AT Section Hike: Rockfish Gap to Front Royal, including Shenandoah National Park

Self registration kiosk on the Appalachian Trail at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia
Self registration kiosk on the Appalachian Trail at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia

Gen dropped me off in Rockfish Gap at the bottom of the access trail to Shenandoah National Park (SNP) and I started hiking up the train to the self-registration kiosk, about a mile away. This section of trail was about 110 miles long and would take me 8 days to complete.

Day 1 – Calf Mountain Hut

Hikers in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) require a backcountry permit to camp in SNP, but it’s free, at least if you walk in on the Appalachian Trail. You do have to pay a fee though if you drive in.

The registration process requires that you fill in a form in triplicate, including carbon copy paper, but it’s not exactly obvious which pieces you need to carry on you. I’ve heard that rangers are fairly diligent about checking, but I never saw a ranger the entire trip in the park. I kept the white and middle copies and pushed the pink one into the slot provided. Judging by the fullness of the slot, it doesn’t look like anyone official had retrieved them recently.

I headed past the kiosk and up the trail over a treadway that looked no different from the tread outside the park, passing through mixed woods and open meadows, up and down small mountains and gaps.

A Section Hiker named Popsicle, sporting Pacer Poles
A Section Hiker named Popsicle, sporting Pacer Poles

Along the way, I met a section hiker named Popsicle, who was hiking with Pacer Poles. She noticed that I had them before I noticed that she did too. Wearing all black with a pink bandana, I’d actually thought she was a bear instead of a hiker, so I guess my mind was on something else!

As you enter the Shenandoah National Park (pronounced by the locals as “Shen-an-doe” there are all kinds of transmitters on top of hills and powerlines…I couldn’t help but wonder what Sally Jewell (the former CEO of REI and Secretary of the Interior) has been doing these past few years in office to protect our national parks from commercial invasion….

Communication towers in Shenandoah National Park
Communication towers in Shenandoah National Park

Seven miles into the park, I came to the Calf Mountain Hut, which I decided to spend the night at, despite it being early in the day. I hadn’t been able to spend a full zero in Waynesboro/Charlottesville and I was tired.

The next shelter past Calf Mountain was 13 miles away and requires a full water carry, since there are no water sources along the way. I was carrying about 7 days of food, which I found taxing and was in no mood to walk a 20 mile day, my first day in the park.

There will be a point when I eat down hiking a my food bag enough that I can try hiking a 21-22 mile day. In fact, I’ll have to do 2 or more in order to hike the length of the park without running out of food.

Calf Mountain Shelter
Calf Mountain Hut

People say that the hiking in Shenandoah is fast and flat, and while I hope that turns out to be the case, the topos maps I have don’t corroborate that claim. I think this will be just as hard as the other 140 miles of hiking I’ve done to get here already.

I spoke to my wife yesterday and I am getting homesick again to see her. But I have to get through the park before I can get home.

There have been surprisingly few thru-hikers on the trail recently and I am alone at the Calf Mountain Hut, which is always a little spooky. The shelter has obviously been heavily used and is much the worse for wear, reminding me of the Fingerhut shelter in New York’s Harriman State Park. That’s an old sooty, dirty, shelter much like this one.

A Bear Pole has hooks on it that you loop your food bag over using a long metal rod to lift your bag over your head
A Bear Pole has hooks on it that you loop your food bag over using a long metal rod to lift your bag over your head

There’s a bear pole here, basically a big pole with hooks arranged around its top to hang bear bags from. To hang your bag, you use a long and quite heavy pole with a hook on the end to raise your bag and hook it up. I can see why it works, but this will be my first time using one tonight since we have bear boxes up north.

My food strategy coming out-of-town is to eat the heaviest and bulkiest items in my food bag first to make it lighter to carry in subsequent days. I think tonight’s dinner will be a Thai curry with rice, since it’s dry and sunny out and I can cook with my wood stove instead of eating cold food or using Esbit tablets.

