The Appalachian Trail courses 550 miles amidst Virginia’s mountains, passing through Virginia’s rich array of public wildlands, such as the Jefferson National Forest, Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park and lands along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Appalachian Trail acts as the spine to a connected trail network covering thousands of miles of pathways threading through the aforementioned places adding to the backpacking possibilities in the Old Dominion.
Using the AT and its connector trails, we can create fantastic 2-3 backpacking adventures, traversing vast woodlands, untamed wildernesses and scenic features from old growth forests to waterfalls and overlooks. Being Virginia, there’s always a little history added to the mix.
So, pack your tent and sleeping bag, strap on your pack and let’s hit the AT for some rewarding 2-3 backpacking adventures in Virginia’s highlands.
APPALACHIAN TRAIL, VIRGINIA CREEPER LOOP
Nearest Town: Damascus
How Long: 13.8-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 2,190 low point, 3,410 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: N36° 38.645', W81° 44.407'
Why Go: Historic rail trail, stream, trail shelter, partial views
This fun circuit in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area cruises up the gorgeous Whitetop Laurel Creek Valley on the famed Virginia Creeper Trail. A steady but very mild grade takes you to meet the Appalachian Trail. Climb to the crest of Straight Mountain, where partial views can be had before reaching Saunders trail shelter and a second night’s camping option. Take the AT back to the trailhead, switchbacking downhill off Straight Mountain.
The Camping: Campsites are bountiful along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Your primary overnighting option along the AT is the Saunders Trail shelter and adjacent tent sites.
What You Need to Know: Backpackers will see beauty throughout, but they will also see other hikers, backpackers and bicyclers on the Virginia Creeper Trail -- this is not a circuit for solitude seekers.
- Mount Rogers Outfitters
- Virginia Creeper Trail
- Old Mill Restaurant
- Barter Theater
APPALACHIAN TRAIL, ELK GARDEN TO FOX CREEK
Photo Credit: Nicholas Moore, @nicholasmoorephoto
Nearest Town: Trout Dale
How Long: 17.0-mile end-to-end
Elevation Highs and Lows: 3,400 low point, 5,240 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N36° 38.767', W81° 34.984' End: N36° 41.85', W81° 30.26'
Why Go: Two wildernesses, high country panoramas, wild ponies
This is the highest elevation segment of the entire Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail. Situated at Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, this part of the AT presents fine views from beginning to end. Along the way it passes through rare and lofty spruce-fir forests and nears Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. Numerous rock outcrops jut above meadows where wild ponies graze and blueberries ripen late in summer. Part of the trail passes through Grayson Highlands State Park.
The Camping: Backpackers can choose 3 trail shelters along the way or find their own tent site in numerous wooded areas.
What You Need to Know: Beware wind, fog, rain and cold weather in this most high country.
- Park Place Drive-in
- Virginia Creeper Trail
- Hungry Mother State Park
- Grayson Highlands State Park
APPALACHIAN TRAIL, FALLS OF DISMAL TO NEW RIVER
Photo Credit: Michael Speed, @photosbyspeed
Nearest Town: Pearisburg
How Long: 22.0-mile end-to-end
Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,620 low point, 4,000 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N37° 11.259', W80° 54.058' End: N37° 19.757', W80° 45.063'
Why Go: Stream hiking, views, ridge running, lesser-trod trail segment
Start your hike off with a splash at Dismal Falls, a captivating cataract that is much prettier than its name implies. From there, take the Appalachian Trail northbound, cruising up valley of Dismal Branch. Enjoy some streamside Appalachian Trail hiking, relatively unusual within Virginia’s AT trail mileage. Rise to the top of Flat Top Mountain, flirting with 4,000 feet in elevation before joining Pearis Mountain, where views await from several locations, including the famed Angels Rest, where you gain an expansive aspect of the New River Valley from commanding heights. The final part of the adventure leads down to the brawling New River.
The Camping: Backpackers have their choice of two trail shelters, as well as campsites along Dismal Creek and some ridge top locales near springs.
What You Need to Know: This area is blessed with ample springs, creeks and other water sources, unlike some other stretches of the Virginia AT.
