left here, we still had a little bit of climbing before getting back to the Appalachian Trail.
Once we reached the AT junction, the trail was smooth and relatively flat or downhill until we reached our car. Overall, this backpacking trip was tough for an overnight trip. The terrain the first day was rough and overgrown and the second day was a feeling of worried we were lost, followed by an incredibly tough uphill climb. While we hadn’t done this loop before, I’m not sure if we would do it again due to the toughness. The campsite was the real bonus of the trip and we enjoyed the location and the times near the water. I would camp again at this spot, but I think there are better approach trails that aren’t as challenging.
Turn-by-Turn for Day 2
Start out from camp, following the yellow-blazed Big Run Portal trail upstream. There will be many stream crossings. Pay close attention to blazes, they’re sometimes hard to find and the trail gets hard to follow at stream crossings
Pass a junction to the left with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail (staying on the Big Run Portal)
Soon after, pass the junction with the Patterson Ridge Trail, continue with several more stream crossings (staying on Big Run Portal). All told, you will remain on the Big Run Portal trail for about 4.5 miles.
Reach the junction of the Big Run Portal and Big Run trails. Take a right onto the Big Run Trail and climb steeply uphill for 1.2 miles. At the top of the climb, you will reach the 4-way junction you passed on Day 1.
At the junction, take a left and follow the Big Run trail for .65 miles back to the Appalachian Trail.
At the AT junction, take a right and follow the AT south back to your vehicle.
Distance – 14.3 miles (7.41 on Day 1, 6.89 on Day 2)
Elevation Change – 2881 ft. (1020′ on Day 1, 1861′ on Day 2)
Difficulty – 5. This is a tough hike with rugged terrain, water crossings, and steep climbs.
Trail Conditions – 2. The trail was extremely overgrown on Day 1 (crossing Rockytop) and water crossings can be challenging on Day 2.
Views – 4.5. Excellent views from Rockytop summit and all along the descent to Big Run.
Streams/Waterfalls – 5. Truly beautiful, rugged Shenandoah stream scenery and some of the nicest campsites near water in the park.
Wildlife – 4. We saw some deer and a yearling bear.
Ease to Navigate – 2. The overgrowth made the trail difficult to follow at times. The water crossings on Day 2 were poorly marked.
Solitude – 4.5. We did this trail midweek during a stretch of perfect September weather. We only saw a couple people on Day 1 and nobody on Day 2.
Adam Says… We were so pleased to find this hidden gem of a hike in Virginia! This hike has some jaw-dropping views, an interesting “cave” to explore, and great camping with not a lot of elevation difference.
The parking area has space for about four cars to park. From the parking area, head down about 10 yards further down the road and you will see two trails on the opposite side of the road from where you park on the right. Both of these spur trails connect to each other, so it doesn’t matter which one you pick. Climb up the short spur and the trail goes off to the left. The trail starts off hiking on a ridgeline. From .2 miles to .4 miles, you will notice a few short spur trails to the left. Climbing up these short spur trails leads to some amazing views that shouldn’t be missed. We always enjoy views without many signs of civilization and you get that here as you can soak up views of Big and Little House Mountains. I imagine that a lot of people could come to this trail to get such an amazing view with so little effort – great place for a sunrise view! We soaked in the view for a short time but decided we would get better pictures when we weren’t looking into the sun, so we picked a favorite overlook to return to at the end of the hike to reward ourselves.
Once the section of views is done, the trail moves into a more wooded area. At .5 miles, you see the only trail sign for the hike at a trail intersection with a small fire road (maybe used by bikes or hunters?) through the woods. Continue on the main trail. Pay attention to red blazes marking private property.
The trail from this point is mostly a flat walk through the woods with only some occasional rises or falls in elevation. The trail is not as well-blazed as many others, so we found it a bit difficult at times to make sure you were still on the trail. If you do this during the fall, this could be especially tricky if leaves have covered a lot of the trail. However, you are mostly walking on a ridgeline, so you likely won’t stray too far. There are a few stretches where we found the trail could use some maintenance since there were taller areas of knee-high brush that you were walking through. You do also get a few glimpses of obstructed views to the east.
At 3.2 miles, you come to a great couple of campsites that have some open views to the east. While there isn’t a nearby water source, this would be a great campsite if you lug your own water in for an overnight trip.
Continue on the trail past the campsite and at 3.4 miles you come to some stone steps that lead to the area known as Pete’s Cave. The rocks in this area remind me of rows of shark teeth that probably need to go to a dentist. This is an interesting area to explore, but please know your limits! This is a dangerous area with cracks and holes you could fall into or get an ankle stuck or hurt. We crawled through one area that had a cave-like feel to it, but there was a skylight that let some light in so you didn’t feel too claustrophobic. At the top of this “cave”, there was one area where I was able to scramble up to the top of a large boulder and got some incredible views to the west, but getting back down was a bit more sketchy. Again, be careful in this area if you choose to explore.
The trail climbs steeply up the other side which also leads to some nice views to the west. Go back the way you came to get back to your car and make sure to reward yourself with more of those views close to the finish line.
Christine Says… I really enjoyed this hike. The views were outstanding, there were very few people on the trail, and the “cave” at the end was fun to explore. There are several paths to the rocky outcroppings above the cave. Don’t miss checking those views out – they’re as nice as the views earlier in the hike. The trail continues beyond the caves, but apparently it’s just a walk in the woods – nothing noteworthy to see. It eventually descends back into the valley.
Distance – 6.8 miles
Elevation Change – 1000 ft.
Difficulty – 2. There are rolling hills all along this hike, but generally it is easy terrain.
Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was overgrown in some parts, but overall easy to follow and walk.
Views – 4.5. Spectacular panoramic views of Big House and Little House Mountains to the east and just past Pete’s Cave, there are views to the west.
Streams/Waterfalls – 0. Non-existent and no water sources.
Wildlife –3. We saw some deer and a few birds from the overlook.
Ease to Navigate – 3. We didn’t have a lot of difficulty, but needed to mark it down some due to the lack of blazing and some of the trail was overgrown which made it a bit more difficult.
Solitude – 4. We did this trail early and didn’t see many people, but I would expect it would be busier on most weekends. The viewpoints generally have a few places to spread out and soak in the scenery.
This 56-mile backpacking trip traverses some of Virginia’s very best Appalachian Trail scenery! There are panoramic vistas, windswept balds, meadows full of wildflowers, pretty streams, and even wild ponies. We were lucky enough to have six days of nearly perfect weather and not a single drop of rain!
Day One – South Fork Holston River to Hurricane Creek Campground (9 miles) – Christine
Bright and early on Monday, May 20, we piled into our car and made the three and a half hour trip down to Damascus, Virginia. Town was busy with many thru-hikers still lingering after Trail Days (the huge, annual hiker festival and party hosted by the town.) Knowing we had six days of oatmeal and trail mix ahead of us, we enjoyed a fresh lunch at Mojo’s Trailside Cafe. Their food is excellent and the place has such a cool hiker vibe. After eating, we drove over to Mt. Rogers Outfitters to meet our ride. Our shuttle driver turned out to be a local woodworking artist named Matthew Newman (he has a gallery in town.) He was right on time and the trip to our start point flew by as he shared stories about the area’s history and geology. The Appalachian Trail crossing of the South Fork of the Holston River is in the middle of nowhere – just a tiny one-car pullout along a lonesome back road. We crawled out of his van, made sure we had all our stuff, and hit the trail. It was already 1:30 and we had nine miles to go before we reached our first camp stop.
We signed the wilderness-area logbook and crossed the wooden footbridge over the Holston River. We immediately started a gentle climb uphill through the woods. Eventually we reached a gravel road that paralleled a farm field. We climbed over a stile into a livestock pasture. The cows were completely indifferent to us, grazing and swinging their tails to swat flies away. The trail climbed steadily across the open terrain. We had some nice views of mountains behind us, but the sun felt hot and strong. We were glad to get to the stile on the south end of the pasture and duck back into the shade. After leaving the pasture, we had almost four miles of non-stop climbing. It wasn’t terrible uphill, but it was steady. Kris and I took a detour and visited Trimpi Shelter about a mile into the climb. It was a cute shelter with a center aisle, indoor stone fireplace, and abundant flat space for tenting around the shelter. Even though it was only a bit after 2:00, there were already a few hikers stopped for the day.
We climbed for another three miles. At the end of the ascent, we had a gorgeous, flat ridgewalk through lush fern. We trekked along until we reached the junction with a blue-blazed side trail that leads down to the forest service campground at Raccoon Branch. We stopped at the junction for a snack and gave Kris a chance to check on her feet. She was feeling a few hot spots in her new hiking boots and was dismayed to find several big blisters already forming just several miles into our hike! From there, we had a long meandering downhill to Dickey Gap. We passed lots of blooming flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons – and even a few early mountain laurels. We got to Dickey Gap a bit after 4:30. We chatted with a couple thru-hikers sitting in the shade under kiosk at the road crossing. They asked about the terrain headed north and indicated that they were going to try and make it to Marion (which was still 14 miles away!) You really have to admire thru-hikers’ ability to crush big miles like that.
The trail sign on the other side of the road said we had about 2.5 miles to go to reach our first campsite of the trip. About a mile later, we found ourselves at the base of Comer Creek Falls. The bridge across the creek was partially sealed off with yellow hazard tape. A sign indicated that the bridge was closed and hikers should backtrack and follow the detour indicated on the map. Well… we were all tired, Kris’s blisters were excruciating, and Adam was having back spasms. We just wanted to get to camp. We made a joint judgment that the bridge looked sturdy enough and decided to cross it one by one. Clearly, since I’m now writing this post — we lived! It really wasn’t all that dangerous. And, I guess sometimes you have to break the rules and live on the edge.
A mile later, we found the spur trail down to Hurricane Creek Campground – one of the USFS campgrounds in the area. We had already paid for a site ahead of time, but found the entire campground pretty much empty. We easily could have claimed any of the walk-in, first-come-first-served sites. I chatted briefly with the campground host. He handed me a pamphlet and told me a bear had been opening car doors and stealing food. He recommended we store our food in the locked trunk of our vehicle. Hmmm… I guess he didn’t really notice that we all showed up on foot!
One of the perks of staying at the campground instead of an AT shelter was the fact that the campground had hot showers. I don’t need a shower every day on the trail, but any time I can get one, it’s a nice morale boost. It feels good to be clean when I crawl into my sleeping bag at night. We made a campfire, cooked dinner, and did our best to dodge the thick clouds of mosquitoes swarming around. Adam wrote a hilarious rap tune for our section hike, and each night during the trip he added and performed a new verse about our adventures for the day. After discussing the bear issues in the area, we ended up storing our food inside the vault toilet building across from our campsite. The door to the bathroom latched securely and the campground was empty, so it seemed like the best option. We ended up staying up until almost 10:00 – way past typical hiker midnight. Eventually, we headed to our tents and drifted off to sleep.
Download DAY ONE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Two – Hurricane Creek Campground to Old Orchard Shelter (8.7 miles) – Adam
We started off day two from the campground, following the spur trail for about .7 mile back to the junction with the Appalachian Trail. Most of the day consisted of uphill climbing, but fortunately there were many water sources, so we didn’t have to carry a large (and heavy) amount of water.
About 1.5 miles into our walk, we passed through a beautiful section of trail surrounded by blooming rhododendron and azaleas. For a while, the trail was rolling and easy, but at the junction with the Hurricane Creek Trail, the trail took a turn steeply uphill along a wide, road-like section. Around the 3.9 mile mark, we took the .1 mile side trail on the right that led us to Hurricane Mountain Shelter. It was a nice place to eat a snack and stretch out our legs and backs (and tend to our feet). After the shelter, we had just over a mile more of steep climbing to reach an area known as Chestnut Flats. We had climbed about 1400 feet already; this wasn’t that bad over a long stretch, but there were some short steep sections along the way. At this top bump, the AT also reaches a junction with the Iron Mountain trail. We passed lots of hikers sitting trailside, using their phones. This was one of the few spots on the hike that actually had cell reception. Lots of people were catching up with texts, calls, and social media. We also came across a thru-hiker that told us there was some great trail magic ahead. That is always a motivator to any backpacker – you want to move quickly so you don’t miss out.
It was a steep downhill for the next mile and a half, but we soon reached Fox Creek, VA 603. As soon as I crossed the road and parking lot, I saw a sign in the tree pointing to Trail Magic. When I walked into the area, I was blown away by the setup. There were two guys, Greybeard and Been There, that had set up a large trail magic area. They said all hikers – thru and section – were welcome. They had grilled hot dogs, marinated chicken, a tub of fruit, homemade pie, cold sodas, and tons of snacks to take with you. They had a table filled with medical supplies for the taking and a handwashing station. They even had camp chairs (with backrests – a true luxury) and a campfire. Greybeard has been setting up here for years on the week after Trail Days. He runs a GoFundMe page for contributions to buy all of the food and supplies. Been There was helping out with cooking and making sure everyone was in good health and spirits. It truly restores your faith in humanity to see people out there caring for other hikers and it was great to relax and talk trail with everyone there. Greybeard left camp while we were there because he found a stuff sack of food that one of the thru-hikers had left behind. He went further up the trail to leave it at a shelter the hiker would find – it would stink to leave days worth of food behind. They also told us the previous night they had a bear come into camp. After not getting food near the tents and campfire, he ambled over to the nearby parking area and broke into a trailer. Apparently, he made off with a full case of hot cocoa packets before moving on to steal feed from the horse camp across the road.
While it was tempting to stay near the trail magic camp, we pressed forward to our planned stop. We had another steep climb to reach our endpoint, but we felt renewed from our brief respite. At 8.7 miles, we reached Old Orchard Shelter. We were one of the first groups to arrive for the day, so we staked out a prime spot on in a flat grassy area – taking care to avoid the abundant poison ivy. Over the course of the evening, more than 20 people arrived and set up their own tent sites. The water source was a bit of a walk from the right side of the shelter, but was flowing nicely. We set up camp and then began to make some dinner – PackIt Gourmet Kickin’ Chicken Wraps. There was an odd-acting person at the shelter, so we ended up having about 14 people come sit at our campfire. We joked that we felt like the “cool kids” since everyone came to hang out with us. You always meet interesting people on these hikes. We met a Texas acupuncture doctor (who I discovered knew a mutual friend), a woman that was flying home to get married in just a few days, a woman from Germany out with a guide, a college professor hiking with her niece, and a couple of fire fighters from New York that drove down to do a section. It’s crazy how so many different people can come together over a fire that all share a passion for hiking. We had a great night talking with everyone and were excited about the next couple of days on the trail.
