Appalachian Trail and Creeper Trail – Holston River to Damascus

This 56-mile backpacking trip traverses some of Virginia’s very best Appalachian Trail scenery! There are panoramic vistas, windswept balds, meadows full of wildflowers, pretty streams, and even wild ponies. We were lucky enough to have six days of nearly perfect weather and not a single drop of rain!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Farm Fields
We hiked across an open pasture full of cattle. Below: Mt. Rogers Outfitters provided safe parking and shuttle service for our trip; Crossing the footbridge over the South Fork of the Holston River; Signing the log book as we begin our hike.

Mt. Rogers Outfitters Crossing the South Fork of the Holston River Kris and Adam sign the AT log

Day One – South Fork Holston River to Hurricane Creek Campground (9 miles) – Christine

Bright and early on Monday, May 20, we piled into our car and made the three and a half hour trip down to Damascus, Virginia. Town was busy with many thru-hikers still lingering after Trail Days (the huge, annual hiker festival and party hosted by the town.)  Knowing we had six days of oatmeal and trail mix ahead of us, we enjoyed a fresh lunch at Mojo’s Trailside Cafe. Their food is excellent and the place has such a cool hiker vibe. After eating, we drove over to Mt. Rogers Outfitters to meet our ride. Our shuttle driver turned out to be a local woodworking artist named Matthew Newman (he has a gallery in town.) He was right on time and the trip to our start point flew by as he shared stories about the area’s history and geology. The Appalachian Trail crossing of the South Fork of the Holston River is in the middle of nowhere – just a tiny one-car pullout along a lonesome back road.  We crawled out of his van, made sure we had all our stuff, and hit the trail. It was already 1:30 and we had nine miles to go before we reached our first camp stop.

We signed the wilderness-area logbook and crossed the wooden footbridge over the Holston River. We immediately started a gentle climb uphill through the woods. Eventually we reached a gravel road that paralleled a farm field. We climbed over a stile into a livestock pasture. The cows were completely indifferent to us, grazing and swinging their tails to swat flies away. The trail climbed  steadily across the open terrain. We had some nice views of mountains behind us, but the sun felt hot and strong. We were glad to get to the stile on the south end of the pasture and duck back into the shade. After leaving the pasture, we had almost four miles of non-stop climbing. It wasn’t terrible uphill, but it was steady. Kris and I took a detour and visited Trimpi Shelter about a mile into the climb. It was a cute shelter with a center aisle, indoor stone fireplace, and abundant flat space for tenting around the shelter. Even though it was only a bit after 2:00, there were already a few hikers stopped for the day.

Comer Creek Falls
Comer Creek Falls was small but pretty. Below: Blooming Catawba Rhododendron; Abundant ferns along the trail; The AT is like a ribbon through the woods.

Blooming Catawba Rhododendrons Walking along a ridgeline covered with ferns Appalachian Trail Green Tunnel

We climbed for another three miles. At the end of the ascent, we had a gorgeous, flat ridgewalk through lush fern. We trekked along until we reached the junction with a blue-blazed side trail that leads down to the forest service campground at Raccoon Branch. We stopped at the junction for a snack and gave Kris a chance to check on her feet. She was feeling a few hot spots in her new hiking boots and was dismayed to find several big blisters already forming just several miles into our hike! From there, we had a long meandering downhill to Dickey Gap. We passed lots of blooming flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons – and even a few early mountain laurels. We got to Dickey Gap a bit after 4:30. We chatted with a couple thru-hikers sitting in the shade under kiosk at the road crossing. They asked about the terrain headed north and indicated that they were going to try and make it to Marion (which was still 14 miles away!)  You really have to admire thru-hikers’ ability to crush big miles like that.

The trail sign on the other side of the road said we had about 2.5 miles to go to reach our first campsite of the trip.  About a mile later, we found ourselves at the base of Comer Creek Falls.  The bridge across the creek was partially sealed off with yellow hazard tape. A sign indicated that the bridge was closed and hikers should backtrack and follow the detour indicated on the map. Well… we were all tired, Kris’s blisters were excruciating, and Adam was having back spasms. We just wanted to get to camp. We made a joint judgment that the bridge looked sturdy enough and decided to cross it one by one. Clearly, since I’m now writing this post — we lived!  It really wasn’t all that dangerous. And, I guess sometimes you have to break the rules and live on the edge.

Camp Explosion at Hurricane Creek
It’s nice to have a private campsite with your own picnic table. Then you’re free to spill your food and gear out everywhere and take up the whole table. When you’re at a shelter with others, you have to be nice and share space. Below: The bath-house at Hurricane Creek; One of many beautiful campsites at the campground.

Bath House at Hurricane Creek Pretty Campsites at Hurricane Creek

A mile later, we found the spur trail down to Hurricane Creek Campground – one of the USFS campgrounds in the area. We had already paid for a site ahead of time, but found the entire campground pretty much empty. We easily could have claimed any of the walk-in, first-come-first-served sites. I chatted briefly with the campground host. He handed me a pamphlet and told me a bear had been opening car doors and stealing food. He recommended we store our food in the locked trunk of our vehicle.  Hmmm… I guess he didn’t really notice that we all showed up on foot!

One of the perks of staying at the campground instead of an AT shelter was the fact that the campground had hot showers. I don’t need a shower every day on the trail, but any time I can get one, it’s a nice morale boost. It feels good to be clean when I crawl into my sleeping bag at night. We made a campfire, cooked dinner, and did our best to dodge the thick clouds of mosquitoes swarming around. Adam wrote a hilarious rap tune for our section hike, and each night during the trip he added and performed a new verse about our adventures for the day. After discussing the bear issues in the area, we ended up storing our food inside the vault toilet building across from our campsite. The door to the bathroom latched securely and the campground was empty, so it seemed like the best option.  We ended up staying up until almost 10:00 – way past typical hiker midnight. Eventually, we headed to our tents and drifted off to sleep.

Download DAY ONE Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day One - Map Day One - Elevation

Day Two – Hurricane Creek Campground to Old Orchard Shelter (8.7 miles) – Adam

Green Tunnel
Day two was completely in the green tunnel – no views. If you look closely, you can see Adam making his way uphill.  Below: Hurricane Mountain Shelter; Taking a break from the heat and the strain of carrying packs; More trail scenery from the second day.

Hurricane Mountain Shelter Hikers Resting in a Shelter Green Tunnel

We started off day two from the campground, following the spur trail for about .7 mile back to the junction with the Appalachian Trail.  Most of the day consisted of  uphill climbing, but fortunately there were many water sources, so we didn’t have to carry a large (and heavy) amount of water.

About 1.5 miles into our walk, we passed through a beautiful section of trail surrounded by blooming rhododendron and azaleas. For a while, the trail was rolling and easy, but at the junction with the Hurricane Creek Trail, the trail took a turn steeply uphill along a wide, road-like section.  Around the 3.9 mile mark, we took the .1 mile side trail on the right that led us to Hurricane Mountain Shelter.  It was a nice place to eat a snack and stretch out our legs and backs (and tend to our feet).  After the shelter, we had just over a mile more of steep climbing to reach an area known as Chestnut Flats.  We had climbed about 1400 feet already; this wasn’t that bad over a long stretch, but there were some short steep sections along the way.  At this top bump, the AT also reaches a junction with the Iron Mountain trail.  We passed lots of hikers sitting trailside, using their phones.  This was one of the few spots on the hike that actually had cell reception. Lots of people were catching up with texts, calls, and social media. We also came across a thru-hiker that told us there was some great trail magic ahead. That is always a motivator to any backpacker – you want to move quickly so you don’t miss out.

Trail Magic
Trail Magic provided by Greybeard and Been There. Christine is eating a hot dog and Kris is using some of the first aid supplies to fix her feet. Below: The footbridge over Fox Creek; Our last climb of the day; Dropping packs at our selected campsite for the night.

Bridge Over Fox Creek Final Climb to Old Orchard Shelter Adam picks a campsite at Old Orchard

It was a steep downhill for the next mile and a half, but we soon reached Fox Creek, VA 603.  As soon as I crossed the road and parking lot, I saw a sign in the tree pointing to Trail Magic.  When I walked into the area, I was blown away by the setup. There were two guys, Greybeard and Been There, that had set up a large trail magic area. They said all hikers – thru and section – were welcome. They had grilled hot dogs, marinated chicken, a tub of fruit, homemade pie, cold sodas, and tons of snacks to take with you. They had a table filled with medical supplies for the taking and a handwashing station. They even had camp chairs (with backrests – a true luxury) and a campfire.  Greybeard has been setting up here for years on the week after Trail Days. He runs a GoFundMe page for contributions to buy all of the food and supplies.  Been There was helping out with cooking and making sure everyone was in good health and spirits.  It truly restores your faith in humanity to see people out there caring for other hikers and it was great to relax and talk trail with everyone there.  Greybeard left camp while we were there because he found a stuff sack of food that one of the thru-hikers had left behind.  He went further up the trail to leave it at a shelter the hiker would find – it would stink to leave days worth of food behind.  They also told us the previous night they had a bear come into camp. After not getting food near the tents and campfire, he ambled over to the nearby parking area and broke into a trailer.  Apparently, he made off with a full case of hot cocoa packets before moving on to steal feed from the horse camp across the road.

People of the Appalachian Trail
The nice people we shared a campfire with at Old Orchard. Below: Our lovely campsite under the shady tree canopy; Old Orchard Shelter; The privy at this shelter was huge and airy.

Tenting at Old Orchard Old Orchard Shelter Appalachian Trail Privy

While it was tempting to stay near the trail magic camp, we pressed forward to our planned stop.  We had another steep climb to reach our endpoint, but we felt renewed from our brief respite.  At 8.7 miles, we reached Old Orchard Shelter.  We were one of the first groups to arrive for the day, so we staked out a prime spot on in a flat grassy area – taking care to avoid the abundant poison ivy. Over the course of the evening, more than 20 people arrived and set up their own tent sites. The water source was a bit of a walk from the right side of the shelter, but was flowing nicely. We set up camp and then began to make some dinner – PackIt Gourmet Kickin’ Chicken Wraps.  There was an odd-acting person at the shelter, so we ended up having about 14 people come sit at our campfire. We joked that we felt like the “cool kids” since everyone came to hang out with us. You always meet interesting people on these hikes.  We met a Texas acupuncture doctor (who I discovered knew a mutual friend), a woman that was flying home to get married in just a few days, a woman from Germany out with a guide, a college professor hiking with her niece, and a couple of fire fighters from New York that drove down to do a section.  It’s crazy how so many different people can come together over a fire that all share a passion for hiking.  We had a great night talking with everyone and were excited about the next couple of days on the trail.

Download DAY TWO Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Two - Map Day Two - Elevation

Day Three – Old Orchard Shelter to Massie Gap (8.7 miles) – Christine

Adam climbs the Appalachian Trail leaving Old Orchard Shelter. Below: The gate at the top of Pine Mountain; Sunshine on Pine Mountain; Descending toward Scales Livestock Corral.

Fence on Pine Mountain Summit of Pine Mountain Walking on the Appalachian Trail

Our miles for the day started with a thousand foot climb to the summit of Pine Mountain. At the top of the mountain, we passed through a gate and followed the edge of a sunny meadow for a short distance before going through another gate where the trail went back into the woods. We descended through pretty forest for about a mile – there were pine roots, ferns, and abundant yellow flowers. As the trail leveled out, we found ourselves walking in a cloud.  The sunshine we’d had back at the top of Pine Mountain had given way to low clouds settling between mountains. Through the mist, we could see a small building on a hillside off in the distance.  At first I thought we were coming up on Wise Shelter, but I soon figured out the shelter was still miles away.  What I actually saw was the vault toilet building at Scales Livestock corral.  It has to be the most scenic privy in Virginia!

Adam hikes toward Scales Livestock Corral. Below: The prettiest pit toilet in Virginia; Fog on Stone Mountain; Flame Azalea.

Scales Livestock Corral Fog on Stone Mountain Blooming Flame Azaleas

After Scales, we had a short but steep uphill to the top of Stone Mountain – the four mile mark for our day. The long, pleasant ridge-walk should have offered beautiful views, but we were still socked in by heavy clouds. It was cold and windy along the summit walk. After a gradual descent of Stone Mountain, we entered Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. It was lovely and green. At 6.2 miles, we reached Big Wilson Creek and the junction with the horse trail. We crossed the stream on a wooden footbridge and went over another stile.  I was paying close attention to my footing as I crossed a rocky area.  Adam looked back at me from ahead and nonchalantly said, “Hey… I’m going to stop here and take photos of some ponies.”  PONIES! I thought he was kidding at first. I didn’t expect to see ponies until day four.  But sure enough… there was a band of six ponies grazing in marshland along the trail. Adam stepped slightly off trail to get a better view when suddenly a tiny black foal popped out of the deep grass.  He couldn’t have been more than a week old and he was beautiful!  The three of us all greatly enjoyed spending time watching these wonderful animals. The ponies eventually wandered deeper into the marsh, and we continued another .2 mile to Wise Shelter – our lunch stop for the day.

Our first Highlands ponies of the trip. We loved the tiny foal. Below: Little Wilson Creek Wilderness; Watching the rocky footing right before seeing ponies; What a gorgeous pony; Wise Shelter – our lunch stop.

Little Wilson Creek Wilderness Rocky Footing Over a Marshy Area
Ponies of Wilburn Ridge Wise Shelter

We decided to take a long break and enjoy a hot lunch.  We had some extra food to use up since we had a trail magic lunch the day before. Kris made a salmon pesto meal and Adam and I shared a package of Good To Go Mushroom Risotto (one of our favorites!).  We had delightful lunch companions – two women from Sweden, a man from Kentucky, and a British guy – all thru-hikers. After they hiked on, we were joined by a man who was less-than-pleasant company, so we packed up and made our way into Grayson Highlands State Park.  The park’s boundary is just south of the shelter.

From the shelter, we just had about 1.5 miles of climbing to reach the spur trail to the parking area at Massie Gap – our end point for day three.  That 1.5 miles was incredibly scenic.  The area is covered with only low shrubs and small pine trees, so the views are open in every direction. There are rock formations, wide meadows, ponies grazing, and (if you’re lucky like we were) blooming rhododendrons.  We took tons of photos, watched ponies frolic, and enjoyed the magnificent views. It was everything we hoped the trip would be!

Approaching Grayson Highlands. Below: Adam is on top of the world; Blooming rhododendron; More beautiful ponies.

Grayson Highlands State Park Views Catawba Rhododendron Grayson Highlands Ponies

Around 2:30, we made our way down to Massie Gap where we were meeting the owner of the Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn. We had called him from the junction of the AT and the spur trail down to parking.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, Dennis came along in a truck and whisked us away for a night of hiker-luxury. We had reserved the inn suite for the three of us. We also sent a resupply box with food for the second half of our trip. Carrying a full week of food is very heavy (backpackers typically carry 1 – 1.5 pounds of food per day), so it’s a treat to be able to resupply every 3-4 days. At the inn, we enjoyed pizza, beer/wine, and ice cream! Our suite had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and even a washer/dryer.  We were all able to shower and wash our sweaty clothes.  We spent most of the evening relaxing and repacking our bear canisters. It was nice to sleep in a queen size bed – so spacious compared to the floor space in our tiny tent! I would highly recommend the Grayson Highlands General Store for anyone who wants a night off-trail in the area. The accommodations are simple, but they’re very clean, affordable, and comfortable. Also, the staff at the inn takes great care of hikers! We really enjoyed our stay.

Waiting for our shuttle Below: Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn; Great hiker supplies; Cheers with a Wolf Hills ‘White Blaze Honey Cream Ale’!

Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn Hiker Resupply at Grayson Highlands General Store White Blaze Honey Cream Ale Cheers!

Download DAY THREE Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Three - Map Day Three - Elevation

Day Four – Massie Gap to Whitetop (10 miles) – Adam

Day four was the highlight of the entire trip.  It turned out to be the toughest day physically, but everything we saw helped make the pain bearable.  We started off our morning with breakfast at the inn. Kris and I had french toast with bacon and Christine had a grilled bacon and cheese sandwich. We also got some deli sandwiches to pack for lunch on the trail.  Dennis, the inn’s owner, gave us a shuttle ride back to Massie Gap parking. We had about a mile walk back up to where we rejoined the Appalachian Trail.

Grayson Highlands
We started day four of our hike in Grayson Highlands State Park. Below: Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park; The rocky trail through Grayson Highlands; Storm clouds and windswept terrain.

Massie Gap Rocky AT Terrain Rocky AT Terrain

We took a left and headed south on the AT. The climb was steep and slow going at the beginning, but we were soon greeted with expansive views all around. It was quite easy to just say that you were stopping to take photos when you really needed to catch your breath. The terrain was relentlessly rocky and rugged. The clouds that were hanging above the mountains added to the visual drama. We thought we were going to get stormed on, but luckily the rain held off all day. The one thing that amazes me about this area is how fitting the word “Highlands” is to describe the terrain  – in this area you may feel like you are walking in Scottish Highlands.

Gorgeous Grayson Highlands
The Grayson Highlands are like no other place in Virginia. Below: Kris scales a steep rocky section; Christine scrambles along the trail; The Fat Man Squeeze.

Tough Virginia AT Terrain Tough Virginia AT Terrain Fat Man Squeeze on the AT

At about the 1.5 mile mark, we reached the southern edge of Grayson Highlands State Park, marked by a turnstile to an open field. From here we went back onto national forest land. The trail climbs up steeply and we reached a spot called ‘Fatman Squeeze’ at 2.2 miles.  It is an interesting rock formation that you can climb through. It wasn’t that much of a squeeze, but if you don’t want to risk humiliation or don’t like the claustrophobic feel there is a path that loops around the feature.

After the Squeeze, we reached Wilburn Ridge at 2.5 miles.  As we crossed over the bump, we spotted another band of ponies lounging next to the trail.  While they call these “wild” ponies, they are accustomed to people and may try to grab some food from an unattended backpack. The ponies all have such interesting markings and we talked about which one was our favorite. The trail had another short uphill bump before we came to Rhododendron Gap and a junction with the Pine Mountain Trail.  On the ground, someone had arranged rocks into “500” noting the 500 mile mark of the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers. There is another bit of fairly easy walking on this ridgeline – and the views keep coming if you’re lucky to visit on a clear day.

Getting Close the the Crest Zone on the AT
This area is known as the crest zone. The views are open and the ponies like to hang out in this area. Below: PONIES, PONIES, PONIES!

Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies
Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies Grayson Highlands Ponies

At 4 miles, we reached the Thomas Knob shelter.  As I approached the shelter, I paused to take a photo and startled a retired police officer eating lunch there. Just a minute before I arrived, a bear had come right up to the shelter where she was sitting. She thought I was the returning bear. We stopped to eat lunch and heard more from the woman about the bear. The shelter log said that at night, gleaming bear eyes can be seen in the nearby trees, watching the open shelter.

Adam hiking toward Mt. Rogers on the AT
Adam hiking in one of Virginia’s most scenic places. Below: The crest zone is the open area all along the ridge leading to Mt. Rogers; Christine enjoys the majestic views; Thomas Knob Shelter.

Kris tackling rocky AT terrain What a great Appalachian Trail View Thomas Knob Shelter

The area has been extremely problematic for aggressive bears over the last couple years.  In 2018, several miles of AT in this area were closed to camping after tents were shredded and over 70 hikers’ food bags were taken by a bear. Now, there are bear lockers installed near the shelter, so be sure to store food and other ‘smellables’ securely if you decide to stay near Thomas Knob. Despite the addition of bear lockers, some hikers are still continuing to sleep with food in their tents and in the shelter, so bear problems have persisted into the 2019 season. After lunch, we continued on and just a short distance along the trail we reached a junction with a spur trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Rogers (we wrote about this in another post – no views but something worth doing if you want to bag the highest peak in Virginia).

Leaving Mt. Rogers Area
It was sad to leave the beautiful Mt. Rogers and Grayson Highlands. Below: This spur trail leads to the summit of Mt. Rogers – Virginia’s highest peak; As you descend from the Highlands, the forest changes quickly to pines; The descent from the crest zone was very rocky.

Spur trail to Mt. Rogers Changing Terrain Changing Terrain

After the Mt. Rogers junction, the trail descends steeply over rocky terrain until you reach Deep Gap at 6 miles. We saw dozens and dozens of northbound thruhikers coming the opposite direction as we descended from Grayson Highlands. More than a few mentioned that they were not enjoying the big climb and asked if the scenery ahead was as amazing as reputed. We assured everyone that the big climb was totally worth the payoff at the summit.

We took off our packs for a break, but we knew we still had more miles to cover.  Continuing on, we kept descending and reached the beautiful mustard fields of Elk Garden.  It was hot in the open sun.  We crossed VA 600 at 8 miles and ran into a grandfather that was hoping to meet his thru-hiking granddaughter along the trail. We hadn’t seen her yet (we would the next day), but we rested again for a bit as we reentered the woods.

Elk Garden
Elk Garden was a meadow of golden flowers. Below: Christine and Adam pose for a photo in the meadow; The climb up Whitetop Mountain; The last uphill of the day.

My favorite hiking companion Climbing Whitetop Climbing Whitetop

The day had already been tough and we had a big climb ahead of us. We debated stopping there for the night, but decided to camp where we had originally planned.  We summoned what little strength we had left and pressed on to the end.  We had 2.4 miles of an uphill climb to make it to the end of our day and it was all fairly steep.  We hiked separately, setting our own paces, with Christine in the lead.

When we got to the high point on Whitetop Mountain, almost all the campsites had been taken, but Christine managed to grab the last decent one when she arrived.  It was probably the worst of the campsites that we had for the trip, but it was still fine. Lots of other hikers ended up squeezed into tilted rocky sites that couldn’t have been comfortable.

Sunset on the Appalachian Trail
This soft glowy light was a true reward at the end of the day. Below: This sign made us all thankful because we knew the climb was ending; Kris filtering water at camp; More beautiful evening scenery.

Thank God That Climb is Over Filtering Water Sunset on the AT

Water was quite a distance from camp, but on our way to the source we enjoyed great views along an open ridge.  The water source was a piped spring that came out of the mountainside. It gushed ice cold water and might be one of the nicest water sources we’ve ever seen. Christine and I both doused our heads and splashed our faces and rinsed away a lot of the day’s salty sweat. We made PackIt Gourmet All American Cheeseburger Wraps for dinner – maybe our new favorite backpacking meal.  They were delicious!  After brushing our teeth and finding a good place to wedge our bear canisters, we watched sunset from the open ridge, and then went to bed before 9:00.  We were all exhausted. It had been an amazing, but tiring, day.

Download DAY FOUR Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Four - Map Day Four - Elevation

Day Five – Whitetop to the Virginia Creeper Junction (8.5 miles) – Christine

Day five dawned with our high-elevation campsite blanketed in fog. We hoped enough of the mist would lift to allow us to enjoy the views from Buzzard Rock, but with only a mile to cover, we were at the vista about twenty minutes after hiking out of camp.  At the viewpoint, we found ourselves still standing in the middle of a cloud. Luckily, we could still make out faint views of the valley below.  Even veiled, Buzzard Rock is a gorgeous spot – and also our last opportunity to enjoy the highlands on this trip.  Shortly after the viewpoint, the trail takes a steady 3.8 mile downhill drop from 5,080′ all the way down to 3,160′. At the beginning of the descent, we saw the fading final red trillium of spring and at the bottom of the descent, we saw abundant pink lady’s slippers. The drop in elevation let us see both early and later bloomers on the same day!

Hiking Toward Buzzard Rock
Adam climbs through the fog to Buzzard Rock. Below: Buzzard Rock outcropping, Faint views into the valley below; Adam and Kris leave the Virginia high country for lower altitudes.

Buzzard Rock Buzzard Rock Descending from Buzzard Rock

At the bottom of the descent, we crossed Route 58 and made our way back uphill for a mile to reach Lost Mountain Shelter. The lower elevation brought on the extra heat and humidity.  Paired with the exertion of climbing, we were all pretty hot and tired when we arrived at the shelter for lunch.  The area was crowded with a crew of volunteer maintainers from the local trail club and about ten thru-hikers in for a mid-day break. The trail club kindly carried out everyone’s garbage!  It’s such a small thing, but to have a day hiker offer to take your trash out is true trail magic! We collected water and decided to make our PackIt Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. It’s a really delicious meal, but I think everyone was too hot to really be hungry. We couldn’t finish everything, so we passed our leftovers on to a thru-hiker from Colorado.

Leaving the Virginia Highlands
The terrain and trees changed vastly over the course of the day. Below: Lush green forest; A fading red trillium near the top of the day; Pink lady’s slippers near the low point of the day; Lost Mountain shelter; Descending toward camp; The trail followed a pretty stream at the end of the day.

Leaving the Virginia Highlands Dying Red Trillium Pinks Lady's Slippers
Lost Mountain Shelter Last Downhill of the Day Reaching Laurel Creek

After lunch, we had a tiny bit more uphill climbing before the trail switchbacked downhill for 1.8 miles to its junction with the Virginia Creeper Trail. The Creeper is and old railroad grade converted to a multi-use trail. It’s most heavily used by bikers, but also by equestrians, hikers, runners, and even the occasional dog-sledder in the winter! Kris was about fifteen minutes behind us, so Adam and I sat on the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge and waited for her to catch up. While we waited, we noticed that there were several really nice streamside campsites under the bridge.

When Kris caught up, we had a team meeting and decided to camp under the bridge instead of hiking another 2.3 (mostly uphill) miles to our planned campsite. We were all hot and tired, and the campsite ahead sounded not-so-great (stagnant, mosquito-laden pond nearby) according to accounts in our Guthooks AT App. We set up camp, waded in the stream, played cards, and had a relaxing evening at camp. We even met a couple guys fishing nearby, and they kindly shared a couple cold beers with us.

Luther Hassinger Bridge
The Luther Hassinger Bridge is where the AT and Virginia Creeper meet and share course for a while. Below: Our campsite for night five; Our water source was a lovely stream; We used the trestle bridge to bear hang a bag of garbage.

Our Bridge Camp The Stream Bear Hang on a Bridge

Over dinner, we discussed altering our plan for days six and seven.  We tossed around the idea of finishing in one day instead of two and following the Creeper Trail instead of the AT.  We agreed to sleep on the plan and make a decision in the morning. It was really a fantastic campsite and everyone slept so well with the sound of rushing water nearby.

Download DAY FIVE Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Five - Map Day Five - Elevation

Day Six – Virginia Creeper Junction to Damascus (11 miles) – Adam

We woke up early and discussed our plan for the day.  Kris’ feet were in pain and we knew the elevation gain and rough terrain were going to be hard on her blisters. The initial thought was that I would stay on the AT, while Christine and Kris would walk back along the Creeper Trail, but meet up along a spur between the two trails to camp together.  After looking at our AWOL guide and the Guthooks app, there was no solid information on how the spur trail would connect or how far it would be. I ultimately made the call to stick together and finish in one day via the Creeper Trail back to Damascus. I am probably more of an AT purest and want to hit every blaze, but Christine was fine just getting to Damascus another way. But, she promised to come back together and do the AT miles to appease my desire to see every white blaze.  Sticking together was definitely the best call for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.

Day Six on the Virginia Creeper
We started the final day of our trip on both the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Below: Adam crosses the Hassinger bridge; A beautiful cascade on Whitetop Laurel Creek; Easy terrain on the Virginia Creeper Trail.

Luther Hassinger Bridge Whitetop Laurel Creek Virginia Creeper Trail

The AT parallels the Creeper Trail for a good portion, but it is much higher in elevation and there aren’t really any easy access points between the two trails.  Going back the way of the Creeper Trail also meant that the entire hike was either flat or downhill and the footing for trail conditions was much easier on injured feet (the AT section would have added about 1800 feet of climbing and a couple more miles).

We packed up camp and were on our way.  We crossed the Hassinger bridge, where the AT and Creeper begin to share trail for about .7 miles until the AT takes a hard right up the mountainside.  We stayed on the Creeper Trail, crossing 21 trestle bridges and enjoying gorgeous stream scenery along the way. When we biked this section many years ago, it was raining which forced us to rush along the trail, so it was nice to take in the sights at a leisurely pace.  Much of the Creeper Trail follows Whitetop Laurel Creek – one of Virginia’s largest and most pristine trout streams.

There were a good number of bikers out for the Memorial Day weekend, so we got used to hearing “ON THE LEFT” as they sped past.  A few cyclists paused and gawked at us carrying our gear.  For some of these casual family bikers I guess we seemed like hardcore professional athletes. People randomly applauded and one woman said she was ‘in awe of us.’ It was funny!

People Fishing Along the Virginia Creeper
Whitetop Laurel Creek is one of the best trout streams in Virginia. Below: One of the many bridges over the stream; Crossing open farmland; Rock walls along the stream.

Bridges on the VCT Open Farm Fields on the Virginia Creeper Pretty Stream Scenery

Overall the Creeper Trail is fairly shady, but we also passed by farm houses and through wide pastures. The sun was quite hot in open areas. After finishing a long sunny stretch, we stopped in the shade along a roadside. A father and son were fishing nearby. When they saw us, they offered us a cold Mountain Dews and homemade cookies from their truck.  We never stop being amazed by the kindness of strangers.  We eventually managed to motivate ourselves to get back up and shoulder our heavy packs.

As we drew closer to town, there were billboards on the side of the trail advertising places to eat and drink in Damascus – they helped motivate us to finish.  We ended up crossing US-58 on the outskirts of Damascus. The Appalachian Trail comes down a steep set of stairs on the right and rejoins the Creeper Trail again as it passes through town.  We finished our hike walking alongside the road in the blazing sun. Kris had a near brush with danger as a kid on a bike carelessly ran her off the side of the trail.  That was a real issue near the congested town section, since many bikers may not be as well-trained on etiquette or skilled enough to avoid others.  We talked to another couple that had been hit twice by inexperienced cyclists on their run.

Back in Damascus
After eleven miles of hiking we made it back to Damascus. Below: Blooming mountain laurel along the trail; Billboards advertising food and drink along the trail; The Appalachian Trail rejoins the Creeper Trail just north of town; Our lunch stop and hike’s end… cheers!

Mountain Laurel Along the Virginia Creeper Billboards Along the Bike Trail
Appalachian Trail Rejoins the Creeper Wicked Winghouse

We made it back into town and ate at Wicked Chicken Winghouse & Tavern.  There was a guy outside singing and playing guitar and a ton of people enjoying the music, food, and ice cream.  We ate inside the air-conditioned restaurant and had some great wings and beers from Damascus Brewery.  When we were finished eating, I walked a few tenths of a mile back into town (following the Creeper Trail further into town and then going down Shady Ave to get back to Mount Rogers Outfitters) to pick up our car. Christine and Kris stayed at the restaurant and finished their beers before I picked them up.  Before we headed home, we stopped and got some souvenirs from Sun Dog Outfitter.

We had an amazing trip and shared a lot of good memories together while covering a bunch of miles.  Everything isn’t always easy when you do a longer section of trail like this, but we felt very accomplished and glad to have each other to help us get through.

Download DAY SIX Maps and Elevation Profiles

Day Six - Map Day Six - Elevation

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 56 miles
  • Elevation Change – 11,095 ft. (daily gain is included on each profile download)
  • Difficulty – 3. Most of the terrain is moderate and uncomplicated.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was clear and easy to follow.  Bridges and footing were mostly in passable condition.  The bridge at Comer Creek Falls was technically closed when we hiked. We had one tough blowdown to negotiate in Little Wilson Creek Wilderness.
  • Views – 5. We had spectacular views on three of the six days of the trip.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4. There were many beautiful cascading streams along the route. Comer Creek Falls was small, but lovely.
  • Wildlife – 5. High chances of seeing bears along this section. Even though the ponies aren’t technically wild, we count them as wildlife.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5.  The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
  • Solitude – 0. This is a very popular section of Appalachian Trail.  We maximized crowds by 1)Joining the thru-hiker bubble 2) Starting the day Trail Days ended 3) Hiking over a holiday weekend.  If you choose a different time of year, you might have significantly more solitude.

Directions to trailhead: We left a car in Damascus at Mt. Rogers Outfitters. We used their shuttle service to drop us off at the Appalachian Trail Crossing at the South Fork of the Holston River. GPS coordinates for our start point are: 36.7631, -81.4939.

Church Rock

Church Mountain Summit
Adam takes in the view from the summit of Church Mountain.

On this eight-mile adventure, we visited a beautiful outcropping on Church Mountain. The hike had some steady climbing, a little bit of rock scrambling, some unfortunate bushwhacking, and a beautiful view at the top!

Christine Says:

We did this hike back in early April with our friends, Tony and Linda, of HikingUpward fame. (View their write-up for this hike) Tony noticed that this hike appeared for the first time on a recent edition of a PATC map and suggested we all go out and explore the relatively unknown area. He had heard rumor that there were two viewpoints to enjoy. We met them at a parking area along the forest service road (FR482). We could see the outcropping we were planning to hike to from the road below.  Adam was still getting over an awful chest cold, so the distant view of the cliff-face made me worry for him. It looked very faraway and pretty high above us.

The first mile of walking followed the mile of FR482 that lies beyond a locked gate. During hunting season, you might find this gate open and be able to shave a couple miles off the total distance of the hike.  At the end of a mile, you’ll find yourself at the start of the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail. There are no signs or trail markers – just blazes – so be careful to follow along.  The trail crosses one shallow stream near the beginning of the trail. It also crosses several old road cuts (apparently there used to be TV towers on this mountain, or so I’ve heard). The climbing is fairly steady and unrelenting as you climb Church Mountain. The use of ten switchbacks makes the grade feel manageable, though I can see this feeling like a really tough climb on a hot day. There were some decent views of the rocky summit of Church Mountain from the trail.

Church Rock from the Trail
A view of Church Rock from the trail below.

As you climb, the forest gets thinner and more open – almost meadow-like.  When you reach the ridgeline at three miles, the trail is just a faint footpath through the grass.  Look for a tree with a double set of white and yellow blazes. There should also be a small cairn slightly uphill of the two-blazed tree. This is the junction with the Talc Trail.  From here, take a left and follow the white blazed Talc trail as it meanders over gentle terrain toward the summit of Church Mountain. This part of the trail was sparsely blazed and there were a couple significant blow-downs across the trail. I have a feeling that the vegetation along this stretch may get taller and thicker as the growing season progresses. I had permethrin-treated clothes and Repel spray on my exposed skin, but I still managed to pick up a tick somewhere along the Talc Trail.  I noticed it already attached to my calf on the return leg of our hike. Gross!

The Talc Trail comes into a saddle about 3.6 miles into the hike. There is a large, very littered campsite in the saddle. There was an old tarp, several pots, old cans, shell casings, a satchel, and some other odds and ends laying around. It looked like hunters maybe used this spot as a base camp sometime in the last year or two. After passing the campsite, there’s a nice view of the valley off the left side of the trail.  Once you pass this view, it’s time to start scrambling. The way to the top had a couple hard-to-see blazes and was pretty overgrown with brambles and thorns. I had capri length pants on, so my lower legs got scraped up quite a bit.  Between the prickly vegetation and the ticks, I definitely suggest long pants for this hike.

Once at the top, there were lots of openings in the woods to explore different spots along the outcropping. There were several spots that offered beautiful, slightly obstructed views to the valley beyond. The slanted cliffside on the adjacent mountain was a unique feature to behold in the viewscape. I found two different geodetic markers on the outcropping – one with an arrow marking the direction of the true summit and another for the summit itself.  We spent a bit of time enjoying and photographing the view, but I wouldn’t say this is a outcropping that would be good for a crowd or a lunch break. The space on the rocks is limited and most of the larger rock surfaces lie at precipitous angles.  When I took photos of Adam standing on the pointy, blade-like rocks in the photo at the top of this post, my knees were knocking a bit. I don’t like looking through a camera lens when my feet are uneven ground – it gives me vertigo.

Ridge trail to Church Rock
The ridge trail was through open, grassy forest.

After scrambling down from the summit of Church Mountain, we headed back along the Talc Trail. On this particular day, we decided to pass the junction for the trail down and continue to explore the other side of the white-blazed Talc Trail.  It probably wasn’t a good idea. There was a tree with a mysterious blaze that sort of looked like it was trying to mark a campsite on a sidetrail, but we didn’t really find anything.  Passing there, the trail dipped steeply down into an area that was badly overgrown with thorns and blocked by many blowdowns. There was clearly a trail there, but it was not maintained to the point it was worth following.

During the extra bit of exploration, my GPS said that we had come almost five miles. We were running low on snacks and water, so we opted to end our quest for a second vista and make our way back down.  The return hike went by pretty quickly – all downhill, the same way we had hiked up.  The beer and pizza at Swover Creek Farm Brewery were calling loudly.  Refreshment was needed!

Adam Says: 

As Christine mentioned, I was just getting over being sick. This was the fourth time I had been sick over the last 2.5 months (cold, sinus infections,etc.), so my cardio and ability to breathe well was still getting back to normal. Exploring a “new to us” trail when there isn’t any information about it online makes us feel like we are conquering uncharted territory. We had no idea how long the hike would be and we could vaguely guess at what elevation we would be climbing.

We did have a bit of a road walk through to get to the trailhead since the gate was closed. We walked on an open road that looks like had been heavily forested before. The scenery was open which made it more enjoyable than most fire road walks we have done.   We eventually came to the upper parking lot and the trailhead.  Once we started on the trailhead, we noticed the trail split after a few feet.  There was an unblazed trail that went straight and then the yellow-blazed Church Mountain Trail took off to the right. Take this right and the trail starts a long gradual climb.  Eventually, the switchbacks start and this is where you really begin to gain some elevation. There were a few times where we spotted the Church Rock cliff face through the trees and we were excited to see that the trail would eventually guide us to that impressive cliffside.  The trail winds through several switchbacks until you eventually get to a part where the top of the hillside opens up into a grassy area and you follow sparse blazes up to the top of the hill.

Walk up the the Scramble
Heading toward the Church Rock summit.

Eventually the trail comes to a junction with the white-blazed Talc trail.  Take a left here to get to Church Rock.  We paused at the junction for a bit to allow me to gain my breath and we ate some trail mix.  Soon, a turkey hunter came up along the trail in full camo. This was the only person that we saw the entire day.  Starting on the Talc Trail, we found the trail was very poorly blazed.   You stay walking on this ridge for a bit and can see some views along the way.  Eventually the Talc Trail descended and led us to an open meadow area where we saw the remains of a campsite with tarp and other items stowed here.  We weren’t sure if these are things someone has just left behind to use the next time they camp up here or just someone that was littering heavily.  Shortly after the campsite, the trail leads back up and you can see Church Rock sticking out.  If I were to rename this rock jutting out, I would call it Young Man of the Mountain.  It reminded me of Old Man of the Mountain that was a prominent rock feature in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that you may have seen prominently on New Hampshire license plates.  The Old Man rock face fell off in 2003 which we regret never seeing.  The profile of the rockface does look similar to it but it is much smaller.  We got to the rock scramble just below Church Rock.  Be very careful through here, because we commented how this would be a great place for snakes to hide in between all the cracks between the rocks or possibly sunning themselves on a warm day.  There weren’t any clear blazes that really guided you up to the top, but we were able to find our way through the boulders and then were able to climb up a steep section to get to the top.

Summit of Church Mountain
Summit of Church Mountain.

At the top, there were two areas where you could take in the view – and what an impressive view it was!  On a clear day, you can see for miles at mountain ranges all around you.  We found a couple of USGS markers at the top which named it Church Rock.  If you do take in the view, be careful!  There isn’t much space and the wind blowing at the top can make you feel uncomfortable.  Falling from here would be deadly.  When we left, I said that these may be some of the best views in Virginia and I will stick to that claim.  The climb wasn’t terribly tough and we felt this is something that is probably best done during the year with fewer leaves as it opens up other views along the way.  With this trail being fairly unknown (at least for now), the solitude made us feel like we had stumbled across a secret gem of Virginia.  We headed back the way we came and explored a bit down the other side from the junction with the Talc Trail.  That ended up being just a slog through the woods.  There may be some views to be had with some heavy bushwhacking, but we didn’t feel like exploring that too long with all the blowdowns and briars on the trail.

When we got back to the car, we drove to Swover Creek Brewery for some great pizzas and beer.  The owners have some dogs that roam around and beg a bit for pizza, but they were sweet companions.  One of the owners was prepping to do a chain saw sculpture for the early evening, but we needed to head home so we missed out.  The outdoor scenery at Swover Creek capped off a great day on the trail with friends.

More Photos

  • Forest Service Road
  • Stream Crossing
  • Tree on Rock
  • Scenes from the Ascent
  • Scenes from the Ascent
  • Open Terrain
  • Trail Junction
  • View along the Ridge
  • Taking in the View
  • Campsite
  • Scramble
  • Profile
  • Scramble
  • Ridge View
  • Swover Creek

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 8 miles This hike could be shortened 7.5 miles if you skip exploring to the right after the junction on the ridge. It could also be shortened to 5.5-6 miles if the lower forest service gate it open.
  • Elevation Change – 1,800 – 2,100 ft (depending on how far you explore)
  • Difficulty –  4. This hike’s climbing is never terribly steep, but it’s still three miles of unrelenting climbing. The scramble at the end is a bit challenging.
  • Trail Conditions – 2. We hiked in early spring and found the first couple miles of the trail in relatively good shape. There was some overgrowth, but it was still easy going. On the ridge, the blazes are harder to follow and there isn’t much of a trail. Hikers will mostly meander blaze to blaze. I also think this area will become very overgrown as the growing season progresses.
  • Views  4.  These views were spectacular! They would warrant a five star rating, but there is no real place to sit and take in the view with a second person. The view rocks are narrow and precipitous. Adam and I were both nervous standing on them.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There is one small stream shortly after you come off the forest service road and start walking the actual Church Rock trail.
  • Wildlife – 3.  There was so much scat from various animals along the trail. We didn’t see anything, but animals are definitely out there.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  Generally, blazes and trail were easy to follow. The yellow blazed trail was in great shape, the white blazed ridge trail was less clear.
  • Solitude – 5.  Until all the fine, adventurous readers of Hiking Upward and this site get out there, this trail is truly an unknown gem. 

Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 38.73325, -78.8732.  The parking area is along a gravel forest service road.  If you find the gate open, you can drive another mile closer to the actual trailhead. When we hiked in spring 2019, the lower gate was locked and the road beyond it was blocked by a large blowdown.

Church Rock Elevation
Download the full size PDF elevation profile
Church Rock Map
Download a full size PDF trail map.

Halfmoon Mountain Loop

This 10-mile loop could easily be a day hike, but we chose to do it as a short overnight backpacking trip. The route has some fairly nice vistas and there are a couple campsites near the summit.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Halfmoon Mountain Summit
Adam takes in the view from Halfmoon Mountain. Below: The trail started from the Bucktail Trail parking area – pass the locked forest service gate to begin; We hiked the loop counterclockwise – starting on the pinkish-purple blazed Bucktail Cutoff Trail; Walking along the Bucktail Cutoff.

Halfmoon Mountain Halfmoon Mountain Halfmoon Mountain

Adam Says: Day One  (4.7 miles)

This past year was not a good year for our backpacking hobby. The rain seemed endless and the amount of exceedingly heavy rain did a lot of damage to trails. We also got a new puppy in March. He needed a lot of training and we weren’t quite ready to trust him to someone else for long periods of time.

We did manage to get out for this one trip in August 2018. Halfmoon Mountain had been a trail we had looked at doing for many years.  We heard there were great views and a sweet campsite with a view at the top. One thing that hurts this as a backpacking loop is the nearest water source to the top is about 1-1.5 miles away from the camp areas, so you have to haul what water you need to the top.

Campsite
There is a nice campsite at the junction of the Halfmoon Mountain Trail and the Bucktail Cutoff Trail. Below: After the campsite, we followed the yellow-blazed Halfmoon Mountain Trail; The trail was steep and had some obstructed views; Junction of the Halfmoon Mountain Trail and the Halfmoon Lookout Trail.

Halfmoon Mountain Trail Halfmoon Mountain Trail Halfmoon Mountain Trail

We started the trip by parking along Trout Run Road (see GPS coordinates below).  We started off on the Bucktail Trail and shortly walked through a gate blocking off the fire road.  After a short distance, we came to a junction where the Bucktail Connector Trail branched off to the right while the Bucktail Trail takes a left (this is your return trip for the loop). We took the right Bucktail Connector Trail which has pinkish-purple blazes to follow this loop counter-clockwise.  The trail began to climb up through forested terrain.  Overall, this trail was well-maintained as it is a visible, narrow footpath cutting through the forest.  There isn’t a ton to say about this section since there wasn’t a lot to see other than forest around you.  The trail climbs for about the first 1.25 miles before descending slightly for about .5 miles and then there is another up and down until you reach another junction at 2.5 miles. There is a very nice campsite along the stream near this junction.

At the junction take a left on to the Halfmoon Trail (going right would take you to the Halfmoon parking area – where many hikers originate on a shorter out-and-back route to the summit).  From here, the trail gets steeper and at the 3.5 mile mark, you reach the junction with the Halfmoon Lookout Trail, which takes off from the left.  Take that left on to the Halfmoon Lookout Trail to reach the summit after another .8 miles.  On our way up to the Halfmoon Lookout, we noticed a small footpath that branched off to the left which led to a larger camp area where we ultimately camped for the night.  The last tenth of a mile is a steep rock scramble to the top.  With crumbling rock underfoot, you really have to watch your step.  At the top, there are two great viewpoints. The first you come across on the lefthand side of the trail and there is room for a few people at the top. There are remains of an old firetower at this lookout spot.

To visit second viewpoint, you descend through a campsite in a saddle and then over another rock scramble to to the view.  This view spot will typically only work for about two people. It’s tight quarters.

First Views
One of the viewpoints from summit of Halfmoon Mountain. Below: The Halfmoon Lookout Trail is pretty flat until the last bit before the summit; The last hundred yards to the summit is a minor rock scramble (it’s steeper than it looks in the photos); Somebody chopped down numerous living trees at the summit to make the saddle campsite larger (jerks!); We thought about camping in the saddle at the summit, but didn’t like the tightness of the campsite.

Halfmoon Mountain Trail Halfmoon Mountain Trail
Tree Damage Summit Site

We initially were going to camp at the top – we heard it was a great campsite. Some jerks had chopped down some live trees to build the frame of a lean-to (so much for Leave No Trace principles) on the campsite. We deconstructed the lean-to and tried to clear out the area a bit, but felt the campsite would have been a bit tight and we would have had people walking through our campsite all day to get to the second viewpoint.  We decided to enjoy the views up here and then make our way back down.  Investigating that side trail, we found a great spot to set up camp. Even better, the campsite below the saddle had its own little viewpoint for us to enjoy.  We found a nice grassy spot to set up our tent on some flat ground.  The bugs were a little hard to deal with at camp, but we made the best of it.  We were later joined by another couple that shared our camping area.

Sunset on Halfmoon
We had a beautiful sunset on Halfmoon Mountain. Below: We chose this spacious, grassy site right below the summit; Our campsite had its own little viewpoint; There are remains of an old fire tower at the summit; Another camping part hung a hammock on the summit for sunset.

Our Campsite View at camp
 Hammock

After we set up camp, we made our way back to the top to enjoy some late afternoon/sunset views.  At the second view, another couple had set up a hammock somewhat precariously over the edge – a nice spot, but it did obstruct the views for anyone else. We had a nice dinner back at our campsite and settled down for the evening enjoying the sounds of the forest.

Christine Says: Day Two (5.3 miles)

I woke up early on the second day, so I could watch the sunrise. There were a couple decent places to catch the sun coming up – the small outcropping at our campsite and a spot about halfway up the scramble to the summit of Halfmoon. Both vistas were a bit obstructed, but I was still able to capture some pretty morning color in the sky. The day was already warming, so we ate breakfast and packed up quickly.

Halfmoon Sunrise
Sunrise on Halfmoon Mountain. Below:  Our camp kitchen; Leaving camp in the morning along the German Wilson Trail; The German Wilson Trail is exceedingly rocky and steep in places.

Bucktail Trail Bucktail Trail

We made our way back down the Halfmoon Lookout Trail for several tenths of a mile to its junction with the German Wilson Trail. I don’t know what color I’d call the blazes on German Wilson Trail – purplish? fuchsia? magenta?  Something like that, I suppose. The German Wilson Trail descended very steeply over loose, rocky terrain. It wasn’t fun and I was very glad we had decided to hike the loop counter-clockwise and didn’t have to ascend this tough section of trail with full packs. The trail drops steadily for about a mile before coming to a grassy area with a shallow stream.

Look for a forest service gate to the left.  You should see the orange blazes of the Bucktail Trail.  The trail that continues toward the right is the Old Mine Trail – do not take this trail. Follow the Bucktail Trail, crossing the stream multiple times over the next .8 mile. When we hiked in August 2018, this section of the trail was in terrible shape. Big sections were washed out and we had to navigate by following sparse orange blazes.  Lots of sections of footbed were completely disappeared by debris and erosion. Hopefully some trail maintenance has been done over the last eight months.

Stream Crossings
There were many stream crossings on Day 2. Below: Arriving at the junction of the German Wilson Trail with the Old Mine Trail and the Bucktail Trail; Following the Bucktail Trail; There were numerous stream crossings on the Bucktail Trail.

 Bucktail
 Stream Crossing

At 2.2 miles, you’ll come to a junction with the Cacapon Trail. That trail follows a small footbridge over the stream on the right.  Stay to the left and continue following the orange blazed Bucktail Trail. At this point, the trail becomes wide and grassy. It also begins to ascend again. This climb wasn’t difficult, but the grass was pretty overgrown and there was a lot of direct sun/heat. I also saw a ton of poison ivy mixing in with the grass. The climb felt worse than the numbers make it look.

Erosion Along the Trail
The trail was eroded and hard to follow in places. Below: Cliffs along the Bucktail Trail; This bridge takes you onto the Cacapon Trail; More scenes along the Bucktail Trail.  Much of the Bucktail Trail was a grassy, overgrown road.

Cliffs Bridge Near Cacapon Trail Overgrown
 Bucktail Bucktail

The last three miles on the Bucktail Trail were pretty dull. It was basically a trudge along a grassy roadbed back to the parking area. All in all, this hike didn’t really live up to my expectations. It was nice to get out after such a long backpacking drought, but this trail definitely is not destined to become a favorite. If I were to hike it again, I think I’d park at the Halfmoon Mountain parking area and just do this as a seven mile, out-and-back dayhike.

We got back to the car by late morning, so we decided to get some lunch and a cold beer before heading home.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 10 miles
  • Elevation Change – Day One: 1545 feet, Day Two: 477 feet
  • Difficulty –  3.  This was a fairly easy backpacking route.  The first day has about a mile of serious climbing, but the rest is very gradual. The second day has a steep, rocky mile of downhill, followed by a bunch of stream crossings, and then a moderate climb along a forest road before gently descending back to the parking area.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.  The trail was in decent condition for national forest. The first day along the Bucktail Cutoff and Halfmoon Mountain Trail was excellent.  The second day had rougher trail conditions: the steep descent when you first turn onto the German Wilson trail had lots of loose softball to football sized rocks and was a bit challenging to walk on, there was a trail washout near the final stream crossing on the Bucktail Trail, and the road portion of the Bucktail Trail had loads of tall grass and poison ivy.
  • Views  3.  There are several vistas at and near the summit of Halfmoon Mountain, however they are all small and partially obstructed.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.  There are nice streams on both day one and two, but the closest water source to the summit campsites is about 1 – 1.5 miles downtrail.  In drier times, I expect campers might have to walk up to 2.5 miles down from the summit for water.
  • Wildlife – 3.  We saw several deer and had a whippoorwill at camp.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5.  The trail has spotty blazing and intermittent trail signs.  Blazes are not equally distributed for hikers headed in both directions, sometimes we had to look back to check for blazes to make sure we were on the same trail.  There are some trail washouts on the Bucktail Trail that make navigating the stream crossings a little tricky.  Also, many blazes are faded and painted in inconsistent colors (for example – the orange Bucktail Trail blazes were often closer to red).
  • Solitude – 2.  There is one small campsite and one large campsite near the summit. We had to share the large campsite with another hiking party.  There was also a steady stream of dayhikers visiting this peak.  

Maps

Download a full size map for DAY ONE.

