This post first appeared on TheTrek.co on February 1, 2019.
2019 thru-hiker hopefuls, strap in. You’re headed for a wild, beautiful, life-altering, incredibly meaningful, and downright magical ride. I remember the beginning of the trail vividly. You’re nervous, you’re excited, you’re meeting people, so many people, every single day. At the welcome center at Amicalola, on the side of the trail, while taking in the view at Springer Mountain, shelters, campsites, while waiting on your pizza at Neels Gap. And everyone, it seems, has some sort of insider knowledge about the trail that you don’t.
You’ll notice as you continue along the trail that this “insider knowledge” tends to follow certain themes. One theme you’re likely to hear about again and again is the dreaded Virginia Blues.
Well, friends, I’m here to tell you to fear not. While Virginia’s 554 miles do equal about 25% of the entire trail, and while the ratings of those miles vary from easy to challenging (up to about 5,500 feet), and while you’ll likely spend five to six weeks there, and while Virginia is not flat, no matter how many people tell you it is, there are also so many incredible things to love about the AT in Virginia.
Wild ponies, friendly trail towns, wildflowers, breweries, swimming holes, Trail Days, rolling hills, waterfalls, pastures, creeks, one of the nicest hostels on the AT (in my humble opinion), waysides, a shelter where you can order pizza, black bears, blackberry milkshakes, and fireflies.
The Grayson Highlands
Let’s just start with the ponies of the Grayson Highlands, because let’s be real, they’re the best part of Virginia, and they’re only about 30 miles into the state. OK, let’s start with a few questions. Do you like ponies? Do you like being licked by ponies? Do you like petting ponies? Do you like waking up to ponies munching on grass outside your tent? Do you like baby ponies? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you will like the Grayson Highlands. That’s all you really need to know. Except, don’t leave your shoes and trekking poles unattended—trust me.
The Big Three
In between Pearisburg and Daleville, you’ll find Virginia’s Big Three: Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob (the most photographed place on the AT), and Tinker Cliffs. Get your cameras ready and enjoy the views, because they’re spectacular. And even I, a lifelong groggy, decidedly un-morning person, found it extremely worth it to wake up at 4 a.m. to see the sunrise at McAfee Knob. Highly recommend.
Virginia’s Trail Towns
Southern charm is alive and well on the Appalachian Trail. One of the best parts of the trail is getting to experience the romanticism of small town America. Especially southern small town America. Virginia’s trail towns do not disappoint. Here were my favorites.
Damascus is one of those quintessential trail towns that you absolutely must visit. The town is adorable, historic, easily accessible (the trail goes right through it!) and super thru-hiker friendly. It boasts multiple hostels, an impressive brewery with live music, a coffee shop that also serves delicious food, beer, and frozen lemonades, a diner in the center of town featuring southern classics and big breakfasts, and three outdoor gear stores. If you’d like to take a break from hiking, you can also rent a bicycle and take a ride down the Creeper Trail, stretching 34 miles through Southern Virginia. And last, but not least, Damascus is the home of Trail Days, the biggest and most famous festival along the AT. It’s a great place to attempt to win gear, catch up with friends you haven’t seen since Georgia, and fill your bellies with an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts. It’s also a great place to over imbibe and feel terrible on the trail afterward. Beware.
You are not going to arrive in Daleville and think wow, this is such a cute and convenient trail town. It’s just… not. But, there are some hidden gems in Daleville, which is why I’m putting it on this list. The Super 8 has an incredible outdoor pool, perfect for resting sore muscles and getting the tan that you thought you’d surely have from living outdoors but has yet to appear. The Flying Mouse Brewery (technically in Troutville) has a huge lawn and allows thru-hikers to camp there for free. There is a large grocery store in town, located right next to an outdoor store and a coffee shop that serves milkshakes. And my second favorite brewery of the trail, Ballast Point, is located here. Highly recommend heading over for some flights and corn hole.
Waynesboro is gateway to Shenandoah National Park, where you are greeted with a popcorn truck that also serves hot dogs and cold sodas. This town loves thru-hikers and does a great job catering to them. There is free camping at the local brewery, free showers at the YMCA, and free Wi-Fi at the library. The town has even created a welcome map for thru-hikers with all the need-to-know info about the town. Though I can’t say I indulged, there is also a trail-famous all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet here. It’s also where you can rent your boats for aquablazing, if you so choose.
Luray and Front Royal
Luray and Front Royal are trail towns of Shenandoah National Park. I was unable to stop by during my thru-hike as I was rushing to catch up to my trail family, but I know hikers tend to love them both. I’ve also been to Luray in the past and can tell you it’s truly representative of Virginia’s charm. Both of these towns are thru-hiker friendly, and both have breweries. In Luray, you can visit the largest caverns in the Eastern US, and in Front Royal, you can take a break from hiking to go river tubing.
There are three important things to note about Partnership Shelter, which is very near to the 25% completion mark of the trail. One: you can order pizza to be delivered directly to the shelter. There is even an outdoor landline that you’re welcome to use to order it. This leads to high spirits and much socialization at this shelter. Two: there is a shower here! It’s extremely freezing and I actually hyperventilated while trying to wash my hair in it, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. Three: you can catch a public bus into town and directly to Walmart to resupply.
Dismal Falls and Trent’s Grocery
My OG hiking buddy, Ibex, and I had one of our absolute favorite weeks on the trail in Central Virginia. We refer to this week fondly as “creek week.” Though we hiked through Virginia during the rainiest May on record, creek week was a sunny exception. What did we do during creek week? Slacked off and swam in creeks, almost every day, because there are so many in Virginia, and it’s finally warm enough to enjoy them. And one of the creeks we swam in was the creek that runs into Dismal Falls. This gorgeous waterfall, with lots of easy stealth camping around it, is located about 2.5 miles up the trail from Trent’s Grocery, where you can mix with locals as you stock up on grilled cheeses, beer, and ice cream. Pro tip: if you’re camping out and find all your beer is gone, there is a short path to the road behind the waterfall that serves as a shortcut back to Trent’s Grocery.
Devils Backbone gets its own subheading because it’s that great. In my opinion, it’s by far the best brewery on the trail, and I did my due diligence in trying them. They love thru-hikers and will pick you up at the trailhead, allowing you to camp on their massive, gorgeous property for free. They’ll let you pick a gift like sunglasses or a koozie out of their hiker box, and they’ll feed you a massive breakfast for only $5. Their beer is delicious, and they hold live music festivals throughout the summer. Don’t skip Devils Backbone; you will be missing out.
Shenandoah National Park
I’ve heard Shenandoah National Park described by multiple people as the stuff thru-hiker dreams are made of. It has rolling hills, easy trail, gorgeous views, waysides, which are little restaurants not far off trail that serve burgers, fries, and blackberry milkshakes, and plenty of wildlife. Of Virginia’s 5,000 to 6,000 black bears, the National Park Service estimates up to 1,000 could be in Shenandoah at any given moment. I met people on trail who’d seen up to 13 bears in Shenandoah alone.
Honorary mention to Washington and Jefferson National Forests, which precede the Shenandoah and are gorgeous in their own right. If you like rhododendrons and mountain laurel and time it right, you’ll be hiking on flower-lined trail for weeks.
Love on Virginia
In addition to everything Virginia has to offer, one last point to note is that Virginia is where many of you will start to really feel strong. I did my first 20-mile day in Virginia, and finally felt like I had a handle on the whole thru-hiker thing.
So refrain from counting down the miles, pick your head up, take in all that surrounds you, and it’s likely that Virginia’s beauty will haunt you long after you’ve gone. Virginia is for (nature) lovers, after all.