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

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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

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

Appalachian Trail – Catawba to Daleville

IMPORTANT: Please read these important regulations and helpful tips before hiking in this area

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

McAfee Knob
Goofing off on the iconic McAfee Knob ledge!

Day One (11 miles)…

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!

Rocky Climb Early in the Hike
The climb was a little steep and rocky in the beginning.  Below: Parking on Route 311; Johns Spring Shelter; Catawba Mountain Shelter.

McAfee parking Johns Spring Shelter Catawba Mountain Shelter

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.

McAfee Knob
The view from McAfee Knob is gorgeous! Below: Before you reach the knob you pass under powerlines;  Rock formations before McAfee Knob; It’s a tradition to sit on the edge of the overhanging rock.

Crossing the Powerlines Boulders Sitting on McAfee Knob

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!

Rock Formations
After leaving McAfee, you descend through a maze of boulders. There are many interesting rock formations on this section. Below: An eastern fence lizard; Campbell Shelter; The weeds were hip to shoulder high along the trail; A nice shady spot to rest; We got one distant look at the reservoir on the first day; After descending into this grassy area, you begin the tough climb to Tinker Cliffs.

Eastern Fence Lizard Campbell Shelter Tall Goldenrod Along Trail
A Shady Spot to Rest First Reservoir View Tinker Climb

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.

Tinker Cliffs
The view from Tinker Cliffs was as nice as McAfee. Below: On the climb up you get a nice meadow view; The trail is a little tricky so pay attention to signage and look for logs blocking the wrong way; It was still around 90 degrees when we got to the top of Tinker (notice the beet red face); Adam walks along the cliffside; Descending beneath Tinker Cliffs; the final mile into camp was easy terrain.

View on the Climb Pay Attention to The Turn So Stinking Hot
Tinker Cliffside Descending Under Tinker Approaching Lambert Meadow

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 Made It to Camp
We made it to camp at Lamberts Meadow Shelter! Below: We set up camp on the opposite side of the stream; The lousy, dank water source.

Camp Dank Water Source

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.

Pretty morning light
We set off early. The morning was already hot and humid. Below: This huge tree fell and injured two hikers the weekend before we hiked; A beautiful farmland view on day two; There was not a lot of climbing on day two, but the terrain was rockier.

Blowdown Farm Views Rocky Terrain

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.

Enjoying a View
Christine enjoys a view on day two.  Below: Adam approaches Hay Rock.  There’s a nice view of the reservoir from the top, but we skipped climbing it; More rocky terrain; Carvins Cove reservoir.

Hay Rock More Rocks Carvin Cove Reservoir

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.

Carvin Cove Reservoir
A beautiful view of the Carvins Cove Reservoir.  Below: A lot of day two was unshaded; We passed through a meadow with seed pods flying everywhere in the breeze – it was like being in a snowglobe; The descent was welcome as the day got hotter; We crossed railroad tracks; A pretty section of pines; We met this blacksnake.

More Powerlines Pollen Storm Descending
Tracks  Pines Black Snake

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.

Beers
You have to finish with a cold beverage!

Trail Notes

  • 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
  • No alcohol
  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

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.

Devils Bathtub

This 3.6 mile hike takes you over more than 15 water-crossings to see a series of small waterfalls and swimming holes.  The main scenic draw of this hike is the visit to the Devils Bathtub – a beautiful sandstone formation in the streambed.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Follow the Devils Bathtub page on Facebook (current conditions, updates, and tips)

The Devils Bathtub
The Devils Bathtub is a perfectly clear, oval pit in the sandstone. It really does look like a bathtub! When we visited the water levels were very low.  Normally the striated area above the tub forms an even larger pool. Below: Stairs at the beginning of the hike; First water crossing; Early part of the trail.

Devils Bathtub Hike One of 11 or 12 Crossings The Devils Bathtub Hike Requires Very Little Climbing

Christine Says…

The Devils Bathtub popped up on our radar after getting quite a bit of attention on the internet. Sometime after 2014, it started showing up on Pinterest, on Reddit, on lists of most beautiful places in each state – even the Weather Channel called it Virginia’s hidden gem. As dedicated hikers, we wondered how such an amazing place could have escaped our notice for so long.

As it turned out, this hike has been hiding in our plain sight for years.  The route to the Devil’s Bathtub is fully outlined in Bill and Mary Burnham’s ‘Hiking Virginia’ guidebook as part of the larger Devil’s Fork loop.  Burnham’s description of the scenery was far less dramatic than accounts we read on the internet.  And, we’re rarely in the far southwest corner of Virginia, so we stayed in the dark like most outdoorsy Virginians.

However, on our summer trip to the Abingdon area, we finally had a chance to find out first-hand if the Devil’s Bathtub lived up to its internet hype.

First off, the Devil’s Bathtub is in the middle of nowhere in Scott County, Virginia.  There isn’t a nearby gas station to ask for directions or use the restroom.  You probably won’t have any cell service, so make sure you have good directions and all your trail information ahead of time.  Second, the last bit of road to get to the trailhead parking is quite rugged with mud and deep potholes in the road bed.  Our Subaru did fine, but it was a bumpy ride!  Third, parking for this hike is extremely limited with room for just a few cars.  We visited early in the morning on a quiet, overcast weekday, so there was just one other car when we arrived. We’ve heard parking can be a nightmare for this hike, so time your visit strategically.

Red Newt Eft
We saw dozens and dozens of these efts. Below: Scenery along the stream

Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike

Once we got past the logistical challenges – location, road access, and parking, we were all set to see this spectacular beauty spot!  The hike started at the top of a staircase at the top of the parking area.  At the top of the stairs, follow the trail to the left, passing almost immediately under/around a locked metal gate.  In just a quarter mile, you’ll have your first of many stream crossings.  The first crossing was the widest and deepest we experienced on the hike – and we visited during drought conditions.  During periods of heavier rain or snow melt, this stream crossing could be quite a bit deeper and wider.

Shortly after the first stream crossing, you’ll reach marked split in the trail.  You’ll want to bear to the left, following the arrow in the direction of the Devils Bathtub.  The sign says it’s 1.8 miles to the Bathtub, but our GPS calculated the hike at almost a full half mile shorter by the end of the round trip.  This route is also the most direct way to the scenery and is an out-and-back hike.  There is a full 7-mile loop of this area, but all recent accounts say that most of the trail is poorly blazed, covered with blowdowns, and beset by aggressive wasps.

After the junction, we continued along following the yellow blazes.  Even though the trail doesn’t climb much in elevation, it still provides challenges with its sporadic blazing and 15+ water crossings.  It was really easy to lose the yellow blazes, as the trail is eroded and appears to have been relocated several times.  We made our way by carefully looking for yellow blazes any time the trail wasn’t abundantly clear.  We were lucky to visit in a time of low water, so all of the water crossings were easily passable.  I imagine the way could be really tricky when there is more rain.

We passed a neat cliff-side that looked like it was built out of block.  It was set off the trail, about 20 feet into the woods. Shortly after the cliff, the trail dipped down along an eroded bank next to the stream.  There was a rope fixed to the uphill side of the trail to make passage a little easier.   At the end of the rope, we reached the beautiful sandstone streambed that makes this area so popular.

Rock Formations on the Devils Bathtub Hike
Rock Formations on the Devils Bathtub Hike. Below: More stream scenery; A rope assist along the eroded trail; Steep eroded bank

Low Water Levels at Devils Bathtub Narrow Trail One Steep Climb on Devil's Bathtub

The trail crossed the stream one final time at the base of a large pool with a small waterfall.  I imagine a lot of people reach this point and think it’s the Bathtub.  It’s a pretty spot with deep, clear green water.  But, to get to the Bathtub you should continue along the trail up a short but very steep scramble up the bankside.

At the top of the bank, a newer wooden sign indicates that you’ve reached the Devil’s Bathtub.  If you follow the footpath down to the stream’s edge, you’ll find the formation at the base of another small waterfall.  It’s a gorgeous spot, though smaller than I expected it to be.  The water was low on our trip, so I’d say the tub was only about half full!

We explored and photographed the area for a while… dismayed by the enormous amount of garbage left behind by other hikers. We saw dirty diapers, Styrofoam cups, beer cans/bottles, tampon applicators, sodden socks, discarded t-shirts, empty pudding cups, a spent asthma inhaler, and countless cigarette butts.  I simply can’t understand how a person can visit such a naturally lovely place, and feel alright about leaving their trash behind.  Adam and I ended up carrying out three bags of garbage, and it didn’t even make a dent in what was still left behind.

After a while, a couple more groups of hikers joined us at the Bathtub, so we decided to pack up and make our way back to the car.  To exit, we simply retraced our steps.  On the way out, I kept thinking about all the litter we saw on our hike.  If you choose to do this hike (and we hope you will) please bring a trash bag and help clean up along the way!  This is a gorgeous area – but it’s overused and fragile.

Adam Says…

A friend of mine had asked me about a year ago if we had hiked Devil’s Bathtub yet.  After checking out pictures online, I knew this is one we had to put on our radar.  Living several hours away and the fact this is a short hike made our decision to incorporate this hike into a four-day trip to check out a bunch of hikes in southwest Virginia.

This hike does have some challenges involved – navigating to parking without reliable GPS signal, the bumpy drive on the fire road to get to parking, the often poor blazing on the trail, and the numerous stream crossings.  But with a little determination, we found our way to this gorgeous spot.

The Devils Bathtub
Adam enjoys the Devils Bathtub. Below: Signage; Terrain around the Bathtub; The Bathtub

Trail Sign Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike

From the parking lot, we heading up the short flight of stairs where we met the trail.  There are no signs to say which way to go, but we took a left at the top of the stairs and found we were correct.  The yellow-blazed trail leads to a gate and passing through, the trail leads down to your first of about 15 stream crossings at .15 miles.  When we went, the water was at a low level, so if you are hiking when there has been a lot of rain, expect your feet to get wet and plan to do a lot of rock hopping.  At about .2 miles, you reach a junction with the straight fork ridge spur trail.  Bear left to stay straight on the trail.

Devils Bathtub Hike
The Devils Pool. Below: Small cascades; Pools along the stream.

Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike Devils Bathtub Hike

At .7 miles, we reached the first of the hard to navigate sections.  We approached this larger creek section and saw some blazes straight ahead, but also to the right of us.  We went straight ahead and up a steep bank that went down a steep, slick hill back to the creek, only to realize this section had been re-routed.  We went back to the original spot to cross, bore right to the larger fire road and found the blaze to continue on the trail.

At .9 miles, at the fifth stream crossing, we had a hard time finding where the blazes continued.  We reached the large stream bed and rock-hopped and walked ahead on the creek about 75 yards before finding the yellow blaze going up a steep bank to the other side.  Our instincts led us the right way, but the lack of blazes made this an unnecessary challenge.  We got back on the trail and just a little over a tenth of a mile, we were standing above a swimming hole, looking down to the left.  From the trash and abandoned clothing left behind, we could tell many people have taken a dip in this spot before.  Continue on the trail and continue to cross the stream several more times.