- New River canoeing, kayaking and fishing
- Nicholas R. Anderson Observatory
- Mountain biking at Pandapas Pond
- Cascade Falls
APPALACHIAN TRAIL, ROANOKE TRIPLE CROWN
Photo Credit: Brent McGuirt
Nearest Town: Roanoke
How Long: 28.0-mile end-to-end
Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,460 low point, 3,190 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N37° 22.716', W80° 9.370' End: N37° 23.471', W79° 54.392'
Why Go: Visit three view laden rock outcrops -- Dragons Tooth, McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs, plus more views from Hay Rock and still more places
This end-to-end backpack encompasses the three most desired vista points for Western Virginia Appalachian Trail adventurers. Start with a climb up to reach the AT, then head southbound doing a modicum of rock scrambling to reach Dragons Tooth, with 360° panoramas. Head north, crossing the Catawba Creek Valley then rising to Catawba Mountain, where McAfee Knob awaits, the most photographed spot on Virginia’s Appalachian Trail. Continue onward, circling Carvins Cove Reservoir, coming to the Tinker Cliffs, a long stone vertical dropoff that will leave you dashing from view to view. Lastly, pass huge angular Hay Rock, as well as more geological wonderments before ending the adventure at I-81 near Daleville.
The Camping: Backpackers will pass four shelters on the way, plus other assorted campsites on this mostly ridge running trip.
What You Need to Know: Expect company at Dragons Tooth, Tinker Cliffs and especially McAfee Knob.
- Local Roots – A Farm to Table Restaurant
- Read Mountain Preserve
- The Roanoke Star atop Mill Mountain
- Paddle Roanoke River
THUNDER RIDGE, JAMES RIVER FACE WILDERNESSES
Photo Credit: Jared Ladia, @jaredladiaphoto
Nearest Town: Glasgow
How Long: 17.3-mile end-to-end
Elevation Highs and Lows: 678’ low point, 4,225’ high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: Start: N37° 30.458', W79° 31.409' End: N37° 36.299', W79° 23.345'
Why Go: Elevation variation, The Guillotine, two wildernesses, James River Bridge
This hike traverses two wildernesses while starting high atop the Blue Ridge and ending down near the James River, making it more down than up. Leave the Blue Ridge Parkway northbound on the AT. Pass over Apple Orchard Mountain, your high point – and the highest point on the AT until New Hampshire -- after entering Thunder Ridge Wilderness. Walk under the geologically captivating Guillotine. Continue ridgetop hiking, entering big James River Face Wilderness at Petites Gap. Undulate through the heart of the wilderness, scanning for views of the James River down below, then make the long descent to the James River, saddling alongside gurgling Matts Creek. Reach the James River, where an impressive hiker footbridge spans this mighty Virginia waterway.
The Camping: Backpackers pass two trail shelters, Thunder Hill shelter early in the hike and Matts Creek shelter late in the hike. Another camp is located by Marble Spring and more sites are along lower Matts Creek.
What You Need to Know: Be prepared for varied weather conditions, since elevation changes exceed 3,500 feet.
- Otter Creek Recreation Area
- Natural Bridge of Virginia
- Scottos Pizza
- Paddle James River
MOUNT PLEASANT SCENIC AREA
Nearest Town: Buena Vista
How Long: 11.5-mile figure-eight loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 3,110 low point, 4,030 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: N37° 45.581', W79° 11.730'
Why Go: Meadow views, fields, good campsites, half loop possibility
This panorama-heavy upland hike rolls through a mix of woods and fields atop the Blue Ridge. Leave Hog Camp Gap on the AT to scale Cole Mountain, with its vistas and highland meadows. Descend to Cowcamp Gap, leaving the AT on the Old Hotel Trail, where a rolling track takes you through more mixed woods. You can cut off the trip halfway near the trailhead or join the Henry Lanum Trail to make a near figure eight. Scale Mount Pleasant, 4,021 feet, where dual summits deliver spectacular panoramas. Ridge run over Pompey Mountain before completing the circuit.
The Camping: Overnight at the Cowcamp Gap shelter, or at the head of Little Cove Creek. Ridgetop sites are available near Mount Pleasant.
What You Need to Know: A spring, accessed on a spur trail, serves the ridgetop campsites near Mount Pleasant.
- Hulls Drive-in
- Virginia Military Institute
- Glen Maury Park
- Original Italian Pizza
THREE RIDGES WILDERNESS LOOP
Photo Credit: Johnny Molloy
Nearest Town: Amherst
How Long: 14.5-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,660 low point, 3,940 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: N37° 54.101', W78° 59.113'
Why Go: Wilderness, views aplenty, streams, Campbell Creek Falls
This circuit adventure delivers both ridgetop panoramas and streamside scenery in federally designated Three Ridges Wilderness. The Appalachian Trail leads past several outcrops and views as it traverses the spine of Three Ridges. These views are spread out along the route, and include another vista from Chimney Rock. Eventually, the AT drops off the ridgeline into Harpers Creek where there are aquatic campsites. To complete the loop, join the Mau-Har Trail. It meanders the west slope of Three Ridges before dropping into Campbell Creek. Visit 50-foot Campbell Creek Falls. Close the loop by ascending Campbell Creek, passing lesser cascades.
