Distance: There are 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. We did the northern 50 of them.
Difficulty: 6 of 10.
Total score: 10 of 10 (Northern Shenandoah National Park AT score)
Resource – Appalachian Trail Guide to Maryland and Northern Virginia – 2008 Edition – Appalachian Trail Conservancyor the Appalachian Trail Guide to Shenandoah National Park (2012 – 14th edition) I can’t over-recommend carrying a trail map and guide while backpacking, it will help keep you on track and point out important things… like water sources.
Terrain – forests, ridges, fields, and overlooks
Northern Trailhead – Just outside Shenandoah National Park – Rt 522, Front Royale, VA – 38°52’40.80″N, 78° 9’2.75″W
Southern Trailhead – Big Meadows – 38°31’39.85″N, 78°26’36.77″WP
End Point Day 2 – Gravel Springs Hut – 38°45’49.92″N, 78°14’1.07″W
Parking – Got dropped off and picked up on this one, so can’t help there! I’d suggest calling the ranger station at Shenandoah.
Standouts (Day 1): Lookouts to die for.
Markings – Those famous white blazes. Well marked in National Park
Description: The AT in the northern section of Shenandoah is a weird mix of wilderness and non-wilderness. Once on the ridge, you’re never more than a mile from Skyline Drive (which follows the original route of the AT), and will cross it several times each day. You can practically plan your meals around stops at stores and grills in the park. Yet, at the same time, the animals aren’t used to being hunted and don’t really fear people.
Did this one in 2013 with a crew of Boy Scouts. We walked into the park from the nearest road crossing north of Shenandoah, and spent four days working our way down to Big Meadows for about 46 trail miles of backpacking, or about half of the AT’s length in the park. We stayed in shelters for two nights, and camped out on a mountaintop the other night.
Day 1 – Rt 522 to Gravel Springs Hut – 13.4 miles… look below!
Day 2 – Gravel Springs Hut to Pass Mountain Hut – 13.1 miles
Day 3 – Pass Mountain Hut to Stony Man Mountain – 10.3 miles
Day 4 – Stony Man Mountain to Big Meadows Ranger Station – 8.9 miles
Day 1 – Rt 522 to Gravel Springs Hut
Starting point: Route 522 outside the northern boundary of the park
Ending point: Gravel Springs Hut
Distance: 13.4 miles
It was a bright, hot morning in August 2013 when myself and my crack team of Boy Scouts set off from just outside Shenandoah National Park for a four day, 50 mile backpacking adventure.
We were dropped off at the roadside on Route 522. There isn’t really room to park here, just enough space to pull the two cars over and let our crew.
The first part of this hike is probably the worst part of the trip, up, up, up, up, up 1,600 feet of vertical climb, plus another 250 foot extra thanks to a dip in the trail over 5 miles. It’s great to get this out of the way, but it does not make for a real encouraging start.
In the beginning, you’ll cross a footbridge (0.1 miles in) before starting a steep climb.
Once over the bridge… To your left? Some houses. You your right? A big field surrounded by fence. The field to the right is a research area owned by the federal government, but was previously a cavalry post and the ridge above once help a POW camp during WWII. Fun with history on the AT!
After a mile of climbing, you’ll drop down to VA-602, then immediately begin climbing again (when you cross these creeks here, do NOT take water. Houses upstream). This is the big one, a 1,400 foot climb over the next 3 1/2 miles. Go, go, go!
At mile 2 from the start of the day, you’ll hit a side trail for the Virginia 4-H Center.
A mile past this (all uphill) and three miles into our day, we’ll hit the Tom Floyd Wayside Shelter and adjacent tent camp. This is the only shelter on this section of the trail (Section 1 of the Appalachian Trail Guide to Shenandoah National Park).
We stopped to check out the shelter, but we have another 10 1/2 miles to the next shelter, which is our goal for the day! The good news is only two more miles in this climb, with the worst of it in the next mile…
At mile 3.6 for the day we reach two mile stones at Possum’s Rest. The first, we’re now officially crossing the border into Shenandoah National Park! We’ll be in the park for the next 47 miles or so until we read our end point at Big Meadows. The second, we get rewarded for the hard climb with a massive view of the mountains!
Just past here, backpackers can register to be in the park. We had previously registered the day before at the ranger station, so were already set.
We still had just under 10 miles to go for the day (with four decent climbs), but nothing like what we’d just had to do. Easy(ish) hiking from here on out!
We shortly turned right onto the horse trail, which shares the path of the AT.
At mile 5.6, we reach the parking lot at Compton Gap. Here the trail (and we) will cross the Skyline Drive for the first time this trip. We’ll cross and recross Skyline Drive (which replaced much of the original route of the Appalachian Trail in the last 1930s) many more times this trip.
Mile 6.4 has some short side trails to beautiful views. Only 7 miles to go after this!
The next miles, I lost track of where my pictures line up, but some highlights…
At mile 7.7 for the day, you’ll pass the parking area at Jenkins Gap, but the trail does not cross Skyline Drive here.
At mile 10.9 you’ll summit North Marshall Mountain with a nice view.
Mile 12.1 will have you summit South Marshall with views off of a ledge.
Mile 13.2 puts you at Skyline Drive at Gravel Springs Gap.
So more about the bear… we knew there was a bear ahead, and a line of us had been walking up the trail banging and shouting (somehow, I ended up in front). I had just turned to my buddy Tom to mention how we must have passed the bear by now when she stuck her head up to look at us. Mama Bear didn’t seem to mind us much. I snapped a picture without even looking at my camera while at the same time backing up slowly while yelling flattering things at the bear (“You’re a great bear! I don’t even taste that good!). We came back down the trail ten minutes later, even louder this time. We didn’t see her again. I’ve seen many bears on the AT since this, but this is the closest I’ve ever gotten (and closest I ever hope to get) to a wild bear.
Buoyed by the spectacular views and sped on our way by post-bear adrenaline, the miles flew to Gravel Springs Gap. After this, it was a mere 1/4 mile to the turn for our camping spot for the night at Gravel Springs Hut (another 0.2 miles from the trail).
Overnight: Gravel Springs Hut – as of 2013, there was a notice that this shelter was reserved for folks doing backpacking trips with a minimum of two nights!
I SAW A BEAR! Overlooks to die for. Beautiful vegetation for miles and miles.
Backpacking is hard work, especially the first climb here.