Rockytop – Big Run Loop

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Christine Says (Day 1)

We did this hike mid-week in September to celebrate my birthday! It was our only backpacking trip together in all of 2020. We did get out to car camp once earlier in the year, and I went backpacking in the fall with a girlfriend. But, overall 2020 was definitely the least I’ve hiked and backpacked in many, many years. The pandemic made traveling difficult and honestly… trails were so overcrowded with new hikers that it just wasn’t that enjoyable to hike most of the time.

View from Rockytop -looking toward Lewis Peak and Massanutten.
View from Rockytop – looking toward Lewis Peak and Massanutten.

We picked this area because it’s less visited than most other parts of the park, and we had never done this particular loop before. The trail was relatively easy until we passed the junction with the Lewis Mountain Trail. From there until we reached the Big Run basin, the trail was extremely rocky and overgrown. Parts of the trail are not really even trail – it’s just blazes and talus slopes.

The trail across one of many talus slopes.
The trail across one of many talus slopes.

The low foot traffic on this trail meant that tree limbs and undergrowth impeded our progress. My clothes kept catching on thorns and branches, and I had to stay on high alert for back-swinging branches that Adam passed first. Despite the challenging and rugged terrain, there were excellent views along the trail. I especially liked the long descent toward Big Run. Forest fires over recent years have left open vistas from the trail. It’s like walking on a balcony affixed to the side of a mountain; with continual views as you go.

The trail was very overgrown.
Overgrown Trail

We were both pretty tired of rocky footing by the time we got to the old road bed of the Big Run Portal. After crossing the metal bridge over Big Run, we explored an unmarked footpath paralleling the stream and found excellent campsites. The sites were clear and flat, and nicely distanced from the stream (backcountry regulations for Shenandoah dictate that you must be 10 yards from a stream.)

Our awesome tent site.
Our awesome tent site.

We set up camp. Adam got to try his UGQ quilt for the first time, and I got to test my Nemo Tensor pad. We collected water from the stream and found our Sawyer Squeeze completely clogged (probably leftover from silty water sources we used on our trip out west in 2019) We ended up having to treat our water with Aquamira. I always carry it as a backup in case my filter malfunctions. We had freeze-dried meals for dinner – sweet and sour chicken and risotto with chicken. They were both Backpackers Pantry, which I’ve decided is my least favorite brand of backpacking meal. For dessert, I had carefully packed two pieces of leftover birthday cake in a crush-proof container. Yum! We carried our small bear canister on this trip to save the hassle of doing a bear hang.

We played many rounds of Uno until the sun went down and then retired to the tent to read.

A great water source for camping and a nice place to sit after dinner.
A great water source for camping and a nice place to sit after dinner.

Turn-by-Turn for Day 1

  • Follow the AT north from the parking lot at Browns Gap (around MM 83 of Skyline Drive) for about .6 miles.
  • Look for the cement post marking the blue-blazed Big Run Trail, turn left.
  • Follow the Big Run Trail for .65 miles to a four-way intersection
  • Follow the trail straight onto the blue-blazed Rockytop Trail
  • Pass the junction of the Austin Mountain Trail in .4 miles (staying on Rockytop)
  • Pass the junction of the Lewis Mountain Trail in 1.8 miles (staying on Rockytop)
  • Follow the Rockytop Trail for another 3.5 miles, crossing many talus slopes with westward views showcasing Massanutten Mountain and Lewis Peak. The last two miles is a long (almost 1500′) descent into the Big Run basin.
  • At the bottom of the descent, turn right onto the yellow-blazed Big Run Portal Trail. It follows an old roadbed for about a half mile until you reach a large, sturdy metal bridge over Big Run.
  • Look for campsites after the bridge crossing – there are many and they’re all quite nice!

Adam Says (Day 2)

We had a good night of sleep and got up early to get breakfast started and continue our hike for the day. Rejoining the main Big Run Portal trail, we soon passed another large campsite to the right of the trail. The trail started off fairly flat as we were walking along the Big Run area. One difficult aspect about this section of the trail are all the water crossings.

One of many stream crossings you will encounter as the Big Run Portal Trail crosses over Big Run in several spots.

There were several water crossings that made it difficult to follow since it wasn’t very clear where the blazes were on the other side. In fact, on one stream crossing, we missed a blaze on the left on an “island” about halfway across the stream. Our map did not indicate the partial stream crossing. We went past this and fully crossed the stream, only to find no blazes. We bushwhacked and scouted around for about 20 minutes before going back across and then we saw the not-so-obvious blaze that we had missed the first time. This trail is really not a very popular trail, so foot traffic doesn’t create as obvious of a trail as you would see in more popular sections of the park. A few more trail blazes would definitely help navigate this Big Run Portal Trail.

More crossings and Big Run views along this section of the trail.

We continued along and passed the junctions with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail and Patterson Ridge Trail. When we reached the junction of the Big Run Portal and the Big Run Trail, we paused for a bit to gather some energy before the big climb up. This area used to have some established campsites, but these have been removed.

The climb up from here is brutal and relentless. Shortly after we started up this steep section of the Big Run Trail, a bear jumped off the trail and was booking it into the woods. The bear clearly had a lot more energy than we did and I’m sure my heavy-breathing up the trail had startled it. This uphill was quite a challenge for me, where my lack of hiking this year was showing. We paused for a bit at the four way junction.Taking a left here, we still had a little bit of climbing before getting back to the Appalachian Trail.

The climb up nearly broke Adam

Once we reached the AT junction, the trail was smooth and relatively flat or downhill until we reached our car. Overall, this backpacking trip was tough for an overnight trip. The terrain the first day was rough and overgrown and the second day was a feeling of worried we were lost, followed by an incredibly tough uphill climb. While we hadn’t done this loop before, I’m not sure if we would do it again due to the toughness. The campsite was the real bonus of the trip and we enjoyed the location and the times near the water. I would camp again at this spot, but I think there are better approach trails that aren’t as challenging.

Adam checks the map to make sure the climbing was finished at the top of the junction.

Turn-by-Turn for Day 2

  • Start out from camp, following the yellow-blazed Big Run Portal trail upstream. There will be many stream crossings. Pay close attention to blazes, they’re sometimes hard to find and the trail gets hard to follow at stream crossings
  • Pass a junction to the left with the Rocky Mountain Run Trail (staying on the Big Run Portal)
  • Soon after, pass the junction with the Patterson Ridge Trail, continue with several more stream crossings (staying on Big Run Portal). All told, you will remain on the Big Run Portal trail for about 4.5 miles.
  • Reach the junction of the Big Run Portal and Big Run trails. Take a right onto the Big Run Trail and climb steeply uphill for 1.2 miles. At the top of the climb, you will reach the 4-way junction you passed on Day 1.
  • At the junction, take a left and follow the Big Run trail for .65 miles back to the Appalachian Trail.
  • At the AT junction, take a right and follow the AT south back to your vehicle.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 14.3 miles (7.41 on Day 1, 6.89 on Day 2)
  • Elevation Change – 2881 ft. (1020′ on Day 1, 1861′ on Day 2)
  • Difficulty –  5.  This is a tough hike with rugged terrain, water crossings, and steep climbs.
  • Trail Conditions – 2. The trail was extremely overgrown on Day 1 (crossing Rockytop) and water crossings can be challenging on Day 2.
  • Views – 4.5. Excellent views from Rockytop summit and all along the descent to Big Run.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5. Truly beautiful, rugged Shenandoah stream scenery and some of the nicest campsites near water in the park.
  • Wildlife – 4. We saw some deer and a yearling bear.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2. The overgrowth made the trail difficult to follow at times. The water crossings on Day 2 were poorly marked.
  • Solitude – 4.5. We did this trail midweek during a stretch of perfect September weather. We only saw a couple people on Day 1 and nobody on Day 2.

Maps

Directions to trailhead:  The parking lot is Brown Gap along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

More Photos

Appalachian Trail and Creeper Trail – Holston River to Damascus

This 56-mile backpacking trip traverses some of Virginia’s very best Appalachian Trail scenery! There are panoramic vistas, windswept balds, meadows full of wildflowers, pretty streams, and even wild ponies. We were lucky enough to have six days of nearly perfect weather and not a single drop of rain!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Farm Fields
We hiked across an open pasture full of cattle. Below: Mt. Rogers Outfitters provided safe parking and shuttle service for our trip; Crossing the footbridge over the South Fork of the Holston River; Signing the log book as we begin our hike.

Mt. Rogers Outfitters Crossing the South Fork of the Holston River Kris and Adam sign the AT log

Day One – South Fork Holston River to Hurricane Creek Campground (9 miles) – Christine

Bright and early on Monday, May 20, we piled into our car and made the three and a half hour trip down to Damascus, Virginia. Town was busy with many thru-hikers still lingering after Trail Days (the huge, annual hiker festival and party hosted by the town.)  Knowing we had six days of oatmeal and trail mix ahead of us, we enjoyed a fresh lunch at Mojo’s Trailside Cafe. Their food is excellent and the place has such a cool hiker vibe. After eating, we drove over to Mt. Rogers Outfitters to meet our ride. Our shuttle driver turned out to be a local woodworking artist named Matthew Newman (he has a gallery in town.) He was right on time and the trip to our start point flew by as he shared stories about the area’s history and geology. The Appalachian Trail crossing of the South Fork of the Holston River is in the middle of nowhere – just a tiny one-car pullout along a lonesome back road.  We crawled out of his van, made sure we had all our stuff, and hit the trail. It was already 1:30 and we had nine miles to go before we reached our first camp stop.

We signed the wilderness-area logbook and crossed the wooden footbridge over the Holston River. We immediately started a gentle climb uphill through the woods. Eventually we reached a gravel road that paralleled a farm field. We climbed over a stile into a livestock pasture. The cows were completely indifferent to us, grazing and swinging their tails to swat flies away. The trail climbed  steadily across the open terrain. We had some nice views of mountains behind us, but the sun felt hot and strong. We were glad to get to the stile on the south end of the pasture and duck back into the shade. After leaving the pasture, we had almost four miles of non-stop climbing. It wasn’t terrible uphill, but it was steady. Kris and I took a detour and visited Trimpi Shelter about a mile into the climb. It was a cute shelter with a center aisle, indoor stone fireplace, and abundant flat space for tenting around the shelter. Even though it was only a bit after 2:00, there were already a few hikers stopped for the day.

Comer Creek Falls
Comer Creek Falls was small but pretty. Below: Blooming Catawba Rhododendron; Abundant ferns along the trail; The AT is like a ribbon through the woods.

Blooming Catawba Rhododendrons Walking along a ridgeline covered with ferns Appalachian Trail Green Tunnel

We climbed for another three miles. At the end of the ascent, we had a gorgeous, flat ridgewalk through lush fern. We trekked along until we reached the junction with a blue-blazed side trail that leads down to the forest service campground at Raccoon Branch. We stopped at the junction for a snack and gave Kris a chance to check on her feet. She was feeling a few hot spots in her new hiking boots and was dismayed to find several big blisters already forming just several miles into our hike! From there, we had a long meandering downhill to Dickey Gap. We passed lots of blooming flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons – and even a few early mountain laurels. We got to Dickey Gap a bit after 4:30. We chatted with a couple thru-hikers sitting in the shade under kiosk at the road crossing. They asked about the terrain headed north and indicated that they were going to try and make it to Marion (which was still 14 miles away!)  You really have to admire thru-hikers’ ability to crush big miles like that.

The trail sign on the other side of the road said we had about 2.5 miles to go to reach our first campsite of the trip.  About a mile later, we found ourselves at the base of Comer Creek Falls.  The bridge across the creek was partially sealed off with yellow hazard tape. A sign indicated that the bridge was closed and hikers should backtrack and follow the detour indicated on the map. Well… we were all tired, Kris’s blisters were excruciating, and Adam was having back spasms. We just wanted to get to camp. We made a joint judgment that the bridge looked sturdy enough and decided to cross it one by one. Clearly, since I’m now writing this post — we lived!  It really wasn’t all that dangerous. And, I guess sometimes you have to break the rules and live on the edge.

Camp Explosion at Hurricane Creek
It’s nice to have a private campsite with your own picnic table. Then you’re free to spill your food and gear out everywhere and take up the whole table. When you’re at a shelter with others, you have to be nice and share space. Below: The bath-house at Hurricane Creek; One of many beautiful campsites at the campground.

Bath House at Hurricane Creek Pretty Campsites at Hurricane Creek

A mile later, we found the spur trail down to Hurricane Creek Campground – one of the USFS campgrounds in the area. We had already paid for a site ahead of time, but found the entire campground pretty much empty. We easily could have claimed any of the walk-in, first-come-first-served sites. I chatted briefly with the campground host. He handed me a pamphlet and told me a bear had been opening car doors and stealing food. He recommended we store our food in the locked trunk of our vehicle.  Hmmm… I guess he didn’t really notice that we all showed up on foot!

One of the perks of staying at the campground instead of an AT shelter was the fact that the campground had hot showers. I don’t need a shower every day on the trail, but any time I can get one, it’s a nice morale boost. It feels good to be clean when I crawl into my sleeping bag at night. We made a campfire, cooked dinner, and did our best to dodge the thick clouds of mosquitoes swarming around. Adam wrote a hilarious rap tune for our section hike, and each night during the trip he added and performed a new verse about our adventures for the day. After discussing the bear issues in the area, we ended up storing our food inside the vault toilet building across from our campsite. The door to the bathroom latched securely and the campground was empty, so it seemed like the best option.  We ended up staying up until almost 10:00 – way past typical hiker midnight. Eventually, we headed to our tents and drifted off to sleep.

Download DAY ONE Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day One - Map Day One - Elevation

Day Two – Hurricane Creek Campground to Old Orchard Shelter (8.7 miles) – Adam

Green Tunnel
Day two was completely in the green tunnel – no views. If you look closely, you can see Adam making his way uphill.  Below: Hurricane Mountain Shelter; Taking a break from the heat and the strain of carrying packs; More trail scenery from the second day.

Hurricane Mountain Shelter Hikers Resting in a Shelter Green Tunnel

We started off day two from the campground, following the spur trail for about .7 mile back to the junction with the Appalachian Trail.  Most of the day consisted of  uphill climbing, but fortunately there were many water sources, so we didn’t have to carry a large (and heavy) amount of water.