Devils Bathtub Hike
A beautiful green, waterfall-fed swimming hole. Below: A sampling of litter; Butterflies

The Saddest Part of the Devils Bathtub Hike Butterflies

At about 1.5 miles, the trail reaches a large rock formation and you scale the side of it on a narrow path, but with some assistance to an anchored rope that guides you along.  You then climb down to a stream crossing and swimming hole before making your way up a very steep bank to continue on the trail.  From here, the hike is relatively flat and at 1.7 miles, you reach the sign for Devil’s Bathtub.  There is a small lookout over the bathtub from here, but if you want to see it up close, the best thing to do is continue past the sign and stay on the trail.  When you reach the stream again, cross it and then navigate along the side (the rocks were very slippery here) until you make your way down to the bathtub at 1.8 miles.  The water again was low, so we were expecting a deeper basin of water from what we have seen in some pictures.  The rock around the bathtub was covered in algae and very slick, so be careful!!

It took us a while to just remove enough trash around the site to get some decent pictures.  As Christine mentioned, please bring a trashbag and help pick up around the area.  The devastation of litter here made me quite sad that people would treat such a picturesque spot with such disrespect.  We made our way back the way we came and saw a few people on our way back.

The green water plunging over and into the Devil’s Bathtub makes for one of those truly magical places in Virginia.  If you are ever down in the southwestern part of Virginia, put this on your must-hike list.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3.6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 580 ft
  • Difficulty –  3.  The climb is easy and very small/gradual.  The challenge factor is increased by the number of water crossings you must negotiate.
  • Trail Conditions – 2.5  The trail is eroded in numerous places and there is a real issue with litter. 
  • Views –  0. None on this hike.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 5.  The stream scenery is gorgeous!
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw lots of newts.
  • Ease to Navigate – 2.5  The trail is poorly blazed and hard to follow in several spots.
  • Solitude – 2.  We visited on a quiet weekday, and still saw multiple groups of people.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  Parking coordinates: 36.819106, -82.628852.  This location is very isolated and not really close to anything.  It’s best to use the GPS coordinates and navigate fro=m your home direction.

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

Great Channels

The Great Channels Natural Area Preserve is one of Virginia’s most geologically fascinating areas.  This 6.6 mile out-and-back takes you down into a network of maze-like crevices formed in soft sandstone.  You won’t find any other hike in Virginia like this one!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam Explores Virginia's Great Channels
Adam explores Virginia’s Great Channels.

Adam Says…

Who would have thought there were slot canyons in Virginia?  I have read about the slot canyons in the southwest of the US and thought it would be so cool to actually go hiking through these formations.  It wasn’t until recently that we had heard about the Great Channels in the southwest of Virginia and we just had to take a trip and explore them.  We decided to take a four-day trip down to Abingdon, Virginia and rented a house that served as a great launchpoint for some of those interesting hikes we have heard about in the area.

We left our car in the parking lot and then followed the Brumley Mountain Road up the fire road (blocked from cars by a gate) that went up the hill to the right of the parking lot.  The initial part of the hike follows this wide fire road, making it nice to walk side-by-side with your hiking partner.  The trail is mostly a gradual uphill climb to the top, with the first 1.5 miles being very little climbing at all.  At about .6 miles, you reach a set of power lines that are cut in that may give you an obstructed view to the left of the trail of the valley below.  At .75 miles, you reach a junction where the fire road takes a sharp turn to the right and goes uphill.  Stay straight instead of veering to the right to stay on the trail.  The trail continues along and at 1.0 miles, a cabin and picnic area appears to the right of the trail.  This is private property, so stay on the trail.  Continuing along the trail, at 1.5 miles, you reach Shallow Gap, which provides some obstructed ridgeline views to the right of the trail.

Easy Footing at Great Channels
The trail to Great Channels climbs a bit, but the footing is all easy.  Below: The trail follows an old road bed most of the way; A pretty cabin along the trail; Blooming rosebay rhododendron.

Easy Footing at Great Channels Cute Cabin Along the Trail Blooming Rhododendron

The trail becomes slightly steeper from this point and at 2.25 miles, you reach an outcrop of sandstone, which is what you will later see that forms the Great Channels themselves.  You hit a few switchbacks shortly after that take away the steepness of the terrain.   At 2.8 miles, you reach the junction where the Great Channels trail breaks off to the left of the Brumley Mountain Road.  Take this trail to reach the summit of Middle Knob, which you should reach around 3.0 miles.

At the summit, you will find a shelter with rotted boards and exposed nails (it looks like quite the danger, so don’t explore).  Behind the shelter you will see some exposed boulders that allow for some obstructed views around you.  Straight ahead also is the incredibly tall fire tower that was once used to spot fires from a long distance.  The rocks that you walk across near the fire tower will show you exposed cracks that travel deep below.  Shortly past and to the right of the fire tower, you will see a blaze that enters into the woods.  Take this trail as it leads down a steep, hillside.  We found another rock on the way down that we could hoist ourselves up which gave us some nice views.  While the views are nice, you do need to be extremely careful here, since there are gaps in the rocks below where you are looking from the top of the Great Channels down below.  One slip could spell catastrophe here.

Rhododendron Tunnels on the Great Channels Trail
Rhododendron tunnel on the Great Channels Trail. Below: Hiking along the Brumley Mountain Trail; The junction of the Brumley Trail and the Channels Trail.

More Scenes from Great Channels More Scenes from Great Channels More Scenes from Great Channels

The trail descended the hillside until it led to the entrance of the Great Channels.  I will say this is one of the most unique things I have ever seen.  You walk down a path in between these sandstone formations that creates a maze of trails and rocks.  You will feel like a kid again with your desire to explore this maze.  Most of the paths between the rocks are passable (I did squeeze my body through one tight area just to see what was on the other side), but get your bearings early so you can remember the proper way back.  We found you can get a little turned around as you explore these channels, which could create some panic from anyone claustrophobic.  It was much darker in the Channels, but occasionally you would find a spot where the sun shined down to the bottom.  The formations were so unique that you will want to take some time to explore down all the channels.  The only real exit to the Channels is going back the way you came.

After we were done exploring, we climbed back to the top and ate a snack underneath the fire tower before finishing up our trip.  We came across a few other families at the top, but we enjoyed having the Great Channels to ourselves.  We made our way back the way we came, giving us about a 6.6 mile hike total.  We were so glad we were given this hike recommendation.  This is a true geological treasure that is surprisingly not as well known beyond the local community.

Arriving at the Entrance to Great Channels
Look for the fire tower when you’re seeking the entrance to the Great Channels. Below: There is an old, burned out watcher’s hut; The descent into the maze; Moss covered walls.

Burnt Out Shelter at Great Channels Entering Great Channels Entering Great Channels

Christine Says…

The idea to hike the Great Channels came from one of our readers (thanks, Dj!)  We had never heard of the area and were excited to add this hike to our itinerary on a recent visit to Abingdon, Va.  Since Adam has covered all the details and distances, I’d like to use my part of the post to share some of the fascinating history of this area.

The Channels has only been accessible to the public for a little over a decade. It’s really one of Virginia’s newer hikes!  In 2004, The Nature Conservancy purchased the 5,000 acre tract land from a private owner.  Then in 2008, through a partnership with the state, Channels State Forest was established.

In the early years of the new state forest, the route to the Channels formation was traversed only by the rugged Channels Trail.  Marked in green on this map, the hike required an 11-mile round trip effort with about 2,600 feet of climbing.

Inside Virginia's Great Channels
There is nothing else in Virginia like the Great Channels. Below: As seen inside the Channels.

Inside Virginia's Great Channels Inside Virginia's Great ChannelsInside Virginia's Great Channels

In 2012, the non-profit group Mountain Heritage opened the Brumley Mountain Trail.  The trail was built over several years with the assistance of volunteers and labor supplied by inmates from the Appalachian Detention Center.  All in all, the Brumley Mountain Trail covers 14 miles along the spine of Clinch Mountain from Hayters Gap on VA80 to Hidden Valley Lake.  If you park in the new lot at Hayters  Gap and follow the Brumley Trail, you can access the Channels formation via a moderate, well-graded trail – totaling six miles, round trip.  The establishment of this trail made the Channels infinitely more accessible for hikers of all abilities!

The sandstone maze at the heart of Channels State Forest sits hidden at the top of Middle Knob – elevation 4208’.  Formed 400 million years ago, the deep crevices and slots likely formed due to permafrost and ice wedging during the last ice age.  The expanding ice fractured the sandstone and water slowly spread and smoothed the breaks over millions of years.  What we’re left with now is a labyrinth of slots and crevices through the rocks. The pathways range from 20 to nearly 40 feet deep and wind their way through damp, moss-covered walls of stone.  It stays shady and cool in the Channels – even on a hot mid-summer day.

Inside Virginia's Great Channels
The rock walls of the channels had lots of interesting textures. Below: More scenes from the Channels.

A Look Up from the Bottom of Great Channels Jumbles of Boulders in the Great Channels A Look Up from the Bottom of Great Channels

The entrance to the maze is located near one of the tallest and most rickety fire towers I’ve ever seen.  You could not pay me a million dollars to climb that tower! However, when doing research for this post, I stumbled across the blog of another hiker who DID climb the tower in 2013 (despite the bottom two flights of stairs being removed and posted signs saying NOT to climb the tower.)  We implore our readers to stay safe and stay off the tower.  I will add that photos shared by this particular hiker showcased 360 degree views all the way to Mt. Rogers, Roan Mountain, and Grandfather Mountain.  From the tower’s top, you can also down into the maze from above.  His photos were pretty cool – but again – do not attempt to climb the tower.  An article from the June 3, 2012 issue of the Bristol Herald Courier says that funding is being sought to renovate the old tower and turn it into an observation platform.  Clearly, nothing has happened between 2012 and 2016!

I enjoyed exploring the labyrinth of passageways that make up Great Channels.  The scale and size of the formation exceeded what I pictured before visiting. The maze covers about 20 acres.  Some pathways loop around and connect to other paths and some just reach a dead end.  There was plenty to explore, but the area is not so expansive that you feel you’ll get lost and not find your way out.  I will add that after a suitable amount of exploration, I was ready to see the land from back ‘on top’.   After a while, the maze started feeling eerie and close.  I guess I’m more claustrophobic than I thought!