Download DAY TWO Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Three – Old Orchard Shelter to Massie Gap (8.7 miles) – Christine
Our miles for the day started with a thousand foot climb to the summit of Pine Mountain. At the top of the mountain, we passed through a gate and followed the edge of a sunny meadow for a short distance before going through another gate where the trail went back into the woods. We descended through pretty forest for about a mile – there were pine roots, ferns, and abundant yellow flowers. As the trail leveled out, we found ourselves walking in a cloud. The sunshine we’d had back at the top of Pine Mountain had given way to low clouds settling between mountains. Through the mist, we could see a small building on a hillside off in the distance. At first I thought we were coming up on Wise Shelter, but I soon figured out the shelter was still miles away. What I actually saw was the vault toilet building at Scales Livestock corral. It has to be the most scenic privy in Virginia!
After Scales, we had a short but steep uphill to the top of Stone Mountain – the four mile mark for our day. The long, pleasant ridge-walk should have offered beautiful views, but we were still socked in by heavy clouds. It was cold and windy along the summit walk. After a gradual descent of Stone Mountain, we entered Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. It was lovely and green. At 6.2 miles, we reached Big Wilson Creek and the junction with the horse trail. We crossed the stream on a wooden footbridge and went over another stile. I was paying close attention to my footing as I crossed a rocky area. Adam looked back at me from ahead and nonchalantly said, “Hey… I’m going to stop here and take photos of some ponies.” PONIES! I thought he was kidding at first. I didn’t expect to see ponies until day four. But sure enough… there was a band of six ponies grazing in marshland along the trail. Adam stepped slightly off trail to get a better view when suddenly a tiny black foal popped out of the deep grass. He couldn’t have been more than a week old and he was beautiful! The three of us all greatly enjoyed spending time watching these wonderful animals. The ponies eventually wandered deeper into the marsh, and we continued another .2 mile to Wise Shelter – our lunch stop for the day.
We decided to take a long break and enjoy a hot lunch. We had some extra food to use up since we had a trail magic lunch the day before. Kris made a salmon pesto meal and Adam and I shared a package of Good To Go Mushroom Risotto (one of our favorites!). We had delightful lunch companions – two women from Sweden, a man from Kentucky, and a British guy – all thru-hikers. After they hiked on, we were joined by a man who was less-than-pleasant company, so we packed up and made our way into Grayson Highlands State Park. The park’s boundary is just south of the shelter.
From the shelter, we just had about 1.5 miles of climbing to reach the spur trail to the parking area at Massie Gap – our end point for day three. That 1.5 miles was incredibly scenic. The area is covered with only low shrubs and small pine trees, so the views are open in every direction. There are rock formations, wide meadows, ponies grazing, and (if you’re lucky like we were) blooming rhododendrons. We took tons of photos, watched ponies frolic, and enjoyed the magnificent views. It was everything we hoped the trip would be!
Around 2:30, we made our way down to Massie Gap where we were meeting the owner of the Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn. We had called him from the junction of the AT and the spur trail down to parking. After about 15 minutes of waiting, Dennis came along in a truck and whisked us away for a night of hiker-luxury. We had reserved the inn suite for the three of us. We also sent a resupply box with food for the second half of our trip. Carrying a full week of food is very heavy (backpackers typically carry 1 – 1.5 pounds of food per day), so it’s a treat to be able to resupply every 3-4 days. At the inn, we enjoyed pizza, beer/wine, and ice cream! Our suite had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and even a washer/dryer. We were all able to shower and wash our sweaty clothes. We spent most of the evening relaxing and repacking our bear canisters. It was nice to sleep in a queen size bed – so spacious compared to the floor space in our tiny tent! I would highly recommend the Grayson Highlands General Store for anyone who wants a night off-trail in the area. The accommodations are simple, but they’re very clean, affordable, and comfortable. Also, the staff at the inn takes great care of hikers! We really enjoyed our stay.
Download DAY THREE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Four – Massie Gap to Whitetop (10 miles) – Adam
Day four was the highlight of the entire trip. It turned out to be the toughest day physically, but everything we saw helped make the pain bearable. We started off our morning with breakfast at the inn. Kris and I had french toast with bacon and Christine had a grilled bacon and cheese sandwich. We also got some deli sandwiches to pack for lunch on the trail. Dennis, the inn’s owner, gave us a shuttle ride back to Massie Gap parking. We had about a mile walk back up to where we rejoined the Appalachian Trail.
We took a left and headed south on the AT. The climb was steep and slow going at the beginning, but we were soon greeted with expansive views all around. It was quite easy to just say that you were stopping to take photos when you really needed to catch your breath. The terrain was relentlessly rocky and rugged. The clouds that were hanging above the mountains added to the visual drama. We thought we were going to get stormed on, but luckily the rain held off all day. The one thing that amazes me about this area is how fitting the word “Highlands” is to describe the terrain – in this area you may feel like you are walking in Scottish Highlands.
At about the 1.5 mile mark, we reached the southern edge of Grayson Highlands State Park, marked by a turnstile to an open field. From here we went back onto national forest land. The trail climbs up steeply and we reached a spot called ‘Fatman Squeeze’ at 2.2 miles. It is an interesting rock formation that you can climb through. It wasn’t that much of a squeeze, but if you don’t want to risk humiliation or don’t like the claustrophobic feel there is a path that loops around the feature.
After the Squeeze, we reached Wilburn Ridge at 2.5 miles. As we crossed over the bump, we spotted another band of ponies lounging next to the trail. While they call these “wild” ponies, they are accustomed to people and may try to grab some food from an unattended backpack. The ponies all have such interesting markings and we talked about which one was our favorite. The trail had another short uphill bump before we came to Rhododendron Gap and a junction with the Pine Mountain Trail. On the ground, someone had arranged rocks into “500” noting the 500 mile mark of the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers. There is another bit of fairly easy walking on this ridgeline – and the views keep coming if you’re lucky to visit on a clear day.
At 4 miles, we reached the Thomas Knob shelter. As I approached the shelter, I paused to take a photo and startled a retired police officer eating lunch there. Just a minute before I arrived, a bear had come right up to the shelter where she was sitting. She thought I was the returning bear. We stopped to eat lunch and heard more from the woman about the bear. The shelter log said that at night, gleaming bear eyes can be seen in the nearby trees, watching the open shelter.
The area has been extremely problematic for aggressive bears over the last couple years. In 2018, several miles of AT in this area were closed to camping after tents were shredded and over 70 hikers’ food bags were taken by a bear. Now, there are bear lockers installed near the shelter, so be sure to store food and other ‘smellables’ securely if you decide to stay near Thomas Knob. Despite the addition of bear lockers, some hikers are still continuing to sleep with food in their tents and in the shelter, so bear problems have persisted into the 2019 season. After lunch, we continued on and just a short distance along the trail we reached a junction with a spur trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Rogers (we wrote about this in another post – no views but something worth doing if you want to bag the highest peak in Virginia).
After the Mt. Rogers junction, the trail descends steeply over rocky terrain until you reach Deep Gap at 6 miles. We saw dozens and dozens of northbound thruhikers coming the opposite direction as we descended from Grayson Highlands. More than a few mentioned that they were not enjoying the big climb and asked if the scenery ahead was as amazing as reputed. We assured everyone that the big climb was totally worth the payoff at the summit.
We took off our packs for a break, but we knew we still had more miles to cover. Continuing on, we kept descending and reached the beautiful mustard fields of Elk Garden. It was hot in the open sun. We crossed VA 600 at 8 miles and ran into a grandfather that was hoping to meet his thru-hiking granddaughter along the trail. We hadn’t seen her yet (we would the next day), but we rested again for a bit as we reentered the woods.
The day had already been tough and we had a big climb ahead of us. We debated stopping there for the night, but decided to camp where we had originally planned. We summoned what little strength we had left and pressed on to the end. We had 2.4 miles of an uphill climb to make it to the end of our day and it was all fairly steep. We hiked separately, setting our own paces, with Christine in the lead.
When we got to the high point on Whitetop Mountain, almost all the campsites had been taken, but Christine managed to grab the last decent one when she arrived. It was probably the worst of the campsites that we had for the trip, but it was still fine. Lots of other hikers ended up squeezed into tilted rocky sites that couldn’t have been comfortable.
Water was quite a distance from camp, but on our way to the source we enjoyed great views along an open ridge. The water source was a piped spring that came out of the mountainside. It gushed ice cold water and might be one of the nicest water sources we’ve ever seen. Christine and I both doused our heads and splashed our faces and rinsed away a lot of the day’s salty sweat. We made PackIt Gourmet All American Cheeseburger Wraps for dinner – maybe our new favorite backpacking meal. They were delicious! After brushing our teeth and finding a good place to wedge our bear canisters, we watched sunset from the open ridge, and then went to bed before 9:00. We were all exhausted. It had been an amazing, but tiring, day.
Download DAY FOUR Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Five – Whitetop to the Virginia Creeper Junction (8.5 miles) – Christine
Day five dawned with our high-elevation campsite blanketed in fog. We hoped enough of the mist would lift to allow us to enjoy the views from Buzzard Rock, but with only a mile to cover, we were at the vista about twenty minutes after hiking out of camp. At the viewpoint, we found ourselves still standing in the middle of a cloud. Luckily, we could still make out faint views of the valley below. Even veiled, Buzzard Rock is a gorgeous spot – and also our last opportunity to enjoy the highlands on this trip. Shortly after the viewpoint, the trail takes a steady 3.8 mile downhill drop from 5,080′ all the way down to 3,160′. At the beginning of the descent, we saw the fading final red trillium of spring and at the bottom of the descent, we saw abundant pink lady’s slippers. The drop in elevation let us see both early and later bloomers on the same day!
At the bottom of the descent, we crossed Route 58 and made our way back uphill for a mile to reach Lost Mountain Shelter. The lower elevation brought on the extra heat and humidity. Paired with the exertion of climbing, we were all pretty hot and tired when we arrived at the shelter for lunch. The area was crowded with a crew of volunteer maintainers from the local trail club and about ten thru-hikers in for a mid-day break. The trail club kindly carried out everyone’s garbage! It’s such a small thing, but to have a day hiker offer to take your trash out is true trail magic! We collected water and decided to make our PackIt Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. It’s a really delicious meal, but I think everyone was too hot to really be hungry. We couldn’t finish everything, so we passed our leftovers on to a thru-hiker from Colorado.
After lunch, we had a tiny bit more uphill climbing before the trail switchbacked downhill for 1.8 miles to its junction with the Virginia Creeper Trail. The Creeper is and old railroad grade converted to a multi-use trail. It’s most heavily used by bikers, but also by equestrians, hikers, runners, and even the occasional dog-sledder in the winter! Kris was about fifteen minutes behind us, so Adam and I sat on the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge and waited for her to catch up. While we waited, we noticed that there were several really nice streamside campsites under the bridge.
When Kris caught up, we had a team meeting and decided to camp under the bridge instead of hiking another 2.3 (mostly uphill) miles to our planned campsite. We were all hot and tired, and the campsite ahead sounded not-so-great (stagnant, mosquito-laden pond nearby) according to accounts in our Guthooks AT App. We set up camp, waded in the stream, played cards, and had a relaxing evening at camp. We even met a couple guys fishing nearby, and they kindly shared a couple cold beers with us.
Over dinner, we discussed altering our plan for days six and seven. We tossed around the idea of finishing in one day instead of two and following the Creeper Trail instead of the AT. We agreed to sleep on the plan and make a decision in the morning. It was really a fantastic campsite and everyone slept so well with the sound of rushing water nearby.
Download DAY FIVE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Six – Virginia Creeper Junction to Damascus (11 miles) – Adam
We woke up early and discussed our plan for the day. Kris’ feet were in pain and we knew the elevation gain and rough terrain were going to be hard on her blisters. The initial thought was that I would stay on the AT, while Christine and Kris would walk back along the Creeper Trail, but meet up along a spur between the two trails to camp together. After looking at our AWOL guide and the Guthooks app, there was no solid information on how the spur trail would connect or how far it would be. I ultimately made the call to stick together and finish in one day via the Creeper Trail back to Damascus. I am probably more of an AT purest and want to hit every blaze, but Christine was fine just getting to Damascus another way. But, she promised to come back together and do the AT miles to appease my desire to see every white blaze. Sticking together was definitely the best call for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.
The AT parallels the Creeper Trail for a good portion, but it is much higher in elevation and there aren’t really any easy access points between the two trails. Going back the way of the Creeper Trail also meant that the entire hike was either flat or downhill and the footing for trail conditions was much easier on injured feet (the AT section would have added about 1800 feet of climbing and a couple more miles).
We packed up camp and were on our way. We crossed the Hassinger bridge, where the AT and Creeper begin to share trail for about .7 miles until the AT takes a hard right up the mountainside. We stayed on the Creeper Trail, crossing 21 trestle bridges and enjoying gorgeous stream scenery along the way. When we biked this section many years ago, it was raining which forced us to rush along the trail, so it was nice to take in the sights at a leisurely pace. Much of the Creeper Trail follows Whitetop Laurel Creek – one of Virginia’s largest and most pristine trout streams.
There were a good number of bikers out for the Memorial Day weekend, so we got used to hearing “ON THE LEFT” as they sped past. A few cyclists paused and gawked at us carrying our gear. For some of these casual family bikers I guess we seemed like hardcore professional athletes. People randomly applauded and one woman said she was ‘in awe of us.’ It was funny!
Overall the Creeper Trail is fairly shady, but we also passed by farm houses and through wide pastures. The sun was quite hot in open areas. After finishing a long sunny stretch, we stopped in the shade along a roadside. A father and son were fishing nearby. When they saw us, they offered us a cold Mountain Dews and homemade cookies from their truck. We never stop being amazed by the kindness of strangers. We eventually managed to motivate ourselves to get back up and shoulder our heavy packs.
