Over the last two or three years, I’ve spent a lot of time on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and a cup of coffee in Massachusetts but never Virginia, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because of the nearly 2,200 miles of the trail, more than 500 are in Virginia. So this past weekend, my hiking brother Brendan and I zipped down to the southern reaches of the state for a walk. For those of you who aren’t super familiar with the AT, here’s a link as a primer.
This was a two-day hike but four days away because it’s a roughly eight-hour drive to the Grayson Highlands section of the state where we were going to camp before hitting the trail. I’ll save you all the convoluted travel details of shuttles to and from the trail but let’s just say it required some planning. Sooooo … thanks, Brendan. (We played to our strengths and let Brendan handle this part.)
We were up early at Grayson Highlands State Park where we camped on Friday night and drove over to Sundog Outfittters in Damascus. Damascus is an iconic trail town along the AT. I had been dying to see it, but it was completely different than I imagined. It’s small, crazy small. It’s generally one street with four outfitters, a couple bed-and-breakfasts, a Dollar General and around the bend a Food City and pizza place. Oh and Crazy Larry’s. There’s really no way to explain Crazy Larry’s, other than it is a house with some tie-dyes hanging off the front porch and a mailbox with a bunch of stickers. I loved Crazy Larry’s.
We arranged for a shuttle to the Summit Cut Trailhead, about a 20-minute ride away. Not all that surprisingly, we were picked up by Wolf, a dude who has hiked the complete AT five times and apparently had other near misses where he made it about 1,600 miles before he had to bail because “things happen, my brother; things happen.” Safe to say, I dug Wolf right away. He told us that during one of his thru-hikes he met a girl. They finished the trail and decided to move to Damascus and work in the trail community. They are still together today. Pretty good “trail magic” right there. We even told Wolf that we ended up in Tennessee the night before trying to get to our campsite because we followed GPS. “I don’t even have a smartphone. If I gotta get somewhere I use a paper map.” Point taken, Wolf.
Wolf dropped us off about 7:30 Saturday morning, pointed to a white blaze, “Go that way.” And we were off.
The trail in Virginia is not unlike trails you would find in Pennsylvania, except we were at a higher elevation. They are mostly packed dirt, a lot of roots dying to trip you and a lot of rocks. (Not as many rocks as Pennsylvania. It’s still the reigning champ in that department.) We were starting probably around 3,500 feet and were headed deeper into the highlands and gaining elevation quickly on our way to more than 5,700 feet. The climbing wasn’t bad. It wasn’t easy but the trails were switchbacked for the most part, which alleviates some of the elevation. In New England on the AT, for example, switchbacks are for the weak. It’s relentlessly straight up.
The first really cool thing you see on this section is Buzzard Rock. It’s a rock formation well up into the highlands that provides ridiculous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We hung out there for awhile, took some photos, grabbed a snack and sent a couple of text messages because it was the first time reception was even existent. From there we rolled into the woods again.
We saw some other day hikers along the route and some people stealth camping among the pines but before long a theme emerged — bears. Everyone we talked to asked if we had seen any. First it was a trail runner, then another couple and then we saw signs that there were aggressive bears in the area and to take the necessary precautions. Normally, bears are not something that raise my blood pressure. I’ve seen them before and it’s pretty obvious they are less thrilled to see humans and usually go the other way. This was starting to feel different. When a Forest Service ranger stopped and asked us where we were headed and if we planned to stay the night, it got a little more serious. We explained we were planning on sleeping in either the Wise Shelter or the Old Orchard Shelter. His advice was pretty clear.
“Not a good idea.”
Alright, let’s file that under “something to consider” and keep hiking. We still had to summit Mount Rodgers, the highest peak in the state and one of the reasons we came this far. We could decide our next move after that.
Mount Rodgers’ summit is something to put a check mark next to on a hiking resume because it’s the tallest peak in the state, but in reality there are no views and the only thing that would tell you it’s the highest point is a small benchmark driven into a rock. If there were not other day hikers there, I’m not sure I would have seen it. The high point wasn’t really the high point I had hoped for. Just before you got to the summit, there was maybe a 200-yard area that just exploded with moss and green. It didn’t look like anything else on the trail. It was almost like a scene from Harry Potter with how mystical it felt.
After summiting the peak, we had some decisions to make. We had already done a bunch of miles and the math was not looking good. We were going to need another huge day of hiking Sunday to meet our shuttle back to Damascus at 4 p.m. We probably weren’t going to make it. The other problem is our only option for sleeping that night was in an area the Forest Service had dubbed dangerous because Yogi had gotten a taste for Doritos.
So we took a little bit of a shortcut on the Pine Mountain Trail, which up until two years ago was an original part of the AT. We cut probably three miles off the total hike. Part of that trail goes through an area aptly named Rhododendron Gap. It’s a thin trail and even freshly cut was often a tight squeeze through thousands of rhododendrons.
That put us at the Old Orchard Shelter. We did 22 miles and hiked for roughly 11 hours. That’s a pretty big day but not ridiculous. Thru-hikers — those that do the entire trail in one shot — routinely log 20- to 25-mile days.
There was still stuff to do once in camp, especially with bear warnings around. Brendan noticed when we got there that the shelter had a pile of stones in it, lined up like artillery. Little doubt why that was there. So we made dinner and relaxed a little. Any time I’m on the AT, I always read the trail registers, especially the ones at shelters. Hikers write in them to let people know when and where they are, how long they are hiking, etc. Sometimes you find poetry, sketches, diary-type entries and all kinds of cool stuff.
The last entry in this one was about bears and it claimed hikers at this shelter had to fight off bears with rocks and the bears still caused all kinds of destruction. Take it for what it’s worth. I have no way of knowing if any of it is true and some people are prone to exaggeration, although it does seem to be this isn’t the right place to go spreading stuff like this if it’s not true. Some people have very real bear phobias and this would not help.
After dinner, Brendan took our food and hung it from a tree about 100 yards from the shelter, Pacific Crest Trail style. Hanging a bear bag is an art and he is really good at it. I’m a little annoyed I didn’t grab a photo of it because it’s a work of art when done well and this was.
After that, it’s time to hit the sack. There was no sense worrying about a bear that wasn’t in front of us so we climbed into the shelter, made sure Brendan’s bear spray was accessible and called it a night. It might be stupid but I kept a trekking pole within reach just in case I got a cold nose on my toes in the middle of the night.
Time to get some sleep. I’ll pick this up with Day 2 tomorrow.