The Precarious Fire Tower
The fire tower is closed to climbing. It is very tall and rickety. Below: You do not want to climb this fire tower: Atop the maze

Elevation at the top of Channels The Great Channels from the Top Leaving the Great Channels

Another couple things I wanted to note about this hike!  The first one is a big plus — there were TONS of sweet, ripe, juicy blueberries around the fire tower when we visited in late July.  It was a treat to enjoy them with our packed lunch.  The negative I wanted to remark on is the amount of litter left in the Channels.  There were so many plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, and beer cans tucked into crevices in the rocks.  It’s always a bummer to visit a beautiful, unique place and find it covered with garbage, and unfortunately that was the case with the Channels.  If you think about it when you visit, bring a trash bag and try to carry some of the trash out with you.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6.6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1200 ft
  • Difficulty –  3.  The hike isn’t as tough to approach the Middle Knob fire tower, but the climb down to the Channels may be a little steep for some.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  The trail mostly follows a large fire road, so footing is easy. 
  • Views –  2.  There were some obstructed views along the way, but nothing overly dramatic. 
  • Waterfalls/streams 0. non-existent. 
  • Wildlife – 3.  This area is not as well populated and black bears have been spotted.  We saw several deer along the trail.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  There are only a few junctions that could lead to any confusion.  Finding the trail down to the Great Channels was a little tough since there was no sign, but with our directions, you should have no trouble.
  • Solitude – 3.  This is a popular spot for locals on nice days, but overall isn’t used heavily. 

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: GPS coordinates:  36.864640, -81.946982.  Take exit 24 on I-81 and get on VA-80 W.  In .2 miles, take a left on VA-80/609/Hillman Highway.  Take a right shortly after the light to stay on VA-80/Lindell Road.  Continue to follow VA-80 for 13.5 miles until you reach the parking lot on the left of the road.  You will find the name for this road changes from Lindell Road to Hayters Gap Road.  It takes a sharp left turn about 10.5 miles in on your 13.5 mile trip and the road winds up very steeply until you reach the crest and the parking lot on the left.

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

 

Dragons Tooth

IMPORTANT: Please read these important regulations and helpful tips before hiking in this area

This five mile loop features a fun rock scramble and a view from atop one of Virginia’s most interesting rock formations.  It’s considered part of the ‘Triple Crown’ of Virginia hiking that also includes McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Atop the Dragons Tooth
Adam climbs on Dragons Tooth. Below: Trail signage; The trail starts off as a wide, gentle path; Most of the climb to the junction with the AT is moderate.

Dragons Tooth Signage Dragons Tooth Trail Dragons Tooth Trail Stream Crossing

Christine Says…

When Adam proposed doing Dragons Tooth, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I eventually want to hike every bit of the Appalachian Trail – especially the most famous and scenic parts. But, I’m a bit fearful on rock scrambles and precipitous drops. From reputation, Dragons Tooth is called by some ‘the toughest mile’ of AT south of Mahoosuc Notch. The section includes slick stone slabs, narrow ledges, and even iron rungs affixed to the rocks to aid with the traverse.  With my come-and-go vertigo, terrain like that typically isn’t my cup of tea. I also heard the trail was extremely crowded and nothing feels worse that freaking out on a rock scramble with a huge crowd of people watching you and waiting to traverse behind you.  In the end, I psyched myself up and we chose a quiet cloudy Wednesday to visit this well-known landmark.

We got an early start and arrived at the parking lot around 9:00 a.m.  It was practically empty, just a couple cars and a forest service truck.  We started up the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth Trail.  About a quarter mile in, we passed the junction with the Boy Scout Trail.  Bearing right, we continued a 1.2 mile moderate ascent of the Dragons Tooth Trail.

When we gained the ridge, we found ourselves at a beautiful, large (dry) campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap.  This is where the Dragons Tooth Trail meets up with the Appalachian Trail.  We turned right and continued south on the Appalachian Trail.   We soon passed a sign warning ‘CAUTION: The next mile of trail is rocky and steep’.

Adam Negotiates the Rock Scramble
The climb to Dragons Tooth has quite a bit of rock scrambling. Below: The campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap (right before the scramble begins); A warning sign about the terrain; Christine scrambles.

Campsite at Lost Spectacles Gap Warning - Rocks Ahead Hmmm...

They were not kidding!  Almost immediately, we found ourselves climbing stone stairs and clambering over roots.  As we climbed, the rocks turned to boulders and the hike turned to a scramble.  White blazes and directional arrows were painted onto the rocks to direct your route through the jumble.  Every now and then, we would get a nice view of the valley through the trees.  We came to one spot that was basically a sheer 20 foot cliff-face to climb.  There were ledges, each several inches wide, that traversed the cliff and could be used as toe holds. (see a detailed shot of this cliff – notice the arrow pointing straight up!)  I definitely panicked and hyperventilated a little bit at this pass, but I made it through with minimal drama.

After the cliff face, there were lots more rocks and a couple sections with iron rungs fastened to the rocks, but nothing as fear-inducing as that cliff.  Finally we made it to the top of Cove Mountain and were just a short easy stroll from the actual Dragons Tooth.

The ‘Tooth’ is an impressive quartzite monolith that juts from a clearing in the woods.  The views from the bottom are nice, but to enjoy Dragons Tooth in all its glory, you need to climb to the top.  Of course, if you don’t feel physically able or have a fear of heights, it’s probably better to skip the crawl to the top.  But, I thought the climb was easier than it looked, and was glad I did it.

Rocks with Rungs
Some of the rocks had iron rungs to help with climbing. Below: Scenery along the scramble.

Stairs in the Rock Views Along the Scramble Another Set of Rungs

To get to the top, look for a footpath that circles behind the Tooth.  There is a large crack in the middle that allows you to make your way up a fin of rock that leads up the backside of the Tooth.  You’ll duck under a boulder that’s wedged in the crack and then pull yourself up to the top.  Once at the top, we enjoyed magnificent views!  The nice thing about hiking it on a weekday was that we had the entire place to ourselves.  We saw very few people the entire day and sat atop Dragons Tooth alone for almost half an hour.

After we sufficiently enjoyed the view, we made our way back down.  At first, the hike back follows the same route.  This meant doing the entire rock scramble again!  Going down, I felt much more confident and didn’t have any problems.   However, not everyone was feeling as secure and happy as me.  Near the top of the scramble, we came across a mother/daughter pair of section hikers.  They had started in Georgia and were aiming to make it to Pennsylvania.  The mother had suffered a bad fall with injuries earlier on the trail, and was paralyzed with fear on the first set of iron rungs.  I’ll let Adam share the story in his write-up, but I will say that he played the role of a true Trail Angel for them that day.

Arriving at Dragons Tooth
The tooth sits like a solitary fang rising from the ground. Below: The path leads behind the Tooth and to a crack in the rock; An opening in the rocks on the climb up Dragons Tooth; A boulder to cli,b under.

Go This Way Scrambling to the Top of Dragons Tooth Ducking Under the Suspended Boulder

We eventually arrived back at Lost Spectacles Gap. Instead of taking the Dragons Tooth Trail back down to the parking lot, we continued north on the Appalachian Trail.  This involved a little more climbing, but gave us access to several more beautiful views. We followed the AT for almost a mile until it met up with the yellow-blazed Boy Scout Trail.  We took a left onto the Boy Scout Trail and followed it for about a quarter mile where it crossed the blue-blazed Dragons Tooth trail.  It was just another quarter mile back to the parking area.  What a great hike!  Even though I’m not a fan of rock scrambles, I thought this hike was fun and very rewarding.

Adam Says…

Well, Christine has pointed out some of the rough parts and why this hike may be scary for some people.  Part of the reason that we both do write-ups for each post is because we have different perspectives.  I would probably put Dragons Tooth in my Top 10 Favorite View Hikes in Virginia That Everyone Should Do.  What else makes that list (in no particular order), you ask?  Mt. Rogers, Old Rag, Three Ridges, The Priest, Sharp Top, McAfee Knob, Mary’s Rock, Strickler Knob, and Big Schloss.  I remember hiking Dragons Tooth when I was in my later high school years and I have been bugging Christine to do it for years.  Christine has some real vertigo issues and nobody likes to see their spouse go through fearful moments, but I knew she could get through this.  We had planned to do a week of AT hiking in June, but our dogs have been getting older and leaving them behind for a week is getting harder and harder to do.  So, I did a stay-cation that week at home and Christine took a day off work to join me for this day hike, we drove down in the morning and were back home in time for dinner.

For our plans for a week on the AT, we had thought about hiking the section that included Virginia’s Triple Crown, which includes Dragons Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and McAfee Knob.  Since we changed our plans, we picked out this loop which provided us with Dragons Tooth, but also gave us some time to try out a few of the side trails that connect close to the summit of Dragons Tooth.

The View From Dragons Tooth
Nice views from the top of Dragons Tooth. Below: More scenes from the top of Dragons Tooth.

Dragons Tooth Dragons Tooth Dragons Tooth

We arrived before 9AM and during the week, so I’m sure this parking lot gets packed on beautiful weekends.  We made a pit stop at the toilets located at the elevated section above the parking lot and then proceeded to the trailhead, located by a kiosk at the back end of the parking lot.  The beginning of this blue-blazed section of trail is very level and flat.  At .25 miles, we crossed a small bridge and came to an intersection with the Boy Scout Trail (your return trip on the loop).  We noticed a few nice spots for camping on this section of trail.  You cross the creek bed a few times, but the next 1.4 mile section is a very gradual, uphill climb.  At 1.65 miles, you reach the Lost Spectacles campsite and the junction with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail .  Take a right (heading south on the AT) to start your climb up to the top.  Christine talked a lot about this terrain.  I agree that it is an extremely tough stretch of trail.  You will find yourself watching where you place every foot and it will be slow-going as you have to scramble up a few rocky sections.  The roughest spot was the one Christine mentioned where you have to zigzag up a cliff-face on rock that is only as wide as your feet.  You have to be very careful through navigating these rocks at times, so if you are not comfortable with this type of terrain this may not be the best choice of hike for you.

Eventually we got to the top of the ridge around 2.25 miles up.  There is a nice viewpoint a few feet to the right of the trail, but you will head left to take the side summit trail to reach Dragons Tooth.  There are a few side trails to the left that lead to other views, but the best view is at Dragons Tooth.  At 2.4 miles, you reach Dragons Tooth.  You will see a cleared-out area and a small view between Dragons Tooth and a lesser tooth.  There aren’t any good signs pointing how to climb up to the top, but if you head to the right side, you will see a small trail that leads to the base on the right side of the tooth.  The fun part for me was trying to figure out how to climb up this.  At 45, I am not the most flexible of human beings and I tried climbing up other ways, feeling like I needed to do the splits to get up one way.  I then ducked under the small rock “pedal” Christine is pictured under below.  Ducking under that, I was then able to stand up and using rock holds, pull myself up to the top.  The views from the summit were phenomenal.  I told Christine I could help her figure out how to navigate and I am proud of her for summoning the courage to do it.  We took some pictures from the top and enjoyed the views for a few minutes before climbing down.  We found it hard to believe we had this Virginia treasure all to ourselves.  We climbed down and ate a snack at the area between the two teeth and enjoyed the views from a less precarious spot.  Another couple arrived at the summit and we made our way back down to allow them the privacy we enjoyed.

Boulder Lodged in Tooth
To climb up and down, you have to duck under this boulder. Below: Scenery at the base of Dragons Tooth; Views near the top; Adam carries an extra pack.

