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.
* 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: 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!
* 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: 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.
* 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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
This four mile hike takes you by one of Virginia’s most beautiful waterfalls. The trail is engineered and mostly flat, so this hike is suitable for hikers of all levels.
Cascade Falls is one of those must-do hikes in Virginia, featuring one of the most picturesque scenes of a waterfall that you’ll get. We had been meaning to do this hike under more pleasant circumstances, but life doesn’t always work out that way. We were picking up our pug, Wookie (who many of you may remember has contributed his thoughts to some of our posts) from the Virginia Tech Veterinary Hospital. He has been suffering from chronic bronchitis – which is like COPD in humans – and had to have surgery to remove two of his lung lobes. We had a late afternoon pick-up for him, so we decided to go on a hike that morning while we were in the area.
We arrived around 10:30 in the morning and found ourselves in a line of cars that were waiting for parking spaces. The tobacco-spitting parking lot attendant said it wasn’t like this a few years ago, but since Virginia Tech added this hike to a bucket-list during orientation for all of their incoming freshman, the place has been packed. Of course, we were doing this hike on the weekend before classes started at Virginia Tech, so there were students by the carload here. Only about eight cars back in line, we still had to wait about 45 minutes before we could park. I can only imagine that people that arrived around 11:00 would be waiting an eternity for a parking spot.
The trail starts at the end of the parking lot behind the information center and restrooms. Soon, you arrive at a bridge. The trail splits for an upper trail and lower trail. The attendant had suggested that we approach from the lower trail and then make a loop and return on the upper trail. We started on the lower trail, which hugs closely to Little Stony Creek the entire trip. Little Stony Creek has tons of spots to enjoy the views of the creek. You may even see a few paths that crossed the creek that were wiped out during a flood in 1996. The trail has been re-routed since then on the path you take now. There are some ups and downs as you go along the creek, but overall you are climbing along the trail.
At 2.0 miles, you will reach the large Cascade Falls. The water plunges 69 feet from the top over a large, wide wall making for an impressive scene. We saw probably over 100 Virginia Tech students at the falls, some were swimming in the always-cold water while others were climbing on the rocks (or the large rock slide to the right of the falls). It was nearly impossible to get any pictures without someone in it, but the shots do provide the sense of scale of the scene. We enjoyed watching the falls for a while and then proceeded up the stairs to the left. One path leads to another vantage point from next to the top of the falls, but this was more obstructed. We ended up taking the trail from the top of the steps, heading to the left, which came to a junction in a short distance. To the right, the trail continues on to Barney’s Wall, but we decided to just descend the upper trail since we were out of time. The upper trail consists of mostly a large fire road, making for much easier footing than the lower trail; however, you don’t get the views of Little Stony Creek like you did on the lower trail. The return trip was a nice walk through the woods on the trail until we reached our car back at 4.0 miles.
We hopped in our car quickly to allow for the next waiting person to be able to take our spot. The line of cars was quite long by this point.
Cascade Falls – known better as ‘The Cascades’ – is a beautiful, easy hike to one of the nicest waterfalls I’ve seen! The parking lot and trail were both insanely crowded, but I think we were probably there on one of the year’s busiest days. It was a weekend, the weather was cool and sunny for August, and the new school year was about to start at nearby Virginia Tech.
I’ve never hiked anywhere that I’ve had to wait in line for a parking spot, but that was the case here! Fortunately, we had all day to wait before our dog was discharged from the hospital, so we weren’t in any rush.
We walked the lower trail on our way to the falls. It was more of an engineered pathway than a classic, dirt hiking trail. There were paved walkways, stone stairs, and bridges most of the way to the falls. All along the way, the trail followed a scenic stream. There were tons of small waterfalls and cascading rapids to enjoy along the route.
A couple tenths of a mile before we reached the main waterfall, the trail passed through a dense mountain laurel and rhododendron thicket. After that, the path opened up onto a lovely grotto like scene. The falls cascades over a cliff into a large plunge pool. There were MANY kids swimming and sunbathing around the falls. I think I still managed to get a couple decent photos.
On the way back, we took the upper trail. It was basically a wide, gentle fire road that led back to the parking area. After the hike, I cleaned up in the parking area restroom. It was nice! Instead of a pit toilet, it had flush toilets, running water, and soap! We stopped for beers and lunch at Bull & Bones Brewhaus, while we waited on the call to pick Wookie up from the vet.
I’d like to do this hike again sometime on a quieter day. I’d also like to hike it when my mind isn’t preoccupied with worrying about my dog. It was really a beautiful spot!
- Distance – 4.0 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 742 feet
- Difficulty – 1.5 Not much climbing and most people can make this. This is a great family hike.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5 There are spots where things can be quite rocky/muddy. Due to the traffic, some of the rocks are quite slick.
- Views – 1.5 The one path to the top of the waterfall gives a nice view of the scene below, but not the best view of the waterfall.
- Waterfalls/streams – 5 The waterfall is amazing and one of Virginia’s best. The views along Little Stony Creek are great also.
- Wildlife – 1 Due to the popularity, you will likely only see birds in the trees.
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5 There aren’t any blazes on the trail, but the trail is evident. We were a little confused trying to find our way to the upper trail since there are no signs marking the way.
- Solitude – .5 Due to the popularity, you will likely see a lot of people on this trail and especially at the waterfall. Time your trip for a weekday, overcast or rainy day, or very early in the morning to beat the crowds.
Directions to trailhead: Take exit 118A-B-C on I-81. Take US-460W. After 25.9 miles turn right onto Mill Road. In .6 miles, take a right onto Cascade Dr (SR-T623) in Pembroke. The parking lot is in 2.9 miles. Parking is $3 and cash is required (they noted they do not give back change).
This moderate 6.4 mile hike with take you to the top of 4,315′ Mount Osceola. The trail is very rocky, but the ascent is moderate and non-technical. It’s a great choice for newer hikers looking to bag their first 4,000-footer in New Hampshire.
For our final hike of the week in New Hampshire, we wanted to do another 4,000 footer. We settled on the 6.4 mile hike of Mount Osceola. The mountain stands at 4,315 feet, but the hike only requires a little over 2,000 feet of vertical gain to reach the summit. It’s a very moderate climb. We also read in our guidebook that it was also a rocky hike – even by New Hampshire standards.
Located off Tripoli Road, the hike was quite close to my parents’ house. It was nice to have a short drive after spending so much time in the car on our Mt. Washington day. We were also blessed with another beautiful weather day –sunny, warm, and a blue sky full of big, puffy clouds.
On the way to the trailhead, we passed so many fantastic backcountry campsites. I think next time we visit New Hampshire, we’ll bring our overnight gear and do something multi-day.
The route up Mt. Osceola is about as straight-forward as you can get. The trail goes all the way to the top without crossing a single trail junction. It would be nearly impossible to get lost!
As our guidebook promised, the trail was rocky. Personally, I didn’t think it was any rockier than other local trails. I suppose the rocks were smaller and looser than a lot of the other area trails. It would be easy to lose your balance or turn an ankle on this terrain. In fact, I recently read on Facebook that a woman had to be carried off the Mount Osceola trail by local search and rescue after slipping and breaking her leg. Still, I think I prefer this kind of rockiness to slippery slabs and boulder scrambles.
Generally, the climb up to the summit was very gradual and (dare I say) easy compared to other hikes we’d done recently. We passed a forest service crew working on trail improvements. We also passed quite a few slower hikers. Mount Osceola and Mount Garfield are believed to be the easiest and most accessible of the 4,000 footers. A lot of novice and not-regular hikers choose these mountains to garner experience before moving onto bigger things.
As we climbed, we got some nice views of the Mount Tecumseh ski area. Near the top, the trail flattened out. We passed remnants of an old fire tower and then came out on a wide, open ledge. The view is first rate! I read somewhere that you can see 41 of 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 footers from the summit.
We spent more time than usual at the summit. We ate snacks and took photos. We were both really grateful for having over two weeks of vacation time, beautiful weather, and the chance to hike lots of new places. New Hampshire and New York are places we both want to visit again!
After a long stay at the summit, we hiked down the mountain. It was over before we knew it! I always feel a bit sad on final hikes of vacation weeks. We made the short drive back to my parents and spent the afternoon packing and getting ready for the long drive back to Virginia. We decided to have one final celebratory meal out at the Six Burner Bistro in Plymouth. The food there was creative and amazing. It was the perfect end to our time in the Granite State.
As Christine mentioned, the hike up Mt. Osceola is an accessible trail for those that want to try their hand (or feet) on a 4000-footer . New Hampshire has 48 mountains that are 4000 feet above sea level and Osceola is the 24th highest of the 48 4000-footers, coming in at 4,340 feet. This was named for the 19th century Seminole leader. I’m not sure why they decided to name a mountain in New Hampshire after a Native American in Florida, but his name is also the name of cities in Missouri and Wisconsin.
The hike up Osceola was quite rocky. This is one of those hikes where you do have to watch every step you take and your feet and knees will feel it after the hike, especially if you aren’t wearing good shoes and using trekking poles.
The trail starts off in a lush forest area and continues a steady, uphill climb until you reach the summit. The trail is fairly slow-going with the rockiness of the terrain. We were one of the first of the day to start the trail, but we were passed by someone that was trying to get to his work-crew assignment. The forest is so thick along the way. I felt I should get some views earlier on in the hike, but the tall trees keep the scenery at bay. Some of the rocky sections are larger flat rock faces that become very slick after heavy rains.
As Christine mentioned, there is just one straight trail here until you reach the summit. At 3 miles, after ascending some larger rock face sections, the trail begins to rise as you reach the top of the tree line. Right before the summit, there are a few side trails on both sides (one to an obstructed view and the other to a rough campsite), but the summit was absolutely gorgeous.
As we got to the summit, we were amazed at the views of the ridgeline of mountains to the left. This is scenery that pictures will never do justice. We climbed down to a lower rock shelf to get some of the dramatic shots above. This was one of those hikes that it was hard to convince ourselves to leave. We made our way down with a faster pace and made it back to our car in under 1.5 hours. It was a great finish to our vacation and covering a few new hikes in New Hampshire.
- Distance – 6.4 miles
- Elevation Change – 2010 feet
- Difficulty – 3. This is a squarely moderate hike.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. Everything in this area is rocky and challenging.
- Views – 5. Very beautiful and expansive!
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. Other than a few trickles down the mountainside, this hike was dry.
- Wildlife – 2. Birds, chipmunks, and squirrels
- Ease to Navigate – 4.5. Very easy to follow – pretty much a straight shot on the one trail in the area.
- Solitude – 2. This is a popular hike due to it’s moderate climb.
Directions to trailhead: From I-93 North, take exit 28 for NH-49 toward NH-175/Campton/Waterville Valley. Turn right and go 10.2 miles before turning left on Tripoli Road. Tripoli Road is closed during the winters, so plan ahead. Go 3.9 miles on the gravel Tripoli road until arriving at the parking lot on the left. The trailhead is at the end of the parking lot. There is a parking fee of $3 to park here at the Osceola trailhead.