Hiking the Appalachian Trail’s Virginia Rollercoaster
Labor Day weekend has past and with it, the unofficial end of summer. More importantly, it’s the start of fall. My plan this weekend is to say goodbye to the dog days of summer and instead grab my dog to go hit the trails for a long hike. This is my favorite time of the year for hiking. If it’s still a little warm, I can find a shady route, protected from the heat under the canopy of trees and cooled by some elevation gain. If the weather has cooled, well, that’s even better. The leaves will start to change colors, falling away and opening up to the vast landscape rippling below me in waves of red and gold. And where in Loudoun can you find such a magical trail that offers all of these things? The Appalachian Trail.
The AT, as it is affectionately called by hikers, stretches over 2000 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail enters Virginia along the western edge of Loudoun County where it soon ascends and descends about a dozen times, earning this section the nickname “Virginia’s Rollercoaster.” To me, the stretch of AT in Loudoun is one of the best sections of the Appalachian Trail. I have hiked these sections of the AT more than any other trail and believe there truly is a hiking experience for any skill level.
How does a short walk in the woods followed by an al fresco meal with amazing views sound? Pack a picnic and park at the access lot on Route 7 to reach Bear’s Den. In no more than 20 minutes, you’ll ascend to a wide outcrop of boulders and rocks that you can climb through, over, and around until you find a secluded spot where you can gaze out on the tranquil views of the Blue Ridge Mountains around you and the Shenandoah River winding through the valley below. Feel like spending a bit more time in nature? Day hikers can move further on from Bear’s Den to Raven’s Rock, taking in two great vistas, and then follow the roller coaster section of the trail up and down until it finally ascends to the ridgeline. Above Snickers Gap and the town of Round Hill, a side trail leads you down to what I call “The Oasis” – Blackburn Trail Center. The side trail leads you down, down, down the mountain, until you’re descending a long set of stones forming a grand staircase. As those last stairs begin to creep out from under the tree line, you’re met with the large cabin style home complete with a screened wraparound porch that houses the trail center. At the front of the trail center, picnic tables stacked end to end form a long dining table overlooking the tiered lawns of the trail center and the valleys beyond. For those looking for a multi-day backpacking trip, continue on the AT above Blackburn, where the trail stays steady along the ridgeline. If the leaves have thinned or fallen, the views will open up for you below, until you begin the descent into scenic and historic Harper’s Ferry. There is an Appalachian Trail Headquarters located at Harpers Ferry where you can learn more about the trail and join in the camaraderie shared among your fellow hikers.
As if good health and fresh air weren’t enough reason to check out the AT in Loudoun, this National Scenic Trail just celebrated its 75th birthday – the first and therefore oldest of these designated trails. So fill that backpack with your favorite hiking provisions, grab your dog and/or the kids, and help celebrate the Appalachian Trail. Happy hiking!