This 5.6 mile hike offers a great scenic viewpoint, a cool rock formation to explore, and a chance to stroll around historic Shrine Mont. While the hike is generally moderate, almost 1,150 feet of the the ascent occurs in just over a mile of trail.
Tony and Linda from Hiking Upward had suggested we tackle this hike together from Shrine Mont. We met up on the porch of the Virginia House. Since Christine and I got there a little early, we went inside this main lodge building and found a copy of their trail map at the front lobby. Most of the people there were there for a church retreat. When we got together, we walked down the road and found a sign directing us to the shrine. We walked up to the shrine, which was a cute outdoor chapel made of stone, reminding me of an old historical spanish mission church where the congregation would meet up in an outdoor location to worship.
At the shrine, you will see a kiosk and sign pointing to the cross and north mountain, which will start the main hike. Along this part of the trail, you will pass by signs along the way that depict the Stations of the Cross. The trail leads along a side of a large hill. Once the trail switches back, you arrive at the large cross and Cross Observation Deck at 1.1 miles. You can climb up a few flights to an observation deck. We were hoping for a nice view at the top – maybe there was at one time, but the overgrown trees have taken away most of the view.
Continuing along, the trail walked a ridgeline for a short time before descending again. At 1.75 miles, we reached a junction and took a left to start the trail up North Mountain. You quickly pass a forest road and at 1.85 miles, you will arrive at another junction (the Bradford Trail branches off to the left). Stay straight on the North Mountain Trail, which follows a gravel road for a short distance, before turning left to stay on the trail. The trail is a constant uphill from this point, with some of the trail being quite rocky and steep. Around the 2.6 mile mark, we reached a large cliff. I decided to explore a little further and found on the left side of the cliff, there was a way up that allowed me to walk along the shelf of the cliff as the rock sloped upward. Of course, I wasn’t the first to get this idea as I found a fire ring and lots of graffiti on the cliff shelf. I could see this being an interesting spot for rock climbers.
We jumped back on the trail and continued our climb up. The trail was very steep and rocky in some of these next sections, making for a slow pace to the summit. Eventually, you will skirt an edge where you get some obstructed views along the way and you won’t have much further. We eventually made it at 3.3 miles to a campsite and the summit. When you arrive, you will be at the back side of the views. Go around to the right of the rocks and you will find some rocky ledges that you can climb up about 15 feet to get to the shelf of rocks for an outstanding view. This climb up the rocks should only be done if you feel comfortable and I wouldn’t recommend this for families. Once you climb over the top, you are on a sloping downward piece of rock covered with some slippery lichen. There is a small area that you can sit and enjoy the views, but could be hard to accomplish if a lot of people are at the top at once.
Tony had brought along his drone to try and get some good photos of the scenery around us. I helped him launch it and it got some great shots of us and the views all around. When Tony was bringing it back in, he mixed up the controls and it came crashing down on the rockface and into the trees below. We both made a path along the side of the rockface and scrambled through a ton of briars to retrieve the drone. It turned out that it was still operational and we enjoyed watching the video of the crash and retrieval.
We made our way back down retracing our steps for most of the hike. At 4.85 miles, when we reached the junction that would have led us back to the Cross Observation Deck, we instead stayed straight and followed the signs back to Shrine Mont. The trail winds back down the mountain and goes behind some of the cabins of Shrine Mont. We got back to the main road and the parking area at 5.6 miles. We took a few minutes to explore the Shrine Mont area before making our way on to Woodstock Brewery for some food and drinks.
We always enjoy a chance to meet up with our friends from Hiking Upward. Tony and Linda suggested meeting at Shrine Mont and hiking to a rocky outcropping on Great North Mountain.
We thought we were doing an easy 3-4 mile hike, but it turned out to be a bit longer and much more challenging than expected. I think most of the challenge was due to two factors: 1) the heat/humidity and 2) most of the ascent was stacked into just a mile and a half of the hike.
I got my first hint that I wasn’t going to have an easy day on the trail when we started climbing to the Cross Observation Tower. The trail to the cross is short but fairly steep. I trudged along, thinking to myself ‘I feel really hot. I’m sort of lightheaded. I hope I don’t barf!’ By the time we got to the cross, I had to sit down and cool off. This was one of the first really hot and sunny days we hiked this summer and I just wasn’t used to it. It didn’t help that my Camelbak was full of <gag> tepid tap water.
For a while after the tower, the way was easy going. The trail was moss-covered and followed a gentle grade. We heard millions of cicadas singing in the trees. It was a constant, other-worldly static sound. We saw a few of the large insects clinging to branches, dead on the ground, or buzzing lazily around in the air. One of them even flew right into my face and bounced off my forehead. I was too hot to care. I didn’t even manage a half-hearted swat.
Eventually the Ridge Trail intersected with the North Link Trail. We followed that for a short distance to the North Mountain Trail. At first the North Mountain trail was deceptively easy. I was feeling better and cooling off. Then the trail started getting rockier. We had to constantly watch our footing on the shifty rocks beneath our feet. After a couple tenths of a mile, the trail started to climb rather steeply uphill through stands of dense mountain laurel and rhododendron. It felt close – the air was sweltering with no hint of a breeze. I started to feel woozy again. Eventually, we reached the towering cliffside/cave in the middle of the woods. We all took a break, cooled off, and some time to explore the rock formation.
After the break, the climbing got even steeper. I’d hike a quarter mile and then need to rest. I almost never take breaks unless there is something interesting to see. In this case, I just thought it would be interesting not to pass out. I found myself sitting on the ground with my head between my knees. I was so hot – I felt like a furnace was stoked up in the core of my body. The lukewarm water in my pack wasn’t doing anything to cool me off. So, I took lots of breaks and trudged until we finally reached the ridgeline. At that point, the climbing moderated and we only had a few more tenths of a mile to go. But, we were also in more direct sun, so it was even hotter. Adam was really the only one of us hiking at a quick pace. Tony and Linda were behind me a bit, and I kept watching the space between Adam and I get bigger and bigger. I started seeing stars, and proclaimed to nobody in particular ‘I NEED TO SIT DOWN NOW OR I WILL PASS OUT!’ In a minute or two, Tony and Linda caught up and Linda poured ice water on my neck and head. They were both hiking with frozen bottles of water and Gatorade.
After another rest, I was able to make the final push to the summit and its rocky outcropping. I scrambled to the top of the rock and found a nice breezy spot to lie down and enjoy the magnificent view. I ate a Larabar and watched Adam and Tony play with (and crash!) the drone. After a pleasant stay at the top, we made our way down. The downhill hike was much faster and easier, and I felt completely normal again. I’m not sure why I struggled so much with this hike. Yes – it was hot and the climbing was stacked into one small section, but I’ve certainly done harder hikes on hotter days. The only thing I can guess is that I was fatigued from doing a lot of hiking in the days leading up to the Shrine Mont hike. I’d done a 16 mile, a 4 mile, and an 8 mile hike and was already pretty depleted. In the hikes since this one, I’ve started making gigantic ice cubes for my Camelbak. I have plastic mason jars that I fill and freeze. The jars are just small enough that they just fit through the circular opening in the bladder, but they’re big enough to not melt quickly.