As we drew closer to town, there were billboards on the side of the trail advertising places to eat and drink in Damascus – they helped motivate us to finish. We ended up crossing US-58 on the outskirts of Damascus. The Appalachian Trail comes down a steep set of stairs on the right and rejoins the Creeper Trail again as it passes through town. We finished our hike walking alongside the road in the blazing sun. Kris had a near brush with danger as a kid on a bike carelessly ran her off the side of the trail. That was a real issue near the congested town section, since many bikers may not be as well-trained on etiquette or skilled enough to avoid others. We talked to another couple that had been hit twice by inexperienced cyclists on their run.
We made it back into town and ate at Wicked Chicken Winghouse & Tavern. There was a guy outside singing and playing guitar and a ton of people enjoying the music, food, and ice cream. We ate inside the air-conditioned restaurant and had some great wings and beers from Damascus Brewery. When we were finished eating, I walked a few tenths of a mile back into town (following the Creeper Trail further into town and then going down Shady Ave to get back to Mount Rogers Outfitters) to pick up our car. Christine and Kris stayed at the restaurant and finished their beers before I picked them up. Before we headed home, we stopped and got some souvenirs from Sun Dog Outfitter.
We had an amazing trip and shared a lot of good memories together while covering a bunch of miles. Everything isn’t always easy when you do a longer section of trail like this, but we felt very accomplished and glad to have each other to help us get through.
Download DAY SIX Maps and Elevation Profiles
Distance – 56 miles
Elevation Change – 11,095 ft. (daily gain is included on each profile download)
Difficulty – 3. Most of the terrain is moderate and uncomplicated.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was clear and easy to follow. Bridges and footing were mostly in passable condition. The bridge at Comer Creek Falls was technically closed when we hiked. We had one tough blowdown to negotiate in Little Wilson Creek Wilderness.
Views – 5. We had spectacular views on three of the six days of the trip.
Streams/Waterfalls – 4. There were many beautiful cascading streams along the route. Comer Creek Falls was small, but lovely.
Wildlife – 5. High chances of seeing bears along this section. Even though the ponies aren’t technically wild, we count them as wildlife.
Ease to Navigate – 5. The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
Solitude – 0. This is a very popular section of Appalachian Trail. We maximized crowds by 1)Joining the thru-hiker bubble 2) Starting the day Trail Days ended 3) Hiking over a holiday weekend. If you choose a different time of year, you might have significantly more solitude.
Directions to trailhead: We left a car in Damascus at Mt. Rogers Outfitters. We used their shuttle service to drop us off at the Appalachian Trail Crossing at the South Fork of the Holston River. GPS coordinates for our start point are: 36.7631, -81.4939.
This past year was not a good year for our backpacking hobby. The rain seemed endless and the amount of exceedingly heavy rain did a lot of damage to trails. We also got a new puppy in March. He needed a lot of training and we weren’t quite ready to trust him to someone else for long periods of time.
We did manage to get out for this one trip in August 2018. Halfmoon Mountain had been a trail we had looked at doing for many years. We heard there were great views and a sweet campsite with a view at the top. One thing that hurts this as a backpacking loop is the nearest water source to the top is about 1-1.5 miles away from the camp areas, so you have to haul what water you need to the top.
We started the trip by parking along Trout Run Road (see GPS coordinates below). We started off on the Bucktail Trail and shortly walked through a gate blocking off the fire road. After a short distance, we came to a junction where the Bucktail Connector Trail branched off to the right while the Bucktail Trail takes a left (this is your return trip for the loop). We took the right Bucktail Connector Trail which has pinkish-purple blazes to follow this loop counter-clockwise. The trail began to climb up through forested terrain. Overall, this trail was well-maintained as it is a visible, narrow footpath cutting through the forest. There isn’t a ton to say about this section since there wasn’t a lot to see other than forest around you. The trail climbs for about the first 1.25 miles before descending slightly for about .5 miles and then there is another up and down until you reach another junction at 2.5 miles. There is a very nice campsite along the stream near this junction.
At the junction take a left on to the Halfmoon Trail (going right would take you to the Halfmoon parking area – where many hikers originate on a shorter out-and-back route to the summit). From here, the trail gets steeper and at the 3.5 mile mark, you reach the junction with the Halfmoon Lookout Trail, which takes off from the left. Take that left on to the Halfmoon Lookout Trail to reach the summit after another .8 miles. On our way up to the Halfmoon Lookout, we noticed a small footpath that branched off to the left which led to a larger camp area where we ultimately camped for the night. The last tenth of a mile is a steep rock scramble to the top. With crumbling rock underfoot, you really have to watch your step. At the top, there are two great viewpoints. The first you come across on the lefthand side of the trail and there is room for a few people at the top. There are remains of an old firetower at this lookout spot.
To visit second viewpoint, you descend through a campsite in a saddle and then over another rock scramble to to the view. This view spot will typically only work for about two people. It’s tight quarters.
We initially were going to camp at the top – we heard it was a great campsite. Some jerks had chopped down some live trees to build the frame of a lean-to (so much for Leave No Trace principles) on the campsite. We deconstructed the lean-to and tried to clear out the area a bit, but felt the campsite would have been a bit tight and we would have had people walking through our campsite all day to get to the second viewpoint. We decided to enjoy the views up here and then make our way back down. Investigating that side trail, we found a great spot to set up camp. Even better, the campsite below the saddle had its own little viewpoint for us to enjoy. We found a nice grassy spot to set up our tent on some flat ground. The bugs were a little hard to deal with at camp, but we made the best of it. We were later joined by another couple that shared our camping area.
After we set up camp, we made our way back to the top to enjoy some late afternoon/sunset views. At the second view, another couple had set up a hammock somewhat precariously over the edge – a nice spot, but it did obstruct the views for anyone else. We had a nice dinner back at our campsite and settled down for the evening enjoying the sounds of the forest.
Christine Says: Day Two (5.3 miles)
I woke up early on the second day, so I could watch the sunrise. There were a couple decent places to catch the sun coming up – the small outcropping at our campsite and a spot about halfway up the scramble to the summit of Halfmoon. Both vistas were a bit obstructed, but I was still able to capture some pretty morning color in the sky. The day was already warming, so we ate breakfast and packed up quickly.
We made our way back down the Halfmoon Lookout Trail for several tenths of a mile to its junction with the German Wilson Trail. I don’t know what color I’d call the blazes on German Wilson Trail – purplish? fuchsia? magenta? Something like that, I suppose. The German Wilson Trail descended very steeply over loose, rocky terrain. It wasn’t fun and I was very glad we had decided to hike the loop counter-clockwise and didn’t have to ascend this tough section of trail with full packs. The trail drops steadily for about a mile before coming to a grassy area with a shallow stream.
Look for a forest service gate to the left. You should see the orange blazes of the Bucktail Trail. The trail that continues toward the right is the Old Mine Trail – do not take this trail. Follow the Bucktail Trail, crossing the stream multiple times over the next .8 mile. When we hiked in August 2018, this section of the trail was in terrible shape. Big sections were washed out and we had to navigate by following sparse orange blazes. Lots of sections of footbed were completely disappeared by debris and erosion. Hopefully some trail maintenance has been done over the last eight months.
At 2.2 miles, you’ll come to a junction with the Cacapon Trail. That trail follows a small footbridge over the stream on the right. Stay to the left and continue following the orange blazed Bucktail Trail. At this point, the trail becomes wide and grassy. It also begins to ascend again. This climb wasn’t difficult, but the grass was pretty overgrown and there was a lot of direct sun/heat. I also saw a ton of poison ivy mixing in with the grass. The climb felt worse than the numbers make it look.
The last three miles on the Bucktail Trail were pretty dull. It was basically a trudge along a grassy roadbed back to the parking area. All in all, this hike didn’t really live up to my expectations. It was nice to get out after such a long backpacking drought, but this trail definitely is not destined to become a favorite. If I were to hike it again, I think I’d park at the Halfmoon Mountain parking area and just do this as a seven mile, out-and-back dayhike.
We got back to the car by late morning, so we decided to get some lunch and a cold beer before heading home.
Distance – 10 miles
Elevation Change – Day One: 1545 feet, Day Two: 477 feet
Difficulty – 3. This was a fairly easy backpacking route. The first day has about a mile of serious climbing, but the rest is very gradual. The second day has a steep, rocky mile of downhill, followed by a bunch of stream crossings, and then a moderate climb along a forest road before gently descending back to the parking area.
Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was in decent condition for national forest. The first day along the Bucktail Cutoff and Halfmoon Mountain Trail was excellent. The second day had rougher trail conditions: the steep descent when you first turn onto the German Wilson trail had lots of loose softball to football sized rocks and was a bit challenging to walk on, there was a trail washout near the final stream crossing on the Bucktail Trail, and the road portion of the Bucktail Trail had loads of tall grass and poison ivy.
Views – 3. There are several vistas at and near the summit of Halfmoon Mountain, however they are all small and partially obstructed.
Streams/Waterfalls – 3. There are nice streams on both day one and two, but the closest water source to the summit campsites is about 1 – 1.5 miles downtrail. In drier times, I expect campers might have to walk up to 2.5 miles down from the summit for water.
Wildlife – 3. We saw several deer and had a whippoorwill at camp.
Ease to Navigate – 2.5. The trail has spotty blazing and intermittent trail signs. Blazes are not equally distributed for hikers headed in both directions, sometimes we had to look back to check for blazes to make sure we were on the same trail. There are some trail washouts on the Bucktail Trail that make navigating the stream crossings a little tricky. Also, many blazes are faded and painted in inconsistent colors (for example – the orange Bucktail Trail blazes were often closer to red).
Solitude – 2. There is one small campsite and one large campsite near the summit. We had to share the large campsite with another hiking party. There was also a steady stream of dayhikers visiting this peak.
Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 39.01431, -78.66388. The parking area is at the top of a gravel loop right off Trout Run Rd. The sign along the road will be for the Bucktail Trail. Do not park at the lot labeled Halfmoon Trail – that is the 7-mile out-and-back route, rather than the loop outlined here.
We did this 27-mile Appalachian Trail section over three days at the tail end of summer 2017. The trail was beautiful and quiet with lots of interesting things to see along the way. We camped one night and spent the other luxuriating at Woods Hole Hostel. This may have been one of Christine’s favorite sections yet!
We decided to celebrate Christine’s birthday by completing a section of the Appalachian Trail over a few days. I had a couple of surprises for her along the way which hopefully made it an even better trip for her. I arranged a shuttle driver to meet us at a parking lot off Narrows Road near Pearisburg, VA. We loaded up and he drove us on some beautiful back roads until we got to our dropoff point at Kimberling Creek. There was a small parking lot here and a suspension bridge that spanned the creek. We took a few pictures, crossed the road, and then started our trip north on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail on a two day trip back to our car. The trail started off with a bit of a steep climb, which is always a quick reminder of the weight you decided to pack in your backpack.
The climb was short-lived and after about a mile, the trail started to slope back downhill. At 1.8 miles, we reached a side trail that showed that Dismal Falls was just .3 miles away. Since it was early in the day, we decided to check it out and we were so glad we did. Dismal Falls was one of the more picturesque waterfalls I have seen and the setting just invites you to waste some time there. Even with low amounts of water falling, it is a great swimming hole area with great places to perch above and watch the water. We ate some snacks, explored the nearby area, and took many pictures before deciding to head on. While we were there, we only had a few other people that came by and they all approached it from the roadside that we could see in the distance behind the waterfall. We were glad we put the effort to see such a beautiful place. We grabbed our stuff and then headed back to rejoin the AT, bringing our mileage to 2.4 miles.
Continuing on, most of the hiking for this day was rather pleasant – there was a slight uphill climb but overall was not too tough. There were lots of footbridges and water crossings along the way, so this was not a day where we felt like we needed to carry much water since we weren’t terribly far from a water source. Eventually, we hiked next to a large, scenic pond that joined up to a dirt road at about 8.4 miles. From here, it was just a couple of tenths of a mile to our first stop on our trip, Wapiti Shelter.
Wapiti Shelter has some dark history to it. Christine had already heard the story before, but she waited to tell me about it until we got there. The old Wapiti shelter was the place where a couple of murders had taken place in 1981. A man named Randall Lee Smith befriended a couple of hikers and then murdered them in their sleeping bags that night. Smith was captured and imprisoned, and then met parole to be released in 1996. In 2008, Smith returned just a few miles away and tried to kill two fisherman but wrecked his truck in the getaway and died from the injuries he sustained when he was taken to prison. If you want to read more about this story, check it out here. Keep in mind, that the shelter today is located a couple miles away from where the murder happened, so ghost stories that the trail journals would like you to believe are simply not true.
As we were setting up camp, I surprised Christine with an additional camp pillow for a birthday present. She had been complaining recently about how she wish she had multiple pillows when backpacking, because one inflatable pillow just wasn’t enough. She was thrilled when I brought the extra one out of my pack. We set up our tent not far from the shelter and a bit later, we were eventually joined by other hikers, including two from Australia and one from Germany. The best water source at this campsite was back the way we came at the bottom of the hill. We told the other campers about the murder story but only after they asked specifically about it after reading logbook entries. I think everyone slept well that night despite the ghost tale.
Christine Says: Day Two – Wapiti Shelter to Woods Hole Hostel (7.8 miles)
Brrr – that was a cold night! I was glad to have spent it bundled up in my warmer sleeping bag with two pillows. Eventually we got moving, packed up, ate breakfast, and started our hiking for the day. We had all day to go eight miles, so we set out at a leisurely pace. We had about three straight miles of moderate uphill to our first view of the day. The trail was all green tunnel. We passed through thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron and traversed lush beds of ferns.
At 2.7 miles in we reached a pretty outcropping of rocks with a great view of the valley below. We stopped briefly to enjoy the vista, but weren’t ready for a snack or a long break. The next 2.3 miles covered rolling terrain with lots of small ups and downs. The trail was pretty, but not remarkable. At five miles into our day, we reached the radio tower on Flat Top mountain. The tower viewpoint is about .1 miles off the trail and worth making the small detour. Behind the tower, there is a series of small cliffs with a commanding view. It’s the perfect place to take a lunch break.
The day had warmed up a bit and we were both running really low on water. Thankfully, we had enough to make Pack-It Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. We had cheese and crackers with candy and dried fruit for our mid-day meal. We also took a good long break and rested atop the rocks. It was peaceful to watch hawks and buzzards soaring on the breeze.