About 1.5 miles into our walk, we passed through a beautiful section of trail surrounded by blooming rhododendron and azaleas. For a while, the trail was rolling and easy, but at the junction with the Hurricane Creek Trail, the trail took a turn steeply uphill along a wide, road-like section.  Around the 3.9 mile mark, we took the .1 mile side trail on the right that led us to Hurricane Mountain Shelter.  It was a nice place to eat a snack and stretch out our legs and backs (and tend to our feet).  After the shelter, we had just over a mile more of steep climbing to reach an area known as Chestnut Flats.  We had climbed about 1400 feet already; this wasn’t that bad over a long stretch, but there were some short steep sections along the way.  At this top bump, the AT also reaches a junction with the Iron Mountain trail.  We passed lots of hikers sitting trailside, using their phones.  This was one of the few spots on the hike that actually had cell reception. Lots of people were catching up with texts, calls, and social media. We also came across a thru-hiker that told us there was some great trail magic ahead. That is always a motivator to any backpacker – you want to move quickly so you don’t miss out.

Trail Magic
Trail Magic provided by Greybeard and Been There. Christine is eating a hot dog and Kris is using some of the first aid supplies to fix her feet. Below: The footbridge over Fox Creek; Our last climb of the day; Dropping packs at our selected campsite for the night.

Bridge Over Fox Creek Final Climb to Old Orchard Shelter Adam picks a campsite at Old Orchard

It was a steep downhill for the next mile and a half, but we soon reached Fox Creek, VA 603.  As soon as I crossed the road and parking lot, I saw a sign in the tree pointing to Trail Magic.  When I walked into the area, I was blown away by the setup. There were two guys, Greybeard and Been There, that had set up a large trail magic area. They said all hikers – thru and section – were welcome. They had grilled hot dogs, marinated chicken, a tub of fruit, homemade pie, cold sodas, and tons of snacks to take with you. They had a table filled with medical supplies for the taking and a handwashing station. They even had camp chairs (with backrests – a true luxury) and a campfire.  Greybeard has been setting up here for years on the week after Trail Days. He runs a GoFundMe page for contributions to buy all of the food and supplies.  Been There was helping out with cooking and making sure everyone was in good health and spirits.  It truly restores your faith in humanity to see people out there caring for other hikers and it was great to relax and talk trail with everyone there.  Greybeard left camp while we were there because he found a stuff sack of food that one of the thru-hikers had left behind.  He went further up the trail to leave it at a shelter the hiker would find – it would stink to leave days worth of food behind.  They also told us the previous night they had a bear come into camp. After not getting food near the tents and campfire, he ambled over to the nearby parking area and broke into a trailer.  Apparently, he made off with a full case of hot cocoa packets before moving on to steal feed from the horse camp across the road.

People of the Appalachian Trail
The nice people we shared a campfire with at Old Orchard. Below: Our lovely campsite under the shady tree canopy; Old Orchard Shelter; The privy at this shelter was huge and airy.

Tenting at Old Orchard Old Orchard Shelter Appalachian Trail Privy

While it was tempting to stay near the trail magic camp, we pressed forward to our planned stop.  We had another steep climb to reach our endpoint, but we felt renewed from our brief respite.  At 8.7 miles, we reached Old Orchard Shelter.  We were one of the first groups to arrive for the day, so we staked out a prime spot on in a flat grassy area – taking care to avoid the abundant poison ivy. Over the course of the evening, more than 20 people arrived and set up their own tent sites. The water source was a bit of a walk from the right side of the shelter, but was flowing nicely. We set up camp and then began to make some dinner – PackIt Gourmet Kickin’ Chicken Wraps.  There was an odd-acting person at the shelter, so we ended up having about 14 people come sit at our campfire. We joked that we felt like the “cool kids” since everyone came to hang out with us. You always meet interesting people on these hikes.  We met a Texas acupuncture doctor (who I discovered knew a mutual friend), a woman that was flying home to get married in just a few days, a woman from Germany out with a guide, a college professor hiking with her niece, and a couple of fire fighters from New York that drove down to do a section.  It’s crazy how so many different people can come together over a fire that all share a passion for hiking.  We had a great night talking with everyone and were excited about the next couple of days on the trail.

Download DAY TWO Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Two - Map Day Two - Elevation

Day Three – Old Orchard Shelter to Massie Gap (8.7 miles) – Christine

Adam climbs the Appalachian Trail leaving Old Orchard Shelter. Below: The gate at the top of Pine Mountain; Sunshine on Pine Mountain; Descending toward Scales Livestock Corral.

Fence on Pine Mountain Summit of Pine Mountain Walking on the Appalachian Trail

Our miles for the day started with a thousand foot climb to the summit of Pine Mountain. At the top of the mountain, we passed through a gate and followed the edge of a sunny meadow for a short distance before going through another gate where the trail went back into the woods. We descended through pretty forest for about a mile – there were pine roots, ferns, and abundant yellow flowers. As the trail leveled out, we found ourselves walking in a cloud.  The sunshine we’d had back at the top of Pine Mountain had given way to low clouds settling between mountains. Through the mist, we could see a small building on a hillside off in the distance.  At first I thought we were coming up on Wise Shelter, but I soon figured out the shelter was still miles away.  What I actually saw was the vault toilet building at Scales Livestock corral.  It has to be the most scenic privy in Virginia!

Adam hikes toward Scales Livestock Corral. Below: The prettiest pit toilet in Virginia; Fog on Stone Mountain; Flame Azalea.

Scales Livestock Corral Fog on Stone Mountain Blooming Flame Azaleas

After Scales, we had a short but steep uphill to the top of Stone Mountain – the four mile mark for our day. The long, pleasant ridge-walk should have offered beautiful views, but we were still socked in by heavy clouds. It was cold and windy along the summit walk. After a gradual descent of Stone Mountain, we entered Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. It was lovely and green. At 6.2 miles, we reached Big Wilson Creek and the junction with the horse trail. We crossed the stream on a wooden footbridge and went over another stile.  I was paying close attention to my footing as I crossed a rocky area.  Adam looked back at me from ahead and nonchalantly said, “Hey… I’m going to stop here and take photos of some ponies.”  PONIES! I thought he was kidding at first. I didn’t expect to see ponies until day four.  But sure enough… there was a band of six ponies grazing in marshland along the trail. Adam stepped slightly off trail to get a better view when suddenly a tiny black foal popped out of the deep grass.  He couldn’t have been more than a week old and he was beautiful!  The three of us all greatly enjoyed spending time watching these wonderful animals. The ponies eventually wandered deeper into the marsh, and we continued another .2 mile to Wise Shelter – our lunch stop for the day.

Our first Highlands ponies of the trip. We loved the tiny foal. Below: Little Wilson Creek Wilderness; Watching the rocky footing right before seeing ponies; What a gorgeous pony; Wise Shelter – our lunch stop.

Little Wilson Creek Wilderness Rocky Footing Over a Marshy Area
Ponies of Wilburn Ridge Wise Shelter

We decided to take a long break and enjoy a hot lunch.  We had some extra food to use up since we had a trail magic lunch the day before. Kris made a salmon pesto meal and Adam and I shared a package of Good To Go Mushroom Risotto (one of our favorites!).  We had delightful lunch companions – two women from Sweden, a man from Kentucky, and a British guy – all thru-hikers. After they hiked on, we were joined by a man who was less-than-pleasant company, so we packed up and made our way into Grayson Highlands State Park.  The park’s boundary is just south of the shelter.

From the shelter, we just had about 1.5 miles of climbing to reach the spur trail to the parking area at Massie Gap – our end point for day three.  That 1.5 miles was incredibly scenic.  The area is covered with only low shrubs and small pine trees, so the views are open in every direction. There are rock formations, wide meadows, ponies grazing, and (if you’re lucky like we were) blooming rhododendrons.  We took tons of photos, watched ponies frolic, and enjoyed the magnificent views. It was everything we hoped the trip would be!

Approaching Grayson Highlands. Below: Adam is on top of the world; Blooming rhododendron; More beautiful ponies.

Grayson Highlands State Park Views Catawba Rhododendron Grayson Highlands Ponies

Around 2:30, we made our way down to Massie Gap where we were meeting the owner of the Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn. We had called him from the junction of the AT and the spur trail down to parking.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, Dennis came along in a truck and whisked us away for a night of hiker-luxury. We had reserved the inn suite for the three of us. We also sent a resupply box with food for the second half of our trip. Carrying a full week of food is very heavy (backpackers typically carry 1 – 1.5 pounds of food per day), so it’s a treat to be able to resupply every 3-4 days. At the inn, we enjoyed pizza, beer/wine, and ice cream! Our suite had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and even a washer/dryer.  We were all able to shower and wash our sweaty clothes.  We spent most of the evening relaxing and repacking our bear canisters. It was nice to sleep in a queen size bed – so spacious compared to the floor space in our tiny tent! I would highly recommend the Grayson Highlands General Store for anyone who wants a night off-trail in the area. The accommodations are simple, but they’re very clean, affordable, and comfortable. Also, the staff at the inn takes great care of hikers! We really enjoyed our stay.

Waiting for our shuttle Below: Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn; Great hiker supplies; Cheers with a Wolf Hills ‘White Blaze Honey Cream Ale’!

Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn Hiker Resupply at Grayson Highlands General Store White Blaze Honey Cream Ale Cheers!

Download DAY THREE Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Three - Map Day Three - Elevation

Day Four – Massie Gap to Whitetop (10 miles) – Adam

Day four was the highlight of the entire trip.  It turned out to be the toughest day physically, but everything we saw helped make the pain bearable.  We started off our morning with breakfast at the inn. Kris and I had french toast with bacon and Christine had a grilled bacon and cheese sandwich. We also got some deli sandwiches to pack for lunch on the trail.  Dennis, the inn’s owner, gave us a shuttle ride back to Massie Gap parking. We had about a mile walk back up to where we rejoined the Appalachian Trail.

Grayson Highlands
We started day four of our hike in Grayson Highlands State Park. Below: Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park; The rocky trail through Grayson Highlands; Storm clouds and windswept terrain.

Massie Gap Rocky AT Terrain Rocky AT Terrain

We took a left and headed south on the AT. The climb was steep and slow going at the beginning, but we were soon greeted with expansive views all around. It was quite easy to just say that you were stopping to take photos when you really needed to catch your breath. The terrain was relentlessly rocky and rugged. The clouds that were hanging above the mountains added to the visual drama. We thought we were going to get stormed on, but luckily the rain held off all day. The one thing that amazes me about this area is how fitting the word “Highlands” is to describe the terrain  – in this area you may feel like you are walking in Scottish Highlands.

Gorgeous Grayson Highlands
The Grayson Highlands are like no other place in Virginia. Below: Kris scales a steep rocky section; Christine scrambles along the trail; The Fat Man Squeeze.

Tough Virginia AT Terrain Tough Virginia AT Terrain Fat Man Squeeze on the AT

At about the 1.5 mile mark, we reached the southern edge of Grayson Highlands State Park, marked by a turnstile to an open field. From here we went back onto national forest land. The trail climbs up steeply and we reached a spot called ‘Fatman Squeeze’ at 2.2 miles.  It is an interesting rock formation that you can climb through. It wasn’t that much of a squeeze, but if you don’t want to risk humiliation or don’t like the claustrophobic feel there is a path that loops around the feature.

After the Squeeze, we reached Wilburn Ridge at 2.5 miles.  As we crossed over the bump, we spotted another band of ponies lounging next to the trail.  While they call these “wild” ponies, they are accustomed to people and may try to grab some food from an unattended backpack. The ponies all have such interesting markings and we talked about which one was our favorite. The trail had another short uphill bump before we came to Rhododendron Gap and a junction with the Pine Mountain Trail.  On the ground, someone had arranged rocks into “500” noting the 500 mile mark of the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers. There is another bit of fairly easy walking on this ridgeline – and the views keep coming if you’re lucky to visit on a clear day.

Getting Close the the Crest Zone on the AT
This area is known as the crest zone. The views are open and the ponies like to hang out in this area. Below: PONIES, PONIES, PONIES!

Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies
Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies

At 4 miles, we reached the Thomas Knob shelter.  As I approached the shelter, I paused to take a photo and startled a retired police officer eating lunch there. Just a minute before I arrived, a bear had come right up to the shelter where she was sitting. She thought I was the returning bear. We stopped to eat lunch and heard more from the woman about the bear. The shelter log said that at night, gleaming bear eyes can be seen in the nearby trees, watching the open shelter.

Adam hiking toward Mt. Rogers on the AT
Adam hiking in one of Virginia’s most scenic places. Below: The crest zone is the open area all along the ridge leading to Mt. Rogers; Christine enjoys the majestic views; Thomas Knob Shelter.

Kris tackling rocky AT terrain What a great Appalachian Trail View Thomas Knob Shelter

The area has been extremely problematic for aggressive bears over the last couple years.  In 2018, several miles of AT in this area were closed to camping after tents were shredded and over 70 hikers’ food bags were taken by a bear. Now, there are bear lockers installed near the shelter, so be sure to store food and other ‘smellables’ securely if you decide to stay near Thomas Knob. Despite the addition of bear lockers, some hikers are still continuing to sleep with food in their tents and in the shelter, so bear problems have persisted into the 2019 season. After lunch, we continued on and just a short distance along the trail we reached a junction with a spur trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Rogers (we wrote about this in another post – no views but something worth doing if you want to bag the highest peak in Virginia).

Leaving Mt. Rogers Area
It was sad to leave the beautiful Mt. Rogers and Grayson Highlands. Below: This spur trail leads to the summit of Mt. Rogers – Virginia’s highest peak; As you descend from the Highlands, the forest changes quickly to pines; The descent from the crest zone was very rocky.

Spur trail to Mt. Rogers Changing Terrain Changing Terrain

After the Mt. Rogers junction, the trail descends steeply over rocky terrain until you reach Deep Gap at 6 miles. We saw dozens and dozens of northbound thruhikers coming the opposite direction as we descended from Grayson Highlands. More than a few mentioned that they were not enjoying the big climb and asked if the scenery ahead was as amazing as reputed. We assured everyone that the big climb was totally worth the payoff at the summit.

We took off our packs for a break, but we knew we still had more miles to cover.  Continuing on, we kept descending and reached the beautiful mustard fields of Elk Garden.  It was hot in the open sun.  We crossed VA 600 at 8 miles and ran into a grandfather that was hoping to meet his thru-hiking granddaughter along the trail. We hadn’t seen her yet (we would the next day), but we rested again for a bit as we reentered the woods.

Elk Garden
Elk Garden was a meadow of golden flowers. Below: Christine and Adam pose for a photo in the meadow; The climb up Whitetop Mountain; The last uphill of the day.

My favorite hiking companion Climbing Whitetop Climbing Whitetop

The day had already been tough and we had a big climb ahead of us. We debated stopping there for the night, but decided to camp where we had originally planned.  We summoned what little strength we had left and pressed on to the end.  We had 2.4 miles of an uphill climb to make it to the end of our day and it was all fairly steep.  We hiked separately, setting our own paces, with Christine in the lead.

