Dolly Sods – Rohrbaugh Plains to Red Creek (WV)

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.

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Beautiful Red Creek
Beautiful Red Creek was our destination for this short overnighter. Below: Our excellent hiking crew (Maia the dog not included in the photo!);  Making our way onto the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail; The trail is only lightly maintained so you have to climb blowdowns and navigate without the help of blazes.

Our Hiking Crew Start of the Rohrbaugh Plains Trai Rohrbaugh Plains Trail

Day One…

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!’

Meadows on the Rohrbaugh Trail
Walking through meadows. Below: Maia enjoys a shady pool under the rhododendrons; Walking across Rohrbaugh Cliffs; A nice spot for lunch!

Maia Enjoys a Shady Pool Arriving at Rohrbaugh Cliffs Lunch Stop

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.

Setting Up Camp
We set up camp at a large site along Red Creek. Below: Most of the trails in Dolly Sods are rocky; Crossing Fisher Springs Run before arriving at camp; Our campsite had a private swimming hole nearby.

Rocky Trail Crossing Fisher Spring Run Our Private Swimming Hole

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!

Red Creek
Red Creek is a beautiful place to camp and swim.  Below:  Fun in the water and fun at camp!

Swimming in Red Creek Swimming in Red Creek Swimming in Red Creek
Swimming in Red Creek Enjoying Red Creek red creek 18

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.

Day Two…

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.

Camp Dog
Maia did great on her first backpacking trip. Below: Hiking back out the way we came in!

Hiking Out Hot and Humid More Rocks to Cross

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.

Rohrbaugh Cliffs
Taking in the view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs. Below: The small waterfall along the Rohrbaugh Trail was running very low; Climbing on the rocks of Rohrbaugh Cliffs; Back to the Forest Road.

Small Waterfall Rohrbaugh Cliffs The End

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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.

Download a trail map (PDF)

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.

Standing Indian Mountain (NC)

Special: Smokies Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Standing Indian is a pleasant five mile (round trip) hike along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina’s Southern Nantahala Wilderness.  There is plenty of camping and a beautiful viewpoint at the summit.

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The View from Standing Indian Mountain
The view from Standing Indian was almost completely socked in by fog. We did get a couple moments of partial clearing that let us enjoy the view. Below: Camping along the road crossing is closed in Deep Gap, but signs point to nearby sites; Camping around the shelter has also been closed to allow reforestation; Adam makes his way up the Appalachian Trail. This was all before the downpour started.

Standing Indian Designated Campsites No Camping Restoration Standing Indian Before the Rain Started

Christine Says…

When we visited the Smokies this year, we decided to spend the entire trip – an unfortunately short four days – on the southern side of the park.  On our last few trips to the area, we enjoyed exploring the Appalachian Trail corridor just before it enters GSMNP.  We thought Wesser Bald and Siler Bald were both fun hikes with spectacular views, so before we traveled, I spent some time perusing my AWOL Guide to see if there were other nice view hikes close to easily accessible road crossings. One of the hikes I came up with was Standing Indian Mountain.

By the miles, the drive to the trailhead was pretty short, but the last six miles to get to Deep Gap were along a narrow, steep, and winding forest/logging road. It took about 25 minutes to reach the road’s dead-end at Deep Gap Primitive Campground.  There were some really nice campsites available, but the largest and flattest of the sites was closed for reforestation/restoration.  Quite a few of the overused backcountry tent sites in this area have been closed to allow them to return to their natural state.

Standing Indian Shelter
Standing Indian Shelter – there were tent sites behind the shelter. Below: The Appalachian Trail winds through the ferns; We saw dozens of these snails; Signage for the Southern Nantahala Wilderness.

Tons of Ferns Along the AT Snail on Standing Indian Southern Nantahala

We picked up the northbound Appalachian Trail at the end of the road. It was sunny and humid when we started hiking.  The trail climbed steadily and gently the whole way on this hike. Just under a half mile into the hike, we passed a piped spring coming out of the mountainside.  We passed a couple more closed campsites before arriving at the spur trail to Standing Indian Shelter at 1.1 miles.  The shelter is barely a tenth of a mile off the trail.  It had room for about eight people and was equipped with benches and a large fire pit.  There were lots of flat, grassy tent sites behind the shelter.  Supposedly there is a stream/water source 70 yards downhill of the shelter, but we didn’t take the time to explore.  We signed the shelter log and continued our hike up the mountain.

Shortly after the shelter, sun gave way to fog.  We figured it was just leftover moisture from storms the night before or a passing cloud.  At 5,499′, Standing Indian is the tallest peak along the Nantahala River and often gets different weather than the valley below.  We hiked on and the fog gave way to occasional raindrops.  We assured one another it was just a passing shower and pressed on.  By the time we reached a tunnel of rhododendron, the light shower had become a downpour.  Adam wanted to put on our rain gear and stay sheltered under the canopy of rhododendron, but I was getting cold and wanted to push on.  In the end, we decided to wait a little bit; hoping the storm would pass and allow us to enjoy the view that was to be the main point of the hike.

Bluets on Standing Indian
We saw lots of bluets on the hike up. Below: The forest was lush with ferns; A tunnel of mountain laurel gave us a little shelter from the rain; The trail soon was flowing like a stream.

Lush Ferns on Standing Indian Rain and Rhododendrons on Standing Indian Rain on the Appalachian Trail

After about 20 minutes, the rain still hadn’t slowed so I suggested we hike back to the shelter and wait a bit there.  On our way down, the rain stopped, so we turned around and climbed back up. It started pouring again almost immediately after we turned around, so we admitted defeat and decided to just roll with whatever nature threw our way.

So, we hiked to the summit of Standing Indian in a deluge! The summit was completely socked it, but after waiting about ten minutes the fog moved enough to give us a cloudy, misty view of the mountains beyond.  We enjoyed every second of the three minute vista before the fog fell back around.  The hike back was really quick – all downhill over easy terrain.  And wouldn’t you know it… the sun came back out as soon as we got to the parking lot!

Adam Says…

As Christine mentioned, this may not have been the best day for this hike.  The weather forecast predicted some late afternoon storms, so we really thought we could get in a hike before things turned for the worse. It was quite humid from the recent rain.  After we left the shelter, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker, but we pressed on hoping we could beat any rain. We made it to a large rhododendron tunnel and what started off as sprinkling rain quickly became a downpour.  The rain was unrelenting.  We talked about going to the top, but with all the rain, we didn’t think we would see anything, so we decided to turn around before reaching the summit.

As we made our way down, we came across a Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.  She looked college-aged and was carrying a pack that looked like it weighed 60 pounds.  The rain had soaked a bandana she was wearing as headband and the dye from the fabric was bleeding blue streaks all down her face.

The trail heading back was more like walking through a small stream in some spots as the heavy rain looked for a place to escape the steep slope of the mountain.  The rocks on the trail were slippery from the rain.  After making it back about halfway to the shelter, the rain slowed considerably so we changed our mind and decided to give the summit another go.

Campsite on Standing Indian Summit
What a great campsite on the summit of Standing Indian. Below: Standing Indian summit marker; Rhododendrons blooming near the summit; Christine checks out a cool, gnarled, old tree.

Standing Indian Summit Marker Rhododendron Blooming on Standing Indian Summit Big Gnarled Tree

At 2.45 miles, the trail comes to a junction with the Lower Ridge trail.  You will see a sign for Standing Indian Mountain.  Take a right off the Appalachian Trail to follow a path through a campsite area which leads to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain in just a tenth of a mile.  There was a large fire pit at the top and a small nook to catch a view of the mountains around you.  When we arrived, we were able to catch a quick view before the fog and clouds enveloped everything in a sea of gray.  We were at least thankful to be up there to appreciate the view for a few minutes.

The name “Standing Indian Mountain” comes from Cherokee myth.  An Indian warrior had been sent to the summit to watch for a winged monster that came from the sky and stole children.  The monster was captured and destroyed with thunder and lightning from the Great Spirit.  The Cherokee warrior had become afraid and ran away from his post and was turned into stone for his cowardice.  The Cherokee referred to Standing Indian Mountain as “Yunwitsule-nunyi”, meaning “where the man stood”.

Fog and Rain Along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian
Fog and rain along the Appalachian Trail on Standing Indian Mountain. Below:  A Blue Ridge two-lined salamander (we think); A black-chinned red salamander (we think): Post-hike beers at The Lazy Hiker (we know for sure!)

Blue-Ridge Two-Lined Salamander Black Chinned Red Salamander Lazy Hiker Brewery

The rain continued for most of the hike down.  But one treat the rain provided was the chance to see several salamanders hanging out on the trail.   We first spotted a Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, but the real treat was seeing a black-chinned red salamander.  The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”, so we were glad to catch a few species on this hike.  We have yet to spot a hellbender salamander (which range from 12-29 inches long) in the wild there, but maybe one day we will.

After we made it back to the car, we decided to drive over to Franklin, NC for the afternoon.  We stopped in a wonderful outfitter store called Outdoor 76.  When we had stopped to take pictures of the salamanders, I realized my backpack was completely soaked inside which ruined our copy of our AWOL guide.  So we purchased those as well as a couple of Pelican cases for our phones.  They even have several beers on tap at the back of the store.  It wasn’t until later that I thought about how my daypack has a built-in rain cover – ugh.  We then went to grab some lunch at Motor Company Grill (just an average 50s-style burger and sandwich place) and then went to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company.  Since a lot of AT thru-hikers will spend a day off the trail to eat and resupply in Franklin, this place is a popular spot.  They had great trail and hiking information posted inside and had some of the coolest hiking-related pint glasses I have seen.   It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1300 ft.
  • Difficulty – 2.5.  The climbing on this trail is all very gradual and well-graded. We were surprised it even came out to 1300 feet!
  • Trail Conditions – 4.   The local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is working hard on restoration projects in this area and their work was definitely evident.
  • Views  4.  We are giving this the score it deserves on a nice day with good visibility.  We still had a pretty view, but it could have been much nicer if the rain had held off.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There were a couple small springs (at least one was piped) that could be used as a water source.
  • Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple unique salamanders along the trail in the rain. They were both species we hadn’t seen before.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is well blazed.  The view at the top is hidden behind a spur trail through a bunch of campsites.  If you don’t know to cut through the campsites, you would miss the view completely.
  • Solitude – 3.  There were a ton of cars parked at Deep Gap, but we only saw a handful of people on the trail – probably because it was *pouring*!

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.039847, -83.552506. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W.  Follow 64W for 14.5 miles.  Take a left on Deep Gap Road.  It will become a gravel forest service road almost immediately.  Follow the forest road for almost 6 miles until you reach Deep Gap.  Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.

Bird Knob – Browns Hollow Loop

This 11 mile loop has everything – stunning views, scenic streams, a clear mountain pond, and even a small waterfall.  You could hike it as a long(ish) day hike, but there is so much great camping along the way that it’s ideal for an easy overnight backpacking trip!

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Views Along the Massanutten Trail
Views Along the Massanutten Trail. Below:  The mountain laurel was just starting to bloom in mid-May; Christine and Adam attempt to fix Kris’s broken trekking pole with duct tape; Kris makes her way up the steepest, rockiest part of the hike.

Blooming Mountain Laurel Trekking Pole Repairs Steep Uphill

Day One (4 miles)…

One thing that was true about May in 2016 was we had a TON of rain in Virginia.  It was hard to find a time to actually go for a hike in good weather.  We had been itching to try and do an overnight trip, but the threat of drenching downpours and storms was standing in the way.  We had some very stressful days at work, so getting out and finding some peace away from the hustle of everyday life was just what the doctor ordered.  In looking at the weather closely, we decided we may be able to get a short, overnight trip in if we timed it just right.  We decided to do something very close by to our home to allow us to get on the trail quickly to get in a few miles before it started to get dark.  We had called our friend, Kris, who was going to accompany us, and told her to be ready anytime during the Saturday afternoon.  We felt like Doppler radar experts as we were tracking the storm movement and finally around 2:30PM, we felt the rain was going to stop to allow us to hike.

We got to the Massanutten Visitor Center and saw a lot of cars in the parking lot.  We were thinking there was no way that others were on the trail at this same time due to all the rain we had in the last few days.  A large camper was at the front and I talked to one gentleman out front.  As it turns out, it was the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 race that weekend, a 100-mile race along the Massanutten Mountain range that covers 16,200 feet of ascent.  We were a little worried about the trail conditions and how many runners we may see along the way, but nothing was stopping us now.

Views on the Massanutten Trail
Two nice views come in the first mile and a half of hiking.  Below: The ascent along the orange-blazed Massanutten trail is fairly rocky and steep; Pink lady’s slippers were blooming everywhere; We hear rumbles of thunder!

The Ascent was Rocky Pink Lady's Slippers We Hear Thunder

From the parking lot, we took the white-blazed Wildflower trail (do not take the Nature trail at the end of the parking lot).  This trail leads downhill and passes some comical information plaques along the way.  At .3 miles, when you reach an intersection with the Massanutten South trail, take a right to start on the orange-blazed Massanutten South trail.  The trail goes up a steep ascent and we found with the recent rain the footing was slippery and mucky in a few parts.  On the ascent, we found that Kris’ new trekking poles weren’t locking properly, so we paused to get some duct tape to try and make a repair (not long after we realized that our fix didn’t hold up and she lost part of her pole somewhere along the trail).  The uphill was quite steep and had us breathing heavily with our heavy packs, but this is the toughest part of the entire hike.  We passed a hiker who was doing the reverse route and he told us right near the summit there were about 100 pink lady’s slippers along the trail.  We decided to count what we had saw; while we didn’t see 100 of these rare wildflowers, we did count close to 60 over the weekend which may be the most we’ve ever seen on a trail.  We came to the first overlook around the 1.6 mile mark (the second is just shortly ahead), took our packs off for a few minutes and enjoyed the panoramic views.  The clouds after the recent storm blanketed the sky.  We stopped at the second view also before continuing on.  At 2.5 miles, the trail splits; head to the right to join the Bird Knob trail.

The Bird Knob trail is a ridge walk and is quite flat, which was a nice change from climbing. But, the sky began to get dark and we started hearing thunder in the near distance.  Within five minutes, we started to feel rain.  We decided to put on our pack covers and rain gear and it was just in the nick of time, as the clouds unleashed a downpour mixed with pea-sized hail.  We kept marching through the hailstorm and within about 20 minutes, the storm had passed.

Camp for the Night
We wanted to camp by Emerald Pond, but the sites were taken early in the day. We found an equally nice spot in the meadow. Below: The rumbles of thunder turned into a downpour with hail – we were all prepared; Kris and Adam scout out the open meadow that would soon be our back-up campsite for the night; This grassy path departs the meadow. Shortly after this photo, we turned back and set up our camp at the top of the meadow.