After a full hour of resting, we packed back up and set out to cover our final 2.8 miles of the day. The rest of the route was mostly downhill with only a few brief bumps to climb. In about .7 miles, we crossed the Ribble Trail. The sign indicated that supplies (like propane) were available somewhere down the Ribble Trail, but I would think most people would just continue on to Woods Hole or even Pearisburg if they needed something. Apparently, there is also a nice AT-Ribble Trail loop that is popular with locals. If we were to have followed the Ribble Trail, it would have rejoined the AT near Waipiti shelter, where we spent the prior night. Maybe one day, we’ll go back and explore the area more.
After crossing the junction with the Ribble Trail, we continued downhill; crossing Big Horse Gap/USFS 103 just a tenth of a mile later. In another 1.2 mile, we crossed another forest road. From this point, the last .5 miles of hiking went steeply downhill. The trail was a bit rocky and overgrown. At this point, I was starting to hit a wall. I was out of water and feeling really parched. We hadn’t passed a spring since first thing in the morning and the sun had been beating down on us all day. I told Adam I wanted to rest at the road crossing before we hiked down to Woods Hole Hostel – our destination for the evening. He said to me ‘But wouldn’t a massage be way more relaxing?’ It turned out he booked an hour long massage for me at the hostel. Say no more – I was up and ready to cover that last .5 miles of road walking to get to Woods Hole.
Normally, we wouldn’t stay at a hostel on a two-night backpacking trip, but Woods Hole is special. Family-run for decades, the quaint, old farmhouse is an Appalachian Trail legend and a beloved tradition for many hikers. The old farmhouse opened its doors to hikers in the 1980s. The hostel was originally run by Tillie and Roy Wood, but was taken over by their granddaughter Neville in 2007. Since then, she and her husband Michael have expanded on the hostel’s offerings, creating a mountain oasis that is simultaneously rugged and luxurious. There’s no television or cell phone signal, but there is beautiful organic food (that you get to help prepare!), massage services, and group yoga.
We arrived at the hostel around 2:00 p.m. Neville was still working on cleaning the house, so we bought a couple soda’s from the bunkhouse fridge, and settled into the swing on the front porch. We played with the dogs, said hello to the roaming duck, and peeked into the goat and pig sheds. The garden was still beautiful and abundant in late summer – tons of peppers, tomatoes, and squash. If you stay at the hostel, you can camp, stay in the bunkhouse, or stay in a private room inside the farmhouse. We chose to stay in ‘Tillie’s Room.’ It had a comfortable queen bed, private sink/vanity, and shared full bath. It was quite luxurious for trail accommodations. Even if you choose the more humble bunkhouse, it is still comfortable and neat as a pin. There are beds with fresh linens provided, a big common area with a couch, and a nice offering of snacks and supplies available for purchase. There are also shower and laundry facilities available for those staying in the bunkhouse.
We visited during a really quiet time of year. There was a smattering of SoBo thru-hikers on the trail, but in mid-September we had the entire house to ourselves. Once we got checked in, I decided to shower and spend some time in the farmhouse’s library. It was full of all kinds of books and mementos. I especially enjoyed looking through scrapbooks chronicling the hostel’s history over the years. Around 5:00, Neville said she was ready to do my massage. It was a wonderful treat and felt fantastic on my tired shoulders and calves.
After the massage, we started to think about dinner! In the meantime, one southbound thruhiker arrived and booked a bed in the bunkhouse. Neville’s husband had errands to run, so it was just four of us for dinner. Neville and Michael typically prepare community meals with the help of hikers staying for the night. Everyone has a task and chips in to prepare and clean up after the meal. We had an amazing tomato-pepper-cucumber salad, homemade bread with aioli, locally raised pork, and a flavorful yellow Thai vegetarian curry for dinner. Everything was delicious, but the salad was a favorite and is something I’ve made at home ever since. Dessert was Neville’s homemade vanilla ice cream.
After dinner, Adam and I relaxed in the library and read until it was time for bed. It was lovely being lulled to sleep by the sound of a breeze in the trees outside. We both slept great!
Adam Says: Day Three – Woods Hole Hostel to Narrows (11.8 miles)
We had our longest day on the trail ahead of us with the third day. We got up, packed up our gear, and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast prepared by Neville. We had asked if we could leave most of our gear there during the day to be able to “slackpack” without the weight. We carried water, some lunch, and a few layers of clothes but we were able to dump out so much of the weight. With this extra added comfort, we started on our hike for the day. We climbed up the steep gravel road and we quickly were so thankful we had dropped off our weight. We rejoined the AT at .5 miles and began our hike.
The morning started off foggy and cold and the section of AT started off uphill. At 1.9 miles, we reached a viewpoint, but it was completely socked in the fog so there was no point staying. The trail then took a descent and at 2.8 miles, we came upon Docs Knob Shelter. It was a nice shelter, but we were glad we had luxurious accommodations at Woods Hole Hostel the night before. The trail was up and down for a bit, before rising a bit to a nice viewpoint at 6.5 miles. The fog had lifted so we enjoyed nice views of the river cutting through a scenic mountain view. We stopped and ate some lunch here, but had to eat a bit away from the viewpoint since there were strong, cold winds. We pushed on as the trail became to climb very slowly and at 8.6 miles we reached another viewpoint. This was probably the nicest one in our opinion of the trip, since you had panoramic views of farmlands and mountains around you.
We continued the pleasant ridge walking and eventually the trail began to descend through an area that cut a path between very large rock boulders. We reached a sign that pointed to Angels Rest (a short .1 mile sidetrail) at 9.2 miles. Angels Rest is a large boulder that requires you to scale up it to get the view. We climbed up and the view is being combated by growing trees. The view in the distance is nice, but in my opinion the eyesore of looking down on a town (and correctional facility to boot) isn’t one that I particularly enjoy. I know lots of people hike up to this point from Pearisburg and return, but the better view would be if people would just continue a bit further. We climbed down disappointed this was the last view and then rejoined the trail.
The hike down from Angels Rest was extremely steep. We made the downward trip the rest of the way fairly quickly. At 11 miles we crossed over Cross Avenue, VA 634. We then crossed over Lane Street at 11.4 miles and then made it to Narrows Road and our car at 11.8 miles. When we got back to our car, we drove back to pick up our gear at Woods Hole Hostel (and also bought a nice soup bowl crafted by the owner) and then made our way to Ballast Point for some post-hike dinner and flight of beers. It was such a great birthday celebration and we had a wonderful experience!
Distance – 27 miles (plus a couple extra miles to access views, shelters, and Woods Hole Hostel) (Check out the stats from Map My Hike* [Day One] [Day Two][Day Three])
Elevation Change – 4,885 feet
Difficulty – 3.5. The second day was the toughest climbing. Overall, it wasn’t very tough, but it was 27 miles.
Trail Conditions – 3.5. Some of the trail was overgrown in parts, but overall was fairly maintained and footing was reliable through most of the hike.
Views – 4. The view leading up to Angels Rest was the best.
Streams/Waterfalls – 4. Lots of stream crossings, but the highlight was early in the hike with Dismal Falls.
Wildlife – 2. We didn’t run into many signs of wildlife on the trail, but did see an occasional deer.
Ease to Navigate – 4. Sticking to the AT, you just look for white blazes. The side trails we took were well marked.
Solitude – 4. We had most of the trail to ourselves. Expect people at Dismal Falls and Angels Rest and not much in between.
* 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: Coordinates to drop off car and meet shuttle: 37.3341, -80.7553 (Narrows AT Parking Lot Off road, room for quite a few cars.) Shuttle drop-off/hike start coordinates: 37.1757, -80.9083 (Kimberling Creek Suspension Bridge has a a small parking area along VA606)
We tackled this 24.5 mile section of Vermont’s Appalachian Trail during a spell of very hot, dry weather – especially by New England standards. The route has quite a bit of road-walking and traversing open fields in full sun. We’ll admit… it wasn’t one of our favorites.
This is the first section of Vermont’s Appalachian Trail that we have attempted. We looked at a few different routes but decided on this short three-day trip. We were staying with Christine’s parents in central New Hampshire and wanted to start tackling some miles nearby since they could watch our dog, Wookie, while we were backpacking. Another great thing about staying with them is they offered to provide the shuttle for us. Probably like most family members, they don’t quite understand what we were doing since they have never done a backpacking trip. We are often riddled with questions about where we are going, preparations, how we use different equipment, etc. They tried on our weighted packs and didn’t understand how we could walk for miles with these strapped to our backs and make decent time. They followed us in their car and we parked at our end destination. We then shuttled back in their car to Hanover, NH.
Before we began our trek, we had lunch with her parents at Molly’s in the heart of Hanover. They have great American fare and a trip to Molly’s has been an annual tradition for us for the last several years. We ate an early lunch, got our backpacks out of the car and started walking towards Dartmouth College on Main Street. The Appalachian Trail cuts right through the heart of Hanover, NH. It may be a rarity in most small towns to see people walking through your downtown with large backpacks, but Hanover is a classic hiker-friendly town. People would whisper as we walk by and take photos, making you feel like a celebrity more than anything. Of course, we had not walked all the way from Georgia to this point, but people are fascinated with long-distance backpacking. We took a few pictures on Dartmouth College’s quad lawn called The Green, walking by an admissions tour group, before turning down Wheelock Street/SR10 after just a few tenths from Molly’s to keep south on the Appalachian Trail. The white blazes that signify the AT trail markers through towns typically are blazes painted on lampposts or backs of signs.
The day was hot – abnormally hot for the summer in Vermont. The day was approaching 90 and we were walking on open road with no shade so we quickly got overheated. SR10 crossed over the Connecticut River and you see a sign halfway across the bridge that signifies the state border between New Hampshire and Vermont at .8 miles. With more road walking, we reached Norwich, VT and began to climb up a steeper section of sidewalk. With the sun beating down and the uphill climb, it was quite unbearable. At 2.7 miles, we rested at a gazebo in front of a church. Christine couldn’t take much more sun, so we threw our backpacks off and I went searching for places to buy some cold drinks in fear of losing all of our water in just a short amount of time. I found a nearby deli shop and got some cold drinks. We had trouble finding the blazes at this point so I also looked around for blazes (which ended up being on the opposite side of the road). Luckily, the road that I found the deli was also where the AT turned down Elm Street.
We continued on Elm Street going steeply uphill. There were several houses along the way that had trail magic – cold drinks and snacks in coolers or places to get a new paperback to read for the trail. I stopped again on our climb and took advantage of some ice cold water to drink and poor over my head to keep my body as cool as possible. We eventually came to a large kiosk (adorned with Uber business cards to avoid the road walking and get right into Hanover) where the AT finally entered into the woods and we had a bit of shade from the trees. The trail passed by a small stream (which was dry) and continued uphill. Overall the trail to our first shelter was mostly non-descript but serene. There was a brown path cutting through the sea of fern around us with pine, oak, and birch trees around us.
The trail crossed over a woods road at 4.5 miles and continued slightly up and down until we reached a junction with the blue-blazed Tucker Trail at 5.9 miles (a trail that also leads to Norwich, VT in 3 miles). From this point, it was just another .3 miles until we reached the sign that marked the side trail to the Happy Hill Shelter which was just less than a tenth off the main trail. We stopped for the night and were soon joined by some other hikers, including one of our favorites, Hobbes the dog, who had been suffering like all of us in the heat. He collapsed on the soft ground telling his owner, trail-named Calvin, that he was done for the day. He rolled onto his side while Calvin peeled off his doggy pack with no help from Hobbes. We talked while eating some dinner about things we had seen on the trail. We learned a bit about porcupines from one thru-hiker that told us that they mostly climb in trees during the day and are active at night. They gave us a warning to hang our poles because they like nibbling on the cork handles. We set up camp and tried to go to sleep but it was too hot of a night and everything felt clammy and sticky.
Christine Says: Day Two – Happy Hill Shelter to Thistle Hill Shelter (9.6 miles)
Our night at Happy Hill was kind of hot and fitful. Neither of us slept well. The tent was stuffy and I kept thinking I heard animals walking around the tent (porcupines!) The sun comes up so early in the New England summer that we were awake and packing up our gear before 6:00 a.m. We knew we had another hot day ahead of us, so getting an early start was important.
Our first stop of the day was 1.7 miles into the hike. We stopped to filter water from a unnamed small stream along the trail. Since the water source at the shelter had been dry, it was nice to replenish our Camelbaks.
Our first four miles of the day were mostly downhill and under the shade of the forest canopy. We walked through beds of fern, small meadows, and across a couple small streams. It was how I imagined Vermont would be.
At 3.4 miles into the day, we came out onto pavement and crossed under I-89. It’s always strange to step out of the woods and see 18-wheelers zipping by on a four-lane highway. The next mile of ‘hiking’ was over paved town roads heading into West Hartford. It was still pretty early, but the sun was already high in the sky and beating down full force on the asphalt. We were both red-faced and drenched with sweat.
We arrived to the main part of town right at 9:00 a.m. – which happened to be the same time the community library opened. The library door had a ‘hikers welcome’ sign, so we figured we’d go in and make use of their facilities. Even after one night in the woods, it’s wonderful to be able to wash your hands with soap and running water. The library attendant told us to make ourselves comfortable and to help ourselves to coffee or water from their cooler. We sat in the air conditioning and chugged a couple bottles full of chilled spring water. After about 45 minutes, we decided we should probably move on because the day was only going to get hotter.
We had only been walking about 50 feet when a woman starting waving and shouting to us from her front porch – “Hello hikers!! Come on over!” Adam and I always stop to chat with people and explore towns along the trail, so we made our way over to the house. It turned out we were at the Hart’s residence. The Hart’s are a well-known and valued provider of trail magic. She offered to cook us breakfast – there were eggs, pastries, muffins, watermelon, and cold sodas. We weren’t hungry, but we gratefully accepted a cold soda and stayed to chat for a while. People along the Appalachian Trail are always so kind and generous. Finally, we said farewell and made our way across the bridge over the White River and back into the woods.
The shade of the woods was short-lived and all the remaining miles of the day were uphill and mostly crossing open fields and forest with thin canopy. It was blazing hot. We took lots of breaks to cool off. We came to a partially obstructed view at 5.2 miles into the day. There was a bench shaded by an apple tree at the vista.
We took our lunch break at a forest road crossing at 7.5 miles into our day. We sat in the dirt and ate crackers and cheese, candy, and nuts. We were both running low on water, but figured we could make it a couple more miles to the water source at the shelter. While we ate, we checked out the large sugaring operation in the woods around us. It looked like there were miles of tubes to collect sap from the maple trees. It was neat and something we never see in Virginia.
After lunch, we made the final push to Thistle Hill shelter. There were so many open fields to climb across. It was in the mid-90s, breezeless, and the sun was unrelenting. I could feel my skin burning despite multiple applications of sunscreen. We both ran out of water and were so totally ready to be done for the day. As it so often goes, you reach camp just when you think you can’t take another step. We were so thankful to reach the spur trail to the shelter.
Adam probably had heat exhaustion and was badly dehydrated. He collapsed into the shade of the shelter to rest. I went about setting up camp while he took a break. After some time resting, we went to collect water. The source was really nice – a lacy little waterfall pouring over mossy rocks. I mixed electrolyte drinks and tried to get Adam to drink more. Several southbound thru-hikers we’d met the night before (and Rosco the dog) rolled into camp over the next hour.
We had an early dinner at the shelter. Everyone talked about the heat and the brutality of the five+ mile uphill climb. We retreated to our tent a little before sundown. Adam still didn’t feel well and I started to worry that it might be more than dehydration. At one point, I said to him, ‘We have cell service, we can call for help if you need it.’ He refused and fortunately started to feel better as the day cooled and the fluids started to rehydrate him.
More and more hikers arrived at camp as nightfall approached. I think there were probably close to 25 people camped at Thistle Hill by the time it was dark. A few more even stumbled in by headlamp as late at 10:00 p.m. We left our rainfly off the tent to catch the cross breeze, so every headlamp at camp woke us up. It was still a cooler, more comfortable night than we’d had at Happy Hill. We both got a decent night of rest in advance of our final day of hiking.
Adam Says: Day Three – Thistle Hill Shelter to Woodstock (8.7 miles)
With our last day ahead of us, we got up with the sunrise, used the neat screen-porch privy at the shelter, quickly packed up camp, and were on our way. I think only one thru-hiker made it out of camp before us. The heat was tough on a lot of us.
From the shelter, the trail descended. At 1.8 miles, we came to a junction marking a trail to the Cloudland Shelter (.5 miles west of the trail). This shelter used to be maintained by AT volunteers but was now on private land. Hikers can still stay there and it is owned by the owners of Cloudland Market. For the past two days we had been asking northbound hikers about Cloudland Market. It had been closed on Sunday and Monday when we started our hike but this was Tuesday and we had read in our AWOL thru-hiking guide that it was open on Tuesday. One guy had told us it was also closed Tuesday, but we had heard how great the shop was and thought a cold soda or snacking on some Vermont cheese could be nice. When we reached Cloudland Road at 2.3 miles, we saw a note taped to a sign stating that is was closed on Tuesday also, so we missed out.
We crossed Cloudland Road and had a very steep climb up an open field of grass and wildflowers to reach a hilly summit at 2.9 miles. This was probably the nicest view on the trail and gave us a glimpse of Vermont farms and mountains in the distance. We stopped for just a short time because the sun was beating down again, whipping us to push on for shade. The trail descended from this point and then we had another short uphill to reach another small view at 3.7 miles. We could see ski slopes off in the hazy distance. From this second viewpoint, it was a steep downhill until we reached the paved Pomfret Road at 4.1 miles.
On the other side of the road, was a small brook and we filled up water while talking with a bunch of northbound thru-hikers. They were having a debate on who would win in a fight between a horse and a cow and asked us for an opinion. We debated with them on why we felt a horse would win (because it had more speed and agility and could also pull off a painful kick or bite). It was a fun conversation and reminded me that when you don’t have the depressing world news to hear every day that these common topics were more enjoyable than the nightly newscast. Conversation with hikers that are going the opposite way are your version of the internet. You get information about trail conditions, water sources, sights to see, and how much uphill is ahead (its always stated that its not too bad even if it is). We also heard from other hikers that this section of Vermont that we had picked was probably the least beautiful of any of the sections of Vermont. While it was disheartening to hear, it at least renewed our opinion that the rest of Vermont would have nice streams, views, and farmlands fit for a postcard and we should do more of it another year.
After taking a short break and filling up with water we pressed on. We crossed another small stream and reached the gravel Bartlett Brook Road at 5.7 miles. At 6.5 miles, we crossed Totman Hill Road and reached another stream at 7.0 miles (where was all this water earlier in the trip?). At 7.3 miles, we reached Woodstock Stage Road and Barnard Brook. We had one less-steep climb up, a one mile climb up Dana Hill before descending again. On our final descent, we saw a black bear foraging off to the side that took off running when we got close. It was very exciting to finally see some wildlife and was a reward for the end of our journey! We finally reached our final road crossing at 8.7 miles, Barnard Gulf Road, and got back to where we had parked our car. We made it! We had been so hot and miserable for most of the trip we wondered if we would make the entire section. Filled with pride it was now time to fill our stomachs. We drove to nearby Long Trail Brewery for some cold beers and amazing food to toast our accomplishment.
Distance – 24.5 miles
Elevation Change – 6,341 ft
Difficulty – 4. This section had tons of steep, unrelenting ups-and-downs (most without a view payoff). It was similar to a bigger, badder version of Virginia’s roller coaster.
Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail was generally well maintained, but there were some very overgrown sections. There was also a bit of mud and erosion in places.
Views – 2.5. There were a couple nice views from high meadows. They were pretty, but not spectacular. Many were partly obstructed.
Waterfalls/streams – 3. There were streams for water sources and several larger rivers to cross (on bridges).
Wildlife – 4. Other hikers near us saw porcupines and we saw a bear!
Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail was easy to follow with adequate blazing and signage.
Solitude– 3. Surprisingly, we saw very few people on the trail, but campsites were moderately crowded.
Directions to trailhead: The parking lot that we left our car was at 43.6552N 72.5662W on Barnard Gulf Road on VT 12. From here, we made our way to Hanover, NH by heading south on VT 12 for 3.7 miles. We turned left when reaching to town of Woodstock to stay on VT 12 for .6 miles before turning left on to US-4 east. Stay on US-4 East for 9.4 miles and then merge on to I-89 South. Stay on this for 3 miles before taking the I-91 exit towards Brattleboro/White River. Keep left at the fork and follow signs for I-91 North. Stay on I-91 North for a little over 5 miles before taking exit 13 for Norwich. Take a right to merge on to 10A/W. Wheelock Street. Follow this for .8 miles before turning right on to Main Street. Parking is available hourly behind a lot of the restaurants/shops but is a good dropoff point for a shuttle.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This 13.7 mile stretch of Appalachian Trail is mostly a walk through ‘the green tunnel’. There isn’t any grand or memorable scenery, but as you approach Troutville, there are some pretty rolling meadows with mountain views.
For quite a while, we’ve had this 13.7 mile section of trail standing out as ‘unhiked’ in the almost 360 mile unbroken stretch of Appalachian Trail we’ve completed so far. The section between Black Horse Gap and Daleville doesn’t offer any great scenery, so we never felt rushed to get out there and tackle the miles. Doing it as a day hike would have required four hours of driving and a shuttle service. The logistics of hiking it seemed like a hassle, so we filed it under ‘later’.
In late June, Adam and I were driving into work together and making weekend plans. It went something like this…
Adam: What do we have planned for the weekend?
Me: Nothing. Want to hike?
Adam: What’s the weather like?
Both: Hey… let’s backpack that odd section we have left to finish!
After making the decision to go, plans fell quickly into place. Our pet sitter was available. We had plenty of trail food left from our Maryland hike. Then, after a chat on Facebook, my friend Molly said she could shuttle us! The final icing on the cake was the fact that the new east coast Ballast Point brewery had just opened in Daleville. On Saturday, we met Molly at Ballast Point and had lunch before hitting the trail. People may go to the Ballast Point for the beer, but they’ll walk away remembering the great food. I had the best kale-quinoa-avocado chicken salad. I still daydream about it a month later.
After lunch, we left our car at Valley Cleaners in Daleville and Molly drove us to our start point at Black Horse Gap. I’ve been online friends with Molly for a while, but this was our first in-person meeting. She was just like I imagined she would be – friendly, enthusiastic, outdoorsy, and all-around awesome! I love all the people I’ve met through the Appalachian Trail community! We said our good-byes at the trailhead. Adam and I headed south, descending gradually but steadily.
The trail was really narrow and built into the shoulder of the mountainside. In 2.4 miles, we reached Wilson Creek shelter. It was only 2:00, but there were already a few hikers at the shelter, settled in for the night. We asked a couple northbounders if they’d passed any nice trailside campsites in their last few miles. Everyone said they remembered sites, but not specifically how far away they might be. Adam and I decided to continue hiking and gamble on finding a place to camp somewhere in the next couple miles.
After the shelter we decended another half mile down to Wilson Creek. There was a campsite, but it was literally right on the trail, so we kept hiking. After crossing Wilson Creek, we had a bit of uphill for about a mile. It wasn’t tough uphill, but it was still tiring in the mid-afternoon heat and humidity. At 4.2 miles, we reached an unnamed stream marked in our AWOL guidebook. There was an established campsite a couple hundred feet off the trail. It was the perfect site for the night – flat and close to water.
We set up camp, collected water, and spent the afternoon playing cards. We cooked dinner and spent the evening talking and reading. Before it got too dark, we set off to find a perfect tree for our bear hang. it turned out to be the one thing our otherwise perfect site was lacking. We did the best we could with a branch that was a little bit low and flimsy. Sometimes you just have to settle for the best possible option and hope that determined bears stay away from your campsite.
We got into the tent around 8:30, just as the woods were getting dark. It was a warm and sticky night, so we left the vent and the rainfly wide open. We both left our sleeping bags home on this trip and used lightweight quilts instead. It was a good decision and we both stayed warm (maybe a bit too warm) during the night. We eventually drifted off to the sound of distant owls and whippoorwills.
Adam Says: Day Two – Trailside Campsite to Daleville (9.5 miles)
The next morning, we ate breakfast, packed up camp, and were back on the trail in under an hour. We had a very steep but short section of uphill to climb to start things off. We were breathing deep, but we quickly reached the apex of the hill just about .2 miles in. The trail descended just as steeply and we arrived at Curry Creek at .8 miles. At the creek, there was a Curry Creek Trail to the west of the trail, but stay on the white-blazed AT. From the reliable water source of Curry Creek, we began to climb again up another steep section of trail. At the 1.9 mile mark, we reached an area where the trail then began to descend again. The trail descended for about a mile and then rose up again with a steep climb to reach the junction with the Fullhardt Knob Shelter at 4.4 miles. We took the side trail for .1 miles to reach the shelter. We stopped and ate a snack here, knowing that most of the climbing was behind us.
While we were at the shelter, we were joined by a couple that was working on section hiking the AT and we enjoyed talking about some of the things we had both seen along sections of the trail. At the shelter, there is a privy and a cistern behind the shelter to get water (water should still be treated before drinking). We were good on water, so after relaxing a few minutes, we pushed on. We rejoined the AT at 4.6 miles and began our big descent. The trail had a few switchbacks on the way down and it was rather steep in sections. We came across a sign stating that the trail soon passes through private lands and to stay on the trail. At 6.5 miles, we passed through a fence, beginning the start of some of these private lands. We had a short bump to climb before we reached VA 652/Mountain Pass Road at 6.8 miles. This bump however was the prettiest part of the trail as you ascend over a large field and have nice mountain and farmland views all around you from the top. A few tenths of a mile later, we went through another fence stile. We then crossed over another road, over train tracks and then US 11. At 7.6 miles, we passed underneath I-81 by walking on VA 779 underneath the interstate.
The sun was hot and beating down on us. We were desperately hoping to find some shade, but most of the hike from here on is out in the open. We were at least glad we got an early start. The trail ascended to the left after the overpass and led us through a grassy swath of land that cut through some of the brushy area around it. Around the 9.5 mile area, we finally arrived at US 220 and Daleville, Va. We crossed the road to get back to our car that we had left at Valley Cleaners. When we got back to the car, it was right around noon. Whenever we go through Daleville around lunch, we always stop at Three Li’l Pigs barbecue. We were hot, tired, and hungry so it was a great place to cool down and eat some amazing food. Our waitress could see that we were hikers and we talked to her about what we were doing. While we chatted, she brought us an endless stream of Diet Dr. Pepper refills. She said she was hoping to do some AT hiking, but hadn’t decided if she wanted to do a section or the entire thing. As we continued to stuff our faces, she came over with a bowl of banana pudding. She told us that AT hikers get a complimentary serving of banana pudding. While I think this is more intended for thru-hikers, we didn’t turn it down!
We then decided to bookend the trip with another visit to Ballast Point. We got to sample a few beers before we had started, but since they had over 20 on tap, we decided to get sample pours of a couple of others. We then made our way back home. We were very glad to finish this section of elusive trail.
Distance – 13.7 miles
Elevation Change – 2810 ft.
Difficulty – 3. This was a pretty easy backpacking route. The switchbacks early on day two were pretty long and steep, but it was the only challenging part of the hike.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in typical Appalachian Trail shape for this part of Virginia – well maintained and nicely graded.
Views – 2. The rolling meadows near Troutville were lovely.
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. At night we heard a barred owl and several distant whippoorwills.
Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well marked and easy to follow. There are road crossings, but the white blazes are easy to follow in most places.
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: We parked our end point car at Valley Cleaners in Daleville. It’s along Route 220 where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Please ask the cleaners for permission to park here and park where they tell you to. Parking here is a courtesy provided to hikers that can be rescinded at any time if people take advantage. Coordinates for the dry cleaners are: 37.393538, -79.906817. From there, we took a shuttle to Black Horse Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Coordinates for the hike’s start point are: 37.424611, -79.757202. Head right and start on the trail.
This 42-mile Appalachian Trail segment traverses the state of Maryland – starting at PenMar Park and heading south to Harpers Ferry. The section generally consists of easy terrain with a few moderate, rocky stretches. We enjoyed taking our time hiking over five days of beautiful views and interesting history. Ambitious hikers can definitely cover Maryland in less time, but a leisurely pace seems to suit this section with so much to see!
We started our day off at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The HFNHP allows you to leave a car overnight for up to 14 days. Knowing the limited parking in the area, we decided to take advantage of this service. We paid the fee and completed the form for overnight parking. Our friend Anthony offered to shuttle us up to PenMar Park, named because it sits right on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland. He dropped us off across from PenMar park at the overnight parking lot. We thanked him and set off. We weren’t entirely sure where the Appalachian Trail crossed the park, but we made our way past a kiosk and soon came upon a nice overlook with a pavilion, a sign showing the split of the AT, and restrooms. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and hit the restrooms before we started. We headed south on the white-blazed AT, which soon ducked into a wooded area. The trail looked flat and soft. We had heard how nice the AT was in Maryland and we were hoping this would stay this way. There were pink azaleas blooming alongside the trail and we were excited to take on this section. Soon, there was a sign to the left of the trail showing the AT going uphill. We took this left and we had a short uphill. In just a short distance, the trail turned into a rocky mess. There were large boulders and the trail became very hard to follow with limited blazes. I was leading the way and trying to go with leaves that were more trampled underfoot to be the sign that we were still on the trail. There were a few times that we got off the trail for a few feet (Christine found a sweet pair of mirrored sunglasses on one of our ‘detours’), but we managed to find a white blaze by looking around to get back on the trail. Through a lot of the rocky area, the trail seemed to be marked by small ground flags rather than blazes.
Around 2.2 miles, we reached a very steep section of rocks to traverse. At 2.8 miles, our climbing ended and we reached a junction where you can take a side trail that leads to High Rock. Knowing we could loop right back to the AT, it was an easy decision to check this out. In just a tenth of a mile, we came to a road and parking lot that led to the High Rock overlook. My first thought when approaching it was disgust from all the graffiti. However, this overlook is so covered in graffiti that it almost approaches art – clearly the idea of “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is alien to the people that contributed to this. The view from High Rock, which also serves as a hang gliding launch, was gorgeous and the scenery with the graffiti made for some interesting photos. We then put our packs back on and found the spur trail that joined back to the other side of the Appalachian Trail. In a tenth of a mile, we were back on the AT to continue our journey.
The trail was relatively flat for the rest of the day and we reached a junction that led us west for a tenth of a mile to the Raven Rock Shelter at 4.8 miles, our stop for the night. It was still in the early afternoon, but we were trying to have an easier first day. We were the first ones there and found a great campsite just a few hundred feet away from the shelter. There were tent pads and a circle of benches with our own fire pit and picnic table. While Christine and Kris started working on getting things set up at camp, I trekked off to the water source. The water was located about .4 miles away down a steep path a little over .3 miles from the junction in the opposite direction from the shelter. It was tough to haul a bucket of water back up the trail and back to camp, but I didn’t want to go multiple trips to carry what we needed for the night and next morning. We highly recommend the Sea to Summit ultra-sil bucket for collecting water to use at camp. It weighs next to nothing and saves you from making multiple trips.
We finished setting up camp and took some time to read through the shelter log. It wasn’t long before others started arriving at camp. There were probably close to 15 other people there by the end of the evening. Little did we know that most of these people were with us for the rest of the journey. There were nine others that had started on the same day as us and were doing the exact same trip, at the same exact pace. We kept to ourselves for the night and enjoyed a nice campfire before the freezing temperatures set in for the night.
Our second day started with a very frigid morning. None of us wanted to get out of our tents, preferring to stay warm and snug in our down sleeping bags. But, we had a ten mile hike to our next camp stop and wanted to get an early start. After coffee and two packets of oatmeal each, we packed up and headed out of camp. In .7 of a mile, we reached the rocky outcropping known as Raven Rock Cliff. The view was partially obstructed, but offered a nice peek at expansive farmland in the distance. From there, the trail descended through a boulder jumble to Raven Rock Road and Little Antietam Creek. The logbook at the last shelter had indicated that the creek had been hip-high rapids the day before, so we were exceedingly relieved to find the water level had come back down to an ankle deep rock-hop. A lot of the stepping stones were underwater, so we all took a minute to change into our Crocs for the crossing. After crossing, we climbed up and down a steep knob in the terrain. This is a common feature of the Appalachian Trail called a ‘PUD’ or a pointless up and down. Basically, something steep that seems to serve no purpose and offers no scenery. At two miles into our hike we reached Warner Hollow, where we crossed another small stream. This one had a double plank laid across the water as a bridge. The boards were halfway submerged, but still offered enough footing to cross without having to take our shoes off again.
After Warner Hollow, the trail ascends steadily uphill through varied terrain for 1.8 miles. We passed under powerlines and back into the woods for a surprisingly rocky section. The trail was covered with slabs of stone and followed a small cliffside for a short while. We passed an abandoned Big Agnes tent sitting about 15 feet off the trail. From the wear and tear on the tent, we could tell it had been left in the woods for quite a while. It was a bit eerie and none of us chose to look inside. The trail crossed a pretty, open meadow before reaching Foxville Road, at 3.6 miles into the day’s hike. On the other side of Foxville Road, we found a crate full of gallon jugs of fresh, filtered water. In a state known for its tendency to run dry, clean water is a welcome form of trail magic. We weren’t sure what the water source would be like at our lunch stop (it was described as a ‘somewhat stagnant boxed spring’), so we all topped off with enough water to get us through a few more miles. At five miles into the day, we reached our mid-day rest-stop at Ensign Cowall Shelter. It was early, but we decided to go ahead and eat lunch. Adam and I brought a few Packit Gourmet meals for lunches on this trip, including their Smoked Cheddar-Jack Cheese Spread. It rehydrated with just two ounces of cold water. The spread was both convenient and delicious. We enjoyed it on some brioche crisps we brought from Trader Joe’s. As it turned out, lunch also came with some entertainment! We met Pennsylvania brothers and section hikers, Blackbeard and Weird Harold. Then we met thru-hikers Wonder Woman and Peace Walker, who serenaded the group with a ukelele. We always meet the most interesting people at shelters.
After lunch, we had a short and rather steep climb uphill to Wolfsville Road. After crossing the road, our AWOL Guide showed a flat walk for the last 4.8 miles to camp. What the guide did not indicate was how rocky the trail would be. It said there would be lots of poison ivy, but not a word about the jumble of ankle-turners that comprised most of the trail. It was slow-going over mostly exposed terrain. Adam and Kris paused to de-layer to cooler clothing, but I decided to keep my long sleeves and tights as sun protection. There really wasn’t much interesting to see along this section of trail – lots of pink ladyslipper flowers being the exception. We marched along, passing the miles, until we finally reached our stop for the second night – Pogo Memorial Campsite.
Pogo does not have a shelter or a bear pole/cables, but it has a privy, a water source, and tons of tent sites. None of the tent sites are particularly flat and there aren’t a lot of suitable trees for making a bear hang. We figured bigger groups would take the large areas close to the trail and the privy. Also, the privy at this site was especially foul, so we wanted to put a lot of distance between us and the smell. Our spot was at the upper reaches of the campsite and had a nice firepit with a bench. It was still a shabby site compared to the luxuries of Raven Rock, but we made do! Pogo was definitely my least favorite camp stop on the trip.
We had lots of time to relax at camp, so we collected firewood, filtered water, and chatted. As the afternoon went on, more and more people filed into camp, including a huge group of teachers and students from an alternative program high school. They were loud and active, so I was even more glad we had selected a site near the back of the tent area. The second night was cool, but not frigid like the prior night. We stayed up a bit later, talking and tinkering with the campfire. As the sky darkened, we retreated to our tents to get some rest for day three.
Day Three was probably the highlight of the trip. We started off our morning early, but there were still others that beat us out of camp. The hike started off by heading uphill. In just .2 miles, we crossed over Black Rock Creek. At .6 miles, to the left of the trail was a short scramble that took us to a small overview called Black Rock Cliffs where there were a couple of rocks to sit on to take in the view. From here we continued on the AT for a flat section and came up to a junction at 1.6 miles for Annapolis Rocks. We took this side trail that led us past a large caretakers tent (someone who monitors the activity here and can call for assistance) and then past a series of other backcountry campsites. At .25 miles off the trail, we came to the magnificent viewpoint known as Annapolis Rocks. When we arrived, there was a group of students that were learning how to rock climb (Annapolis Rocks being a popular destination for Maryland rock climbing). Not so ironically, there was also a group of firefighters that were up there to train on how to rescue someone that had fallen. It was interesting to talk to them to see how they prepare and see the equipment needed to attempt a rescue. People have died from falling at this spot, so please be careful. The large cliffsides of Annapolis Rocks provides some stunning views and the rock jutting out over a canvas of trees makes this quite the picturesque spot. Annapolis Rocks is an extremely popular day hike; while you may see lots of people, the rock edge is large enough where you will likely be able to find an unobstructed view.
After taking a long break at Annapolis Rocks, we headed back to the AT junction to bring our total up to 2.1 miles. We took a right and continued south on the AT. The trail continued to be flat and we came across a PATC volunteer that was doing some trail work. We thanked him for his hard work and continued on. The trail started to descend about a mile after Annapolis Rocks and at 3.7 miles we reached the junction with the Pine Knob Shelter. The shelter was just .1 off of the trail, so we decided to explore it. Pine Knob Shelter has campsites around it, a privy, and reliable water (a piped spring is next to the shelter). We returned to the AT junction the way we came for another .1 miles to take us up to 3.9 total miles. The trail sloped downhill and then we came to the I-70 footbridge, an ivy-covered footbridge over the interstate. It made me sad to see all of these people flying by in their rat race of a hectic life when I was out here enjoying the tranquility of nature. These moments always make me feel lucky that I can have these moments to get away from it all. After we crossed over I-70, we had a short uphill climb. At 4.1 miles, we passed through a junction with the Bartman Hill Trail (which made me think of the old Simpsons song, “Do the Bartman”) and at 4.5 miles, the AT passes through a residential area.
The trail was relatively flat for the next bit and then had a short climb down until we reached some power lines at 6.3 miles. From the power lines, we had a steep climb up for about .3 miles until we reached a side trail for the first Washington Monument. We took this short side trail and were at the monument in just .1 miles. This Washington Monument was completed in 1827 and is a 40 foot stone tower that overlooks the area. You can climb to the top through a winding, dark (and somewhat creepy) spiral staircase. After getting a few pictures, we decided this was a perfect spot to have lunch. We sat down and chatted with a couple that we had been camping near the last few nights and finally had a chance to introduce ourselves. They were from Florida and were enjoying this section as much as we were.
After leaving the Washington Monument, we rejoined the AT and started to head down a steep trail. On the left of the trail were signs that detailed some moments of George Washington’s life and career as the first President of the U.S. We were getting the story in reverse, but it was a good way to refresh on history that I had long forgotten. At the bottom of the hill, we reached Washington Monument State Park. We were able to take advantage of a water pump next to the trail to refill our water bladders and restroom facilities were just a short walk away. The trail descended to the left down the edge of the park and crossed the park road before re-entering the woods. We crossed Monument Road at 7.1 miles and then had another climb through open forest. The sun was quite hot, but it was a pretty scene. The trail then continued downward on a steady descent and we passed by Dahlgren Chapel. The Chapel is a picturesque church that was built in the late 1800s by Madeline Dahlgren, wife of Admiral John Dahlgren. We reached Turners Gap Road and saw the Old South Mountain Inn directly across.
Once we crossed the road, we followed the AT for just a few tenths of a mile before we came to the Dahlgren Backpack Campground off to the right of the trail. The campground had several gravel pads to pitch a tent with a picnic table and firepit at each site. At the campground there are also bathrooms with free showers and a tap for water at the back of the building. There are also outlets to charge your electronic devices. We set up camp and then had decided to go to Old South Mountain Inn for dinner. They allow hikers to visit as long as they shower and men don’t wear tanktops. So, after taking showers we walked up to the inn as soon as they opened. The staff were very hiker-friendly and put us in a comfortable sunroom. We were joined by our Florida hiking companions and sat down to a meal with crabcakes, filet mignon, wine, beer, and creme brulee for dessert. Sorry, Mountain House dehydrated meals, you lose to this fine dining. We stuffed our bellies and then made our way back to camp. We played a round of Rage, a fun card game of betting on tricks you will win, before hanging our smell-ables on a nearby bear hang and retiring for the night. What a wonderful day on the trail! We knew heavy rain was in the forecast for our fourth day, so we went to bed feeling a touch anxious about the next day’s plan.
Ah… it was a deluge! Everyone who had camped at Dahlgren was awake and stirring before it was fully light. People were skipping their cooked breakfasts and packing gear as quickly as possible, in hopes of beating the impending rain. We stuffed our faces with peanut butter pie cookies and were packed and hiking before 7:00 a.m. We all decided to start with packcovers on and rain gear within easy reach. It was a good plan, because the downpour started before we’d even made it a mile out of camp. At .8 miles, we crossed Reno Monument Road. More appropriate to a nice, sunny day, there’s a homemade ice cream shop (South Mountain Creamery) just .2 miles east of the trail. I might be the world’s biggest ice cream fan, but even I don’t want it on a wet, windy, 48 degree day.
After crossing the road, we had a one mile gradual uphill climb to Rocky Run Shelters. Typically, we stop at every shelter to report on the facilities, but my camera was stowed away in my dry bag, and no one wanted to add the extra .4 mile round trip on to go visit the shelters. Notice I said shelter(s)? Rocky Run actually has two separate structures. One is a traditional old log and mud shelter and the other is a new shelter similar to the one at Raven Rock. Reportedly, the old shelter has a more reliable water source.
After passing the spur trail to the shelter, we had another 1.4 mile climb up to Lambs Knoll. We crossed the paved Lambs Knoll Road and ascended the mountain. We saw a small sign indicating a side trail to visit a view tower. We were in dense fog and pouring rain, so we made a collective ‘nope!’ to visiting the view. Another .2 miles past the tower, there was another view at White Rock Cliff. It was all fog and rain, so we kept moving along the trail. It’s amazing how fast you can hike when it’s cold and wet and there’s nothing to see! After White Rock Cliff, we had a gradual 3.2 mile descent to Crampton Gap Shelter. The descent followed a rocky ridgeline. It would probably have been beautiful on a nicer day. Kris and Adam were moving a bit slower due to the slippery footing. I wanted to go faster to stay warmer, so I pressed ahead. Being cold and wet is one of my outdoor fears (just behind Lyme Disease), so I was doing everything I could to keep my blood pumping. At the spur to Crampton Gap Shelter, we discussed altering our plans for the day. Our goal was to make it to Ed Garvey Shelter (4.1 miles ahead on the trail). It was only 9:45 in the morning, so we knew we’d be there by lunch. We also discussed whether or not we really wanted to spend all day holed up in our tents or the shelter. The alternative would have been a long, cold, miserable, viewless 18 mile day into Harpers Ferry. We agreed to give the matter some thought and re-discuss it when we reached the picnic shelter at Gathland State Park.