Our hike down followed the same route we came up for most of the way. We were planning on turning onto the Bradford Trail, which would have added another mile or two to our hike. But everyone was hot, tired, and thinking about beer – so we opted to follow the much shorter route down the North Link Trail back to Shrine Mont.
We got back to the cars, cleaned up, and made our way for an afternoon at Woodstock Brewery. They had excellent barbecue and we all enjoyed their vanilla porter.
- Distance – 5.6 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
- Elevation Change – 1545 ft.
- Difficulty – 4. Some of this trail is quite rocky and steep making for a hard climb at the end.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail was well-maintained and traveled with very few blow-downs, but the rocky terrain makes for some tough steps.
- Views – 4. If you aren’t bold enough to climb up the rock outcropping, this score would be a lot lower. You are treated with a nice panoramic view if you do.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There are some small stream views, but nothing substantial.
- Wildlife – 1. This is a popular trail, so wildlife tends to stay away.
- Ease to Navigate – 2.5. The trail system is tricky. Some of the junctions are not well-marked and labeled on the printed map. Download both of the maps from this page and you should be fine. On our way back, there were several options leading down to Shrine Mont, which could bring some confusion as well.
- Solitude – 3. We ran into some people that were staying for a retreat as well as locals.
* 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 for parking are 38.795500, -78.815932
From Woodstock, VA, head southwest on VA-42 for 13.8 miles. Turn right on State Route 720 and in .7 miles, stay straight to join State Route 721. Go 1.5 miles and then stay straight (right fork) to join State Route 722. Go .5 miles and turn right on to VA-263West. Follow this for 3.7 miles and it will lead to Shrine Mont. Park in the parking lot behind the pavilion and the main Virginia house. Walking from the parking lot, take a left at the main road walking in front of the Virginia house and follow the road until you see signs directing you to the Shrine.
This is an easy 4.25 mile hike that take you to visit two special spots – a beautiful waterfall and one of the most popular swimming holes in the Smokies.
On our third day of the trip, we decided to head into the national park and explore an area we hadn’t visited before – Big Creek in Cataloochee. This area is known for its population of elk, and for being much quieter than other parts of the park, like Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome.
The drive was a bit further than our previous two hike, but we had heard that Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole were both beautiful, worthwhile destinations. As usual, we got an early start and beat the crowds to the trailhead.
The hike up Big Creek really couldn’t be much simpler or easier. It follows a wide, old road bed the entire way. At first, you can hear the rushing sounds of the creek in the distance, but within several tenths of a mile, the trail begins to closely follow the water.
Like most creeks in the Smokies, Big Creek is a jumble of big boulders that create lots of cascading rapids and small waterfalls – so beautiful! We saw a serious photographer hiking back from the falls with a large pack of gear and a heavy tripod. He visited the falls on a perfect day for waterfall photography. It was overcast and windless, which allows the opportunity for long exposure images. I always love the silky misty effect a slow shutter speed lends to the water, and I was pretty happy with the shots I got on this hike!
On the hike up, we skipped Midnight Hole. We figured we’d see the waterfall first, and then stop at other pretty spots on the hike back. The falls were indeed lovely, though the mosquitoes and biting flies were abundant and aggressive! This was the first and only time on the trip that I had to use bug spray. We took tons of waterfall photos, and then made our way back down the trail.
On the way back, there were many more people out and about. Lots of them were dressed in swimsuits and had water-wings and innertubes. Apparently, this creek is one of the areas favorites for mountain swimming. When we reached Midnight Hole, there was a family of five there. The two youngest sons were taking turns plunging off rocks into the pool below. It was a cool, cloudy day, so they squealed each time they hit the icy water. The pool itself is deep and brilliant green – really an idyllic spot for a swim.
After leaving Midnight Hole, we stopped at a couple more pretty rapids along the stream for more photos. When we were on the trail, we jogged to outrun the mosquito assault! It was so buggy!
After this hike, we decided to drive into Asheville (yes… filthy and covered with bug spray) so we could visit a few breweries and get some lunch. We also managed stops at Vortex Donuts and French Broad Chocolates.
Mouse Creek Falls is an easy family hike that everyone can enjoy. With the distance being only a little over two miles to the waterfall and very little change in elevation, it is a hike that even small kids won’t complain too much to do.
We started off early and had most of the trail to ourselves. We saw there were lots of places to step off the side of the trail to get views of rocky rapids down Mouse Creek, but we decided to make a beeline for the main waterfall. The trail had a slight incline, but never felt like a steep walk. We arrived at Mouse Creek Falls and made a climb down to near the base of the falls to get some photos of the stream and the falls together. If you don’t feel like climbing to the base, you can still get a distant, yet unobstructed view of the falls from the top. When another family arrived, we decided to leave to give them the solitude that we enjoyed, but we were equally pressured by all the mosquitoes at the water. We didn’t feel a ton of mosquitoes on the way up, but the entire trip back we were swarmed.
About .5 miles back on our return trip, we stopped to enjoy Midnight Hole. A pond is created here by two small waterfalls that dump water into this serene swimming hole. We lingered a bit at this spot before making our way back to our car, chased by a cloud of mosquitoes who seemed to not mind the bug spray we used. We made it back to our car quickly at a little over four miles and saw many people making their way up. I’m sure this is an extremely popular hike and swimming hole spot for many people. If you want to miss the crowds, go as early as possible.
On our way out, we passed by several buses that were unloading people for whitewater rafting along the Pigeon River. We saw probably a hundred people on the river in rafts and it looked like a great way to spend the day. We headed into Asheville, NC from our hike to sample some beers. It was Asheville Beer Week, so all of the breweries in the area were doing special events. We started off with lunch at Wicked Weed, where we enjoy the food as much as the beverages. From there, we stopped by a few more breweries to try one small sample at each – Green Man, Burial, and Hi-Wire. While we were there, there was a disc golf competition where event organizers moved a portable basket and the competitors threw their discs down the streets and alleyways as they moved from one brewery to the next. Luckily, the competitors were very accurate and I didn’t see any spectators beamed in the head.
- Distance – 4.25 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 635 ft.
- Difficulty – 1.5. This is an easy walk along a gradually climbing path.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. The path is wide and well-graded.
- Views – 0. This is a waterfall walk, there are no views along the way.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 4.5. The falls are small but pretty. Big Creek and Midnight Hole are also lovely.
- Wildlife –3.5. People regularly see elk and bears in the area. We didn’t see any on our hike.
- Ease to Navigate – 5. You really can’t go wrong on this hike. It’s a straight shot up the path.
- Solitude – 1. This area is popular with swimmers and families. Expect lots of people.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.751094, -83.109993. From Asheville, NC take I-40 West for 46 miles before taking exit 451 toward Waterville Road. Turn left onto Green Corner Road at the end of the exit ramp which merges onto Tobes Creek Road. Take the first left to cross a bridge and stay on Tobes Creek Road. Once you cross the bridge, take the first left onto Waterville Road. Follow this for two miles and you will then enter the Big Creek Entrance Road. Follow this for about a mile and you will reach the Big Creek Campground. You will find a large parking lot on the right and just before entering the parking lot, you will pass the trailhead for the Big Creek Trail, which is your starting point. This parking lot fills up quickly, so you may have to park along the roadside.
Hiking from Wayah Gap to Wayah Bald is a fun, moderate 8.5 mile hike. The view from a top the stone observation tower has to be among the best in the area.
This hike was a true gem! When you are just reading text about a hike, you can’t get a great idea of how wonderful a hike will be (hopefully this write-up and pictures will help). What we couldn’t believe through the day was how uncrowded this trail was, especially at the fire tower. We went on a perfect weekend day and you can even drive up to the very top if you want to skip the hike but still get the views. Having a spot like this to yourself just doesn’t seem right.
“Wayah” comes from the Cherokee word for “wolf”, since red wolves were once part of this area. The tower was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and used as a lookout for fires in the area.
As we were driving on Wayah Road making our way to the top, we were both thankful that the drive up would take a lot of feet off the elevation. The road winds around the mountain as it is taking many switchbacks to get up to the top. At the crest was the sign for the Wayah Bald Fire Tower and a small parking lot to the side. We started on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail going north (the same side as the sign and the parking lot). You climb up a few water-bar stairs and then come to a sign for Wayah Gap. The trail runs parallel to a national forest road on the left for the first portion of the trail (this is the same forest road you can drive to get to the top without hiking).
The trail was filled with wildflowers and greenery everywhere you looked and overall the uphill climb was quite manageable. At 1.75 miles, you make a steeper climb up to a forest road (the same forest road leading to the top). The trail picks up on the other side, but there is a spring to the right of the trail if you need to refill water. Crossing the road, you head up some stairs and up a steeper section looking down on the fire road, before it resumes the gradual climb.
At 2.15 and 2.35 miles, you will see junctions with the yellow-blazed Bartram Trail (a 110 mile trail that goes from Northern Georgia into Southwest North Carolina) and a forest road on the left side. This trail loops around for an extra 5.4 miles, but stay on the main white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Since the Bartram Trail joins the AT through this section, you will often see yellow and white blazes together. At 2.5 miles the trail levels out and then starts to descend.
Descending through the forest, the trail then begins to skirt along the mountainside. The trail became narrow and overgrown as you walk through some high grass and brush. But, you do get some more open, yet obstructed views of the valley between the mountains. At 3.5 miles, the trail reaches its bottom and then begins to ascend again. At 3.8 miles, you cross the forest road again and at 4.15 miles, you reach the final junction with the paved forest road. Going to the right leads to a picnic area with nice views (and a bathroom if you need it). Heading to the left from the junction, leads to the Wayah Bald fire tower which we reached around 4.3 miles.
The views from the fire tower were amazing! Some fire towers are rickety and you wonder if all the bolts have been screwed and tightened in the last few decades. This structure was a nice stone fire tower with a few steps to the top. From the top of the tower are maps that will help you identify the mountains in the ranges around you. If you go on a clear day, you should be able to see for quite a distance.
We stayed at the top for quite a while and this was definitely my top hike from this trip. We ate our packed lunch and talked to the few people we saw at the top, but it was hard to pull me away from the stunning landscape around me. If you aren’t capable of doing the hike, this is still a place to visit on a trip in North Carolina.
This was another hike I mapped out using my AWOL Guide for the Appalachian Trail. You can practically drive up to the tower, but we wanted to put in longer trail miles, so we opted to start at Wayah Gap, about four miles south of Wayah Bald.
It turned out to be a beautiful hike! There were tons of blooming wildflowers, a crisp breeze, abundant sunshine, and pleasant temperatures. I was thrilled to see the last few red trillium blooms and the first of the flame azaleas lighting up the forest. The hike was perfectly timed to see lots of wildflowers.
We started early and had most of the trail to ourselves. Just a few tenths of a mile after starting, we passed a very early-season southbound thru-hiker. I didn’t know it at the time, but we learned later that he was Mountain Man – possibly the oldest person to ever complete a winter thru-hike. He finished about ten days after our paths crossed.
The terrain on the way to Wayah Bald was pretty gentle – moderate climbs and descents and lots of easy walking. We passed several really nice campsites along the way, with the largest and nicest being located at the junction of the AT and the Bartram Trail.
We walked through an area that was recently burned, leaving behind some open views and lots of fast-growing tall grass to wade through. Most of the sunny spots on the trail were pretty overgrown.
When we arrived at Wayah Bald, we took a wrong turn and ended up walking up to the picnic area. It was a lucky mistake, because the picnic area offers a second beautiful vista. Once we realized we were in the wrong place, we turned around an walked the opposite way up to the tower.
There were only three or four other people at the tower, despite it being a beautiful holiday weekend. We climbed to the top and ate a snack. We loved looking at and identifying the other mountains that made up the panoramic vista. One of the most recognizable was Siler Bald – identified by the wide grassy swath leading to the summit. We spent a bit more time enjoying the spectacular view before making our way back.
After the hike, we decided to go to one of our favorite places – the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The place was hopping with Memorial Day activities, but we were still able to find a parking spot and a table at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ.
- Distance – 8.5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1613 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. The length makes this rated a 3, but the overall climb was manageable.
- Trail Conditions – 3. The trail was well-maintained, but very overgrown from the junction with the Bartram Trail leading up to the summit. There weren’t many rocky sections, so it made for nice footing most of the trail.
- Views – 5. Panoramic, 360-degree views from the Fire Tower on a clear day.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There were two adequate springs to use as water sources along the way.
- Wildlife – 2. Nothing spotted on this trail.
- Ease to Navigate – 4.0. As long as you follow the white blazes for the Appalachian Trail, you should be in good shape.
- Solitude – 4. Maybe we hit this on an odd day, but we had a lot of solitude on a “should have been busy” day and even had the fire tower to ourselves for about 15 minutes.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.153662, -83.580462. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W. Follow 64W for 3.7 miles. Take a right on Patton Road. Follow Patton for .3 of a mile and then turn left on Wayah Road. Follow Wayah Road for 9 miles until you reach the well-marked trail crossing. Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.
Standing Indian is a pleasant five mile (round trip) hike along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina’s Southern Nantahala Wilderness. There is plenty of camping and a beautiful viewpoint at the summit.
When we visited the Smokies this year, we decided to spend the entire trip – an unfortunately short four days – on the southern side of the park. On our last few trips to the area, we enjoyed exploring the Appalachian Trail corridor just before it enters GSMNP. We thought Wesser Bald and Siler Bald were both fun hikes with spectacular views, so before we traveled, I spent some time perusing my AWOL Guide to see if there were other nice view hikes close to easily accessible road crossings. One of the hikes I came up with was Standing Indian Mountain.
By the miles, the drive to the trailhead was pretty short, but the last six miles to get to Deep Gap were along a narrow, steep, and winding forest/logging road. It took about 25 minutes to reach the road’s dead-end at Deep Gap Primitive Campground. There were some really nice campsites available, but the largest and flattest of the sites was closed for reforestation/restoration. Quite a few of the overused backcountry tent sites in this area have been closed to allow them to return to their natural state.
