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