Gathland is just .4 miles past Crampton Gap Shelter, and we arrived a little after 10:00 a.m. The park is the former estate of George ‘Gath’ Townsend, a war correspondent during the American Civil War. Visitors can tour the grounds and see the ruins of his mansion, a mausoleum, a museum, and the War Correspondent’s Arch. The park also has a picnic pavilion, which became our refuge from the rain. At our stop, we collectively decided that we didn’t want to spend the day hunkered down in a shelter with tons of other hikers. But, we also didn’t want to hike 18 miles or miss the views from Weverton Cliffs. Fortunately, there is cell phone service along most of the AT in Maryland, so I was able to call the Teahorse Hostel in Harpers Ferry. We asked their shuttle service to pick us up at Gathland and take us into town for the night. We decided to rent bunks in their hostel and finish our last 12 miles the next day (which was forecast to have much better weather.) It was a great decision.
Within twenty minutes, the three of us were all loaded into a toasty warm Honda and motoring into Harpers Ferry. Since we were so cold and wet, the hostel proprietor let us into the bunkroom before check-in. The hostel was cozy, comfortable, and very clean! We had a chance to shower, wash our muddy clothes, and get warm. While Kris and I showered, the shuttle driver took Adam over to Harpers Ferry Historical Park where we had left our car. The hostel invited us to leave our car in their parking lot so we could slackpack (hike without our heavy camping/cooking gear) our final day.
Our day at the hostel was a lot of fun! It was a full house because of the rain, so we met lots of other hikers. We had good meals at a couple different Harpers Ferry restaurants, relaxed, and had a Connect-4 Tournament. Adam took a couple thru-hikers to WalMart to resupply. During the course of the evening, we reflected several times on how glad we were to not be sitting in a cold, wet shelter. Staying at the hostel turned out to be the perfect fun surprise to mix-up our hiking plan.
The next morning we were treated to breakfast of waffles, coffee, orange juice, and fresh bananas by the hostel staff. We had arranged for a shuttle back to the trail at 8:00 a.m., (accompanied by thru-hiker Norseman who wanted to take advantage of some easy slackpack miles back to the hostel). We left our car at Teahorse Hostel so we could slackpack back to our car. Getting dropped back at Gathland State Park, we were able to see some of the surrounding buildings that we could barely make out in the downpour and fog the previous day. The trail crossed from the pavilion where we had ‘evacuated’ the trail the previous day. It passed by a few historical buildings before ducking into the woods. The trail was fairly muddy and beat up from the previous day of hard rain. Our thoughts were filled with curiousity about how the rest of our fellow section-hikers were doing. We were worried about how everyone held up because we felt some of the group was struggling even before we added the extra challenge of bad weather.
The trail was fairly flat for most of the day. We reached Brownsville Gap at 1.9 miles and then continued on a flat, but gorgeous green trail through the woods until we came to the Ed Garvey Shelter at 3.7 miles. We ran into a pair of siblings that were the last to leave the shelter and we asked about the other groups we had met on our section. Almost everyone had stayed there the previous night, but it sounded like everybody hunkered down grimly in their tents and had a rough night. They told us that one family we had met, the parents had bailed out and called for a ride into Harpers Ferry while the sons continued on (they were thinking about hiking parts of the AT in sections as a family). I guess everyone’s spirits were beaten down from the weather, which made us feel guilty for a brief second that we had made the call to get to the hostel and enjoy showers and hot food. The Ed Garvey shelter is a two-story shelter that had an AT symbol formed out of the railings in the loft looking down from the top story. We signed the log, ate a quick snack and then continued. A short time away, we ran into Medicine Man, one of the AT thru-hikers that stayed with us at Teahorse Hostel and had started early to go northbound for the day. Medicine Man was a retired pharmacist (fitting trail name) and one of the most genuine, friendly people you will meet. We wished him luck for the remainder of his hike and continued on. At 5.8 miles, we had caught up to the siblings at the junction with the side trail to Weverton Cliffs. The side trail led down a couple of tenths of a mile down to a large outcropping that overlooks the Potomac River. We could soon hear the sounds of a train going by below us. While the day was hazy and a bit cloudy, we enjoyed watching the river flow below us. This was the last of our scenic views, so we stayed here a while to capture some memories and reflect on all we had done so far.
The remaining “home stretch” of the trip consisted of us rejoining the AT and then hiking down a steep section of switchbacks until we came down to Weverton Road at 6.2 miles. We crossed the road and followed the white blazes until it joined the C&O canal towpath, a converted rails-to-trails biking and walking path. We turned right on the perfectly flat, C&O towpath which coincides with the AT to Harpers Ferry. This part of the hike was honestly a bit boring as we were walking on a wide fire road for miles. On the right, we had a passenger train pass by us, with people waving to us like they were wishing us bon voyage or gawking at us like we were novelty safari animals. On the left we soon came to scattered views of the Potomac River. The water was high from all the rain, but there wasn’t much activity on the river. Driving through this area to visit family, we often see kayaks or whitewater rafts on the river, but I’m sure the water was too dangerous for those escapades. At long last, we finally reached the edge of Harpers Ferry at 8.8 miles. We climbed up a staircase and crossed over the Potomac River via the Byron Memorial Footbridge, marking the border between Maryland and West Virginia. When we reached the other side of the footbridge, we came to another AT sign and then came into what is known as the historic Old Town part of Harpers Ferry. The trail walks you right by John Brown’s fort, the site where John Brown and several of his followers barricaded themselves inside in 1859 to initiate a rebellion against slavery in his famous raid.
After the fort, the trail is marked by white blazes carved into lightposts through town. Much to our dismay, the AT through Harpers Ferry has you going continually upward over many steep stairs. We passed by St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and went inside to see this quaint but stunning church that was built in 1833. It was the only church to survive destruction in the Civil War. From here the trail then skirts a hillside until you reach Jefferson Rock at 9.3 miles, a rock named because Thomas Jefferson stood here in 1783 and noted “this view is worth a voyage across the Atlantic”. I don’t know if I would personally agree with him today, but it is a spot to see the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers join. From here, we had more climbing to do until we finally reached a spur trail that led us to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (marked on the sign as the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center). The trail goes through the campus of Storer College, a school that was founded originally as a freedmen’s school to educate black people and once had Frederick Douglass as a trustee. The school was shut down due to funding cuts in 1954, but you can learn about its history on plaques throughout the campus.
We stopped by the ATC and Kris got her section hiker picture taken. We then had about a mile more to walk before we reached Teahorse Hostel and our car. It was a long day, but we felt so accomplished. We drove into to Frederick, MD to eat some celebratory barbecue at Black Hog and then met up with Anthony (who provided our shuttle to start our hike) and his wife, Suzanne, at Flying Dog Brewery. We toasted with beers as we recounted our journey to our friends. It was a wonderful several days on the trail that gave us so many memories that we will remember for some time. While our mileage may seem like child’s play to thru-hikers, we felt accomplished that we had knocked off an entire state in one fell swoop. Some AT thru-hikers go through Maryland as part of a four-state challenge, where they start in Virginia, go through West Virginia and Maryland, and end in one day in Maryland for a total of about 45 miles in one day. I’m glad we did it they way we did. We took a leisurely trip with a decent amount of miles each day, but the goal was to have fun and spend some time together sharing the journey.
Distance – 42 miles
Elevation Change – 6057 ft.
Difficulty – 3. None of Maryland is really tough. The first 15 miles are rocky, rolling terrain.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail gets a lot of attention from PATC. The heavy rains made the trail very wet and muddy the last two days, but there’s nothing you can really do with that much rain.
Views – 4. There are nice views in many places along the trail. Most look into farmland and suburbia, so they’re not as impressive as other mountain views.
Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There are a couple small creeks to cross along the way. We found adequate water sources, but during dryer weather, we’ve heard water can be a challenge on this section.
Wildlife – 2. We saw and heard lots of bird, squirrels, and chipmunks. We also saw one deer.
Ease to Navigate – 4. Other than one tricky part between PenMar and High Rock, the trail was well blazed and easy to follow. The spur to Weverton Cliffs is unmarked, but so well-established that you can’t miss it.
Solitude – 3. There were a lot of people on the trail despite us avoiding the weekend. There were probably more section/day hikers than thru-hikers at camp each night and we traveled at the same pace as three other section groups.
Directions to trailhead: We left a car at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and had a friend shuttle us to PenMar Park. Parking coordinates to Harpers Ferry are 39.315802, -77.756453. Parking coordinates for PenMar are 39.717725, -77.508274.
This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail segment crosses the most photographed spot on the entire trail – McAfee Knob. Even though the view from McAfee is fantastic, there are great views all along the section. In fact, we think the view from Tinker Cliffs rivals the majesty of McAfee.
Last fall, I told Adam I wanted to backpack McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs for my birthday. We planned our mileage, picked our meals, and hired a shuttle driver. When the Friday of our hike arrived, it was forecast to be blazing hot. The area was also experiencing a prolonged drought. The water sources along this stretch are typically reliable and we thought being on a high mountain ridge would cool things off a bit, so we loaded up and headed out.
On the way to our start point at Catawba, our shuttle driver (Homer Witcher – we’ve used him before and he’s a fantastic part of the Appalachian Trail community) told us that just a few days earlier, a woman and her daughter were crushed under a falling tree at one of the campsites along the route. He had assisted EMTs with the rescue operation. Fortunately, the daughter escaped with minor injuries and the mother recovered after a hospital stay. Scary!
Homer dropped us off at Catawba parking around 9:30 a.m. Despite it being early(ish) on a Friday, there were already numerous cars in the lot. This is an extremely popular area for hiking and the lot frequently fills and overflows by mid-morning, especially on the weekends. There are strict regulations for where you can park, and cars are frequently towed from this area. Take these rules seriously! You can read more about parking issues in the Roanoke Times article.
The northbound Appalachian Trail starts on the other side of route 311. We crossed and immediately began an ascent over dry, dusty terrain. Just a mile into the hike, we passed Johns Spring Shelter. It’s a typical AT shelter and has space for six people. There are a few tent sites and a privy nearby. The water source near this shelter is usually small, but it was bone dry on the day we hiked.
In another mile, we passed the Catawba Mountain Shelter. It’s a similar set-up to Johns Spring in terms of space. There are also several nice campsites with metal fire pits just north of this shelter. After passing this shelter, there is a steady 1.7 mile climb to the view at McAfee Knob. On the way to the top, you’ll cross a fire road. Stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Near the top, you’ll pass through an impressive jumble of truck to cabin sized boulders. The overlook is a couple hundred feet to the left of the trail and is marked by a small sign.
Views from the overlook are majestic and expansive. The long ridge on the the right carries the Appalachian Trail over to Tinker Cliffs. On a clear day, you’ll see the cliffs shimmering in the distance. When you’re at McAfee, don’t miss the opportunity to sit on the ledge with your feet dangling into the abyss. It’s a tradition and isn’t as scary as it looks.
After leaving the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply into a maze of giant boulders. There are narrow openings in the maze, making it a fun place to explore. A half mile later, there is an open meadow under powerlines and a nice view of the distant mountains. The descent continues for about 1.2 miles. At the bottom, you’ll reach the Pig Farm Campsite and shortly after that – Campbell Shelter. The shelter is on an elevated platform and there is a privy, picnic table, and bear locker at the site. The water source, located about 150 yards to the left of the shelter, was also dry!
After the shelter, the trail follows rolling terrain for 3.1 miles until you reach a grassy opening at Brickeys Gap. There is a trail to the left, but you’ll stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail and begin a steep uphill climb toward Tinker Cliffs. The ascent goes on for 1.8 miles. On this particular day, the climb was especially rough. We were both tired from the heat and running low on water.
Navigating the trail as it heads up Tinker Cliffs is a bit tricky. Look carefully for white blazes and arrows. There will be openings in the rocks that look like trail, but they’re not. Most of these openings are blocked by branches dragged across the ground, but if you’re not paying attention you might head the wrong way. When we finally made it to the top of the cliffs, the views made all the effort worthwhile. We had the entire overlook all to ourselves! I thought the views from Tinker Cliffs were even better than McAfee Knob. I took off my shoes and socks and let myself bake for a few minutes in the late afternoon sun. It was probably still in the low 90s – such a hot day for late September!
It was clear that many people had camped at the top of Tinker Cliffs, camping is strictly prohibited on top Tinker Cliffs. We made our way along the open cliffside for about half a mile before descending back into the trees.
The trail passes beneath the cliffs and then rambles downhill for about a mile until it reaches Scorched Earth Gap and the junction with the Andy Layne Trail. From there, we had an easy .6 mile stroll to our campsite at Lamberts Meadow Shelter. When we arrived, there was one other section hiker already there. We picked a campsite across the ‘stream’ from the shelter. Note, I put stream in quotes because when we visited it was nothing but a series of shallow muddy pools.
We got the tent set up and changed into camp clothes. It took us a full hour to filter four liters of water! First, we had to scoop water into our bucket. It was full of mud, pebbles, mosquito larvae, and algae, so we had to filter that water through a bandanna into our Sawyer bags. The we squeezed the water through the Sawyer into our Camelbaks. It was the color of weak tea, so I chose to treat it with Aquamira on top of the filtering. It was nasty!
We set aside a couple cups of the water to make dinner, leaving us each with just under two liters of water for the next day. It took so long to deal with water, that it was almost dark when we headed up to the shelter to cook. By then, a couple other section hikers had arrived at the shelter. They were former military and had done a lot of the trail. We chatted about gear and favorite spots along the AT. They told us a tale about finding a body near Tinker Cliffs on a hike fifteen years earlier. They had become lost on the trail headed up the cliffs and found a body from the 1940s or 50s in the woods under the cliffs. It was a crazy story!
After dinner, we headed back down to the tent. It was still too hot to make a fire and we were both pretty tired, so we turned in early. It was a stuffy, fitful night in the tent. It’s hard to get comfortable when you’re sweaty and stuck to your sleeping pad. Still… it had been a beautiful day with lots of amazing scenery.