We picked up the northbound Appalachian Trail at the end of the road. It was sunny and humid when we started hiking. The trail climbed steadily and gently the whole way on this hike. Just under a half mile into the hike, we passed a piped spring coming out of the mountainside. We passed a couple more closed campsites before arriving at the spur trail to Standing Indian Shelter at 1.1 miles. The shelter is barely a tenth of a mile off the trail. It had room for about eight people and was equipped with benches and a large fire pit. There were lots of flat, grassy tent sites behind the shelter. Supposedly there is a stream/water source 70 yards downhill of the shelter, but we didn’t take the time to explore. We signed the shelter log and continued our hike up the mountain.
Shortly after the shelter, sun gave way to fog. We figured it was just leftover moisture from storms the night before or a passing cloud. At 5,499′, Standing Indian is the tallest peak along the Nantahala River and often gets different weather than the valley below. We hiked on and the fog gave way to occasional raindrops. We assured one another it was just a passing shower and pressed on. By the time we reached a tunnel of rhododendron, the light shower had become a downpour. Adam wanted to put on our rain gear and stay sheltered under the canopy of rhododendron, but I was getting cold and wanted to push on. In the end, we decided to wait a little bit; hoping the storm would pass and allow us to enjoy the view that was to be the main point of the hike.
After about 20 minutes, the rain still hadn’t slowed so I suggested we hike back to the shelter and wait a bit there. On our way down, the rain stopped, so we turned around and climbed back up. It started pouring again almost immediately after we turned around, so we admitted defeat and decided to just roll with whatever nature threw our way.
So, we hiked to the summit of Standing Indian in a deluge! The summit was completely socked it, but after waiting about ten minutes the fog moved enough to give us a cloudy, misty view of the mountains beyond. We enjoyed every second of the three minute vista before the fog fell back around. The hike back was really quick – all downhill over easy terrain. And wouldn’t you know it… the sun came back out as soon as we got to the parking lot!
As Christine mentioned, this may not have been the best day for this hike. The weather forecast predicted some late afternoon storms, so we really thought we could get in a hike before things turned for the worse. It was quite humid from the recent rain. After we left the shelter, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker, but we pressed on hoping we could beat any rain. We made it to a large rhododendron tunnel and what started off as sprinkling rain quickly became a downpour. The rain was unrelenting. We talked about going to the top, but with all the rain, we didn’t think we would see anything, so we decided to turn around before reaching the summit.
As we made our way down, we came across a Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. She looked college-aged and was carrying a pack that looked like it weighed 60 pounds. The rain had soaked a bandana she was wearing as headband and the dye from the fabric was bleeding blue streaks all down her face.
The trail heading back was more like walking through a small stream in some spots as the heavy rain looked for a place to escape the steep slope of the mountain. The rocks on the trail were slippery from the rain. After making it back about halfway to the shelter, the rain slowed considerably so we changed our mind and decided to give the summit another go.
At 2.45 miles, the trail comes to a junction with the Lower Ridge trail. You will see a sign for Standing Indian Mountain. Take a right off the Appalachian Trail to follow a path through a campsite area which leads to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain in just a tenth of a mile. There was a large fire pit at the top and a small nook to catch a view of the mountains around you. When we arrived, we were able to catch a quick view before the fog and clouds enveloped everything in a sea of gray. We were at least thankful to be up there to appreciate the view for a few minutes.
The name “Standing Indian Mountain” comes from Cherokee myth. An Indian warrior had been sent to the summit to watch for a winged monster that came from the sky and stole children. The monster was captured and destroyed with thunder and lightning from the Great Spirit. The Cherokee warrior had become afraid and ran away from his post and was turned into stone for his cowardice. The Cherokee referred to Standing Indian Mountain as “Yunwitsule-nunyi”, meaning “where the man stood”.
The rain continued for most of the hike down. But one treat the rain provided was the chance to see several salamanders hanging out on the trail. We first spotted a Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, but the real treat was seeing a black-chinned red salamander. The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World”, so we were glad to catch a few species on this hike. We have yet to spot a hellbender salamander (which range from 12-29 inches long) in the wild there, but maybe one day we will.
After we made it back to the car, we decided to drive over to Franklin, NC for the afternoon. We stopped in a wonderful outfitter store called Outdoor 76. When we had stopped to take pictures of the salamanders, I realized my backpack was completely soaked inside which ruined our copy of our AWOL guide. So we purchased those as well as a couple of Pelican cases for our phones. They even have several beers on tap at the back of the store. It wasn’t until later that I thought about how my daypack has a built-in rain cover – ugh. We then went to grab some lunch at Motor Company Grill (just an average 50s-style burger and sandwich place) and then went to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. Since a lot of AT thru-hikers will spend a day off the trail to eat and resupply in Franklin, this place is a popular spot. They had great trail and hiking information posted inside and had some of the coolest hiking-related pint glasses I have seen. It is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
- Distance – 5 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1300 ft.
- Difficulty – 2.5. The climbing on this trail is all very gradual and well-graded. We were surprised it even came out to 1300 feet!
- Trail Conditions – 4. The local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is working hard on restoration projects in this area and their work was definitely evident.
- Views – 4. We are giving this the score it deserves on a nice day with good visibility. We still had a pretty view, but it could have been much nicer if the rain had held off.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There were a couple small springs (at least one was piped) that could be used as a water source.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw a couple unique salamanders along the trail in the rain. They were both species we hadn’t seen before.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is well blazed. The view at the top is hidden behind a spur trail through a bunch of campsites. If you don’t know to cut through the campsites, you would miss the view completely.
- Solitude – 3. There were a ton of cars parked at Deep Gap, but we only saw a handful of people on the trail – probably because it was *pouring*!
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this trailhead are 35.039847, -83.552506. From Highway 74 in North Carolina (near Cherokee/Bryson City) take the US23 S/US 441 S exit for Dillsboro/Franklin/Atlanta. Follow this road for 20.4 miles to the junction with US64 W. Follow 64W for 14.5 miles. Take a left on Deep Gap Road. It will become a gravel forest service road almost immediately. Follow the forest road for almost 6 miles until you reach Deep Gap. Follow the Appalachian Trail north from this point.
This 11 mile loop has everything – stunning views, scenic streams, a clear mountain pond, and even a small waterfall. You could hike it as a long(ish) day hike, but there is so much great camping along the way that it’s ideal for an easy overnight backpacking trip!
Day One (4 miles)…
One thing that was true about May in 2016 was we had a TON of rain in Virginia. It was hard to find a time to actually go for a hike in good weather. We had been itching to try and do an overnight trip, but the threat of drenching downpours and storms was standing in the way. We had some very stressful days at work, so getting out and finding some peace away from the hustle of everyday life was just what the doctor ordered. In looking at the weather closely, we decided we may be able to get a short, overnight trip in if we timed it just right. We decided to do something very close by to our home to allow us to get on the trail quickly to get in a few miles before it started to get dark. We had called our friend, Kris, who was going to accompany us, and told her to be ready anytime during the Saturday afternoon. We felt like Doppler radar experts as we were tracking the storm movement and finally around 2:30PM, we felt the rain was going to stop to allow us to hike.
We got to the Massanutten Visitor Center and saw a lot of cars in the parking lot. We were thinking there was no way that others were on the trail at this same time due to all the rain we had in the last few days. A large camper was at the front and I talked to one gentleman out front. As it turns out, it was the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 race that weekend, a 100-mile race along the Massanutten Mountain range that covers 16,200 feet of ascent. We were a little worried about the trail conditions and how many runners we may see along the way, but nothing was stopping us now.
From the parking lot, we took the white-blazed Wildflower trail (do not take the Nature trail at the end of the parking lot). This trail leads downhill and passes some comical information plaques along the way. At .3 miles, when you reach an intersection with the Massanutten South trail, take a right to start on the orange-blazed Massanutten South trail. The trail goes up a steep ascent and we found with the recent rain the footing was slippery and mucky in a few parts. On the ascent, we found that Kris’ new trekking poles weren’t locking properly, so we paused to get some duct tape to try and make a repair (not long after we realized that our fix didn’t hold up and she lost part of her pole somewhere along the trail). The uphill was quite steep and had us breathing heavily with our heavy packs, but this is the toughest part of the entire hike. We passed a hiker who was doing the reverse route and he told us right near the summit there were about 100 pink lady’s slippers along the trail. We decided to count what we had saw; while we didn’t see 100 of these rare wildflowers, we did count close to 60 over the weekend which may be the most we’ve ever seen on a trail. We came to the first overlook around the 1.6 mile mark (the second is just shortly ahead), took our packs off for a few minutes and enjoyed the panoramic views. The clouds after the recent storm blanketed the sky. We stopped at the second view also before continuing on. At 2.5 miles, the trail splits; head to the right to join the Bird Knob trail.
The Bird Knob trail is a ridge walk and is quite flat, which was a nice change from climbing. But, the sky began to get dark and we started hearing thunder in the near distance. Within five minutes, we started to feel rain. We decided to put on our pack covers and rain gear and it was just in the nick of time, as the clouds unleashed a downpour mixed with pea-sized hail. We kept marching through the hailstorm and within about 20 minutes, the storm had passed.
At 3.8 miles, we reached a large open field with a campsite. We decided to press on to get a spot at Emerald Pond, so we skirted the left side of the field to stay on the trail. The trail then turns into an old logging road going downhill. About halfway down the road, we came across a couple of rain-soaked college-aged guys. They were asking if there were any campsites up ahead and they told us all the spots were taken at Emerald Pond. We mentioned the big field with lots of room and they left the way they came to go get the rest of their group and their packs. Since we heard there were no spots, we decided to turn around and get a nice spot in the open field. Christine scouted around and saw there were also sites in the woods next to a small hidden pond, but the bear scat around the site was a deterrent. We decided to camp near the fire pit we saw at the top of the field. One thing that was nice about camping in this grassy field was we knew we would have a comfortable floor bed to pitch our tent. We set up in a short amount of time and we were soon joined by about eight others in the field that night.
The wind had picked up as the storm front had moved through and I felt unprepared in terms of clothing. I switched out of my damp clothes, but I didn’t bring enough warmer clothes for that evening. We made a quick meal and were even able to start a fire at camp despite the wetness of the wood. After dinner, I was getting a little colder each minute, so I decided to call it an early night and get in my down sleeping bag while Kris and Christine talked until nightfall. It was a crazy day on the trail, but one thing I like about hiking is it is always an adventure.
Day Two (7 miles)…
The morning dawned sunny but frigid! Adam had been cold all night, so I let him stay curled up in his sleeping bag while I went to take down the bear hang. No one else who camped in the meadow was stirring, but the three of us quickly cooked breakfast and packed up camp. On our way out of the meadow, we all got a good chuckle over one of the tents set up nearby. It was technically pitched, but in no way like it was supposed to be. We’re guessing someone borrowed a tent and couldn’t figure out how to set it up. I love a backpacker’s ability to improvise!
After walking downhill to the bottom of the meadow, we picked up the old logging road for a few tenths of a mile until we reached an unmarked gravel road on the left. The gravel road led to Emerald Pond – a beautiful, spring-fed mountain pool. The last time we visited, we had the pond all to ourselves and very much enjoyed the peace and solitude. This time, the pond was crawling with other campers. They had big tents, tons of gear, and were dressed in jeans and work boots. We’re guessing that they parked on the nearby forest service road and walked the tenth of a mile to the prime campsite on the pond. I guess it’s worth noting that the early bird gets the worm when it comes to staking a claim on an Emerald Pond campsite! We didn’t want to intrude, so we just took a few photos from the near-side of the pond. The campsite side is prettier, so don’t miss visiting if the spot is open.
We left the pond and continued a tenth of a mile to the forest service road. There was a locked gate where the trail met the road. At that point, we took a right and hiked downhill along the road (orange blazed) for a few tenths of a mile until we reached the junction with the Roaring Run Gap trail. The trail is on the left side of the forest road and is marked by a wooden post with two sets of blazes – light purple and pink. The climb up Big Mountain via the Roaring Run Gap trail (blazed purple) was our last big climb of the trip. For a little less than half a mile, the trail climbs steeply uphill over rocky terrain. At the top, we passed a small/dry campsite. On the descent, which came almost immediately, we glimpsed beautiful views through the trees. There were switchbacks and quite a few muddy spots along this stretch of trail. We cheered on the last few runners on the Massanutten 100 Miler race. Even if you’re finishing at the back of the pack in a race like that, you’re still tougher than we’ll ever be! We also met the sweeper who was jogging the course behind the last racer to pick up reflective hang-tags that helped keep runners on course during the night.
After about a mile of walking along the purple-blazed Roaring Run trail, we reached an unmarked junction with the pink-blazed Browns Hollow trail. The trail is a left turn from the Roaring Run Gap trail. Over four miles of the hike on day two follows this Browns Hollow trail – so look for the pink blazes.
The Browns Hollow trail starts off passing through pretty forest. There are stretches of trail that pass through impressive blueberry bushes. Eventually, you descend to Browns Run. Along the way, you’ll pass a couple nice campsites suitable for one or two small tents. Both sites had fire rings and easy access to water.
There are several beautiful rapids and a small, but lovely, waterfall on this section of trail. We all enjoyed walking through the verdant green forest, while listening to the sounds of bubbling water. It was gorgeous and peaceful. If you look around you’ll notice the stream runs through a pretty deep and dramatic gorge. The far side of the stream goes upward quickly and steeply. There were even a couple places that looked like there had been recent landslides. All the trees and dirt slid straight down the mountainside and ended in a jumble at the bottom. This part of the hike was gentle and easy, so we made great time and enjoyed chatting along the way. We counted more pink lady’s slippers and admired other spring blooms along the trail.
At a little over the five mile mark of day two, you’ll cross Browns Run. I imagine most of the time this is a shallow, easy stream crossing. We hiked the trail after weeks of rain, and still found the crossing very doable. The stream was only 12-18 inches deep and there were enough large rocks to rock hop most of the way. There were a few places I had to submerge the toe of my boot on an underwater rock, but all three of us crossed without any trouble. Right after the crossing, there is a fantastic group campsite. The area is large and clear with space for multiple tents.
