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Double Bear Rocks

May 24, 2016

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Double Bear Rocks

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

Christine Says…

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

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

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

Pass Mountain Trail

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  It appears there used to be another trail or fireroad at the marker that is no longer maintained; Our hiking entourage; A view of Marys Rock through the trees.

Trail Junction Hiking Entourage Mary's Rock Through the Trees

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

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

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

Pass Mountain Hut

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

Water Source at Pass Mountain Shelter Log Walking the AT

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

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

Adam Says…

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

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

Two Bears on the AT

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

Rocky Portion

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

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

The Descent of Pass Mountain

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

Descent of Pass Mountain Parking

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

Appalachian Trail – Black Horse Gap to Jennings Creek

May 17, 2016

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Blackhorse Gap to Jennings Creek

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

Day One…

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

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

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

Walking the Appalachian Trail

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

Our Start Point Rhododendron Thicket Views Through the Trees

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

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

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

Beautiful Views from the Blue Ridge Parkway

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

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

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

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

Climbing Cove Mountain

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

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

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

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

Road Around Mountain

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

Cove Mountain Shelter Bear Hangs and Tents

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

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

Good Night

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

Pretty Sunset Happy Place

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

Day Two…

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

View from Cove Mountain

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

Tents in the Morning Walking the AT Descending to Jennings Creek

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

Descending to Jennings Creek

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

Jennings Creek Parking at Jennings Creek Zebras

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: To drop off first car: Take exit 168 off of I-81 toward Arcadia, VA.  Turn on to State Route 614/Arcadia Road off the exit.  Arcadia Road becomes Jennings Creek Road.  After 4.5 miles, you will see a large gravel parking lot after crossing Jennings Creek and you will see a sign for where the Appalachian Trail crosses.  Park in this lot.  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.  Head right and start on the trail.

Pamplin Historical Park Trails

May 8, 2016

Pamplin Historical Park, located in Petersburg, Va is a hike that demonstrates a pivotal piece of civil war history that takes you through battlefields that led to the folding of the Confederate troops.

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Pamplin Historical Park

If you’re interested in history, but still want to get some vigorous walking in, Pamplin Historical Park is a great place to visit.

Adam Says…

We are always looking for new and interesting places to hike in Virginia.  We were contacted a couple of months ago by Diane Willard, Director of Administration, Marketing, & Membership Services for Pamplin Historical Park about visiting their park and telling others about the trails they had on their property.  As I was visiting the area in late March, I was able to squeeze in a visit.  Please note, there is an entrance fee -as of 2016 adults $12.50, seniors 62+ $11.50, and children (6-12) $7.50.  The park is open seven days a week from Spring to Fall from 9AM-5PM daily, so plan accordingly. 

The focus of the park is to bring visitors into the history of the Civil War from one dramatic date – April 2, 1865.  On this day, the Sixth Corps Union troops under General Horatio Wright broke through the Confederate line at Petersburg.  The Confederate forces were working on maintaining a line of defense that stretched for 40 miles from north of Richmond, the Confederate capital, to southwest of Petersburg.   A rough winter and desertion had dwindled General Lee’s troops to 60,000 while Grant’s troops were double that size.  The day before, General Grant had cut through the Confederate supply lines and killed about 5,000 troops at Five Forks.  This line on April 2nd tried to hold off the Union troops, but in the early morning Union forces got to the Confederate trenches but nearly 4,000 Union troops were killed.   The battle raged on throughout the day, but by the end of the day, the Confederate troops decided to retreat and abandon the line.  Petersburg and Richmond were evacuated and a mere week later, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at the Appomattox Court House.

Pamplin Historical

Civil War Trench from the Fortification Exhibit; Below: National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, views of the battlefield, trail views go from woods to open fields

Pamplin Historical Park Pamplin Historical Park Pamplin Historical Park

There are several miles of hiking trails through this park and it also connects to the Petersburg Battlefields Trail if you want a longer hike.  I would recommend printing this map of the area, so you can get an idea of the landscape to start the hike.  The main entrance is known as The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.  Leaving the building through the side entrance, you walk past a demonstration and then pass by the Tudor Hall plantation on the right.  Continuing ahead, you walk past a Fortification Exhibit which gives you a closeup view of a trench and the defense systems around them.  You then pass the Battlefield Center on the left and and begin the real hike on the Breakthrough Trail.  The Breakthrough Trail has a Main Loop, Short Loop, and Intermediate Loop.  Knowing I was going on a bit further, I started in .2 miles on the Main Loop.  The main loop is mostly wooded as you go through an area known as Arthur’s Swamp.  At .4 miles, you reach a junction where you can break off and take the Short Loop, but I continued on the Main Loop.  At .85 miles, you come to a junction where you can continue on the Main Loop or begin the Headwaters Trail.  I picked up a brochure at the junction and saw that The Headwaters Trail would actually connect as a large loop, so I decided to take the longer Headwaters Loop.  Along the way, you get to see several Confederate rifle pits, small dugouts that formed strategic encampments.  At 1.35 miles, you reach a short path that has a sign explaining an original logging bridge.  From here you can break off the Headwaters Trail and make your way on to the Petersburg Battlefields Trail.  The idea of checking out how these trails connected intrigued me, so I took this trail.  From here, you are leaving the Pamplin Historical Park boundary.  You go through some woods but then are left with great farmland views where you can imagine the feelings of the soldiers that were crossing this field.  You can only begin to think about how many people lost their lives on that fateful day to stand up for their beliefs.

Pamplin Historical Park

Battlefield Center.  Below: historic placards along the trails, wooded walkways, school trips learning about trench warfare and getting into formations

Pamplin Historical Park Pamplin Historical Park Pamplin Historical Park

Continuing on this trail allows you to get some open scenery, which is great for spotting birds in the fields.  I walked on an open path and then at 1.65 miles, followed the sign pointing towards the parking lot.  This trail continued to skirt around some open fields of farmland.  At 2.4 miles, the trail takes a sharp turn to the left where you come across some large earthworks, serving as barriers protecting the Union line.  I walked along these for a short distance and saw the trail continued further, but decided to make my way back.  On my way back, at 3.25 miles, I came to the junction of the sign (one way leading to the parking lot, the other pointing to the Petersburg Battlefield Trail).  Instead of taking a right, I decided to take a left to walk along the farmland and get more views, but I turned around after just .2 miles to get back to the trail I knew.  From the junction sign follow the sign pointing to the Petersburg Battlefield Trail and at 3.6 miles, you finally rejoin the Headwaters Trail.  At 4.0 miles, you reach a junction with the Woodlands Trail, which also leads back to the start, but I continued on the main Headwaters Trail.  In a short distance, you begin to see the large Confederate Earthworks, forming that historic line the Confederates tried to maintain.  The trail crosses over a break in the earthworks and then takes a sharp left turn to parallel the earthworks.  At 4.4 miles, you reach another junction where you have an option on which side of the earthworks that you like to walk along the Intermediate Loop.  At 4.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Woodlands Trail again and at 4.6 miles, you meet a junction with the Main Loop.  Staying straight on the Intermediate Loop, it joins the Short Loop in a short distance.  I took a right here and reached the Battlefield Center at 4.8 miles.  I explored inside the Battlefield Center and then took in the Tudor Hall Plantation before returning to the main entrance at the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

If you are a civil war history buff, this would be a great place to hike and explore.  I was thoroughly impressed with how much has been put into the care of the trails and the exhibits themselves.  You could easily spend most of the day exploring the trails and grounds here.  This would be a great hike to go as a family to learn about the history and if you have children, they may enjoy reading about the civil war on the placards along the way.  I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at how great the trails were maintained here.  I went in expecting that I could walk along some short, easy trails, but with adding the spur to the Petersburg Battlefield Trail, you can get a more serious hike into your day.

Pamplin Historical Park

The Tudor Hall Plantation.  Below: Open field views, statue at the entrance station.

Pamplin Historical Park Pamplin Historical Park

Trail Notes

  • Distance –5.0 miles.
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change –  100 ft.
  • Difficulty –  1.  Very easy walking on this one with very little elevation gain. 
  • Trail Conditions – 4.5  Trails are well-maintained and easy footing. 
  • Views – 2.5.  Not high views, but vast views of open, picturesque fields.
  • Waterfalls/streams 0. Non-existent.
  • Wildlife – 2.  Some decent bird-watching over boggy areas and expansive fields.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  When you leave Pamplin, things can get a bit confusing.
  • Solitude –  3.5.  You will see people at Pamplin Historical Park, but hardly anyone on the trail system. 

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: From Richmond, take I-95 south to I-85 south, to Exit 63-A (U.S. 1 south). Proceed one mile to Park entrance on the left. The Park is 30 minutes south of Richmond, VA.

National Park Centennial – 3 Book Reviews

April 19, 2016

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service.  Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service on August 25, 1916.

We know a lot of you will want to take some trips out to some of our national parks, whether that is our local Shenandoah National Park or Blue Ridge Parkway, or visiting some other parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon.

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We recently picked up a few books to review and thought these were all great resources in planning your next adventure.

National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States: Eighth Edition

National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States: Eighth Edition

National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States: Eighth Edition

National Park Guide

Excursions in the nearby area

This book is the ultimate companion to the national parks.  The book is broken down into regions of the country (color-coded at the bottom) and alphabetized by park name within each region.  Each park covered includes a map of the region and a brief history of the park.  They also point out highlights of each park, camping and lodging available, and information on hikes you won’t want to miss.  Many of the park write-ups also include information on other excursions within the area.  They also feature for each park advice on how to visit the park – understanding how many days you should take explore the area and the best season can help you make some great decisions on how to make the most of your trip.  Of the parks we have visited, I found their write-ups spot on and the photography is always magnificent.  This book has a ton of information packed into its near-500 pages and after flipping through for a short while, you will want to plan many vacations to parks you haven’t seen yet (or plan another trip on all the things you may have missed.

National Geographic Kids National Parks Guide U.S.A. : Centennial Edition

Map & Checklist

Map & Checklist

Informational Splash Pages

Informational Splash Pages

While you are looking through the official National Geographic Guide, this book is a great companion guide for your kids.  I would gauge this is more geared towards kids that fall within the late elementary school to early high school ages.  The material is definitely more condensed, but does include a map of each park.  For each write-up there is information on Ranger Tips, Take It Easy (for relaxing ideas), Be Extreme (for adventurous ideas from white-water rafting to caving to paragliding), Best View, and All About Animals.  Each of the write-ups also include a checklist, so parents can help them work towards those goals to take in the most out of each park.  And because both of these books are done by National Geographic, you know the photography will be amazing.  This book would also be a great thing to buy for your kids to teach them about the National Park Service and all the features these parks provide.

Backpacker The National Parks Coast to Coast: 100 Best Hikes

by Ted Alvarez

Backpacker

Left page: GPS waypoints for specific points on your hike; right page: overview of each hike

While the first two books give you a wonderful overview of each park, Backpacker put together this 385 page book that give you expert advice on specific hikes within each park.   For most of the parks listed, there are 1-5 hikes selected.  Most of the ones with more than one hike are larger, more popular destinations like Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, Olympic, or Zion.  Some of the hikes listed are simple day hikes, but the bulk are backpacking trips that can be just a simple overnight to a week-long adventure.  Each of the hikes covered include a detailed map and GPS coordinates along the way, which should give you the precise information you need to start your hike.  .  Distance, time required, contact information, difficulty, and trailhead directions are listed at the beginning of each hike.  This book has the ultimate thrill-seeker in mind and if you have a sense of adventure and wanting to get deep into the beauty of each park, they have provided some excellent advice.  While I feel I won’t be able to do but a percentage of what is covered in this book, every one of these could be considered a bucket-list adventure.  The photography is also amazing, with a big splash page for each park.

We also learned that National Geographic is celebrating the 100th anniversary of our National Parks Service by offering the chance to win a spectacular family vacation for four to Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion National Parks. Here are the details and a link to the enter which will be live on April 1st.

“This fabulous 8-day family adventure from National Geographic Expeditions is a dream trip come true. Discover the incredible geological treasures of the American Southwest and marvel at the rainbow colors  of the high desert; explore the Grand Canyon’s North Rim on foot or mule; hike amid Zion’s wonderland of slot canyons, hanging gardens, and waterfalls, and splash through the Narrows of the Virgin River; wind  through Bryce Canyon’s whimsical maze of red rock spires, and go on a scavenger hunt. Stay in historic park lodges with Old West atmosphere, and take part in activities and excursions geared for explorers of  all ages.  The National Geographic National Parks Sweepstakes runs from April 1-August 31, 2016. To enter or obtain full Official Rules go to: NationalParksSweeps.com.”

And if anyone wins this vacation, Christine and Adam would be glad to be adopted into your family for this adventure.

Robertson Mountain

April 3, 2016

This 6.0 mile hike follows fire roads and trails to the summit of Robertson Mountain – one of Shenandoah’s less visited, more interior peaks.  It’s a moderate hike with fantastic views!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Summit of Robertson Mountain

The summit of Robertson Mountain is less visited than many peaks in Shenandoah.

Christine Says…

Our traditional Thanksgiving day begins with a hike and ends with homemade pizza and beer.  I know it’s not the normal way to celebrate this holiday, but it’s what we’ve done for years now. Eating turkey would just be weird for us!  Last year, Skyline Drive was closed for weather, so we had a beautiful short hike along the Appalachian Trail in half a foot of fresh snow. I still remember losing the trail multiple times because branches were so heavily bowed over the path. Thanksgiving of 2015 was quite different! It was so warm and sunny that it felt more like early fall. Even with a brisk breeze, we were able to hike comfortably in t-shirts.

We wanted to hike something new, so we settled on Robertson Mountain. It’s not as well-known or popular as many other Shenandoah trail, but we heard it had nice views of Old Rag and the valley. The hike isn’t listed in any of our hiking guidebooks and most of the online information approaches Robertson Mountain from the Old Rag parking area. That route is known as one of the steepest climbs in the park.  We didn’t want to drive all the way around to Weakley Hollow, so we consulted our maps to find a route approaching the summit from Skyline Drive.

Buildings Along the Fire Road

This cluster of buildings is sometimes used for training events or ranger accommodations.  It was empty when we visited. Below: The hike started out on the Limberlost Trail; A pretty stream along the way; Most of this hike is walking on a fire road.

Limberlost Stream Along the Fire Road Old Rag Fire Road

We decided our best option was to park at Limberlost and follow that trail to the junction with the Old Rag fire road.  From there, we just followed the Old Rag fire road all the way down to its junction with the Robertson Mountain Trail.  At first, the route seemed a little confusing because the fire road and the Big Meadows Horse Trail shared course for a while.  Adam will give more specific details about benchmarks and distances in his portion of the post.  Most of the walking along the fire road was mundane.  We passed a pretty stream early on the route.  We also came across a cluster of backcountry cabins.  There wasn’t a sign marking them, but apparently they are used for training activities and ranger accommodations.   As we descended the fire road, eventually Robertson Mountain came into view.  Through the leafless trees, we could see it’s cone-like shape through branches.

We took a left onto the Robertson Mountain trail.  It’s the only ‘real’ section of trail on this hike – the majority is fire road and the graded path of Limberlost.  We climbed steadily for about three-quarters of a mile until we reached the top.  A side path made it’s way to a rocky outcropping.  We had the summit all to ourselves.  We enjoyed a light lunch and spectacular views of the mountains.  After leaving the summit, we explored a mountain-top campsite.  There was definitely enough room for a couple tents, but no water source.  Someone had recently put an illegal fire ring in at the site, so we dispersed the rocks before heading back down.

The hike back retraced our steps and was primarily an uphill climb back to Limberlost.  If you’re looking for the less steep, easier way to visit Robertson Mountain – this is your route!  The approach from Weakley Hollow is about the same total distance, but is a much steeper climb! All in all, this was a pleasant and moderate six mile hike.  The route wasn’t very exciting, but the great views more than made up for it. It was the perfect way to spend our Thanksgiving morning.

Approaching Robertson

We could see Robertson Mountain looming in the distance.  Below: Climbing the Robertson Mountain Trail; A campsite with remnants of an illegal fire near the summit; Arriving at the viewpoint.

Robertson Mountain Trail Campsite Near the Robertson Summit Arriving at Robertson Mountain Summit

Adam Says…

Robertson Mountain is one of those hikes that doesn’t get much publicity, but treats you with a serene view over a mountainous landscape with barely a glimpse of civilization.  Because of this, on most days, you will find that you can have this slice of serenity all to yourself.

We started our hike from the Limberlost Trail parking lot.  The Limberlost Trail is a small loop, but start heading on the left, clockwise from the parking lot.  There are several spurs that lead away from the Limberlost Trail and all of the junctions aren’t easily marked.  After going just a couple tenths of a mile, we came to a sign that states “Horse Trail” with arrows to Skyland and Big Meadows (the next trail that comes off the Limberlost Trail Loop is the White Oak Canyon Trail – this is not the trail you want).  Take this trail off the Limberlost Trail which is the Old Rag Fire Road.  The Old Rag Fire Road starts off mostly flat until the one mile mark.  At this point, it will start a steeper downhill.  At 1.7 miles, you reach a junction with the Indian Run trail, but stay on the Fire Road.  At 2.2 miles, you reach the bottom of the steep decline and reach another junction with the Corbin Hollow Trail. Stay on the Old Rag Fire Road and at 2.3 miles, you will see a small post on the left of the road that marks the beginning of the Robertson Mountain trail.

Robertson Mountain Summit

No one else to be seen on the trail on this day! Below: Gnarled trees near the summit; Descending Robertson Mountain; Returning to the junction of the Robertson Mountain Trail and the Fire Road.

Gnarled Trees Descending Robertson Mountain Back Up to Skyline Drive

Take this trail, which starts off through some thicker underbrush.  This trail is much steeper but it is a short climb of .6 miles.  The Robertson Mountain trail was very rocky and you think several times that you have reached a false summit, but the trail continues up.  At this 2.9 mile marker, there is a small side trail to the right that leads to the summit.   From the summit, you will see lots of nice rock outcroppings to enjoy the view.  Continue back the way you came to make this about a 6 mile out-and-back hike.

For those that want to bag a few different peaks from this hike, you can reach Old Rag from here also.  You could go back down the Robertson Mountain trail and then take a left at the Old Rag Fire Road.  Taking this and then joining the Saddle Trail would take another 4 miles to reach the summit of Old Rag.  This would give you about a 15-mile hike, so it could make a decent route for an overnight backpacking trip (but there isn’t really a water source) or a very long day hike for those that are very fit.  Shenandoah provides a nice, free trail map of this area on their website.

This was a great way to spend a day on a hidden gem of a hike.  While the fire road is not overly thrilling to see, it makes for some easy footing.  We feel we have done so much of Shenandoah National Park, so we were pleasantly surprised at how this tucked-away hike gave us some of the better views in the park.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6.0 miles roundtrip
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1250 ft.
  • Difficulty –  2.5.  This was an easy to moderate hike.  The climbing was mostly gentle and well-graded.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Most of the hike was along accessible trail or fire road.  The Robertson Mountain trail was typical Shenandoah single-track.
  • Views  4.5.  Beautiful and fairly expansive!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.  There was one pretty stream early in the hike.
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw deer and birds.  I am sure some hikers cross paths with bears in this area too.  We saw some scat along the fire road.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The junction of Limberlost and the Old Rag Fireroad is not well labeled, but it’s also hard to miss something as wide as a fire road.
  • Solitude – 4.  We saw some people around Limberlost, but nobody after that!

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: Located in Shenandoah National Park (fees apply).  The Limberlost Parking lot is located around Mile Marker 43 on Skyline Drive.  Park in this lot.  Head left on the Limberlost Trail loop at the end of the parking lot. 

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

March 7, 2016

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

View from Bears Den Rocks

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

Adam Says…

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

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

Golden Woods

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

Litter on the AT Old Stone Walls Bursts of Color

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

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

Rocky Climbs on the Roller Coaster

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

Rod Hollow Shelter Rollercoaster Entrance Downhill on the Roller Coaster

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

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

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

Christine Says…

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

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

Pretty Spot to Eat Lunch

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

Campsite Along Morgan Mill Stream Crossing Burned Area

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

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

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

Old Tree on Buzzard Hill

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

Nice Foliage Views Sam Moore Shelter Book Pages

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

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

Bears Den Rocks

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

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

Trail Notes

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

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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

Appalachian Trail – Ashby Gap to Front Royal

January 19, 2016

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

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

The View from Sky Meadows

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

Crossing Route 50 Uphill Climb Sky Meadows Opens Up

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

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

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

Views from Sky Meadows

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

Picnic Table at Sky Meadows Leaving the Meadows Hickory Tussock

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

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

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

Tangles of Vines and Weeds in the Wildlife Management Area

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

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

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

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

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

Campfire

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

Our Campsite Around the Shelter Cards at Camp

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

Day Two (15.2 miles)…

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

Golden Woods

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

Manassas Gap Shelter The Spring at Manassas Gap Yum - Lunch

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

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

Barringer Point

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

Hiking Along Old Stone Wall Passing Under 66

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

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

A Meadow View

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

Train Tracks Colorful Woods Farmland Views

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

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

Descending the AT

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

Old Fence Jim & Molly Denton Shelter Mosby Campground

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

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

Smithsonian Conservation

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

Mountain Home Mountain Home Mountain Home

Trail Notes

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

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

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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