Day Two (9.5 miles)…
We woke up at daybreak and knew it was going to be a hot day. The temperature was already in the mid-70s. We didn’t have much water to drink or cook with, so we opted to eat some Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies for breakfast. They are good calorie bombs for some fast energy and didn’t require any water. This was definitely the scariest water source we have had to use, so conserving water until we found something else was our plan. We packed up camp quickly and then made our way back on the Appalachian Trail, heading north to make our way back to our car.
In .3 miles, we came across the Lamberts Meadow Campsite, which also had no water in the stream next to the campsite. We saw the fallen tree that had smashed through the picnic table. Homer had told us that if that picnic table hadn’t been there, it would have likely fallen directly on the tent. He was planning in another week to build and bring another table down there to replace the one that had been smashed. Since there isn’t great access to this area except for a long hike, I can’t imagine hauling a big table through the woods like this, especially at Homer’s age (in his 70’s). Homer is the true definition of a trail angel and has helped so many AT thru-hikers and others along the way.
From the campsite, we continued on the AT. At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a blue-blazed trail that led to a nice viewpoint to the west. The trail began to slope downwards and at 4.3 miles we reached Angels Gap. The heat continued to increase and we were already extremely thirsty. We drank when we felt we needed to, but we both were already running low on water. The sun was beating down since the area was more open. At 4.7 miles, we first heard the buzzing of a powerline and soon it came into view. At 5.5 miles, we reached Hay Rock. We skipped climbing up the rock, since we were already getting good views of Carvins Cove Reservoir all along the trail. Many people do Hay Rock as a day hike coming from Daleville.
The trail stayed relatively flat, but was rocky and exposed us to the sun for a bit. We crossed over an open field with tiny little seed pods that were blowing in the hot wind. It looked like snow that was coming down, but the temperature told us otherwise. We had just watched Stranger Things on Netflix and it reminded us of something supernatural or alien that was happening in this area. We came to another powerline at 6.7 miles, but this one gave us wonderful views. We didn’t stay long since we wanted to get out of the direct sun. Christine had run out of water, but I had saved a bit for her to have.
Shortly after we left these views from the power lines, the trail finally ducked back into the woods and began a descent. We ran into a Ridge Runner on the trail that was talking to hikers and seeing if they were alright with the heat and lack of water. Ridge Runners are paid to monitor the trail and assist hikers. I would have loved some water, but we knew we could make it just a few more miles. We told him about the lack of water on the trail, so hopefully they came across others that were in bigger need. We crossed powerlines again at 7.5 miles, 8.3 miles, and 8.9 miles. Shortly after this last powerline, we crossed over some railroad tracks and a bridge. It was only a few more tenths of a mile and at 9.5 miles we made it back to our car exhausted and thirsty.
When we got back to our car, our first order of business was to get something to drink. We hopped in our car and jumped into a gas station across the street and downed some Gatorades in record time. We decided we wanted to eat some barbecue and drink some beer to celebrate. Since we had made an early start to our day, it was just a little after noon when we got off the trail. We made our way to Flying Mouse Brewery (this brewery closed at the end of 2018) and our Maps app on our phones said that it would be closed when we arrived. We thought we would give it a shot anyway in the off chance it was open. As we were driving up, I saw signs for Virginia Momentum and saw runners. Virginia Momentum is a company started by a friend of mine that holds races across Virginia that helps support local charities. When we got to Flying Mouse Brewery, they were hosting a brewery-to-brewery race there, so it was open. We felt that someone was looking out for us and went inside to get a flight of beer samples and enjoyed talking to our friends that were participating. While running these long races is impressive, we did earn some props by just having come off the trail carrying some heavy weight. After some tasty beverages, we made our way to Three Li’l Pigs BBQ, which always has amazing food and is perfect for a post-hike stop.
This backpacking trip had some other significance to us as well. While it was Christine’s birthday, McAfee Knob was one of the first posts that started Virginia Trail Guide. We’ve learned a lot along the way about how to tell our story of the trails. If you’re looking for one of Virginia’s most famous hikes to serve as a backpacking route, try this one out. McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail. We enjoyed taking the ceremonial pictures at the top. We even mimicked the A Walk in the Woods movie poster shot of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte to show how the scale was wrong for that poster. While we had hiked McAfee Knob before, this was our first trip to Tinker Cliffs and we both thought this was something not to be missed. This route makes up two-thirds of Virginia’s Triple Crown (with the other third being nearby Dragon’s Tooth) and it is definitely worth the hype. Just go on a cooler day and pray for better water sources.
Distance – 20.5 miles Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
Elevation Change – 3400 ft.
Difficulty – 4. Day one is the tougher day with about 2500 feet of climbing. Day two is significantly easier with just over 900 feet of elevation gain.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape and beautifully maintained by the RATC (Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club).
Views – 5. The views here are iconic, magnificent, and they just keep coming!
Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There are small springs and streams adequate for a water source for cooking/filtering, but there was nothing really scenic.
Wildlife – 4. A yearling bear hung out between Lamberts Meadow shelter and Lamberts Meadow campsite for much of the evening. We also saw fence lizards and deer in a couple places.
Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow.
Solitude – 1. This is one of the most popular stretches of trail in the area, so expect to see many people – especially if you go in fair weather. Campsites can be crowded and parking is an issue on the Catawba side. Note: Parking regulations were recently changed. Do not park along the road, or you will be towed.
Special regulations for this area:
Maximum group size, day hikes: 25
Maximum group size, backpacking/camping: 10
Dogs must be kept on leash at all times
No camping or campfires outside of seven designated areas (north of Va 624/Newport Rd, the only legal campsites are Johns Spring Shelter, Catawba Shelter and campsites, Pig Farm campsite, Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter and campsites)
No camping or campfires on McAfee Knob or Tinker Cliffs
* 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: GPS coordinates for the parking area to start this hike are 37.380125, -80.089694. You will park at the McAfee Knob trailhead parking area on Rt. 311 in Catawba. You must park in the lot. Roadside parking is prohibited and cars will be towed.
This 10 mile (round-trip) hike takes you past some of Dolly Sods most beautiful scenery. The dense rhododendron thickets, unblazed trails, and rugged terrain will have you feeling like you’re truly in the wild. Camping along Red Creek is popular and can be crowded with weekend backpackers, but it’s still one of West Virginia’s most spectacular places.
Back in early June, we were at happy hour with our friends Christy and Brian. Over beers, we cooked up a vague plan for a weekend backpacking trip in late July. In the weeks to come, we added our mutual friend, Kris, into the mix and settled on a route. The plan was to take two cars, and do a trans-navigation of Dolly Sods starting at the picnic area and ending at Bear Rocks. It was about a 16 mile route with tons of camping options along Red Creek.
As it turned out, a heat wave settled over the mid-Atlantic that weekend. It was the hottest, most humid weekend of the summer. We still thought we could make the full 16 miles, so we met at Bear Rocks and shuttled in our car to the start point at the Dolly Sods Picnic area. On the ride, we learned that you really can fit five adults, five big backpacks, and one German Shepherd in a Subaru Forester. It was like a clown car!
We parked at a small pullout near the picnic area, and picked up the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail on the opposite side of the road. The trail meandered through dense rhododendron forest. A lot of the rhododendron was Rosebay near the peak of its bloom. So pretty! The air was thick, still, and heavy with humidity. It felt like walking through the jungle. At one point, Kris said, “I feel like we might see monkeys!’
The trails in Dolly Sods are well-traveled but very lightly maintained. There are no blazes. The only wayfinding signs are at trail junctions. There are lots of rocks, blowdowns, and mud pits to navigate. Even though the area is complete wilderness, the high traffic through the area keeps the trails apparent and fairly easy to follow.
We walked the Rohrbaugh Plains trail for about 2.5 miles before reaching the spectacular viewpoint off Rohrbaugh Cliffs. The area is near and dear to my heart because it was one of the first places I ever camped in the backcountry. The cliffs offer great views across the valley to the Lions Head (another popular rocky outcropping in Dolly Sods) and down into the Red Creek basin. Just past the cliffs, there is a patch of open forest with space for many tents. It’s still one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at.
We decided to take a lunch break at the cliffs. At first, the breeze across the open terrain felt nice. Maybe the heat wasn’t so bad? But after a few minutes of sitting in the direct sun, we were all pretty hot. I could feel my shoulders starting to burn. After lunch, we packed up and continued another .6 mile down the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail. At 3.1 miles, we passed the junction with the Wildlife Trail. We stayed to the left, continuing on the Rohrbaugh Plains trail.
We passed a small (mostly dry) waterfall and crossed over some extremely rocky footing. At 3.5 miles the Rohrbaugh Trail meets the Fisher Spring Run Trail. We followed the Fisher Spring Trail to the left, beginning to descend for 1.2 miles. At first the descent is smooth a gradual, but it becomes steeper and follows a couple switchbacks down to a rocky crossing of Fisher Spring Run.
After the crossing , the trail follows the stream on high ground. There are several nice campsites at the bottom of extremely steep spur trails. A few sections of this trail are quite eroded, leaving the trail narrow and precipitous. Take your time and watch your footing, especially if you’re carrying a heavy pack.
At 4.7 miles the Fisher Spring Run Trail ends at the Red Creek Trail. We took a right, following the trail down toward Red Creek. In about three tenths of a mile, we passed the first of many stellar campsites. At the very first one, I thought to myself, “That’s a really sweet campsite. I wouldn’t mind sleeping here!’
Our group decided to take a break and discuss camping plans and how much of the route we wanted to cover on day one of our trip. We all agreed that we were pretty hot, the campsite was ideal, and Red Creek looked really inviting. We figured on day two, we could either hike 11 miles or hike out the way we came in and make our trip a short 10-mile out-and-back.
Adam and I explored several more campsites along the stream before agreeing that the very first site was the prettiest and most private. There was easily space for four tents. The ground was flat and clear. We had easy access to water. We even had a large fire pit with a stone couch someone had constructed. We all unpacked and set up camp. Maia, our friends’ German Shepherd, supervised the operations. She was on her first backpacking trip ever, and she took to it like a pro!
It was only around 2:30, so most of us spent the entire afternoon swimming and playing in Red Creek. The water was so cold and refreshing. The small rapids and waterfalls felt like hydrotherapy for our hot, tired muscles. Adam opted to restock everyone’s water and read a book at camp, but even he enjoyed splashing in the cold water near camp.
Around 5:00 we decided to get dinner started. Everyone brought their own dinner, but Christy and Brian brought a shared dessert – Rocky Road pudding. Kris contributed a two-bottle capacity bag of wine to the feast. After dinner we played cards and sat around our campfire. Even at 9:00 p.m., it was still 75 degrees. That’s unusually warm for Dolly Sods at night!
Around 10:00 we let the fire die down, and everyone started retreating to their tents. Adam and I opted to leave the rain fly off in hopes that it would keep us cooler. Honestly, it didn’t really cool off until sometime around 3:00 a.m. It was a steamy night and I was very glad to have left my sleeping bag home in favor of a light summer quilt. I enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of the running stream. Any time I woke up during the night, I took a moment to marvel at the brilliance and magnitude of the stars in the sky. It’s such a gift to be able to visit places like this and have good friends to share the experience. I felt so fortunate that night in my tent.
The next morning we awoke at daybreak. We thought Maia would have woken up the group, but she was a perfect camp companion and let us get up when we wanted. We enjoyed some of Christine’s homemade granola with Nido and then made our way back to the car. With a warm night and temperatures climbing quickly in the morning, we decided to get an early start to get back to our cars before the temperatures peaked in the afternoon. It is always uncomfortable when you feel like you never had a chance to cool down, so everyone felt hot within a few minutes back on the trail.
We climbed back up the steep Red Creek Trail and Fisher Spring Run trail very slowly as we were all quickly drenched with sweat. We got back to the junction with the Rohrbaugh Trail in about 1.5 miles and we knew our toughest work was behind us. In another .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Wildlife Trail and took a right to make our way to the Rohrbaugh Cliffs again. We paused for a snack and some more pictures from Rohrbaugh Cliffs, which is probably my favorite spot in Dolly Sods. Looking over the creek and seeing nothing but mountains around you is a scene that begs you to pause and appreciate nature.
With the strong sun beating down, we decided to press on and continue our journey back to the car. We made our way back fairly quickly, passing by a group of about 10 women that were enjoying the weekend as well. We got back to our car just a bit before lunch and carpooled Christy, Brian, and Maia back to their car. We had a great adventure together and we were really glad to share this amazing piece of wilderness. We parted ways with Christy and Brian, and Christine, Kris, and I headed to Lost River Brewing Company in Wardensville, WV for some celebratory beers and food. It was a great trip, but we vowed to return when it isn’t the hottest weekend of the year to do the traverse across Dolly Sods like we originally planned.
If you are looking for a hike or overnight trip that combines majestic views, creeks with a waterfall and swimming possibilities, and great overnight camping, this may be a perfect one to experience.
Distance – 10 miles (Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
Elevation Change – 1480 feet
Difficulty – 3. The elevation gain/loss is moderate, but the rugged nature of the footing adds difficulty to this route.
Trail Conditions – 2. Trails are unblazed. Be prepared for mud, blowdowns, and lots of rocks.
Views – 5. The view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs is pretty spectacular!
Waterfalls/streams – 5. You will want to spend all day enjoying the beautiful rapids and waterfalls along Red Creek. This is some of the best stream swimming in West Virginia.
Wildlife – 2. We saw a white tail doe with two fawns on the drive in, but generally the woods were quiet and we didn’t feel like there was much wildlife in the camping area.
Ease to Navigate – 2. There are no blazes, but junctions were marked, and the trail was generally easy to follow. Navigation gets trickier near Red Creek where you depend on cairns to mark stream crossings.
Solitude– 3. This is tough to call! We saw almost nobody on the trail when we were hiking, but there were many people camped along Red Creek.
* 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: GPS Coordinates for Parking are 38.962019, -79.355024.From Seneca Rocks, go North on WV 28 for 12 miles. Take a left on Jordan Run Road. Go one mile up Jordan Run Road and take a left on to Forest Road 19. In 6 miles, Forest Road 19 comes to a T on to Forest Road 75. Take a right, heading north on Forest Road 75. Drive for about eight miles until you reach the Dolly Sods Picnic Area. The Rohrbaugh Plains Trailhead will be across the road from the picnic area.