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

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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

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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!

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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.

Download DAY FOUR Maps and Elevation Profiles

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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.

Download DAY SIX Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Six - Map Day Six - Elevation

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)

Appalachian Trail – Catawba to Daleville

IMPORTANT: Please read these important regulations and helpful tips before hiking in this area

This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail segment crosses the most photographed spot on the entire trail – McAfee Knob.  Even though the view from McAfee is fantastic,  there are great views all along the section.  In fact, we think the view from Tinker Cliffs rivals the majesty of McAfee.

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McAfee Knob
Goofing off on the iconic McAfee Knob ledge!

Day One (11 miles)…

Last fall, I told Adam I wanted to backpack McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs for my birthday. We planned our mileage, picked our meals, and hired a shuttle driver. When the Friday of our hike arrived, it was forecast to be blazing hot. The area was also experiencing a prolonged drought. The water sources along this stretch are typically reliable and we thought being on a high mountain ridge would cool things off a bit, so we loaded up and headed out.

On the way to our start point at Catawba, our shuttle driver (Homer Witcher – we’ve used him before and he’s a fantastic part of the Appalachian Trail community) told us that just a few days earlier, a woman and her daughter were crushed under a falling tree at one of the campsites along the route. He had assisted EMTs with the rescue operation. Fortunately, the daughter escaped with minor injuries and the mother recovered after a hospital stay. Scary!

Rocky Climb Early in the Hike
The climb was a little steep and rocky in the beginning.  Below: Parking on Route 311; Johns Spring Shelter; Catawba Mountain Shelter.

McAfee parking Johns Spring Shelter Catawba Mountain Shelter

Homer dropped us off at Catawba parking around 9:30 a.m. Despite it being early(ish) on a Friday, there were already numerous cars in the lot. This is an extremely popular area for hiking and the lot frequently fills and overflows by mid-morning, especially on the weekends. There are strict regulations for where you can park, and cars are frequently towed from this area. Take these rules seriously! You can read more about parking issues in the Roanoke Times article.

The northbound Appalachian Trail starts on the other side of route 311.  We crossed and immediately began an ascent over dry, dusty terrain.  Just a mile into the hike, we passed Johns Spring Shelter.  It’s a typical AT shelter and has space for six people.  There are a few tent sites and a privy nearby.  The water source near this shelter is usually small, but it was bone dry on the day we hiked.

In another mile, we passed the Catawba Mountain Shelter.  It’s a similar set-up to Johns Spring in terms of space. There are also several nice campsites with metal fire pits just north of this shelter. After passing this shelter, there is a steady 1.7 mile climb to the view at McAfee Knob.  On the way to the top, you’ll cross a fire road.  Stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  Near the top, you’ll pass through an impressive jumble of truck to cabin sized boulders.  The overlook is a couple hundred feet to the left of the trail and is marked by a small sign.

McAfee Knob
The view from McAfee Knob is gorgeous! Below: Before you reach the knob you pass under powerlines;  Rock formations before McAfee Knob; It’s a tradition to sit on the edge of the overhanging rock.

Crossing the Powerlines Boulders Sitting on McAfee Knob

Views from the overlook are majestic and expansive. The long ridge on the the right carries the Appalachian Trail over to Tinker Cliffs. On a clear day, you’ll see the cliffs shimmering in the distance. When you’re at McAfee, don’t miss the opportunity to sit on the ledge with your feet dangling into the abyss. It’s a tradition and isn’t as scary as it looks.

After leaving the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply into a maze of giant boulders. There are narrow openings in the maze, making it a fun place to explore. A half mile later, there is an open meadow under powerlines and a nice view of the distant mountains. The descent continues for about 1.2 miles. At the bottom, you’ll reach the Pig Farm Campsite and shortly after that – Campbell Shelter. The shelter is on an elevated platform and there is a privy, picnic table, and bear locker at the site.  The water source, located about 150 yards to the left of the shelter, was also dry!

Rock Formations
After leaving McAfee, you descend through a maze of boulders. There are many interesting rock formations on this section. Below: An eastern fence lizard; Campbell Shelter; The weeds were hip to shoulder high along the trail; A nice shady spot to rest; We got one distant look at the reservoir on the first day; After descending into this grassy area, you begin the tough climb to Tinker Cliffs.

Eastern Fence Lizard Campbell Shelter Tall Goldenrod Along Trail
A Shady Spot to Rest First Reservoir View Tinker Climb

After the shelter, the trail follows rolling terrain for 3.1 miles until you reach a grassy opening at Brickeys Gap. There is a trail to the left, but you’ll stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail and begin a steep uphill climb toward Tinker Cliffs. The ascent goes on for 1.8 miles.  On this particular day, the climb was especially rough. We were both tired from the heat and running low on water.

Navigating the trail as it heads up Tinker Cliffs is a bit tricky. Look carefully for white blazes and arrows. There will be openings in the rocks that look like trail, but they’re not. Most of these openings are blocked by branches dragged across the ground, but if you’re not paying attention you might head the wrong way. When we finally made it to the top of the cliffs, the views made all the effort worthwhile. We had the entire overlook all to ourselves! I thought the views from Tinker Cliffs were even better than McAfee Knob.  I took off my shoes and socks and let myself bake for a few minutes in the late afternoon sun.  It was probably still in the low 90s – such a hot day for late September!

It was clear that many people had camped at the top of Tinker Cliffs,  camping is strictly prohibited on top Tinker Cliffs. We made our way along the open cliffside for about half a mile before descending back into the trees.

Tinker Cliffs
The view from Tinker Cliffs was as nice as McAfee. Below: On the climb up you get a nice meadow view; The trail is a little tricky so pay attention to signage and look for logs blocking the wrong way; It was still around 90 degrees when we got to the top of Tinker (notice the beet red face); Adam walks along the cliffside; Descending beneath Tinker Cliffs; the final mile into camp was easy terrain.

View on the Climb Pay Attention to The Turn So Stinking Hot
Tinker Cliffside Descending Under Tinker Approaching Lambert Meadow

The trail passes beneath the cliffs and then rambles downhill for about a mile until it reaches Scorched Earth Gap and the junction with the Andy Layne Trail. From there, we had an easy .6 mile stroll to our campsite at Lamberts Meadow Shelter. When we arrived, there was one other section hiker already there. We picked a campsite across the ‘stream’ from the shelter. Note, I put stream in quotes because when we visited it was nothing but a series of shallow muddy pools.

We got the tent set up and changed into camp clothes. It took us a full hour to filter four liters of water! First, we had to scoop water into our bucket. It was full of mud, pebbles, mosquito larvae, and algae, so we had to filter that water through a bandanna into our Sawyer bags. The we squeezed the water through the Sawyer into our Camelbaks.  It was the color of weak tea, so I chose to treat it with Aquamira on top of the filtering.  It was nasty!

We Made It to Camp
We made it to camp at Lamberts Meadow Shelter! Below: We set up camp on the opposite side of the stream; The lousy, dank water source.

Camp Dank Water Source

We set aside a couple cups of the water to make dinner, leaving us each with just under two liters of water for the next day. It took so long to deal with water, that it was almost dark when we headed up to the shelter to cook. By then, a couple other section hikers had arrived at the shelter. They were former military and had done a lot of the trail. We chatted about gear and favorite spots along the AT. They told us a tale about finding a body near Tinker Cliffs on a hike fifteen years earlier. They had become lost on the trail headed up the cliffs and found a body from the 1940s or 50s in the woods under the cliffs. It was a crazy story!

After dinner, we headed back down to the tent. It was still too hot to make a fire and we were both pretty tired, so we turned in early. It was a stuffy, fitful night in the tent. It’s hard to get comfortable when you’re sweaty and stuck to your sleeping pad. Still… it had been a beautiful day with lots of amazing scenery.

Day Two (9.5 miles)…

We woke up at daybreak and knew it was going to be a hot day.  The temperature was already in the mid-70s. We didn’t have much water to drink or cook with, so we opted to eat some Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies for breakfast. They are good calorie bombs for some fast energy and didn’t require any water. This was definitely the scariest water source we have had to use, so conserving water until we found something else was our plan. We packed up camp quickly and then made our way back on the Appalachian Trail, heading north to make our way back to our car.

In .3 miles, we came across the Lamberts Meadow Campsite, which also had no water in the stream next to the campsite. We saw the fallen tree that had smashed through the picnic table. Homer had told us that if that picnic table hadn’t been there, it would have likely fallen directly on the tent.  He was planning in another week to build and bring another table down there to replace the one that had been smashed. Since there isn’t great access to this area except for a long hike, I can’t imagine hauling a big table through the woods like this, especially at Homer’s age (in his 70’s). Homer is the true definition of a trail angel and has helped so many AT thru-hikers and others along the way.

Pretty morning light
We set off early. The morning was already hot and humid. Below: This huge tree fell and injured two hikers the weekend before we hiked; A beautiful farmland view on day two; There was not a lot of climbing on day two, but the terrain was rockier.

Blowdown Farm Views Rocky Terrain

From the campsite, we continued on the AT.  At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a blue-blazed trail that led to a nice viewpoint to the west.   The trail began to slope downwards and at 4.3 miles we reached Angels Gap.  The heat continued to increase and we were already extremely thirsty. We drank when we felt we needed to, but we both were already running low on water.  The sun was beating down since the area was more open. At 4.7 miles, we first heard the buzzing of a powerline and soon it came into view.  At 5.5 miles, we reached Hay Rock.  We skipped climbing up the rock, since we were already getting good views of Carvins Cove Reservoir all along the trail. Many people do Hay Rock as a day hike coming from Daleville.

The trail stayed relatively flat, but was rocky and exposed us to the sun for a bit. We crossed over an open field with tiny little seed pods that were blowing in the hot wind.  It looked like snow that was coming down, but the temperature told us otherwise.  We had just watched Stranger Things on Netflix and it reminded us of something supernatural or alien that was happening in this area. We came to another powerline at 6.7 miles, but this one gave us wonderful views.  We didn’t stay long since we wanted to get out of the direct sun. Christine had run out of water, but I had saved a bit for her to have.

Enjoying a View
Christine enjoys a view on day two.  Below: Adam approaches Hay Rock.  There’s a nice view of the reservoir from the top, but we skipped climbing it; More rocky terrain; Carvins Cove reservoir.

Hay Rock More Rocks Carvin Cove Reservoir

Shortly after we left these views from the power lines, the trail finally ducked back into the woods and began a descent. We ran into a Ridge Runner on the trail that was talking to hikers and seeing if they were alright with the heat and lack of water. Ridge Runners are paid to monitor the trail and assist hikers. I would have loved some water, but we knew we could make it just a few more miles. We told him about the lack of water on the trail, so hopefully they came across others that were in bigger need. We crossed powerlines again at 7.5 miles, 8.3 miles, and 8.9 miles. Shortly after this last powerline, we crossed over some railroad tracks and a bridge.  It was only a few more tenths of a mile and at 9.5 miles we made it back to our car exhausted and thirsty.

Carvin Cove Reservoir
A beautiful view of the Carvins Cove Reservoir.  Below: A lot of day two was unshaded; We passed through a meadow with seed pods flying everywhere in the breeze – it was like being in a snowglobe; The descent was welcome as the day got hotter; We crossed railroad tracks; A pretty section of pines; We met this blacksnake.

More Powerlines Pollen Storm Descending
Tracks  Pines Black Snake

When we got back to our car, our first order of business was to get something to drink.  We hopped in our car and jumped into a gas station across the street and downed some Gatorades in record time. We decided we wanted to eat some barbecue and drink some beer to celebrate. Since we had made an early start to our day, it was just a little after noon when we got off the trail. We made our way to Flying Mouse Brewery (this brewery closed at the end of 2018) and our Maps app on our phones said that it would be closed when we arrived.  We thought we would give it a shot anyway in the off chance it was open.  As we were driving up, I saw signs for Virginia Momentum and saw runners.  Virginia Momentum is a company started by a friend of mine that holds races across Virginia that helps support local charities. When we got to Flying Mouse Brewery, they were hosting a brewery-to-brewery race there, so it was open. We felt that someone was looking out for us and went inside to get a flight of beer samples and enjoyed talking to our friends that were participating. While running these long races is impressive, we did earn some props by just having come off the trail carrying some heavy weight.  After some tasty beverages, we made our way to Three Li’l Pigs BBQ, which always has amazing food and is perfect for a post-hike stop.

This backpacking trip had some other significance to us as well. While it was Christine’s birthday, McAfee Knob was one of the first posts that started Virginia Trail Guide. We’ve learned a lot along the way about how to tell our story of the trails.  If you’re looking for one of Virginia’s most famous hikes to serve as a backpacking route, try this one out.  McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail.  We enjoyed taking the ceremonial pictures at the top.  We even mimicked the A Walk in the Woods movie poster shot of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte to show how the scale was wrong for that poster. While we had hiked McAfee Knob before, this was our first trip to Tinker Cliffs and we both thought this was something not to be missed.  This route makes up two-thirds of Virginia’s Triple Crown (with the other third being nearby Dragon’s Tooth) and it is definitely worth the hype.  Just go on a cooler day and pray for better water sources.

Beers
You have to finish with a cold beverage!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 20.5 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
  • Elevation Change – 3400 ft.
  • Difficulty –  4.  Day one is the tougher day with about 2500 feet of climbing.  Day two is significantly easier with just over 900 feet of elevation gain.  
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was in great shape and beautifully maintained by the RATC (Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club).
  • Views  5.  The views here are iconic, magnificent, and they just keep coming!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There are small springs and streams adequate for a water source for cooking/filtering, but there was nothing really scenic. 
  • Wildlife – 4.  A yearling bear hung out between Lamberts Meadow shelter and Lamberts Meadow campsite for much of the evening. We also saw fence lizards and deer in a couple places.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail is well-marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 1.  This is one of the most popular stretches of trail in the area, so expect to see many people – especially if you go in fair weather. Campsites can be crowded and parking is an issue on the Catawba side.  Note: Parking regulations were recently changed.  Do not park along the road, or you will be towed.

Special regulations for this area:

  • Maximum group size, day hikes: 25
  • Maximum group size, backpacking/camping: 10
  • No alcohol
  • Dogs must be kept on leash at all times
  • No camping or campfires outside of seven designated areas (north of Va 624/Newport Rd, the only legal campsites are Johns Spring Shelter, Catawba Shelter and campsites, Pig Farm campsite, Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter and campsites)
  • No camping or campfires on McAfee Knob or Tinker Cliffs

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for the parking area to start this hike are 37.380125, -80.089694.  You will park at the McAfee Knob trailhead parking area on Rt. 311 in Catawba.  You must park in the lot.  Roadside parking is prohibited and cars will be towed.

Appalachian Trail – Elk Garden to Buzzard Rock

If you like high meadows and spectacular vistas all-around, this easy 7.2 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail is a perfect fit!  The hike meanders through lovely forest and then takes you across open balds on two of the state’s tallest mountains. It’s a majestic hike!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The Appalachian Trail Near Whitetop Mountain
The Appalachian Trail Near Whitetop Mountain.  Below: Hiking the Appalchian Trail; Wildflowers; A buck and a fawn.

The Appalachian Trail Near Elk Garden Flowers on the AT A Buck With a Fawn Friend

Adam Says…

On our trip to southwest Virginia, we did three hikes in three days and they were all very distinct.  We explored the slot canyons of the Great Channels, we discovered the serene waters of Devils Bathtub, and then we took in majestic views from a high bald on this trip to Buzzard Rock.  All of the experiences on these three hikes were memorable in different ways and when we were talking about our favorite, is was hard to pick one.  The day we did this hike was my birthday and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.

The trail starts from the Elk Garden parking lot by entering the woods behind the parking lot and heading south on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail.  The trail ascends mostly over the first two miles, but we never found it too difficult (you only gain about 700 feet of elevation over those two miles).  The trail bisected a sea of fern and short understory with tall trees above, painting a beautiful forest walk.

The AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
A twisted old tree along the AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Below: Appalachian Trail scenes.

Pretty Open Forest Along The AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Pretty Open Forest Along The AT in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

At 1.7 miles, a small trickle of a stream passed over the trail, but it was quite dry and not a reliable water source.  At 2.4 miles, we passed by a series of campsites to the left of the trail and crossed over Whitetop Mountain Road  and came into an open field.  The views around us were quite hazy, but we know on a clear day you would have some magnificent views.  At 2.5 miles, we walked pass a small spring that was on the eastern (left) side of the trail.  We talked briefly to a couple of AT section hikers were pausing to eat lunch and refill water bottles here.   The trail descends slightly, dips into the woods again, and then emerges into the open bald leading up to Buzzard Rock.   The views are outstanding along the open bald and the trail leads you right to the only outcropping of rock nearby at 3.3 miles, known as Buzzard Rock.  From the summit you can also see another trail leading up to Whitetop Mountain Road.  According to peakery.com, Buzzard Rock is the fourth highest peak in Virginia at 5,095 feet.  You can see the Whitetop Mountain peak and Mount Rogers from the rock, which are the third and first highest peaks respectively.

