Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Click to enlarge

Appalachian Trail

Shenandoah National Park – Virginia

We get dropped off in the parking lot at Rockfish Gap, the southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park. It’s wet, masked in mist and the only visible object is a park map mounted in a glass case. It’s apparent that we haven’t hopped past all of the rain from hurricane Joaquin. Grudgingly we put our packs on, pull our rain gear hoodies tight and start walking.

Shenandoah National Park is a long and narrow piece of protected wilderness that lies along the escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Appalachian Trail winds its way through the park length-wise. The AT shares the majority of the ridge with Skyline Drive, a scenic highway with diners and camp grounds scattered along the way.

The trail though Shenandoah National Park often crosses exposed rocky balds that overlook the surrounding forest. Click to enlarge

It’s a popular tourist attraction, which is why it’s strange that today it’s entirely deserted. Even on arrival at the park entrance we don’t find any rangers or other hikers, just a wooden box with blank ‘Back Country Use Permits’ and a ridiculously small pencil. With cold fingers we complete one, tie it to a MG’s pack and continue on. It’s eerily quiet, but we feel at ease somehow. Freezing, but at ease. It feels good to be confident, in stark contrast to how we felt starting at Georgia two weeks ago.

Skyline Drive snaking its way through the park. Thanks to the thick undergrowth we were mostly unaware of the highway sharing the ridge with us, sometimes only a couple on hundred metres from the trail. Click to enlarge

Getting to know the new terrain

In the first 13 kilometres to Calf Mountain Shelter we see abundant deer. Hunting in the park is forbidden, which makes for remarkably tame wildlife. The deer are more interested in the fallen wild apples than us and it’s only when we are a few metres away that they half-heartedly ‘run’ away.

The first night is freezing. We’re grateful for our zipped-together First Ascent Ice Breakers sleeping bags which would generally be too warm for the usual fall climate. We would still hear other hikers complain about ‘the two cold nights’ for rest of our stay in the park.

First sun!

Autumn in full swing. Click to enlarge

The Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the larger Appalachian Mountain Range. Click to enlarge

The next day the sun is out and en route to Blackrock Hut (22 kilometres) we get a chance to appreciate the terrain. Shenandoah’s trees are smaller than the old-growth forests in Georgia and the Carolinas, and are a mix of dark-trunk pines and some deciduous trees with already yellow leaves. Every now and then the trail opens up on a bald with shrubs, prolific berry fields and beautiful views.

Bear country

We’ve gotten fit and efficient at breaking camp, but are still unable to walk past a view. An hour’s hike from Blackrock Hut we encounter a field of precariously stacked, gigantic grey boulders. It’s downright surreal, like something made by an ancient civilization to confuse modern man.

Boulder field near Blackrock Hut. Click to enlarge

After soaking in the view we pitch camp at the Loft Mountain Camp site, grab a one-dollar shower, and go for dinner at the diner on Skyline drive, a short 4,7km away. Never in Johannesburg will we walk that far for any dinner, but the Appalachian Trail has a way of shifting norms.

Day four and five are both 25 kilometre days and MG has to struggle through it with a sore knee. Walk, stretch, walk, stretch. A mommy bear and three cubs offer a momentary escape from the pain. To our amazement, they’re not on the ground where you would expect to see them, but all three are 20 metres up in the same tree. It’s astonishing to see such a large lumbering animal climb a tree with such grace.

We share Bearfence Hut with a doctor from New York on a week-long solo hike. After a peaceful night we wake up to find the metal bearbox we use to store our food in full of slobber and bear nose prints. The doctor, who slept in the shelter 10 metres away facing the box was awake for most of the night (thanks to a wood boring insect in one of the rafters), but didn’t hear a thing. 