Temperatures have fallen quite substantially after the heavy rain storms we’ve had the past two days, more like the cooler weather I’d been expecting for this hike, with day time temps in the 60’s and nighttime temps in the 40’s. The past two weeks have been too damn hot for my tastes, but it is what it is.

The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, or PATC, maintains the AT in Shenandoah National Park and they do a heck of a job
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, or PATC, maintains the AT in Shenandoah National Park and they do a heck of a job

Day 2 – Black Mountain Hut

The next morning I woke up at dawn and quickly packed up, eating breakfast as I walked to save time. Thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon and I wanted to get to the next shelter, Black Mountain Hut, before it started to rain. There was also a wind advisory for gusts up to 50 mph.

The walking was easier today than yesterday, with less climbing, fewer rocks on the treadway, and gently graded climbs up and down the peaks along my route.

I was making very good time, when I spied some hikers gearing up at one of the adjacent trailheads that provide access to sections of the AT for day hikers. One of the hikers had a little terrier, a Jack Russell, I think.

Lee Sheaffer with his hiking partner Penfold
Lee Sheaffer with his hiking partner Penfold

On a whim, I approached man and dog and asked “Is your dog named something Penrose or Penfold or something like that?” “How would you know that?”, replied the man “Are you Lee Sheaffer?”, I asked extending my hand out. “I’m Philip Werner.”

Small world. Lee wrote a guest post for about The Devil’s Staircase in Shenandoah National Park, two years ago. The former president of PATC, he’s organizing this year’s AT Biennial Meeting from July 17-24. 2015, and has written and edited guides about hiking and backpacking in the Shenandoah National Park.

Lee was out with a buddy Bill for a short hike in the park (they’re planning a thru-hike next year), while visiting relatives in nearby Charlottesville. Our routes coincided so we walked together for a ways, while he pointed out all of the blooming flowers adjacent to the trail.

Lee and Bill walked me to blue-blaze trail to the Black Mountain Hut where I planned to spend the night. This was 13 miles past Calf Mountain, where I’d spent the previous evening. Along the way, Lee offered to give me a ride from Front Royal to Harper’s Ferry when I finished hiking the park, an offer I took him up on a week later.

It’d only taken me 5 hours to hike those 13 miles, but I didn’t feel like hiking another 13 to get to the next shelter in the same day. The shelters (called Huts) in SNP are spaced like that: you either have to walk 11-13 miles or 24-26 miles, which I consider out of my range.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park

Camping between the shelters is problematic because the hill sides are too steep to pitch a tent and water is more scarce than you’d think. I also had no intention of wandering off trail and having an encounter with a rattlesnake or copperhead in the dark.

So I hung out at the shelter and puttered around. I considered camping, but the campsites at the shelter (and all other shelters on the AT in the park) are just pathetic, being sloped, to small to fit a tent, and full of rocks. I’m convinced that the only way to camp along this section of the AT is to bring a hammock, which I may do the next time I head south.

A hiker named More to Do wandered in later in the afternoon. We’d end of sharing a shelter 4 times in subsequent days and becoming trail buddies. He’s a retired businessman from Michigan, who walked away from a well-paying job to retire early. He now plays golf, kayaks, hikes, and road bikes full-time and is the envy of all of his working friends.

More to Do at Bearfence Shelter
More to Do at Bearfence Hut

Aged 66, More to Do is a very strong section hiker, capable of cranking out 20 miles days. He’d started at the James River on this section and was headed to Harpers Ferry to finish the southern half of the trail, having started at Springer a few years prior.

Next to arrive was Rambler, from Philadelphia, who was in to do a section hike. He was also hiking the length of the park and had hiked the PCT in the year prior. He confessed to be a very early riser (like 2:00 AM), and was long gone by the time More to Do and I woke up the next morning.