We continued to follow the Browns Hollow trail as it became a wide old road. We passed lots of blooming mountain laurel along this part of the hike. Eventually we came upon a picnic area with a shelter. At that point, we took a left onto the marked Wildflower Trail at this point. It passes a series of interpretive signs before eventually leading back to the Massanutten Visitors Center (closed) where we started out the prior morning.
It was still before noon when we wrapped up, so we decided to drive back into Harrisonburg for lunch. We enjoyed burgers at Jack Brown’s and then headed over to Brothers Craft Brewing to enjoy their new Verdure series. They’ve done a tart Berliner-Weisse beer infused with all kinds of seasonal/summer fruits. They had Blackberry Verdure on tap. It was the perfect reward for a fun weekend of hiking.
- Distance – 11 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
- Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
- Difficulty – 2.5. The toughest stretch is the initial push up to the viewpoints.
- Trail Conditions – 3. There were a couple of blowdowns, some muddy patches due to the heavy rain, and a stream crossing, but footing was overall very good.
- Views – 4. The two viewpoints provide some nice panoramic views.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Browns Run is a nice stream and a good water source. While not a stream or waterfall, Emerald Pond is extremely picturesque and would make a nice swimming hole.
- Wildlife – 3. The start of the Wildflower Trail had us surrounded by birds. With bear scat spotted near our campsite, there is some bear activity here.
- Ease to Navigate – 2. There are multiple trails that cross over between Bird Knob and the Massanutten trail. Take a map to make sure you are going the correct way.
- Solitude – 2. While you won’t see many on the trail, we found a lot of locals like to drive in close and visit Emerald Pond.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this hike are 38°38’35.4″N 78°36’43.0″W. From I-81, take exit 264 for US-211 toward New Market/Timberville/Luray. Head east on US-211/W Old Cross Road and go .3 miles. Turn left onto N. Congress St. and go .3 miles. Turn right onto US-211 East and go 4.5 miles. Park at the old Massanutten Visitor Center parking lot on the right. The trail starts towards the front of the lot on the Wildflower Trail.
This 8.3 mile hike follows the Pass Mountain Trail from the route 211 trailhead up to the Pass Mountain Hut. From there, you’ll follow the Appalachian Trail north to the beautiful viewpoint at Double Bear Rocks.
The first weekend in April, we met up with Tony & Linda (of Hiking Upward fame) for a day of exploring a new trail and a new brewery. When we were discussing route options, Tony tossed out the idea of climbing the Pass Mountain trail for a visit to the same-named Appalachian Trail shelter. The route was about five miles with 1,300 feet of climbing – perfectly moderate for my recovering ankle injury.
We initially planned to hike on Saturday, but sleet, rain, and high winds compelled us to postpone for Sunday’s more pleasant forecast. We met at the trailhead along Route 211, just a little bit west of Sperryville. The trail begins at the cement marker post across the road. 211 can be very busy and its twists and turns are often traveled at speed, so be extremely careful crossing the road from your car to the Pass Mountain trail.
The Pass Mountain trail was beautifully maintained – blowdowns were cleared, branches were trimmed back, and it looked like someone had put a lot of time installing new water bars. The hike began with a meandering series of switchbacks that climbed steadily but gently uphill. At about the one mile mark, we reached another cement marker. At the marker, you’ll notice a defunct, unlabeled fire road; stay to the left and follow the blue-blazed Pass Mountain trail uphill. The trail continues uphill for almost a mile before leveling out on the ridge. If you happen to hike this trail in winter or early spring, you’ll get great views of Marys Rock through the trees.
At 2.8 miles, the trail ends at Pass Mountain Hut – one of the park’s nine Appalachian Trail shelters. The shelter is a typical structure with a nearby spring and privy. The unusual thing about Pass Mountain Hut that sets it apart from other AT shelters in the park is that it has a fairly new bear locker instead of a bear pole. A couple years ago, the Pass Mountain Hut was closed due to aggressive bear activity. In late summer, a young, extremely thin black bear destroyed the tent of an ATC Ridgerunner. She was out on patrol and came back to a flattened, saliva-covered tent. Park authorities closed the shelter area until the bear could be trapped and relocated to a less populated part of the park.
We spent a few minutes at the shelter debating the rest of our hike. I mentioned to Tony and Linda that I remembered a nice vista just north of the Pass Mountain summit. My ankle felt OK and even though I wasn’t sure exactly how far it was to the viewpoint, I thought I would be OK pressing on. We all agreed that a view always makes extra miles worthwhile. We followed the blue-blazed spur trail from the hut to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.
We headed north on the AT for about a mile, reaching the rocky but viewless summit of Pass Mountain. This summit does not have a cement marker. You’ll know you crossed the summit only because you start descending again. When we crossed the summit, we were still vaguely guessing about how much further we needed to hike to reach the view. We explored off-trail a little on rocky outcroppings, but they all turned out to be closed in by trees. Adam jogged ahead to scout for the view. Tony, Linda, and I were all several hundred yards back when we heard Adam shouting ‘BEAR, BEAR, BEAR(S)’. We all raced ahead, too – because who wants to miss a bear sighting?
We got there just in time to see two big, furry rear ends disappearing into the brush. Adam, however, got a great close-up view of the bears. Lucky! Just a couple tenths of a mile past the bears, we spotted the side path to the view – Double Bear Rocks, named for the high population of bears in this area. The view itself is quite nice, but what I remember most about this rocky outcropping is its seasonal abundance in blueberries! Last time we hiked by this spot, it was July and there were berries everywhere! In the short time we sat and enjoyed the view, clouds moved in, so we decided to be on our way.
The hike back simply retraced our steps coming up. Since it was mostly downhill, it went by really quickly. Before we knew it, we were back at our cars for a total hike of 8.3 miles with 1,750 feet of climbing. We were all quite ready to make our way into Sperryville for some post-hike refreshments. We decided to pick up a to-go order from the Creekside Deli. It’s a humble-looking building painted bright yellow, but there is nothing humble about their baked goods. They make top-notch sandwiches on homemade bread, cookies, brownies, and other pastries. We took our food over to Pen Druid brewery to enjoy a couple beers with lunch. The brewery doesn’t have a kitchen, so they follow picnic rules. The guys at Pen Druid do small batches of interesting beers – most featuring wild yeast strains. We had great conversation and agreed that we really must get out together more often. Great day with friends!
We always enjoy hiking with Tony and Linda. When you get people together that have done a lot of hiking, our conversations always quickly go through talking about different trail systems. We can all talk through different routes as if we were following a map along in our heads. I’m not sure if it is dull conversation for others, but we enjoy talking about the places we have been or have been hoping to go. Both Hiking Upward and our site were created to share our experiences. We may have different approaches to the content, but we do this because of our love of nature and the ability to share hiking ideas with others. We consider ourselves lucky to live where we live and to be able to have all of these experiences so close by – and we hope you enjoy it as well.
