Hiking the Appalachian Trail Through Northern Virginia
Virginia has exceeded our already high expectations. Stretch knew how beautiful central Virginia was from his time at UVA and Lotus suspected as much, but the gentle switchbacks, sweeping views, grassy meadows, balds, wildflowers, and pleasant trails have been even more gorgeous than we could have imagined. Experiencing a place we called home for much of our lives in this new way has been especially meaningful. Our appreciation for Virginia has grown tremendously. Through this section, we had the opportunity to re-hike sections of Shenandoah National Park, climb the biggest mountains since Maine, and share parts of the trail with family and friends (who are basically family). We don’t live in Virginia anymore, but Virginia will always feel like home.
- In Virginia, we realized that living outside, hiking all day, and camping each night feels like “normal” life now. Our routines are seamless. Recently, we were asked if we got homesick and we replied with an honest and resounding “no! We are having too much fun. And, we have each other.” We do not miss much of anything or wish we were anywhere else. Home feels like it’s out here. We weren’t sure we’d ever feel like that during this thru, but we do. Sleeping in beds actually feels strange and uncomfortable and we often opt to tent when we have the choice.
- We live life more presently on trail. Our primary concerns consist of when and how we will refill water, stop to eat, and find a place to sleep, simplifying life significantly. Getting off trail to spend a couple of zeros with family was really great and rewarding, but jolted us into a world of planning for the future in ways we have not been accustomed to. This is another aspect of post-trail life that we are going to have to cope with!
- People often say that thru-hiking the AT is life-changing. Yes, we have absolutely changed and grown as individuals. For us, however, this hike has been more life-affirming rather than life-changing. We are not planning to make drastic changes in our jobs, home life, or relationships. Every day we are out here, we become more confident in our choices for how we are living currently and how we want to live in the future. Ensuring that we have fulfilling and meaningful careers while simultaneously pursuing adventurous activities and travel are essential parts of who we are and want to be.
- The two sides of social interactions: Sometimes engaging with others, hikers or not, can be exhausting. Specifically, when people presume to know more about the trail than you, insist on talking and blocking the trail (making you a captive audience), or provide an over abundance of unsolicited advice, can be particularly draining when we are living outside and hiking 20+ miles a day. On the flip side, some of the interactions we’ve had with day hikers and section hikers have been incredibly rejuvenating. A lot of thru-hikers at this point in the trip are tired. So, thoughtful questions, laughter, and genuine excitement from others can provide the boosts of energy that we need. We’ve experienced a combination of really positive and negative interactions out here and try not to dwell on the negative ones too much.
Days 91-92, 9/16/22-9/17/22: Double Zero in Virginia
It has been almost a month since we’d taken a zero and we were ready for a rest. Two zero days allowed us to not only spend time with family, but to do essential chores like clean our packs, pads, and do laundry. Our hiking gear was beginning to smell really, really bad. It was almost unbearable! Thanks to our family for feeding us and housing us!
Day 93, 9/18/22: Snickers Gap to stealth by brook
12.3 mi, 3500 ft elevation gain
Today was a special one. Batman and Reel (Stretch’s sister and brother-in-law) brought us back to the trail and joined us for 7 miles! Not only did they hop on a tough section aptly named the “rollercoaster” because of all the ups and downs, Reel also spent the entire time carrying an old film camera (we think it weighs 7 lbs) to capture some of our experiences on trail. We feel honored to be subjects of a Reel film! They also asked us thoughtful questions about our experience that prompted us to reflect deeply on the challenges and rewards of our thru-hike. And most importantly, it was really meaningful for us to share this adventure with family and to feel their support. When we got to their car, we downed water, grabbed our extra food, and hiked about 5 more miles before stopping at a stealth site by a brook. Kung Fu Kitty, a SOBO taking a semester off from college before graduating in the spring, stayed there as well. Within minutes, we got into an incredibly deep conversation about thru-hiking and the meaning of life—a perfect example of how quickly you can make connections out here.