Finally Lucky, a thru-hiker, wandered in about 5 PM, just stopping in for dinner, before hiking a few more miles north before sunset. Aged 71, he was a hoot, with a wealth of stories to tell about the other thru-hikers he’s been travelling with this year. From Raleigh, he’d started at Springer in February and suffered frostbite in his big toe.

Starting the AT in February and postholing through snowdrifts might sound romantic, but frostbite is a serious injury. I’ll just section hike and cherry pick my seasons, thank you, rather than put myself in mortal danger by hiking through snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Black Mountain Summit
Black Mountain Summit

Day 3 – High Hut

More to Do and I did a big day, hiking 21 miles from Black Mountain Hut to High Hut. The terrain was fairly flat so it was a good day to push the envelope.

Still, after nearly two weeks on the trail, the hiking was starting to get monotonous. Maybe it’s just the terrain: hiking up a hill and down a hill over and over all day, without actually going anywhere was starting to get to me. While I love the feeling of hiking and the exhilaration of being able to do it all day, I’d run out of things to think about. I can see why thru-hikers listen to music or books on tape to combat the boredom.

I think I just needed a zero day. But the terrain was also to blame. In this section of the AT you don’t really get to see too much. Unlike New Hampshire or Maine, where each day you hike somewhere…to a fantastic view or up a grand mountain, everyday in the SNP is like the one before it. Monotonous is an understatement.

Shenandoah Views
Shenandoah Views

More to Do and I were just getting ready to go to sleep when in wandered Swivel, a southbound section hiker, who was hiking from Harpers Ferry to Springer.

“Money don’t make it all happy,” said Swivel, describing his life and why he was hiking the trail. He’d just liquidated his 30-year-old stone masonry business in Charlottesville, to start a new chapter in his life. More to Do and I had just had this same conversation the previous night.

Swivel was a real character. The last of a dying breed, he’d grown up in a West Virginia “hollar” to the moon shine brewing Fraser family. “I had my first mash at age six and could drink like man by the time I was twelve.”

There's an enormous amount of dead wood down in the Shenandoah Forest - which apparently scares the wits outs of the park service because of the fire danger
There’s an enormous amount of dead wood down in the Shenandoah Forest – which scares the wits outs of the Park Service because of the fire danger

“Those days are gone”, he said. “They brew 7 gallons a year now to keep themselves in sipping whiskey.”

Swivel had started at Harpers Ferry and was hiking south to Springer. I don’t know if he planned to Yo-yo after that or not. His immediate plan was to get down to Trail Days down in Damascus for the big party.

“I talked to my girlfriend’s financial advisor and she said I need a million bucks to totally check out” he said. “I don’t have that kind of money. But I know how to make money.” More to Do and I nodded in agreement. “That’s a skill that many people seem to lack these days,” said More to Do.

Turns out that Swivel has a side business collecting old tractors and refurbishing them. He’s got 75 tractors in various states of repair that he sells to collectors. It’s quite lucrative and one of the ways he plans to get by when he gets off the trail.

Follow the groove
Follow the groove

Swivel was intent on making a fire that night, even though More to Do and I were already in our sleeping bags and well on the way to dreamland.

But first he lit a joint and had a smoke, the only weed I saw anyone smoke on my hike (by a 57 year-old man), and then set about making us a nice but tiny fire. This is a feat because the woods around the shelters have been picked clean of any burnable wood.

I soon fell asleep.

Bearfence Shelter, Shenandoah National Park
Bearfence Hut, Shenandoah National Park

Day 4 – Bearfence Hut

More to Do and I hiked from High Top to Bearfence Hut, arriving by about 1 PM. We’d stopped en route at the Lewis Campground store to top off our food bags with enough food to finish the park. I’d been running low on snacks, so I bought some potato chips, Payday bars, and Peanut M&Ms.

