Almost a fifth of Virginia’s 554-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail meanders through the state’s Blue Ridge jewel–the Shenandoah National Park. For 101-miles, the trail rambles through the park’s 200,000 protected acres, adorned with tumbling waterfalls, leafy hollows, craggy peaks, and abundant wildlife.
Despite the park’s 80,000 acres of wilderness, the AT in the Shenandoah regularly passes creature comforts, such as flush toilets and mini markets, making it easier to cut pack weight with regular resupply stops. Best of all, the park’s segment of the AT can be done in a week (averaging 13-mile days), making the Shenandoah portion of the mighty 2,190-mile footpath ideal for anyone from newbies cutting their teeth in the backcountry to seasoned thru-hikers with precious few vacation days.
Things to Consider
Be Wildlife Aware
One of the highlights of the Shenandoah is the wildlife. The park is home to white-tailed deer, bobcats, and more than 200 different species of birds. The park also has a sizeable black bear population. While negative encounters between bears and visitors are exceedingly rare, long-distance hikers must either hang food (10 feet up and 4 feet out) or use a bear bin to store food in the backcountry. There are metal bear poles for hanging food beside some of the park’s backcountry huts.
Hiking with Dogs
While pooches are allowed on the AT in the Shenandoah National Park, they are prohibited on a handful of the park’s trails–including some that intersect with the Appalachian Trail. For more detailed information, check out the park’s pet policies.
Food and Water
While the Shenandoah National Park is renowned for its cascading waterfalls and trout-filled mountain streams (even fished by President Herbert Hoover), the AT’s course through the park is surprisingly dry, so expect to occasionally have to tote a full day’s worth of water. There are springs (mostly reliable) located in proximity to the park’s backcountry huts. Conversely, food is easily accessible–the AT passes several waysides in the park (selling hot food and groceries) and/or camp stores at Loft Mountain, Big Meadows, Lewis Mountain, Elkwallow, and Skyland.
Timing Your Trip
June is the season for AT thru-hikers in the Shenandoah National Park, so expect the park’s backcountry shelters to be bustling then. The park’s concessions are also seasonal, with most open late March to November, so resupply options for backpackers are far more limited during winter and early spring.
The AT passes several backcountry huts in the park, available to distance hikers (those with an itinerary of three nights or more) on a first-come, first-served basis. There are backcountry campsites (i.e. level tent pads) around each of the shelters.
Permits and Fees
There is no fee for backcountry camping in the park, but distance hikers must register for a backcountry permit. Permits are available at any park entrance, visitor station, or at self-registration kiosks at the park’s north and south entrances. Permits may also be obtained in advance.
Hitting the trail
Your first day on the trail will features wildflower-tinged meadows, dense pine thickets, and the summits of Bear Den, Little Calf, and Calf mountains. The lower mileage day accounts for the time required to reach the trailhead and obtain mandatory backcountry permits. (Just eight-tenths of a mile into the park, the AT conveniently passes a backcountry self-registration kiosk.) Be sure to linger over the views from the trail at the summit of Little Calf Mountain. There isn’t one when you the trail summits 2,974-foot Calf Mountain.
Distance: 8 miles Sleep: Calf Mountain Hut
Begin with a gentle warm-up as the trail hugs the south fork of Moorman’s River. But don’t get too comfortable. The rest of the day the AT will take you on a series of rambling climbs and descents, passing Turk Mountain (with the option to tack on nearly a mile to the summit via the Turk Mountain Trail), skirting the western side of Wildcat Ridge, climbing again around Rip Rap Hollow, and finally, plunging down into a ravine to reach Blackrock Hut.
Distance: 13 miles Sleep: Blackrock Hut
Day three is a long but vista-laden haul, including views of Rockytop, Brown, and Loft mountains. Linger at Brown’s Gap, the Civil War stomping ground of General Stonewall Jackson, 3.1 miles into the day. Shed weight by taking advantage of the day’s two resupply stops. First, load up on water 2.9 miles in at the Dundo Picnic Area. Later, entice yourself with a blackberry milkshake or root beer float almost half way through the day, at the Loft Mountain Wayside (8.5 miles into the hike).
Distance: 21 miles Sleep: Hightop Hut
Day four is a cruise with chances to stop for water and motivational trail snacks, first at the South River Picnic Area (6.4 miles into the hike), and again, as a reward for slowly summiting Baldface Mountain (3,600 feet) at the Lewis Mountain Campground, after 11.7 miles of hiking. Hygiene-minded hikers can also rinse off some of the trail grime at the Lewis Mountain facilities before proceeding the remaining senven-tenths of a mile to the Bearfence Mountain hut for the night.
Distance: 12.4 miles Sleep: Bearfence Mountain Hut
Consider beginning your fifth day with a rock-hopping detour on the vista-blessed Bearfence Trail, which briefly parallels the AT before rejoining it. After Bearfence Mountain, look out for rosebay rhododendron as the trail climbs Hazeltop Mountain (3,812-feet) above Herbert Hoover’s trout fishing camp in the Rapidan Valley. Treat yourself to cheeseburger (or a black bean burger, if that’s your thing) at the Big Meadows Wayside, eight miles into the hike, and get your protein fix for the day.
Distance: 11.5 miles Sleep: Rock Springs Hut
Day 6 is a long haul. It includes the AT’s highest point in the park, an elevation of 3,837-feet. However, you will hardly notice the distance or the elevation gain as the trail snakes past some of the Shenandoah’s most iconic scenery: Crescent Rock, the cliffs of Little Stony Man, the 3,730-foot Pinnacle, and Mary’s Rock, touted as the best view in the entire park. Lighten your load by filling up on water (and relishing the indoor plumbing) at Pinnacles Picnic Ground (after 8.8 miles of hiking) and Panorama Parking Area (14.1 miles in).
Distance: 15.3 miles Sleep: Pass Mountain Hut
On the way to the final shelter, swing by the Elk Wallow Wayside (7.4 miles from your start that day) to stock up on backcountry h’orderves to celebrate your last night on the trail. Stop to savor the views of Browntown Valley just after Hogback Mountain’s third peak (3,440-feet). Daydream about your next long-distance hike when the AT intersects the Tuscarora-Overall Run Trail, a segment of the 220-mile Tuscarora Trail, which was dreamed up as an alternate route for the Appalachian Trail, and runs through Maryland and Pennsylvania.
*Distance: 13.1 Sleep: Gravel Springs Hut *
From Gravel Springs Hut, hike the two-tenths of a mile to Skyline Drive and meet your ride at Gravel Springs Gap (milepost 17.7) or continue 13.4 miles to the trail’s intersection with U.S. Route 522 and arrange for a shuttle to Front Royal.
Rides to Front Royal can be arranged by A1 Taxi (540)636-8294 and Yellow Cab (540)622-6060 or by seasonal shuttle services, including Sharon’s Shuttles (703)615-5612 and Mobile Mike’s (540)539-0509.
Originally written by RootsRated for Kelty.
Featured image provided by Shenandoah National Park