Download a full size elevation profile for DAY ONE.

Download a full size map for DAY TWO.

Download a full size elevation profile for DAY TWO.

Directions to trailhead: Parking coordinates are 39.01431, -78.66388.  The parking area is at the top of a gravel loop right off Trout Run Rd.  The sign along the road will be for the Bucktail Trail.  Do not park at the lot labeled Halfmoon Trail – that is the 7-mile out-and-back route, rather than the loop outlined here.

Appalachian Trail – Kimberling Creek to Narrows

We did this 27-mile Appalachian Trail section over three days at the tail end of summer 2017. The trail was beautiful and quiet with lots of interesting things to see along the way. We camped one night and spent the other luxuriating at Woods Hole Hostel. This may have been one of Christine’s favorite sections yet!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam Says: Day One – Kimberling Creek to Waipiti Shelter (8.6 miles)

Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Map My Hike Stats

Kimberling Creek at VA606
Kimberling Creek is beautiful, but not safe to drink from. There is a lot of cattle farming along the stream. Below: Some rocky slopes along the trail; The spur trail to Dismal Falls is well worth the detour; Shallow pools and flat rocks leading up to the falls.

AT Near Kimberling Creek Dismal Falls Spur Trail Dismal Falls

We decided to celebrate Christine’s birthday by completing a section of the Appalachian Trail over a few days.  I had a couple of surprises for her along the way which hopefully made it an even better trip for her. I arranged a shuttle driver to meet us at a parking lot off Narrows Road near Pearisburg, VA. We loaded up and he drove us on some beautiful back roads until we got to our dropoff point at Kimberling Creek.  There was a small parking lot here and a suspension bridge that spanned the creek. We took a few pictures, crossed the road, and then started our trip north on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail on a two day trip back to our car. The trail started off with a bit of a steep climb, which is always a quick reminder of the weight you decided to pack in your backpack.

Adam Sits Atop Dismal Falls
The water level was very low, but Dismal Falls was still beautiful. Below: Another angle on the falls; This area has tons of rhododendron tunnels; Walking through beautiful open forest.

Dismal Falls Rhodie Tunnel Appalachian Trail

The climb was short-lived and after about a mile, the trail started to slope back downhill.  At 1.8 miles, we reached a side trail that showed that Dismal Falls was just .3 miles away.  Since it was early in the day, we decided to check it out and we were so glad we did.  Dismal Falls was one of the more picturesque waterfalls I have seen and the setting just invites you to waste some time there. Even with low amounts of water falling, it is a great swimming hole area with great places to perch above and watch the water.  We ate some snacks, explored the nearby area, and took many pictures before deciding to head on. While we were there, we only had a few other people that came by and they all approached it from the roadside that we could see in the distance behind the waterfall.  We were glad we put the effort to see such a beautiful place.  We grabbed our stuff and then headed back to rejoin the AT, bringing our mileage to 2.4 miles.

ond Along the Appalachian Trail
This pond was a scenic spot along the trail. Below: While the trail was very dry when we hiked, this stretch has lots of bridges and planks to cross wet areas; The Waipiti Shelter used to be along this fire road. It was demolished after a couple hikers were murdered. A new shelter was built a little ways north; More beautiful forest.

Lots of Bridges Fire Road 

Continuing on, most of the hiking for this day was rather pleasant – there was a slight uphill climb but overall was not too tough.  There were lots of footbridges and water crossings along the way, so this was not a day where we felt like we needed to carry much water since we weren’t terribly far from a water source.  Eventually, we hiked next to a large, scenic pond that joined up to a dirt road at about 8.4 miles.  From here, it was just a couple of tenths of a mile to our first stop on our trip, Wapiti Shelter.

Waipiti Shelter
Our camp stop for the first night was the Waipiti Shelter. Below: The turn-off from the AT; Lots of entries in the log make mention of murders and hauntings, but this is not where the crime happened; Our tent site behind the shelter.

Turn off Log Book Tent Site Behind the Shelter

Wapiti Shelter has some dark history to it. Christine had already heard the story before, but she waited to tell me about it until we got there. The old Wapiti shelter was the place where a couple of murders had taken place in 1981. A man named Randall Lee Smith befriended a couple of hikers and then murdered them in their sleeping bags that night. Smith was captured and imprisoned, and then met parole to be released in 1996.  In 2008, Smith returned just a few miles away and tried to kill two fisherman but wrecked his truck in the getaway and died from the injuries he sustained when he was taken to prison.  If you want to read more about this story, check it out here.  Keep in mind, that the shelter today is located a couple miles away from where the murder happened, so ghost stories that the trail journals would like you to believe are simply not true.

As we were setting up camp, I surprised Christine with an additional camp pillow for a birthday present.  She had been complaining recently about how she wish she had multiple pillows when backpacking, because one inflatable pillow just wasn’t enough.  She was thrilled when I brought the extra one out of my pack.  We set up our tent not far from the shelter and a bit later, we were eventually joined by other hikers, including two from Australia and one from Germany. The best water source at this campsite was back the way we came at the bottom of the hill.  We told the other campers about the murder story but only after they asked specifically about it after reading logbook entries.  I think everyone slept well that night despite the ghost tale.

Christine Says: Day Two – Wapiti Shelter to Woods Hole Hostel (7.8 miles)

Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Map My Hike Stats

Rhododendron Tunnel
This section of Appalachian Trail had so many long, dark rhododendron tunnels. Below: Even when the rhododendron wasn’t a full tunnel, it was still very dense; The footbed was almost paved with flat, shale-like rock; I love trees with ‘arms’

Rhododendron Tunnel Paved Trailbed Appalachian Trail

Brrr – that was a cold night!  I was glad to have spent it bundled up in my warmer sleeping bag with two pillows.  Eventually we got moving, packed up, ate breakfast, and started our hiking for the day. We had all day to go eight miles, so we set out at a leisurely pace. We had about three straight miles of moderate uphill to our first view of the day.  The trail was all green tunnel. We passed through thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron and traversed lush beds of ferns.

At 2.7 miles in we reached a pretty outcropping of rocks with a great view of the valley below. We stopped briefly to enjoy the vista, but weren’t ready for a snack or a long break. The next 2.3 miles covered rolling terrain with lots of small ups and downs.  The trail was pretty, but not remarkable.  At five miles into our day, we reached the radio tower on Flat Top mountain.  The tower viewpoint is about .1 miles off the trail and worth making the small detour.  Behind the tower, there is a series of small cliffs with a commanding view.  It’s the perfect place to take a lunch break.

Nice Views on the AT
There were several nice views near between Waipiti and Woods Hole. Below: Views from the trail.

Napping in the Sun AT Views View at a Distance

The day had warmed up a bit and we were both running really low on water.  Thankfully, we had enough to make Pack-It Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. We had cheese and crackers with candy and dried fruit for our mid-day meal. We also took a good long break and rested atop the rocks. It was peaceful to watch hawks and buzzards soaring on the breeze.

After a full hour of resting, we packed back up and set out to cover our final 2.8 miles of the day.  The rest of the route was mostly downhill with only a few brief bumps to climb.  In about .7 miles, we crossed the Ribble Trail.  The sign indicated that supplies (like propane) were available somewhere down the Ribble Trail, but I would think most people would just continue on to Woods Hole or even Pearisburg if they needed something. Apparently, there is also a nice AT-Ribble Trail loop that is popular with locals.  If we were to have followed the Ribble Trail, it would have rejoined the AT near Waipiti shelter, where we spent the prior night. Maybe one day, we’ll go back and explore the area more.

Flat Top Tower
As long as you don’t look behind you, the view is pretty and pristine. Below: Descending toward Sugar Run Gap.

Side Trails Almost to Sugar Hollow Sugar Run Road

After crossing the junction with the Ribble Trail, we continued downhill; crossing Big Horse Gap/USFS 103 just a tenth of a mile later. In another 1.2 mile, we crossed another forest road. From this point, the last .5 miles of hiking went steeply downhill. The trail was a bit rocky and overgrown.  At this point, I was starting to hit a wall.  I was out of water and feeling really parched. We hadn’t passed a spring since first thing in the morning and the sun had been beating down on us all day.  I told Adam I wanted to rest at the road crossing before we hiked down to Woods Hole Hostel – our destination for the evening.  He said to me ‘But wouldn’t a massage be way more relaxing?’  It turned out he booked an hour long massage for me at the hostel. Say no more – I was up and ready to cover that last .5 miles of road walking to get to Woods Hole.

Normally, we wouldn’t stay at a hostel on a two-night backpacking trip, but Woods Hole is special.  Family-run for decades, the quaint, old farmhouse is an Appalachian Trail legend and a beloved tradition for many hikers.  The old farmhouse opened its doors to hikers in the 1980s.  The hostel was originally run by Tillie and Roy Wood, but was taken over by their granddaughter Neville in 2007. Since then, she and her husband Michael have expanded on the hostel’s offerings, creating a mountain oasis that is simultaneously rugged and luxurious.  There’s no television or cell phone signal, but there is beautiful organic food (that you get to help prepare!), massage services, and group yoga.

Woods Hole Hostel
What a welcome site! Woods Hole Hostel was a luxurious stop on our backpacking trip.  Below: Woods Hole scenes.

Bunk House Rules Porch Swing Bunk House

We arrived at the hostel around 2:00 p.m.  Neville was still working on cleaning the house, so we bought a couple soda’s from the bunkhouse fridge, and settled into the swing on the front porch. We played with the dogs, said hello to the roaming duck, and peeked into the goat and pig sheds.  The garden was still beautiful and abundant in late summer – tons of peppers, tomatoes, and squash. If you stay at the hostel, you can camp, stay in the bunkhouse, or stay in a private room inside the farmhouse. We chose to stay in ‘Tillie’s Room.’  It had a comfortable queen bed, private sink/vanity, and shared full bath. It was quite luxurious for trail accommodations.  Even if you choose the more humble bunkhouse, it is still comfortable and neat as a pin.  There are beds with fresh linens provided, a big common area with a couch, and a nice offering of snacks and supplies available for purchase. There are also shower and laundry facilities available for those staying in the bunkhouse.

We visited during a really quiet time of year.  There was a smattering of SoBo thru-hikers on the trail, but in mid-September we had the entire house to ourselves. Once we got checked in, I decided to shower and spend some time in the farmhouse’s library. It was full of all kinds of books and mementos. I especially enjoyed looking through scrapbooks chronicling the hostel’s history over the years. Around 5:00, Neville said she was ready to do my massage.  It was a wonderful treat and felt fantastic on my tired shoulders and calves.

Woods Hole Doggy
Aumakua – one of Woods Hole’s sweet dogs. Below: Our comfortable lodging.

Tilly;s Room  

After the massage, we started to think about dinner!  In the meantime, one southbound thruhiker arrived and booked a bed in the bunkhouse.  Neville’s husband had errands to run, so it was just four of us for dinner. Neville and Michael typically prepare community meals with the help of hikers staying for the night. Everyone has a task and chips in to prepare and clean up after the meal.  We had an amazing tomato-pepper-cucumber salad, homemade bread with aioli, locally raised pork, and a flavorful yellow Thai vegetarian curry for dinner.  Everything was delicious, but the salad was a favorite and is something I’ve made at home ever since.  Dessert was Neville’s homemade vanilla ice cream.

After dinner, Adam and I relaxed in the library and read until it was time for bed.  It was lovely being lulled to sleep by the sound of a breeze in the trees outside.  We both slept great!

Adam Says: Day Three – Woods Hole Hostel to Narrows (11.8 miles)

Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Map My Hike Stats

Woods Hole to Narrows
Our last day of hiking started in a blanket of fog. Below: Hiking up Sugar Run Road; The Appalachian Trail; Foggy views

Sugar Run Road Appalachian Trail There Should Have Been a View

We had our longest day on the trail ahead of us with the third day. We got up, packed up our gear, and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast prepared by Neville.  We had asked if we could leave most of our gear there during the day to be able to “slackpack” without the weight.  We carried water, some lunch, and a few layers of clothes but we were able to dump out so much of the weight.  With this extra added comfort, we started on our hike for the day.  We climbed up the steep gravel road and we quickly were so thankful we had dropped off our weight.  We rejoined the AT at .5 miles and began our hike.

Views from the Trail
As we climbed higher the view opened and the fog lifted. Below: Docs Knob Shelter; Views from the trail; Thick overgrowth.

Docs Knob Trail Views Overgrown Appalachian Trail

The morning started off foggy and cold and the section of AT started off uphill. At 1.9 miles, we reached a viewpoint, but it was completely socked in the fog so there was no point staying. The trail then took a descent and at 2.8 miles, we came upon Docs Knob Shelter.  It was a nice shelter, but we were glad we had luxurious accommodations at Woods Hole Hostel the night before. The trail was up and down for a bit, before rising a bit to a nice viewpoint at 6.5 miles. The fog had lifted so we enjoyed nice views of the river cutting through a scenic mountain view.  We stopped and ate some lunch here, but had to eat a bit away from the viewpoint since there were strong, cold winds.  We pushed on as the trail became to climb very slowly and at 8.6 miles we reached another viewpoint. This was probably the nicest one in our opinion of the trip, since you had panoramic views of farmlands and mountains around you.

Ridge Walking
We had miles of easy walking along a ridge.  Below: Late summer vegetation; Views from the trail; Descending to Angels Rest.

Trail Views Trail Views 

We continued the pleasant ridge walking and eventually the trail began to descend through an area that cut a path between very large rock boulders.  We reached a sign that pointed to Angels Rest (a short .1 mile sidetrail) at 9.2 miles.  Angels Rest is a large boulder that requires you to scale up it to get the view.  We climbed up and the view is being combated by growing trees.  The view in the distance is nice, but in my opinion the eyesore of looking down on a town (and correctional facility to boot) isn’t one that I particularly enjoy.  I know lots of people hike up to this point from Pearisburg and return, but the better view would be if people would just continue a bit further.  We climbed down disappointed this was the last view and then rejoined the trail.

Angels Rest
Angels Rest and a view into Pearisburg.  Below: New signage around Angels Rest; The rock at Angels Rest; Descending into Pearisburg.

 Angels Rest 

The hike down from Angels Rest was extremely steep.  We made the downward trip the rest of the way fairly quickly.  At 11 miles we crossed over Cross Avenue, VA 634.  We then crossed over Lane Street at 11.4 miles and then made it to Narrows Road and our car at 11.8 miles.  When we got back to our car, we drove back to pick up our gear at Woods Hole Hostel (and also bought a nice soup bowl crafted by the owner) and then made our way to Ballast Point for some post-hike dinner and flight of beers.  It was such a great birthday celebration and we had a wonderful experience!

The road to Pearisburg. Below: The trail between Pearisburg and Narrows; Parking.

Between Pearisburg and Narrows Between Pearisburg and Narrows Between Pearisburg and Narrows

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 27 miles (plus a couple extra miles to access views, shelters, and Woods Hole Hostel)
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike* [Day One] [Day Two][Day Three])
  • Elevation Change – 4,885 feet
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  The second day was the toughest climbing.  Overall, it wasn’t very tough, but it was 27 miles. 
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  Some of the trail was overgrown in parts, but overall was fairly maintained and footing was reliable through most of the hike.
  • Views  4.  The view leading up to Angels Rest was the best.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 4.  Lots of stream crossings, but the highlight was early in the hike with Dismal Falls.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t run into many signs of wildlife on the trail, but did see an occasional deer.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Sticking to the AT, you just look for white blazes.  The side trails we took were well marked.
  • Solitude – 4.  We had most of the trail to ourselves.  Expect people at Dismal Falls and Angels Rest and not much in between.

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

Directions to trailhead:  Coordinates to drop off car and meet shuttle: 37.3341, -80.7553 (Narrows AT Parking Lot Off road, room for quite a few cars.) Shuttle drop-off/hike start coordinates: 37.1757, -80.9083 (Kimberling Creek Suspension Bridge has a a small parking area along VA606)

Appalachian Trail – Hanover to Woodstock (VT)

We tackled this 24.5 mile section of Vermont’s Appalachian Trail during a spell of very hot, dry weather – especially by New England standards. The route has quite a bit of road-walking and traversing open fields in full sun. We’ll admit… it wasn’t one of our favorites.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam Says: Day One – Hanover to Happy Hill Shelter (6.2 miles)

Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Map My Hike Stats

This is the first section of Vermont’s Appalachian Trail that we have attempted. We looked at a few different routes but decided on this short three-day trip. We were staying with Christine’s parents in central New Hampshire and wanted to start tackling some miles nearby since they could watch our dog, Wookie, while we were backpacking. Another great thing about staying with them is they offered to provide the shuttle for us. Probably like most family members, they don’t quite understand what we were doing since they have never done a backpacking trip. We are often riddled with questions about where we are going, preparations, how we use different equipment, etc.  They tried on our weighted packs and didn’t understand how we could walk for miles with these strapped to our backs and make decent time. They followed us in their car and we parked at our end destination. We then shuttled back in their car to Hanover, NH.

AT/NH Line
Shortly after leaving downtown Hanover, you cross the Connecticut River which is the state line between New Hampshire and Vermont. Below: the Connecticut River is a significant body of water; Hiking into Norwich, Vermont; Just a couple miles in to our hike, we were already in need of shade and a cold drink.

Connecticut River Norwich, VT Shady Gazebo in Norwich

Before we began our trek, we had lunch with her parents at Molly’s in the heart of Hanover.  They have great American fare and a trip to Molly’s has been an annual tradition for us for the last several years. We ate an early lunch, got our backpacks out of the car and started walking towards Dartmouth College on Main Street. The Appalachian Trail cuts right through the heart of Hanover, NH.  It may be a rarity in most small towns to see people walking through your downtown with large backpacks, but Hanover is a classic hiker-friendly town.  People would whisper as we walk by and take photos, making you feel like a celebrity more than anything.  Of course, we had not walked all the way from Georgia to this point, but people are fascinated with long-distance backpacking. We took a few pictures on Dartmouth College’s quad lawn called The Green, walking by an admissions tour group, before turning down Wheelock Street/SR10 after just a few tenths from Molly’s to keep south on the Appalachian Trail.  The white blazes that signify the AT trail markers through towns typically are blazes painted on lampposts or backs of signs.

The day was hot – abnormally hot for the summer in Vermont. The day was approaching 90 and we were walking on open road with no shade so we quickly got overheated. SR10 crossed over the Connecticut River and you see a sign halfway across the bridge that signifies the state border between New Hampshire and Vermont at .8 miles. With more road walking, we reached Norwich, VT and began to climb up a steeper section of sidewalk. With the sun beating down and the uphill climb, it was quite unbearable. At 2.7 miles, we rested at a gazebo in front of a church. Christine couldn’t take much more sun, so we threw our backpacks off and I went searching for places to buy some cold drinks in fear of losing all of our water in just a short amount of time. I found a nearby deli shop and got some cold drinks.  We had trouble finding the blazes at this point so I also looked around for blazes (which ended up being on the opposite side of the road). Luckily, the road that I found the deli was also where the AT turned down Elm Street.

So much road walking
Vermont had so much road walking in the open sun. It was tough going!  Below: Some nice people in the houses along the trail had cold drinks and ice; Finally some woods and shade; A tiny bit of “Vermud” – we had the mixed blessing of hiking during a drought-y time.

Trail Magic Finally in the Woods Vermud

We continued on Elm Street going steeply uphill. There were several houses along the way that had trail magic – cold drinks and snacks in coolers or places to get a new paperback to read for the trail. I stopped again on our climb and took advantage of some ice cold water to drink and poor over my head to keep my body as cool as possible. We eventually came to a large kiosk (adorned with Uber business cards to avoid the road walking and get right into Hanover) where the AT finally entered into the woods and we had a bit of shade from the trees. The trail passed by a small stream (which was dry) and continued uphill.  Overall the trail to our first shelter was mostly non-descript but serene. There was a brown path cutting through the sea of fern around us with pine, oak, and birch trees around us.

Happy Hill Shelter was cute, but lacked a consistent water source. We had to dry camp and fill up a couple miles into the next morning.

The trail crossed over a woods road at 4.5 miles and continued slightly up and down until we reached a junction with the blue-blazed Tucker Trail at 5.9 miles (a trail that also leads to Norwich, VT in 3 miles). From this point, it was just another .3 miles until we reached the sign that marked the side trail to the Happy Hill Shelter which was just less than a tenth off the main trail. We stopped for the night and were soon joined by some other hikers, including one of our favorites, Hobbes the dog, who had been suffering like all of us in the heat.  He collapsed on the soft ground telling his owner, trail-named Calvin, that he was done for the day.  He rolled onto his side while Calvin peeled off his doggy pack with no help from Hobbes. We talked while eating some dinner about things we had seen on the trail.  We learned a bit about porcupines from one thru-hiker that told us that they mostly climb in trees during the day and are active at night. They gave us a warning to hang our poles because they like nibbling on the cork handles. We set up camp and tried to go to sleep but it was too hot of a night and everything felt clammy and sticky.

Christine Says: Day Two – Happy Hill Shelter to Thistle Hill Shelter (9.6 miles)

Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Map My Hike Stats

Our night at Happy Hill was kind of hot and fitful. Neither of us slept well. The tent was stuffy and I kept thinking I heard animals walking around the tent (porcupines!) The sun comes up so early in the New England summer that we were awake and packing up our gear before 6:00 a.m. We knew we had another hot day ahead of us, so getting an early start was important.

Our first stop of the day was 1.7 miles into the hike. We stopped to filter water from a unnamed small stream along the trail. Since the water source at the shelter had been dry, it was nice to replenish our Camelbaks.

AT in Vermont
The second day of hiking was a mix of forests, fields, and meadows. Below: Fields, fields, fields; Filtering water for the day; Pretty ferns!

AT in Vermont AT in Vermont AT in Vermont

Our first four miles of the day were mostly downhill and under the shade of the forest canopy. We walked through beds of fern, small meadows, and across a couple small streams. It was how I imagined Vermont would be.

At 3.4 miles into the day, we came out onto pavement and crossed under I-89. It’s always strange to step out of the woods and see 18-wheelers zipping by on a four-lane highway. The next mile of ‘hiking’ was over paved town roads heading into West Hartford.  It was still pretty early, but the sun was already high in the sky and beating down full force on the asphalt. We were both red-faced and drenched with sweat.

The Harts
The Harts provide support and kindness to all hikers. Adam got his AT passport stamped there. Below: Crossing under the interstate; The West Hartford Library; Bridge crossing over the White River.

Crossing Under the Interstate Hartford Library Brook Crossing

We arrived to the main part of town right at 9:00 a.m. – which happened to be the same time the community library opened. The library door had a ‘hikers welcome’ sign, so we figured we’d go in and make use of their facilities. Even after one night in the woods, it’s wonderful to be able to wash your hands with soap and running water. The library attendant told us to make ourselves comfortable and to help ourselves to coffee or water from their cooler. We sat in the air conditioning and chugged a couple bottles full of chilled spring water. After about 45 minutes, we decided we should probably move on because the day was only going to get hotter.

We had only been walking about 50 feet when a woman starting waving and shouting to us from her front porch – “Hello hikers!!  Come on over!” Adam and I always stop to chat with people and explore towns along the trail, so we made our way over to the house.  It turned out we were at the Hart’s residence.  The Hart’s are a well-known and valued provider of trail magic. She offered to cook us breakfast – there were eggs, pastries, muffins, watermelon, and cold sodas.  We weren’t hungry, but we gratefully accepted a cold soda and stayed to chat for a while. People along the Appalachian Trail are always so kind and generous. Finally, we said farewell and made our way across the bridge over the White River and back into the woods.

A View!
Our first view of the trip. Below: A little mud; Another overgrown field; Resting in the shade.

Mud Fields Checking the Map

The shade of the woods was short-lived and all the remaining miles of the day were uphill and mostly crossing open fields and forest with thin canopy. It was blazing hot. We took lots of breaks to cool off. We came to a partially obstructed view at 5.2 miles into the day.  There was a bench shaded by an apple tree at the vista.

We took our lunch break at a forest road crossing at 7.5 miles into our day. We sat in the dirt and ate crackers and cheese, candy, and nuts. We were both running low on water, but figured we could make it a couple more miles to the water source at the shelter. While we ate, we checked out the large sugaring operation in the woods around us.  It looked like there were miles of tubes to collect sap from the maple trees. It was neat and something we never see in Virginia.

After lunch, we made the final push to Thistle Hill shelter.  There were so many open fields to climb across. It was in the mid-90s, breezeless, and the sun was unrelenting. I could feel my skin burning despite multiple applications of sunscreen. We both ran out of water and were so totally ready to be done for the day. As it so often goes, you reach camp just when you think you can’t take another step. We were so thankful to reach the spur trail to the shelter.

More Fields
We were baking in the sun for much of day two. Below: Thistle Hill Shelter; Tent resting; Even Rosco was tired from the heat.

Thistle Hill Thistle Hill Thistle Hill

Adam probably had heat exhaustion and was badly dehydrated.  He collapsed into the shade of the shelter to rest. I went about setting up camp while he took a break. After some time resting, we went to collect water. The source was really nice – a lacy little waterfall pouring over mossy rocks. I mixed electrolyte drinks and tried to get Adam to drink more.  Several southbound thru-hikers we’d met the night before (and Rosco the dog) rolled into camp over the next hour.

We had an early dinner at the shelter. Everyone talked about the heat and the brutality of the five+ mile uphill climb. We retreated to our tent a little before sundown. Adam still didn’t feel well and I started to worry that it might be more than dehydration. At one point, I said to him, ‘We have cell service, we can call for help if you need it.’  He refused and fortunately started to feel better as the day cooled and the fluids started to rehydrate him.

More and more hikers arrived at camp as nightfall approached. I think there were probably close to 25 people camped at Thistle Hill by the time it was dark. A few more even stumbled in by headlamp as late at 10:00 p.m.  We left our rainfly off the tent to catch the cross breeze, so every headlamp at camp woke us up.  It was still a cooler, more comfortable night than we’d had at Happy Hill. We both got a decent night of rest in advance of our final day of hiking.

Adam Says: Day Three – Thistle Hill Shelter to Woodstock (8.7 miles)

Download a Trail Map (PDF)
Map My Hike Stats

With our last day ahead of us, we  got up with the sunrise, used the neat screen-porch privy at the shelter, quickly packed up camp, and were on our way. I think only one thru-hiker made it out of camp before us.  The heat was tough on a lot of us.

From the shelter, the trail descended.  At 1.8 miles, we came to a junction marking a trail to the Cloudland Shelter (.5 miles west of the trail). This shelter used to be maintained by AT volunteers but was now on private land. Hikers can still stay there and it is owned by the owners of Cloudland Market.  For the past two days we had been asking northbound hikers about Cloudland Market. It had been closed on Sunday and Monday when we started our hike but this was Tuesday and we had read in our AWOL thru-hiking guide that it was open on Tuesday. One guy had told us it was also closed Tuesday, but we had heard how great the shop was and thought a cold soda or snacking on some Vermont cheese could be nice. When we reached Cloudland Road at 2.3 miles, we saw a note taped to a sign stating that is was closed on Tuesday also, so we missed out.

Morning Beauty
The third day started off almost cool. Below: Tall, straight pines; Farm field; Old country road.

Pines More Fields Country Roads

We crossed Cloudland Road and had a very steep climb up an open field of grass and wildflowers to reach a hilly summit at 2.9 miles. This was probably the nicest view on the trail and gave us a glimpse of Vermont farms  and mountains in the distance. We stopped for just a short time because the sun was beating down again, whipping us to push on for shade. The trail descended from this point and then we had another short uphill to reach another small view at 3.7 miles. We could see ski slopes off in the hazy distance. From this second viewpoint, it was a steep downhill until we reached the paved Pomfret Road at 4.1 miles.

Best View of the Trip
This was the best/prettiest view on the trip. Below: White birches; The trail followed an old road bed; Another view with ski slopes.

Birches Old Roadbed Another View

On the other side of the road, was a small brook and we filled up water while talking with a bunch of northbound thru-hikers.  They were having a debate on who would win in a fight between a horse and a cow and asked us for an opinion. We debated with them on why we felt a horse would win (because it had more speed and agility and could also pull off a painful kick or bite).  It was a fun conversation and reminded me that when you don’t have the depressing world news to hear every day that these common topics were more enjoyable than the nightly newscast.  Conversation with hikers that are going the opposite way are your version of the internet.  You get information about trail conditions, water sources, sights to see, and how much uphill is ahead (its always stated that its not too bad even if it is).  We also heard from other hikers that this section of Vermont that we had picked was probably the least beautiful of any of the sections of Vermont.  While it was disheartening to hear, it at least renewed our opinion that the rest of Vermont would have nice streams, views, and farmlands fit for a postcard and we should do more of it another year.

Stream Crossing
A stream crossing. Below: Pretty trail; So many fields; Huge broken tree.

AT in Vermont Fields, dammit Broken Tree

After taking a short break and filling up with water we pressed on. We crossed another small stream and reached the gravel Bartlett Brook Road at 5.7 miles.  At 6.5 miles, we crossed Totman Hill Road and reached another stream at 7.0 miles (where was all this water earlier in the trip?).  At 7.3 miles, we reached Woodstock Stage Road and Barnard Brook.  We had one less-steep climb up, a one mile climb up Dana Hill before descending again.  On our final descent, we saw a black bear foraging off to the side that took off running when we got close.  It was very exciting to finally see some wildlife and was a reward for the end of our journey!  We finally reached our final road crossing at 8.7 miles, Barnard Gulf Road, and got back to where we had parked our car.  We made it!  We had been so hot and miserable for most of the trip we wondered if we would make the entire section.  Filled with pride it was now time to fill our stomachs.  We drove to nearby Long Trail Brewery for some cold beers and amazing food to toast our accomplishment.

The last big climb
The last big climb was a tough one! Below: Our final descent – close to where we saw the bear; Some well earned beers at Long Trail Brewery.

The last descent Well earned beers at Long Trail

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 24.5 miles
  • Elevation Change – 6,341 ft
  • Difficulty –  4.  This section had tons of steep, unrelenting ups-and-downs (most without a view payoff). It was similar to a bigger, badder version of Virginia’s roller coaster.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail was generally well maintained, but there were some very overgrown sections.  There was also a bit of mud and erosion in places.
  • Views –  2.5. There were a couple nice views from high meadows.  They were pretty, but not spectacular. Many were partly obstructed.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 3. There were streams for water sources and several larger rivers to cross (on bridges).
  • Wildlife – 4. Other hikers near us saw porcupines and we saw a bear!
  • Ease to Navigate –  4.  The trail was easy to follow with adequate blazing and signage.
  • Solitude – 3. Surprisingly, we saw very few people on the trail, but campsites were moderately crowded.

Directions to trailhead: The parking lot that we left our car was at 43.6552N 72.5662W on Barnard Gulf Road on VT 12.  From here, we made our way to Hanover, NH by heading south on VT 12 for 3.7 miles.  We turned left when reaching to town of Woodstock to stay on VT 12 for .6 miles before turning left on to US-4 east.  Stay on US-4 East for 9.4 miles and then merge on to I-89 South.  Stay on this for 3 miles before taking the I-91 exit towards Brattleboro/White River.  Keep left at the fork and follow signs for I-91 North.  Stay on I-91 North for a little over 5 miles before taking exit 13 for Norwich.  Take a right to merge on to 10A/W. Wheelock Street.  Follow this for .8 miles before turning right on to Main Street.  Parking is available hourly behind a lot of the restaurants/shops but is a good dropoff point for a shuttle.

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