It was a beautiful sunny day but with a chill wind, so I’d layered up with a fleece and windshirt. The days and nights I spent in the Shenandoah were quite cold, but I’d brought the right layers to stay toasty warm, unlike many thru hikers who’d sent all of their warm clothes home already.

More to Do and I weren’t exactly hiking together but we were headed the same way and at the same pace for a while. I’m really not sure how anyone can hike with a partner on the Appalachian Trail, given different paces, wants, and needs.

I arrived at the shelter first and set about breaking down my resupply, repackaging it in the used sandwich bags I keep instead of throwing them away. I also sat on the picnic bench in front of the shelter in the sun and checked my feet, changing a few Leukotape bandages that I had over hot spots.

Old Cemetary - with new graves - in the middle of Shenandoah National Park
Old Cemetary – with new graves – in the middle of Shenandoah National Park

I’d started to develop some blisters on my left heel, so I taped them too. I’d been walking for a week without a day off and my feet were starting to feel it. I decided to take it a bit easy the next few days, in part to kill some time before Lee could pick me up (after the weekend), and in part because I was just tried,

More to Do arrived, followed shortly by Good Knight, a thru-hiker who’d started at Springer on March 5. He was truckin.

He was hiking with a guy from Maine named Bruin, who’d started on March 2. Hailing from Booth Bay, Maine, he said he was in college but looked real young..he could hardly grow any whiskers.

More to Do asked Bruin what he had to go back to after the trail, school or a job, and he told us that he was a bloodworm collector.


Bloodworm collectors go out onto the mud flats at low tide and collect worms that are sold to salt water fishermen in Europe.

Bruin told us that he gets paid 27 cents per worm and can collect 1000 worms in 2 hours, or $270 dollars a day. He’s been doing it since he was freshman in high school and decided to spend it on a thru-hike, something he’d always dreamed of doing.

Day 5 – Rock Spring Hut

With rain and cold temperatures forecast for the next afternoon, I decided to hike 11 miles to the next shelter before the rain started and then take the rest of the day off.

Misty morning on the Appalachian Trail
Misty morning on the Appalachian Trail

I managed to beat the rain but not the snow, which started when I passed by the Big Meadows campground.

The Rock Spring Hut is just a few miles past the campground and by the time I arrived, freezing rain had started to fall. The shelter was empty, but there were about a half-dozen empty tents scattered in the woods nearby.

I made a cup of hot ginger tea and changed out of my damp clothes into my long underwear insulation layer that I sleep in.

By then people started to trickle into the shelter with the same idea as mine…to do a short day and hike on the next morning after it stopped raining.

There’s a vetting process that occurs whenever you arrive at a shelter that already has people in it, where the existing inhabitants ask the newcomer if he’s a thru hiker or a section hiker, what their trail name is, where they started, and how long they’ve been hiking.

Layered up against the chill
Layered up against the chill

Good shelter mates tend to be people who are friendly and can hold a conversation, probably the most important skill you can have on the Appalachian Trail, which is a very social experience.

Despite the vetting process, you still never know who is going to show up and whether they’re going to be good shelter mates, or annoying.

What are some examples of annoying shelter behavior?

  • Waking up at 5 am and then taking 90 noisy minutes to pack up and leave.
  • People who arrive after everyone is already asleep and want to start a fire.
  • People who start cooking food in the shelter at 5:30 am.
  • People who listen to music on their headphones so loud that everyone else has to listen to it. Even worse, they play Michael Jackson.

That afternoon, a hiker names Jabes was the first to arrive. A section hiker, he had the same plan as me, to wait out the rain. He’d hiked a week with Swivel and we quickly established our bona fides.

Next, the people sleeping in all the tents showed up. They were having a bachelor party of all things, and insisted on hanging out in front of our shelter. I was a bit miffed, since I’d planned to send the day napping and reading in my sleeping bag since it was so cold and wet outside.

Jabes and them started telling war stories about their service in Iraq and the day went to hell after that.