View From the Bottom of Dragons Tooth Views Near the Top An Extra Backpack

As soon as we were descending down from the ridge at the AT junction, we came across a thru-hiking mother and daughter.  They were incredibly cautious on the trail and after talking to them a bit, the mother told us about how she had fallen in Tennessee and this terrain was making her terrified.  They had to take a few weeks off for her to recover.  The mother had talked about quitting the trail, but they decided to press on.  The mother developed the trailname of “Bad Ass” after her ability to keep fighting.  After seeing Bad Ass’ apprehension and tears on the easier parts of the hike down from Dragons Tooth, we began to wonder how she would get through the next .7 miles.  I turned around and did the only thing I could think of and offered to carry her pack down to the Lost Spectacles camp.  I can understand this terrain would be scary with a lot of extra weight.  She eventually agreed this was a good idea, so I hoisted on her backpack (probably about 35 pounds) and then wore my backpack on my chest, making it a little difficult to see over the top where my feet were at all times. I pressed on quickly while Christine stayed with them for a while on the trail.  There were a few times I struggled as well with both packs on, but I was able to keep my feet under me and navigate through some of the tough sections.  I arrived at the Lost Spectacles camping area at 3.3 miles and waited.  Christine came down about 15 minutes later and it was probably another 15-20 minutes before Bad Ass and her daughter met up.  They thanked me profusely, but I was just glad to help out.  We all have to lift each other up when we have down times, so hopefully I was able to give them a bright spot in a tough day.

From the Lost Spectacles site, we continued along the Appalachian Trail heading north.  This section started off steep as well and did have just a couple small scrambles around some more rocky sections.  But there were several nice views along this section of the AT and I’m so glad we did this as a loop instead of an out-and-back hike.  This section of the AT, walks along a ridge and descends slightly, but you will have several opportunities to take in more views.  Eventually the trail descends into the woods.  At around 4.3 miles, we arrived at a junction with the Boy Scout Trail.  We took this yellow-blazed trail and found it very steep as you are basically going straight down without any switchbacks.  The trail didn’t have anything overly scenic on it worth mentioning, but it provided a quick return to the Dragons Tooth trail at 4.7 miles.  We took a right at the junction and were back at our car around 5 miles.

View from the Appalachian Trail
There are several more nice views along the Appalachian Trail portion of the hike. Below: Following the AT north; Climbing some of the rock slabs on the Appalachian Trail; Berries

Trail Junction Appalachian Trail Blueberries

Once we got back to our car, we got on the interstate and headed north.  We had heard about Three Li’l Pigs Barbecue in Daleville, VA as being a favorite spot for thru-hikers so we decided to check it out.  The food there was magnificent and we saw a couple of thru-hikers there enjoying the big quantities of food.  After stuffing my face, I was tempted into also ordering some banana pudding for dessert but I found a way to fit it all in.  As we were leaving, we quickly saw some fast-moving thunderstorms moving in quickly.  Near Three Li’l Pigs in the same shopping center we stopped in Outdoor Trails – an outdoor outfitter store.  This shopping center had the bulk of what every thru-hiker would need for a zero day (a day where they would do zero miles).  A barbecue spot, an outfitter, a grocery store, a coffee shop, and a hotel directly across the street.  If you’re doing a section of the Appalachian Trail, Daleville would be a great place to stop and resupply.

We got stuck in terrible thunderstorms on our drive home. We were thankful that we did the hike earlier and weren’t stuck in the deluge.  While some of the hiking was a bit frightening for Christine, we ultimately had a wonderful day on the hike!  If you are comfortable with rock scrambles and open ledges and haven’t done this hike yet, put it on your must-do list and it may make your top 10 list for Virginia as well.

Appalachian Trail

This section of Appalachian Trail has such varied terrain. Below: More views along the AT; The Boy Scout Trail; Three Li’l Pigs BBQ.

More Views The Boy Scout Trail Three Li'l Pigs BBQ

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 5 miles
    Check out the stats from Map My Hike*
  • Elevation Change – 1215 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.5.  The rock scramble provides a bit of challenge on an otherwise solidly moderate hike. 
  • Trail Conditions – 2.  The scramble is mostly sandstone, so it can be slick with grit/sand.  It’s also very slippery when there’s been recent rain.
  • Views  5.  There are viewpoints all along the hike and you can’t beat the view from the top of the tooth!
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 1.  There is a small stream that could be used as a water source near the trailhead.
  • Wildlife – 1.  The trail is heavily traveled and wildlife seems to steer mostly clear of the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  The trail signs are easy to follow and blazes are abundant.
  • Solitude – 1.  We hiked this early on an overcast weekday morning, so we enjoyed quite a bit of solitude.  However, expect crowds and significant trail traffic at more popular times.

Special regulations for this area:

  • Maximum group size, day hikes: 25
  • Maximum group size, backpacking/camping: 10
  • No alcohol
  • 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.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  GPS coordinates for the parking area are: 37°22’44.5″N 80°09’22.1″W.  From I-81, take exit 141.  Turn left onto VA-419 N.  Follow for .4 mile.  Turn right onto VA-311 N.  Follow for 9.5 miles.  The parking area will be on the left.

Cascade Falls

This four mile hike takes you by one of Virginia’s most beautiful waterfalls.  The trail is engineered and mostly flat, so this hike is suitable for hikers of all levels.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Cascades Falls in Giles County
The Cascades in Giles County.

Adam Says…

Cascade Falls is one of those must-do hikes in Virginia, featuring one of the most picturesque scenes of a waterfall that you’ll get.  We had been meaning to do this hike under more pleasant circumstances, but life doesn’t always work out that way.  We were picking up our pug, Wookie (who many of you may remember has contributed his thoughts to some of our posts) from the Virginia Tech Veterinary Hospital.  He has been suffering from chronic bronchitis – which is like COPD in humans – and had to have surgery to remove two of his lung lobes.  We had a late afternoon pick-up for him, so we decided to go on a hike that morning while we were in the area.

Pretty Stream Scenery
There was tons of stream scenery along the hike. Below: The parking lot was packed; There were several wooden bridges along the hike; The trail was well-developed and engineered.

Busy Parking Bridge on the Cascades Trail On the Way to the Cascades

We arrived around 10:30 in the morning and found ourselves in a line of cars that were waiting for parking spaces.  The tobacco-spitting parking lot attendant said it wasn’t like this a few years ago, but since Virginia Tech added this hike to a bucket-list during orientation for all of their incoming freshman, the place has been packed.  Of course, we were doing this hike on the weekend before classes started at Virginia Tech, so there were students by the carload here.  Only about eight cars back in line, we still had to wait about 45 minutes before we could park. I can only imagine that people that arrived around 11:00 would be waiting an eternity for a parking spot.

The trail starts at the end of the parking lot behind the information center and restrooms.  Soon, you arrive at a bridge.  The trail splits for an upper trail and lower trail.  The attendant had suggested that we approach from the lower trail and then make a loop and return on the upper trail.  We started on the lower trail, which hugs closely to Little Stony Creek the entire trip.  Little Stony Creek has tons of spots to enjoy the views of the creek. You may even see a few paths that crossed the creek that were wiped out during a flood in 1996.  The trail has been re-routed since then on the path you take now.  There are some ups and downs as you go along the creek, but overall you are climbing along the trail.

Adam Along the Stream
Adam enjoys the stream.

At 2.0 miles, you will reach the large Cascade Falls.  The water plunges 69 feet from the top over a large, wide wall making for an impressive scene.  We saw probably over 100 Virginia Tech students at the falls, some were swimming in the always-cold water while others were climbing on the rocks (or the large rock slide to the right of the falls).  It was nearly impossible to get any pictures without someone in it, but the shots do provide the sense of scale of the scene.  We enjoyed watching the falls for a while and then proceeded up the stairs to the left.  One path leads to another vantage point from next to the top of the falls, but this was more obstructed.  We ended up taking the trail from the top of the steps, heading to the left,  which came to a junction in a short distance.  To the right, the trail continues on to Barney’s Wall, but we decided to just descend the upper trail since we were out of time.  The upper trail consists of mostly a large fire road, making for much easier footing than the lower trail; however, you don’t get the views of Little Stony Creek like you did on the lower trail.  The return trip was a nice walk through the woods on the trail until we reached our car back at 4.0 miles.

Approaching the Falls
Adam makes the final approach. You can see the falls and the crowds if you look closely. Below: Some of the big trees from past flood damage still lay across the stream; Passing through dense mountain laurel and rhododendron; Virginia Tech students swimming in the plunge pool.

Storm Damage Rhodies Swimming Hole

We hopped in our car quickly to allow for the next waiting person to be able to take our spot.  The line of cars was quite long by this point.

Christine Says…

Cascade Falls – known better as ‘The Cascades’ – is a beautiful, easy hike to one of the nicest waterfalls I’ve seen!  The parking lot and trail were both insanely crowded, but I think we were probably there on one of the year’s busiest days.  It was a weekend, the weather was cool and sunny for August, and the new school year was about to start at nearby Virginia Tech.

I’ve never hiked anywhere that I’ve had to wait in line for a parking spot, but that was the case here!  Fortunately, we had all day to wait before our dog was discharged from the hospital, so we weren’t in any rush.

Cascades Close Up
People love to stand at the bottom on the falls. Below: Crowds at the falls.

Crowds

We walked the lower trail on our way to the falls.  It was more of an engineered pathway than a classic, dirt hiking trail.  There were paved walkways, stone stairs, and bridges most of the way to the falls.  All along the way, the trail followed a scenic stream.  There were tons of small waterfalls and cascading rapids to enjoy along the route.

A couple tenths of a mile before we reached the main waterfall, the trail passed through a dense mountain laurel and rhododendron thicket. After that, the path opened up onto a lovely grotto like scene.  The falls cascades over a cliff into a large plunge pool.  There were MANY kids swimming and sunbathing around the falls.  I think I still managed to get a couple decent photos.

Vertical View
A vertical view – without people! Below: The upper trail is accessed by a staircase above the falls; The hike back passed a cliff formation; Most of the hike back was on wide fire road.

Hiking Back Hiking Back Hiking Back

On the way back, we took the upper trail.  It was basically a wide, gentle fire road that led back to the parking area.  After the hike, I cleaned up in the parking area restroom.  It was nice!  Instead of a pit toilet, it had flush toilets, running water, and soap!  We stopped for beers and lunch at Bull & Bones Brewhaus, while we waited on the call to pick Wookie up from the vet.

I’d like to do this hike again sometime on a quieter day.  I’d also like to hike it when my mind isn’t preoccupied with worrying about my dog.  It was really a beautiful spot!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.0 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change –  742 feet
  • Difficulty –  1.5  Not much climbing and most people can make this.  This is a great family hike.  
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5  There are spots where things can be quite rocky/muddy.  Due to the traffic, some of the rocks are quite slick.  
  • Views – 1.5  The one path to the top of the waterfall gives a nice view of the scene below, but not the best view of the waterfall.  
  • Waterfalls/streams  5 The waterfall is amazing and one of Virginia’s best.  The views along Little Stony Creek are great also.  
  • Wildlife – 1  Due to the popularity, you will likely only see birds in the trees.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.5  There aren’t any blazes on the trail, but the trail is evident.  We were a little confused trying to find our way to the upper trail since there are no signs marking the way.  
  • Solitude – .5 Due to the popularity, you will likely see a lot of people on this trail and especially at the waterfall.  Time your trip for a weekday, overcast or rainy day, or very early in the morning to beat the crowds.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: Take exit 118A-B-C on I-81. Take US-460W.  After 25.9 miles turn right onto Mill Road.  In .6 miles, take a right onto Cascade Dr (SR-T623) in Pembroke. The parking lot is in 2.9 miles.  Parking is $3 and cash is required (they noted they do not give back change). Coordinates: 37.353523, -80.599566

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

Appalachian Trail – Punchbowl Mountain to the James River

This 11-mile Appalachian Trail stretch had spectacular views of the valley and the James River!

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

View From Bluff Mountain
Adam takes in the view from Bluff Mountain. Below: The pond at Punchbowl Mountain Shelter; The shelter itself has seen better days; The Ottie Cline Memorial – put it place for a child lost in the mountains in the late 1800s.

Pond at Punchbowl Shelter Punchbowl Shelter Ottie Cline Memorial

Christine Says…

When Adam and I first started hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, we focused on the trail through Shenandoah National Park.  The park is close to our home, making it easy for us to bring two cars for a shuttle.  We did short sections – most of our day hikes ranged from 6 to 8 miles.  We did a couple sections as overnights, covering 10-12 miles total over two days.  When we first started, those hikes really challenged me – but they also made me want more!

We’re now traveling further from home to complete sections, so we push to complete bigger miles to make the travel time more worthwhile.  We’ve also found friends and businesses to help us shuttle along the way.

We met Lynchburg friends, Dennis and Tina to do this AT section from Punchbowl Mountain down to the James River.  We’d never met them in person, but we’d chatted online about hiking and the Appalachian Trail for almost a year.  We were really thankful for their good company on this hike!

We met early Saturday morning at the Foot Footbridge across the James River.  ‘Foot Footbridge’ isn’t a typo.  The bridge is named after hiking enthusiast, Bill Foot, who worked tirelessly (while also fighting cancer) to see that the bridge was built.   It’s a beautiful and impressive bridge across the James River, and there is nothing else like it along the Appalachian Trail.

After Adam and I got acquainted with Dennis and Tina in the parking lot, we hopped in our car and made our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway to our start point – the Punchbowl Mountain Overlook.  We left off here last fall after completing a 17 mile section from Hog Camp Gap.

The morning began with our only significant climb of the day- about 1400 feet over two miles to the summit of Bluff Mountain.  About half a mile into our ascent, we detoured to visit the Punch Bowl Shelter. The shelter is a little bit run down and sits next to a murky, muddy, mosquito-haven of a pond.   The shelters to the north and south of Punch Bowl (Brown Mountain Creek and Johns Hollow) are both much nicer places to stay the night.

Dwarf Irises
The wildflower display was in full force when we hiked this section of trail.  We saw dwarf irises, pink lady’s slippers; native pinxter azaleas, wild geraniums, rhododendron, mountain laurel; wild bleeding hearts; scarlet flycatch (in the full album), and spiderwort (in the full album).  It was gorgeous!

Lady's Slipper Pinxter Azalea Wild Geranium
Catawba Rhododendron Mountain Laurel Wild Bleeding Hearts

After our short stop, we continued our climb to the spectacular open top of Bluff Mountain.  We were swarmed by no-see-ums and gnats, but we still enjoyed the (almost) 360 views and watching the morning fog burn off the valley.  The remains of a fire tower foundation still sit on the summit. Immediately upon leaving the summit, we stopped at the Ottie Cline Powell memorial.  The marker tells the sad tale of a little 4-year old boy lost in the mountains in 1891.

From there, we had four miles of gentle downhill or practically flat ridge walking.  It was delightful!  Wildflowers were blooming like crazy! The woods smelled fresh, green, and earthy.  Even though it was a warm, humid day, the cool mountain breezes made for perfect hiking weather.  Along the ridge, we passed junctions with a couple trails – Saltlog Gap and Saddle Gap. I’ve heard these trails are pretty overgrown and don’t know much about them.   From there, we enjoyed several great views along the ridge.  The views far exceeded my expectations for hike, and I really enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the James River.   About 7 miles into the hike, we passed the junction with the Little Rocky Row trail, and reached Fuller Rocks – another lovely view point.

After that view, we descended the mountain along 21 switchbacks.  At first the descent was pretty steep, but eventually it moderated and entered a stand of enormous old trees.  Dennis even took the time to hug a couple of them.

At 9.2 miles, we took the short side trail to visit Johns Hollow Shelter.  The camp is located in a peaceful, open spot in the woods.  The shelter is typical, but the tent area behind the shelter is especially nice.  There was lots of flat, grassy space to pitch

Hiking Along the Appalachian Trail
Walking along the trail lined with yellow flowers. Below: Everything was turning brilliant spring green,  Views from the ridge; Descending toward the James River.

Spring Along the Appalachian Trail Views from the Ridge Descending Along the AT

After leaving Johns Hollow, we hiked about another half mile in the woods before crossing a gravel forest road.  After the road, we quickly reached Rocky Row Run – a beautiful mountain stream that eventually feeds into the James.

The stream was very scenic and we all enjoyed the sound of the flowing water.  There were lots of blooming wildflowers and rhododendron along the creek.  We crossed a couple small wooden bridges along the way, before popping out on the side of Route 501.  From there, we crossed the highway and returned back to the Foot Bridge and parking area at 10.6 miles (11 if you include mileage from shelter visits).

We all decided to walk across the bridge to check out views of the James!  It was a beautiful view – especially looking back to all the distant rocky outcroppings we had stood upon earlier in the day. Standing on the bridge, my mind drifted to the next section south – wondering what it would be like and what challenges and gifts would lie ahead on the trail.

Dennis and Tina – thanks for hiking with us!  Can’t wait to meet up again.

Adam Says…

This section of the Appalachian Trail was one we had contemplated doing for a while.  We have covered now a section of contiguous miles that includes from this point up to Front Royal.  It is easier to say, “We have walked from Front Royal to the James River” than to say “We have walked from Front Royal to a place off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of the James River”.

As Christine mentioned, when traveling further away from home the next concern is wondering if we need to bring two cars or figuring out if we can get someone to help us shuttle.  It can be hard to find some friends that want to go trekking in the woods for over 10 miles.  So, we were very glad to meet Dennis and Tina.  They have done this section a number of times before but were willing to do it again with us.

This section was a surprise to us.  We hadn’t seen enough nice pictures from these  overlooks to know if it would be worthwhile to check.  But, we hiked on a very clear day that made the scenery gorgeous.

View of the James River
A nice view of the James River looking in the direction of Apple Orchard Mountain. Below: Dennis points out landmarks from above; This fallen was perfectly balanced across several other standing trees. It looked like the mast of a ship; Tree hugger!

Dennis Points Out Landmarks Balanced Tree Tree Hugger

After meeting up, we drove to our starting point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We met a few guys in the parking lot that were doing a multi-day backpack as well.  We crossed the parkway and headed up the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, heading southbound.  The beginning of the trail started a steep ascent.  It was already a warm, muggy day, so with the extra work of going uphill I got sweaty very early in the hike.  In .4 miles, we reached the side trail to the Punchbowl Shelter.  The side trail was mostly downhill to the shelter.  When we arrived, there was nobody staying there.  The shelter is in a nice shady spot, but we could tell the insects were swarming near the pond.  We checked out the trail log in the shelter and then made our way back up to the Appalachian Trail.

The trail continues to be mostly a steep climb until you reach the top of Bluff Mountain at 2.0 miles.  There were great views to the west from the trail.  The bugs were relentless (at least to me) from this open area, so while I would have liked to stay up there longer, I wanted to quickly get back into the woods and away from the bugs.  We saw a brilliant indigo bunting flying around the treetops from the overlook.  As soon as you get out of the clearing and back into the woods, you see the memorial for Ottie Cline Powell on the ground to the left.

Rocky Row Run
Lovely Rocky Row Run ran along the last mile of the trail. Below: Johns Hollow shelter has a large, grassy field suitable for pitching multiple tents; An interesting cliff face along the trail.

Johns Hollow Shelter Cliffside Along Trail

The trail then begins a steep, downward descent.  At 3.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Saltlog Gap Trail, but stay on the AT.  The trail mostly levels out as you walk along a ridge for a while.  At 4.6 miles, you reach a junction with the Saddle Gap Trail.  Staying on the AT, the trail begins to climb a more gradual ascent until you reach Big Rocky Row at 6.1 miles.  The views from this area were my favorite, as you got to see the James River below snaking through the landscape of mountains.

From here, the trail descends and you reach Little Rocky Row at 7.3 miles, also giving you nice views along the way as you walk down the ridge line. The rest of the hike is basically all downhill from this point until you reach the James River.  At 9.2 miles, we reached the a short side trail that took a very sharp turn to Johns Hollow Shelter.  We checked out this shelter and came across another two section hikers that were enjoying a week along the AT.  There was a nearby stream for replenishing water and a privy.  After eating a quick snack, we returned to join the AT again.

The trail again was mostly flat or downhill.  We crossed the stream at 9.4 miles and then crossed the gravel VA 812 road to continue on the AT.  As we were walking along, Dennis started talking about black snakes and within minutes we saw one directly on the trail as if he had summoned it.  The forest through this section had many larger trees along the way and then opened up to beautiful rhododendron plants that were aligning the stream on both sides.  It was such a serene setting.  At 10.3 miles, we reached the Lower Rocky Row Run bridge.  We crossed the run and then at 10.6 miles we were back at US 501.  We crossed the road which had the trail lead us right to the parking lot where we started.

We already plan to get back together sometime with Dennis and Tina for a backpack trip sometime in the near future.  It is always great to find like-minded people to experience the outdoors together!

The Mighty James
Our hike concluded on the northern side of the James River. Below: Kayakers on the river; The Appalachian Trail crosses the James on a long footbridge.

Kayakers on the James James River Footbridge

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 11 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 2062 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.5.  11 miles is a little on the long side, but after climbing to the summit of Bluff Mountain early in the hike, the rest of the terrain is easy to moderate.
  • Trail Conditions – 4.  Consistently well-maintained trail.  Some parts of the trail are narrow along a steep hillside, but still easily passable.
  • Views  5.  Super views from Bluff Mountain, nice views along the ridge, and then amazing views of the James River.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 3.5.  The final stretch of this hike follows pretty Rocky Row Run, and of course – you end at the James!
  • Wildlife – 1. We saw a black snake.
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.5.  Just keep following those white blazes south.  The trail is easy to follow and well-marked.
  • Solitude – 3.  We saw a fair number of hikers along the way, including quite a few northbound thru-hikers, but you never feel like the trail is crowded.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  To drop off first car:  From I-81, take exit 188A to merge on to US-60E towards Buena Vista.  Go 3.9 miles and then take a right on to US-501S at the Hardee’s.  Follow 501S for 14.9 miles until you reach the parking lot on the right for the Appalachian Trial crossing.  To get to your start point:  Leaving the parking lot, turn right on to US-501S.  Go .8 miles and continue straight to take VA-130 E.  Go 2.8 miles and then turn left on to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Turn right on to the Blue Ridge Parkway and go 9.8 miles until you reach the small parking lot for Punchbowl Mountain where the Appalachian Trail crosses the parkway.  Cross the road and you will see the Appalachian Trail marker which has the trail leading uphill.

Apple Orchard Falls – Cornelius Creek Loop

This 6-mile hike is jam-packed with spectacular stream scenery and waterfalls – the most impressive being the 200 foot Apple Orchard Falls.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Apple Orchard Falls
Beautiful Apple Orchard Falls plunges about 200 feet down the mountainside. Below: Even the fire roads were scenic on this hike; Abundant wildflowers including Dutchmans Breeches; There were several stream crossings to negotiate.

Fire Road Dutchmens Breeches Crossing

Christine Says…

Apple Orchard Falls has been on our ‘must hike’ list for years now, and I’m so glad we finally got out there and did it!  It’s a bit of a drive from our home-base of the central Shenandoah valley, but it was well worth the trip!  We hiked it on a cool, rainy day in mid-April.  We thought we’d have the trail all to ourselves, but as our car bumped along the forest road nearing the parking area, a runner went by.  Then three more runners… and then a cluster of ten.  Pretty soon we realized that there was some kind of race going on in the vicinity.  It turns out we picked the same day as the Promise Land 50K for our hike.  We ended up sharing the first half of our six-mile route with 300+ trail runners.

They were all friendly folks, but it was a little stressful to constantly be looking over my shoulder, watching to make sure there wasn’t a racer on my heels, needing to pass.  I certainly didn’t want to get in anyone’s way as they cruised toward victory or a personal record!  I still enjoyed the gorgeous stream scenery as we ascended alongside North Creek.  The sound of the water was soothing. The hillsides along the trail were covered with trillium and purple wild geraniums.  The air was filled with a light misty rain and all the trees were unfurling their brilliant spring green leaves.  With all these pleasures along the trail, I tried my best not to let the constant stream of passing racers disrupt the zen-like peace.

Christine checks out the creek early in the hike.
Christine checks out the creek early in the hike. Below: We hike the loop on the same day the Promised Land 50K was running.  It made for a crowded trail; Trillium was blooming everywhere; Pretty little rapids on the creek.

Promised Land 50K Runners Trillium Small Cascade on North Creek

The trail was in great shape and ascended steadily and moderately uphill.  There were several sturdy footbridges across the creek on our hike up.  Around 1.3 miles into the hike, the climb became a little steeper and rockier. Right before reaching the base of the falls, we passed through a jumble of huge boulders.  At first, we could only see the falls through the trees.  They were majestic, but obscured by the foliage.  We continued uphill, making a wide switchback before coming to a curved wooden bridge and a viewing platform at the base of the fall’s largest plunge.

Adam set up my tripod and I spent some time photographing the waterfall from a variety of angles.  I wish the trees around the falls had been a little more ‘leafed out’.  The green would have made an even more attractive frame for the falls, but it was still very nice.  I was challenged by the rain – which was beginning to fall at a steadier pace. Droplets kept landing on my lens, and making blurry bubbles on each of my photos. I used a hat as an umbrella as much as I could. While we were enjoying the waterfall,  the bulk of the racers passed us by.

After leaving the falls, we climbed the 175 stairs above the falls.  About halfway up the stairs, we caught our one open view of the hike – a pretty peek out over a spring green valley.  Shortly after the top of the stairs, we passed another small waterfall.   There was a nice established campsite near the smaller fall.  What a idyllic place to spend a night!  In fact, we saw many great campsites all along this loop.  I think it would make a great beginner backpacking trip or short gear shakedown route.

Bridge
There were several sturdy, well-constructed bridges on the trail toward the falls.  Below: Just before reaching the falls you climb through an opening between huge boulders; The viewing deck for the falls is very nice; Adam checks out the falls.

Boulders  Side View Falls

About a third of a mile past the small waterfall, we reached Apple Orchard Road, which is a grassy fire road that connects to the Cornelius Creek trail.  The racers all continued uphill toward the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We turned right and followed the fire road for about a mile to its intersection with the Cornelius Creek Trail.  Fire roads are typically sort of dull, but this one was actually quite nice – lush green, curvy, and decorated with wildflowers – more trillium, geraniums, violets, and enormous dense patches of Dutchman’s Breeches.

The Cornelius Creek trail was probably my favorite part of the hike.  The racers were off our tail, and I could fully focus on the spring forest and sound of flowing water.  The rain was coming down steadily, so my photo opportunities were a bit limited. Hopefully, I captured enough to adequately convey the feel of Cornelius Creek.  It was lovely with so many small cascades and swimming holes.  The only real challenge on this part of the hike were the two significant stream crossings.  The first (pictured at the top of the post) was wide, but not very deep.  Our toes got a little wet.  But the second was quite deep, wide, and fast-moving.  We packed all of our camera gear and electronics away in dry bags and plunged in.  Even rock-hopping, the water came halfway up to my knees.  The footing was small, shifty, and slick!  Thankfully, we made it across without falling completely into the water!  The last bit of walking was done with sodden shoes and socks – that squishy feeling is always so weird!

When we got back to the car the first thing I did was take off my soaked shoes and socks and put on flip flops!  Then we were off on our way for a well-deserved lunch at Peaks of Otter!

Adam Says…

We got up early to hit the road and beat the crowds on this hike.  With a gloomy day with some rain scheduled around the early afternoon, we wanted to make the best use of our day.  When we first saw the runners on the gravel road, I thought well at least they are going in the opposite way.  We parked our car at the end of the road and there was a race stop set up for people to check in, get some snacks and water and keep running.  Little did we know we would see most of them all again on the trail.

We got out of our car and found out that there were going to be runners on the trail.  We thought we would at least try to get a head start, so we jumped on the trail right away.  We took the blue-blazed Apple Orchard Falls trail left of the kiosk that came to a wooden bridge almost immediately.  We soon came across the first runner of the day on the trail, who we heard ended up coming in 2nd in the race.  Along the trail, there were funny signs to try and inspire the runners along the way (and most were done with Game of Thrones references).  At .2 miles, take a right at the intersection to stay on the trail.

Spring Green
A view into the valley on our way up the stairs. Below: Adam takes in a side view of the falls; Climbing the famous stairs, the smaller waterfall above Apple Orchard Falls.

Side View of Apple Orchard Stairs  Small Falls Above Apple Orchard

The trail continues along North Creek for a steady uphill.  At 1.2 miles, you reach a couple of bridges and a small creekside campsite.  Crossing over the second bridge, the trail becomes steeper uphill.  Eventually, you get some views of the falls to the right as you make the climb up.  But don’t worry, the trail leads right up to the falls.  The climb up to the falls is also very steep.  But, as you reach the falls at 2.0 miles, there is a nice bench and platform, inviting you to take your time to enjoy the views.  We stayed here for a while and saw a ton of runners pass by.  Some of them just took a quick glance, some walked slowly by, but one guy stopped to take a picture.  I guess the runners had different levels of competitiveness and different levels of exhaustion at this stage of the race.

The trail continues on and winds around the hillside before beginning a series of stairs.  Along the climb, there was a nice viewpoint that gave you glimpses of mountains to the west.  We continued uphill along the trail until we reached another waterfall around 2.3 miles.  There was a nice campsite by this waterfall also and we thought it would be a great overnight stop for a backpacking trip. At 2.5 miles, we reached a junction with a fire road.  We took this fire road to the right.  At 3.7 miles, the trail meets a junction with the Cornelius Creek Trail.  We headed straight to start the Cornelius Creek Trail.  This trail descends quite steeply.  As we had seen the runners on this trail when we first arrived at the parking lot, I felt that I too was having to run down the steepness of this trail in the beginning.  Be careful where you step, since the trail is incredibly steep and filled with loose rock, begging for a twisted ankle or fall.  At 4.2 miles, the trail runs along Cornelius Creek.

Walking the Cornelius Creek Trail
Christine walks along in the rain. Below: Most of the hike closely follows water; A lovely little cascade on the Cornelius Creek Trail; Post hike beers at Apocalypse Ale Works.

Cornelius Creek Small Falls on Cornelius Creek Post Hike Beers at Apocalypse

Cornelius Creek was a long exposure photographer’s dream.  There were so many spots where you saw small waterfalls and swimming holes along the way.  Contrasted with the lush green forest, it was truly beautiful to see.  We did have to cross Cornelius Creek a couple of times and with any recent rain, you are likely going to get your feet wet.  Be careful as there are some deep holes along the creek crossings that could have you up to your waist if you don’t step carefully.  We made it across and continued our hike.  The rain was coming down fairly steadily, so we didn’t stop a lot for fear of ruining camera gear, but it was one of the most beautiful creekside hikes you will see in Virginia.  Right before you return to the parking lot, you’ll see a large campsite (with even a rope swing put in).   We got back to the parking lot at the 6 mile marker.

On our way back home, we took a detour and drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to have lunch at Peaks of Otter.  My family used to picnic here yearly, so this spot always holds a near and dear place in my heart.  We had a nice lunch with music from a local singer.  We decided also to stop by Apocalypse Ale Works brewery for one of our favorite post-hike things to do – beer sampling.  The drive back home was rainy most of the day, but we felt like we had accomplished a lot on a dreary day.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 6 miles
    (Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
  • Elevation Change – 1438 ft.
  • Difficulty –  3.  This is a great moderate hike!
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is very pleasant to walk.  Sturdy bridges and a wide viewing platform are available so the walk up to the falls along North Creek is pleasant and safe.  There are a couple crossings on the Cornelius Creek descent that can be tricky when there has been recent rain.
  • Views  2.  There is one nice view when you’re climbing the stairs after visiting Apple Orchard Falls.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 5.  Spectacular – you are within view of the stream for most of the hike.
  • Wildlife – 1.  Too many people to see much wildlife!
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. The signs make this route pretty easy to follow.  There are several places where trails go in multiple directions, but this route is well marked.
  • Solitude – 0.  It’s supposedly the most popular hike in Jefferson National Forest.  It was cool and rainy when we hiked it, so there weren’t many other day hikers.  But there were 300+ racers on the trail with us.

Download a Trail Map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead:  From I-81, take exit 168 for VA-614 toward Arcadia.  Turn on to VA-614 heading east and go 3.3 miles.  Turn left on to North Creek Road.  Go 2.8 miles and turn right on to an unnamed road*.  This road is a gravel road.  Follow it for 2.2 miles until you reach the large parking lot.  The trail starts left of the kiosk.  Right of the kiosk, the trail going uphill is your return route.  *Since this unnamed road can’t be found on GoogleMaps, I would suggest printing the trail map above to have a way to find this road.

