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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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"Congratulations on your journey and its completion! I read your entries and they never ceased to amaze, intrigue, and delight me. Thank you for sharing your adventure with us. Hope to meet you on the trails one day."

Susi, a journal reader

Scenic view of the James River on Day 49..

This is a continuation of some of my suggested weekend, one-week, and two-week hikes or runs along the Appalachian Trail. Since one fourth of the AT passes through Virginia, I'm devoting an entire entry to this state.

If you haven't already read the introduction and caveats in Post #10, please go to that entry and read what I said about modifying the distances, doing further research, obtaining adequate maps, etc.

Some folks combine their AT adventures with family vacations. Ideas for other activities, both recreational and non-athletic, are in red.

OK, let's go explore Virginia! We'll start from the south and go north again . . .


DAMASCUS, VA AREA - this is a great base for several days. It's known among hikers as the "friendliest town on the AT."  Damascus is my favorite trail town, with several good restaurants, various types of places to stay (inns B&Bs, hostels, cabins, campgrounds), two good outfitters, several other stores, and all the services hikers need. It is also the site of a huge annual hiker gathering in May.

I never got to spend much time in any of the trail towns but Damascus won me over as soon as I saw it. The Trail goes right through the middle of the small town, which is more attractive than some others.

The photo below shows the welcome sign at the south end of town on Day 30. As I walked through Damascus with Jim and the dogs we stopped to get ice cream at a shop on the east side across the highway from the Virginia Creeper Trail. That was nice on a warm day! I continued on another few miles that day.

Although we rarely ate meals out, we had two delicious, inexpensive suppers at the Baja Cafe, a great little Mexican restaurant. We browsed in both outfitters' stores and I signed the hiker register at one of them. We enjoyed several nights on Memorial weekend at a national forest campground (Bear Tree) east of town during our trek.

The main draw in this area is outdoor recreation. Damascus sits at the crossroads of seven trails. The AT runs right through town, as does the 34-mile long Virginia Creeper Trail, which is flat and easy to hike, run, or cycle. The Trans-America National Bicycle Trail runs from Virginia to Oregon. The Iron Mountain Trail runs into the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. The Daniel Boone Trail is a historical driving tour based on the frontiersman's journeys. The Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail is another driving route; it celebrates Virginia's mountain music heritage. And Virginia's Birding and Wildlife Trail links viewing sites around the state.

Whew! That's a lot of "trails" and should keep all sorts of folks busy in the area.

For a one- or two-week hike, just add mileage north and south of town. The AT south of Damascus is very runnable for at least twenty miles through nice "green tunnels."

One of my very favorite AT sections is a bit north, the Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area (photo above) and Grayson Highlands State Park. A weekend camping trip here would be a lot of fun. The terrain is a bit rough, but the views, rock formations, sub-alpine plant life, and feral horses make for a most interesting run or hike. I think kids would love it, too. If you like horseback riding, there are over eighty miles of dedicated horse trails in the Mt. Rogers area. The AT crosses the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail but doesn't share it, which is nice for the users of both trails.

See Days 30 to 32 (also some info re: Damascus on Day 29).

To stretch this out to a two-week run or fast hike, keep going north to the Dairy Queen at Groseclose where the Trail crosses 1-81 - or even farther, past Burkes Garden to Pearisburg. Some of those sections are runnable, some are rocky. See Days 33 to 38..

CATAWBA VALLEY, VA - this area west of Roanoke is known for the interesting Dragon's Tooth rock formation, expansive views from McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs, and the ridgeline overlooking Carvin's Cove. The longest section without road access is from Rt. 311 to Rt. 220, a distance of 20 miles. Dragon's Tooth is south of that section and can be accessed via several paved county roads, depending on the distance you want. The Audie Murphy monument is in this section.

The footing is decent (except around Dragon's Tooth - see photo below) and the climbs are moderate. To add more mileage, I think it's more interesting to continue north on the AT than south. The Trail is quite runnable on up to the James River and road access is good, giving lots of mileage options.

Be sure and stop at the Home Place Restaurant in Catawba for a delicious, huge family-style dinner on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon. It's an AT hiker tradition and very popular with folks all over the Roanoke Valley.

Since we live in this area we stayed at home for about a week while I ran nearby sections of the AT. Nice campgrounds include Roanoke  Mountain and Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Parkway and a private campground near Salem, Dixie Caverns. Roanoke has numerous hotels, motels, and restaurants.

The Roanoke area also has plenty of activities for everyone. Recreation includes running, hiking, or mountain biking the numerous trails at Mill Mountain, Chestnut Ridge, Explore Park, and Carvin's Cove; fishing and boating on Smith Mountain Lake and Carvin's Cove; and exploring Jefferson National Forest.