Despite the rain, they started a fire. Then they strung tarps in front of the shelter over the picnic bench and started drinking beer, doing Jell-O shots, and passing around a whiskey bottle.

Hawksbill Mountain (I Think)
Hawksbill Mountain (I Think)

I didn’t join in. I really wasn’t in the mood to drink, but I also didn’t want to spoil the guy’s bachelor party since it is a special event in a way. I put in my ear plugs and started writing on my portable keyboard/iPod.

More hikers arrived at the shelter, none of them thru-hikers or section hikers hiking the AT, and joined the party, although a pair somehow managed to take a nap through most of the afternoon despite the mob milling around under the tarps in front of the shelter.

Two of the hikers who arrived were wearing cotton, blue jeans, and army pants, and arrived wet and steaming in the rain. It was 40 degrees outside. I thought about saying something but kept my mouth shut since I’m sure my tone would have been misinterpreted.

I’d hoped that the party would break up by dark, But it didn’t. The groom’s friends had brought a ton of food with them and a portable gas grill and started cooking steaks and potatoes in front of the shelter door at about 7:30 PM. All of my gear soon smelled like meat.

Jabes, to his credit, negotiated a withdrawal by 9:00 PM, way past my normal bedtime which they respected, so the people staying in the shelter could sleep.

More mist
More mist

The bottom line. If you’re hiking through Shenandoah National Park on a weekend DO NOT stay in a shelter. I’m not sure why the Park Service puts roads and parking lots so close the shelters (usually less than a mile) but they make this sort of hiker-tourist conflict unavoidable.

For what it’s worth, I got my revenge the next morning. I woke up at 5:30 am and made a lot of noise packing up. I expect my partying shelter mates had hangovers that morning.

Descending Pinnacle Mountain
Descending Pinnacle Mountain

Day 6 – Pass Mountain Hut

It was very cold the next morning, so cold that I broke out my softshell gloves, fleece, and wind shirt to hike. I felt revived by my nero the previous day, even though I had been an unwilling observer at the bachelor party from hell.

The mist was down when I left the shelter and it stayed foggy until 11:00 AM when the sun finally burned through. I was climbing Pinnacle Mountain, one of two big climbs that day, and got some nice views from the summit.

Byrd's Nest Shelter #3 with built in fireplace along one wall.
Byrd’s Nest Shelter #3 with built in fireplace along one wall.

My goal for the day was leapfrog a shelter and hike to Pass Mountain Hut 16 miles down trail. I made great time, slightly faster than 2 miles an hour, passing a shelter named Byrd’s Nest #3 along the way.

The Byrds Nest was full of Korean day hikers when I passed it, who were streaming in from all directions for mid-day tea. These Korean day hiking groups are very popular along the Appalachian Trail on weekends. The last one I’d passed had been on Bear Mountain in New York a few years earlier when I hiked that section.

Once past the shelter I had a sit at the next trail junction and took off my socks to look at my toes. I was experiencing some friction in between my big toe and a toe I broke two winters ago, which was rubbing against it. I wrapped both in Leukotape and that fixed the problem.

I arrived at the Pass Mountain Hut early in the afternoon and was very surprised to see More to Do at the shelter. I thought he’d be way ahead of me after I took a nero the day before.

He’d had an accident though which had really shaken him up. He’d been exploring a monument on a side trail and fallen, banging his head on the rocks on the trail, and ripping a few big gashes open on his face,

Pass Mountain Shelter - My favorite in Shenandoah National Park
Pass Mountain Hut – My favorite in Shenandoah National Park

He was very lucky that he didn’t have a concussion or worse, but the head wounds were pretty gruesome and covered by scabs on his forehead and on his cheek. A few good Samaritans had helped him out stop the profuse bleeding and clean out the wounds.

We joked about it in a morbid way, with me suggesting he change his trail name to Scarface or Face Plant, but it had clearly been a close call for him and unnerving.

