Where: Southern Appalachian forest, Virginia, Southeast USA
When: Glorious during the fall (Sept/Oct)
Best sights: Black bears, wild turkeys and skunks nestled in oak-hickory forests with more varieties of trees than in all of Europe
Watch out for: White paint blazes which mark the trail and ‘trail angels’ who volunteer help through difficult tracks
Background to the A.T.
What better way to work off Virginia’s food and cultural excesses than on the Appalachian Trail – a 2,175-mile footpath along the ridge-crests and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains traversing 14 states from Maine to Georgia. The Appalachian Trail (or A.T. as it’s called by those in the know) isn’t an ancient trail used for centuries by American Indians but in fact the brainwave of a Massachusetts regional planner in 1921 who wanted to make sure most Americans had access to a piece of wilderness at the weekend. It was designed, constructed, and marked by volunteers of hiking clubs brought together by the Appalachian Trail conference in 1920s and 1930s. A quarter of the A.T., containing some of the most dramatic views – mountains, valleys, rivers, trees, and fauna – lies in Virginia.
Every year about 2,000 people attempt to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, but only around 300 last the distance. These winners are called thru-hikers and the first one was Earl Shaffer in 1948. If you do succeed in hiking the whole length of the trail, you earn the right to change your name to something more earthy, such as Hawk, Wind or Squirrel. This is known as your trail name. So-called ‘Trail Angels’ are volunteers who help thru-hikers tackling the trail with laundry, water, lifts, and showers – often they tackle problem spots on the trail, magically appearing, like guardian angels, when help is most needed.
For most people, taking six months out – not to mention five million footsteps – to walk the A.T. is a bit too much of an adventure, but for those who don’t want to miss out on the best nature Virginia has to offer, hire a car and start driving. You will almost certainly need a car to get around this area, although there are some shuttle services for mountain bikers.
The best time to explore the Virginia part of the trail is in autumn, particularly September and October, when you will see the leaves changing colours to magnificent shades of red, orange, and yellow. There are more tree types in the Southern Appalachian forest than in all of Europe.
Best places to explore:
Shenandoah National Park
A great place for a fall drive is Skyline Drive – 150 miles of sheer beauty in Shenandoah National Park with stunning vistas of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the rolling Piedmont Plains to the east. Some parts of Skyline Drive are closed from dusk until dawn in hunting season. With 104 miles of well-graded and carefully maintained trail and ascents rarely exceeding 1,000 feet, here is excellent terrain for novice hikers on one or two-day treks who can hope to spot some of the Park’s abundance of wildlife. The bison that grazed alongside the Shenandoah River have long since disappeared but there are still black bears, Virginian White-tailed deer, wild turkeys and skunks among other wildlife nestling in the oak-hickory forest.
You will need a Backcountry Camping Permit for overnight trips to Shenandoah, otherwise park up at one of five camp sites in the Park. There’s no need to make a reservation as self-registration kiosks are located on the A.T. near the north and south boundaries of the park, and there’s no fee for those entering via the Appalachian Trail. Hikers entering the park from other trailheads must pay the standard park entrance fee of $5 US for seven days.
McAffee’s Knob is a real highlight of the trail and one of its lesser known beauty spots, offering 360-degree views of rolling hills and lush plains with birds circling in the sky.
A good stop off point on the Trail before hitting the wilderness is Damascus. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and traversed by various different trails, its known as the friendliest town on the Trail where thru-hikers have been resting and refuelling for over 50 years. It’s an outdoor-loving town where hiking boots, bikes, and tents plus a plethora of outdoor outfitters rule over neon and high-rise. Those without cars can arrive at this haven on the Virginia Creeper Trail – a 34-mile mountain bike trail running from Abingdon to Damascus which has been described as the best mountain bike trail in the east of America. Damascus is also surrounded by a wealth of natural beauty including streams, rivers, wooded areas, and the peaks of Mount Rogers and Whitetop – the two highest mountains in Virginia. The Trail even runs right through the main street of town, with bricks and telephone poles marked with classic white blazes.
The place to head to is The Place. This is where thru-hikers come to swap hero and horror stories and trade advice and you can stay here for free. The Place is run by the United Methodist Church. Before leaving Damascus you need to stock up on plenty of high energy foods here – chocolate is recommended to replace the 6,000 calories a day lost by thru-hiking the trail. In the full six month thru-trail, the average hiker loses 23 pounds in body weight and secretes more than 100 gallons of sweat.
Trekker’s Tips for Exploring the Appalachian Trail
– Be prepared for unpredictable weather: bring rain proofs, waterproof matches, long johns, and a garbage bag always comes in handy.
– Other essentials to bring on day hikes are a map and compass, water, food, a trowel for human waste, first aid kit, whistle, a fluorescent vest in hunting season, and sunscreen.
– Know your limitations – there’s nothing wrong with turning back or not going as far as planned on the trail.
– In daylight, you can keep to the route by looking for any one of the Trail’s 165,000 blazes (rectangles of paint) on trees, posts, cairns (constructed rock piles), or rocks. Look out for white paint blazes which mark the Trail itself. Some are within sight of each others, in remote parts they may be up to five miles apart.
– Above all, stay on the main trail, even if walking through mud and snow.
Shenandoah National Park Service
Tel: (540) 999-3500
By Susi O’Neill
Can’t get enough of the great outdoors? Join seasoned traveller Ian Wright as he gives a whistle-stop guide to the world’s best treks.
main image: image courtesy of Miguel Vieira, Flickr creative commons