At Buzzard Rock and the open bald surrounding area, you have panoramic views to both the east and west.  There were a large bank of clouds moving our way, so we knew some rain was likely.  We ate some lunch and talked to a couple at the summit.  The man we talked to had been visiting this spot since he was in high school in the early 1960s.  He told me that when he first visited nearby Whitetop Mountain, there used to be cabins at the top.  Whitetop Mountain Road used to have a toll gate where they would charge $2 per person in the car to drive to the top and $2 per person to stay in the cabins.  He and his friends would hide in the trunk to keep from paying and climb in the windows to avoid the extra charges.  He told us how they would knock on the cabins to inspect who was staying there and they would have to jump out the window to avoid being caught.  They also charged $1 per person to take the hike down from Whitetop Mountain to Buzzard Rock.  So, he was enjoying doing this hike for free these days.  Many people that visit Buzzard Rock tend to drive up Whitetop Mountain Road and then hike down from the road, for a short but easy out-and-back.  Another interesting piece of trivia about Whitetop Mountain is that they used to hold a folk festival in the 1930s here and Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1933, during her first year of being First Lady, which drew 20,000 visitors to the mountain.

Rocky Steps Along the Appalachian Trail
Rocky Steps Along the Appalachian Trail. Below: Campsites near the road crossing; Entering the high meadows; Foggy view looking at christmas tree farms.

Campsites Near Whitetop Mountain Open Meadow Walking Near Whitetop Mountain View from the Appalachian Trail of Christmas Tree Farm

We decided to head back the way we came (make sure you stay on the AT trail and don’t take the path to Whitetop Mountain Road) and almost as soon as we ducked into the woods, it started to rain.  We made a quick choice to put on our rain gear and within minutes we were in a full downpour.  We made haste along the trail on our return.  While this would have ruined some people’s spirits, we enjoyed walking through the rain.  We saw a few tents on our way back from people that had quickly set them up to escape the downpour.  About a mile from the end of the hike, the rain stopped and we reached our car at 6.6 miles.

After seeing it listed in our AWOL Appalachian Trail guide, we decided to continue on the AT to check out another view from Elk Garden.  We dumped some of our wet gear, crossed the road, and made our way up a steep hill for an added on .3 miles to another plateau.  We did see more views from this hill summit and saw a large herd of cows in the valley below us (we had seen humongous cow patties on our way up the hill, so we thought we may encounter some).  We took a few minutes checking out the views. We then descended the hill and returned to our car yet again.  It was a great day on the trail and we were surprised at how great the views were on this hike!

Christine Says…

This hike was the perfect finish to our four-day visit to southwest Virginia!  We aren’t terribly familiar with the trails in this area, so when I was looking for another hike to do on our trip, I turned to our AWOL guide.  The guide is a detailed resource outlining the entire Appalachian Trail from end to end.  It includes elevation profiles, distances, camping options, water sources, and scenic stops along the way.  Each noteworthy view is marked in the book with a camera icon.  For this stretch, there was just one marked viewpoint – near the parking lot at Elk Garden. I figured we would get one nice view from Elk Garden, and then walk a few additional miles along the Appalachian Trail.  I didn’t expect to get such amazing views from both the flank of Whitetop Mountain and from the rocky outcropping atop Buzzard Rock Mountain.  Neither of those spots were marked with a camera icon in the AWOL guide, so the additional views turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Wildflowers in Meadows Near Whitetop Mountain
Wildflowers in Meadows Near Whitetop Mountain. Below: High meadow walking; Loads of blueberries; Back into the woods

Meadow on the Appalachian Trail So Many Blueberries on the Appalachian Trail Saddle in the Woods

The first couple miles of the hike climbed gently through pretty, open forest.  The trail was mostly soft dirt with just a few rocky spots.  About a mile into the hike, we saw a buck hanging out with a tiny spotted fawn.  It was unusual to see a young fawn hanging out with an adult male instead of his mother.  They were cute and watched us suspiciously from a safe distance.

At 2.4 miles we crossed Whitetop Mountain Road and stepped out into an open meadow.  There were tons of wildflowers in every color, bees buzzed busily collecting pollen, and there were tons of wild blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.  The view was gorgeous and a little misty.  The thin fog obscured a bit of the vista’s majesty, but since we weren’t expecting a view at all, it was a treat.  The trail continued through the open meadow for a few tenths of a mile before reentering the woods.  I wondered aloud to Adam if there would be more views.  He thought the woods looked like they cleared in the next half mile and that Buzzard Rock sounded like it could be something worth checking out… and he was right!

Buzzard Rock Near Whitetop Mountain
Buzzard Rock Near Whitetop Mountain.  Below: Enjoying the top of Buzzard Rock Mountain.

Approaching Buzzard Rock Ferns and Views Adam Takes in the View

We stepped out of the woods again into another mountaintop bald.  The Appalachian Trail climbed the hill like a dark ribbon through a sea of grass.  Off in the distance, athe top of the hill, we could see a rocky outcropping.  There were big, fast-moving, banks of clouds, so the valley below came in and out of view as we climbed.

We reached the rocky pinnacle and stopped to take in everything around us.  It was spectacular! Little bits of clear blue skies opened through the clouds and the view below came and went as the clouds moved.  The wind rustled the tall grass all around us.  We wook lots of photos and ate our lunch.  After a while, I noticed that the clouds were starting to darken and gather.  It was time to head back!

Christine Enjoys the Views
Taking in the views near Whitetop Mountain. Below:  Storms approaching; Back into the woods right before the rain.

A Look Back at Buzzard Rock Views from WhitetopHiking Back

We made it back into the woods just as the rain started.  At first, it was just a few drops and we thought it might blow over.  But instead, it picked up becoming a steady rain and then a torrential downpour.  I packed my camera away and got out my freebie JMU poncho.  I prefer a cheap plastic poncho to my Marmot rain jacket in the summer.  The poncho covers my backpack and my clothes without trapping in any of the body heat from hiking.  The rain relentlessly poured down for almost 2.5 miles of hiking.  The trail was running like a stream.  It might be some of the hardest rain we’ve ever hiked in.

A couple tenths of a mile before we got back to Elk Garden, the rain tapered off and the sun came out.  I didn’t feel like stopping, so I hiked on in my poncho.  We passed the car in the parking lot, crossed the highway and made our way uphill to the Elk Garden view. To climb the hill, you have to open a farm gate.  Be sure you securely latch it after crossing, as it keeps the cow herd safely enclosed. And yes… you may have some close encounters with BIG cows on this part of the hike.

The storm had cleared out the mist and the low clouds and the sky was blue and the view was clear.  We took in the views of the cow herd and Mount Rogers off in the distance.  After the hike, we headed into Damascus for ice cream and a stop at the outdoor outfitters.  It was a great way to celebrate Adam’s birthday!

Elk Garden Views
After the storms stopped, we got great views from Elk Garden. The little black dots are cows. Below: Thankful for cheap ponchos; Campsite with a view toward Mount Rogers.

Cheap Poncho Cheap Poncho Campsite at Elk Garden

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 7.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1225 ft
  • Difficulty –  2.5.  This was an easier hike that had a huge payoff for minimum effort.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail was well-maintained and we didn’t have any issues.  I imagine it could be overgrown somewhat in the spring. 
  • Views –  5.  You have great views from Buzzard Rock and Elk Garden. 
  • Waterfalls/streams 0.  Non-existent.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We did see deer along the trail.  You likely won’t see much on the bald areas, but the woods and elevation add to some wildlife possibilities.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  Just follow the white-blazed AT markers.
  • Solitude – 3.5.  This is a popular spot for locals, but because of the vastness of the bald, you can find your own solitude for the summit if you desire.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Parking lot GPS directions are N36 378.769 W 82 34.992  From Damascus, VA take US-58 East for 10.5 miles.  Instead of turning right to stay on US-58, go straight on 603/Konnarock Road for 2.7 miles.  Turn right onto 600/Whitetop Road and follow that for 5.2 miles until you reach the parking lot for Elk Garden on the right.

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

Devils Bathtub

This 3.6 mile hike takes you over more than 15 water-crossings to see a series of small waterfalls and swimming holes.  The main scenic draw of this hike is the visit to the Devils Bathtub – a beautiful sandstone formation in the streambed.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Follow the Devils Bathtub page on Facebook (current conditions, updates, and tips)

The Devils Bathtub
The Devils Bathtub is a perfectly clear, oval pit in the sandstone. It really does look like a bathtub! When we visited the water levels were very low.  Normally the striated area above the tub forms an even larger pool. Below: Stairs at the beginning of the hike; First water crossing; Early part of the trail.

Devils Bathtub Hike One of 11 or 12 Crossings The Devils Bathtub Hike Requires Very Little Climbing

Christine Says…

The Devils Bathtub popped up on our radar after getting quite a bit of attention on the internet. Sometime after 2014, it started showing up on Pinterest, on Reddit, on lists of most beautiful places in each state – even the Weather Channel called it Virginia’s hidden gem. As dedicated hikers, we wondered how such an amazing place could have escaped our notice for so long.