We Got Hailed On Scouting the Campsite We Had to Turn Back

At 3.8 miles, we reached a large open field with a campsite.  We decided to press on to get a spot at Emerald Pond, so we skirted the left side of the field to stay on the trail.  The trail then turns into an old logging road going downhill.  About halfway down the road, we came across a couple of rain-soaked college-aged guys.  They were asking if there were any campsites up ahead and they told us all the spots were taken at Emerald Pond.  We mentioned the big field with lots of room and they left the way they came to go get the rest of their group and their packs.  Since we heard there were no spots, we decided to turn around and get a nice spot in the open field.  Christine scouted around and saw there were also sites in the woods next to a small hidden pond, but the bear scat around the site was a deterrent.  We decided to camp near the fire pit we saw at the top of the field.  One thing that was nice about camping in this grassy field was we knew we would have a comfortable floor bed to pitch our tent.  We set up in a short amount of time and we were soon joined by about eight others in the field that night.

The wind had picked up as the storm front had moved through and I felt unprepared in terms of clothing.  I switched out of my damp clothes, but I didn’t bring enough warmer clothes for that evening.  We made a quick meal and were even able to start a fire at camp despite the wetness of the wood.  After dinner, I was getting a little colder each minute, so I decided to call it an early night and get in my down sleeping bag while Kris and Christine talked until nightfall.  It was a crazy day on the trail, but one thing I like about hiking is it is always an adventure.

Day Two (7 miles)…

The morning dawned sunny but frigid!  Adam had been cold all night, so I let him stay curled up in his sleeping bag while I went to take down the bear hang.  No one else who camped in the meadow was stirring, but the three of us quickly cooked breakfast and packed up camp.  On our way out of the meadow, we all got a good chuckle over one of the tents set up nearby.  It was technically pitched, but in no way like it was supposed to be.  We’re guessing someone borrowed a tent and couldn’t figure out how to set it up.  I love a backpacker’s ability to improvise!

After walking downhill to the bottom of the meadow, we picked up the old logging road for a few tenths of a mile until we reached an unmarked gravel road on the left.  The gravel road led to Emerald Pond – a beautiful, spring-fed mountain pool.  The last time we visited, we had the pond all to ourselves and very much enjoyed the peace and solitude.  This time, the pond was crawling with other campers.  They had big tents, tons of gear, and were dressed in jeans and work boots.  We’re guessing that they parked on the nearby forest service road and walked the tenth of a mile to the prime campsite on the pond.  I guess it’s worth noting that the early bird gets the worm when it comes to staking a claim on an Emerald Pond campsite!  We didn’t want to intrude, so we just took a few photos from the near-side of the pond. The campsite side is prettier, so don’t miss visiting if the spot is open.

Emerald Pond
Emerald Pond is a much sought after campsite. It was full of people by mid-day. Below: Breaking down camp in the morning; Kris leaving camp; Adam passes the locked gate onto the forest service road.

Breaking Down Camp Off to an Early Start Gate to Fire Road

We left the pond and continued a tenth of a mile to the forest service road.  There was a locked gate where the trail met the road.  At that point, we took a right and hiked downhill along the road (orange blazed) for a few tenths of a mile until we reached the junction with the Roaring Run Gap trail.  The trail is on the left side of the forest road and is marked by a wooden post with two sets of blazes – light purple and pink. The climb up Big Mountain via the Roaring Run Gap trail (blazed purple) was our last big climb of the trip.  For a little less than half a mile, the trail climbs steeply uphill over rocky terrain.  At the top, we passed a small/dry campsite. On the descent, which came almost immediately, we glimpsed beautiful views through the trees.  There were switchbacks and quite a few muddy spots along this stretch of trail.  We cheered on the last few runners on the Massanutten 100 Miler race.  Even if you’re finishing at the back of the pack in a race like that, you’re still tougher than we’ll ever be!  We also met the sweeper who was jogging the course behind the last racer to pick up reflective hang-tags that helped keep runners on course during the night.

After about a mile of walking along the purple-blazed Roaring Run trail, we reached an unmarked junction with the pink-blazed Browns Hollow trail.  The trail is a left turn from the Roaring Run Gap trail.  Over four miles of the hike on day two follows this Browns Hollow trail – so look for the pink blazes.

Hiking Roaring Run Gap
We got nice glimpses through the trees on the Roaring Run Gap trail. Below: The route follows the forest service road for a short while.  We shared much of our hike with runners competing in the Massnutten 100-miler; Roaring Run Gap trail is steep and rocky for a short while; Views through the trees.

Massanutten 100 Miler Rocky Grade on Roaring Run Gap Trail Views Through the Trees

The Browns Hollow trail starts off passing through pretty forest.  There are stretches of trail that pass through impressive blueberry bushes.  Eventually, you descend to Browns Run. Along the way, you’ll pass a couple nice campsites suitable for one or two small tents.  Both sites had fire rings and easy access to water.

There are several beautiful rapids and a small, but lovely, waterfall on this section of trail.  We all enjoyed walking through the verdant green forest, while listening to the sounds of bubbling water. It was gorgeous and peaceful.  If you look around you’ll notice the stream runs through a pretty deep and dramatic gorge.  The far side of the stream goes upward quickly and steeply.  There were even a couple places that looked like there had been recent landslides.  All the trees and dirt slid straight down the mountainside and ended in a jumble at the bottom. This part of the hike was gentle and easy, so we made great time and enjoyed chatting along the way.  We counted more pink lady’s slippers and admired other spring blooms along the trail.

Small Waterfall on Browns Run
Small Waterfall on Browns Run. Below: Everything was lush and green from all the spring rain; One of several campsites along Browns Run; Walking the Browns Run Trail

Lush Green Forest Campsite on Browns Run Lush Green Trail

At a little over the five mile mark of day two, you’ll cross Browns Run.  I imagine most of the time this is a shallow, easy stream crossing.  We hiked the trail after weeks of rain, and still found the crossing very doable.  The stream was only 12-18 inches deep and there were enough large rocks to rock hop most of the way.  There were a few places I had to submerge the toe of my boot on an underwater rock, but all three of us crossed without any trouble.  Right after the crossing, there is a fantastic group campsite.  The area is large and clear with space for multiple tents.

We continued to follow the Browns Hollow trail as it became a wide old road.  We passed lots of blooming mountain laurel along this part of the hike.  Eventually we came upon a picnic area with a shelter.  At that point, we took a left onto the marked Wildflower Trail at this point.  It passes a series of interpretive signs before eventually leading back to the Massanutten Visitors Center (closed) where we started out the prior morning.

Crossing Browns Run
Kris crosses Browns Run. Below:  A large campsite right after the stream crossing; The trail turns into an old roadbed; Walking past blooming mountain laurel.

Big Campsite at the Junction Browns Hollow Trail Browns Hollow Trail

It was still before noon when we wrapped up, so we decided to drive back into Harrisonburg for lunch. We enjoyed burgers at Jack Brown’s and then headed over to Brothers Craft Brewing to enjoy their new Verdure series.  They’ve done a tart Berliner-Weisse beer infused with all kinds of seasonal/summer fruits.  They had Blackberry Verdure on tap.  It was the perfect reward for a fun weekend of hiking.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 11 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
  • Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.5.  The toughest stretch is the initial push up to the viewpoints. 
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  There were a couple of blowdowns, some muddy patches due to the heavy rain, and a stream crossing, but footing was overall very good.
  • Views  4.  The two viewpoints provide some nice panoramic views.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  Browns Run is a nice stream and a good water source.  While not a stream or waterfall, Emerald Pond is extremely picturesque and would make a nice swimming hole. 
  • Wildlife – 3.  The start of the Wildflower Trail had us surrounded by birds.  With bear scat spotted near our campsite, there is some bear activity here. 
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.  There are multiple trails that cross over between Bird Knob and the Massanutten trail.  Take a map to make sure you are going the correct way.
  • Solitude – 2.  While you won’t see many on the trail, we found a lot of locals like to drive in close and visit Emerald Pond.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this hike are 38°38’35.4″N 78°36’43.0″W. From I-81, take exit 264 for US-211 toward New Market/Timberville/Luray.  Head east on US-211/W Old Cross Road and go .3 miles.  Turn left onto N. Congress St. and go .3 miles.  Turn right onto US-211 East and go 4.5 miles.  Park at the old Massanutten Visitor Center parking lot on the right.  The trail starts towards the front of the lot on the Wildflower Trail.

Double Bear Rocks

This 8.3 mile hike follows the Pass Mountain Trail from the route 211 trailhead up to the Pass Mountain Hut.  From there, you’ll follow the Appalachian Trail north to the beautiful viewpoint at Double Bear Rocks.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Double Bear Rocks
The view from Double Bear Rocks looks in the direction of Strickler Knob, Kennedy Peak, and Duncan Knob.

Christine Says…

The first weekend in April, we met up with Tony & Linda (of Hiking Upward fame) for a day of exploring a new trail and a new brewery. When we were discussing route options, Tony tossed out the idea of climbing the Pass Mountain trail for a visit to the same-named Appalachian Trail shelter.  The route was about five miles with 1,300 feet of climbing – perfectly moderate for my recovering ankle injury.

We initially planned to hike on Saturday, but sleet, rain, and high winds compelled us to postpone for Sunday’s more pleasant forecast.  We met at the trailhead along Route 211, just a little bit west of Sperryville.  The trail begins at the cement marker post across the road.  211 can be very busy and its twists and turns are often traveled at speed, so be extremely careful crossing the road from your car to the Pass Mountain trail.

The Pass Mountain trail was beautifully maintained – blowdowns were cleared, branches were trimmed back, and it looked like someone had put a lot of time installing new water bars.  The hike began with a meandering series of switchbacks that climbed steadily but gently uphill. At about the one mile mark, we reached another cement marker.  At the marker, you’ll notice a defunct, unlabeled fire road; stay to the left and follow the blue-blazed Pass Mountain trail uphill.  The trail continues uphill for almost a mile before leveling out on the ridge.  If you happen to hike this trail in winter or early spring, you’ll get great views of Marys Rock through the trees.

Pass Mountain Trail
Our hike started from a trailhead on route 211 near Sperryville. Below: A trailmarker in the middle of the woods.  It appears there used to be another trail or fireroad at the marker that is no longer maintained; Our hiking entourage; A view of Marys Rock through the trees.

Trail Junction Hiking Entourage Mary's Rock Through the Trees

At 2.8 miles, the trail ends at Pass Mountain Hut – one of the park’s nine Appalachian Trail shelters.  The shelter is a typical structure with a nearby spring and privy.  The unusual thing about Pass Mountain Hut that sets it apart from other AT shelters in the park is that it has a fairly new bear locker instead of a bear pole.  A couple years ago, the Pass Mountain Hut was closed due to aggressive bear activity.  In late summer, a young, extremely thin black bear destroyed the tent of an ATC Ridgerunner.  She was out on patrol and came back to a flattened, saliva-covered tent.  Park authorities closed the shelter area until the bear could be trapped and relocated to a less populated part of the park.

We spent a few minutes at the shelter debating the rest of our hike.  I mentioned to Tony and Linda that I remembered a nice vista just north of the Pass Mountain summit.  My ankle felt OK and even though I wasn’t sure exactly how far it was to the viewpoint, I thought I would be OK pressing on.  We all agreed that a view always makes extra miles worthwhile.  We followed the blue-blazed spur trail from the hut to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.

We headed north on the AT for about a mile, reaching the rocky but viewless summit of Pass Mountain.  This summit does not have a cement marker.  You’ll know you crossed the summit only because you start descending again.  When we crossed the summit, we were still vaguely guessing about how much further we needed to hike to reach the view.  We explored off-trail a little on rocky outcroppings, but they all turned out to be closed in by trees.  Adam jogged ahead to scout for the view. Tony, Linda, and I were all several hundred yards back when we heard Adam shouting ‘BEAR, BEAR, BEAR(S)’.  We all raced ahead, too – because who wants to miss a bear sighting?

Pass Mountain Hut
Shortly before reaching the junction with the Applachian Trail, we passed the Pass Mountain Hut. Below: The hut’s water source; Shelter log; Adam hiking the AT.

Water Source at Pass Mountain Shelter Log Walking the AT

We got there just in time to see two big, furry rear ends disappearing into the brush.  Adam, however, got a great close-up view of the bears.  Lucky!  Just a couple tenths of a mile past the bears, we spotted the side path to the view – Double Bear Rocks, named for the high population of bears in this area.  The view itself is quite nice, but what I remember most about this rocky outcropping is its seasonal abundance in blueberries!  Last time we hiked by this spot, it was July and there were berries everywhere!  In the short time we sat and enjoyed the view, clouds moved in, so we decided to be on our way.

The hike back simply retraced our steps coming up.  Since it was mostly downhill, it went by really quickly.  Before we knew it, we were back at our cars for a total hike of 8.3 miles with 1,750 feet of climbing.  We were all quite ready to make our way into Sperryville for some post-hike refreshments.  We decided to pick up a  to-go order from the Creekside Deli.  It’s a humble-looking building painted bright yellow, but there is nothing humble about their baked goods.  They make top-notch sandwiches on homemade bread, cookies, brownies, and other pastries.   We took our food over to Pen Druid brewery to enjoy a couple beers with lunch.  The brewery doesn’t have a kitchen, so they follow picnic rules. The guys at Pen Druid do small batches of interesting beers – most featuring wild yeast strains.   We had great conversation and agreed that we really must get out together more often.  Great day with friends!

Adam Says…

We always enjoy hiking with Tony and Linda.  When you get people together that have done a lot of hiking, our conversations always quickly go through talking about different trail systems.  We can all talk through different routes as if we were following a map along in our heads.  I’m not sure if it is dull conversation for others, but we enjoy talking about the places we have been or have been hoping to go.  Both Hiking Upward and our site were created to share our experiences.  We may have different approaches to the content, but we do this because of our love of nature and the ability to share hiking ideas with others.  We consider ourselves lucky to live where we live and to be able to have all of these experiences so close by – and we hope you enjoy it as well.

With Christine nursing an ankle injury, we picked a route that she thought would be a decent test with a little elevation but not overly challenging.  This route isn’t well-traveled and is accessed from outside of Shenandoah National Park on US-211, in between Luray and Sperryville, VA.  We arrived a few minutes before Tony and Linda, so we parked where we felt was the correct spot – a gravel pull-off at the bottom of a steep curve.  I consulted a map of the area and felt we were correct, but we didn’t see a signpost to designate the beginning of the trail.  I got out of the car and crossed the road near the sharp curve in the road and found the trail marker.

Two Bears on the AT
We saw a mama bear and her yearling cub not far from the viewpoint. Below: Tony scales a rocky lump near the summit of Pass Mountain.