When we got to the high point on Whitetop Mountain, almost all the campsites had been taken, but Christine managed to grab the last decent one when she arrived.  It was probably the worst of the campsites that we had for the trip, but it was still fine. Lots of other hikers ended up squeezed into tilted rocky sites that couldn’t have been comfortable.

Sunset on the Appalachian Trail
This soft glowy light was a true reward at the end of the day. Below: This sign made us all thankful because we knew the climb was ending; Kris filtering water at camp; More beautiful evening scenery.

Thank God That Climb is Over Filtering Water Sunset on the AT

Water was quite a distance from camp, but on our way to the source we enjoyed great views along an open ridge.  The water source was a piped spring that came out of the mountainside. It gushed ice cold water and might be one of the nicest water sources we’ve ever seen. Christine and I both doused our heads and splashed our faces and rinsed away a lot of the day’s salty sweat. We made PackIt Gourmet All American Cheeseburger Wraps for dinner – maybe our new favorite backpacking meal.  They were delicious!  After brushing our teeth and finding a good place to wedge our bear canisters, we watched sunset from the open ridge, and then went to bed before 9:00.  We were all exhausted. It had been an amazing, but tiring, day.

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Day Five – Whitetop to the Virginia Creeper Junction (8.5 miles) – Christine

Day five dawned with our high-elevation campsite blanketed in fog. We hoped enough of the mist would lift to allow us to enjoy the views from Buzzard Rock, but with only a mile to cover, we were at the vista about twenty minutes after hiking out of camp.  At the viewpoint, we found ourselves still standing in the middle of a cloud. Luckily, we could still make out faint views of the valley below.  Even veiled, Buzzard Rock is a gorgeous spot – and also our last opportunity to enjoy the highlands on this trip.  Shortly after the viewpoint, the trail takes a steady 3.8 mile downhill drop from 5,080′ all the way down to 3,160′. At the beginning of the descent, we saw the fading final red trillium of spring and at the bottom of the descent, we saw abundant pink lady’s slippers. The drop in elevation let us see both early and later bloomers on the same day!

Hiking Toward Buzzard Rock
Adam climbs through the fog to Buzzard Rock. Below: Buzzard Rock outcropping, Faint views into the valley below; Adam and Kris leave the Virginia high country for lower altitudes.

Buzzard Rock Buzzard Rock Descending from Buzzard Rock

At the bottom of the descent, we crossed Route 58 and made our way back uphill for a mile to reach Lost Mountain Shelter. The lower elevation brought on the extra heat and humidity.  Paired with the exertion of climbing, we were all pretty hot and tired when we arrived at the shelter for lunch.  The area was crowded with a crew of volunteer maintainers from the local trail club and about ten thru-hikers in for a mid-day break. The trail club kindly carried out everyone’s garbage!  It’s such a small thing, but to have a day hiker offer to take your trash out is true trail magic! We collected water and decided to make our PackIt Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. It’s a really delicious meal, but I think everyone was too hot to really be hungry. We couldn’t finish everything, so we passed our leftovers on to a thru-hiker from Colorado.

Leaving the Virginia Highlands
The terrain and trees changed vastly over the course of the day. Below: Lush green forest; A fading red trillium near the top of the day; Pink lady’s slippers near the low point of the day; Lost Mountain shelter; Descending toward camp; The trail followed a pretty stream at the end of the day.

Leaving the Virginia Highlands Dying Red Trillium Pinks Lady's Slippers
Lost Mountain Shelter Last Downhill of the Day Reaching Laurel Creek

After lunch, we had a tiny bit more uphill climbing before the trail switchbacked downhill for 1.8 miles to its junction with the Virginia Creeper Trail. The Creeper is and old railroad grade converted to a multi-use trail. It’s most heavily used by bikers, but also by equestrians, hikers, runners, and even the occasional dog-sledder in the winter! Kris was about fifteen minutes behind us, so Adam and I sat on the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge and waited for her to catch up. While we waited, we noticed that there were several really nice streamside campsites under the bridge.

When Kris caught up, we had a team meeting and decided to camp under the bridge instead of hiking another 2.3 (mostly uphill) miles to our planned campsite. We were all hot and tired, and the campsite ahead sounded not-so-great (stagnant, mosquito-laden pond nearby) according to accounts in our Guthooks AT App. We set up camp, waded in the stream, played cards, and had a relaxing evening at camp. We even met a couple guys fishing nearby, and they kindly shared a couple cold beers with us.

Luther Hassinger Bridge
The Luther Hassinger Bridge is where the AT and Virginia Creeper meet and share course for a while. Below: Our campsite for night five; Our water source was a lovely stream; We used the trestle bridge to bear hang a bag of garbage.

Our Bridge Camp The Stream Bear Hang on a Bridge

Over dinner, we discussed altering our plan for days six and seven.  We tossed around the idea of finishing in one day instead of two and following the Creeper Trail instead of the AT.  We agreed to sleep on the plan and make a decision in the morning. It was really a fantastic campsite and everyone slept so well with the sound of rushing water nearby.

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Day Six – Virginia Creeper Junction to Damascus (11 miles) – Adam

We woke up early and discussed our plan for the day.  Kris’ feet were in pain and we knew the elevation gain and rough terrain were going to be hard on her blisters. The initial thought was that I would stay on the AT, while Christine and Kris would walk back along the Creeper Trail, but meet up along a spur between the two trails to camp together.  After looking at our AWOL guide and the Guthooks app, there was no solid information on how the spur trail would connect or how far it would be. I ultimately made the call to stick together and finish in one day via the Creeper Trail back to Damascus. I am probably more of an AT purest and want to hit every blaze, but Christine was fine just getting to Damascus another way. But, she promised to come back together and do the AT miles to appease my desire to see every white blaze.  Sticking together was definitely the best call for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.

Day Six on the Virginia Creeper
We started the final day of our trip on both the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Below: Adam crosses the Hassinger bridge; A beautiful cascade on Whitetop Laurel Creek; Easy terrain on the Virginia Creeper Trail.

Luther Hassinger Bridge Whitetop Laurel Creek Virginia Creeper Trail

The AT parallels the Creeper Trail for a good portion, but it is much higher in elevation and there aren’t really any easy access points between the two trails.  Going back the way of the Creeper Trail also meant that the entire hike was either flat or downhill and the footing for trail conditions was much easier on injured feet (the AT section would have added about 1800 feet of climbing and a couple more miles).

We packed up camp and were on our way.  We crossed the Hassinger bridge, where the AT and Creeper begin to share trail for about .7 miles until the AT takes a hard right up the mountainside.  We stayed on the Creeper Trail, crossing 21 trestle bridges and enjoying gorgeous stream scenery along the way. When we biked this section many years ago, it was raining which forced us to rush along the trail, so it was nice to take in the sights at a leisurely pace.  Much of the Creeper Trail follows Whitetop Laurel Creek – one of Virginia’s largest and most pristine trout streams.

There were a good number of bikers out for the Memorial Day weekend, so we got used to hearing “ON THE LEFT” as they sped past.  A few cyclists paused and gawked at us carrying our gear.  For some of these casual family bikers I guess we seemed like hardcore professional athletes. People randomly applauded and one woman said she was ‘in awe of us.’ It was funny!

People Fishing Along the Virginia Creeper
Whitetop Laurel Creek is one of the best trout streams in Virginia. Below: One of the many bridges over the stream; Crossing open farmland; Rock walls along the stream.

Bridges on the VCT Open Farm Fields on the Virginia Creeper Pretty Stream Scenery

Overall the Creeper Trail is fairly shady, but we also passed by farm houses and through wide pastures. The sun was quite hot in open areas. After finishing a long sunny stretch, we stopped in the shade along a roadside. A father and son were fishing nearby. When they saw us, they offered us a cold Mountain Dews and homemade cookies from their truck.  We never stop being amazed by the kindness of strangers.  We eventually managed to motivate ourselves to get back up and shoulder our heavy packs.

As we drew closer to town, there were billboards on the side of the trail advertising places to eat and drink in Damascus – they helped motivate us to finish.  We ended up crossing US-58 on the outskirts of Damascus. The Appalachian Trail comes down a steep set of stairs on the right and rejoins the Creeper Trail again as it passes through town.  We finished our hike walking alongside the road in the blazing sun. Kris had a near brush with danger as a kid on a bike carelessly ran her off the side of the trail.  That was a real issue near the congested town section, since many bikers may not be as well-trained on etiquette or skilled enough to avoid others.  We talked to another couple that had been hit twice by inexperienced cyclists on their run.

Back in Damascus
After eleven miles of hiking we made it back to Damascus. Below: Blooming mountain laurel along the trail; Billboards advertising food and drink along the trail; The Appalachian Trail rejoins the Creeper Trail just north of town; Our lunch stop and hike’s end… cheers!

Mountain Laurel Along the Virginia Creeper Billboards Along the Bike Trail
Appalachian Trail Rejoins the Creeper Wicked Winghouse

We made it back into town and ate at Wicked Chicken Winghouse & Tavern.  There was a guy outside singing and playing guitar and a ton of people enjoying the music, food, and ice cream.  We ate inside the air-conditioned restaurant and had some great wings and beers from Damascus Brewery.  When we were finished eating, I walked a few tenths of a mile back into town (following the Creeper Trail further into town and then going down Shady Ave to get back to Mount Rogers Outfitters) to pick up our car. Christine and Kris stayed at the restaurant and finished their beers before I picked them up.  Before we headed home, we stopped and got some souvenirs from Sun Dog Outfitter.

We had an amazing trip and shared a lot of good memories together while covering a bunch of miles.  Everything isn’t always easy when you do a longer section of trail like this, but we felt very accomplished and glad to have each other to help us get through.

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Trail Notes

  • Distance – 56 miles
  • Elevation Change – 11,095 ft. (daily gain is included on each profile download)
  • Difficulty – 3. Most of the terrain is moderate and uncomplicated.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was clear and easy to follow.  Bridges and footing were mostly in passable condition.  The bridge at Comer Creek Falls was technically closed when we hiked. We had one tough blowdown to negotiate in Little Wilson Creek Wilderness.
  • Views – 5. We had spectacular views on three of the six days of the trip.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4. There were many beautiful cascading streams along the route. Comer Creek Falls was small, but lovely.
  • Wildlife – 5. High chances of seeing bears along this section. Even though the ponies aren’t technically wild, we count them as wildlife.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.  The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 0. This is a very popular section of Appalachian Trail.  We maximized crowds by 1)Joining the thru-hiker bubble 2) Starting the day Trail Days ended 3) Hiking over a holiday weekend.  If you choose a different time of year, you might have significantly more solitude.

Directions to trailhead: We left a car in Damascus at Mt. Rogers Outfitters. We used their shuttle service to drop us off at the Appalachian Trail Crossing at the South Fork of the Holston River. GPS coordinates for our start point are: 36.7631, -81.4939.

Appalachian Trail – Kimberling Creek to Narrows

We did this 27-mile Appalachian Trail section over three days at the tail end of summer 2017. The trail was beautiful and quiet with lots of interesting things to see along the way. We camped one night and spent the other luxuriating at Woods Hole Hostel. This may have been one of Christine’s favorite sections yet!

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Adam Says: Day One – Kimberling Creek to Waipiti Shelter (8.6 miles)

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Kimberling Creek at VA606
Kimberling Creek is beautiful, but not safe to drink from. There is a lot of cattle farming along the stream. Below: Some rocky slopes along the trail; The spur trail to Dismal Falls is well worth the detour; Shallow pools and flat rocks leading up to the falls.

AT Near Kimberling Creek Dismal Falls Spur Trail Dismal Falls

We decided to celebrate Christine’s birthday by completing a section of the Appalachian Trail over a few days.  I had a couple of surprises for her along the way which hopefully made it an even better trip for her. I arranged a shuttle driver to meet us at a parking lot off Narrows Road near Pearisburg, VA. We loaded up and he drove us on some beautiful back roads until we got to our dropoff point at Kimberling Creek.  There was a small parking lot here and a suspension bridge that spanned the creek. We took a few pictures, crossed the road, and then started our trip north on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail on a two day trip back to our car. The trail started off with a bit of a steep climb, which is always a quick reminder of the weight you decided to pack in your backpack.

Adam Sits Atop Dismal Falls
The water level was very low, but Dismal Falls was still beautiful. Below: Another angle on the falls; This area has tons of rhododendron tunnels; Walking through beautiful open forest.

Dismal Falls Rhodie Tunnel Appalachian Trail

The climb was short-lived and after about a mile, the trail started to slope back downhill.  At 1.8 miles, we reached a side trail that showed that Dismal Falls was just .3 miles away.  Since it was early in the day, we decided to check it out and we were so glad we did.  Dismal Falls was one of the more picturesque waterfalls I have seen and the setting just invites you to waste some time there. Even with low amounts of water falling, it is a great swimming hole area with great places to perch above and watch the water.  We ate some snacks, explored the nearby area, and took many pictures before deciding to head on. While we were there, we only had a few other people that came by and they all approached it from the roadside that we could see in the distance behind the waterfall.  We were glad we put the effort to see such a beautiful place.  We grabbed our stuff and then headed back to rejoin the AT, bringing our mileage to 2.4 miles.

ond Along the Appalachian Trail
This pond was a scenic spot along the trail. Below: While the trail was very dry when we hiked, this stretch has lots of bridges and planks to cross wet areas; The Waipiti Shelter used to be along this fire road. It was demolished after a couple hikers were murdered. A new shelter was built a little ways north; More beautiful forest.

Lots of Bridges Fire Road 

Continuing on, most of the hiking for this day was rather pleasant – there was a slight uphill climb but overall was not too tough.  There were lots of footbridges and water crossings along the way, so this was not a day where we felt like we needed to carry much water since we weren’t terribly far from a water source.  Eventually, we hiked next to a large, scenic pond that joined up to a dirt road at about 8.4 miles.  From here, it was just a couple of tenths of a mile to our first stop on our trip, Wapiti Shelter.

Waipiti Shelter
Our camp stop for the first night was the Waipiti Shelter. Below: The turn-off from the AT; Lots of entries in the log make mention of murders and hauntings, but this is not where the crime happened; Our tent site behind the shelter.

Turn off Log Book Tent Site Behind the Shelter

Wapiti Shelter has some dark history to it. Christine had already heard the story before, but she waited to tell me about it until we got there. The old Wapiti shelter was the place where a couple of murders had taken place in 1981. A man named Randall Lee Smith befriended a couple of hikers and then murdered them in their sleeping bags that night. Smith was captured and imprisoned, and then met parole to be released in 1996.  In 2008, Smith returned just a few miles away and tried to kill two fisherman but wrecked his truck in the getaway and died from the injuries he sustained when he was taken to prison.  If you want to read more about this story, check it out here.  Keep in mind, that the shelter today is located a couple miles away from where the murder happened, so ghost stories that the trail journals would like you to believe are simply not true.