As it turned out, this hike has been hiding in our plain sight for years.  The route to the Devil’s Bathtub is fully outlined in Bill and Mary Burnham’s ‘Hiking Virginia’ guidebook as part of the larger Devil’s Fork loop.  Burnham’s description of the scenery was far less dramatic than accounts we read on the internet.  And, we’re rarely in the far southwest corner of Virginia, so we stayed in the dark like most outdoorsy Virginians.

However, on our summer trip to the Abingdon area, we finally had a chance to find out first-hand if the Devil’s Bathtub lived up to its internet hype.

First off, the Devil’s Bathtub is in the middle of nowhere in Scott County, Virginia.  There isn’t a nearby gas station to ask for directions or use the restroom.  You probably won’t have any cell service, so make sure you have good directions and all your trail information ahead of time.  Second, the last bit of road to get to the trailhead parking is quite rugged with mud and deep potholes in the road bed.  Our Subaru did fine, but it was a bumpy ride!  Third, parking for this hike is extremely limited with room for just a few cars.  We visited early in the morning on a quiet, overcast weekday, so there was just one other car when we arrived. We’ve heard parking can be a nightmare for this hike, so time your visit strategically.

Red Newt Eft
We saw dozens and dozens of these efts. Below: Scenery along the stream

Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike

Once we got past the logistical challenges – location, road access, and parking, we were all set to see this spectacular beauty spot!  The hike started at the top of a staircase at the top of the parking area.  At the top of the stairs, follow the trail to the left, passing almost immediately under/around a locked metal gate.  In just a quarter mile, you’ll have your first of many stream crossings.  The first crossing was the widest and deepest we experienced on the hike – and we visited during drought conditions.  During periods of heavier rain or snow melt, this stream crossing could be quite a bit deeper and wider.

Shortly after the first stream crossing, you’ll reach marked split in the trail.  You’ll want to bear to the left, following the arrow in the direction of the Devils Bathtub.  The sign says it’s 1.8 miles to the Bathtub, but our GPS calculated the hike at almost a full half mile shorter by the end of the round trip.  This route is also the most direct way to the scenery and is an out-and-back hike.  There is a full 7-mile loop of this area, but all recent accounts say that most of the trail is poorly blazed, covered with blowdowns, and beset by aggressive wasps.

After the junction, we continued along following the yellow blazes.  Even though the trail doesn’t climb much in elevation, it still provides challenges with its sporadic blazing and 15+ water crossings.  It was really easy to lose the yellow blazes, as the trail is eroded and appears to have been relocated several times.  We made our way by carefully looking for yellow blazes any time the trail wasn’t abundantly clear.  We were lucky to visit in a time of low water, so all of the water crossings were easily passable.  I imagine the way could be really tricky when there is more rain.

We passed a neat cliff-side that looked like it was built out of block.  It was set off the trail, about 20 feet into the woods. Shortly after the cliff, the trail dipped down along an eroded bank next to the stream.  There was a rope fixed to the uphill side of the trail to make passage a little easier.   At the end of the rope, we reached the beautiful sandstone streambed that makes this area so popular.

Rock Formations on the Devils Bathtub Hike
Rock Formations on the Devils Bathtub Hike. Below: More stream scenery; A rope assist along the eroded trail; Steep eroded bank

Low Water Levels at Devils Bathtub Narrow Trail One Steep Climb on Devil's Bathtub

The trail crossed the stream one final time at the base of a large pool with a small waterfall.  I imagine a lot of people reach this point and think it’s the Bathtub.  It’s a pretty spot with deep, clear green water.  But, to get to the Bathtub you should continue along the trail up a short but very steep scramble up the bankside.

At the top of the bank, a newer wooden sign indicates that you’ve reached the Devil’s Bathtub.  If you follow the footpath down to the stream’s edge, you’ll find the formation at the base of another small waterfall.  It’s a gorgeous spot, though smaller than I expected it to be.  The water was low on our trip, so I’d say the tub was only about half full!

We explored and photographed the area for a while… dismayed by the enormous amount of garbage left behind by other hikers. We saw dirty diapers, Styrofoam cups, beer cans/bottles, tampon applicators, sodden socks, discarded t-shirts, empty pudding cups, a spent asthma inhaler, and countless cigarette butts.  I simply can’t understand how a person can visit such a naturally lovely place, and feel alright about leaving their trash behind.  Adam and I ended up carrying out three bags of garbage, and it didn’t even make a dent in what was still left behind.

After a while, a couple more groups of hikers joined us at the Bathtub, so we decided to pack up and make our way back to the car.  To exit, we simply retraced our steps.  On the way out, I kept thinking about all the litter we saw on our hike.  If you choose to do this hike (and we hope you will) please bring a trash bag and help clean up along the way!  This is a gorgeous area – but it’s overused and fragile.

Adam Says…

A friend of mine had asked me about a year ago if we had hiked Devil’s Bathtub yet.  After checking out pictures online, I knew this is one we had to put on our radar.  Living several hours away and the fact this is a short hike made our decision to incorporate this hike into a four-day trip to check out a bunch of hikes in southwest Virginia.

This hike does have some challenges involved – navigating to parking without reliable GPS signal, the bumpy drive on the fire road to get to parking, the often poor blazing on the trail, and the numerous stream crossings.  But with a little determination, we found our way to this gorgeous spot.

The Devils Bathtub
Adam enjoys the Devils Bathtub. Below: Signage; Terrain around the Bathtub; The Bathtub

Trail Sign Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike

From the parking lot, we heading up the short flight of stairs where we met the trail.  There are no signs to say which way to go, but we took a left at the top of the stairs and found we were correct.  The yellow-blazed trail leads to a gate and passing through, the trail leads down to your first of about 15 stream crossings at .15 miles.  When we went, the water was at a low level, so if you are hiking when there has been a lot of rain, expect your feet to get wet and plan to do a lot of rock hopping.  At about .2 miles, you reach a junction with the straight fork ridge spur trail.  Bear left to stay straight on the trail.

Devils Bathtub Hike
The Devils Pool. Below: Small cascades; Pools along the stream.

Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike

At .7 miles, we reached the first of the hard to navigate sections.  We approached this larger creek section and saw some blazes straight ahead, but also to the right of us.  We went straight ahead and up a steep bank that went down a steep, slick hill back to the creek, only to realize this section had been re-routed.  We went back to the original spot to cross, bore right to the larger fire road and found the blaze to continue on the trail.

At .9 miles, at the fifth stream crossing, we had a hard time finding where the blazes continued.  We reached the large stream bed and rock-hopped and walked ahead on the creek about 75 yards before finding the yellow blaze going up a steep bank to the other side.  Our instincts led us the right way, but the lack of blazes made this an unnecessary challenge.  We got back on the trail and just a little over a tenth of a mile, we were standing above a swimming hole, looking down to the left.  From the trash and abandoned clothing left behind, we could tell many people have taken a dip in this spot before.  Continue on the trail and continue to cross the stream several more times.

Devils Bathtub Hike
A beautiful green, waterfall-fed swimming hole. Below: A sampling of litter; Butterflies

The Saddest Part of the Devils Bathtub Hike Butterflies

At about 1.5 miles, the trail reaches a large rock formation and you scale the side of it on a narrow path, but with some assistance to an anchored rope that guides you along.  You then climb down to a stream crossing and swimming hole before making your way up a very steep bank to continue on the trail.  From here, the hike is relatively flat and at 1.7 miles, you reach the sign for Devil’s Bathtub.  There is a small lookout over the bathtub from here, but if you want to see it up close, the best thing to do is continue past the sign and stay on the trail.  When you reach the stream again, cross it and then navigate along the side (the rocks were very slippery here) until you make your way down to the bathtub at 1.8 miles.  The water again was low, so we were expecting a deeper basin of water from what we have seen in some pictures.  The rock around the bathtub was covered in algae and very slick, so be careful!!

It took us a while to just remove enough trash around the site to get some decent pictures.  As Christine mentioned, please bring a trashbag and help pick up around the area.  The devastation of litter here made me quite sad that people would treat such a picturesque spot with such disrespect.  We made our way back the way we came and saw a few people on our way back.

The green water plunging over and into the Devil’s Bathtub makes for one of those truly magical places in Virginia.  If you are ever down in the southwestern part of Virginia, put this on your must-hike list.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3.6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 580 ft
  • Difficulty –  3.  The climb is easy and very small/gradual.  The challenge factor is increased by the number of water crossings you must negotiate.
  • Trail Conditions – 2.5  The trail is eroded in numerous places and there is a real issue with litter. 
  • Views –  0. None on this hike.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 5.  The stream scenery is gorgeous!
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw lots of newts.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5  The trail is poorly blazed and hard to follow in several spots.
  • Solitude – 2.  We visited on a quiet weekday, and still saw multiple groups of people.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  Parking coordinates: 36.819106, -82.628852.  This location is very isolated and not really close to anything.  It’s best to use the GPS coordinates and navigate fro=m your home direction.

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