Rocky Portion

The trail starts as the Pass Mountain trail.  While we felt this isn’t a heavily-traversed trail, we were surprised at how well this small section has been maintained.  The hike on the Pass Mountain Trail is a steady uphill climb, but the conditions of the trail made for easy footing.  On the way up, we caught up with what was going on with our lives  – from aging parents to worrisome dogs to trail sections to hiker rescues to beer.  Around the 2.75 mile mark, we reached the Pass Mountain Shelter.  We stopped and ate a snack and checked out the hiking log.   Christine’s ankle was feeling decent, so we decided to press further up the trail.  At the shelter, there is a junction with the fire road (Pass Mountain Hut Road), but the trail ascends up to the left of the shelter as you are facing it.  We continued up the trail until we reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail at 3.0 miles.

We remembered we found a nice overlook on Pass Mountain that was off the trail and we didn’t think it was too terribly far so we decided to try and find it again together.  We took a right, heading north on the white-blazed AT.  The trail continued to go slightly uphill, but the grade wasn’t as steep as most of the Pass Mountain Trail.  When we carried onward for about a mile, I decided to scout ahead a bit since I didn’t want Christine to put a lot of undue pressure on her ankle.  Trekking up ahead at a brisk speed, I came across a mother bear and a yearling bear cub ambling close to the trail.  They were both curious about me, so I said a few “Hey, bears” to let them know I wasn’t a threat.  They slowly were walking away, paying me little mind so I shouted back at the rest of the group “BEAR, BEAR” to let them know I spotted one.  I wondered if the group thought I was shouting for beer instead, but they understood.  When they caught up, they were able to see the bears not too far off but they had moved away from their comfy spot.

The Descent of Pass Mountain
The trail down is nicely graded with switchbacks. Below: Green plants were just beginning to reappear; Parking area – the road crossing can be very treacherous.

Descent of Pass Mountain Parking

Right around the corner from where we spotted the bear, we saw the jumbled rocks on the left of the trail that we remembered as being the viewpoint.  We cut off the trail and out onto the rocks to enjoy a nice view to the west.  There are nicer views in the park, but on a clear day you can see ridges of mountains for miles.

After taking in the view for a few minutes, we made our way back to our cars.  We continued our trip to Creekside Deli and then Pen Druid Brewery for some delicious food and drink before parting ways.  We look forward to our next adventure with them!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8.3 miles roundtrip
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1730 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  This was a nice, moderate hike with steady but well-graded climbing.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5.  The trail was in fantastic shape – very well maintained and tended to by the PATC. 
  • Views  3.5.  There’s a beautiful, but not quite panoramic view on the northern flank of Pass Mountain.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  There isn’t any stream scenery, but there is a spring behind the Pass Mountain Hut.
  • Wildlife – 4.  We saw bears – a yearling cub and mama!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 4.  We saw one couple at the hut, but no one else at all during the entirety of the 8+ mile hike.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: The trail is located off of US-211 about 12 miles east of Luray, VA and 2.8 miles east of where US-211 crosses Skyline Drive.  The gravel lot is located at 38.66855, -78.28999.   Cross the road (be careful as this is a blind curve and cars may not see you easily) and at the bottom of the steep, sharp curve you will see the signpost for the Pass Mountain Trail.

Appalachian Trail – Black Horse Gap to Jennings Creek

This 14.6 mile stretch of Appalachian Trail offers many splendid views as you closely follow the Blue Ridge Parkway.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Blackhorse Gap to Jennings Creek
Our first overnight backpacking trip of the season allowed us to watch the green of spring creeping its way up the mountainsides.

Day One…

When you are gifted a sunny 75-degree weekend in April, you must snatch it up and go backpacking!  At least, that is my belief on the matter. We had just such a weekend in mid-April this year, so we decided to get out there and work on completing some more Virginia Appalachian Trail miles.

We’ve already completed all the miles between Jennings Creek, VA and Harpers Ferry, WV, so we decided to pick up the next section south – Black Horse Gap northbound to Jennings Creek.  It was a relatively short route for an overnighter – twelve miles the first day and just three miles the second day.  We always try to do about 20 miles on a one-night trip, but access to road crossings for our shuttle drop-off made fifteen miles the best logistical option for this trip.

We looked up shuttle options in our AWOL Guide, and ended up hiring Homer Witcher to give us a ride to our start point.  Homer is a great trail ambassador – he’s in his 70s and still finds the time and energy to run on the AT most days.  He, his wife, and children are all avid, lifelong hikers – completing multiple section and thru hikes.  He told us he and his wife are planning another thru in 2017.  We greatly enjoyed talking to him on the ride over to Black Horse Gap.

Walking the Appalachian Trail
The signage for the AT along the Blue Ridge Parkway is nice. Below: Our start point at Black Horse Gap; Adam hikes through a rhododendron thicket; We had nice views through the trees for most of this hike.

Our Start Point Rhododendron Thicket Views Through the Trees

About a half hour later, we found ourselves standing along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Black Horse Gap.  We found the trail easily and started our northbound walk.  Over the first few miles of hiking, the AT crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple times – at Taylors Mountain and Harveys Knob.  Both crossings offer panoramic vistas of the valley below.  Most of the views in this section include a nice look at Sharp Top, one of the areas most popular mountains for day hiking. The terrain along this stretch of trail could best be described as rolling – there were lots of ups and downs, none dramatic.  We passed a large group of Boy Scouts hiking along the trail.  They turned out to be pretty much the only people we saw on our hike.

By 12:30, we reached our lunch stop at Bobblets Gap shelter. We ate and assessed our water supply.  We knew we’d have another chance to resupply water at around the 8 mile mark, but read that the water source at Bearwallow Gap was iffy and seasonal.  I still had over two liters of water, some in my Camelbak and a full Smartwater bottle.  Adam filled his Camelbak to three liters and also had a full Smartwater.  Our planned campsite at the Cove Mountain Shelter is dry (no spring, no stream) and the closest water source to camp is three miles away in either direction, so we tried to guess how much water we would need to cook and hike the next day.  It’s a delicate balance between carrying too much heavy water and not enough, risking dehydration.

After lunch, we leapfrogged the same group of scouts again.  They had decided to skip the shelter since they had moms and lunch waiting for them at a road crossing ahead.  The post-lunch hiking was decidedly more uphill than the morning hiking.  We gradually climbed, crossing the parkway two more times at Peaks of Otter and Mills Gap.  At Mills Gap, we were able to get rid of our lunch trash at a roadside trashcan – being able to get rid of garbage is a real treat for any backpacker!  We took a rest at Mills Gap, reclining on a picnic table in dappled shade.  The temperatures weren’t that hot – maybe high 60’s, but the sun was incredibly strong and relentless through the mostly leafless trees.  We both got sunburned despite using sunscreen.

Beautiful Views from the Blue Ridge Parkway
The trail crossed the parkway numerous times – usually near vistas. Below: One of many road crossings with a view;  Blooming columbines; A huge retaining wall under the parkway; Bobblets Gap Shelter; Lunch and shelter log; A very dank water source.

Vistas along the BRP Columbine Retaining Wall
Bobblets Gap Shelter Lunch at Bobblets Gap Dank Water Source

After a little more climbing from Mills Gap, we started a nice descent to Bearwallow Gap and the VA43 road crossing.  We passed a murky, dank wildlife pond along the way – maybe it’s the bear wallow!  At the road crossing, we sat like a pair of hobos under the Blue Ridge Parkway road sign.  People driving past looked at us like we were a novelty.  There turned out to be plenty of water in the seasonal stream at the crossing, but neither of us had drunk much more water so we decided not to resupply again. That wasn’t the best idea – more about that later!

We crossed VA43 and immediately began the climb up Cove Mountain.   Within the first hundred feet there was a sign reminding us about the dry conditions at Cove Mountain Shelter.  We still were certain we had plenty of water.  As we ascended, I said to Adam “This isn’t bad!  The trail looked WAY steeper on the map!”  Adam replied, “I hope you’re not jinxing us.”  Well, I totally jinxed us.  The trail got much steeper and due to past forest fires, we were climbing in direct, unrelenting sunshine at the hottest part of the day.  We both went through much more water than we had planned for.  I chewed gum to try and preserve what water I had left.  We passed a couple small campsites along the ridge of Cove Mountain. We contemplated stopping for the day, but decided to press on to our planned stop.

Climbing Cove Mountain
Cove Mountain (one of several mountains by this name in the Blue Ridge) was the only tough part of the day. Below: Sitting like a hobo at the road crossing; It’s not nice to shoot at hikers; Beginning the climb up Cove Mountain; Campsites along the top of Cove Mountain; Adam gets nice views as we begin the descent to the shelter; Evidence of an old forest fire.

Hobo Gunshots at AT Sign Climbing Cove
Campsite on Cove Mountain Beginning the Descent Burnt Out

The descent of Cove Mountain was incredibly beautiful.  I think the area burned in 2011 or 2012, leaving spectacular open views along the ridgeline.  I was thankful for such beautiful, distracting views the last couple miles because my feet were killing me.  In addition to not refilling water when we should have, I made the mistake of trying out new gear on a long(ish) hike.  For many years, I have hiked in Thorlo thick-cushion hiker socks with a pair of silk sock liners.  I don’t get blisters -ever- with that combo.  This time, I decided to wear my Darn Tough wool socks.  They’re super popular with hikers and were always comfortable for me on day hikes – even long day hikes, but apparently I do need the extra cushioning I get from Thorlos when I’m carrying a heavier pack.  Lesson learned – don’t mess with the tried and true, especially when it comes to your feet!

We hobbled into camp around 3:30 – almost 12 miles in about 6 hours included stops for lunch, rest, and photography – not a bad pace for our first trip of the season.  We set up camp and spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and napping.   Despite being dry, Cove Mountain Shelter is an idyllic spot.  The shelter is typical, the privy is new, and there was space for a good number of tents both around and on the ridge above the shelter. Recently, I learned an interesting piece of trivia about the Cove Mountain Shelter from my friend Jeff Monroe (of Wandering Virginia). Apparently, this shelter used to sit at Marble Springs (where we camped on the second night of our Jennings Creek to the James River section).  When the area around Marble Springs became designated wilderness, the shelter was moved to its current location on Cove Mountain.

Road Around Mountain
It was neat to see Rt. 43 wrapping around the mountain. Below: The Cove Mountain Shelter; Tents and bear bags.

Cove Mountain Shelter Bear Hangs and Tents

Before dinner, Adam found a good tree and slung the rope for our bear hang.  As we prepared dinner, we rationed out our water, so we’d have enough for breakfast and our second day of hiking.  We were both pretty thirsty and wished we had filled up to the maximum at Bearwallow.  We even ended up drinking our dishwashing water.  Lots of ‘Leave No Trace’ folks always drink their wash water, but it’s also acceptable to broadcast water away from camp.  We usually broadcast.  But this time, we enjoyed a lovely ‘tea’ flecked with a mélange of buffalo chicken, macaroni and cheese, and crème brulee.  Mmmm! Even after conserving water, we really didn’t have much left for both breakfast and tomorrow’s hiking.

As we were finishing dinner, Boy Scouts started rolling into camp – first two, then five more, then another four, then the final three an hour later.  We were sure they had come off the trail at VA43. They’d been hiking since 9:30 a.m. – many of them were first time backpackers, a few were first time hikers!  The troop was from Roanoke Rapids, NC.  They were nice folks, but clearly new to backpacking, as they took the time to remove our bear hang from the tree, thinking it was litter!  Adam was not happy about having to get the rope back over the precarious branch, but in the end he agreed it was a little bit funny.

Good Night
We got to watch sunset from the hillside above the shelter. Below: The sun goes down over the Blue Ridge; Enjoying our view!

Pretty Sunset Happy Place

After dinner, we hiked up the hill behind the shelter to catch sunset.  The view was lovely! As soon as the sun went down, it got cold pretty quickly.  The dry, breezy conditions precluded a campfire, so we crawled into our tent a little after 8:00 p.m.  I fell asleep but was woken several times during the night to sounds of foxes, whippoorwills, and owls! Despite the interruptions, it was a peaceful night and I was so glad to be out in the woods again!

Day Two…

We knew our next day on the trail was going to be quite easy.  We woke up early before the Boy Scouts were even stirring.  It was quite chilly, so we were probably moving a little faster in the morning to get the blood flowing.  We packed away all of our stuff and enjoyed a breakfast of Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies and coffee.  The plan was to have hot granola with Nido, but we didn’t have enough water left to make both hot cereal and coffee, so coffee and cookies won.  We left the shelter area and were on our way in a little over an hour.   Just about .2 miles away from the shelter, we came to a nice western morning view from the top of Cove Mountain.  The trail continued to ascend, but it was hardly noticeable.  From camp, the trail ascends about 200 feet in .8 miles.  At this point, the trail descends the rest of the way.  We were impressed with the views through the trees along the way.

View from Cove Mountain
A couple tenths of a mile past camp, we got a nice view from Cove Mountain. Below: Tents in the morning sun; Adam hikes along the Appalachian Trail; Christine descends toward Jennings Creek.

Tents in the Morning Walking the AT Descending to Jennings Creek

The trail on the descent was easy walking for the most part.  The trail had just a few longer switchbacks on it, but it was a nice, peaceful walk in the woods.  It was just a short amount of time before we could hear the sound of water from Jennings Creek and around 3.2 miles we were back at Jennings Creek Road.  We took a right and crossed over the creek for some picturesque creek scenes before getting to our car on the left side of the road.

Descending to Jennings Creek
Adam makes his way downhill through the evergreens. Below: Pretty Jennings Creek; The parking area at the AT crossing; We saw zebras on the way home.

Jennings Creek Parking at Jennings Creek Zebras

We had previously planned to get to Sonic in Waynesboro for a celebratory lunch and a stop at Rockfish Gap Outfitter’s Anniversary Sale (where I got a new Osprey Atmos pack), but arriving at the car around 9 a.m., we knew we had some time to kill.  We decided to stop on our way at the Virginia Safari Park near Lexington.  If you are a fan of animals, this is a must-see place to visit.  We drove through the loop (we could even see rhinos through the window) with a bucket of feed while zebras, emus, alpacas, elk, and yaks tried to rip it from our hands.  After driving through the loop, we also walked through their other exhibits, where we could see giraffes at eye level, walk among kangaroos, and see other animals through cages – tigers, hyenas, and monkeys.  I believe this was our third time visiting and there are always new additions every time we visit.