As we were setting up camp, I surprised Christine with an additional camp pillow for a birthday present.  She had been complaining recently about how she wish she had multiple pillows when backpacking, because one inflatable pillow just wasn’t enough.  She was thrilled when I brought the extra one out of my pack.  We set up our tent not far from the shelter and a bit later, we were eventually joined by other hikers, including two from Australia and one from Germany. The best water source at this campsite was back the way we came at the bottom of the hill.  We told the other campers about the murder story but only after they asked specifically about it after reading logbook entries.  I think everyone slept well that night despite the ghost tale.

Christine Says: Day Two – Wapiti Shelter to Woods Hole Hostel (7.8 miles)

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Rhododendron Tunnel
This section of Appalachian Trail had so many long, dark rhododendron tunnels. Below: Even when the rhododendron wasn’t a full tunnel, it was still very dense; The footbed was almost paved with flat, shale-like rock; I love trees with ‘arms’

Rhododendron Tunnel Paved Trailbed Appalachian Trail

Brrr – that was a cold night!  I was glad to have spent it bundled up in my warmer sleeping bag with two pillows.  Eventually we got moving, packed up, ate breakfast, and started our hiking for the day. We had all day to go eight miles, so we set out at a leisurely pace. We had about three straight miles of moderate uphill to our first view of the day.  The trail was all green tunnel. We passed through thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron and traversed lush beds of ferns.

At 2.7 miles in we reached a pretty outcropping of rocks with a great view of the valley below. We stopped briefly to enjoy the vista, but weren’t ready for a snack or a long break. The next 2.3 miles covered rolling terrain with lots of small ups and downs.  The trail was pretty, but not remarkable.  At five miles into our day, we reached the radio tower on Flat Top mountain.  The tower viewpoint is about .1 miles off the trail and worth making the small detour.  Behind the tower, there is a series of small cliffs with a commanding view.  It’s the perfect place to take a lunch break.

Nice Views on the AT
There were several nice views near between Waipiti and Woods Hole. Below: Views from the trail.

Napping in the Sun AT Views View at a Distance

The day had warmed up a bit and we were both running really low on water.  Thankfully, we had enough to make Pack-It Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. We had cheese and crackers with candy and dried fruit for our mid-day meal. We also took a good long break and rested atop the rocks. It was peaceful to watch hawks and buzzards soaring on the breeze.

After a full hour of resting, we packed back up and set out to cover our final 2.8 miles of the day.  The rest of the route was mostly downhill with only a few brief bumps to climb.  In about .7 miles, we crossed the Ribble Trail.  The sign indicated that supplies (like propane) were available somewhere down the Ribble Trail, but I would think most people would just continue on to Woods Hole or even Pearisburg if they needed something. Apparently, there is also a nice AT-Ribble Trail loop that is popular with locals.  If we were to have followed the Ribble Trail, it would have rejoined the AT near Waipiti shelter, where we spent the prior night. Maybe one day, we’ll go back and explore the area more.

Flat Top Tower
As long as you don’t look behind you, the view is pretty and pristine. Below: Descending toward Sugar Run Gap.

Side Trails Almost to Sugar Hollow Sugar Run Road

After crossing the junction with the Ribble Trail, we continued downhill; crossing Big Horse Gap/USFS 103 just a tenth of a mile later. In another 1.2 mile, we crossed another forest road. From this point, the last .5 miles of hiking went steeply downhill. The trail was a bit rocky and overgrown.  At this point, I was starting to hit a wall.  I was out of water and feeling really parched. We hadn’t passed a spring since first thing in the morning and the sun had been beating down on us all day.  I told Adam I wanted to rest at the road crossing before we hiked down to Woods Hole Hostel – our destination for the evening.  He said to me ‘But wouldn’t a massage be way more relaxing?’  It turned out he booked an hour long massage for me at the hostel. Say no more – I was up and ready to cover that last .5 miles of road walking to get to Woods Hole.

Normally, we wouldn’t stay at a hostel on a two-night backpacking trip, but Woods Hole is special.  Family-run for decades, the quaint, old farmhouse is an Appalachian Trail legend and a beloved tradition for many hikers.  The old farmhouse opened its doors to hikers in the 1980s.  The hostel was originally run by Tillie and Roy Wood, but was taken over by their granddaughter Neville in 2007. Since then, she and her husband Michael have expanded on the hostel’s offerings, creating a mountain oasis that is simultaneously rugged and luxurious.  There’s no television or cell phone signal, but there is beautiful organic food (that you get to help prepare!), massage services, and group yoga.

Woods Hole Hostel
What a welcome site! Woods Hole Hostel was a luxurious stop on our backpacking trip.  Below: Woods Hole scenes.

Bunk House Rules Porch Swing Bunk House

We arrived at the hostel around 2:00 p.m.  Neville was still working on cleaning the house, so we bought a couple soda’s from the bunkhouse fridge, and settled into the swing on the front porch. We played with the dogs, said hello to the roaming duck, and peeked into the goat and pig sheds.  The garden was still beautiful and abundant in late summer – tons of peppers, tomatoes, and squash. If you stay at the hostel, you can camp, stay in the bunkhouse, or stay in a private room inside the farmhouse. We chose to stay in ‘Tillie’s Room.’  It had a comfortable queen bed, private sink/vanity, and shared full bath. It was quite luxurious for trail accommodations.  Even if you choose the more humble bunkhouse, it is still comfortable and neat as a pin.  There are beds with fresh linens provided, a big common area with a couch, and a nice offering of snacks and supplies available for purchase. There are also shower and laundry facilities available for those staying in the bunkhouse.

We visited during a really quiet time of year.  There was a smattering of SoBo thru-hikers on the trail, but in mid-September we had the entire house to ourselves. Once we got checked in, I decided to shower and spend some time in the farmhouse’s library. It was full of all kinds of books and mementos. I especially enjoyed looking through scrapbooks chronicling the hostel’s history over the years. Around 5:00, Neville said she was ready to do my massage.  It was a wonderful treat and felt fantastic on my tired shoulders and calves.

Woods Hole Doggy
Aumakua – one of Woods Hole’s sweet dogs. Below: Our comfortable lodging.

Tilly;s Room  

After the massage, we started to think about dinner!  In the meantime, one southbound thruhiker arrived and booked a bed in the bunkhouse.  Neville’s husband had errands to run, so it was just four of us for dinner. Neville and Michael typically prepare community meals with the help of hikers staying for the night. Everyone has a task and chips in to prepare and clean up after the meal.  We had an amazing tomato-pepper-cucumber salad, homemade bread with aioli, locally raised pork, and a flavorful yellow Thai vegetarian curry for dinner.  Everything was delicious, but the salad was a favorite and is something I’ve made at home ever since.  Dessert was Neville’s homemade vanilla ice cream.

After dinner, Adam and I relaxed in the library and read until it was time for bed.  It was lovely being lulled to sleep by the sound of a breeze in the trees outside.  We both slept great!

Adam Says: Day Three – Woods Hole Hostel to Narrows (11.8 miles)

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Woods Hole to Narrows
Our last day of hiking started in a blanket of fog. Below: Hiking up Sugar Run Road; The Appalachian Trail; Foggy views

Sugar Run Road Appalachian Trail There Should Have Been a View

We had our longest day on the trail ahead of us with the third day. We got up, packed up our gear, and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast prepared by Neville.  We had asked if we could leave most of our gear there during the day to be able to “slackpack” without the weight.  We carried water, some lunch, and a few layers of clothes but we were able to dump out so much of the weight.  With this extra added comfort, we started on our hike for the day.  We climbed up the steep gravel road and we quickly were so thankful we had dropped off our weight.  We rejoined the AT at .5 miles and began our hike.

Views from the Trail
As we climbed higher the view opened and the fog lifted. Below: Docs Knob Shelter; Views from the trail; Thick overgrowth.

Docs Knob Trail Views Overgrown Appalachian Trail

The morning started off foggy and cold and the section of AT started off uphill. At 1.9 miles, we reached a viewpoint, but it was completely socked in the fog so there was no point staying. The trail then took a descent and at 2.8 miles, we came upon Docs Knob Shelter.  It was a nice shelter, but we were glad we had luxurious accommodations at Woods Hole Hostel the night before. The trail was up and down for a bit, before rising a bit to a nice viewpoint at 6.5 miles. The fog had lifted so we enjoyed nice views of the river cutting through a scenic mountain view.  We stopped and ate some lunch here, but had to eat a bit away from the viewpoint since there were strong, cold winds.  We pushed on as the trail became to climb very slowly and at 8.6 miles we reached another viewpoint. This was probably the nicest one in our opinion of the trip, since you had panoramic views of farmlands and mountains around you.

Ridge Walking
We had miles of easy walking along a ridge.  Below: Late summer vegetation; Views from the trail; Descending to Angels Rest.

Trail Views Trail Views 

We continued the pleasant ridge walking and eventually the trail began to descend through an area that cut a path between very large rock boulders.  We reached a sign that pointed to Angels Rest (a short .1 mile sidetrail) at 9.2 miles.  Angels Rest is a large boulder that requires you to scale up it to get the view.  We climbed up and the view is being combated by growing trees.  The view in the distance is nice, but in my opinion the eyesore of looking down on a town (and correctional facility to boot) isn’t one that I particularly enjoy.  I know lots of people hike up to this point from Pearisburg and return, but the better view would be if people would just continue a bit further.  We climbed down disappointed this was the last view and then rejoined the trail.

Angels Rest
Angels Rest and a view into Pearisburg.  Below: New signage around Angels Rest; The rock at Angels Rest; Descending into Pearisburg.

 Angels Rest 

The hike down from Angels Rest was extremely steep.  We made the downward trip the rest of the way fairly quickly.  At 11 miles we crossed over Cross Avenue, VA 634.  We then crossed over Lane Street at 11.4 miles and then made it to Narrows Road and our car at 11.8 miles.  When we got back to our car, we drove back to pick up our gear at Woods Hole Hostel (and also bought a nice soup bowl crafted by the owner) and then made our way to Ballast Point for some post-hike dinner and flight of beers.  It was such a great birthday celebration and we had a wonderful experience!

The road to Pearisburg. Below: The trail between Pearisburg and Narrows; Parking.

Between Pearisburg and Narrows Between Pearisburg and Narrows Between Pearisburg and Narrows

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 27 miles (plus a couple extra miles to access views, shelters, and Woods Hole Hostel)
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike* [Day One] [Day Two][Day Three])
  • Elevation Change – 4,885 feet
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  The second day was the toughest climbing.  Overall, it wasn’t very tough, but it was 27 miles. 
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  Some of the trail was overgrown in parts, but overall was fairly maintained and footing was reliable through most of the hike.
  • Views  4.  The view leading up to Angels Rest was the best.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.  Lots of stream crossings, but the highlight was early in the hike with Dismal Falls.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t run into many signs of wildlife on the trail, but did see an occasional deer.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Sticking to the AT, you just look for white blazes.  The side trails we took were well marked.
  • Solitude – 4.  We had most of the trail to ourselves.  Expect people at Dismal Falls and Angels Rest and not much in between.

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

Directions to trailhead:  Coordinates to drop off car and meet shuttle: 37.3341, -80.7553 (Narrows AT Parking Lot Off road, room for quite a few cars.) Shuttle drop-off/hike start coordinates: 37.1757, -80.9083 (Kimberling Creek Suspension Bridge has a a small parking area along VA606)

Coppermine Trail to Bridal Veil Falls (NH)

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This was a pleasant hike to a pretty waterfall located near a scenic backcountry campsite.  At just under five miles with only 1100 feet of climbing, it’s one of the area’s easier hikes.

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Bridal Veil Falls
The water level was low from dry conditions, but the falls were still pretty. Below: Signage at the parking area; Early parts of the hike followed the road; The hike enters the woods.

Bridal Veil Falls Parking Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail

Christine Says…

We stumbled across this hike in one of my parents’ hiking guide books. They had never done it, but the description sounded quite appealing for a quick morning hike. Trailhead parking is on Coppermine Road, a private gravel road off NH116. Be careful to park only in the designated area, so you don’t infringe on homeowner’s private property.

The first .4 mile of the hike follows the unpaved road.  You’ll pass a number of private cabins as you walk. Look for yellow blazes and a hiker sign on the left side of the road. Follow the path into shady woods. The trees are a mix of evergreens, maples, and white birches. It’s a peaceful setting and a gentle uphill. At 1 mile in, Coppermine Brook meets the trail’s right side.

The remainder of the hike stays close to the brook’s path, so this is a great hike if you enjoy the sound of bubbling water. There are lots of places to leave the trail and explore the boulder-strewn streambed. When we visited, water was running low, so it was easy to hop rocks and stand in the middle of the stream without getting wet.

At 2.2 miles, the trail crosses the stream via a sturdy wooden footbridge.  Another .2 miles beyond the bridge, you’ll reach Coppermine Shelter and the base of Bridal Veil Falls.  The shelter is a three-sided lean to for overnight campers. The falls are behind the shelter, tucked into a small cliffside.  The falls drop several times over granite shelves. To get to the prettiest view of the waterfall, you have to cross the bottom pool and climb up one of the granite shelves.

Coppermine Trail
The Coppermine Trail climbs gently and is only moderately rocky. This small bridge crosses the stream just a couple tenths of a mile before the falls. Below: Typical terrain for this hike; Stream scenery.

Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail

When we visited, the granite was really slippery from a brief rain the night before.  We scrambled up to a viewpoint and surveyed the area.  Adam wanted to climb even further up to another higher pool at the point where the falls take their largest plunge. We discussed the best route, as it looked a bit perilous and tricky.

While we were talking about the scramble to the top, my parent’s hiking guidebook, which I had set next to my backpack, went sliding down the rocks and into the water. It careened down two drops of the stream before settling in a eddy in the pool at the very bottom of the falls. CRAP – the book was full of years’ worth of handwritten hiking notes!  Adam scrambled quickly back down to the bottom of the falls and retrieved it. It was completely sodden and I felt awful about not being more careful with it.

Adam eventually made it to the higher pool and took some closer photos of the falls, but worrying about the book kind of took the luster off the rest of the hike. Eventually, we headed back the way we came in. The hike back was quick and all downhill. When we got in the car, I turned the air conditioning on full blast to dry out the book’s pages before they stuck together. It was pretty hopeless, though.

Despite the mishap with the book, we enjoyed the hike and highly recommend it.