The Camping: Tent sites and one shelter are available on the AT while streamside camps are located along Campbell Creek.
What You Need to Know: This backpack, though short, does have multiple ups and downs.
- Luminhaus B & B
- The Briar Patch Restaurant
- James River State Park
- Rockcliffe Farm Retreat
APPALACHIAN TRAIL, MOORMANS RIVER LOOP
Nearest Town: Charlottesville
How Long: 18.1-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,130 low point, 3,110 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: N38° 9.174', W78° 46.366'
Why Go: Views, waterfalls, swimming holes, trout fishing, homesites
This loop in the southern end of Shenandoah National Park takes you along the crest of the Blue Ridge into the upper Moormans River watershed and back around to the high country. Start on the AT and savor some views before entering the North Fork Moormans River valley. Visit Big Branch Falls before reaching South Fork Moormans River valley, where deep pools and waterfalls await. Ascend the upper part of the valley before rejoining the AT and cruising the high country on the park’s rocky spine. In late spring and summer, bring a fishing rod and swimming trunks.
The Camping: Backpackers will find sites along the stream valleys, but must comply with Shenandoah National Park regulations and obtain a backcountry camping permit, available at entrance stations.
What You Need to Know: This loop entails several crossings of the South Fork and North Fork Moormans River. Bring hiking poles for balance.
- Continental Divide Restaurant
- Monticello Wine Tour and Coach Company
- Sherando Lake Recreation Area
- Humpback Rocks Visitor Center
BEARFENCE MOUNTAIN, CONWAY RIVER LOOP
Nearest Town: Elkton
How Long: 12.0-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,210 low point, 3,440 high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: N38° 28.068', W78° 27.445'
Why Go: Waterfalls, views, Bearfence Mountain Rock Scramble
This challenging loop has it all -- overlooks, waterfalls, and geologically exciting hiking. Leave the Blue Ridge and follow the scenic Conway River down through the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area. Next, head into the high country on the rarely trampled Slaughter Trail, passing a pioneer homesite. Pick up the Appalachian Trail then come to the Bearfence Mountain Rock Scramble. The scramble is doable with a full backpack. Fantastic panoramas open in all directions, including the Conway River drainage from where you came, Fork Mountain, Jones Mountain and Cat Knob -- one of the best views in Shenandoah National Park. The last part of the hike traces the Appalachian Trail along the Blue Ridge back to the trailhead.
The Camping: Backpackers will find sites along the lower Conway River as well as the upper Devils Ditch. The Bearfence Mountain Hut is available along the AT.
What you need to know: The trail travels through Shenandoah National Park and Rapidan WMA. A permit is needed to overnight within the park but get a permit anyway if you camp in Rapidan WMA, to let rangers know why your car is at the trailhead overnight.
- Ciro’s Italian Eatery
- Paddle Shenandoah River
- South River Falls
APPALACHIAN TRAIL, THORNTON HOLLOW LOOP
Nearest Town: Sperryville/Luray
How Long: 15.4-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 1,440’ low point, 2,960’ high point
GPS trailhead coordinates: N38° 43.439', W78° 19.198'
Why Go: National park level scenery, old homesites, pretty river, some views
Backpack the North District of Shenandoah National Park. Travel the once-populated Thornton Hollow and take a walk through history. Camp along North Fork Thornton River. Explore the midlands along Hull School Trail. Visit Bolen Cemetery and hike up Keyser Run Fire Road into the high country. Overnight at the headwaters of the Piney River and complete your loop on a pleasant stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The hiking is neither long nor hard. Trout anglers and history buffs will especially enjoy this backpacking adventure.
The Camping: Backpackers will find sites along the Thornton River and upper Piney River along the stream valley, but must comply with Shenandoah National Park regulations and obtain a backcountry camping permit, available at entrance stations.
What you Need to Know: There are four river crossings on the upper Thornton River Trail. These crossings will be easy rock hops in summer but can be troublesome during after prolonged rains.
- Luray Caverns
- Big Meadows Lodge
- Victorian Inn
- Paddle or fish South Fork Shenandoah River