This section of the Appalachian Trail has some wonderful scenery on it.  If you are looking for a shorter, overnight trip with lots of views along the way, this hike won’t disappoint – just plan for water.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 14.6 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
  • Elevation Change – 1650 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  This was a pretty easy backpacking route.  It was perfect for our first outing of the season and gentle injury recovery.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in typical Appalachian Trail shape for this part of Virginia – well maintained and nicely graded.
  • Views  5.  There are many fantastic viewpoints along this route.  Most of them come from overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway – which you’ll cross multiple times on this route.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 0.  This is a quite dry stretch of trail. There is a small, low-flow spring at Bobblets Gap and a seasonal stream at Bearwallow Gap. There is NO WATER SOURCE at the Cove Mountain Shelter, so plan ahead.
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw several deer and had a barred owl and a whippoorwill in camp.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well marked and easy to follow. There are road crossings and several other trail junctions, but the white blazes are easy to follow in most 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: Take exit 168 off of I-81 toward Arcadia, VA.  Turn on to State Route 614/Arcadia Road off the exit.  Arcadia Road becomes Jennings Creek Road.  After 4.5 miles, you will see a large gravel parking lot after crossing Jennings Creek and you will see a sign for where the Appalachian Trail crosses.  Park in this lot. Coordinates 37.529352, -79.622693  To drop off second car and start your hike:  Continue down Jennings Creek Road from where you parked (not arriving the way you came).  In 1.8 miles, turn right on to State Route 618/McFalls Creek Road.  Go 4.1 miles and then turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Follow this for 8.6 miles until you reach the small pulloff on the right side for Black Horse Gap.  With not much space here for a vehicle, you will likely want to park along the side of the road.  Just a few feet on the fire road, you will see the sign for the Appalachian Trail junction. Coordinates: 37.424611, -79.757202. Head right and start on the trail.

Appalachian Trail – Ashby Gap to Bears Den Rocks (The Roller Coaster)

This 13.5 mile Appalachian Trail section includes quite a bit of the infamous AT ‘Roller Coaster’.  The trail is rocky and the ups and downs are pretty constant.  There are two nice viewpoints along the route, good camping spots/shelters, water sources, and a finish at Bears Den Hostel.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

View from Bears Den Rocks
The view from Bears Den Rocks is a fitting finale for this section.

Adam Says…

The infamous “Roller Coaster”…. for years we have heard of how tough this stretch of the Appalachian Trail is and this was our chance to experience the grueling ups and downs that gives this section its epithet.  We have previously covered 3.9 miles of the northern section of the Roller Coaster in our coverage of the AT from Harper’s Ferry to Bear’s Den.  The distance between the southern and northern terminus signs marking the Roller Coaster covers 13.4 miles.  From looking at elevation maps, we realized that most of the ups and downs are in the section between Bears Den and the Rod Hollow Shelter.   There are about 10 significant climbs along the Roller Coaster that range from 250-450 feet of climbing (and typically over just about a quarter of a mile).  This is a great section of trail if you want to get in shape.  Since there aren’t a lot of views along the trail, you will find a lot of hikers on the trail are either trying to cover AT miles or are training for long-distance hikes or longer trail runs.

We dropped off our first car at Bears Den Hostel and paid our $3 day-use parking fee.  We had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up and he was there within a minute of us arriving.  Many times on the trail, you meet interesting people – he was a business consultant, counselor for people with drug addictions, and a school bus driver (and finds times to shuttle hikers).  When we heard about how he balanced everything in his life, we were truly amazed.  He dropped us off on the side of the road on US50 and we found the white blaze to head north on the Appalachian Trail.

Golden Woods
The woods were beautiful and golden along our route. Below: It would be nice if hikers didn’t leave hitch-hiking signs (trash) in the woods; Adam passes along an old stone wall; Some trees were still brilliantly colored – even at the end of October.

Litter on the AT Old Stone Walls Bursts of Color

We pushed into the woods and soon the sounds of speeding cars was behind us.  We started off with a gradual climb.  We were hiking near the end of the peak of fall color, so looking all around we saw brilliant colors of yellow and orange in the trees around us.  One of the challenges of hiking after many leaves have fallen is that it can make it difficult to ensure you are still on the trail.  We were able to navigate easily with all the white blazes on the trees marking the AT, but retrace your steps if you don’t see any for a while.   Early on this section, you come across a couple of streams at 1.4, 2.0, and 2.8 miles.  At 3.6 miles, we reached the side trail for the Rod Hollow Shelter (.1 miles west of the trail).  We wanted to eat a snack, so we made our way to the shelter to find the small shelter, as well as a covered picnic table for overnight campers to cook food away from where they sleep.  The shelter also has a privy and a piped spring left of the shelter if you need a reliable water source.

Heading back to the trail, we continued north and at 4.2 miles, we reached the sign marking the southern end of the Roller Coaster.  We knew we had some significant work ahead of us for the rest of the way.  The first hill rose up steeply and descended to a spring at Bolden Hollow.  At the bottom, I tweaked my knee – ugh!  This gave me shooting pains for the rest of the trail.  I knew I had to decide to push on to the end of the hike or turn around and bail.  I decided to put on a knee brace (I always keep one in my pack) to give it some support.  This helped for about half a mile, but the pain was almost unbearable.  Every step was filled with pain that was begging me to give up.  I just thought of all the amazing thru-hikers that fight through pain on most days of the trail and decided I wasn’t going to let myself surrender.  We pushed onward and upward, reaching the next peak at 6.3 miles.  At 7.1 miles, we reached a footbridge that goes over Morgan Mill Stream and also has a small campsite off to the side.  We stopped here for an extended break to eat some lunch.  At 7.6 miles, we reached the gravel road known as Morgan Mill Road.  Crossing the road, there is a slight up and down before reaching another stream at 8.3 miles.

Rocky Climbs on the Roller Coaster
Much of the roller coaster was quite rocky! Below: Rod Hollow Shelter; You are about to enter the Roller Coaster; Descending one of the roller coaster’s hills.

Rod Hollow Shelter Rollercoaster Entrance Downhill on the Roller Coaster

After a mostly level part of the trail (relatively speaking), we then began to ascend up Buzzard Hill.  Near the top, we took a small side trail that led us up to a nice viewpoint.  I rested a bit on a tree overlooking the valley and then we proceeded back to the main trail.  The trail descends steeply from Buzzard Hill and now for overcompensating for my one knee, my other started to hurt.  Time to put on another knee brace (from Christine’s pack this time).  We made it to another stream (yes, lots of water sources on this trail) and rose up another steep section to get to Sam Moore Shelter at 9.7 miles.  We stopped for a snack and another rest before making the final push.  I knew there was only one more major hill before the last push up to Bears Den, which gave me a small glimmer of hope.

We pushed up the next ascent, which then descends to another stream at 11.0 miles.  Another small bump of a climb was ahead and we came to another footbridge at 12.2 miles.  From here, it was just about .5 miles of a steep climb that led to Bears Den rocks.  We took some time to enjoy the views from the rocks.  So many people just drive to Bears Den and take the short trail to the rocks to enjoy the gorgeous views; but today, we truly earned it.  I took a little time to reflect on how I battled through this pain and  I can’t believe I made it.  We took the trail leading us off the AT and to the Bears Den hostel.  We went down the gravel road and made it back to our car.  It was an exhausting day.

Overall, if it wasn’t for my injury, I don’t think the Roller Coaster is as hard as most people make it out to be.  It does have lots of ups and downs and you may wonder why they didn’t make the trail go around some of these hills instead of up every one of them.  The ascents and descents are relatively short, so you don’t have to do a grueling 5 mile climb up one steep mountain.  If you are in good hiking shape, you should be able to handle the elevation.  I would also recommend going in the peak of fall color – while there aren’t a ton of views until the end, the forest through this area is pretty when filled with color.

Christine Says…

Our hike of this section is significant because it closed a gap in our continuous Appalachian Trail miles! We’ve now hiked an unbroken 265 miles from Harpers Ferry to a road crossing south of Bryant Ridge Shelter (near Lexington, VA).  We still have many, many miles to go, but 265 miles makes a noticeable mark on a trail map!  Our tentative plan is to start working on the miles in southern Virginia later this spring, but with an elderly pet we don’t like to leave behind and a case of ankle tendinitis, I’m not sure how far we’ll get this year.

The roller coaster terrain wasn’t as challenging as I expected it to be.  The hills were mostly small and short, and there is doubtlessly tougher terrain many places along the trail.  I think the section’s harsh reputation might come from a couple things.  First, climbing uphill feels like it should come with a reward in form of a vista; you climb uphill – you earn a view!  On the roller coaster, the ups and downs mostly happen a tunnel of forest with nothing particularly noteworthy to see.  Hikers call terrain like this PUDs – short for pointless ups and downs.  They can be a little demotivating.  I mean, honestly, if there is nothing to see at the top of a mountain, you may as well walk around it rather than over it! Second, I think most thru-hikers are ready to get out of Virginia by the time they reach the roller coaster.  After 500+ miles in the state some hikers are feeling emotional doldrums known as the Virginia Blues, and the ups and downs just add to the tedium.

Pretty Spot to Eat Lunch
A pretty spot to eat lunch along Morgan Mill Stream. Below: A nice campsite along the stream; Another stream crossing; A burned area provided some more open views.

Campsite Along Morgan Mill Stream Crossing Burned Area

But, we’re not thru-hikers, so the hike of the roller coaster was just another fun day on the trail for us.  I wish Adam hadn’t been in so much pain for most of the hike.  At a road crossing, I suggested he bail out. I offered to run ahead and come back with the car to get him.  I give him a ton of credit for gutting it out and hiking through the pain.  He really didn’t want to miss any of the miles. You never know what you’ll see along the AT – even the most mundane miles can bring unexpected sites and experiences. For example, on this section we passed the 1,000 mile marker!  It was just a plain sign stuck to an unremarkable tree, but still a memorable site to pass by.

The view from Buzzard Hill was a nice surprise on this hike.  Our AWOL guide marked Bears Den as the only view along the way.  (note: each vista worth seeing is typically marked with a camera icon in the guidebook).  According to AWOL’s opinion, Buzzard Hill didn’t warrant a camera icon. I would disagree – the view was definitely worth a stop and the big dead tree on the rocky outcropping was fun to climb on.  We took a long, restful break at the spot.

Another noteworthy thing we passed on the route was a glimpse through the trees of Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center.  We could see a firing range and several large buildings in the compound.  The center is a major relocation site for the highest level of civilian and military officials in case of national disaster.  On 9/11, many members of congress were evacuated to this spot. It’s interesting that such a key feature of our national security lies so close to the trail!

Old Tree on Buzzard Hill
Buzzard Hill had a nice view. Below: More views; Sam Moore shelter: Snacks and our AWOL page for this hike.

Nice Foliage Views Sam Moore Shelter Book Pages

By the time we got to Sam Moore shelter, both of us were vaguely wishing we had done this stretch as an overnight.  We had originally considered making it our last backpacking trip of the season, especially since there were so many nice camping spots and water sources along the route.  But the weather was chilly and there was rain in the forecast, so we opted for a hot meal and the comfort of our own bed.

We arrived at Bears Den around 3:00.  We took photos and spent some time enjoying the last weekend of peak fall color.  Eventually, we hobbled back to our car and headed back toward home. On the way, we stopped at Woodstock Brewery for beer and flatbread pizzas.  It was Halloween, and the brewery staff was dressed in elaborate costumes.  My favorite was probably the bartender dressed as a squirrel. One of their beers is called ‘Tipsy Squirrel’, so the costume was especially fitting.  I joked that we were dressed up as smelly, tired hikers — which was not far from the truth!

Bears Den Rocks
Christine climbing on Bears Den Rocks. Below: Our last big descent on the Roller Coaster before reaching Bears Den; The 1000 mile marker on the AT; One last stream crossing.

Last Big Descent on the Roller Coaster 1000 miles on the AT Final Stream Crossing

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 13.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 3200 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.5.  The trail has lots of ups and downs and this is a long distance, but is great for training for longer distance hikes. 
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was well-maintained.  A lot of the Roller Coaster is rocky, so it makes for some careful footing.
  • Views –   4.  The views from Buzzard Hill are decent, but the best views are from Bears Den rocks. 
  • Streams/Waterfalls –   3.5.  Most of the streams aren’t scenic, but there are lots of them which provides great water sources. 
  • Wildlife – 2.   There wasn’t a lot of larger wildlife on the trail, but we did see some deer and a fence lizard at Buzzard Hill. 
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5. Leaves on the ground made this tougher.  The confusing parts of the trail were finding the trail leaving the summit of Buzzard Hill and finding the right path leaving Bears Den rocks back to the hostel. 
  • Solitude – 3.  For most of this section of trail, we rarely came across anyone.  Bears Den rocks should have lots of people enjoying the views. 

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: First car: The Bears Den Hostel is located near VA-7, almost halfway between Berryville and Purcellville.  From Berryville, take VA-7 East for about 8 miles before turning right on SR-601.  Go .5 miles and turn right (you will see a sign on the right for Bears Den).  Go .5 miles down the gravel road until you reach the parking lot.  Leave one car here for your finish to your hike.  Coordinates: 39.110111, -77.853890. Second Car: From Bears Den, head from the parking lot back to SR-601.  Take a right and follow SR-601/Blue Ridge Mountain Road for 10.5 miles until you reach US-50.  Turn right and park the second car on the side of the road.  The AT crossing is just west of the “School Bus Stop 1000 feet” sign. Coordinates: 39.017014, -77.964454

Appalachian Trail – Ashby Gap to Front Royal

This 21.2 mile route along the Appalachian Trail crosses Sky Meadows State Park and the G. Richard Thompson Wildlife Management Area.  There are a couple nice vistas along the way, but it is mostly a quiet, wooded walk. This section of the trail has three shelters – one of the most luxurious (Jim & Molly Denton) and one of the oddest/smallest (Dicks Dome).  Christine is going to cover the first day and Adam will pick up the second.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Sky Meadows
If you take the Ambassador Whitehead Trail off the Appalachian Trail in Sky Meadows, you will get some nice views of the Piedmont. Below: Adam crosses the four lanes of Route 50; Making our way uphill to the high point of Sky Meadows; Once you finish climbing, you clear the woods and come out into the open fields of Sky Meadows State Park.

Crossing Route 50 Uphill Climb Sky Meadows Opens Up

Day One (6 miles total – 4.8 on the Appalachian Trail and 1.2 walking around Sky Meadows State Park)…

Most typical couples want to spend their anniversary in a cozy bed & breakfast inn or possibly out for a fancy multi-course dinner.  Not us — we go backpacking — especially when we’re given a sunny weekend in the middle of peak fall color season!  We took a Friday off of work so we could have two nights out on the trail.  I was coming off a knee injury, so we picked a section with gentle terrain and several shelters/campsites spaced to allow for shorter mileage each day. The section between Ashby Gap and Front Royal fit the bill perfectly. It was also a good chunk of miles we hadn’t hiked before.

To make transportation easier, we hired a shuttle driver for this trip.  None of the recommended shuttle drivers listed in our AWOL Guide were available, so we turned to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s list of shuttles.  ‘Sharon’s Shuttles’ was prompt and affordable.  The mother-daughter team has been shuttling hikers for over a decade now.  We also arranged for a parking spot at the Mountain Home Bed & Breakfast in Front Royal.  For just a couple bucks a day, Mountain Home will give you safe, off-road parking spot at their inn. (There is a small AT lot on Rt. 522, but we don’t recommend leaving a car there overnight.) Mountain Home also has a clean, well-equipped hiker hostel! The proprietors are past thru-hikers, so they’re a great source of information for the trail and the local Front Royal area.

Views from Sky Meadows
Pretty views at our lunch spot. Below: It’s nice to have a table to sit at for lunch;  Leaving the high meadows area of the park; Hickory Tussock caterpillar.

Picnic Table at Sky Meadows Leaving the Meadows Hickory Tussock

We met our shuttle driver at the inn around 10 a.m.  She drove us the 20 miles to our start point at Ashby Gap.  As she pulled into the parking area above Ashby Gap, she said ‘I’m going to drop you off here because someone left a headless deer at the other end of the parking lot’.  Gross! I am glad she gave us the warning because that is not something I want to see! I imagine the headless deer had a nice set of antlers that somebody wanted to keep.  😦

By 11:00 a.m., we were on our way! We followed a short spur trail from the parking area downhill to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.  Headed south, we reached the busy road crossing of Rt. 50 after just several hundred feet. Cars were zipping by at 55+mph, so we made a run for it as soon as it was safe. After crossing the highway, we had a steady 1.75 mile climb up to the high point of Sky Meadows State Park.  Most AT hikers probably walk across the high meadows of the park without detouring, but we decided to turn onto the Ambassador Whitehead Trail and enjoy a scenic view while we ate our packed lunch.  At the viewpoint, there was a picnic table and a nice look down into a valley dotted with farm houses.  I had been warm enough hiking in short sleeves, but as soon as we  stopped I got cold really quickly.  The brisk wind across the open meadow was enough that I pulled out my down jacket!

After lunch, we hiked the remaining mile within Sky Meadows, crossing into the G. Richard Thompson Wildlife Management Area.  Near a trailside campsite, our paths crossed with two young guys hunting small game.  They came out of the thick woods, and totally startled us.  They were friendly enough, but it was pretty obvious they were mostly out to smoke pot and drink beer rather than actually hunt!  As we walked along, we passed thick tangle of old grape vines.  Some of the vines still had bunches of grapes.  I tried a couple – they were very sour!

Tangles of Vines and Weeds in the Wildlife Management Area
The G. Richard Thompson Wildlife Management area. You can probably make out some of the old grape vines in this photo. Below: Arriving at Dicks Dome; The rickety bridge across Whiskey Hollow stream; The shelter is small and oddly shaped.

Arriving at Dicks Dome Crossing the Rickety Bridge to Dicks Dome Dicks Dome Shelter

We descended from higher, more open areas back into the woods.  Over the last mile of trail before reaching our first campsite at Dicks Dome, we passed under power-lines and crossed a shallow spring.  A small sign marked the spur trail to the shelter.  The path was heavily covered with leaves and a little hard to follow.  It looked like no one had passed by in days.  Dicks Dome sits almost a third of a mile off the AT.  A rickety, sagging bridge takes hikers across across Whiskey Hollow stream to the front of Dicks Dome Shelter.  The shelter is a tiny, geodesic dome that might comfortably sleep three people.  It was built by a scout group in 1987 and has seen better days.  It’s so run down and small that the PATC is currently working on building a new shelter uphill from the dome.  When it’s complete, it will be called Whiskey Hollow Shelter.

When we’re out backpacking, we leave the shelter space for thru-hikers and sleep in a tent.  We spent some time looking around the shelter area for a decent tent site.  There was nothing – everything flat was mucky and wet and everything else was on a slope.  Because of the lack of tent sites, we ended up setting up camp on the completed deck of the unfinished shelter.  There were no signs saying ‘keep out’ or ‘do not use’, so we figured the deck would be the easiest and most comfortable place to pitch our tent.

It was still really early in the afternoon – maybe 2:30, so we set up camp and filtered water.  I took a nap while Adam read a book.  Around 4:30, we collected a stack of small firewood so we could have a campfire that evening.  The new shelter had a nice firepit with benches around it!  We relaxed, played cards, and made spaghetti for dinner. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the temperature dropped quickly. What had been a warm, pleasant day turned into a cold night. We started our campfire and tried to stay warm!

Campfire
Our little campfire next to the shelter. A nice fire ring and benches were already there.  Below: Our camping deck; The woods around the new shelter site were lovely; Cards at camp.

Our Campsite Around the Shelter Cards at Camp

We climbed into our tent around 8:30.  It was already completely dark, and we wanted to put the fire out completely before it got too late. We knew the nighttime lows on this trip were going to be unseasonably cold, so we had both borrowed 0 degree sleeping bags from the Adventure Program at JMU.  Isn’t that a great work perk?  I was able to rent a nice-quality Big Agnes bag for just a few dollars!  We normally don’t backpack when it’s cold, so we both just have summer bags rated for 32 degrees.  I’m a cold sleeper, so I knew it wouldn’t be enough to keep me warm on this trip.  I was thankful I had rented the bag… because it was COLD!  I slept in a hat, gloves, thick socks, and a silk baselayer.  I was comfortable and warm enough.  It took me a while to fall asleep, but I eventually did.  I think I ended up sleeping over ten hours that night.  I guess that’s what happens when you sleep and wake by the natural light!

Day Two (15.2 miles)…

We woke up in the cold at the first sign of daylight  and made a warm breakfast of granola, Nido, and hot drinks (coffee for Christine and cider for me).  We packed up everything quickly and made our way back on the trail.  Some people like to have a leisurely morning when backpacking, but we like to be up at sunrise and back on the trail as soon as possible.  The cold helped us get moving quickly since we knew we would warm up once the blood started flowing.

Golden Woods
The woods were beautiful in their golden leaves. Below: Manassas Gap Shelter; The spring is located downhill from the shelter; Hot lunch of buffalo chicken mac and cheese!

Manassas Gap Shelter The Spring at Manassas Gap Yum - Lunch

From Dicks Dome, we had only had a few tenths of a mile before we were back on the AT.  The hike started off with some ups and downs, enough to get my blood going enough that I wanted to take off my outer fleece.  After 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with the Trico Tower spur trail which leads to a communication tower.  From this junction the trail descended a bit and at 3.2 miles, we passed a reliable spring.  While a lot of the hiking in the morning was uneventful, we marveled at how beautiful the trees looked in the fall.  The ground was covered with color and the sun shining through the tree tapestry gave us a reminder that the hard work of carrying packs was worth it.

At 4.5 miles, we reached the Manassas Gap Shelter.  It was a little early for lunch, but we decided to stop and eat since we knew there was a reliable spring and a table to cook.  We combined a macaroni & cheese meal with a buffalo chicken meal and topped it with bacon to make a glorious warm lunch.  Once we had stopped, we could feel the chill of the wind, so it was back into our outer layers while we stopped.  After resting a bit at the shelter, we pushed on.

Barringer Point
A sign and a short spur trail led out to Barringer Point. The view was mostly obstructed. Below: Adam hikes along the trail; Old stone walls; Passing under I-66.

Hiking Along Old Stone Wall Passing Under 66

Descending from Manassas Gap, we came upon a large stone wall at 5.5 miles, which skirted the trail for a good distance.  The trail continued to descend and we reached Tuckers Lane at 6.8 miles, which had some parking for the trail.  Here, we hung a left and passed some houses with people doing yard work.  I’m sure they are used to seeing lots of hikers, but it would strike me funny to see people coming out of the woods often right across from my house.  You walk along the road for a while until you pass underneath I-66.  The loudness of all the traffic made me feel eager to escape back into the wilderness.  At 7 miles, you cross US-50 and continue on to a footbridge to stay on the AT.  You pass over some railroad tracks before your hike begins a steep ascent.

At the top of the ascent, the trail opens up to a beautiful grassy bald with a bench at the top of the hill.  The views were somewhat obstructed, but this is a nice stop for a picturesque scene.  My guess is that a lot of people park at Tuckers Lane and do this as a short out-and-back of about 2 miles, a nice spot for a picnic.  Due to the cold wind whipping along the bald, we didn’t stay but a minute.  At the top of the ascent, the AT enters the woods and descends again.  On the descent down, the trail did open up through some gorgeous farmland.  We walked along the trail and enjoyed the views – the scenery exemplifies Virginia mountains and farmland.  At 8.8 miles, we reached VA 638.  We crossed the road and rock-hopped a small stream at 8.9 miles.

A Meadow View
The nice view after Tuckers Lane. Below: Train tracks near I-66, Some color along the trail; Rolling landscape.

Train Tracks Colorful Woods Farmland Views

At 10 miles, we arrived at the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter around 2:30 p.m.  The temperatures were supposed to rise more that day, but the heavy cloud cover and brisk wind kept it from warming up at all during the day.  Our plan was to stop for the night here and we found a nice campsite away from the shelter.  This shelter is one of the plushest we’ve seen along the trail – it has a solar shower, separate cooking pavilion, nice Adirondack chairs, and even horseshoes to keep you entertained.  We stopped for a snack before working on setting up camp.  There, we met a very nice lady by the trailname of Puddles.  She had thru-hiked the trail several years ago.  We struck up a long conversation with her and loved her outlook on life; she has had a lot of trials in her life, but her positive attitude and love of nature keep her going.

The temperatures were dropping quickly while we ate our snack.  With the foreboding skies and whipping wind, we knew we were going to be in for an even colder night.  I really didn’t feel that the sleeping bags we rented were any warmer than what we personally owned (I know bags are often debated about how warm they stay with the gear-reviewing community).  We talked it through and felt it may be best to try and push on to see if we could make the rest of the trip before it got dark.  It was a shame to leave such a perfect spot, but we felt it was the best decision.  As we had lollygagged a bit, we knew we needed to get going right away.

Descending the AT
On our way to the third shelter along this section. Below: Passing through a fence opening; The Jim and Molly Denton shelter (check out the full photo album to see more photos of this luxurious stop!); The Mosby Campground.

Old Fence Jim & Molly Denton Shelter Mosby Campground

From the Denton Shelter, the trail was a gradual uphill.  We passed a powerline at 11.1 miles and then arrived at the spur trail for the Mosby campsite at 11.8 miles.  Christine checked out the campsite while I waited on the trail.  She came back and talked about how nice and spacious the campsite looked.  What I didn’t know was that Christine wanted to camp here for the night because her knee was hurting and she wasn’t sure she had any more miles left in her.  However, I didn’t pick up on her subtle signals and suggested we move along.  When we’re backpacking, we both reach a threshold somewhere between 10-12 miles when things start being less fun for both of us.  When you’re a weekend backpacker, you never really get the chance to build up the trail legs you need to easily carry a pack 15-20 miles a day.

At 12 miles, we crossed a forest service road.  The trail stayed level for a while before a long descent that leads to Bear Hollow Creek.  The sound of the creek was nice to hear and we soon came across a large fence to our right of the trail.  This serves as the boundary for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute land, an area used to preserve and study animals.  We kept hoping to see elephants or cheetahs through the chain-link fence (not that they necessarily house any), but nothing was to be seen.  We knew we were at the end of the trail as we reached this fence area and at 15.2 miles for this day, we reached US 522.  We took a left on the road and reached Mountain Home in a short distance.  We shambled into our car totally drained.  We made our way to Spelunkers in Front Royal, our favorite place for a burger and shake after a long hike in the nearby area.  We knocked off another section of the AT in Virginia and that is something we were proud of as we slurped up the last remnant of shake from the bottom of our cups.

Smithsonian Conservation
Walking along the fenceline of the Smithsonian Conservation facility.  Below: Back at Mountain Home B&B; Their cute hiker hostel; The inside of the hostel is clean and well-equipped.

Mountain Home Mountain Home Mountain Home

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 21.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two – Part 1] [Day Two – Part 2])*
  • Elevation Change – 3717 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  The (unexpected) distance we covered on the second day was challenging, but overall this was a relatively easy backpacking trip.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in great shape with pleasant, non-rocky conditions.
  • Views  3.  We had nice views from Sky Meadows State Park and then some slightly obstructed field views on the second day.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There were only a couple very small streams on this section.  They were sufficient as a water source, but not that scenic.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw one deer on the second day, but that’s about it!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The White Blazes are frequent and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 2.  We saw relatively few people along the section.  We saw two people hunting small game in the wildlife management area.  There were two weekenders and one SOBO thru-hiker at the shelter.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  To get to Mountain Home, take exit 13 off I-66W to get on VA-55W.  Turn right on to VA-55W and follow it for 4.7 miles.  Turn left on to US-522S and go 3.5 miles until you turn on to Remount Avenue and reach Mountain Home.   To get to Ashby Gap from Mountain Home, head back on US-522 and now go north.  In 3.5 miles, take a right on to VA-55E and follow that back to I-66.  Head east on I-66 from 9.1 miles before taking exit 23/US-17N.  Turn left on 55-E and go .5 miles before turning left on US-17N.  Follow US-17N for 7.1 miles.  Turn left on to US-50W and go 1.1 miles.  Turn right on 601/Blue Ridge Mountain Road.  About 1 mile up the road, you will see a small gravel parking lot on the left to park.

Appalachian Trail – Jennings Creek to the James River

This 28.6 mile Appalachian Trail section is one of the toughest northbound sections in Virginia – you climb, and then you climb some more.   The first nine miles are essentially ‘green tunnel’.  The middle section has several great views.  And, the last part is an easy downhill coast to the James River.  We did this section over two nights – Adam will cover days one and three, and Christine will do day two.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Green Tunnel
The Appalachian Trail is sometimes called ‘The Green Tunnel’. Our first day of hiking was a good example of that nickname.  Below: Bryant Ridge Shelter is one of the nicest along the AT in Virginia; Adam reads the shelter log; The closest we came to a view on day one.

Bryant Ridge Shelter Bryant Ridge Shelter The Only View

Day One (8.7 miles)…

We started off our day by driving to the James River footbridge parking lot.  I had arranged a shuttle to pick us up at 10 a.m. and then drop us off at our starting point at Jennings Creek.  We enjoyed some breakfast at Cracker Barrel, but still arrived at the parking lot around 9:30 that morning.  There were a few people in the parking lot that were getting ready to start hikes or taking breaks.  One guy was hiking southbound to Roanoke and said he was looking for a ride to Glasgow so he could buy batteries to charge his phone.  I found some extra batteries for my GPS, so I handed them over to him and told him I hoped it got him a little closer to Roanoke.

As 10 a.m. came and went, I got a little nervous that our ride might not show.  I had some hope when a car pulled in to let off some thru-hikers, but it turned out not to be our ride.  by 10:20 a.m., I thought we needed to see if we could figure out what was going on.  There is absolutely no phone signal at the footbridge, so Christine waited in the lot while I drove until I could get a signal to make the call for the shuttle driver.  I ended up having to drive for several miles before I got one bar and ended up having to leave a message.  I turned around to get back to the parking lot and when I arrived, there was the shuttle driver with Christine.  Whew!  We loaded up our stuff and got on the road.  Turns out, he had written down 10:30 for the trip.  We were just glad we didn’t have to hitchhike or beg someone else to take us.

Our shuttle driver, Ken, was retired and spends most of his time during the spring, summer, and early fall taking care of AT hikers.  He helps shuttle people where they need to go and picks up packages for AT thru-hikers to deliver to them.  After talking with on the ride to our start point, we could tell that he is one of those true Trail Angels that just makes hiking the AT a bit easier for everyone.

Camping at Cornelius Creek Shelter
We arrived to Cornelius Creek Shelter around 4:00 p.m. — before the crowds started rolling in. We got a very nice site behind the shelter.  Below: Adam collected water from Cornelius Creek; Little Debbie Peanut Butter Creme Pies are a great dessert.  They don’t get crushed.  They’re soft and chewy. And they pack in 410 calories;  Enjoying downtime at camp.

Collecting Water Fire and Peanut Butter Cream Pies Clowning Around at Camp

It was probably about 11:15 when we finally started our hike.  The Jennings Creek area had lots of parking and it was a nice place to pick up the trail.  We headed northbound on the white-blazed AT, which started with a steep climb from the road.   After 1.6 miles, we had climbed 1000 feet and reached the top of Fork Mountain.  The trail then descends about 800 feet and we reached another stream past a powerline at 2.8 miles.   The trail continues along the stream for a while, giving you a great water source if you need it.  At 3.8 miles, we reached the Bryant Ridge shelter, which was a great spot to eat lunch.  We joined a couple of thru-hikers (one from Germany) at the shelter, who were eating a quick snack and filling up water from the stream.  The Bryant Ridge shelter was one of the nicer shelters and even had a high loft and a window that let in some nice sunlight.

After fueling up here, we had a big climb ahead of us.  From the shelter, the trail climbs up and up.  At 6.9 miles, we had climbed about 2000 feet from the shelter and reached a sign noting a small sidetrail on the left to a campsite.  We continued our climb and at 8.1 miles, reached the top of Floyd Mountain.  The trail from here began to descend and we reached the sign that pointed to Cornelius Creek Shelter at 8.7 miles.  This day there was nothing exceptional to see on the trail, but we were at least glad to be settling in at camp.

When we arrived at the shelter, we noticed the thru-hikers we had seen at the Bryant Ridge shelter were setting up in the shelter.  The trail behind the shelter that led to the privy had lots of campsites, but some of those were already taken.  It was only 4 p.m., but we felt we needed to stake our claim quickly so we set up camp in one of the remaining spots behind the shelter.  Within minutes, we already had others setting up other tents nearby.  We knew this was going to be a crowded night.  After we set up our tents, I went to go get water by the stream near the shelter.  There was a pileated woodpecker climbing up a tree just a few feet away from me.  I enjoyed having this moment with this often-skittish bird.  The woodpecker eventually flew off and I was joined by someone also filling water.  It turned out he was a JMU student who worked at our rec center and we had some mutual acquaintances.

When we got back to our campsite, we began to make dinner, read books, and started a small campfire.   Right around dusk, a large group of boy scouts arrived and there wasn’t much room.  The only place left around was right near us; we were worried how they would keep us up but they were very respectful and kept it relatively quiet.  As we overheard them talk, we heard they had a rough day.  They had driven up and got lost somewhere on the trail and while they had parked just half a mile away from the road, they had walked for miles trying to find this shelter.  They had rushed to set up camp and start to cook their dinner in the dark.  One scout named Max was hungry when they arrived and asked what they had for appetizers.  We got a laugh when we heard the scout leader tell him he could have a handful of unsalted nuts.  I guess Max learned that the backcountry isn’t Applebee’s. After the fire faded, we crawled into our tent and drifted off to sleep.

Day Two (12.2 miles)…

Sunlight started filtering into our tent a little before 6:00 a.m.  I unzipped my sleeping bag, stretched my legs, and changed from my camp clothes back into my hiking clothes. While Adam worked on packing up the tent and our sleeping gear, I made breakfast.  Typically, we eat oatmeal, a honeybun, and some cheese.  The goal for breakfast is always to eat lots of calories so we can hike for a while before needing a snack.  On this trip, we swapped out the oatmeal for granola with Nido.  Nido is a full-fat, enriched powdered milk found in most grocery stores’ Latino section. The Nido was fantastic – creamy, rich, and delicious with our maple-pecan granola.

After breakfast we were all geared up – backpacks on and ready to hike out – when suddenly I felt water running down the backs of my legs.  Crap!  At first I thought I had squished my Camelbak hose open, but it turned out to be a bit more serious.  Even though the ‘locked’ arrows on my Camelbak lid were properly aligned, I guess the threads were still uneven. As soon as the gear inside my pack pressed against the reservoir, water started leaking out.  All in all, a little over a liter of water gushed out into the bottom of my pack.

Adam took my Camelbak and the filter back down to the spring and refilled it while I worked on drying the spilled water.  My pillow, sleeping pad, and sheet were all pretty wet, but I was most concerned about my sleeping bag.  It was in a water-resistant compression sack.  It felt wet on the outside, but I didn’t want to take the time to unpack it to check the inside.  I guess my fate would be determined at camp that night! Within 10 minutes of the spill we were back on the trail.

View from Black Rock Overlook
Our first view came relatively early on Day 2. Black Rock Overlook was very nice. Below: Walking through tunnels of flowering rhododendron was very pleasant; Spiderwort along the trail; Adam approaches the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain.

Rhododendron Along the Trail Spiderwort Along the Trail Approaching the Summit of Apple Orchard Mountain

I was pretty grouchy about all the wet gear, so I walked quietly behind Adam ruminating on the impending case of hypothermia I would probably get from sleeping in wet down.  After a mile, we reached our first view of the day – a gorgeous vista from Black Rock Overlook.  The view is located on a spur trail a couple hundred feet off the AT.  After enjoying the mountainous view and taking a few photos, we headed down the trail.  The going was pretty gentle for a while.  We passed junctions with the Cornelius Creek and Apple Orchard Falls trails.  We hiked to the falls and along Cornelius Creek earlier in the spring.  It’s a great dayhike in this area.

After passing the junction with the Apple Orchard Fall Trail, we soon reached a gravel road at Parkers Gap. A flight of wooden stairs led uphill from the road.  At the top of the stairs, we found two coolers of ‘trail magic’ for thru-hikers.  One cooler had ice and bottled water and the other had a variety of snacks – fruit, cookies, and candy.  We left the treats behind and began the tough 1.5 mile climb to the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain.  On the open, grassy summit of Apple Orchard, we enjoyed more excellent views and a snack.  We were even joined by a small garter snake trying to warm in the sun. The FAA radar dome sitting atop the summit is huge and plastered with NO TRESPASSING signs.

Summit of Apple Orchard Mountain
It felt good to take our packs off and enjoy the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain.  Below: There are views from both sides of Apple Orchard; A snake in the grass; The FAA Radome atop Apple Orchard.

Apple Orchard Summit Views Snake in the Grass Apple Orchard Radome

About a third of a mile north of Apple Orchard, we passed under The Guillotine – a round boulder perfectly balanced and wedged between two rock faces.  Pretty neat!  The trail went through a short and steep rocky section before reaching a pretty, sunny meadow.  About a mile after the meadow, we popped out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

We crossed the road and picked up white blazes again. We enjoyed pleasant, easy trail for another third of a mile to the Thunder Hill Shelter.  We stopped in to rest and check out the shelter log.  After leaving the shelter, the trail continued gently along.  It was one of the prettiest parts of our hike – so many wildflowers!  My favorite bloom to spot was a large patch of yellow lady’s slippers covering a hillside.  They’re not as common as the pink ones, so it was a real treat to see so many at once. About 1.5 miles past the shelter, we reached the Thunder Ridge Overlook and decided it was a great spot to stop for lunch. Nearly 7 miles of hiking had burned off my breakfast and I was ravenous.

Adam Goes Under the Guillotine
Shortly after descending Apple Orchard Mountain, Adam passed under the Guillotine – an interesting rock formation along the trail.  Below: The descent from Apple Orchard was a bit rocky;  A pretty meadow after the Guillotine; Thunder Hill shelter.

Rocky Descent From Apple Orchard Pretty Meadow Thunder Hill Shelter

The viewpoint had a constructed stone platform and a superb view! Across the valley, we could even see the huge talus slope of the Devils Marbleyard – another popular dayhike in the area.  We got out our Alite chairs and food bags and settled in for a nice long break.  I had cashews, dried pineapple, a big handful of Sour Patch kids, and an asiago cheese bagel filled with cheddar cheese slices.  I felt so re-energized after I ate!  By this time, I had ceased thinking about wet gear and hypothermia and was just really enjoying my day.  While we were eating lunch, clouds moved in and a breeze picked up.  We ended up moving on sooner than planned because I actually got sort of chilled. Before we hiked on, we made a quick detour up to the parkway so we could throw all our garbage away in a real trashcan instead of continuing to carry it with us.  When you’re backpacking, always take advantage of trash cans!

View from Thunder Ridge
You can see Devils Marbleyard from the Thunder Ridge viewing platform. Below: The trail had a large patch of yellow lady’s slippers; The platform at Thunder Ridge gave us a nice place to eat lunch and take in the view; After Thunder Ridge, we had a long descent through green woods into Pettites Gap.

Yellow Lady's Slippers Lunch Spot Green Descent

The next 3.3 miles covered a huge descent with only a few tiny bumps of climbing.  It was fast going and we reached Pettites Gap around 2:00 p.m.  We knew we had one short but difficult climb ahead of us before reaching camp, so we took our packs off, leaned back against a huge old tree, and ate another snack.  We knew the last climb would feel pretty brutal – and it did not fall short of that expectation!

High Cock Knob was beautiful – covered with blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel.  But it was extremely steep and rocky.  It also had a false summit!  We got to the top of a tough climb and started descending and thought ‘Yay… we’re done!!!’, only to have an even steeper ascent staring us in the face a few hundred yards later.

The climb down High Cock was equally steep – covered with loose, treacherous rocks.  Several southbound hikers passed us coming the opposite direction. All of them asked ‘How much more climbing!?’  On the way down, Adam had an awful allergy attack.  His throat almost closed and he had a difficult time catching his breath.  It was pretty scary and he says he really doesn’t remember the last half mile of hiking. Fortunately, it mostly passed and his breathing eased.

View from High Cock Knob
There was one obstructed view from High Cock Knob — our toughest climb of the day.  Below: Entering the James River Face Wilderness; The Appalachian Trail leaving north from Pettites Gap; The trail over High Cock passed through dense rhododendron and mountain laurel.

Entering James River Wilderness Entering James River Wilderness Dense Rhododendron on High Cock Knob

Arriving at Marble Spring was like reaching an oasis in a desert!  The large grassy campsite had a huge fire pit with log seats, a spring-fed water source, and plenty of room for multiple tents.  We chose a secluded tent site uphill from the fire pit. I hung my sleeping bag on a branch to dry – it was a bit damp around the feet.  Everything else dried out over the course of the day in my pack. Hooray – hypothermia was no longer an issue. We collected water.  I napped in the tent while Adam read a book outside. Being at camp is the best! Around 6:00, I came out of the tent, ready to eat – again!  Dinner was lasagna with extra cheese and mocha pudding for dessert.

When we first got to camp, we were alone.  But, over the course of the afternoon, a group of four West Point grads out for the weekend and two thru-hikers arrived.  Compared to the dozens of people camped the night before at Cornelius Creek, sharing a large campsite with six people felt really quiet and solitary. One of thru-hikers climbed into his tent long before sundown and never came back out.  Everyone else (us, a thru-hiker named ‘Captain K’, and the four West Pointers) shared a campfire and conversation.  It was interesting to hear everyone’s assessment of the trail that day.  It was universally agreed that High Cock Knob was a tough way to end the day!  While we sat around the fire, a whitetail deer circled us like a vulture for over an hour.  Weird – maybe she wanted to the grassy area to graze? Eventually, the sun slipped behind the mountains, we ran out of firewood, and everyone headed off to their tents for the night.  It was a long, hard day of hiking, but it had been full of beautiful views, colorful wildflowers, and blooming trees.  One more day to go!

Marble Spring Campsite
Marble Spring Campsite was spacious and grassy with a nicely flowing spring. Below: Our comfortable campsite; A peek into our backcountry kitchen.

Camp 2 Our Backcountry Kitchen

Day Three (7.7 miles)…

We were woken up a little earlier than normal by the sound of a fox screaming and then an incessant whippoorwill that sang for about an hour straight at the first glimpse of sunlight.  We started off our third day with an earlier start than the previous day (also thanks to no leaking water bladders) and made our way from the Marble Spring campsite heading north again on the Appalachian Trail.  Captain K also was getting ready for his day of hiking and was hoping to get to town to get his resupply package.  We told him we would give him a ride to town if he was still at the parking lot.

Mountain Laurel
On our third day, we enjoyed abundant blooming mountain laurel along the trail.  Below: Mountain laurel; Catawba rhododendron; You can see the radome atop Apple Orchard mountain in the distance.

Mountain Laurel CloseUp Rhododendron Close Up A Distant View of the Apple Orchard Dome

Day two had been a tough, long day on the trail, so I was wondering if I had enough energy for the third day.  I was surprised to find that Day three was much easier.  A lot of that was because it was mostly downhill, but my muscles felt surprisingly ready to tackle the day.  Our moods were also boosted by how pretty the trail was.  While yesterday was a day filled with tons of rhododendron, today seemed to want to match it equally with mountain laurel along the trail.

The trail started off with a flat section.  At .5 miles, we reached a junction with the south side of the Sulphur Spring Trail.   At 2.3 miles, we reached the junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and at 2.8 miles, we reached the junction with the north side of the Sulphur Spring Trail (the Gunter Ridge trail is part of the Devils Marbleyard loop). The trail begins to descend more steeply at this point and we reached Big Cove Branch at 3.6 miles.  The trail continues to descend until you reach Matts Creek Shelter at 5.5 miles.

First View of the James
We started to see views of the James River through the trees. Below: Stream crossing; Nice views from the trail on day 3; Adam arriving at Matts Creek Shelter; Walking along Matts Creek; Cliffsides along the river; View of the footbridge from a distance.

Stream Crossing Nicest View on Day 3 Arriving at Matts Creek
Hiking Along Matts Creek Cliffs Along the James We can see the Foot Footbridge

The Matts Creek Shelter was fairly run down and from reading the entries in the trail log, the privy was scary as well.  We ate a quick snack here, but quickly moved on.  At 6.3 miles, the trail ran parallel to the James River, at time providing glimpses of this impressive river.  We started to see people kayaking in the river, people going out for a quick stroll on the AT, and a couple of trail runners.  We knew we were getting close to the end of our trip.  At 7.5 miles, we reached the James River footbridge.  At the footbridge was a family that had backpacked with a couple of kids.  One of the kids (about 11 in my approximation) had asked us how far we went and we told him.  He was impressed, since he had backpacked from Petites Gap (about a 10 mile trip).  I told him that I thought he could do it one day, since he still had a smile on his face after backpacking 10 miles.  I told Christine I think we just witnessed a kid that just found his love for backpacking.   We crossed the James River footbridge and made our way back to the car.

Crossing the James River Foot Bridge
We crossed the Foot Footbridge at the end of our hike. Below: Scarlet Flycatch wildflowers;  Footbridge from different angles.

Scarlet Flycatch James River Footbridge James River Footbridge

When we got to the parking lot, Captain K was there.  He said he had arranged someone to pick him up, so he was going to wait there for his ride.  Before we had left, we had filled up a cooler with ice, put in a few drinks, and hoped they would be a cool reward for when we were done.  I offered him a cold soda, which he gladly took.  The day was already getting quite warm, but we were able to escape into our air-conditioned car.  We drove to Lexington to eat lunch at Macado’s and then had a few beer samples at Devil’s Backbone to celebrate.

I’m so proud of how far we have come since Backpacking 101. We feel like we now have the confidence and ability to do multi-day trips with heavy packs.  Every backpacking trip we go on, there are new challenges, new things to learn, and adventure just around the corner.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 28.6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike* [Day One] [Day Two][Day Three])
  • Elevation Change – 8100 ft. (Several official sources calculated this elevation total, my less reliable hiking phone app put it closer to 6,000.)
  • Difficulty –  5.  We are not going to sugar coat it – this was a very tough section with lots of climbing.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was dry and not too rocky.  Stream crossings were small, shallow, and easy.
  • Views  4.  Views from Black Rock Overlook, Apple Orchard Mountain, and Thunder Ridge were all excellent but none were true 360 degree views.  We also enjoyed some nice views through the trees on the descent to the James River.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  Matts Creek was lovely.  And, of course you have to say something about the James River!
  • Wildlife – 4.  We saw deer, snakes, and had a whippoorwill and a screaming fox at night two’s camp.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Follow the white blazes and you practically can’t get lost.  The only thing slightly tricky was the big hairpin turn at Marble Spring.
  • Solitude – 2.  We chose to hike this section on Memorial Day weekend… with perfect weather… during the thru-hiker bubble.  While we didn’t see crowds on the trail, camping spots were very crowded.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  To drop off first car:  From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista.  Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s.  Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing.  To get to starting point for this section: Take a left out of the parking lot and go 5.6 miles on US-501N.  Take a left on to VA-130W and go 6.2 miles.  VA-130 ends here.  Take a left to go on to US-11/Lee Highway heading south and then take the exit for I-81S.  Go 1.7 miles and take a right across from the Exxon to stay on US-11S.  Go .4 miles and then merge on to I-81S.  Go 7 miles and take exit 168 to merge on to VA-614 toward Arcadia.  Turn left on to VA-614/Arcadia Rd.  Follow this as it becomes Jennings Creek Road.  At 4.7 miles, you will reach the parking area and where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road.  Head north to start your hike.

Appalachian Trail – Punchbowl Mountain to the James River

This 11-mile Appalachian Trail stretch had spectacular views of the valley and the James River!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

View From Bluff Mountain
Adam takes in the view from Bluff Mountain. Below: The pond at Punchbowl Mountain Shelter; The shelter itself has seen better days; The Ottie Cline Memorial – put it place for a child lost in the mountains in the late 1800s.

Pond at Punchbowl Shelter Punchbowl Shelter Ottie Cline Memorial

Christine Says…

When Adam and I first started hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, we focused on the trail through Shenandoah National Park.  The park is close to our home, making it easy for us to bring two cars for a shuttle.  We did short sections – most of our day hikes ranged from 6 to 8 miles.  We did a couple sections as overnights, covering 10-12 miles total over two days.  When we first started, those hikes really challenged me – but they also made me want more!

We’re now traveling further from home to complete sections, so we push to complete bigger miles to make the travel time more worthwhile.  We’ve also found friends and businesses to help us shuttle along the way.

We met Lynchburg friends, Dennis and Tina to do this AT section from Punchbowl Mountain down to the James River.  We’d never met them in person, but we’d chatted online about hiking and the Appalachian Trail for almost a year.  We were really thankful for their good company on this hike!

We met early Saturday morning at the Foot Footbridge across the James River.  ‘Foot Footbridge’ isn’t a typo.  The bridge is named after hiking enthusiast, Bill Foot, who worked tirelessly (while also fighting cancer) to see that the bridge was built.   It’s a beautiful and impressive bridge across the James River, and there is nothing else like it along the Appalachian Trail.

After Adam and I got acquainted with Dennis and Tina in the parking lot, we hopped in our car and made our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway to our start point – the Punchbowl Mountain Overlook.  We left off here last fall after completing a 17 mile section from Hog Camp Gap.

The morning began with our only significant climb of the day- about 1400 feet over two miles to the summit of Bluff Mountain.  About half a mile into our ascent, we detoured to visit the Punch Bowl Shelter. The shelter is a little bit run down and sits next to a murky, muddy, mosquito-haven of a pond.   The shelters to the north and south of Punch Bowl (Brown Mountain Creek and Johns Hollow) are both much nicer places to stay the night.

Dwarf Irises
The wildflower display was in full force when we hiked this section of trail.  We saw dwarf irises, pink lady’s slippers; native pinxter azaleas, wild geraniums, rhododendron, mountain laurel; wild bleeding hearts; scarlet flycatch (in the full album), and spiderwort (in the full album).  It was gorgeous!

Lady's Slipper Pinxter Azalea Wild Geranium
Catawba Rhododendron Mountain Laurel Wild Bleeding Hearts

After our short stop, we continued our climb to the spectacular open top of Bluff Mountain.  We were swarmed by no-see-ums and gnats, but we still enjoyed the (almost) 360 views and watching the morning fog burn off the valley.  The remains of a fire tower foundation still sit on the summit. Immediately upon leaving the summit, we stopped at the Ottie Cline Powell memorial.  The marker tells the sad tale of a little 4-year old boy lost in the mountains in 1891.

From there, we had four miles of gentle downhill or practically flat ridge walking.  It was delightful!  Wildflowers were blooming like crazy! The woods smelled fresh, green, and earthy.  Even though it was a warm, humid day, the cool mountain breezes made for perfect hiking weather.  Along the ridge, we passed junctions with a couple trails – Saltlog Gap and Saddle Gap. I’ve heard these trails are pretty overgrown and don’t know much about them.   From there, we enjoyed several great views along the ridge.  The views far exceeded my expectations for hike, and I really enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the James River.   About 7 miles into the hike, we passed the junction with the Little Rocky Row trail, and reached Fuller Rocks – another lovely view point.

After that view, we descended the mountain along 21 switchbacks.  At first the descent was pretty steep, but eventually it moderated and entered a stand of enormous old trees.  Dennis even took the time to hug a couple of them.

At 9.2 miles, we took the short side trail to visit Johns Hollow Shelter.  The camp is located in a peaceful, open spot in the woods.  The shelter is typical, but the tent area behind the shelter is especially nice.  There was lots of flat, grassy space to pitch

Hiking Along the Appalachian Trail
Walking along the trail lined with yellow flowers. Below: Everything was turning brilliant spring green,  Views from the ridge; Descending toward the James River.

Spring Along the Appalachian Trail Views from the Ridge Descending Along the AT

After leaving Johns Hollow, we hiked about another half mile in the woods before crossing a gravel forest road.  After the road, we quickly reached Rocky Row Run – a beautiful mountain stream that eventually feeds into the James.

The stream was very scenic and we all enjoyed the sound of the flowing water.  There were lots of blooming wildflowers and rhododendron along the creek.  We crossed a couple small wooden bridges along the way, before popping out on the side of Route 501.  From there, we crossed the highway and returned back to the Foot Bridge and parking area at 10.6 miles (11 if you include mileage from shelter visits).

We all decided to walk across the bridge to check out views of the James!  It was a beautiful view – especially looking back to all the distant rocky outcroppings we had stood upon earlier in the day. Standing on the bridge, my mind drifted to the next section south – wondering what it would be like and what challenges and gifts would lie ahead on the trail.

Dennis and Tina – thanks for hiking with us!  Can’t wait to meet up again.

Adam Says…

This section of the Appalachian Trail was one we had contemplated doing for a while.  We have covered now a section of contiguous miles that includes from this point up to Front Royal.  It is easier to say, “We have walked from Front Royal to the James River” than to say “We have walked from Front Royal to a place off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of the James River”.

As Christine mentioned, when traveling further away from home the next concern is wondering if we need to bring two cars or figuring out if we can get someone to help us shuttle.  It can be hard to find some friends that want to go trekking in the woods for over 10 miles.  So, we were very glad to meet Dennis and Tina.  They have done this section a number of times before but were willing to do it again with us.

This section was a surprise to us.  We hadn’t seen enough nice pictures from these  overlooks to know if it would be worthwhile to check.  But, we hiked on a very clear day that made the scenery gorgeous.

View of the James River
A nice view of the James River looking in the direction of Apple Orchard Mountain. Below: Dennis points out landmarks from above; This fallen was perfectly balanced across several other standing trees. It looked like the mast of a ship; Tree hugger!

Dennis Points Out Landmarks Balanced Tree Tree Hugger

After meeting up, we drove to our starting point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We met a few guys in the parking lot that were doing a multi-day backpack as well.  We crossed the parkway and headed up the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading southbound.  The beginning of the trail started a steep ascent.  It was already a warm, muggy day, so with the extra work of going uphill I got sweaty very early in the hike.  In .4 miles, we reached the side trail to the Punchbowl Shelter.  The side trail was mostly downhill to the shelter.  When we arrived, there was nobody staying there.  The shelter is in a nice shady spot, but we could tell the insects were swarming near the pond.  We checked out the trail log in the shelter and then made our way back up to the Appalachian Trail.

The trail continues to be mostly a steep climb until you reach the top of Bluff Mountain at 2.0 miles.  There were great views to the west from the trail.  The bugs were relentless (at least to me) from this open area, so while I would have liked to stay up there longer, I wanted to quickly get back into the woods and away from the bugs.  We saw a brilliant indigo bunting flying around the treetops from the overlook.  As soon as you get out of the clearing and back into the woods, you see the memorial for Ottie Cline Powell on the ground to the left.

Rocky Row Run
Lovely Rocky Row Run ran along the last mile of the trail. Below: Johns Hollow shelter has a large, grassy field suitable for pitching multiple tents; An interesting cliff face along the trail.

Johns Hollow Shelter Cliffside Along Trail

The trail then begins a steep, downward descent.  At 3.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Saltlog Gap Trail, but stay on the AT.  The trail mostly levels out as you walk along a ridge for a while.  At 4.6 miles, you reach a junction with the Saddle Gap Trail.  Staying on the AT, the trail begins to climb a more gradual ascent until you reach Big Rocky Row at 6.1 miles.  The views from this area were my favorite, as you got to see the James River below snaking through the landscape of mountains.

From here, the trail descends and you reach Little Rocky Row at 7.3 miles, also giving you nice views along the way as you walk down the ridge line. The rest of the hike is basically all downhill from this point until you reach the James River.  At 9.2 miles, we reached the a short side trail that took a very sharp turn to Johns Hollow Shelter.  We checked out this shelter and came across another two section hikers that were enjoying a week along the AT.  There was a nearby stream for replenishing water and a privy.  After eating a quick snack, we returned to join the AT again.

The trail again was mostly flat or downhill.  We crossed the stream at 9.4 miles and then crossed the gravel VA 812 road to continue on the AT.  As we were walking along, Dennis started talking about black snakes and within minutes we saw one directly on the trail as if he had summoned it.  The forest through this section had many larger trees along the way and then opened up to beautiful rhododendron plants that were aligning the stream on both sides.  It was such a serene setting.  At 10.3 miles, we reached the Lower Rocky Row Run bridge.  We crossed the run and then at 10.6 miles we were back at US 501.  We crossed the road which had the trail lead us right to the parking lot where we started.

We already plan to get back together sometime with Dennis and Tina for a backpack trip sometime in the near future.  It is always great to find like-minded people to experience the outdoors together!

The Mighty James
Our hike concluded on the northern side of the James River. Below: Kayakers on the river; The Appalachian Trail crosses the James on a long footbridge.

Kayakers on the James James River Footbridge

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 11 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2062 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.5.  11 miles is a little on the long side, but after climbing to the summit of Bluff Mountain early in the hike, the rest of the terrain is easy to moderate.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Consistently well-maintained trail.  Some parts of the trail are narrow along a steep hillside, but still easily passable.
  • Views  5.  Super views from Bluff Mountain, nice views along the ridge, and then amazing views of the James River.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  The final stretch of this hike follows pretty Rocky Row Run, and of course – you end at the James!
  • Wildlife – 1. We saw a black snake.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  Just keep following those white blazes south.  The trail is easy to follow and well-marked.
  • Solitude – 3.  We saw a fair number of hikers along the way, including quite a few northbound thru-hikers, but you never feel like the trail is crowded.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  To drop off first car:  From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista.  Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s.  Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing.  To get to your start point:  Leaving the parking lot, turn right on to US-501S.  Go .8 miles and continue straight to take VA-130 E.  Go 2.8 miles and then turn left on to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway and go 9.8 miles until you reach the small parking lot for Punchbowl Mountain where the Appalachian Trail crosses the parkway.  Cross the road and you will see the Appalachian Trail marker which has the trail leading uphill.

Appalachian Trail – Harpers Ferry to Bears Den Rocks

This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail section had some views and a ton of pleasant ridge walking!  We joined up with our friend, Kris, and tackled it on an unseasonably hot spring weekend.  Adam will cover day one and Christine will take over with day two!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Potomac River in Harpers Ferry
We crossed the Potomac River at the beginning of our hike out of Harpers Ferry.  Below: When we parked at Bears Den, we got to play with this adorable puppy while waiting for our shuttle driver; We had our official ATC section hiker photo made; It was Flip-Flop Kick Off when we visited; The ATC had vendors and information tents set up; Someone brought a hawk; Finally getting our hike underway!