The Devil’s Marbleyard

This 8.1 mile hike passes an impressive boulder field then climbs along the Gunter Ridge trail for some nice (but obstructed) views.

Devil's Marbleyard Scramble
Adam scrambles around the Marbleyard. Below: The hike begins on the Belfast Trail; Entrance to the National Forest is marked by a placard. The two stone pillars mark an old Boy Scout camp that used to be located in this area. You can still see the footprint of the swimming pool and a few building foundations along the Belfast Trail. The camp was named after Chief Powhatan; Catawba Rhododendron were in bloom everywhere!

Start of the Belfast Trail National Forest Marker Rhododendron on Gunter Ridge

Christine Says…

We keep a list of hikes we want to do stuck with a magnet to the side of our refrigerator. The Devil’s Marbleyard hike had been on that list for nearly three years. It kept getting delayed for closer hikes or hikes with better views or taller waterfalls.  We finally decided it was time to knock it off the list.

We got up early Sunday morning, grabbed donuts, bagels and coffee en route and made our way down the Blue Ridge Parkway. We got to the trailhead parking area around 10:00 and thankfully found only a couple other cars there.  Evidently, cars that overflow the official parking lot are frequently towed.  So, if you hike this trail, make sure your car is in the lot or that all four wheels are off the road and not on private property.

Belfast Creek
The beginning of the trail takes you over Belfast Creek. Below: The bridge over the creek;  Adam crossing a small stream early in the hike; All the recent rainy weather made conditions ideal for snails.

Belfast Trail Bridge Second Stream Crossing Snail

After crossing a small bridge over a stream, the trail passes through an old stone gateway that used to mark entry to a Boy Scout camp called ‘Camp Powhatan’.  You immediately come to a National Forest/Wilderness placard.  At this point, you’re only a little over a mile from the Devil’s Marbleyard.   (The sign says one mile, but our GPS and most trail guides seem to say it’s about 1.4 miles to reach the Marbleyard).  The trail meanders through the woods, crossing shallow spots on the creek a couple times.

I really enjoyed seeing the blooming azaleas, Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel.  The laurel bloomed so early this year!  What I did not enjoy were the locusts!  The Blue Ridge Brood of the seventeen-year cicada is currently emerging in our area, and they were everywhere along the Belfast Creek trail. They were screaming overhead in the trees — I likened the sound to the one made by a failing belt tensioner on our SUV a few years ago.  It’s a squeal mixed with an undertone of hiss.  Not only are the locusts noisy – they’re CREEPY!  Sometimes they fly into you.  They have red eyes.  And worst of all, they leave yellowish-clear, crunchy, empty husks everywhere when they molt.  I will be very glad when locust season is over and I can have seventeen years of peace again!

Blooming Along the Trail
So much stuff was blooming along the trail.  Below: Christine checks out the large boulders that make up the Devil’s Marbleyard;  Adam climbs back down the Marbleyard to rejoin the trail; A creepy locust husk.

Christine on the Marbleyard  Adam Climbing Down Gross Locust Husk

As we came upon the Marbleyard, we crossed paths with the hikers from the two other cars we had seen in the lot.  The first was a nice guy from Virginia Beach who was at the tail end of a week-long hiking vacation along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We enjoyed chatting with him and sharing information and tips about favorite hikes.  The second was a pair of local kids who warned us of muddy/slippery conditions on the trail ahead.  Adam had a little incident there, but I’ll let him share that tale in his portion of the post.

Before proceeding up the trail, we took some time to explore the Marbleyard.  Basically, it looks like an immense stone mountain exploded and collapsed into thousands of boulders of every shape and size.  If you want to climb to the top of the Marbleyard, you have to do so by scrambling up the rocks. It looks like the trail alongside the Marbleyard reaches the top, but in reality the trail turns slightly away from the boulder field and climbs upward to the Gunter Ridge trail. I imagine most hikers visit the Marbleyard and then head back to their car, making this a short 2.8 out and back.  We considered doing this, but since we had already driven so far, we decided to do the full 8.3 mile loop.

After playing on the rocks for a while, we headed along… climbing uphill for a while until we reached the junction of the Belfast trail and the Gunter Ridge trail. At this spot there is a spacious (but dry) campsite.

Steep Trail Alongside the Marbleyard
Christine climbs the steep trail that runs alongside the Marbleyard. Below: The junction of the Belfast and Gunter Ridge trails;  Adam spotted a black widow spider along the trail; Christine walks past an especially pretty stand of mountain laurel.

Top of the Ridge Black Widow Christine Walking Through the Laurels

The Gunter Ridge trail was easy walking, but was quite overgrown.  Because of the heat and humidity, I had decided to hike in shorts and a t-shirt, so I started to worry about ticks climbing onto my legs from the tall grass.  Adam, on the other hand, hiked in long pants tucked into his socks.  I’m getting ahead of myself, but guess who came home with six ticks crawling on his clothes – and guess who came home with none crawling on her.  I always joke that my husband is a real ‘tick magnet’.

The trail along this section really opens up and provides some nice, but slightly obstructed, views.  A forest fire that swept through this area about a decade ago is still very evident.  There are no tall trees and charred stumps can be seen peeking up through the brushy vegetation in many places.

After walking along the ridge for a while, you come to a seemingly endless series of switchbacks climbing down the mountain. Eventually you reach a wooden horse gate, and cross out of designated wilderness into standard National Forest.  Almost immediately after passing through the gate,  you will encounter a stream.  We stopped here for lunch.  I had been wanting to eat for almost an hour, but this was the first place that really had an opening to sit and eat since the campsite at the junction of the Gunter Ridge and Belfast trails.

Mountain View on Gunter Ridge Trail
A hazy mountain view from the Gunter Ridge Trail.  Below: Damage from a forest fire about ten years ago is still very evident;  A view of mountains and clouds along the trail.

Old Forest Fire Damage on Gunter Ridge Mountains and Clouds on Gunter Ridge

After lunch, we still had a couple miles of walking along the Glenmont Horse trail.  It was easy hiking, but also really boring.  It’s the part of the hike where you know you’ve seen all the cool stuff, but you still have several miles of walking along a featureless road/path.  It reminded me a lot of all the fire road/paved road walking at the end of the Old Rag hike.

All in all, the hike to Devil’s Marbleyard made for a pleasant day. But, if I were to recommend the hike to others, I’d suggest just hiking to the Marbleyard as an out-and-back.  If the rhododendron, laurel and azaleas hadn’t been blooming, I don’t think there was much to see on the rest of the loop.

Adam Says…

It has been about 20 years since I last hiked the Devil’s Marbleyard trail.  Those that know me personally or have read this blog for a while know I grew up in Lynchburg.  Some of the hikes that are most popular with people around there are Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Devil’s Marbleyard.  The first two have great views and are close to Peaks of Otter, a popular picnic area.  The last time I did this hike I was with with a group of friends from home.  I remember the boulder field seemed so impressive.  While there are similar slopes of rock along Furnace Mountain and Hawksbill summit (among others), these boulders are much larger.  My friends and I climbed up the boulders from the bottom of the field.  One of my friends almost stepped on a rattlesnake that was sunning itself on the rocks.  I’m sure a number of rattlesnakes make their home in the cracks between the rocks, so be careful.  The climb up to the top takes longer than you would expect and requires a lot of energy to navigate the scramble.  Since we planned on hiking a long loop, we opted to just climb around a while on the bottom.

Beautiful Mountain Laurel
Beautiful mountain laurel along the ridge hike.  Below: Stopping to enjoy the mountain laurel; Passing out of the designated wilderness area; Lunch by the stream.

Christine and Mountain Laurel Leaving the Wilderness Area Lunch by the Stream

With every interesting geological feature, there seems to be a legend that has been passed down over the years and Devil’s Marbleyard is no different.  In the local tale, this area was occupied by Native Americans and the land was supposedly very green and lush.  There was a large stone altar at the top of this hill that was used for worship on full-moon nights.  A white couple met the Native Americans and they were thought to be spirits since they looked so different than the local tribes.  The couple said they were not spirits but they worshiped a higher power.  They converted the Native Americans to Christianity.  However, the next year brought about a great drought and the Native Americans felt the new God and the missionaries were to be held responsible.  They burned the couple alive on the altar.  As the flames reached high into the sky, a storm formed.  Lightning struck down upon the altar and exploded the rock over the mountainside.

Christine and I talked about this legend on the hike.  I guess there can be a few different morals to the story depending on your perspective.  From the perspective of the white missionaries, it may be best to not spread your religion to others if you want to stay alive.  From the perspective of the Native Americans, it may be to either believe your own gods or keep faith in your new God.  It is an interesting thing to think about on this hike, even if there may not be much truth to the origin of the boulder slope.

The Glenmont Horse Trail
Walking along the Glenmont Horse Trail gets tedious.

To complete the full loop hike, begin in the parking lot and cross the bridge and take the blue-blazed Belfast Trail.  At .2 miles, the trail splits.  Bear right to stay on the blue-blazed trail.  The trail is a rocky, uphill climb that leads to the Devil’s Marbleyard boulder field at 1.4 miles.  Continue up the trail which follows parallel to the right of the boulders up a steep section (which can also be very slippery if there has been recent rain – as I found out with a hard fall onto slick rock).  After you near the summit of the boulder field, the steepness of the trail lessens.  At 2.5 miles, you reach a junction with the Gunter Ridge Trail and a small campsite.  The Gunter Ridge Trail heads off to the left heading down the mountain slightly, but you are mostly following along a ridge line.  Eventually, this trail begins to open up to some obstructed but nice views on the ridge.  The trail then descends quickly through a series of switchbacks.  At 5.8 miles, you will exit the James River Face Wilderness boundary through a gate and cross Little Hellgate Creek.  At the 6.0 mile mark, you will reach the orange-blazed Glenwood Horse Trail, a large fire road.  Follow this to the left and make your way along this trail that does go slightly uphill until reaching the junction with the Belfast Trail at 7.9 miles.  Take a right on the Belfast Trail to reach the parking lot at 8.1 miles.

If you are interested in geocaching, there is one geocache that can be found on the scramble up the boulders at the Devil’s Marbleyard – Devils Marble Yard Cache.

Like Christine, I would probably recommend that if you were coming here to see the best features of the trail, I would just do this as a 2.8 mile out-and-back to the Marbleyard and back.  The views from the top of the Gunter Ridge Trail are more obstructed and doesn’t seem necessary when there are many other nice view hikes nearby on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Trail Notes

  • Distance8.1 miles
  • Elevation Change – 1510 feet
  • Difficulty – 3.  The climb up past the Marbleyard to the Gunter Ridge trail is steep, but once you gain the ridge it’s most level or downhill.  The Glenmont horse trail is wide open and slightly uphill.
  • Trail Conditions – 3The trail is in decent shape in most places.  It was very slick, steep and muddy climbing alongside the Marbleyard.  The Gunter Ridge trail was easy to follow, but very overgrown with tall grasses and brush.
  • Views– 2. There are plenty of obstructed views on the Gunter Ridge Trail, but nothing spectacular.
  • Streams/Waterfalls – 2.5.  The stream running along the Belfast Trail is small but lovely.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We saw a ton of fence lizards but not much else (unless you want to count the seventeen year locusts)
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  There are a few turns and trails here are not as well marked as trails in the national park, but if you pay attention, finding your way should be easy.
  • Solitude – 3  You will likely share the Marbleyard with other hikers, but the rest of the loop does not seem heavily traveled.