The Osprey Arial 65 (pictured here) and the Osprey Aether 75 were our packs of choice. They're bomb proof and carry heavy loads comfortably. Click to enlarge

Being in a bit of a holiday mood, after having an extra cup of coffee and watching a spider spin his web, we start off at a leisurely pace. We spend a lot of time at a spectacular exposed cliff with gusting winds and lovely autumn colours. We absolutely love the day's hiking and decide to book a cabin at Big Meadows. We could’ve easily made it to our planned overnight spot but today we couldn’t be bothered less. A shower, not having to pitch a tent or sleep in a sleeping bag convinced us that cheating is okay. The rain outside makes it even more worth it. We’re inside and dry with fudge and coffee.

Shenandoah National Park in peak Autumn foliage. 

Shenandoah National Park in peak Autumn foliage. 

Falling in love with, and having to leave Shenandoah

The last three days in Shenandoah go quickly. We hike 25 kilometres to Byrds Nest Shelter, 21 kilometres to a stealth camping spot near Skyline Drive and another 24 kilometres to Tom Floyd Shelter. The weather is great and the views are crazy pretty. We see a total of 9 bears during our time in Shenandoah. As we’re walking through the tall trees raining yellow leaves on us, we realise that we’re running out of park. We’re sad to say goodbye to Shenandoah.

In stead of looking for a flat piece of ground to pitch a tent, most hikers opt for hammocks. Definitely no shortage of trees. Click to enlarge

The last four days

We expect to see less pristine terrain over the next four days to Harpers Ferry, our final destination. We walk through a town and some industrial areas and this confirms our initial suspicion. To our surprise, the trail climbs another hill and winds through some stunning forest. We’ve found our stride and not even the notorious rollercoaster, a 22 kilometre section of the trail that crosses 12 mountains, really challenged us. It’s a beautiful part of trail and we feel fortunate to be here.

Going full circle

One of the things that we have learnt on the Appalachian Trail is that one has to be flexible. The rain in North Carolina meant that we had to cut our previous section short, which initially was a big disappointment, but meant that we were fortunate to experience the extra five days to Harpers Ferry. 

Two enormous rivers, the Shenandoah River (pictured here) and the Potomac River join up at the small trail town called Harpers Ferry. Click to enlarge

Harpers Ferry is a small trail town home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the so-called head office of the trail. It’s the halfway mark for through-hikers, but for us it marks the end of our 30 days on the trail. It’s an emotional moment. If we had another 6 months we would have hiked the full 3200km.

As a piece of poetic justice, as we enter the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, on a screen behind the reception desk, they’re flighting the same documentary that convinced us to come here in the first place. This time the images do not bring up dreams about going, they bring up memories of having been there.

We’ll have to come back for the remaining 2650 kilometres next year.

Trail Head Location (WGS84)

N34º 54.738’ W84º 37.123'
Dicks Creek Gap

Route Info

Total Distance : 275,1km
Average Distance : 19,7km

Day 1 : 12,9km –  Calf Mountain Shelter
Day 2 : 21,5 – Blackrock Hut
Day 3 : 13,5km – Loft Mountain Camp Ground
Day 4 : 24,2km – High Top Hut
Day 5 : 23,5km – Bear Fence Mountain Hut
Day 6 : 16km – Big Meadows
Day 7 : 24,5km – Byrds Nest #3 Shelter
Day 8 : 21km – Stealth Camp, Skyline Drive
Day 9 : 23,3km – Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter
Day 10 : 22,6km – Manassas Gap Shelter
Day 11 : 21,1km – Rod Hollow Shelter
Day 12 : 16,7km – Bear’s Den Hostel
Day 13 : 18,6km – David Lesser Memorial Shelter
Day 14 : 15,7km – Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Average Elevation Gain / Loss:  1303m / 1336 m
Total Elevation Gain / Loss : 18245m /  18697m 
Highest Altitude :  1263m, Day 6 – Bear Fence Mountain
Lowest Altitude : 98m, Day 14 – Harpers Ferry
Difficulty Rating : 7 / 10
Season Hiked : October – Fall

By far the cutest hiker we met along the trail. She carries her own food and water

The obligatory 'after' photograph at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy