This 13.7 mile stretch of Appalachian Trail is mostly a walk through ‘the green tunnel’. There isn’t any grand or memorable scenery, but as you approach Troutville, there are some pretty rolling meadows with mountain views.
For quite a while, we’ve had this 13.7 mile section of trail standing out as ‘unhiked’ in the almost 360 mile unbroken stretch of Appalachian Trail we’ve completed so far. The section between Black Horse Gap and Daleville doesn’t offer any great scenery, so we never felt rushed to get out there and tackle the miles. Doing it as a day hike would have required four hours of driving and a shuttle service. The logistics of hiking it seemed like a hassle, so we filed it under ‘later’.
In late June, Adam and I were driving into work together and making weekend plans. It went something like this…
Adam: What do we have planned for the weekend?
Me: Nothing. Want to hike?
Adam: What’s the weather like?
Both: Hey… let’s backpack that odd section we have left to finish!
After making the decision to go, plans fell quickly into place. Our pet sitter was available. We had plenty of trail food left from our Maryland hike. Then, after a chat on Facebook, my friend Molly said she could shuttle us! The final icing on the cake was the fact that the new east coast Ballast Point brewery had just opened in Daleville. On Saturday, we met Molly at Ballast Point and had lunch before hitting the trail. People may go to the Ballast Point for the beer, but they’ll walk away remembering the great food. I had the best kale-quinoa-avocado chicken salad. I still daydream about it a month later.
After lunch, we left our car at Valley Cleaners in Daleville and Molly drove us to our start point at Black Horse Gap. I’ve been online friends with Molly for a while, but this was our first in-person meeting. She was just like I imagined she would be – friendly, enthusiastic, outdoorsy, and all-around awesome! I love all the people I’ve met through the Appalachian Trail community! We said our good-byes at the trailhead. Adam and I headed south, descending gradually but steadily.
The trail was really narrow and built into the shoulder of the mountainside. In 2.4 miles, we reached Wilson Creek shelter. It was only 2:00, but there were already a few hikers at the shelter, settled in for the night. We asked a couple northbounders if they’d passed any nice trailside campsites in their last few miles. Everyone said they remembered sites, but not specifically how far away they might be. Adam and I decided to continue hiking and gamble on finding a place to camp somewhere in the next couple miles.
After the shelter we decended another half mile down to Wilson Creek. There was a campsite, but it was literally right on the trail, so we kept hiking. After crossing Wilson Creek, we had a bit of uphill for about a mile. It wasn’t tough uphill, but it was still tiring in the mid-afternoon heat and humidity. At 4.2 miles, we reached an unnamed stream marked in our AWOL guidebook. There was an established campsite a couple hundred feet off the trail. It was the perfect site for the night – flat and close to water.
We set up camp, collected water, and spent the afternoon playing cards. We cooked dinner and spent the evening talking and reading. Before it got too dark, we set off to find a perfect tree for our bear hang. it turned out to be the one thing our otherwise perfect site was lacking. We did the best we could with a branch that was a little bit low and flimsy. Sometimes you just have to settle for the best possible option and hope that determined bears stay away from your campsite.
We got into the tent around 8:30, just as the woods were getting dark. It was a warm and sticky night, so we left the vent and the rainfly wide open. We both left our sleeping bags home on this trip and used lightweight quilts instead. It was a good decision and we both stayed warm (maybe a bit too warm) during the night. We eventually drifted off to the sound of distant owls and whippoorwills.
Adam Says: Day Two – Trailside Campsite to Daleville (9.5 miles)
The next morning, we ate breakfast, packed up camp, and were back on the trail in under an hour. We had a very steep but short section of uphill to climb to start things off. We were breathing deep, but we quickly reached the apex of the hill just about .2 miles in. The trail descended just as steeply and we arrived at Curry Creek at .8 miles. At the creek, there was a Curry Creek Trail to the west of the trail, but stay on the white-blazed AT. From the reliable water source of Curry Creek, we began to climb again up another steep section of trail. At the 1.9 mile mark, we reached an area where the trail then began to descend again. The trail descended for about a mile and then rose up again with a steep climb to reach the junction with the Fullhardt Knob Shelter at 4.4 miles. We took the side trail for .1 miles to reach the shelter. We stopped and ate a snack here, knowing that most of the climbing was behind us.
While we were at the shelter, we were joined by a couple that was working on section hiking the AT and we enjoyed talking about some of the things we had both seen along sections of the trail. At the shelter, there is a privy and a cistern behind the shelter to get water (water should still be treated before drinking). We were good on water, so after relaxing a few minutes, we pushed on. We rejoined the AT at 4.6 miles and began our big descent. The trail had a few switchbacks on the way down and it was rather steep in sections. We came across a sign stating that the trail soon passes through private lands and to stay on the trail. At 6.5 miles, we passed through a fence, beginning the start of some of these private lands. We had a short bump to climb before we reached VA 652/Mountain Pass Road at 6.8 miles. This bump however was the prettiest part of the trail as you ascend over a large field and have nice mountain and farmland views all around you from the top. A few tenths of a mile later, we went through another fence stile. We then crossed over another road, over train tracks and then US 11. At 7.6 miles, we passed underneath I-81 by walking on VA 779 underneath the interstate.
The sun was hot and beating down on us. We were desperately hoping to find some shade, but most of the hike from here on is out in the open. We were at least glad we got an early start. The trail ascended to the left after the overpass and led us through a grassy swath of land that cut through some of the brushy area around it. Around the 9.5 mile area, we finally arrived at US 220 and Daleville, Va. We crossed the road to get back to our car that we had left at Valley Cleaners. When we got back to the car, it was right around noon. Whenever we go through Daleville around lunch, we always stop at Three Li’l Pigs barbecue. We were hot, tired, and hungry so it was a great place to cool down and eat some amazing food. Our waitress could see that we were hikers and we talked to her about what we were doing. While we chatted, she brought us an endless stream of Diet Dr. Pepper refills. She said she was hoping to do some AT hiking, but hadn’t decided if she wanted to do a section or the entire thing. As we continued to stuff our faces, she came over with a bowl of banana pudding. She told us that AT hikers get a complimentary serving of banana pudding. While I think this is more intended for thru-hikers, we didn’t turn it down!
We then decided to bookend the trip with another visit to Ballast Point. We got to sample a few beers before we had started, but since they had over 20 on tap, we decided to get sample pours of a couple of others. We then made our way back home. We were very glad to finish this section of elusive trail.
Distance – 13.7 miles
Elevation Change – 2810 ft.
Difficulty – 3. This was a pretty easy backpacking route. The switchbacks early on day two were pretty long and steep, but it was the only challenging part of the hike.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in typical Appalachian Trail shape for this part of Virginia – well maintained and nicely graded.
Views – 2. The rolling meadows near Troutville were lovely.
Streams/Waterfalls – 0. This is a quite dry stretch of trail. There is a small, low-flow spring at Bobblets Gap and a seasonal stream at Bearwallow Gap. There is NO WATER SOURCE at the Cove Mountain Shelter, so plan ahead.
Wildlife – 3. We saw several deer. At night we heard a barred owl and several distant whippoorwills.
Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well marked and easy to follow. There are road crossings, but the white blazes are easy to follow in most places.
Solitude – 3. We actually saw very few people on this hike considering the beautiful weather and its proximity to the parkway.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: We parked our end point car at Valley Cleaners in Daleville. It’s along Route 220 where the Appalachian Trail crosses. Please ask the cleaners for permission to park here and park where they tell you to. Parking here is a courtesy provided to hikers that can be rescinded at any time if people take advantage. Coordinates for the dry cleaners are: 37.393538, -79.906817. From there, we took a shuttle to Black Horse Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Coordinates for the hike’s start point are: 37.424611, -79.757202. Head right and start on the trail.
This 42-mile Appalachian Trail segment traverses the state of Maryland – starting at PenMar Park and heading south to Harpers Ferry. The section generally consists of easy terrain with a few moderate, rocky stretches. We enjoyed taking our time hiking over five days of beautiful views and interesting history. Ambitious hikers can definitely cover Maryland in less time, but a leisurely pace seems to suit this section with so much to see!
We started our day off at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The HFNHP allows you to leave a car overnight for up to 14 days. Knowing the limited parking in the area, we decided to take advantage of this service. We paid the fee and completed the form for overnight parking. Our friend Anthony offered to shuttle us up to PenMar Park, named because it sits right on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland. He dropped us off across from PenMar park at the overnight parking lot. We thanked him and set off. We weren’t entirely sure where the Appalachian Trail crossed the park, but we made our way past a kiosk and soon came upon a nice overlook with a pavilion, a sign showing the split of the AT, and restrooms. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and hit the restrooms before we started. We headed south on the white-blazed AT, which soon ducked into a wooded area. The trail looked flat and soft. We had heard how nice the AT was in Maryland and we were hoping this would stay this way. There were pink azaleas blooming alongside the trail and we were excited to take on this section. Soon, there was a sign to the left of the trail showing the AT going uphill. We took this left and we had a short uphill. In just a short distance, the trail turned into a rocky mess. There were large boulders and the trail became very hard to follow with limited blazes. I was leading the way and trying to go with leaves that were more trampled underfoot to be the sign that we were still on the trail. There were a few times that we got off the trail for a few feet (Christine found a sweet pair of mirrored sunglasses on one of our ‘detours’), but we managed to find a white blaze by looking around to get back on the trail. Through a lot of the rocky area, the trail seemed to be marked by small ground flags rather than blazes.
Around 2.2 miles, we reached a very steep section of rocks to traverse. At 2.8 miles, our climbing ended and we reached a junction where you can take a side trail that leads to High Rock. Knowing we could loop right back to the AT, it was an easy decision to check this out. In just a tenth of a mile, we came to a road and parking lot that led to the High Rock overlook. My first thought when approaching it was disgust from all the graffiti. However, this overlook is so covered in graffiti that it almost approaches art – clearly the idea of “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is alien to the people that contributed to this. The view from High Rock, which also serves as a hang gliding launch, was gorgeous and the scenery with the graffiti made for some interesting photos. We then put our packs back on and found the spur trail that joined back to the other side of the Appalachian Trail. In a tenth of a mile, we were back on the AT to continue our journey.
The trail was relatively flat for the rest of the day and we reached a junction that led us west for a tenth of a mile to the Raven Rock Shelter at 4.8 miles, our stop for the night. It was still in the early afternoon, but we were trying to have an easier first day. We were the first ones there and found a great campsite just a few hundred feet away from the shelter. There were tent pads and a circle of benches with our own fire pit and picnic table. While Christine and Kris started working on getting things set up at camp, I trekked off to the water source. The water was located about .4 miles away down a steep path a little over .3 miles from the junction in the opposite direction from the shelter. It was tough to haul a bucket of water back up the trail and back to camp, but I didn’t want to go multiple trips to carry what we needed for the night and next morning. We highly recommend the Sea to Summit ultra-sil bucket for collecting water to use at camp. It weighs next to nothing and saves you from making multiple trips.
We finished setting up camp and took some time to read through the shelter log. It wasn’t long before others started arriving at camp. There were probably close to 15 other people there by the end of the evening. Little did we know that most of these people were with us for the rest of the journey. There were nine others that had started on the same day as us and were doing the exact same trip, at the same exact pace. We kept to ourselves for the night and enjoyed a nice campfire before the freezing temperatures set in for the night.
Our second day started with a very frigid morning. None of us wanted to get out of our tents, preferring to stay warm and snug in our down sleeping bags. But, we had a ten mile hike to our next camp stop and wanted to get an early start. After coffee and two packets of oatmeal each, we packed up and headed out of camp. In .7 of a mile, we reached the rocky outcropping known as Raven Rock Cliff. The view was partially obstructed, but offered a nice peek at expansive farmland in the distance. From there, the trail descended through a boulder jumble to Raven Rock Road and Little Antietam Creek. The logbook at the last shelter had indicated that the creek had been hip-high rapids the day before, so we were exceedingly relieved to find the water level had come back down to an ankle deep rock-hop. A lot of the stepping stones were underwater, so we all took a minute to change into our Crocs for the crossing. After crossing, we climbed up and down a steep knob in the terrain. This is a common feature of the Appalachian Trail called a ‘PUD’ or a pointless up and down. Basically, something steep that seems to serve no purpose and offers no scenery. At two miles into our hike we reached Warner Hollow, where we crossed another small stream. This one had a double plank laid across the water as a bridge. The boards were halfway submerged, but still offered enough footing to cross without having to take our shoes off again.
After Warner Hollow, the trail ascends steadily uphill through varied terrain for 1.8 miles. We passed under powerlines and back into the woods for a surprisingly rocky section. The trail was covered with slabs of stone and followed a small cliffside for a short while. We passed an abandoned Big Agnes tent sitting about 15 feet off the trail. From the wear and tear on the tent, we could tell it had been left in the woods for quite a while. It was a bit eerie and none of us chose to look inside. The trail crossed a pretty, open meadow before reaching Foxville Road, at 3.6 miles into the day’s hike. On the other side of Foxville Road, we found a crate full of gallon jugs of fresh, filtered water. In a state known for its tendency to run dry, clean water is a welcome form of trail magic. We weren’t sure what the water source would be like at our lunch stop (it was described as a ‘somewhat stagnant boxed spring’), so we all topped off with enough water to get us through a few more miles. At five miles into the day, we reached our mid-day rest-stop at Ensign Cowall Shelter. It was early, but we decided to go ahead and eat lunch. Adam and I brought a few Packit Gourmet meals for lunches on this trip, including their Smoked Cheddar-Jack Cheese Spread. It rehydrated with just two ounces of cold water. The spread was both convenient and delicious. We enjoyed it on some brioche crisps we brought from Trader Joe’s. As it turned out, lunch also came with some entertainment! We met Pennsylvania brothers and section hikers, Blackbeard and Weird Harold. Then we met thru-hikers Wonder Woman and Peace Walker, who serenaded the group with a ukelele. We always meet the most interesting people at shelters.
After lunch, we had a short and rather steep climb uphill to Wolfsville Road. After crossing the road, our AWOL Guide showed a flat walk for the last 4.8 miles to camp. What the guide did not indicate was how rocky the trail would be. It said there would be lots of poison ivy, but not a word about the jumble of ankle-turners that comprised most of the trail. It was slow-going over mostly exposed terrain. Adam and Kris paused to de-layer to cooler clothing, but I decided to keep my long sleeves and tights as sun protection. There really wasn’t much interesting to see along this section of trail – lots of pink ladyslipper flowers being the exception. We marched along, passing the miles, until we finally reached our stop for the second night – Pogo Memorial Campsite.
Pogo does not have a shelter or a bear pole/cables, but it has a privy, a water source, and tons of tent sites. None of the tent sites are particularly flat and there aren’t a lot of suitable trees for making a bear hang. We figured bigger groups would take the large areas close to the trail and the privy. Also, the privy at this site was especially foul, so we wanted to put a lot of distance between us and the smell. Our spot was at the upper reaches of the campsite and had a nice firepit with a bench. It was still a shabby site compared to the luxuries of Raven Rock, but we made do! Pogo was definitely my least favorite camp stop on the trip.
We had lots of time to relax at camp, so we collected firewood, filtered water, and chatted. As the afternoon went on, more and more people filed into camp, including a huge group of teachers and students from an alternative program high school. They were loud and active, so I was even more glad we had selected a site near the back of the tent area. The second night was cool, but not frigid like the prior night. We stayed up a bit later, talking and tinkering with the campfire. As the sky darkened, we retreated to our tents to get some rest for day three.
Day Three was probably the highlight of the trip. We started off our morning early, but there were still others that beat us out of camp. The hike started off by heading uphill. In just .2 miles, we crossed over Black Rock Creek. At .6 miles, to the left of the trail was a short scramble that took us to a small overview called Black Rock Cliffs where there were a couple of rocks to sit on to take in the view. From here we continued on the AT for a flat section and came up to a junction at 1.6 miles for Annapolis Rocks. We took this side trail that led us past a large caretakers tent (someone who monitors the activity here and can call for assistance) and then past a series of other backcountry campsites. At .25 miles off the trail, we came to the magnificent viewpoint known as Annapolis Rocks. When we arrived, there was a group of students that were learning how to rock climb (Annapolis Rocks being a popular destination for Maryland rock climbing). Not so ironically, there was also a group of firefighters that were up there to train on how to rescue someone that had fallen. It was interesting to talk to them to see how they prepare and see the equipment needed to attempt a rescue. People have died from falling at this spot, so please be careful. The large cliffsides of Annapolis Rocks provides some stunning views and the rock jutting out over a canvas of trees makes this quite the picturesque spot. Annapolis Rocks is an extremely popular day hike; while you may see lots of people, the rock edge is large enough where you will likely be able to find an unobstructed view.
After taking a long break at Annapolis Rocks, we headed back to the AT junction to bring our total up to 2.1 miles. We took a right and continued south on the AT. The trail continued to be flat and we came across a PATC volunteer that was doing some trail work. We thanked him for his hard work and continued on. The trail started to descend about a mile after Annapolis Rocks and at 3.7 miles we reached the junction with the Pine Knob Shelter. The shelter was just .1 off of the trail, so we decided to explore it. Pine Knob Shelter has campsites around it, a privy, and reliable water (a piped spring is next to the shelter). We returned to the AT junction the way we came for another .1 miles to take us up to 3.9 total miles. The trail sloped downhill and then we came to the I-70 footbridge, an ivy-covered footbridge over the interstate. It made me sad to see all of these people flying by in their rat race of a hectic life when I was out here enjoying the tranquility of nature. These moments always make me feel lucky that I can have these moments to get away from it all. After we crossed over I-70, we had a short uphill climb. At 4.1 miles, we passed through a junction with the Bartman Hill Trail (which made me think of the old Simpsons song, “Do the Bartman”) and at 4.5 miles, the AT passes through a residential area.
The trail was relatively flat for the next bit and then had a short climb down until we reached some power lines at 6.3 miles. From the power lines, we had a steep climb up for about .3 miles until we reached a side trail for the first Washington Monument. We took this short side trail and were at the monument in just .1 miles. This Washington Monument was completed in 1827 and is a 40 foot stone tower that overlooks the area. You can climb to the top through a winding, dark (and somewhat creepy) spiral staircase. After getting a few pictures, we decided this was a perfect spot to have lunch. We sat down and chatted with a couple that we had been camping near the last few nights and finally had a chance to introduce ourselves. They were from Florida and were enjoying this section as much as we were.
After leaving the Washington Monument, we rejoined the AT and started to head down a steep trail. On the left of the trail were signs that detailed some moments of George Washington’s life and career as the first President of the U.S. We were getting the story in reverse, but it was a good way to refresh on history that I had long forgotten. At the bottom of the hill, we reached Washington Monument State Park. We were able to take advantage of a water pump next to the trail to refill our water bladders and restroom facilities were just a short walk away. The trail descended to the left down the edge of the park and crossed the park road before re-entering the woods. We crossed Monument Road at 7.1 miles and then had another climb through open forest. The sun was quite hot, but it was a pretty scene. The trail then continued downward on a steady descent and we passed by Dahlgren Chapel. The Chapel is a picturesque church that was built in the late 1800s by Madeline Dahlgren, wife of Admiral John Dahlgren. We reached Turners Gap Road and saw the Old South Mountain Inn directly across.
Once we crossed the road, we followed the AT for just a few tenths of a mile before we came to the Dahlgren Backpack Campground off to the right of the trail. The campground had several gravel pads to pitch a tent with a picnic table and firepit at each site. At the campground there are also bathrooms with free showers and a tap for water at the back of the building. There are also outlets to charge your electronic devices. We set up camp and then had decided to go to Old South Mountain Inn for dinner. They allow hikers to visit as long as they shower and men don’t wear tanktops. So, after taking showers we walked up to the inn as soon as they opened. The staff were very hiker-friendly and put us in a comfortable sunroom. We were joined by our Florida hiking companions and sat down to a meal with crabcakes, filet mignon, wine, beer, and creme brulee for dessert. Sorry, Mountain House dehydrated meals, you lose to this fine dining. We stuffed our bellies and then made our way back to camp. We played a round of Rage, a fun card game of betting on tricks you will win, before hanging our smell-ables on a nearby bear hang and retiring for the night. What a wonderful day on the trail! We knew heavy rain was in the forecast for our fourth day, so we went to bed feeling a touch anxious about the next day’s plan.
Ah… it was a deluge! Everyone who had camped at Dahlgren was awake and stirring before it was fully light. People were skipping their cooked breakfasts and packing gear as quickly as possible, in hopes of beating the impending rain. We stuffed our faces with peanut butter pie cookies and were packed and hiking before 7:00 a.m. We all decided to start with packcovers on and rain gear within easy reach. It was a good plan, because the downpour started before we’d even made it a mile out of camp. At .8 miles, we crossed Reno Monument Road. More appropriate to a nice, sunny day, there’s a homemade ice cream shop (South Mountain Creamery) just .2 miles east of the trail. I might be the world’s biggest ice cream fan, but even I don’t want it on a wet, windy, 48 degree day.
After crossing the road, we had a one mile gradual uphill climb to Rocky Run Shelters. Typically, we stop at every shelter to report on the facilities, but my camera was stowed away in my dry bag, and no one wanted to add the extra .4 mile round trip on to go visit the shelters. Notice I said shelter(s)? Rocky Run actually has two separate structures. One is a traditional old log and mud shelter and the other is a new shelter similar to the one at Raven Rock. Reportedly, the old shelter has a more reliable water source.
After passing the spur trail to the shelter, we had another 1.4 mile climb up to Lambs Knoll. We crossed the paved Lambs Knoll Road and ascended the mountain. We saw a small sign indicating a side trail to visit a view tower. We were in dense fog and pouring rain, so we made a collective ‘nope!’ to visiting the view. Another .2 miles past the tower, there was another view at White Rock Cliff. It was all fog and rain, so we kept moving along the trail. It’s amazing how fast you can hike when it’s cold and wet and there’s nothing to see! After White Rock Cliff, we had a gradual 3.2 mile descent to Crampton Gap Shelter. The descent followed a rocky ridgeline. It would probably have been beautiful on a nicer day. Kris and Adam were moving a bit slower due to the slippery footing. I wanted to go faster to stay warmer, so I pressed ahead. Being cold and wet is one of my outdoor fears (just behind Lyme Disease), so I was doing everything I could to keep my blood pumping. At the spur to Crampton Gap Shelter, we discussed altering our plans for the day. Our goal was to make it to Ed Garvey Shelter (4.1 miles ahead on the trail). It was only 9:45 in the morning, so we knew we’d be there by lunch. We also discussed whether or not we really wanted to spend all day holed up in our tents or the shelter. The alternative would have been a long, cold, miserable, viewless 18 mile day into Harpers Ferry. We agreed to give the matter some thought and re-discuss it when we reached the picnic shelter at Gathland State Park.
Gathland is just .4 miles past Crampton Gap Shelter, and we arrived a little after 10:00 a.m. The park is the former estate of George ‘Gath’ Townsend, a war correspondent during the American Civil War. Visitors can tour the grounds and see the ruins of his mansion, a mausoleum, a museum, and the War Correspondent’s Arch. The park also has a picnic pavilion, which became our refuge from the rain. At our stop, we collectively decided that we didn’t want to spend the day hunkered down in a shelter with tons of other hikers. But, we also didn’t want to hike 18 miles or miss the views from Weverton Cliffs. Fortunately, there is cell phone service along most of the AT in Maryland, so I was able to call the Teahorse Hostel in Harpers Ferry. We asked their shuttle service to pick us up at Gathland and take us into town for the night. We decided to rent bunks in their hostel and finish our last 12 miles the next day (which was forecast to have much better weather.) It was a great decision.
Within twenty minutes, the three of us were all loaded into a toasty warm Honda and motoring into Harpers Ferry. Since we were so cold and wet, the hostel proprietor let us into the bunkroom before check-in. The hostel was cozy, comfortable, and very clean! We had a chance to shower, wash our muddy clothes, and get warm. While Kris and I showered, the shuttle driver took Adam over to Harpers Ferry Historical Park where we had left our car. The hostel invited us to leave our car in their parking lot so we could slackpack (hike without our heavy camping/cooking gear) our final day.
Our day at the hostel was a lot of fun! It was a full house because of the rain, so we met lots of other hikers. We had good meals at a couple different Harpers Ferry restaurants, relaxed, and had a Connect-4 Tournament. Adam took a couple thru-hikers to WalMart to resupply. During the course of the evening, we reflected several times on how glad we were to not be sitting in a cold, wet shelter. Staying at the hostel turned out to be the perfect fun surprise to mix-up our hiking plan.
The next morning we were treated to breakfast of waffles, coffee, orange juice, and fresh bananas by the hostel staff. We had arranged for a shuttle back to the trail at 8:00 a.m., (accompanied by thru-hiker Norseman who wanted to take advantage of some easy slackpack miles back to the hostel). We left our car at Teahorse Hostel so we could slackpack back to our car. Getting dropped back at Gathland State Park, we were able to see some of the surrounding buildings that we could barely make out in the downpour and fog the previous day. The trail crossed from the pavilion where we had ‘evacuated’ the trail the previous day. It passed by a few historical buildings before ducking into the woods. The trail was fairly muddy and beat up from the previous day of hard rain. Our thoughts were filled with curiousity about how the rest of our fellow section-hikers were doing. We were worried about how everyone held up because we felt some of the group was struggling even before we added the extra challenge of bad weather.
The trail was fairly flat for most of the day. We reached Brownsville Gap at 1.9 miles and then continued on a flat, but gorgeous green trail through the woods until we came to the Ed Garvey Shelter at 3.7 miles. We ran into a pair of siblings that were the last to leave the shelter and we asked about the other groups we had met on our section. Almost everyone had stayed there the previous night, but it sounded like everybody hunkered down grimly in their tents and had a rough night. They told us that one family we had met, the parents had bailed out and called for a ride into Harpers Ferry while the sons continued on (they were thinking about hiking parts of the AT in sections as a family). I guess everyone’s spirits were beaten down from the weather, which made us feel guilty for a brief second that we had made the call to get to the hostel and enjoy showers and hot food. The Ed Garvey shelter is a two-story shelter that had an AT symbol formed out of the railings in the loft looking down from the top story. We signed the log, ate a quick snack and then continued. A short time away, we ran into Medicine Man, one of the AT thru-hikers that stayed with us at Teahorse Hostel and had started early to go northbound for the day. Medicine Man was a retired pharmacist (fitting trail name) and one of the most genuine, friendly people you will meet. We wished him luck for the remainder of his hike and continued on. At 5.8 miles, we had caught up to the siblings at the junction with the side trail to Weverton Cliffs. The side trail led down a couple of tenths of a mile down to a large outcropping that overlooks the Potomac River. We could soon hear the sounds of a train going by below us. While the day was hazy and a bit cloudy, we enjoyed watching the river flow below us. This was the last of our scenic views, so we stayed here a while to capture some memories and reflect on all we had done so far.
The remaining “home stretch” of the trip consisted of us rejoining the AT and then hiking down a steep section of switchbacks until we came down to Weverton Road at 6.2 miles. We crossed the road and followed the white blazes until it joined the C&O canal towpath, a converted rails-to-trails biking and walking path. We turned right on the perfectly flat, C&O towpath which coincides with the AT to Harpers Ferry. This part of the hike was honestly a bit boring as we were walking on a wide fire road for miles. On the right, we had a passenger train pass by us, with people waving to us like they were wishing us bon voyage or gawking at us like we were novelty safari animals. On the left we soon came to scattered views of the Potomac River. The water was high from all the rain, but there wasn’t much activity on the river. Driving through this area to visit family, we often see kayaks or whitewater rafts on the river, but I’m sure the water was too dangerous for those escapades. At long last, we finally reached the edge of Harpers Ferry at 8.8 miles. We climbed up a staircase and crossed over the Potomac River via the Byron Memorial Footbridge, marking the border between Maryland and West Virginia. When we reached the other side of the footbridge, we came to another AT sign and then came into what is known as the historic Old Town part of Harpers Ferry. The trail walks you right by John Brown’s fort, the site where John Brown and several of his followers barricaded themselves inside in 1859 to initiate a rebellion against slavery in his famous raid.
After the fort, the trail is marked by white blazes carved into lightposts through town. Much to our dismay, the AT through Harpers Ferry has you going continually upward over many steep stairs. We passed by St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and went inside to see this quaint but stunning church that was built in 1833. It was the only church to survive destruction in the Civil War. From here the trail then skirts a hillside until you reach Jefferson Rock at 9.3 miles, a rock named because Thomas Jefferson stood here in 1783 and noted “this view is worth a voyage across the Atlantic”. I don’t know if I would personally agree with him today, but it is a spot to see the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers join. From here, we had more climbing to do until we finally reached a spur trail that led us to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (marked on the sign as the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center). The trail goes through the campus of Storer College, a school that was founded originally as a freedmen’s school to educate black people and once had Frederick Douglass as a trustee. The school was shut down due to funding cuts in 1954, but you can learn about its history on plaques throughout the campus.
We stopped by the ATC and Kris got her section hiker picture taken. We then had about a mile more to walk before we reached Teahorse Hostel and our car. It was a long day, but we felt so accomplished. We drove into to Frederick, MD to eat some celebratory barbecue at Black Hog and then met up with Anthony (who provided our shuttle to start our hike) and his wife, Suzanne, at Flying Dog Brewery. We toasted with beers as we recounted our journey to our friends. It was a wonderful several days on the trail that gave us so many memories that we will remember for some time. While our mileage may seem like child’s play to thru-hikers, we felt accomplished that we had knocked off an entire state in one fell swoop. Some AT thru-hikers go through Maryland as part of a four-state challenge, where they start in Virginia, go through West Virginia and Maryland, and end in one day in Maryland for a total of about 45 miles in one day. I’m glad we did it they way we did. We took a leisurely trip with a decent amount of miles each day, but the goal was to have fun and spend some time together sharing the journey.
Distance – 42 miles
Elevation Change – 6057 ft.
Difficulty – 3. None of Maryland is really tough. The first 15 miles are rocky, rolling terrain.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail gets a lot of attention from PATC. The heavy rains made the trail very wet and muddy the last two days, but there’s nothing you can really do with that much rain.
Views – 4. There are nice views in many places along the trail. Most look into farmland and suburbia, so they’re not as impressive as other mountain views.
Streams/Waterfalls – 2. There are a couple small creeks to cross along the way. We found adequate water sources, but during dryer weather, we’ve heard water can be a challenge on this section.
Wildlife – 2. We saw and heard lots of bird, squirrels, and chipmunks. We also saw one deer.
Ease to Navigate – 4. Other than one tricky part between PenMar and High Rock, the trail was well blazed and easy to follow. The spur to Weverton Cliffs is unmarked, but so well-established that you can’t miss it.
Solitude – 3. There were a lot of people on the trail despite us avoiding the weekend. There were probably more section/day hikers than thru-hikers at camp each night and we traveled at the same pace as three other section groups.
Directions to trailhead: We left a car at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and had a friend shuttle us to PenMar Park. Parking coordinates to Harpers Ferry are 39.315802, -77.756453. Parking coordinates for PenMar are 39.717725, -77.508274.
This 20.5 mile Appalachian Trail segment crosses the most photographed spot on the entire trail – McAfee Knob. Even though the view from McAfee is fantastic, there are great views all along the section. In fact, we think the view from Tinker Cliffs rivals the majesty of McAfee.
Last fall, I told Adam I wanted to backpack McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs for my birthday. We planned our mileage, picked our meals, and hired a shuttle driver. When the Friday of our hike arrived, it was forecast to be blazing hot. The area was also experiencing a prolonged drought. The water sources along this stretch are typically reliable and we thought being on a high mountain ridge would cool things off a bit, so we loaded up and headed out.
On the way to our start point at Catawba, our shuttle driver (Homer Witcher – we’ve used him before and he’s a fantastic part of the Appalachian Trail community) told us that just a few days earlier, a woman and her daughter were crushed under a falling tree at one of the campsites along the route. He had assisted EMTs with the rescue operation. Fortunately, the daughter escaped with minor injuries and the mother recovered after a hospital stay. Scary!
Homer dropped us off at Catawba parking around 9:30 a.m. Despite it being early(ish) on a Friday, there were already numerous cars in the lot. This is an extremely popular area for hiking and the lot frequently fills and overflows by mid-morning, especially on the weekends. There are strict regulations for where you can park, and cars are frequently towed from this area. Take these rules seriously! You can read more about parking issues in the Roanoke Times article.
The northbound Appalachian Trail starts on the other side of route 311. We crossed and immediately began an ascent over dry, dusty terrain. Just a mile into the hike, we passed Johns Spring Shelter. It’s a typical AT shelter and has space for six people. There are a few tent sites and a privy nearby. The water source near this shelter is usually small, but it was bone dry on the day we hiked.
In another mile, we passed the Catawba Mountain Shelter. It’s a similar set-up to Johns Spring in terms of space. There are also several nice campsites with metal fire pits just north of this shelter. After passing this shelter, there is a steady 1.7 mile climb to the view at McAfee Knob. On the way to the top, you’ll cross a fire road. Stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Near the top, you’ll pass through an impressive jumble of truck to cabin sized boulders. The overlook is a couple hundred feet to the left of the trail and is marked by a small sign.
Views from the overlook are majestic and expansive. The long ridge on the the right carries the Appalachian Trail over to Tinker Cliffs. On a clear day, you’ll see the cliffs shimmering in the distance. When you’re at McAfee, don’t miss the opportunity to sit on the ledge with your feet dangling into the abyss. It’s a tradition and isn’t as scary as it looks.
After leaving the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply into a maze of giant boulders. There are narrow openings in the maze, making it a fun place to explore. A half mile later, there is an open meadow under powerlines and a nice view of the distant mountains. The descent continues for about 1.2 miles. At the bottom, you’ll reach the Pig Farm Campsite and shortly after that – Campbell Shelter. The shelter is on an elevated platform and there is a privy, picnic table, and bear locker at the site. The water source, located about 150 yards to the left of the shelter, was also dry!
After the shelter, the trail follows rolling terrain for 3.1 miles until you reach a grassy opening at Brickeys Gap. There is a trail to the left, but you’ll stay on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail and begin a steep uphill climb toward Tinker Cliffs. The ascent goes on for 1.8 miles. On this particular day, the climb was especially rough. We were both tired from the heat and running low on water.
Navigating the trail as it heads up Tinker Cliffs is a bit tricky. Look carefully for white blazes and arrows. There will be openings in the rocks that look like trail, but they’re not. Most of these openings are blocked by branches dragged across the ground, but if you’re not paying attention you might head the wrong way. When we finally made it to the top of the cliffs, the views made all the effort worthwhile. We had the entire overlook all to ourselves! I thought the views from Tinker Cliffs were even better than McAfee Knob. I took off my shoes and socks and let myself bake for a few minutes in the late afternoon sun. It was probably still in the low 90s – such a hot day for late September!
It was clear that many people had camped at the top of Tinker Cliffs, camping is strictly prohibited on top Tinker Cliffs. We made our way along the open cliffside for about half a mile before descending back into the trees.
The trail passes beneath the cliffs and then rambles downhill for about a mile until it reaches Scorched Earth Gap and the junction with the Andy Layne Trail. From there, we had an easy .6 mile stroll to our campsite at Lamberts Meadow Shelter. When we arrived, there was one other section hiker already there. We picked a campsite across the ‘stream’ from the shelter. Note, I put stream in quotes because when we visited it was nothing but a series of shallow muddy pools.
We got the tent set up and changed into camp clothes. It took us a full hour to filter four liters of water! First, we had to scoop water into our bucket. It was full of mud, pebbles, mosquito larvae, and algae, so we had to filter that water through a bandanna into our Sawyer bags. The we squeezed the water through the Sawyer into our Camelbaks. It was the color of weak tea, so I chose to treat it with Aquamira on top of the filtering. It was nasty!
We set aside a couple cups of the water to make dinner, leaving us each with just under two liters of water for the next day. It took so long to deal with water, that it was almost dark when we headed up to the shelter to cook. By then, a couple other section hikers had arrived at the shelter. They were former military and had done a lot of the trail. We chatted about gear and favorite spots along the AT. They told us a tale about finding a body near Tinker Cliffs on a hike fifteen years earlier. They had become lost on the trail headed up the cliffs and found a body from the 1940s or 50s in the woods under the cliffs. It was a crazy story!
After dinner, we headed back down to the tent. It was still too hot to make a fire and we were both pretty tired, so we turned in early. It was a stuffy, fitful night in the tent. It’s hard to get comfortable when you’re sweaty and stuck to your sleeping pad. Still… it had been a beautiful day with lots of amazing scenery.
Day Two (9.5 miles)…
We woke up at daybreak and knew it was going to be a hot day. The temperature was already in the mid-70s. We didn’t have much water to drink or cook with, so we opted to eat some Little Debbie Peanut Butter Pies for breakfast. They are good calorie bombs for some fast energy and didn’t require any water. This was definitely the scariest water source we have had to use, so conserving water until we found something else was our plan. We packed up camp quickly and then made our way back on the Appalachian Trail, heading north to make our way back to our car.
In .3 miles, we came across the Lamberts Meadow Campsite, which also had no water in the stream next to the campsite. We saw the fallen tree that had smashed through the picnic table. Homer had told us that if that picnic table hadn’t been there, it would have likely fallen directly on the tent. He was planning in another week to build and bring another table down there to replace the one that had been smashed. Since there isn’t great access to this area except for a long hike, I can’t imagine hauling a big table through the woods like this, especially at Homer’s age (in his 70’s). Homer is the true definition of a trail angel and has helped so many AT thru-hikers and others along the way.
From the campsite, we continued on the AT. At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a blue-blazed trail that led to a nice viewpoint to the west. The trail began to slope downwards and at 4.3 miles we reached Angels Gap. The heat continued to increase and we were already extremely thirsty. We drank when we felt we needed to, but we both were already running low on water. The sun was beating down since the area was more open. At 4.7 miles, we first heard the buzzing of a powerline and soon it came into view. At 5.5 miles, we reached Hay Rock. We skipped climbing up the rock, since we were already getting good views of Carvins Cove Reservoir all along the trail. Many people do Hay Rock as a day hike coming from Daleville.
The trail stayed relatively flat, but was rocky and exposed us to the sun for a bit. We crossed over an open field with tiny little seed pods that were blowing in the hot wind. It looked like snow that was coming down, but the temperature told us otherwise. We had just watched Stranger Things on Netflix and it reminded us of something supernatural or alien that was happening in this area. We came to another powerline at 6.7 miles, but this one gave us wonderful views. We didn’t stay long since we wanted to get out of the direct sun. Christine had run out of water, but I had saved a bit for her to have.
Shortly after we left these views from the power lines, the trail finally ducked back into the woods and began a descent. We ran into a Ridge Runner on the trail that was talking to hikers and seeing if they were alright with the heat and lack of water. Ridge Runners are paid to monitor the trail and assist hikers. I would have loved some water, but we knew we could make it just a few more miles. We told him about the lack of water on the trail, so hopefully they came across others that were in bigger need. We crossed powerlines again at 7.5 miles, 8.3 miles, and 8.9 miles. Shortly after this last powerline, we crossed over some railroad tracks and a bridge. It was only a few more tenths of a mile and at 9.5 miles we made it back to our car exhausted and thirsty.
When we got back to our car, our first order of business was to get something to drink. We hopped in our car and jumped into a gas station across the street and downed some Gatorades in record time. We decided we wanted to eat some barbecue and drink some beer to celebrate. Since we had made an early start to our day, it was just a little after noon when we got off the trail. We made our way to Flying Mouse Brewery (this brewery closed at the end of 2018) and our Maps app on our phones said that it would be closed when we arrived. We thought we would give it a shot anyway in the off chance it was open. As we were driving up, I saw signs for Virginia Momentum and saw runners. Virginia Momentum is a company started by a friend of mine that holds races across Virginia that helps support local charities. When we got to Flying Mouse Brewery, they were hosting a brewery-to-brewery race there, so it was open. We felt that someone was looking out for us and went inside to get a flight of beer samples and enjoyed talking to our friends that were participating. While running these long races is impressive, we did earn some props by just having come off the trail carrying some heavy weight. After some tasty beverages, we made our way to Three Li’l Pigs BBQ, which always has amazing food and is perfect for a post-hike stop.
This backpacking trip had some other significance to us as well. While it was Christine’s birthday, McAfee Knob was one of the first posts that started Virginia Trail Guide. We’ve learned a lot along the way about how to tell our story of the trails. If you’re looking for one of Virginia’s most famous hikes to serve as a backpacking route, try this one out. McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail. We enjoyed taking the ceremonial pictures at the top. We even mimicked the A Walk in the Woods movie poster shot of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte to show how the scale was wrong for that poster. While we had hiked McAfee Knob before, this was our first trip to Tinker Cliffs and we both thought this was something not to be missed. This route makes up two-thirds of Virginia’s Triple Crown (with the other third being nearby Dragon’s Tooth) and it is definitely worth the hype. Just go on a cooler day and pray for better water sources.
Distance – 20.5 miles Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
Elevation Change – 3400 ft.
Difficulty – 4. Day one is the tougher day with about 2500 feet of climbing. Day two is significantly easier with just over 900 feet of elevation gain.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was in great shape and beautifully maintained by the RATC (Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club).
Views – 5. The views here are iconic, magnificent, and they just keep coming!
Streams/Waterfalls – 1. There are small springs and streams adequate for a water source for cooking/filtering, but there was nothing really scenic.
Wildlife – 4. A yearling bear hung out between Lamberts Meadow shelter and Lamberts Meadow campsite for much of the evening. We also saw fence lizards and deer in a couple places.
Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow.
Solitude – 1. This is one of the most popular stretches of trail in the area, so expect to see many people – especially if you go in fair weather. Campsites can be crowded and parking is an issue on the Catawba side. Note: Parking regulations were recently changed. Do not park along the road, or you will be towed.
Special regulations for this area:
Maximum group size, day hikes: 25
Maximum group size, backpacking/camping: 10
Dogs must be kept on leash at all times
No camping or campfires outside of seven designated areas (north of Va 624/Newport Rd, the only legal campsites are Johns Spring Shelter, Catawba Shelter and campsites, Pig Farm campsite, Campbell Shelter and Lambert’s Meadow Shelter and campsites)
No camping or campfires on McAfee Knob or Tinker Cliffs
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for the parking area to start this hike are 37.380125, -80.089694. You will park at the McAfee Knob trailhead parking area on Rt. 311 in Catawba. You must park in the lot. Roadside parking is prohibited and cars will be towed.
This 10 mile (round-trip) hike takes you past some of Dolly Sods most beautiful scenery. The dense rhododendron thickets, unblazed trails, and rugged terrain will have you feeling like you’re truly in the wild. Camping along Red Creek is popular and can be crowded with weekend backpackers, but it’s still one of West Virginia’s most spectacular places.
Back in early June, we were at happy hour with our friends Christy and Brian. Over beers, we cooked up a vague plan for a weekend backpacking trip in late July. In the weeks to come, we added our mutual friend, Kris, into the mix and settled on a route. The plan was to take two cars, and do a trans-navigation of Dolly Sods starting at the picnic area and ending at Bear Rocks. It was about a 16 mile route with tons of camping options along Red Creek.
As it turned out, a heat wave settled over the mid-Atlantic that weekend. It was the hottest, most humid weekend of the summer. We still thought we could make the full 16 miles, so we met at Bear Rocks and shuttled in our car to the start point at the Dolly Sods Picnic area. On the ride, we learned that you really can fit five adults, five big backpacks, and one German Shepherd in a Subaru Forester. It was like a clown car!
We parked at a small pullout near the picnic area, and picked up the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail on the opposite side of the road. The trail meandered through dense rhododendron forest. A lot of the rhododendron was Rosebay near the peak of its bloom. So pretty! The air was thick, still, and heavy with humidity. It felt like walking through the jungle. At one point, Kris said, “I feel like we might see monkeys!’
The trails in Dolly Sods are well-traveled but very lightly maintained. There are no blazes. The only wayfinding signs are at trail junctions. There are lots of rocks, blowdowns, and mud pits to navigate. Even though the area is complete wilderness, the high traffic through the area keeps the trails apparent and fairly easy to follow.
We walked the Rohrbaugh Plains trail for about 2.5 miles before reaching the spectacular viewpoint off Rohrbaugh Cliffs. The area is near and dear to my heart because it was one of the first places I ever camped in the backcountry. The cliffs offer great views across the valley to the Lions Head (another popular rocky outcropping in Dolly Sods) and down into the Red Creek basin. Just past the cliffs, there is a patch of open forest with space for many tents. It’s still one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at.
We decided to take a lunch break at the cliffs. At first, the breeze across the open terrain felt nice. Maybe the heat wasn’t so bad? But after a few minutes of sitting in the direct sun, we were all pretty hot. I could feel my shoulders starting to burn. After lunch, we packed up and continued another .6 mile down the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail. At 3.1 miles, we passed the junction with the Wildlife Trail. We stayed to the left, continuing on the Rohrbaugh Plains trail.
We passed a small (mostly dry) waterfall and crossed over some extremely rocky footing. At 3.5 miles the Rohrbaugh Trail meets the Fisher Spring Run Trail. We followed the Fisher Spring Trail to the left, beginning to descend for 1.2 miles. At first the descent is smooth a gradual, but it becomes steeper and follows a couple switchbacks down to a rocky crossing of Fisher Spring Run.
After the crossing , the trail follows the stream on high ground. There are several nice campsites at the bottom of extremely steep spur trails. A few sections of this trail are quite eroded, leaving the trail narrow and precipitous. Take your time and watch your footing, especially if you’re carrying a heavy pack.
At 4.7 miles the Fisher Spring Run Trail ends at the Red Creek Trail. We took a right, following the trail down toward Red Creek. In about three tenths of a mile, we passed the first of many stellar campsites. At the very first one, I thought to myself, “That’s a really sweet campsite. I wouldn’t mind sleeping here!’
Our group decided to take a break and discuss camping plans and how much of the route we wanted to cover on day one of our trip. We all agreed that we were pretty hot, the campsite was ideal, and Red Creek looked really inviting. We figured on day two, we could either hike 11 miles or hike out the way we came in and make our trip a short 10-mile out-and-back.
Adam and I explored several more campsites along the stream before agreeing that the very first site was the prettiest and most private. There was easily space for four tents. The ground was flat and clear. We had easy access to water. We even had a large fire pit with a stone couch someone had constructed. We all unpacked and set up camp. Maia, our friends’ German Shepherd, supervised the operations. She was on her first backpacking trip ever, and she took to it like a pro!
It was only around 2:30, so most of us spent the entire afternoon swimming and playing in Red Creek. The water was so cold and refreshing. The small rapids and waterfalls felt like hydrotherapy for our hot, tired muscles. Adam opted to restock everyone’s water and read a book at camp, but even he enjoyed splashing in the cold water near camp.
Around 5:00 we decided to get dinner started. Everyone brought their own dinner, but Christy and Brian brought a shared dessert – Rocky Road pudding. Kris contributed a two-bottle capacity bag of wine to the feast. After dinner we played cards and sat around our campfire. Even at 9:00 p.m., it was still 75 degrees. That’s unusually warm for Dolly Sods at night!
Around 10:00 we let the fire die down, and everyone started retreating to their tents. Adam and I opted to leave the rain fly off in hopes that it would keep us cooler. Honestly, it didn’t really cool off until sometime around 3:00 a.m. It was a steamy night and I was very glad to have left my sleeping bag home in favor of a light summer quilt. I enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of the running stream. Any time I woke up during the night, I took a moment to marvel at the brilliance and magnitude of the stars in the sky. It’s such a gift to be able to visit places like this and have good friends to share the experience. I felt so fortunate that night in my tent.
The next morning we awoke at daybreak. We thought Maia would have woken up the group, but she was a perfect camp companion and let us get up when we wanted. We enjoyed some of Christine’s homemade granola with Nido and then made our way back to the car. With a warm night and temperatures climbing quickly in the morning, we decided to get an early start to get back to our cars before the temperatures peaked in the afternoon. It is always uncomfortable when you feel like you never had a chance to cool down, so everyone felt hot within a few minutes back on the trail.
We climbed back up the steep Red Creek Trail and Fisher Spring Run trail very slowly as we were all quickly drenched with sweat. We got back to the junction with the Rohrbaugh Trail in about 1.5 miles and we knew our toughest work was behind us. In another .4 miles, we reached the junction with the Wildlife Trail and took a right to make our way to the Rohrbaugh Cliffs again. We paused for a snack and some more pictures from Rohrbaugh Cliffs, which is probably my favorite spot in Dolly Sods. Looking over the creek and seeing nothing but mountains around you is a scene that begs you to pause and appreciate nature.
With the strong sun beating down, we decided to press on and continue our journey back to the car. We made our way back fairly quickly, passing by a group of about 10 women that were enjoying the weekend as well. We got back to our car just a bit before lunch and carpooled Christy, Brian, and Maia back to their car. We had a great adventure together and we were really glad to share this amazing piece of wilderness. We parted ways with Christy and Brian, and Christine, Kris, and I headed to Lost River Brewing Company in Wardensville, WV for some celebratory beers and food. It was a great trip, but we vowed to return when it isn’t the hottest weekend of the year to do the traverse across Dolly Sods like we originally planned.
If you are looking for a hike or overnight trip that combines majestic views, creeks with a waterfall and swimming possibilities, and great overnight camping, this may be a perfect one to experience.
Distance – 10 miles (Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day One] [Day Two])*
Elevation Change – 1480 feet
Difficulty – 3. The elevation gain/loss is moderate, but the rugged nature of the footing adds difficulty to this route.
Trail Conditions – 2. Trails are unblazed. Be prepared for mud, blowdowns, and lots of rocks.
Views – 5. The view from Rohrbaugh Cliffs is pretty spectacular!
Waterfalls/streams – 5. You will want to spend all day enjoying the beautiful rapids and waterfalls along Red Creek. This is some of the best stream swimming in West Virginia.
Wildlife – 2. We saw a white tail doe with two fawns on the drive in, but generally the woods were quiet and we didn’t feel like there was much wildlife in the camping area.
Ease to Navigate – 2. There are no blazes, but junctions were marked, and the trail was generally easy to follow. Navigation gets trickier near Red Creek where you depend on cairns to mark stream crossings.
Solitude– 3. This is tough to call! We saw almost nobody on the trail when we were hiking, but there were many people camped along Red Creek.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS Coordinates for Parking are 38.962019, -79.355024.From Seneca Rocks, go North on WV 28 for 12 miles. Take a left on Jordan Run Road. Go one mile up Jordan Run Road and take a left on to Forest Road 19. In 6 miles, Forest Road 19 comes to a T on to Forest Road 75. Take a right, heading north on Forest Road 75. Drive for about eight miles until you reach the Dolly Sods Picnic Area. The Rohrbaugh Plains Trailhead will be across the road from the picnic area.
This 11 mile loop has everything – stunning views, scenic streams, a clear mountain pond, and even a small waterfall. You could hike it as a long(ish) day hike, but there is so much great camping along the way that it’s ideal for an easy overnight backpacking trip!
One thing that was true about May in 2016 was we had a TON of rain in Virginia. It was hard to find a time to actually go for a hike in good weather. We had been itching to try and do an overnight trip, but the threat of drenching downpours and storms was standing in the way. We had some very stressful days at work, so getting out and finding some peace away from the hustle of everyday life was just what the doctor ordered. In looking at the weather closely, we decided we may be able to get a short, overnight trip in if we timed it just right. We decided to do something very close by to our home to allow us to get on the trail quickly to get in a few miles before it started to get dark. We had called our friend, Kris, who was going to accompany us, and told her to be ready anytime during the Saturday afternoon. We felt like Doppler radar experts as we were tracking the storm movement and finally around 2:30PM, we felt the rain was going to stop to allow us to hike.
We got to the Massanutten Visitor Center and saw a lot of cars in the parking lot. We were thinking there was no way that others were on the trail at this same time due to all the rain we had in the last few days. A large camper was at the front and I talked to one gentleman out front. As it turns out, it was the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 race that weekend, a 100-mile race along the Massanutten Mountain range that covers 16,200 feet of ascent. We were a little worried about the trail conditions and how many runners we may see along the way, but nothing was stopping us now.
From the parking lot, we took the white-blazed Wildflower trail (do not take the Nature trail at the end of the parking lot). This trail leads downhill and passes some comical information plaques along the way. At .3 miles, when you reach an intersection with the Massanutten South trail, take a right to start on the orange-blazed Massanutten South trail. The trail goes up a steep ascent and we found with the recent rain the footing was slippery and mucky in a few parts. On the ascent, we found that Kris’ new trekking poles weren’t locking properly, so we paused to get some duct tape to try and make a repair (not long after we realized that our fix didn’t hold up and she lost part of her pole somewhere along the trail). The uphill was quite steep and had us breathing heavily with our heavy packs, but this is the toughest part of the entire hike. We passed a hiker who was doing the reverse route and he told us right near the summit there were about 100 pink lady’s slippers along the trail. We decided to count what we had saw; while we didn’t see 100 of these rare wildflowers, we did count close to 60 over the weekend which may be the most we’ve ever seen on a trail. We came to the first overlook around the 1.6 mile mark (the second is just shortly ahead), took our packs off for a few minutes and enjoyed the panoramic views. The clouds after the recent storm blanketed the sky. We stopped at the second view also before continuing on. At 2.5 miles, the trail splits; head to the right to join the Bird Knob trail.
The Bird Knob trail is a ridge walk and is quite flat, which was a nice change from climbing. But, the sky began to get dark and we started hearing thunder in the near distance. Within five minutes, we started to feel rain. We decided to put on our pack covers and rain gear and it was just in the nick of time, as the clouds unleashed a downpour mixed with pea-sized hail. We kept marching through the hailstorm and within about 20 minutes, the storm had passed.
At 3.8 miles, we reached a large open field with a campsite. We decided to press on to get a spot at Emerald Pond, so we skirted the left side of the field to stay on the trail. The trail then turns into an old logging road going downhill. About halfway down the road, we came across a couple of rain-soaked college-aged guys. They were asking if there were any campsites up ahead and they told us all the spots were taken at Emerald Pond. We mentioned the big field with lots of room and they left the way they came to go get the rest of their group and their packs. Since we heard there were no spots, we decided to turn around and get a nice spot in the open field. Christine scouted around and saw there were also sites in the woods next to a small hidden pond, but the bear scat around the site was a deterrent. We decided to camp near the fire pit we saw at the top of the field. One thing that was nice about camping in this grassy field was we knew we would have a comfortable floor bed to pitch our tent. We set up in a short amount of time and we were soon joined by about eight others in the field that night.
The wind had picked up as the storm front had moved through and I felt unprepared in terms of clothing. I switched out of my damp clothes, but I didn’t bring enough warmer clothes for that evening. We made a quick meal and were even able to start a fire at camp despite the wetness of the wood. After dinner, I was getting a little colder each minute, so I decided to call it an early night and get in my down sleeping bag while Kris and Christine talked until nightfall. It was a crazy day on the trail, but one thing I like about hiking is it is always an adventure.
Day Two (7 miles)…
The morning dawned sunny but frigid! Adam had been cold all night, so I let him stay curled up in his sleeping bag while I went to take down the bear hang. No one else who camped in the meadow was stirring, but the three of us quickly cooked breakfast and packed up camp. On our way out of the meadow, we all got a good chuckle over one of the tents set up nearby. It was technically pitched, but in no way like it was supposed to be. We’re guessing someone borrowed a tent and couldn’t figure out how to set it up. I love a backpacker’s ability to improvise!
After walking downhill to the bottom of the meadow, we picked up the old logging road for a few tenths of a mile until we reached an unmarked gravel road on the left. The gravel road led to Emerald Pond – a beautiful, spring-fed mountain pool. The last time we visited, we had the pond all to ourselves and very much enjoyed the peace and solitude. This time, the pond was crawling with other campers. They had big tents, tons of gear, and were dressed in jeans and work boots. We’re guessing that they parked on the nearby forest service road and walked the tenth of a mile to the prime campsite on the pond. I guess it’s worth noting that the early bird gets the worm when it comes to staking a claim on an Emerald Pond campsite! We didn’t want to intrude, so we just took a few photos from the near-side of the pond. The campsite side is prettier, so don’t miss visiting if the spot is open.
We left the pond and continued a tenth of a mile to the forest service road. There was a locked gate where the trail met the road. At that point, we took a right and hiked downhill along the road (orange blazed) for a few tenths of a mile until we reached the junction with the Roaring Run Gap trail. The trail is on the left side of the forest road and is marked by a wooden post with two sets of blazes – light purple and pink. The climb up Big Mountain via the Roaring Run Gap trail (blazed purple) was our last big climb of the trip. For a little less than half a mile, the trail climbs steeply uphill over rocky terrain. At the top, we passed a small/dry campsite. On the descent, which came almost immediately, we glimpsed beautiful views through the trees. There were switchbacks and quite a few muddy spots along this stretch of trail. We cheered on the last few runners on the Massanutten 100 Miler race. Even if you’re finishing at the back of the pack in a race like that, you’re still tougher than we’ll ever be! We also met the sweeper who was jogging the course behind the last racer to pick up reflective hang-tags that helped keep runners on course during the night.
After about a mile of walking along the purple-blazed Roaring Run trail, we reached an unmarked junction with the pink-blazed Browns Hollow trail. The trail is a left turn from the Roaring Run Gap trail. Over four miles of the hike on day two follows this Browns Hollow trail – so look for the pink blazes.
The Browns Hollow trail starts off passing through pretty forest. There are stretches of trail that pass through impressive blueberry bushes. Eventually, you descend to Browns Run. Along the way, you’ll pass a couple nice campsites suitable for one or two small tents. Both sites had fire rings and easy access to water.
There are several beautiful rapids and a small, but lovely, waterfall on this section of trail. We all enjoyed walking through the verdant green forest, while listening to the sounds of bubbling water. It was gorgeous and peaceful. If you look around you’ll notice the stream runs through a pretty deep and dramatic gorge. The far side of the stream goes upward quickly and steeply. There were even a couple places that looked like there had been recent landslides. All the trees and dirt slid straight down the mountainside and ended in a jumble at the bottom. This part of the hike was gentle and easy, so we made great time and enjoyed chatting along the way. We counted more pink lady’s slippers and admired other spring blooms along the trail.
At a little over the five mile mark of day two, you’ll cross Browns Run. I imagine most of the time this is a shallow, easy stream crossing. We hiked the trail after weeks of rain, and still found the crossing very doable. The stream was only 12-18 inches deep and there were enough large rocks to rock hop most of the way. There were a few places I had to submerge the toe of my boot on an underwater rock, but all three of us crossed without any trouble. Right after the crossing, there is a fantastic group campsite. The area is large and clear with space for multiple tents.
We continued to follow the Browns Hollow trail as it became a wide old road. We passed lots of blooming mountain laurel along this part of the hike. Eventually we came upon a picnic area with a shelter. At that point, we took a left onto the marked Wildflower Trail at this point. It passes a series of interpretive signs before eventually leading back to the Massanutten Visitors Center (closed) where we started out the prior morning.
It was still before noon when we wrapped up, so we decided to drive back into Harrisonburg for lunch. We enjoyed burgers at Jack Brown’s and then headed over to Brothers Craft Brewing to enjoy their new Verdure series. They’ve done a tart Berliner-Weisse beer infused with all kinds of seasonal/summer fruits. They had Blackberry Verdure on tap. It was the perfect reward for a fun weekend of hiking.
Distance – 11 miles Check out the stats from Map My Hike [Day 1] [Day 2]*
Elevation Change – 2290 ft.
Difficulty – 2.5. The toughest stretch is the initial push up to the viewpoints.
Trail Conditions – 3. There were a couple of blowdowns, some muddy patches due to the heavy rain, and a stream crossing, but footing was overall very good.
Views – 4. The two viewpoints provide some nice panoramic views.
Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5. Browns Run is a nice stream and a good water source. While not a stream or waterfall, Emerald Pond is extremely picturesque and would make a nice swimming hole.
Wildlife – 3. The start of the Wildflower Trail had us surrounded by birds. With bear scat spotted near our campsite, there is some bear activity here.
Ease to Navigate – 2. There are multiple trails that cross over between Bird Knob and the Massanutten trail. Take a map to make sure you are going the correct way.
Solitude – 2. While you won’t see many on the trail, we found a lot of locals like to drive in close and visit Emerald Pond.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates for this hike are 38°38’35.4″N 78°36’43.0″W. From I-81, take exit 264 for US-211 toward New Market/Timberville/Luray. Head east on US-211/W Old Cross Road and go .3 miles. Turn left onto N. Congress St. and go .3 miles. Turn right onto US-211 East and go 4.5 miles. Park at the old Massanutten Visitor Center parking lot on the right. The trail starts towards the front of the lot on the Wildflower Trail.