Puppy at Bears Den ATC Photos Flip Flop Kickoff Day
Flip Flop Kick-Off Day Hawk En Route

Day One (12.3 miles)…

This section of the Appalachian Trail had us doing something we had not done before – arranging a shuttle.  We have covered most of the AT within an hour or two of where we live using our own two cars to shuttle. But as we hike further from home, self-shuttling has become inconvenient and costly.  If you are thinking of covering any sections of the AT, I would strongly recommend picking up the latest version of The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller (often referred as the AWOL Guide).   It’s a must-have for planning purposes.  Included in the book are elevation profiles, things to see along the trail, road junctions, as well as information on nearby towns, where to find the post office, grocery stores for resupplies, laundromats, hostels, and shuttle providers.  This book is updated yearly, so the information provided is very current and helpful.  Many thru-hikers carry these books along and they will often rip out pages of the AT once they have covered them, hopefully finishing the trek with nothing more than the binding.  I will admit that it felt a little odd to call a number of an individual that I found in a book to find a ride, but these shuttle providers are some of the unsung heroes of the trail, helping to make the logistics of the trip much easier along the way.  We worked out a pick up time and agreed on a price.

I arranged for our shuttle driver to meet us at Bears Den.  We got there early, so we were able to explore a bit before our shuttle arrived.  Bears Den is a hiker hostel, providing showers, lodging, and mail drops for long-distance AT hikers.  Day-use hikers pay $3 to park in the lot.  Bears Den looked like a stone cottage you would find in Europe.  The grounds were kept up nicely and we were excited that this would be the endpoint on the trip.  We met up with our shuttle driver, who took us on a scenic, horse-country drive to Harpers Ferry.  The shuttle driver used to be the manager of Bears Den, but now just lives nearby.  In addition to being a shuttle driver, he’s also a former thru-hiker (as many of these shuttle drivers are – after hiking, shuttling is one way they give back and keep in touch with the AT community.) On the ride, he told us about his favorite parts of the trail, what we would see, and even some tales about other shuttles he had provided.  He explained that he had gotten one call in the wee hours of the morning recently to pick up a hiker that had been bitten and sprayed by a rabid skunk.  Too say the least, these trail angels really go the extra mile for the hiking community.

Leaving Harpers Ferry
Leaving Harpers Ferry on a tree-lined path.  Below: Red columbine – a favorite wildflower; The climb out of Harpers Ferry is steep and has very few switchbacks; Leaving the National Park area.

Red Columbine Steep Climb Out of Harpers Ferry Leaving the National Park

We asked to be dropped off at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy & Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, WV.  Thru-hikers and section hikers typically stop by the ATC Visitor Center and have a photo taken in front of the building.  ATC staffers take a photo, assign you a hiker number, and have you write information about yourself on the border before adding it to a photo album.  You can go back years later and check out all the people that have made it this far along the trail.  Since this was the section that brought us through Harpers Ferry, it was time for us to have our photo done. Our trail names are “12th Man” (for my love of the Seattle Seahawks) and “Sugar Rush” (for Christine’s love of candy before tackling a big climb).  It was fun to finally be officially added to the hiker album.

We had looked in advance and had seen the ATC was having the Flip Flop Kick Off weekend event.  The hope was to have the hikers split their trip at this halfway point in WV to keep hikers from clustering together too much.  One example would be north-bounders going from Georgia to Maine to stop here at this midway point and then go up to Maine and hike back down to WV.  They had a cookout, vendors, games, and wildlife exhibits along the back lawn (throughout the weekend they were hosting pack shakedowns, talks, and bands).  When we walked through with our backpacks, we heard a few people getting excited that ‘hikers were coming’. I didn’t have the heart to tell them we were just out for the weekend, but based on how clean and fresh-smelling we were, I’m sure most of them could have guessed we weren’t out for the long haul.  We didn’t stay long at the event, since it was getting close to 11AM and we hadn’t even started our hike yet.

One of the volunteers pointed us to a blue-blazed trail that led to the Appalachian Trail.  On our way to meet the AT, we walked across the grounds of former Storer College, a historically black college that opened its doors as a school to educate freed slaves.  Open for 88 years, Storer’s funding was cut in 1955 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling came in to desegregate public schools.  The school was forced to close. The blue blazes continued down a series of steps and before we knew it we were on the Appalachian Trail.  We turned right to head south along the trail, heading downhill.  The trail came to a quick road crossing and then headed up to the large bridge along US-340 that crosses the Shenandoah River.  We walked along the roadside on the bridge with cars whizzing by, but the view off the side of the bridge was breathtaking.  This river is dotted with large and small boulders in the rapid-infused river, causing this to be a hotspot for kayakers.

So Many Redbuds
The woods were brilliantly colored with blooming redbuds. Below: Crossing powerlines gave us an open view; Taking a rest at Keys Gap on the VA/WV border; Christine does blister first-aid for Kris.

Crossing the Powerlines Resting at Keys Gap Blister Surgery

At the end of the bridge, the trail leads down stairs and goes under US-340 to the other side.  The trail then begins its steepest climb in this section as you ascend towards Loudoun Heights.  At 1.4 miles, you cross over WV 32 and at 2.0 miles, we reached the top of Loudoun Heights and a sign for the VA-WV border.  Take a right to stay on the Appalachian Trail.  The trail goes downhill and levels out for an easy walk and we had our lunch along the side of the trail.  At 4.4 miles, we came to some power lines, which created some open views to the side.  The trail begins to climb slowly.  At 5.9 miles, we arrived at Keys Gap parking lot and took a short break to fix a blister forming on Kris’ foot.  We crossed over WV 9 and continued our slow ascent.  At 8.9 miles, we reached the side trail that led to the David Lesser Memorial Shelter.  This shelter was a nice stop and there was even a swing to kick our feet up and enjoy a snack.  We were tempted to stay here for the evening, but decided to push onward.  At 9.4 miles, we reached a small side trail that led uphill a short distance to a view at Buzzard Rocks.

Signing the Shelter Log
Christine signs the shelter log at David Lesser. Below: David Lesser is a fantastic shelter with a covered dining area, sleeping shelter and porch swing; Buzzards Rock is about a half mile south of the shelter; Laurel Springs boardwalk.

Porch Swing Buzzard Rocks Laurel Spring Boardwalk

Getting back to the trail and pushing on, we came to the Laurel Springs boardwalk at 10.4 miles. This was a long stretch of planks to walk on, which protects the trail from getting too harmed during wetter times.  After the boardwalk, the trail continues to climb.  Around 12 miles, there is a small trail to the right which gives you the best views of the day.  At 12.1 miles, we reached the junction sign that pointed us to the Blackburn AT Center.  As we descended the steep trail, we became worried as we saw lots of tents along the hillside (most belonging to a large group of Boy Scouts), wondering if we would have a place to camp.  We found the last open site and set up our camp.

Campfire
We had a prime campsite on the ridge above the Blackburn Trail Center. Below: There was one nice view from the AT on the ridge just before the spur trail to the Blackburn Trail Center; Our little campsite; The Blackburn Trail Center was a welcome respite – cold sodas, clean well water, comfy chairs, and friendly people.

View Above Blackburn Trail Center Campsite Blackburn Trail Center

I struggled a lot this day.  About four weeks earlier, I had pulled a muscle in my back.  My doctor said it could take a few months to heal. I had been taking muscle relaxers and alternating ice and heat on my back for weeks. While I felt I could do this trip, I was dealing with a pinching pain with every step and it hurt even worse whenever I was going uphill.  This challenge took a lot out of me and by the end, I had enough and wasn’t enjoying myself.  Sometimes you just hit rock bottom.

Kris had told us a story about five miles into the trip about how after an extremely long bike ride how she had gone into a store and drank a soda and how great it tasted.  Well, that thought of a refreshing, cold soda lasted with me for the rest of the day.  After we set up camp, we walked steeply down to the Blackburn AT Center to get water.  We talked to the caretakers, Chris and Sandra, for a while and they pointed out where we could fill up our water from their well.   Sandra then went into her kitchen and said, “Can I get you a cold soda?”  I can only imagine what my face would have looked like at that moment, but I felt such euphoria.  The soda tasted like sweet ambrosia to me and their kindness had fully restored my faith in humanity.  The caretakers were so nice to us and great conversationalists.  They maintain a lot of the trails throughout this area also.  The Blackburn AT Center is definitely a place I would like to visit and possibly stay again.

We made our way back up to our campsite for the evening and cooked our meals.  We set up a small fire and talked until it got dark.  We retreated to our tents, sleeping under a full moon.  It was a tough day, but we made it.

Day Two (8.4 miles)…

I love the feeling of being naturally awoken by the rising sun and sound of singing birds.  When morning came on this trip, I peeked out the mesh of our tent door and saw the pinks, purples, and golds of dawn spreading across the valley below our campsite. It was gorgeous! The Boy Scouts camped nearby were starting to stir – lots of muffled voices and tent zippers unzipping.

Sunrise
Sunrise over the Blackburn Trail Center. Below: We decided to cook breakfast at the Trail Center instead of at our campsite; Oatmeal, coffee, cheese, honeybuns; Trillium on our way out of the Trail Center.

Breakfast Yum? Trillium

Adam, Kris, and I were all awake and out of our tents a little before 7:00.  I went and got our bear hang down and started deflating my sleeping pad and pillow. We collectively decided to pack everything up and take our stove and food bags down to the Blackburn Trail Center for a civilized breakfast.  The picnic table and comfortable seating were more inviting than sitting in the dirt near our fire pit.

Adam had oatmeal and a jumbo honeybun.  I had oatmeal, coffee, and cheese sticks.  Kris tried a Mountain House egg dish and declared it ‘odd and spongey’ – most of it ended up in the compost pile.  After finishing our meal, we said a regretful goodbye to Blackburn.  What a great place to camp for a night!

Hiking Along the AT
The first few miles of our morning were easy and pleasant ridge walking. Below: Negotiating a big blowdown; Now entering the roller coaster; Native azalea in bloom.

Blowdown Entering the Roller Coaster Pinxter Azalea

After the short, steep climb from the trail center back to the Appalachian Trail, the first few miles of hiking for the day were pleasant and fairly flat.  We made quick progress – enjoying abundant wildflowers and blooming trees.  We passed through Wilson Gap before reaching the northern end of the ‘Roller Coaster’ four miles into our hike for the day.  The Roller Coaster is 13.5 miles of steep, closely-spaced, rocky ups and downs. (we just did the northern portion of the roller coaster on this section… more to come on our next section south.)

A little over a half mile into the Roller Coaster we reached the spectacular viewpoint of Raven Rocks.  There were already plenty of dayhikers enjoying the view, but we found our own little spot to rest.  We all took our packs off and reclined on the rocks.  It was a beautiful spot with panoramic views.  We were lucky enough to visit when the native Pinxter azaleas were in bloom.

Ravens Rock
Adam takes in the spectacular view from Raven Rocks. Below: Kris rests in the shade; We saw a big black snake; The roller coaster is very rocky set of steep, closely spaced ups and downs.

Kris Rests Black Snake Roller Coaster Rocks

After leaving Raven Rocks, we had a steep rocky descent that led to a shallow stream crossing.  After the stream, there was another steep climb and another steep descent to another shallow stream.  I guess it’s called a roller coaster for good reason!  Ups and downs, followed by mores ups and downs. By the time we got to this part of the trail, the day had already become fairly hot and humid, and we all felt pretty tired on the climbs.  It’s always a little surprising how much tougher climbing can be in the direct sun and heat with a large pack.  The oddest part of this section was all the blood we saw on the trail.  For about 2-3 miles there were fresh droplets of blood on the ground every 5-6 feet.  I guess someone really had a bad day on the roller coaster!

At about 7.5 miles into our hike we descended to Snickers Gap.  We stepped out of the woods onto busy Route 7.  Cars were flying by at 55-65 mph.  We had to cross the road and then walk up the shoulder of the road until reaching the trail again.  When your legs are fatigued, it’s hard to run fast across a four lane highway.  It was like Frogger with backpacks!

Bears Den Rocks
One last view at the end of our hike. Below: The crossing of Rt. 7 at Snickers Gap is sketchy with lots of fast cars flying by; Smiles for our final big uphill;  The end of the line at Bears Den Hostel!

Snickers Gap Last Big Uphill We Survived

On the other side of Route 7 was our last climb of the day!  We walked uphill for another .6 miles to the rocky outcropping of Bears Den Rocks.  We spent some time relaxing and enjoying the view before walking a few more tenths of a mile to the Bears Den hostel where we had left our car parked.  We posed for a group victory photo in front of the hostel, took off our boots and packs, and sunk into the wonderful air-conditioning of the vehicle.

We were all starving, so we stopped for a quick lunch at the Horseshoe Curve Restaurant right out on Route 7.  The  restaurant had been advertised in our AWOL Guide and on the back of the trail information kiosk at the road crossing, so we decided to give it a go. Sandwiches, french fries, and cold drinks definitely hit the spot! Even though we were all filthy and tired, we also decided to make a stop at Veramar Vineyard to share some wine and toast our hike.  We got a bottle of their Seyval Blanc and found a few Adirondack chairs with a view of the ridge we had just traversed.

It was a great weekend for our first backpacking trip of the season.  Honestly, the more I backpack, the more I WANT to backpack!  I love being out on the trail!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 20.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
  • Elevation Change – 3882 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  The distance makes this tough, but overall is manageable.  
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in great shape.  We only came across one tree blowdown the entire trip.
  • Views  3.  The best views of the trip were from Bears Den rocks at the end of the trip.  
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There weren’t any streams and only one reliable water source on the first day (at the Blackburn AT Center).  The second day, there were several streams through the area of the Roller Coaster.  
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see much wildlife on this section.  There were lots of pretty songbirds at the Blackburn AT Center.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5.  Pay attention to signs for the AT.  It should be fairly easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 2.  We saw a good number of people throughout the trail, but most were where you would have expected them – the shelters, hiking a short distance from Harpers Ferry, and at Bears Den Rocks.  We also saw several trail runners on the Roller Coaster.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  To get to Bears Den to leave one car, from I-81, take exit 315 for VA-7 E toward Berryville.  Turn left on VA-7 E and go 17 miles.  Turn right on State Route 601 and go .4 miles.  A sign shows you are entering Bears Den.  Go to the second parking lot and leave a car there.  Be sure to pay for your day-use fee.
For the second vehicle:  
Head out of Bears Den and turn left on State Route 601.  In .4 miles, take a left on VA-7 W.  In about 4 miles, take a right on to State Route 612/Shepherds Mill Road.  Follow this for 4.3 miles until it ends at US 340.  Take a right here and continue to follow US 340 N for 14.6 miles through Charles Town and approaching Harpers Ferry.  At the Econo Lodge, take a left on to Union Street.  Follow that .4 miles and take a right on to Washington Street.  Follow that .2 miles to reach the ATC Center.  If someone is not dropping you off, you should ask inside where you could leave a car overnight, since there are parking restrictions near the center.