The Pass Mountain Hut is a very nice shelter and I think the oldest in the park. Built in 1939, it’s maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, like all of the Appalachian Trail and other shelters in the Shennies.

We were joined that night by two more hikers, a section hiker from Boston, and Rambling Ridge Runner, who arrived just as I was dropping off to sleep.

Lots of room inside the Pass Mountain Hut
Lots of room inside the Pass Mountain Hut

Day 7 – Gravel Springs Hut

When I woke the next morning More to Do was gone. We’d agreed to meet at the next shelter, Gravel Springs Hut, nearly 14 miles away, but he must have continued on to the shelter after that, because I never saw him again. He’d been a great trail companion though, and I hope he got to Harpers Ferry as planned.

I stopped at Elk Wallow Wayside and picked up some cheese and crackers to eat that night to celebrate my last night in the park and on the trail. Shenandoah has several small stores with hot grills where you can buy food called waysides. They’re located at rest stops along Skyline Drive but frequented by hikers since it’s a way to resupply and get fresh food without having to go into town. They’re expensive, but there’s no competition either.

The walk to Gravel Springs Hut was uneventful although I think the trail in the northern section of the park is a bit easier than the southern and central sections, at least for a northbound hiker. There wasn’t anyone at the hut when I arrived in the early afternoon and More to Do hadn’t left word in the trail register.

Lunch at the Gravel Springs Hut
Lunch at the Gravel Springs Hut

I checked out the prepared campsites which were terrible: uneven, rocky, and way too small, and pitched my tarp below the shelter at an unofficial site that had obviously been used before. It was my last night on the trail and I wanted to go to sleep when I wanted to crash, which isn’t always possible in a shelter.

Rainmaker, Spiderman, and Little Bear (a she) arrived early in the evening and told me that there was a chance of rain, so I lowered my tarp to cut back on any possible splashback into the inner tent. It did rain that night, so I was glad that I made those adjustments.

I heated up some instant ginger drink on my wood stove, ate the rest of my Nutella with a spoon, and had some more cheese and crackers before retiring, well before sunset.

What’s my favorite parks of a section hike? People are always surprised when I tell them it’s sleep. But sleeping 10 hours or more per night is amazingly restorative for me. I just wish I could do it all the time.

Rufus, the Petzl Torchbearer, was my companion on this section hike
Rufus the Torchbearer was my companion on this section hike

Day 8 – Front Royal

When I woke the next morning it was my final day in Shenandoah National Park and the last day of my section hike.

I’d been on the trail for 18 days by this point, making it my longest section hike to date, by five days. While a part off me envies thru-hikers who can put up with the monotony of hiking the Appalachian Trail for four to six months, it’s not my kettle of fish. I think two weeks is about my limit before I get unspeakably bored, although taking more frequent zero days would probably help.

I had 13.7 miles to go to finish the northern portion of the park and hike down to US Rt 522 outside of Front Royal, Virginia, where my friend Lee had promised to pick me up and shuttle me to Harper’s Ferry.

The final mountain ascent before dropping down to lower elevations
The final mountain ascent before dropping down to lower elevations

It was cool but sunny, and I wore my fleece, gloves, and wind shirt again in the morning until it warmed up.

Boardwalk to US 522, outside Front Royal, Virginia
Boardwalk to US 522, outside Front Royal, Virginia

I called Lee after hiking ten miles when I could get cell phone reception and we agreed to meet in two hours at the highway. He picked me up and drove me to Harper Ferry, taking the long way so I could relish in the beauty of the valleys below the park. The area around Front Royal and Harpers Ferry is really pretty in spring.

I checked into the Econolodge in Harpers Ferry to get cleaned up and got the discounted hiker’s rate, which includes a free waffle breakfast. The next morning I took the train to Union Station in Washington DC, before catching an Amtrak Express to Boston. I’d had a great section hike, but I was glad to be home again too.

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