Adam Says…

This hike was one of the easiest hikes we have done in the area.  The hike to the falls is uphill, but very gradual.  We never felt out of breath on this one, so it may be a good one for a family hike.  The recent rain had left some of the trail quite slippery, especially near the final climb up to the falls.  When Christine mentioned it was slippery, we had to scramble on all fours to be able to make it up, because our feet could not find purchase on the slick rock.

This trail has an interesting, yet mysterious, past to it.  After hiking about 1.2 miles on the Coppermine Trail (a couple of tenths after the brook and trail meet), there is a plaque on a large boulder in the streambed.  While we didn’t see the plaque on our trip, we read about it later.  To find the plaque, look for an area that has a steep slope down to a flat area.  The boulder sticks out into the stream about halfway along the flat area and the plaque is facing downstream.  The plaque states, “In Memoriam to Arthur Farnsworth ‘The Keeper of Stray Ladies’ Pecketts 1939 Presented by a Grateful One”.  According to a 1987 Magnetic North article, there is an answer to the meaning behind this mysterious message.   Arthur Farnsworth worked at a resort called Pecketts, located in Sugar Hill.  Farnsworth’s job at Pecketts was to make his guests feel most comfortable.  The actress, Bette Davis stayed there in 1939 to relax after a tiring filming schedule.  Bette Davis fell in love with the beauty and anonymity of this area, feeling she could escape the burden of her fame.  The story to be told here is that she strayed away from a hiking party on this trail and Arthur Farnsworth was sent to find her.  They fell in love and were married in 1940 and moved to California, but often came back to the White Mountains to visit.  In 1943, Farnsworth died from a fall at their Sugar Hill home.  Bette Davis continued to visit this area afterwards, but eventually sold her home on Sugar Hill in 1961.  This plaque showed up during this time.

Bridal Veil Falls
The last bit of climbing to the falls can be slippery. Below: Boulders along the trail; The Coppermine Shelter; The pool at the base of the falls.

Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail Coppermine Trail

As Christine mentioned,  our hiking book fell into the water.  To watch a book slowly go down the rocks and fall into the lower pool pictured above was worrisome.  Knowing how long her parents had spent hand writing notes as a journal of all the hikes they had been on, we felt so terrible.  Before we returned home with our soggy mess of a book, we stopped by the White Mountains Visitor Center and purchased two copies of the replacement book – AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains.  We bought two because we thought we would be permanently banned from borrowing books in the future.  The book had been updated and now included a few more hikes.  To try and make amends, I spent several hours that evening transferring all the notes from their previous book (miraculously still legible despite wet pages).  Her parents were not upset, but I wanted to make sure we made it right.

We both highly recommend this hike if you want an easy day hike to do for a nice waterfall view.  Just please keep your hiking book (or printouts from this website) in a safe place.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.8 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1100 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2. The climbing is gentle the whole way. The only challenge is scaling the rocks up to the base of the falls.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. This trail is only moderately rocky by New Hampshire standards.
  • Views –  0. There are no open views on this hike.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 4. The falls are small, but very pretty, The stream is also gorgeous. I wish we could have visited when there was more water running.
  • Wildlife – 2. Lots of birds and squirrels.
  • Ease to Navigate –  4. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow. 
  • Solitude – 3. We saw a handful of people on our hike back, but had the falls to ourselves for almost half an hour.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are: 44.180903, -71.755717.  Make sure you park in the designated parking area and nowhere else. This is a private road.

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

Appalachian Trail – Hanover to Woodstock (VT)

We tackled this 24.5 mile section of Vermont’s Appalachian Trail during a spell of very hot, dry weather – especially by New England standards. The route has quite a bit of road-walking and traversing open fields in full sun. We’ll admit… it wasn’t one of our favorites.

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Adam Says: Day One – Hanover to Happy Hill Shelter (6.2 miles)

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This is the first section of Vermont’s Appalachian Trail that we have attempted. We looked at a few different routes but decided on this short three-day trip. We were staying with Christine’s parents in central New Hampshire and wanted to start tackling some miles nearby since they could watch our dog, Wookie, while we were backpacking. Another great thing about staying with them is they offered to provide the shuttle for us. Probably like most family members, they don’t quite understand what we were doing since they have never done a backpacking trip. We are often riddled with questions about where we are going, preparations, how we use different equipment, etc.  They tried on our weighted packs and didn’t understand how we could walk for miles with these strapped to our backs and make decent time. They followed us in their car and we parked at our end destination. We then shuttled back in their car to Hanover, NH.

AT/NH Line
Shortly after leaving downtown Hanover, you cross the Connecticut River which is the state line between New Hampshire and Vermont. Below: the Connecticut River is a significant body of water; Hiking into Norwich, Vermont; Just a couple miles in to our hike, we were already in need of shade and a cold drink.

Connecticut River Norwich, VT Shady Gazebo in Norwich

Before we began our trek, we had lunch with her parents at Molly’s in the heart of Hanover.  They have great American fare and a trip to Molly’s has been an annual tradition for us for the last several years. We ate an early lunch, got our backpacks out of the car and started walking towards Dartmouth College on Main Street. The Appalachian Trail cuts right through the heart of Hanover, NH.  It may be a rarity in most small towns to see people walking through your downtown with large backpacks, but Hanover is a classic hiker-friendly town.  People would whisper as we walk by and take photos, making you feel like a celebrity more than anything.  Of course, we had not walked all the way from Georgia to this point, but people are fascinated with long-distance backpacking. We took a few pictures on Dartmouth College’s quad lawn called The Green, walking by an admissions tour group, before turning down Wheelock Street/SR10 after just a few tenths from Molly’s to keep south on the Appalachian Trail.  The white blazes that signify the AT trail markers through towns typically are blazes painted on lampposts or backs of signs.

The day was hot – abnormally hot for the summer in Vermont. The day was approaching 90 and we were walking on open road with no shade so we quickly got overheated. SR10 crossed over the Connecticut River and you see a sign halfway across the bridge that signifies the state border between New Hampshire and Vermont at .8 miles. With more road walking, we reached Norwich, VT and began to climb up a steeper section of sidewalk. With the sun beating down and the uphill climb, it was quite unbearable. At 2.7 miles, we rested at a gazebo in front of a church. Christine couldn’t take much more sun, so we threw our backpacks off and I went searching for places to buy some cold drinks in fear of losing all of our water in just a short amount of time. I found a nearby deli shop and got some cold drinks.  We had trouble finding the blazes at this point so I also looked around for blazes (which ended up being on the opposite side of the road). Luckily, the road that I found the deli was also where the AT turned down Elm Street.

So much road walking
Vermont had so much road walking in the open sun. It was tough going!  Below: Some nice people in the houses along the trail had cold drinks and ice; Finally some woods and shade; A tiny bit of “Vermud” – we had the mixed blessing of hiking during a drought-y time.

Trail Magic Finally in the Woods Vermud

We continued on Elm Street going steeply uphill. There were several houses along the way that had trail magic – cold drinks and snacks in coolers or places to get a new paperback to read for the trail. I stopped again on our climb and took advantage of some ice cold water to drink and poor over my head to keep my body as cool as possible. We eventually came to a large kiosk (adorned with Uber business cards to avoid the road walking and get right into Hanover) where the AT finally entered into the woods and we had a bit of shade from the trees. The trail passed by a small stream (which was dry) and continued uphill.  Overall the trail to our first shelter was mostly non-descript but serene. There was a brown path cutting through the sea of fern around us with pine, oak, and birch trees around us.

Happy Hill Shelter was cute, but lacked a consistent water source. We had to dry camp and fill up a couple miles into the next morning.

The trail crossed over a woods road at 4.5 miles and continued slightly up and down until we reached a junction with the blue-blazed Tucker Trail at 5.9 miles (a trail that also leads to Norwich, VT in 3 miles). From this point, it was just another .3 miles until we reached the sign that marked the side trail to the Happy Hill Shelter which was just less than a tenth off the main trail. We stopped for the night and were soon joined by some other hikers, including one of our favorites, Hobbes the dog, who had been suffering like all of us in the heat.  He collapsed on the soft ground telling his owner, trail-named Calvin, that he was done for the day.  He rolled onto his side while Calvin peeled off his doggy pack with no help from Hobbes. We talked while eating some dinner about things we had seen on the trail.  We learned a bit about porcupines from one thru-hiker that told us that they mostly climb in trees during the day and are active at night. They gave us a warning to hang our poles because they like nibbling on the cork handles. We set up camp and tried to go to sleep but it was too hot of a night and everything felt clammy and sticky.

Christine Says: Day Two – Happy Hill Shelter to Thistle Hill Shelter (9.6 miles)

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Our night at Happy Hill was kind of hot and fitful. Neither of us slept well. The tent was stuffy and I kept thinking I heard animals walking around the tent (porcupines!) The sun comes up so early in the New England summer that we were awake and packing up our gear before 6:00 a.m. We knew we had another hot day ahead of us, so getting an early start was important.

Our first stop of the day was 1.7 miles into the hike. We stopped to filter water from a unnamed small stream along the trail. Since the water source at the shelter had been dry, it was nice to replenish our Camelbaks.

AT in Vermont
The second day of hiking was a mix of forests, fields, and meadows. Below: Fields, fields, fields; Filtering water for the day; Pretty ferns!

AT in Vermont AT in Vermont AT in Vermont

Our first four miles of the day were mostly downhill and under the shade of the forest canopy. We walked through beds of fern, small meadows, and across a couple small streams. It was how I imagined Vermont would be.

At 3.4 miles into the day, we came out onto pavement and crossed under I-89. It’s always strange to step out of the woods and see 18-wheelers zipping by on a four-lane highway. The next mile of ‘hiking’ was over paved town roads heading into West Hartford.  It was still pretty early, but the sun was already high in the sky and beating down full force on the asphalt. We were both red-faced and drenched with sweat.

The Harts
The Harts provide support and kindness to all hikers. Adam got his AT passport stamped there. Below: Crossing under the interstate; The West Hartford Library; Bridge crossing over the White River.

Crossing Under the Interstate Hartford Library Brook Crossing

We arrived to the main part of town right at 9:00 a.m. – which happened to be the same time the community library opened. The library door had a ‘hikers welcome’ sign, so we figured we’d go in and make use of their facilities. Even after one night in the woods, it’s wonderful to be able to wash your hands with soap and running water. The library attendant told us to make ourselves comfortable and to help ourselves to coffee or water from their cooler. We sat in the air conditioning and chugged a couple bottles full of chilled spring water. After about 45 minutes, we decided we should probably move on because the day was only going to get hotter.

We had only been walking about 50 feet when a woman starting waving and shouting to us from her front porch – “Hello hikers!!  Come on over!” Adam and I always stop to chat with people and explore towns along the trail, so we made our way over to the house.  It turned out we were at the Hart’s residence.  The Hart’s are a well-known and valued provider of trail magic. She offered to cook us breakfast – there were eggs, pastries, muffins, watermelon, and cold sodas.  We weren’t hungry, but we gratefully accepted a cold soda and stayed to chat for a while. People along the Appalachian Trail are always so kind and generous. Finally, we said farewell and made our way across the bridge over the White River and back into the woods.

A View!
Our first view of the trip. Below: A little mud; Another overgrown field; Resting in the shade.

Mud Fields Checking the Map

The shade of the woods was short-lived and all the remaining miles of the day were uphill and mostly crossing open fields and forest with thin canopy. It was blazing hot. We took lots of breaks to cool off. We came to a partially obstructed view at 5.2 miles into the day.  There was a bench shaded by an apple tree at the vista.

We took our lunch break at a forest road crossing at 7.5 miles into our day. We sat in the dirt and ate crackers and cheese, candy, and nuts. We were both running low on water, but figured we could make it a couple more miles to the water source at the shelter. While we ate, we checked out the large sugaring operation in the woods around us.  It looked like there were miles of tubes to collect sap from the maple trees. It was neat and something we never see in Virginia.

After lunch, we made the final push to Thistle Hill shelter.  There were so many open fields to climb across. It was in the mid-90s, breezeless, and the sun was unrelenting. I could feel my skin burning despite multiple applications of sunscreen. We both ran out of water and were so totally ready to be done for the day. As it so often goes, you reach camp just when you think you can’t take another step. We were so thankful to reach the spur trail to the shelter.

More Fields
We were baking in the sun for much of day two. Below: Thistle Hill Shelter; Tent resting; Even Rosco was tired from the heat.

Thistle Hill Thistle Hill Thistle Hill

Adam probably had heat exhaustion and was badly dehydrated.  He collapsed into the shade of the shelter to rest. I went about setting up camp while he took a break. After some time resting, we went to collect water. The source was really nice – a lacy little waterfall pouring over mossy rocks. I mixed electrolyte drinks and tried to get Adam to drink more.  Several southbound thru-hikers we’d met the night before (and Rosco the dog) rolled into camp over the next hour.

We had an early dinner at the shelter. Everyone talked about the heat and the brutality of the five+ mile uphill climb. We retreated to our tent a little before sundown. Adam still didn’t feel well and I started to worry that it might be more than dehydration. At one point, I said to him, ‘We have cell service, we can call for help if you need it.’  He refused and fortunately started to feel better as the day cooled and the fluids started to rehydrate him.

More and more hikers arrived at camp as nightfall approached. I think there were probably close to 25 people camped at Thistle Hill by the time it was dark. A few more even stumbled in by headlamp as late at 10:00 p.m.  We left our rainfly off the tent to catch the cross breeze, so every headlamp at camp woke us up.  It was still a cooler, more comfortable night than we’d had at Happy Hill. We both got a decent night of rest in advance of our final day of hiking.

Adam Says: Day Three – Thistle Hill Shelter to Woodstock (8.7 miles)

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With our last day ahead of us, we  got up with the sunrise, used the neat screen-porch privy at the shelter, quickly packed up camp, and were on our way. I think only one thru-hiker made it out of camp before us.  The heat was tough on a lot of us.

From the shelter, the trail descended.  At 1.8 miles, we came to a junction marking a trail to the Cloudland Shelter (.5 miles west of the trail). This shelter used to be maintained by AT volunteers but was now on private land. Hikers can still stay there and it is owned by the owners of Cloudland Market.  For the past two days we had been asking northbound hikers about Cloudland Market. It had been closed on Sunday and Monday when we started our hike but this was Tuesday and we had read in our AWOL thru-hiking guide that it was open on Tuesday. One guy had told us it was also closed Tuesday, but we had heard how great the shop was and thought a cold soda or snacking on some Vermont cheese could be nice. When we reached Cloudland Road at 2.3 miles, we saw a note taped to a sign stating that is was closed on Tuesday also, so we missed out.

Morning Beauty
The third day started off almost cool. Below: Tall, straight pines; Farm field; Old country road.

Pines More Fields Country Roads

We crossed Cloudland Road and had a very steep climb up an open field of grass and wildflowers to reach a hilly summit at 2.9 miles. This was probably the nicest view on the trail and gave us a glimpse of Vermont farms  and mountains in the distance. We stopped for just a short time because the sun was beating down again, whipping us to push on for shade. The trail descended from this point and then we had another short uphill to reach another small view at 3.7 miles. We could see ski slopes off in the hazy distance. From this second viewpoint, it was a steep downhill until we reached the paved Pomfret Road at 4.1 miles.

Best View of the Trip
This was the best/prettiest view on the trip. Below: White birches; The trail followed an old road bed; Another view with ski slopes.

Birches Old Roadbed Another View

On the other side of the road, was a small brook and we filled up water while talking with a bunch of northbound thru-hikers.  They were having a debate on who would win in a fight between a horse and a cow and asked us for an opinion. We debated with them on why we felt a horse would win (because it had more speed and agility and could also pull off a painful kick or bite).  It was a fun conversation and reminded me that when you don’t have the depressing world news to hear every day that these common topics were more enjoyable than the nightly newscast.  Conversation with hikers that are going the opposite way are your version of the internet.  You get information about trail conditions, water sources, sights to see, and how much uphill is ahead (its always stated that its not too bad even if it is).  We also heard from other hikers that this section of Vermont that we had picked was probably the least beautiful of any of the sections of Vermont.  While it was disheartening to hear, it at least renewed our opinion that the rest of Vermont would have nice streams, views, and farmlands fit for a postcard and we should do more of it another year.

Stream Crossing
A stream crossing. Below: Pretty trail; So many fields; Huge broken tree.

AT in Vermont Fields, dammit Broken Tree

After taking a short break and filling up with water we pressed on. We crossed another small stream and reached the gravel Bartlett Brook Road at 5.7 miles.  At 6.5 miles, we crossed Totman Hill Road and reached another stream at 7.0 miles (where was all this water earlier in the trip?).  At 7.3 miles, we reached Woodstock Stage Road and Barnard Brook.  We had one less-steep climb up, a one mile climb up Dana Hill before descending again.  On our final descent, we saw a black bear foraging off to the side that took off running when we got close.  It was very exciting to finally see some wildlife and was a reward for the end of our journey!  We finally reached our final road crossing at 8.7 miles, Barnard Gulf Road, and got back to where we had parked our car.  We made it!  We had been so hot and miserable for most of the trip we wondered if we would make the entire section.  Filled with pride it was now time to fill our stomachs.  We drove to nearby Long Trail Brewery for some cold beers and amazing food to toast our accomplishment.

The last big climb
The last big climb was a tough one! Below: Our final descent – close to where we saw the bear; Some well earned beers at Long Trail Brewery.

The last descent Well earned beers at Long Trail

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 24.5 miles
  • Elevation Change – 6,341 ft
  • Difficulty –  4.  This section had tons of steep, unrelenting ups-and-downs (most without a view payoff). It was similar to a bigger, badder version of Virginia’s roller coaster.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail was generally well maintained, but there were some very overgrown sections.  There was also a bit of mud and erosion in places.
  • Views –  2.5. There were a couple nice views from high meadows.  They were pretty, but not spectacular. Many were partly obstructed.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 3. There were streams for water sources and several larger rivers to cross (on bridges).
  • Wildlife – 4. Other hikers near us saw porcupines and we saw a bear!
  • Ease to Navigate –  4.  The trail was easy to follow with adequate blazing and signage.
  • Solitude – 3. Surprisingly, we saw very few people on the trail, but campsites were moderately crowded.

Directions to trailhead: The parking lot that we left our car was at 43.6552N 72.5662W on Barnard Gulf Road on VT 12.  From here, we made our way to Hanover, NH by heading south on VT 12 for 3.7 miles.  We turned left when reaching to town of Woodstock to stay on VT 12 for .6 miles before turning left on to US-4 east.  Stay on US-4 East for 9.4 miles and then merge on to I-89 South.  Stay on this for 3 miles before taking the I-91 exit towards Brattleboro/White River.  Keep left at the fork and follow signs for I-91 North.  Stay on I-91 North for a little over 5 miles before taking exit 13 for Norwich.  Take a right to merge on to 10A/W. Wheelock Street.  Follow this for .8 miles before turning right on to Main Street.  Parking is available hourly behind a lot of the restaurants/shops but is a good dropoff point for a shuttle.

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

Appalachian Trail – Maryland

This 42-mile Appalachian Trail segment traverses the state of Maryland  – starting at PenMar Park and heading south to Harpers Ferry.  The section generally consists of easy terrain with a few moderate, rocky stretches.  We enjoyed taking our time hiking over five days of beautiful views and interesting history. Ambitious hikers can definitely cover Maryland in less time, but a leisurely pace seems to suit this section with so much to see!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Maryland Appalachian Trail
Our last nice view on the fifth day of hiking came atop Weverton Cliffs.

Adam Says: Day One – PenMar to Raven Rocks (4.8 miles)
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We started our day off at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The HFNHP allows you to leave a car overnight for up to 14 days. Knowing the limited parking in the area, we decided to take advantage of this service. We paid the fee and completed the form for overnight parking. Our friend Anthony offered to shuttle us up to PenMar Park, named because it sits right on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland. He dropped us off across from PenMar park at the overnight parking lot. We thanked him and set off. We weren’t entirely sure where the Appalachian Trail crossed the park, but we made our way past a kiosk and soon came upon a nice overlook with a pavilion, a sign showing the split of the AT, and restrooms. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and hit the restrooms before we started. We headed south on the white-blazed AT, which soon ducked into a wooded area. The trail looked flat and soft. We had heard how nice the AT was in Maryland and we were hoping this would stay this way. There were pink azaleas blooming alongside the trail and we were excited to take on this section. Soon, there was a sign to the left of the trail showing the AT going uphill. We took this left and we had a short uphill.  In just a short distance, the trail turned into a rocky mess. There were large boulders and the trail became very hard to follow with limited blazes. I was leading the way and trying to go with leaves that were more trampled underfoot to be the sign that we were still on the trail. There were a few times that we got off the trail for a few feet (Christine found a sweet pair of mirrored sunglasses on one of our ‘detours’), but we managed to find a white blaze by looking around to get back on the trail. Through a lot of the rocky area, the trail seemed to be marked by small ground flags rather than blazes.

Day One: Maryland
The graffitti covered viewpoint at High Rock offers a great view of farmland. Below: Our start point at PenMar; The climb up to High Rock was very rugged and rocky; The hang glider launch.

Day One: Starting at PenMar Day One: Rocky Trail Day One: High Rock

Around 2.2 miles, we reached a very steep section of rocks to traverse. At 2.8 miles, our climbing ended and we reached a junction where you can take a side trail that leads to High Rock. Knowing we could loop right back to the AT, it was an easy decision to check this out. In just a tenth of a mile, we came to a road and parking lot that led to the High Rock overlook. My first thought when approaching it was disgust from all the graffiti. However, this overlook is so covered in graffiti that it almost approaches art – clearly the idea of “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is alien to the people that contributed to this. The view from High Rock, which also serves as a hang gliding launch, was gorgeous and the scenery with the graffiti made for some interesting photos.  We then put our packs back on and found the spur trail that joined back to the other side of the Appalachian Trail. In a tenth of a mile, we were back on the AT to continue our journey.

The trail was relatively flat for the rest of the day and we reached a junction that led us west for a tenth of a mile to the Raven Rock Shelter at 4.8 miles, our stop for the night. It was still in the early afternoon, but we were trying to have an easier first day. We were the first ones there and found a great campsite just a few hundred feet away from the shelter. There were tent pads and a circle of benches with our own fire pit and picnic table. While Christine and Kris started working on getting things set up at camp, I trekked off to the water source. The water was located about .4 miles away down a steep path a little over .3 miles from the junction in the opposite direction from the shelter. It was tough to haul a bucket of water back up the trail and back to camp, but I didn’t want to go multiple trips to carry what we needed for the night and next morning. We highly recommend the Sea to Summit ultra-sil bucket for collecting water to use at camp. It weighs next to nothing and saves you from making multiple trips.

Day One: Raven Rocks
Raven Rocks Shelter and its nearby campsites are beautiful and spacious. Below: Pinxter azaleas were abundant along the trail; Fly Girl (Kris) reads and signs the shelter log; It was a cold night, so we all enjoyed the campfire.

Day One: Azaleas Day One: Signing the Log Day One: Campfire

We finished setting up camp and took some time to read through the shelter log. It wasn’t long before others started arriving at camp. There were probably close to 15 other people there by the end of the evening. Little did we know that most of these people were with us for the rest of the journey. There were nine others that had started on the same day as us and were doing the exact same trip, at the same exact pace. We kept to ourselves for the night and enjoyed a nice campfire before the freezing temperatures set in for the night.

Christine Says: Day Two – Raven Rocks to Pogo Memorial Campsite (9.8 miles)
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Our second day started with a very frigid morning. None of us wanted to get out of our tents, preferring to stay warm and snug in our down sleeping bags. But, we had a ten mile hike to our next camp stop and wanted to get an early start. After coffee and two packets of oatmeal each, we packed up and headed out of camp. In .7 of a mile, we reached the rocky outcropping known as Raven Rock Cliff. The view was partially obstructed, but offered a nice peek at expansive farmland in the distance. From there, the trail descended through a boulder jumble to Raven Rock Road and Little Antietam Creek. The logbook at the last shelter had indicated that the creek had been hip-high rapids the day before, so we were exceedingly relieved to find the water level had come back down to an ankle deep rock-hop. A lot of the stepping stones were underwater, so we all took a minute to change into our Crocs for the crossing. After crossing, we climbed up and down a steep knob in the terrain. This is a common feature of the Appalachian Trail called a ‘PUD’ or a pointless up and down. Basically, something steep that seems to serve no purpose and offers no scenery. At two miles into our hike we reached Warner Hollow, where we crossed another small stream. This one had a double plank laid across the water as a bridge. The boards were halfway submerged, but still offered enough footing to cross without having to take our shoes off again.

Day Two: Crossing Little Antietam Creek
Just a few days earlier, this stream was hip-deep rapids. Below: The view from Raven Rocks Cliffs; One of several meadow crossings; Ensign Cowall.

Day Two: Raven Rocks View Day Two: Fields 

After Warner Hollow, the trail ascends steadily uphill through varied terrain for 1.8 miles. We passed under powerlines and back into the woods for a surprisingly rocky section. The trail was covered with slabs of stone and followed a small cliffside for a short while. We passed an abandoned Big Agnes tent sitting about 15 feet off the trail. From the wear and tear on the tent, we could tell it had been left in the woods for quite a while. It was a bit eerie and none of us chose to look inside. The trail crossed a pretty, open meadow before reaching Foxville Road, at  3.6 miles into the day’s hike. On the other side of Foxville Road, we found a crate full of gallon jugs of fresh, filtered water. In a state known for its tendency to run dry, clean water is a welcome form of trail magic. We weren’t sure what the water source would be like at our lunch stop (it was described as a ‘somewhat stagnant boxed spring’), so we all topped off with enough water to get us through a few more miles. At five miles into the day, we reached our mid-day rest-stop at Ensign Cowall Shelter. It was early, but we decided to go ahead and eat lunch. Adam and I brought a few Packit Gourmet meals for lunches on this trip, including their Smoked Cheddar-Jack Cheese Spread. It rehydrated with just two ounces of cold water. The spread was both convenient and delicious. We enjoyed it on some brioche crisps we brought from Trader Joe’s. As it turned out, lunch also came with some entertainment! We met Pennsylvania brothers and section hikers, Blackbeard and Weird Harold. Then we met thru-hikers Wonder Woman and Peace Walker, who serenaded the group with a ukelele. We always meet the most interesting people at shelters.

After lunch, we had a short and rather steep climb uphill to Wolfsville Road. After crossing the road, our AWOL Guide showed a flat walk for the last 4.8 miles to camp. What the guide did not indicate was how rocky the trail would be. It said there would be lots of poison ivy, but not a word about the jumble of ankle-turners that comprised most of the trail. It was slow-going over mostly exposed terrain. Adam and Kris paused to de-layer to cooler clothing, but I decided to keep my long sleeves and tights as sun protection. There really wasn’t much interesting to see along this section of trail – lots of pink ladyslipper flowers being the exception. We marched along, passing the miles, until we finally reached our stop for the second night – Pogo Memorial Campsite.

Lady's Slipper
One of the many pink lady’s slippers we saw along the trail. Below: Much of the day covered rocky terrain along a ridge; There were big rocks and little rocks; Our camp at Pogo Memorial.

Day Two: Maryland Rocks  Day Two: Camp at Pogo Memorial

Pogo does not have a shelter or a bear pole/cables, but it has a privy, a water source, and tons of tent sites. None of the tent sites are particularly flat and there aren’t a lot of suitable trees for making a bear hang. We figured bigger groups would take the large areas close to the trail and the privy. Also, the privy at this site was especially foul, so we wanted to put a lot of distance between us and the smell. Our spot was at the upper reaches of the campsite and had a nice firepit with a bench. It was still a shabby site compared to the luxuries of Raven Rock, but we made do!  Pogo was definitely my least favorite camp stop on the trip.

We had lots of time to relax at camp, so we collected firewood, filtered water, and chatted. As the afternoon went on, more and more people filed into camp, including a huge group of teachers and students from an alternative program high school. They were loud and active, so I was even more glad we had selected a site near the back of the tent area.  The second night was cool, but not frigid like the prior night.  We stayed up a bit later, talking and tinkering with the campfire. As the sky darkened, we retreated to our tents to get some rest for day three.

Adam Says: Day Three – Pogo Memorial Campsite to Dahlgren Backpack Campground (10 miles)
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Day Three was probably the highlight of the trip.  We started off our morning early, but there were still others that beat us out of camp. The hike started off by heading uphill. In just .2 miles, we crossed over Black Rock Creek. At .6 miles, to the left of the trail was a short scramble that took us to a small overview called Black Rock Cliffs where there were a couple of rocks to sit on to take in the view. From here we continued on the AT for a flat section and came up to a junction at 1.6 miles for Annapolis Rocks. We took this side trail that led us past a large caretakers tent (someone who monitors the activity here and can call for assistance) and then past a series of other backcountry campsites.  At .25 miles off the trail, we came to the magnificent viewpoint known as Annapolis Rocks. When we arrived, there was a group of students that were learning how to rock climb (Annapolis Rocks being a popular destination for Maryland rock climbing). Not so ironically, there was also a group of firefighters that were up there to train on how to rescue someone that had fallen. It was interesting to talk to them to see how they prepare and see the equipment needed to attempt a rescue. People have died from falling at this spot, so please be careful. The large cliffsides of Annapolis Rocks provides some stunning views and the rock jutting out over a canvas of trees makes this quite the picturesque spot.  Annapolis Rocks is an extremely popular day hike; while you may see lots of people, the rock edge is large enough where you will likely be able to find an unobstructed view.

Day Three: Annapolis Rocks
We enjoyed spectacular views from Annapolis Rocks. Below: Tearing down our campsite at Pogo; Christine on Black Rock Cliffs; The trail was a wide, flat road.

Day Three: Breaking Down Camp Day Three: Black Rock Cliffs Day Three: Easy Trail

After taking a long break at Annapolis Rocks, we headed back to the AT junction to bring our total up to 2.1 miles. We took a right and continued south on the AT. The trail continued to be flat and we came across a PATC volunteer that was doing some trail work. We thanked him for his hard work and continued on. The trail started to descend about a mile after Annapolis Rocks and at 3.7 miles we reached the junction with the Pine Knob Shelter. The shelter was just .1 off of the trail, so we decided to explore it.  Pine Knob Shelter has campsites around it, a privy, and reliable water (a piped spring is next to the shelter). We returned to the AT junction the way we came for another .1 miles to take us up to 3.9 total miles. The trail sloped downhill and then we came to the I-70 footbridge, an ivy-covered footbridge over the interstate.  It made me sad to see all of these people flying by in their rat race of a hectic life when I was out here enjoying the tranquility of nature.  These moments always make me feel lucky that I can have these moments to get away from it all. After we crossed over I-70, we had a short uphill climb.  At 4.1 miles, we passed through a junction with the Bartman Hill Trail (which made me think of the old Simpsons song, “Do the Bartman”) and at 4.5 miles, the AT passes through a residential area.

The trail was relatively flat for the next bit and then had a short climb down until we reached some power lines at 6.3 miles. From the power lines, we had a steep climb up for about .3 miles until we reached a side trail for the first Washington Monument. We took this short side trail and were at the monument in just .1 miles.  This Washington Monument was completed in 1827 and is a 40 foot stone tower that overlooks the area. You can climb to the top through a winding, dark (and somewhat creepy) spiral staircase. After getting a few pictures, we decided this was a perfect spot to have lunch.  We sat down and chatted with a couple that we had been camping near the last few nights and finally had a chance to introduce ourselves. They were from Florida and were enjoying this section as much as we were.

Day Three: The Original Washington Monument
This was the first monument built to honor George Washington.  Below: Fly Girl signs the logbook at Pine Knob Shelter; We cross the I-70 footbridge; A nice view from the Washington Monument.

Day Three: Pine Knob Shelter Day Three: Crossing the Interstate Day Three: View from Washington Monument

After leaving the Washington Monument, we rejoined the AT and started to head down a steep trail. On the left of the trail were signs that detailed some moments of George Washington’s life and career as the first President of the U.S.  We were getting the story in reverse, but it was a good way to refresh on history that I had long forgotten. At the bottom of the hill, we reached Washington Monument State Park. We were able to take advantage of a water pump next to the trail to refill our water bladders and restroom facilities were just a short walk away. The trail descended to the left down the edge of the park and crossed the park road before re-entering the woods. We crossed Monument Road at 7.1 miles and then had another climb through open forest. The sun was quite hot, but it was a pretty scene. The trail then continued downward on a steady descent and we passed by Dahlgren Chapel. The Chapel is a picturesque church that was built in the late 1800s by Madeline Dahlgren, wife of Admiral John Dahlgren. We reached Turners Gap Road and saw the Old South Mountain Inn directly across.

Day Three: Dahlgren Chapel
Dahlgren Chapel is a beautiful spot. There is a great view right behind the chapel, too. Below: At the last road crossing before our campsite, we passed the Old South Mountain Inn; At dinner time we hiked back and ate crabcakes, filet mignon, creme brulee, and wine; After dinner we walked back to our campsite at Dahlgren Backpack Campground.

Day Three: Old South Mountain Inn Day Three: Fine Dining Day Three: Walking Back to Dahlgren

Once we crossed the road, we followed the AT for just a few tenths of a mile before we came to the Dahlgren Backpack Campground off to the right of the trail. The campground had several gravel pads to pitch a tent with a picnic table and firepit at each site. At the campground there are also bathrooms with free showers and a tap for water at the back of the building. There are also outlets to charge your electronic devices. We set up camp and then had decided to go to Old South Mountain Inn for dinner.  They allow hikers to visit as long as they shower and men don’t wear tanktops. So, after taking showers we walked up to the inn as soon as they opened. The staff were very hiker-friendly and put us in a comfortable sunroom. We were joined by our Florida hiking companions and sat down to a meal with crabcakes, filet mignon, wine, beer, and creme brulee for dessert. Sorry, Mountain House dehydrated meals, you lose to this fine dining. We stuffed our bellies and then made our way back to camp. We played a round of Rage, a fun card game of betting on tricks you will win, before hanging our smell-ables on a nearby bear hang and retiring for the night. What a wonderful day on the trail! We knew heavy rain was in the forecast for our fourth day, so we went to bed feeling a touch anxious about the next day’s plan.

Christine Says: Day Four – Dahlgren Backpack Campground to Gathland State Park (6.8 miles)
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Ah… it was a deluge!  Everyone who had camped at Dahlgren was awake and stirring before it was fully light.  People were skipping their cooked breakfasts and packing gear as quickly as possible, in hopes of beating the impending rain. We stuffed our faces with peanut butter pie cookies and were packed and hiking before 7:00 a.m. We all decided to start with packcovers on and rain gear within easy reach. It was a good plan, because the downpour started before we’d even made it a mile out of camp. At .8 miles, we crossed Reno Monument Road.  More appropriate to a nice, sunny day, there’s a homemade ice cream shop (South Mountain Creamery) just .2 miles east of the trail. I might be the world’s biggest ice cream fan, but even I don’t want it on a wet, windy, 48 degree day.

After crossing the road, we had a one mile gradual uphill climb to Rocky Run Shelters. Typically, we stop at every shelter to report on the facilities, but my camera was stowed away in my dry bag, and no one wanted to add the extra .4 mile round trip on to go visit the shelters. Notice I said shelter(s)? Rocky Run actually has two separate structures. One is a traditional old log and mud shelter and the other is a new shelter similar to the one at Raven Rock. Reportedly, the old shelter has a more reliable water source.

Day Four: Oh No
Day four was a deluge! We ended up calling the day short at Gathland State Park The photo above is the War Correspondent’s Arch. Below: We left camp early with pack covers on; The last dry moment came in the first half mile of hiking; Thank goodness for a picnic shelter.

Day Four: Pack Covers On Day Four: The Last Dry Moment Day Four: Picnic Shelter

After passing the spur trail to the shelter, we had another 1.4 mile climb up to Lambs Knoll. We crossed the paved Lambs Knoll Road and ascended the mountain. We saw a small sign indicating a side trail to visit a view tower. We were in dense fog and pouring rain, so we made a collective ‘nope!’ to visiting the view. Another .2 miles past the tower, there was another view at White Rock Cliff. It was all fog and rain, so we kept moving along the trail. It’s amazing how fast you can hike when it’s cold and wet and there’s nothing to see! After White Rock Cliff, we had a gradual 3.2 mile descent to Crampton Gap Shelter. The descent followed a rocky ridgeline. It would probably have been beautiful on a nicer day. Kris and Adam were moving a bit slower due to the slippery footing. I wanted to go faster to stay warmer, so I pressed ahead. Being cold and wet is one of my outdoor fears (just behind Lyme Disease), so I was doing everything I could to keep my blood pumping. At the spur to Crampton Gap Shelter, we discussed altering our plans for the day. Our goal was to make it to Ed Garvey Shelter (4.1 miles ahead on the trail). It was only 9:45 in the morning, so we knew we’d be there by lunch. We also discussed whether or not we really wanted to spend all day holed up in our tents or the shelter. The alternative would have been a long, cold, miserable, viewless 18 mile day into Harpers Ferry. We agreed to give the matter some thought and re-discuss it when we reached the picnic shelter at Gathland State Park.

Gathland is just .4 miles past Crampton Gap Shelter, and we arrived a little after 10:00 a.m. The park is the former estate of George ‘Gath’ Townsend, a war correspondent during the American Civil War. Visitors can tour the grounds and see the ruins of his mansion, a mausoleum, a museum, and the War Correspondent’s Arch. The park also has a picnic pavilion, which became our refuge from the rain. At our stop, we collectively decided that we didn’t want to spend the day hunkered down in a shelter with tons of other hikers. But, we also didn’t want to hike 18 miles or miss the views from Weverton Cliffs. Fortunately, there is cell phone service along most of the AT in Maryland, so I was able to call the Teahorse Hostel in Harpers Ferry. We asked their shuttle service to pick us up at Gathland and take us into town for the night. We decided to rent bunks in their hostel and finish our last 12 miles the next day (which was forecast to have much better weather.) It was a great decision.

After we got settled into our hostel, we ate at Mena’s Pizza. Below: Scenes from the Teahorse Hostel in Harpers Ferry.

Day Four: Teahorse Day Four: Teahorse Day Four: Teahorse

Within twenty minutes, the three of us were all loaded into a toasty warm Honda and motoring into Harpers Ferry. Since we were so cold and wet, the hostel proprietor let us into the bunkroom before check-in. The hostel was cozy, comfortable, and very clean! We had a chance to shower, wash our muddy clothes, and get warm. While Kris and I showered, the shuttle driver took Adam over to Harpers Ferry Historical Park where we had left our car. The hostel invited us to leave our car in their parking lot so we could slackpack (hike without our heavy camping/cooking gear) our final day.

Our day at the hostel was a lot of fun! It was a full house because of the rain, so we met lots of other hikers. We had good meals at a couple different Harpers Ferry restaurants, relaxed, and had a Connect-4 Tournament. Adam took a couple thru-hikers to WalMart to resupply. During the course of the evening, we reflected several times on how glad we were to not be sitting in a cold, wet shelter. Staying at the hostel turned out to be the perfect fun surprise to mix-up our hiking plan.

Adam Says: Day Five – Gathland State Park to Harpers Ferry (10.8 miles)
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The next morning we were treated to breakfast of waffles, coffee, orange juice, and fresh bananas by the hostel staff. We had arranged for a shuttle back to the trail at 8:00 a.m., (accompanied by thru-hiker Norseman who wanted to take advantage of some easy slackpack miles back to the hostel). We left our car at Teahorse Hostel so we could slackpack back to our car. Getting dropped back at Gathland State Park, we were able to see some of the surrounding buildings that we could barely make out in the downpour and fog the previous day. The trail crossed from the pavilion where we had ‘evacuated’ the trail the previous day. It passed by a few historical buildings before ducking into the woods. The trail was fairly muddy and beat up from the previous day of hard rain. Our thoughts were filled with curiousity about how the rest of our fellow section-hikers were doing. We were worried about how everyone held up because we felt some of the group was struggling even before we added the extra challenge of bad weather.

Day Five: Gorgeous
Hiking in the green, foggy forest was amazing! Below: More history at Gathland State Park; Hiking into the fog; Ed Garvey Shelter.

Day Five: Back at Gathland Day Five: Hiking Day Five: Ed Garvey

The trail was fairly flat for most of the day. We reached Brownsville Gap at 1.9 miles and then continued on a flat, but gorgeous green trail through the woods until we came to the Ed Garvey Shelter at 3.7 miles. We ran into a pair of siblings that were the last to leave the shelter and we asked about the other groups we had met on our section. Almost everyone had stayed there the previous night, but it sounded like everybody hunkered down grimly in their tents and had a rough night. They told us that one family we had met, the parents had bailed out and called for a ride into Harpers Ferry while the sons continued on (they were thinking about hiking parts of the AT in sections as a family). I guess everyone’s spirits were beaten down from the weather, which made us feel guilty for a brief second that we had made the call to get to the hostel and enjoy showers and hot food. The Ed Garvey shelter is a two-story shelter that had an AT symbol formed out of the railings in the loft looking down from the top story. We signed the log, ate a quick snack and then continued. A short time away, we ran into Medicine Man, one of the AT thru-hikers that stayed with us at Teahorse Hostel and had started early to go northbound for the day. Medicine Man was a retired pharmacist (fitting trail name) and one of the most genuine, friendly people you will meet. We wished him luck for the remainder of his hike and continued on. At 5.8 miles, we had caught up to the siblings at the junction with the side trail to Weverton Cliffs. The side trail led down a couple of tenths of a mile down to a large outcropping that overlooks the Potomac River. We could soon hear the sounds of a train going by below us. While the day was hazy and a bit cloudy, we enjoyed watching the river flow below us. This was the last of our scenic views, so we stayed here a while to capture some memories and reflect on all we had done so far.

Day Five: Weverton Cliffs
Enjoying the view of the Potomac. Below: Walking the C&O Towpath; Crossing the pedestrian bridge into old town Harpers Ferry; A view of all the historical buildings.

Day Five: Towpath Day Five: Crossing the Potomac Day Five: Harpers Ferry Oldtown

The remaining “home stretch” of the trip consisted of us rejoining the AT and then hiking down a steep section of switchbacks until we came down to Weverton Road at 6.2 miles. We crossed the road and followed the white blazes until it joined the C&O canal towpath, a converted rails-to-trails biking and walking path. We turned right on the perfectly flat, C&O towpath which coincides with the AT to Harpers Ferry. This part of the hike was honestly a bit boring as we were walking on a wide fire road for miles. On the right, we had a passenger train pass by us, with people waving to us like they were wishing us bon voyage or gawking at us like we were novelty safari animals. On the left we soon came to scattered views of the Potomac River. The water was high from all the rain, but there wasn’t much activity on the river. Driving through this area to visit family, we often see kayaks or whitewater rafts on the river, but I’m sure the water was too dangerous for those escapades. At long last, we finally reached the edge of Harpers Ferry at 8.8 miles. We climbed up a staircase and crossed over the Potomac River via the Byron Memorial Footbridge, marking the border between Maryland and West Virginia.  When we reached the other side of the footbridge, we came to another AT sign and then came into what is known as the historic Old Town part of Harpers Ferry.  The trail walks you right by John Brown’s fort, the site where John Brown and several of his followers barricaded themselves inside in 1859 to initiate a rebellion against slavery in his famous raid.

Beautiful St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church is in old town Harpers Ferry. Below: We were surprised that the trail went back into the woods after old town; At the Appalachian Trail Conservancy; Of course, we ended with beers.

Day Five: Back Into the Woods Day Five: At the ATC Day Five: Of Course - Beers

After the fort, the trail is marked by white blazes carved into lightposts through town. Much to our dismay, the AT through Harpers Ferry has you going continually upward over many steep stairs. We passed by St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and went inside to see this quaint but stunning church that was built in 1833. It was the only church to survive destruction in the Civil War. From here the trail then skirts a hillside until you reach Jefferson Rock at 9.3 miles, a rock named because Thomas Jefferson stood here in 1783 and noted “this view is worth a voyage across the Atlantic”. I don’t know if I would personally agree with him today, but it is a spot to see the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers join. From here, we had more climbing to do until we finally reached a spur trail that led us to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (marked on the sign as the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center). The trail goes through the campus of Storer College, a school that was founded originally as a freedmen’s school to educate black people and once had Frederick Douglass as a trustee. The school was shut down due to funding cuts in 1954, but you can learn about its history on plaques throughout the campus.

We stopped by the ATC and Kris got her section hiker picture taken. We then had about a mile more to walk before we reached Teahorse Hostel and our car. It was a long day, but we felt so accomplished. We drove into to Frederick, MD to eat some celebratory barbecue at Black Hog and then met up with Anthony (who provided our shuttle to start our hike) and his wife, Suzanne, at Flying Dog Brewery. We toasted with beers as we recounted our journey to our friends. It was a wonderful several days on the trail that gave us so many memories that we will remember for some time. While our mileage may seem like child’s play to thru-hikers, we felt accomplished that we had knocked off an entire state in one fell swoop. Some AT thru-hikers go through Maryland as part of a four-state challenge, where they start in Virginia, go through West Virginia and Maryland, and end in one day in Maryland for a total of about 45 miles in one day.  I’m glad we did it they way we did.  We took a leisurely trip with a decent amount of miles each day, but the goal was to have fun and spend some time together sharing the journey.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 42 miles
  • Elevation Change – 6057 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  None of Maryland is really tough.  The first 15 miles are rocky, rolling terrain.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail gets a lot of attention from PATC.  The heavy rains made the trail very wet and muddy the last two days, but there’s nothing you can really do with that much rain.
  • Views – 4.  There are nice views in many places along the trail.  Most look into farmland and suburbia, so they’re not as impressive as other mountain views.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There are a couple small creeks to cross along the way.  We found adequate water sources, but during dryer weather, we’ve heard water can be a challenge on this section.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw and heard lots of bird, squirrels, and chipmunks.  We also saw one deer.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Other than one tricky part between PenMar and High Rock, the trail was well blazed and easy to follow. The spur to Weverton Cliffs is unmarked, but so well-established that you can’t miss it.
  • Solitude – 3.  There were a lot of people on the trail despite us avoiding the weekend.  There were probably more section/day hikers than thru-hikers at camp each night and we traveled at the same pace as three other section groups.

Directions to trailhead: We left a car at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and had a friend shuttle us to PenMar Park.  Parking coordinates to Harpers Ferry are 39.315802, -77.756453. Parking coordinates for PenMar are 39.717725, -77.508274.

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.

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.

Signal Knob

This 10.2 mile hike in the George Washington National Forest has nice views of Strasburg.  It also has rocks – lots and lots of pointy rocks.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Christine on Signal Knob
Christine takes in the view on Signal Knob.  Below: Adam checks out the GWNF information board; The stone cottage; Wild rose.

Trail Sign at the Beginning of Signal Knob Hike Stone Cottage Along the Trail Wild Rose

Christine Says…

Picking day hikes is getting challenging for us – we’ve done most of the popular ones in the area. Yet, somehow, Signal Knob had repeatedly escaped our notice.  We figured a pleasant Sunday in early June was a perfect day to tackle something new!

We started our day early with a big breakfast in Harrisonburg.  Then we stopped for donuts at Holy Moly in Strasburg.  We decided to save the donuts for post-hike, but Holy Moly is so popular (especially on the weekend) that we didn’t want to take the risk of them selling out.

Parking at the Signal Knob trailhead is abundant and completely off-road.  When we arrived there was a small handful of other cars there.   We started out from the trail on the north side of the parking area – look for orange blazes (Massanutten Trail) and a GWNF information board.  The trail climbed steadily right away. We passed a really neat stone cottage right along the trail very early in our hike.  It was in great condition and still looked in-use.   Right after the cottage, we stepped over a small stream and continued uphill.  The lower parts of the trail were lined with wild roses and sweetpeas.  As we climbed higher, mountain laurel became abundant.   The trail was openly exposed to the sun and offered some nice views along the way.

Views Along the Climb to Signal Knob
There were some pretty views through the trees on the climb to Signal Knob. The higher we climbed, the prettier the mountain laurel became. Low elevation laurel had already gone to seed. Below: A neat tree before the Buzzard Rock Overlook; Buzzard Rock Overlook; Fort Valley Overlook.

A Cool Tree on Signal Knob Hike View from Buzzard Rock Fort Valley Overlook

At 1.5 miles, we reached an opening in the trees which gave a backlit view of Buzzard Rocks on the other side of the valley.  I can’t look at Buzzard Rocks without recalling the horrible ankle sprain I suffered there several years ago!  We chatted with an older gentleman at the overlook – he warned us that the trail was about to get rocky!  He wasn’t kidding!  For the next 1.25 miles, the trail was a loose jumble of pointy, shifting rock.

At about 2.5 miles, we passed the marked Fort Valley Overlook.  The view was mostly overgrown, but I can imagine it lovely when the trees were smaller!  Gradually the rockiness tapered off; and so did the climbing.  The trail became a pleasant stroll through the woods.  We passed several nice campsites and passed the junction of the Meneka Peak trail at about 3.5 miles.  The last .8 of a mile to Signal Knob was ever-so-slightly downhill.

When we reached the WVPT building, we thought the open vista behind the building might be the view.  We chatted with a pair of hikers there and asked ‘Is this the only view up here?’  Both of them said ‘Yes… it’s the only view we’ve ever seen and we’ve hiked here lots of times.’  We took them at their word and felt a little underwhelmed by the view – it was obstructed by powerlines and disrupted by a steady buzz from the broadcast tower.  Not wanting to doubt them directly, I whispered to Adam ‘This can’t be it… there’s no view of Strasburg and there’s supposed to be one!’  We decided to explore further before hiking down the fireroad.  I’m glad we did!

Leaving the WVPT tower, do not follow the fire road downhill.  Go past the tower and look for a trail than runs parallel to the ridge.  If you follow it a short distance, you’ll come to a marked overlook – Signal Knob.  We spent some time at the knob relaxing and enjoying a bit of breeze.  Signal Knob is a nice overlook, but not a spectacular one.   It’s a bit closed in and overgrown.  And, if I’m being 100% honest, looking down into Strasburg with its housing developments, water towers, and roads just isn’t as breathtaking as looking out into raw wilderness.   I did also enjoy our ‘company’ at the summit – for whatever reason, Signal Knob was hopping with toads.  We saw dozens of them!  I’ve never seen so many together!

The Signal Knob Trail is Very Rocky
The trail up Signal Knob is extremely rocky.  Below: Once you reach the ridge it’s a bit less rocky; WVPT broadcast; A view behind the tower.

Walking Along the Signal Knob Ridge WVPT View From WVPT

After enjoying the view, we followed the trail slightly downhill past the overlook.  A trail marker directed us toward the Tuscarora Trail. We soon merged onto the fire road we had seen near the broadcast tower.  We followed it downhill for almost a mile before reaching another trail junction.

The turn onto the Tuscarora trail is marked with another national forest information board.  There is also a nice bench at the junction – probably an Eagle Scout project!   Turning onto the Tuscarora Trail, you’ll immediately cross Little Passage Creek.  It was a very easy rock hop.  From there the trail climbs uphill for a little less than a mile. This section was a bit steeper than what was required to reach Signal Knob, but still squarely moderate.

Along the ridge, we passed the other side of the Meneka Peak trail.  Looking at how these trails interconnect is interesting and definitely opens up some longer loop options.   At about 6.4 miles, the trail passed through a small grassy area and began to descend steadily.  There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the rest of the hike.  It was just a walk through the woods.  We saw a big bird’s nest of some sort.  We saw tons of ripening blueberries.  We passed some boy scouts on a weekend backpacking trip. We passed the pink blazed Sidewinder trail at 8.1 miles.  We crossed a stream. At around 9.5 miles we passed a spur trail to Elizabeth Furnace.  At this point the blazes went back to orange.

We found this part of the hike a bit confusing.  Our maps and GPS disagreed on distances for waypoints late in the hike.  There was also a lot of trail construction and rerouting going on.  New paths were cut into the woods all over the place.  Fortunately they all went in the same general direction.  We tried to follow the most established paths.  A little over a half mile past our last trail marker, we spotted a parking lot through the trees.  Adam thought it was a different one from where we started, but our MapMyHike app indicated we made a full loop and we popped out on the south side of the lot where we had started our hike several hours earlier.

The day had become hot, humid, and overcast, so we were glad to be back at the car! We shared just one of the donuts (Peach Bellini!) so we could save room for a big lunch at Spelunker’s in Front Royal.  On the way to lunch, we talked about the hike a bit.  We both agreed that it wasn’t one of our favorites.  I think it’s popular because of its vicinity to northern Virginia, but of the knobs in the Massanutten/Fort Valley area – I like Strickler and Duncan quite a bit more!

Adam Says…

We have had many people recommend Strickler Knob to us over the years.  Knowing of its popularity, we thought it would be a good idea to get an early start.  When we arrived, there were not many cars there, but from the size of the parking lot we knew it was a matter of time.

We started out on the north (right) side of the parking lot.  The orange-blazed Massanutten trail started off our loop hike.  The trail starts uphill and soon passes a large stone cabin on the left, while you can see a stream below to the right.  You cross over the stream and then loop back in a northerly direction.  At 1.5 miles, we reached Buzzard Rocks overlook.  We talked there to an older man who was out for some morning exercise.  He warned us of about a mile of pointy rocks ahead.  Since he was hiking solo, he told us he doesn’t want to risk hurting himself and just goes to this overlook and back.

The trail takes a sharp left turn and then within a few minutes, we found the rocky area we had been warned about.  Wear comfortable shoes, as the rocks were pointy and you always had to look at your feet to navigate through safe footing.

The View from Signal Knob
You can see the town of Strasburg from Signal Knob. We weren’t terribly impressed with the view.  Below: Toads everywhere; The fire road; The information board at the junction with the Tuscarora Trail; A glimpse of a view.

Cute Toad The Fire Road Descending Signal Knob
Junction of the Massanutten and Tuscarora Trails View from the Tuscarora Trail

At 2.4 miles, we arrived at the sign for the Fort Valley overlook.  The trees and leaves have this very obstructed now, but you can get a glimpse of the valley below.  At 3.4 miles, we arrived at the junction with the white-blazed  Maneka Peak trail, but continue on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail.  The trail leveled out at this point, giving us a nice forest walk until we reached the broadcast tower at 4.3 miles.   We walked behind the building on a small path and saw nice views on the backside of the tower.  We were feeling disappointed when the two girls had said this was the view.  My idea of views doesn’t include power lines cutting through the landscape.  There were lots of bugs flying around us, so we didn’t stay here long.

We pushed on from the tower and saw that there was a huge fire road leading down, but the trail blazes seemed to continue forward back into the woods.  We decided to take this route and then within a short distance came to the real view.  We both felt bad that these girls, who had been up here several times, had always missed the real view up here.  The view here did give us nice views of Strasburg below.  I noticed that one of the rocks had a plaque below it that was put in here for a couple that loved coming up here.

Walking the Tuscarora Trail
Adam walks along the Tuscarora Trail. Below: Stream crossing near the end of the hike; Pretty butterfly; Holy Moly!

Crossing Little Passage Creek Pretty Butterfly Holy Moly Donuts

The trail then loops back and does join the fire road very shortly.  We walked down the steep fire road and came upon another hiker who had just hiked up the fire road to the summit.  The fire road was a fairly steep descent and had nice wildflowers along both sides.  At 5.5 miles, we came across a bench and a junction with the blue-blazed Tuscarora trail.  We took this trail to start our return trip.  The Tuscarora Trail was more overgrown and the climb up Meneka Peak was the steepest climb on this hike.  We were finally finished with the uphill at 6.4 miles and then the trail descends on the other side of the ridgeline just as steeply.

The trail descends for a good distance.  At 8.1 miles, we passed by the pink-blazed Sidewinder trail and the trail leveled out a little more.  We continued on and the trail became orange-blazed again at 9.5 miles.  We followed the orange-blazed trail through the tricky section mentioned above and then arrived back at a lower section of the parking lot at 10.2 miles.

Overall, I was underwhelmed on this hike.  The views were nice, but I have seen a lot better view hikes.  I can imagine that in a few years, the trees and bushes may obstruct the main view even further.

Because of the inner-connectivity of all the trails in this area, there are many options for backpacking loops through this trail system.  The loop that we chose didn’t have a lot to offer after the summit.  If I was doing this again, I would likely do just an out-and-back hike to the summit, making this an 8.6 hike.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 10.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2159 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  The climbing on this trail is all easy to moderate, but the distance and loose/rocky footing increase the difficulty rating.
  • Trail Conditions – 2.5.  The trail is rocky and shifty – especially the middle part.
  • Views  3.  There are descent views from Signal Knob and the WVPT broadcast facility.  While other reviews give the vistas on this hike top marks, we thought they were just OK.  The WVPT view had powerlines and the Signal Knob view is starting to get a bit overgrown and looks out toward an suburban area. 
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There were a couple small streams that could be used as water sources.  We believe they dry out pretty quickly based on the fact that they were already on the low side after a week of rainy days.
  • Wildlife – 3. We saw lots of cute toads hopping around, and supposedly this is a good place for a potential bear sighting.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5. The blazing in this area is very thorough, but trail junctions are inconsistently marked.  As of June 2015, it appears the forest service is working on a reroute of the last .5-.75 miles of the hike.  There are lots of unmarked trails that criss-cross the established, blazed trail.
  • Solitude – 3.  We saw a good number of couples and solo hikers out for a day hike.  We also saw a group of college students and a boy scout troop out backpacking.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From I-66, take exit 6 for US-340/US-522 for Front Royal/Winchester.  Turn on to US-340S/US-522S/Winchester Road.  Go 1.2 miles and take a right on to VA-55W/W Strasburg Road.  Go 5.1 miles and take a left on to State Route 678/Fort Valley Road.  Go 3.4 miles until you reach the large parking lot on the right.  Park here.  The trail starts on the right side of the lot.  You will see the wooden information board that will mark the beginning of your hike. Parking coordinates: 38.93503, -78.31956