Directions to trailhead:  From the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile 71, you will see a small road (FSR 35) that is on the western side of the road at a curve.  Take this road which leads past the Petites Gap AT parking area.  At 4.2 miles, you will see the parking area on the right (just after you start seeing more houses on the road).  Make sure you either park in the lot or make sure you park completely off the road or your vehicle may be towed.

Sharp Top

This 3.4-mile hike leads to gorgeous views from the summit of Sharp Top.  You will be treated with gorgeous views of the area around you.

View of Abbot Lake from Sharp Top Summit
The view from the Sharp Top Summit is gorgeous!  Below:  Adam walks by some of the huge boulders along the Sharp Top trail; The trail is very rocky; A set of stone steps leads you to the summit; Looking back on Sharp Top mountain from Buzzard’s Roost.

Adam Walking by Giant Boulders The trail is rocky Arriving at the summit Looking back on Sharp Top from Buzzards Roost

Adam Says…

Sharp Top has such a special place in my heart.  I grew up in nearby Lynchburg and I couldn’t even tell you the number of times I have hiked this trail.  I went with family, friends, church groups, and scouts.  My family used to regularly have picnic lunches at Peaks of Otter, so this is a place I’ve been visiting all of my life.  On one hike with a friend I had growing up, we spotted some trail runners.  Trail runners are common on Sharp Top most mornings.  My friend had said he wanted to try and be in that good of shape, so we took weekly hikes up during one summer.  We never made it up to the intensity of running the mountain, but it was some good exercise.  Lately, Christine and I have made this hike a nearly annual fall tradition.  I’ve brought my older brother a few times over the last few years.  Each year, he seems proud to know that he can still “climb up that hill.”  He was working the day we hiked it this year, so he didn’t get to make the trip.  I’ll try to get him to haul his cookies up the mountain again next year.

Peaks of Otter Nature Center
The Peaks of Otter Nature Center is the start point for this hike.  Below: The trailhead sign; The Sharp Top bus takes riders close to the summit and is a great option for those not physically able to do the full hike; The trail starts off smooth and gentle – things soon change!

Trailhead Sign The Sharp Top Bus Lower Trail

You start up the trail near the nature center.  There is a plaque there that mentions that Sharp Top was once believed to be the tallest mountain in Virginia and that a stone from this mountain was used to build the Washington Monument.  On the stone in the monument, it is inscribed “From Otter’s Summit, Virginia’s Loftiest Peak, To Crown a Monument to Virginia’s Noblest Son.”  It is hard to believe that this was thought to be the highest summit.  According to official elevations, this Sharp Top doesn’t even make the top 50 list. (another mountain, also named Sharp Top, is #42)

For those that don’t feel the need to hike all the way to the summit, you can take a bus ride that brings you closer to the summit.  More information is available on the Peaks website (http://www.peaksofotter.com/Sharp-Top-Shuttle.aspx)

This is an extremely popular hike for families and larger groups, but it definitely has some steep sections.  However, most people should be able to accomplish this hike since it is only a three-mile round trip (the side trip to Buzzards Roost adds .4 miles).  The trail starts off with a slow but steady climb and then crosses the bus summit road at .25 miles.  Continue to climb up the trail which includes some sections of stairs.  At 1.2 miles, you reach a junction.  Continue left on the trail to the summit.  The remaining .3 miles to the summit starts off relatively flat, but there are more sections of rock stairs along the way.  You will see a day-use only cabin at the summit and stairs to different platforms to soak in the views.  You will see the Peaks of Otter Lodge and Abbott Lake to the North.  To the South, you will see Turtle Rock (which some of the adventurous will find a way to climb up it) near the roof of the cabin.  Go back the way you came.  When you reach the junction .3 miles from the summit, I would highly recommend adding .2 miles (.4 miles round trip) to check out Buzzard’s Roost.  The trail is relatively flat with minimal elevation difference.  You will get more great views from here and can actually get some nice views of the summit of Sharp Top.  Buzzards Roost does require some rock scrambling and carefully navigating around large rocks, so it isn’t for the faint of heart.  Once you leave the Roost, go back to the junction and take a left down the trail to make your way back to the car.

There are lots of places to perch on Sharp Top
There are lots of places to perch on Sharp Top.  Below: Adam makes his way up the trail; The trail has many stairs built into the rock; Adam on Turtle Rock.

Adam making his way up the trail The trail has quite a few stairs Adam on Turtle Rock

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of great places nearby for a picnic or you can dine at the Peaks of Otter Lodge.  There is also a gift shop that sells sweatshirts inside that say “I Survived Sharp Top”.  While I personally don’t think it is that difficult, I can understand some people feeling that way.  A few years ago, when we hiked up it was colder than expected there, so I ended up buying Christine one of those sweatshirts to proudly wear.

Christine Says…

I’m so glad Adam introduced me to this hike.  It’s a tough little climb, but the summit is spectacular.  It’s covered with boulders the size of houses and has a view that rivals any Virginia hike.  The one downside to Sharp Top is the crowd of people you’ll be almost guaranteed to see.  It is indeed a popular place!

View of Sharp Top from Abbot Lake
A view of the mountain from the lodge at the bottom. Below: A sign lets you know you’ve arrived at the summit; At this point you can turn and go to Buzzard’s Roost or continue to the Sharp Top Summit; Another beautiful summit view.

Arriving at the Summit Trail Junction Another Summit View

I always thought Peaks of Otter was an odd name for a place, so I did a little research and found some information about the origin of the name on the nearby lodge’s website:

There are three opinions on how the Peaks of Otter got their name. The name may come from the Cherokee Indian word, “ottari,” which means “high places.” The Peaks may have been named after the Otter River, which has its headwaters in the area. Finally, Scottish settlers may have named the Peaks after Ben Otter, a mountain in their homeland that resembles Sharp Top.

We got a really early start on our morning, and were headed up the trail by 9:30 or so.  It was cool and brilliantly sunny.  Even though it was the second weekend of October, the leaves were still mostly green.  That was a little disappointing – I had hoped to hike Sharp Top at the peak of fall color.  We’ve done that in past years, and the foliage makes the view even nicer!  As we hiked up the trail, we passed several downhill hikers on their way back from watching sunrise atop the summit.  Other than that, we had the trail mostly to ourselves.

The uphill grade starts of gently, on a mostly smooth and wide trail.  For some reason, this is always the only part of the Sharp Top trail I remember.  I don’t know why, but I always seem to block the steep and rocky parts out of my mind.  After you cross the bus road, the path gets a lot tougher.  It’s fairly relentless uphill for a while.  Periodically, there are reprieves where the grade moderates and you get a chance to catch your breath.  But after each little flat spot, you’re guaranteed to have more climbing.  As the summit draws near, you’ll find yourself hiking between and around gigantic boulders.  The rock formations on this mountain are impressive!  Near the end of the trail, there are quite a few stone stairs to climb.  Almost immediately upon reaching the summit, you’ll pass the cabin.  The inside is an empty room – concrete floor, fireplace and small windows that look out to the view beyond.  It apparently used to be a concession stand.  I’m glad someone thought better of the idea and closed the place down – do we really need hot dogs and ice cream for sale on mountain summits?

Adam looking out the building window
The empty building on the Sharp Top summit. Below: Inside the summit house; A boulder jumble at the summit; View of mountains in the distance.

Inside the Building Boulder jumble Another Summit View

After passing the building, the path winds between the stones up to the highest spot.  All over the summit, there are small alcoves and large rocks to perch upon to take in the view.  Unless you started very early, the mountain will be crawling with people who took the bus ride to the top.  You can usually spot the bus crowd easily – they’re never sweaty and are often wearing dressier clothing and insensible shoes.  🙂 Hikers seem to enjoy quietly referring to the bus riders as “cheaters”.  I think it’s great that a bus ride is available for people who aren’t physically able to hike up, but I see lots of young families that I wish would give hiking a chance.

On the way down, Adam and I took the side trail to visit the Buzzard’s Roost.  For some reason, this was the first time I’ve taken the option.  The roost had amazing views, but I did not enjoy climbing up the rock.  I had an inner ear virus a few years ago, and have suffered serious bouts of vertigo ever since.  Anytime I climb places with uneven footing and precipitous, open drops I get an awful spinning sensation. It’s like the feel of my feet doesn’t match what my eyes are seeing.  It’s a very strange sensation.  Sometimes I start to panic, but I’ve found that if I stay low to the ground and go very slow, I can always manage to get where I want to go.  But needless to say… you’ll never find me doing any serious rock climbing!

Adam on Buzzard's Roost
Adam takes in the view from Buzzard’s Roost. Below: Another view from Buzzard’s Roost.

Another view from Buzzard's Roost

After the stop at Buzzard’s Roost, we started our final climb down.  I was so glad to have my trekking poles on the steep, uneven ground.  So many upwards hikers commented on them!  Everything from “We thought you were skiing down!” to “Why do you have two hiking sticks?” to “Darn… I wish I remembered to bring my trekking poles!”.  I was surprised so many people had never seen trekking poles before, but I suppose Sharp Top has a very high percentage of people who aren’t regular hikers.  Personally, after using trekking poles for a while now, I don’t know how I ever hiked without them!

The hike down was over pretty quickly and we were off to lunch!  Typically, we pack a picnic – but this time we decided to try the restaurant at the Peaks of Otter Lodge.  They had a buffet option, but it was really expensive and there was no way I could have eaten my money’s worth.  But I have to admit… that mountain of fried chicken on the buffet table looked very compelling! We settled for sandwiches instead.

After lunch, we walked along the water and did a bit of people watching.  I even saw (allegedly) an otter swimming across the lake.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 3.4 miles.  You can make it just 3.0 miles if you don’t do the Buzzards Roost side hike.
  • Elevation Change –  1340 feet
  • Difficulty – 3. The hike is fairly steep most of the way, with a number of stairs to climb towards the middle and end of the trail.  The hike to Buzzards Roast does not have much elevation change.
  • Trail Conditions –3. The trail is well-maintained, but there are a number of sharp rocks that can make footing tricky.
  • Views5. Amazing 360 degree views from the summit give you some of the best views in Virginia.  Go up on a clear day and you will see for miles.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent.
  • Wildlife –1.5. Due to the popularity, you will likely only see birds.  You may spot soaring hawks at the top.
  • Ease to Navigate – 5. Trails are well-labeled, so you shouldn’t have much difficulty navigating the area.
  • Solitude – 0. This is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia.  To escape the crowds, go up early in the morning.

Directions to trailhead: The trail begins near mile marker 86 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The trailhead is to the left of the nature center, which is directly across from the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.