With Christine nursing an ankle injury, we picked a route that she thought would be a decent test with a little elevation but not overly challenging. This route isn’t well-traveled and is accessed from outside of Shenandoah National Park on US-211, in between Luray and Sperryville, VA. We arrived a few minutes before Tony and Linda, so we parked where we felt was the correct spot – a gravel pull-off at the bottom of a steep curve. I consulted a map of the area and felt we were correct, but we didn’t see a signpost to designate the beginning of the trail. I got out of the car and crossed the road near the sharp curve in the road and found the trail marker.
The trail starts as the Pass Mountain trail. While we felt this isn’t a heavily-traversed trail, we were surprised at how well this small section has been maintained. The hike on the Pass Mountain Trail is a steady uphill climb, but the conditions of the trail made for easy footing. On the way up, we caught up with what was going on with our lives – from aging parents to worrisome dogs to trail sections to hiker rescues to beer. Around the 2.75 mile mark, we reached the Pass Mountain Shelter. We stopped and ate a snack and checked out the hiking log. Christine’s ankle was feeling decent, so we decided to press further up the trail. At the shelter, there is a junction with the fire road (Pass Mountain Hut Road), but the trail ascends up to the left of the shelter as you are facing it. We continued up the trail until we reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail at 3.0 miles.
We remembered we found a nice overlook on Pass Mountain that was off the trail and we didn’t think it was too terribly far so we decided to try and find it again together. We took a right, heading north on the white-blazed AT. The trail continued to go slightly uphill, but the grade wasn’t as steep as most of the Pass Mountain Trail. When we carried onward for about a mile, I decided to scout ahead a bit since I didn’t want Christine to put a lot of undue pressure on her ankle. Trekking up ahead at a brisk speed, I came across a mother bear and a yearling bear cub ambling close to the trail. They were both curious about me, so I said a few “Hey, bears” to let them know I wasn’t a threat. They slowly were walking away, paying me little mind so I shouted back at the rest of the group “BEAR, BEAR” to let them know I spotted one. I wondered if the group thought I was shouting for beer instead, but they understood. When they caught up, they were able to see the bears not too far off but they had moved away from their comfy spot.
Right around the corner from where we spotted the bear, we saw the jumbled rocks on the left of the trail that we remembered as being the viewpoint. We cut off the trail and out onto the rocks to enjoy a nice view to the west. There are nicer views in the park, but on a clear day you can see ridges of mountains for miles.
After taking in the view for a few minutes, we made our way back to our cars. We continued our trip to Creekside Deli and then Pen Druid Brewery for some delicious food and drink before parting ways. We look forward to our next adventure with them!
- Distance – 8.3 miles roundtrip
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1730 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This was a nice, moderate hike with steady but well-graded climbing.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. The trail was in fantastic shape – very well maintained and tended to by the PATC.
- Views – 3.5. There’s a beautiful, but not quite panoramic view on the northern flank of Pass Mountain.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. There isn’t any stream scenery, but there is a spring behind the Pass Mountain Hut.
- Wildlife – 4. We saw bears – a yearling cub and mama!
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
- Solitude – 4. We saw one couple at the hut, but no one else at all during the entirety of the 8+ mile hike.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: The trail is located off of US-211 about 12 miles east of Luray, VA and 2.8 miles east of where US-211 crosses Skyline Drive. The gravel lot is located at 38.66855, -78.28999. Cross the road (be careful as this is a blind curve and cars may not see you easily) and at the bottom of the steep, sharp curve you will see the signpost for the Pass Mountain Trail.
This 14.6 mile stretch of Appalachian Trail offers many splendid views as you closely follow the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When you are gifted a sunny 75-degree weekend in April, you must snatch it up and go backpacking! At least, that is my belief on the matter. We had just such a weekend in mid-April this year, so we decided to get out there and work on completing some more Virginia Appalachian Trail miles.
We’ve already completed all the miles between Jennings Creek, VA and Harpers Ferry, WV, so we decided to pick up the next section south – Black Horse Gap northbound to Jennings Creek. It was a relatively short route for an overnighter – twelve miles the first day and just three miles the second day. We always try to do about 20 miles on a one-night trip, but access to road crossings for our shuttle drop-off made fifteen miles the best logistical option for this trip.
We looked up shuttle options in our AWOL Guide, and ended up hiring Homer Witcher to give us a ride to our start point. Homer is a great trail ambassador – he’s in his 70s and still finds the time and energy to run on the AT most days. He, his wife, and children are all avid, lifelong hikers – completing multiple section and thru hikes. He told us he and his wife are planning another thru in 2017. We greatly enjoyed talking to him on the ride over to Black Horse Gap.
About a half hour later, we found ourselves standing along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Black Horse Gap. We found the trail easily and started our northbound walk. Over the first few miles of hiking, the AT crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple times – at Taylors Mountain and Harveys Knob. Both crossings offer panoramic vistas of the valley below. Most of the views in this section include a nice look at Sharp Top, one of the areas most popular mountains for day hiking. The terrain along this stretch of trail could best be described as rolling – there were lots of ups and downs, none dramatic. We passed a large group of Boy Scouts hiking along the trail. They turned out to be pretty much the only people we saw on our hike.
By 12:30, we reached our lunch stop at Bobblets Gap shelter. We ate and assessed our water supply. We knew we’d have another chance to resupply water at around the 8 mile mark, but read that the water source at Bearwallow Gap was iffy and seasonal. I still had over two liters of water, some in my Camelbak and a full Smartwater bottle. Adam filled his Camelbak to three liters and also had a full Smartwater. Our planned campsite at the Cove Mountain Shelter is dry (no spring, no stream) and the closest water source to camp is three miles away in either direction, so we tried to guess how much water we would need to cook and hike the next day. It’s a delicate balance between carrying too much heavy water and not enough, risking dehydration.
After lunch, we leapfrogged the same group of scouts again. They had decided to skip the shelter since they had moms and lunch waiting for them at a road crossing ahead. The post-lunch hiking was decidedly more uphill than the morning hiking. We gradually climbed, crossing the parkway two more times at Peaks of Otter and Mills Gap. At Mills Gap, we were able to get rid of our lunch trash at a roadside trashcan – being able to get rid of garbage is a real treat for any backpacker! We took a rest at Mills Gap, reclining on a picnic table in dappled shade. The temperatures weren’t that hot – maybe high 60’s, but the sun was incredibly strong and relentless through the mostly leafless trees. We both got sunburned despite using sunscreen.
After a little more climbing from Mills Gap, we started a nice descent to Bearwallow Gap and the VA43 road crossing. We passed a murky, dank wildlife pond along the way – maybe it’s the bear wallow! At the road crossing, we sat like a pair of hobos under the Blue Ridge Parkway road sign. People driving past looked at us like we were a novelty. There turned out to be plenty of water in the seasonal stream at the crossing, but neither of us had drunk much more water so we decided not to resupply again. That wasn’t the best idea – more about that later!
We crossed VA43 and immediately began the climb up Cove Mountain. Within the first hundred feet there was a sign reminding us about the dry conditions at Cove Mountain Shelter. We still were certain we had plenty of water. As we ascended, I said to Adam “This isn’t bad! The trail looked WAY steeper on the map!” Adam replied, “I hope you’re not jinxing us.” Well, I totally jinxed us. The trail got much steeper and due to past forest fires, we were climbing in direct, unrelenting sunshine at the hottest part of the day. We both went through much more water than we had planned for. I chewed gum to try and preserve what water I had left. We passed a couple small campsites along the ridge of Cove Mountain. We contemplated stopping for the day, but decided to press on to our planned stop.
The descent of Cove Mountain was incredibly beautiful. I think the area burned in 2011 or 2012, leaving spectacular open views along the ridgeline. I was thankful for such beautiful, distracting views the last couple miles because my feet were killing me. In addition to not refilling water when we should have, I made the mistake of trying out new gear on a long(ish) hike. For many years, I have hiked in Thorlo thick-cushion hiker socks with a pair of silk sock liners. I don’t get blisters -ever- with that combo. This time, I decided to wear my Darn Tough wool socks. They’re super popular with hikers and were always comfortable for me on day hikes – even long day hikes, but apparently I do need the extra cushioning I get from Thorlos when I’m carrying a heavier pack. Lesson learned – don’t mess with the tried and true, especially when it comes to your feet!
We hobbled into camp around 3:30 – almost 12 miles in about 6 hours included stops for lunch, rest, and photography – not a bad pace for our first trip of the season. We set up camp and spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and napping. Despite being dry, Cove Mountain Shelter is an idyllic spot. The shelter is typical, the privy is new, and there was space for a good number of tents both around and on the ridge above the shelter. Recently, I learned an interesting piece of trivia about the Cove Mountain Shelter from my friend Jeff Monroe (of Wandering Virginia). Apparently, this shelter used to sit at Marble Springs (where we camped on the second night of our Jennings Creek to the James River section). When the area around Marble Springs became designated wilderness, the shelter was moved to its current location on Cove Mountain.
Before dinner, Adam found a good tree and slung the rope for our bear hang. As we prepared dinner, we rationed out our water, so we’d have enough for breakfast and our second day of hiking. We were both pretty thirsty and wished we had filled up to the maximum at Bearwallow. We even ended up drinking our dishwashing water. Lots of ‘Leave No Trace’ folks always drink their wash water, but it’s also acceptable to broadcast water away from camp. We usually broadcast. But this time, we enjoyed a lovely ‘tea’ flecked with a mélange of buffalo chicken, macaroni and cheese, and crème brulee. Mmmm! Even after conserving water, we really didn’t have much left for both breakfast and tomorrow’s hiking.
As we were finishing dinner, Boy Scouts started rolling into camp – first two, then five more, then another four, then the final three an hour later. We were sure they had come off the trail at VA43. They’d been hiking since 9:30 a.m. – many of them were first time backpackers, a few were first time hikers! The troop was from Roanoke Rapids, NC. They were nice folks, but clearly new to backpacking, as they took the time to remove our bear hang from the tree, thinking it was litter! Adam was not happy about having to get the rope back over the precarious branch, but in the end he agreed it was a little bit funny.
After dinner, we hiked up the hill behind the shelter to catch sunset. The view was lovely! As soon as the sun went down, it got cold pretty quickly. The dry, breezy conditions precluded a campfire, so we crawled into our tent a little after 8:00 p.m. I fell asleep but was woken several times during the night to sounds of foxes, whippoorwills, and owls! Despite the interruptions, it was a peaceful night and I was so glad to be out in the woods again!
We knew our next day on the trail was going to be quite easy. We woke up early before the Boy Scouts were even stirring. It was quite chilly, so we were probably moving a little faster in the morning to get the blood flowing. We packed away all of our stuff and enjoyed a breakfast of Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies and coffee. The plan was to have hot granola with Nido, but we didn’t have enough water left to make both hot cereal and coffee, so coffee and cookies won. We left the shelter area and were on our way in a little over an hour. Just about .2 miles away from the shelter, we came to a nice western morning view from the top of Cove Mountain. The trail continued to ascend, but it was hardly noticeable. From camp, the trail ascends about 200 feet in .8 miles. At this point, the trail descends the rest of the way. We were impressed with the views through the trees along the way.
The trail on the descent was easy walking for the most part. The trail had just a few longer switchbacks on it, but it was a nice, peaceful walk in the woods. It was just a short amount of time before we could hear the sound of water from Jennings Creek and around 3.2 miles we were back at Jennings Creek Road. We took a right and crossed over the creek for some picturesque creek scenes before getting to our car on the left side of the road.
We had previously planned to get to Sonic in Waynesboro for a celebratory lunch and a stop at Rockfish Gap Outfitter’s Anniversary Sale (where I got a new Osprey Atmos pack), but arriving at the car around 9 a.m., we knew we had some time to kill. We decided to stop on our way at the Virginia Safari Park near Lexington. If you are a fan of animals, this is a must-see place to visit. We drove through the loop (we could even see rhinos through the window) with a bucket of feed while zebras, emus, alpacas, elk, and yaks tried to rip it from our hands. After driving through the loop, we also walked through their other exhibits, where we could see giraffes at eye level, walk among kangaroos, and see other animals through cages – tigers, hyenas, and monkeys. I believe this was our third time visiting and there are always new additions every time we visit.
This section of the Appalachian Trail has some wonderful scenery on it. If you are looking for a shorter, overnight trip with lots of views along the way, this hike won’t disappoint – just plan for water.
- Distance – 14.6 miles
Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
- Elevation Change – 1650 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. This was a pretty easy backpacking route. It was perfect for our first outing of the season and gentle injury recovery.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in typical Appalachian Trail shape for this part of Virginia – well maintained and nicely graded.
- Views – 5. There are many fantastic viewpoints along this route. Most of them come from overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway – which you’ll cross multiple times on this route.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. This is a quite dry stretch of trail. There is a small, low-flow spring at Bobblets Gap and a seasonal stream at Bearwallow Gap. There is NO WATER SOURCE at the Cove Mountain Shelter, so plan ahead.
- Wildlife – 3. We saw several deer and had a barred owl and a whippoorwill in camp.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well marked and easy to follow. There are road crossings and several other trail junctions, but the white blazes are easy to follow in most place.
- Solitude – 3. We actually saw very few people on this hike considering the beautiful weather and its proximity to the parkway.
Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: Take exit 168 off of I-81 toward Arcadia, VA. Turn on to State Route 614/Arcadia Road off the exit. Arcadia Road becomes Jennings Creek Road. After 4.5 miles, you will see a large gravel parking lot after crossing Jennings Creek and you will see a sign for where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Park in this lot. Coordinates 37.529352, -79.622693 To drop off second car and start your hike: Continue down Jennings Creek Road from where you parked (not arriving the way you came). In 1.8 miles, turn right on to State Route 618/McFalls Creek Road. Go 4.1 miles and then turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow this for 8.6 miles until you reach the small pulloff on the right side for Black Horse Gap. With not much space here for a vehicle, you will likely want to park along the side of the road. Just a few feet on the fire road, you will see the sign for the Appalachian Trail junction. Coordinates: 37.424611, -79.757202. Head right and start on the trail.