Day 94, 9/19/22: stealth to Tom Floyd Wayside
25 mi, 5300 ft elevation gain
Because we stopped earlier than planned yesterday, we had to do a bigger mileage day today to get to Tom Floyd Wayside. We did not, however, have the foresight to set an alarm and get up earlier, so we got a later than desirable start for a 25 mile day and ended up getting to camp after dark. So far, Virginia has been quite hilly, but the terrain has been relatively mild and gentle, making 5,000+ feet of elevation gain feel reasonable. Today, we walked through pretty fields and along switchbacks winding their ways around mountains. We stopped at a shelter for a lunch break, but the swarming bees prompted us to move to a different spot. Knowing we were running a bit late, we ended up eating dinner on the side of the trail before continuing to hike. About three miles from the shelter, we encountered a man experiencing homelessness who seemed a bit unstable and confused. We had heard he was sleeping at places in the area and felt uncomfortable with our interaction with him. We picked up our pace to disengage with him and honestly, spent the last couple of miles feeling really nervous, a bit scared, and a little sad for having those feelings. Hiking in the dark, seeing the reflective eyes of animals, and not always knowing exactly where the trail was conjured some unease and fear. However, we were proud of our ability to support each other during these difficult trail experiences. As we approached the shelter, we saw other tenters there, which made us feel safer and more comfortable.
Day 95, 9/20/22: Tom Floyd Wayside to Pass Mountain Hut
23.6 mi, 5000 ft elevation gain
Less than a mile into the day, we entered Shenandoah National Park! And what were the first things to greet us? Spiders and their webs. Between the two of us, we must have taken at least 50 webs to the face and chest along the way. We’ve started waving our poles in front of us to get rid of them before our faces take the hit, but that only works half the time. And the worst is when you end up a spider crawling all over you, justifiably upset that you just destroyed their home. This is one reason to avoid being the first ones on the trail! Otherwise, the weather was gorgeous: 75 degrees, sunny, and breezy. We are starting to understand how hikers can do such big miles here. The trail is very gentle and follows switchbacks up every climb, so nothing feels overly strenuous, even though there is plenty of elevation gain. Lotus is unfortunately getting a cold, which made some of today feel harder than it actually was. All day long we looked forward to our second lunch and quick resupply at Elkwallow Wayside. Stretch ate enough for a family of four and we took our time nourishing our bodies with hot food and cold drinks. The last seven miles of the day to the shelter were hot and sweaty, but passed relatively quickly. The last mile of hiking down a ridgeline was particularly pleasant with long shadows in the evening light cast by tall trees.
Day 96, 9/21/22: Pass Mountain Hut to Big Meadows
19.1 mi, 4500 ft elevation gain
Shenandoah hiking has been a true delight. Beautiful wooded walks, mild climbs, and view after view of mountains and valleys. We started the day with a climb to Mary’s Rock, off a short blue blazed trail along the AT. It was absolutely worth the side trip. The rest of the morning, we just hiked along until we got to Skyland Lodge for lunch. We splurged and ate at the restaurant, drinking our fill of iced tea with a view of the mountains. Lotus really appreciated getting some extra fluids to ward off her cold. The patio area was so inviting that we spent three hours there! It was already 4pm and we still had 8 miles to go, so we booked it. Hiking with the evening light was nothing short of magical. Most of the trail traversed the west facing slope of the ridge so we were treated to a warm glow through the forest. We stealth camped right behind Big Meadows Lodge and got there just in time for a beautiful sunset from a small rocky viewpoint. It was a highlight type of evening on trail for sure.
Day 97, 9/22/22: Big Meadows to stealth near Powell Gap
23.5 mi, 4300 ft elevation gain
Whoops, another late morning! And Stretch developed a bad poison ivy rash on his arm that started to really irritate him and itch all day long. We didn’t start hiking until 8:30am, but the miles went quickly as the terrain was so pleasant. It started sprinkling on us, but we made it to the Lewis Campground Store before the sky opened up and started pouring. We waited out the storm eating lunch on the porch, grateful for our fortuitous timing. A hiker mistook Lotus for another Asian hiker he’d met on trail and was initially adamant that he knew her until he realized he made a mistake. This is yet another example of the racism and unconscious bias Lotus has encountered on the AT that makes some days difficult. When the rain stopped, it was much colder and we had to force ourselves to start hiking when all we wanted to do was stay put. We both listened to our book club book, which made the miles go faster. The sun came out later on and made the afternoon feel like a totally different day. It was sunny and windy and absolutely beautiful with the crisp fall air circulating around us. Feeling so good at the top of one of the last climbs, we decided to add miles to the day to end at a secluded stealth spot by a tiny view. When we made camp, it was already really windy and cold and we realized how quickly fall weather was setting in. We better start bundling up!
Day 98, 9/23/22: stealth near Powell Gap to stealth at Riprap Trail
21.3 mi, 4700 ft elevation gain
Lotus’ birthday and the first full day of fall! The wind howled all night and for the first time during this hike, the air felt truly cold. It is time to swap out for our cold weather gear! Lotus woke up to so many surprises. Stretch blew up and strung birthday balloons in the tent (with dental floss—how resourceful!) and even brought a birthday crown. He took pictures of Lotus standing with her birthday balloons and a beautiful sunrise to welcome the day. We stopped at another wayside and enjoyed lunch at picnic benches before moving to a spot on the side of the building where we could sit in the sun shielded from the cold wind. Lotus was particularly happy to find a warm spot to sit given that her cold still lingered. Getting over sickness is much harder when you live outside and hike all day! A couple we met was so excited to meet thru-hikers, they took a picture of us and showed genuine excitement for our undertaking. For the rest of the day, we continued to listen to our books for our on trail book club and got to a stealth spot before we knew it. Stretch had one more surprise: a happy birthday banner. Lotus enjoyed the beer Stretch carried out for her under that banner: a perfect ending to this on trail birthday.
Day 99, 9/24/22: stealth at Riprap Trail to Rockfish Gap
17.5 mi, 3100 ft elevation gain
It’s incredible to feel that hiking 17 miles feels like a “nearo” for us now. Hiking today felt rather uneventful. The last miles out of Shenandoah boasted some brief fall color views along with open meadow and field walks. We got to Rockfish Gap and headed down to the main road leading to Waynesboro. The road was a busy one with no shoulder, so we called an Uber instead of trying for a hitch. While we waited, we got a hot dog and fries from a popcorn truck, which was an incredible treat. After resupplying and doing laundry, we went to the all you can eat Chinese buffet where we ran into Big Catt, Photo Op, Swift, and Marshall. We stuffed ourselves and rested for the evening at our motel. Stretch tended the terrible poison ivy rash on his arm with calamine lotion and appreciated the little bit of relief it offered. This was the worst poison ivy he’s ever experienced!
Day 100, 9/25/22: Rockfish Gap to Reid’s Gap (camp at Devil’s Backbone Brewery)
19.1 mi, 3800 ft elevation gain
The hike today featured one really long, but gradual climb to Humpback. We felt good and moved quickly through the day. The highlight was Stretch packing in a 19oz hoagie that didn’t fit in his bag and instead was strapped to the top of his pack. It was about the size of a rolled up tent. Lots of bread felt like a filling luxury on trail. An afternoon storm materialized when we were a few miles from the road so we donned our rain gear and got wet. Thunder rumbled overhead and the rocky trail, of course, turned slick underfoot. And then just like that it stopped and the sun came back out just in time for us to get a hitch to Devils Backbone Brewery. This was the easiest hitch we’ve ever gotten. Stretch hadn’t even stuck out his thumb when a car going the opposite direction stopped for us. The brewery was more of a giant compound with a pub, outdoor seating, an entire area for through hikers to tent for free, and a bathhouse that we could use. After setting up our tent and seeing a few SOBOs roll through, we got a couple of beers and sat with a bunch of other SOBOs while they had dinner. We had resupplied so heavily that we couldn’t justify buying dinner; it would be an unnecessary expense and then we’d have extra food weight to carry. So we cooked in the dark with Marshall who had a similar situation. Balancing budget, socializing, and food and drink is a constant consideration. We were proud that we made the decision to eat the food that we had and not waste anything. Today was the first day we really got to meet the SOBO bubble of hikers who we would leapfrog back and forth with for the coming weeks!
Day 101, 9/26/22: Reid’s Gap (camp at Devil’s Backbone Brewery) to Porters Gap
21.1 mi, 6700 ft elevation gain
Around 6:45am we unzipped our tent and saw the rest of the SOBOs we camped beside getting ready for their days. Group by group, hikers left to get a hitch back to the trailhead. After about 10 minutes of waiting ourselves, a truck picked us up and we climbed into the bed. Moments later, the truck stopped to pick up 5 of the hikers we camped with. We piled into the bed gripping our bags tightly and huddling together for the 5 cold windy miles to the trailhead. It was quite an AT experience. Equal parts fun, uncomfortable, dangerous, exhilarating, and memorable. There were a bunch of SOBOs at the trailhead already and they couldn’t believe how many of us were packed into the small truck bed. Not the safest, but as a thru-hiker, you gotta do what you gotta do. Immediately, we parted from the group and started up the trail. The weather was absolutely gorgeous – breezy, cool, and sunny – and it was a joy to walk the trail all day. Through the morning we traversed the Three Ridges Wilderness and then around midday we hiked up to The Priest, our first 4,000 footer since Maine! But how we felt climbing over 6,000 ft of elevation gain was so different from the climbs in NH and ME. Yes, the gains were big and the climbs were sustained, but they were also nicely graded with switchbacks all the way, which eased us into the elevation and miles making them reasonable. We passed an obnoxious hiker along the way who insisted that we were going in the wrong direction. Interactions like that are really frustrating on trail. At the end of the day we got water from a spring and then backtracked to camp at a spot Lotus could get cell service to hop on a board meeting call for Summits in Solidarity. Off trail life is still there and sometimes we have important things to attend to. We were grateful that we could do both today.
Day 102, 9/27/22: Porters Gap to Lynchburg Reservoir
21.9 mi, 3400 ft elevation gain
Today was yet another gorgeous day in Virginia. A bit cold and lethargic, we rose around 6:45am even though it was still dark out. The days are getting shorter and shorter. We were both really cold to start the day and kept our jackets on to start. We can’t wait to pick up our package of warm clothes in Glasgow tomorrow! Luckily, after the sun came out and we started to climb up mountains, we warmed up. The paths were surrounded by ferns turning yellow, wildflowers, and so much lush flora. Virginia hiking trails have truly exceeded our expectations. The highlight of the day by far was Cole Mountain, our first Bald! When we got above treeline, the trail ran through the middle of a mountaintop field of high grass swaying in the stiff breeze. The meadow was expansive and had open views of the mountains around us. The golden grass shown bright in the sunlight as huge clouds drifted by with the wind. If this is what is in store for us on the balds of NC and TN, we cannot wait. After eating lunch at the top with a view, we descended and climbed the last peak of the day before about 8 miles of descent and flat trail. Hiking along Brown Mountain Creek and then skirting high on the hillside past Lynchburg Reservoir, the last 4 miles were so pleasant and passed quickly. We went about 0.3 mi off trail to a campsite where we were the only ones. Apparently the AT used to go right by it and we wonder if creating a reservoir here caused a reroute.
Day 103, 9/28/22: Lynchburg Reservoir to Tentsite above James River
17.9 mi, 5000 ft elevation gain
As the cold starts setting in, we are getting faster at getting out of camp in the morning. Our routines are down, pat! Plus there’s no time to dawdle when you’re shivering. Since we are freezing in the morning and evening but sweating during the climbs in the middle of the day, layers are crucial to fall hiking. We do a lot of wardrobe changes to stay as comfortable as possible. All of the 4,000 feet of climbing were at the beginning of the day today, but at least it was broken up by trail magic! Partway up a climb at Punchbowl Overlook, we saw a beautiful sight: a truck with coolers, a table and chairs set up, and a man offering us eggs and sausage. This was so lifting, particularly because we just ran out of stove fuel so we didn’t have coffee and tea today. Sir Stops a Lot cooked us breakfast while we chatted with Shaggy. After fueling up, we continued the rest of the climb, passing a bunch of trail maintainers working to keep the trail tidy. There were some good views from both Bluff Mountain and some cliffy spots further south before really descending. The fall colors are also starting to show up with a few trees bursting red in sections. We booked it down the mountain and got a pretty fast hitch to a tiny town, Glasgow, right on the James River. We grabbed our package with our cold weather gear (thanks, Terry!), resupplied, and ate tons of pizza with other hikers before Sir Stops a Lot drove us back to the trail. Double trail magic from Stops today! We crossed the James River Bridge which was gorgeous in the evening light as the calm water reflected the sky and trees lining the banks. We hiked about 3 more miles and camped at a beautiful site overlooking the James River.
Day 104, 9/29/22: Tentsite above James River to Jennings Creek
26 mi, 6900 ft elevation gain
With the impending hurricane, we needed to do a big mileage day. Initially, we wanted to get to Daleville before the rain started, but the forecast started calling for heavy rain earlier than first predicted. So we readjusted plans and decided to hike as far as we could to set us up for a shorter day Friday to a random overlook to get picked up along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Yet another example of how flexible you need to be out here. We started before sunrise with just enough twilight to see without a headlamp. It was really cold and windy for the entire first half of the day but we still oscillated between being sweaty on climbs and cold as soon as we stopped or descended. As we’ve said, layering is crucial! The trail winding around the side of the mountain was lovely as the sunrise lit up the sky with a bright yellow orange above the James River and mountains stretching into the distance. It took us about 5 hours and over 4,000 ft of elevation gain to get to the top of Apple Orchard Mountain, the tallest peak we’ve climbed since Maine. The views weren’t the best and it was pretty chilly at the top, so we ate lunch quickly and kept it moving. The weather was crisp but pleasant with sunny skies most of the afternoon. You’d never know a 3-4 day storm was imminently approaching. We reached Jennings Creek where there is tenting by the roadside at a bridge over the water. It was a bit trashed with garbage and some broken glass, but there was no one else there and there was no way we were going to climb the next hill to a shelter.
Day 105, 9/30/22: Jennings Creek to Taylor Mountain Overlook
13.8 mi, 3500 ft elevation gain
Operation get off trail before the hurricane! Our alarms went off before 6am and we slowly gathered our belongings together in our tent before emerging in the dark. Our good friends were planning to pick us up along the Blue Ridge Parkway and we wanted to be there on time and before the rain came in. The majority of the climb came at the beginning of the day, which we were grateful for because it warmed us up on a cold morning. The rest of the trail was beautiful along the ridgeline that often paralleled or crossed over the parkway and various overlooks. We leapfrogged with Shaggy a few times as we all tried to out-hike the impending storm. Over the mountains, the clouds became increasingly more menacing and it stayed cold and windy as the storm approached, which provided plenty of motivation to move quickly. Around noon, we made it to Taylor Mountain Overlook and just as the rain started, our friend Matt pulled up to pick us up. We could not have been happier about the timing!
Days 106 and 107, 10/1/22-10/2/22: Double Zeros in Blacksburg with Matt and Chelsea
Thank goodness for great friends in times of need. Having a place to stay during Hurricane Ian allowed us to take two days to fully rest without spending a ton of money on a hotel. We also got to spend two quality days with our friends and their kids watching movies, eating, drinking, and catching up. On Sunday, we visited Lotus’ brother at college at VT as well. All in all, a rejuvenating weekend with family.
Day 108, 10/3/22: Taylor Mountain Overlook to Lamberts Meadow Campsite
25 mi, 4900 ft elevation gain
Marbles (Matt’s new trail name) joined us to hike for the day! And it started out very eventfully. We dropped his car off at the trailhead in Daleville and got a Lyft to go to where we left off at Taylor Mountain overlook, but the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed! Yikes. We readjusted quickly and found a side trail that would take us up to where we left off on the AT. The driver took us to that trailhead and although we had to hike an extra 2 miles and a fair amount of elevation, we were relieved to get back to the white blazes. The trail itself was rather characteristic of the AT through VA: just undulation in a green tunnel. Marbles led us for most of the day and set a great pace! We got to Daleville by 4pm, parted ways with Marbles, grabbed some cold beverages from the gas station, and kept hiking. Immediately after Daleville, we climbed into a gorgeous section of trail that reminded us of the northeast. We walked along a ridge lined with red blueberry bushes, rocky monoliths and formations, and views of the reservoir. Unfortunately, dispersed camping is prohibited in this section so we cooked dinner on the side of the trail around 6pm and then hiked well into the dark to get to the next designated campsite where we camped with Photo Op and Gnarly.