More sedentary pursuits include stores for antiques, books, or about anything else you could possibly want; farmers markets; history, art, science, and transportation museums; theaters; art galleries; festivals; historical sites; the Valhalla Winery (within city limits - great wine and one of the best views in the area); parks; sporting events and concerts; driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway; viewing the beautiful lobby of the the elegant Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke, and more.

I did these sections out of sequence. Day 44 covers VA 621 to Catawba Pass/VA 311 (21.9 miles). Day 42 describes the next section north, the 20 miles from VA 311 to VA 220 at Daleville. Day 43 is from Daleville to Bearwallow Gap (21.7 miles). If you want to do more mileage keep going north into the next section, described below.

NATURAL BRIDGE AREA, VA - north of Bearwallow Gap, the AT continues to be mostly runnable for at least another 58 miles north to Hwy. 60. I did this in three segments on Days 47 to 49. For a weekend, choose the part that sounds most interesting to you or has the elevation profile you're looking for (some is more mountainous, some less). For two weeks, keep going farther north or south of here.

There are some interesting side trails to other natural features along the AT, such as the mile down to Apple Orchard Falls and back up or the 1.2-mile hike to the Devil's Marbleyard (Day 48) near the James River.

There are also some really cool features right on this section of Trail, like the long foot bridge across the broad James River (photos on Day 48). The Guillotine, one of the most unusual rocks on the entire AT, is on Apple Orchard Mountain (see photo on Day 47). And the remains of the Brown Mountain Creek Community are near Hwy. 60 (Day 49).

I took this photo from or near Apple Orchard Mountain:

If you have the time and energy, check out The Priest, Day 50, which is over 4,000 feet high and has great views from rock outcrops. The laurels and rhododendrons are beautiful there in June. It's a popular place for folks to hike on the weekend. The easiest way to get there is from the AT parking lot on Rt. 56 at the Tye River - just climb it going south if you don't have time to do the 25-mile hike from Rt. 60.

There are plenty of places to camp in this area: Peaks of Otter and Otter Creek campgrounds along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cave Mountain Lake below Natural Bridge, and private campgrounds. The largest towns for rooms are Lexington and Buena Vista.

As in previous sections, many recreational activities abound in this area full of mountains, streams, and lakes. Less athletic activities include driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking for wildlife, checking out the Natural Bridge and caverns, visiting the Virginia Horse Center, and touring local wineries. In or near Lexington you can indulge in your chocolate fantasies at the Cocoa Mill Chocolate Factory, see a play or concert at the famous Theater at Lime Kiln, or see an authentic Nobel Peace Prize at the George Marshall Museum.

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK - 101 miles of mostly runnable trail on the AT, nice views from rock outcrops, the best access to trailheads of any section this length along the entire AT, beautiful woods and flowers, lots of people-acclimated deer and bears, great campgrounds, and miles and miles of other hiking trails.

This is a photo from Blackrock Mountain (most of the park is greener than this):

The AT often crosses Skyline Drive. During the week in the summer, this isn't much of a problem. Road noise and traffic volume were light. There is more traffic during the weekends and holidays and when the autumn leaves are colorful, so keep that in mind if it's solitude you're seeking.

Trail runners from eastern cities love to come here on weekends. Not only are the trails fun, but it's also crewing heaven, whether you have someone to drop you off and pick you up or run with someone else and have two vehicles. If you're staying overnight choose one of the campgrounds along Skyline Drive and do runs to and from it. Or find a room down in one of the towns like Waynesboro, Luray, or Front Royal.

Cyclists love to ride Skyline Drive (bikes are prohibited on the trails). There are more than 500 miles of trails in the park, giving lots of options for long or short hikes. Guided nature hikes and interpretive programs are offered. Camping, picnicking, and fishing are popular with families here. Outside the park you can canoe, kayak, and raft the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River, mountain bike at Wintergreen Resort and other areas, or hike to Crabree Falls with its vertical drop (over three miles) of 1,200 feet..

Less athletic activities include driving along Skyline Drive (which has many more impressive vistas than the AT through the Shennies when the leaves are out), going to several caverns in the area, visiting the Frontier Culture Museum near Staunton, enjoying some Shenandoah Shakespeare at the Blackfriar Playhouse, taking a self-guided tour of a working mill at grain mill at Wade's Mill, or indulging in some wine at local wineries.

See Days 53 to 57 for lots of details of our passage through Shenandoah NP. We loved it even though we didn't take time to pursue these other activities.

If you want to mostly run or hike fast and have at least a week, you could start at Rockfish Gap at the southern end of the park and go all the way north to Harper's Ferry, WV, a distance of 161 miles (Days 57 to 59). I did this in seven days, including one day off. For two weeks, start farther south, run through the Shennies, and keep going until you run out of time or energy!

The next entry will highlight interesting sections of the AT in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil