I completed a four day, three night solo hike in the Jefferson National Forest area near Damascus, VA.  I stole this route from a longer, faster trip that J had planned but only completed a portion of.  I reduced the milage, and chose to stay in shelters each night (although I carried my Tarptent just in case).  It was easy planning when I had such detailed itinerary and available maps off of which to base my plans.  My original plan was foiled by sickness, but I had great hike despite shortening my route.  This area can easily be done with a weekend trip, or extended into a multi-day, even week-long adventure.  I hope to go back and do the pieces I missed in the future.

Everyone who hikes knows the AT. This portion lives up to everything one might expect from a well traveled trail. The map was detailed, there was a lot of good beta about water sources and campsites, and there were places to pitch a tent all along the way. The shelters were well maintained, had nice springs funneled through pipes for easy access, and even had well kept pit toilets.

The Iron Mountain Trail (IMT) was part of the AT until 1972, and is now a mixed use trail. It clearly gets less use, as the shelter logs had almost no recent activity. The shelters were fine, but not as well kept as the AT shelters. Their springs left much to be desired, and there were no pit toilets. It is still a really beautiful trail that follows a gorgeous, flat, high ridge.

Month: First week of April;  Temps: highs in 50s, lows just above freezing, rain one day; Map: Nat Geo Grayson Highland’s Map

Day Start End Trail Mileage
Day 1 US 58 Crossing Saunders Shelter AT 10.97 mi
Day 2 Saunders Shelter Thomas Knob Shelter AT 19 mi
Day 3 Thomas Knob Shelter Straight Branch Shelter AT to IMT 16 mi
Day 4 Straight Branch Shelter Damascus IMT 12 mi

I drove on the first day.  It’s a six hour drive from DC to Damascus, requiring an early start and a few rest stops along the way.  The travel was straightforward, and Damascus is an easy town to navigate with a well marked free public parking lot.  I was concerned that I would have trouble finding the trail, or feel uncomfortable walking through town, but as soon as I left my car with my pack I was immediately approached by two separate groups of people asking me if I was thru hiking and if I needed directions or a lift.  Damascus has a strong “trail culture” in every sense, and there were already a surprising number of thru-hikers making their way north.

The walk through town is short along the Virginia Creeper bike/walk trail. The AT is well marked, and the intersection with US 58 is an easy transition. Up a short flight of stairs and I was on a trail the rest of the way to the shelter. The trail is rolling, with some ups and downs. There’s another intersection with the VA Creeper Trail and the river, and I crossed a few small streams, but they could possibly be seasonal water sources only. There were also numerous sites to pitch a tent, so you could easily start much later and walk a much short distance.  Saunders is just off the AT on a .2 mi spur trail that wraps back around to the AT.  It was also well marked, and easy to find.  Two other thru-hikers were there for the night, and another arrived late and slept in a hammock.  There was also plenty of flat space under dry pines around the shelter to pitch a tent if the shelter is full.

I’m not an early riser, and I also did not sleep well that night.  I just wasn’t bone weary enough to get a good night’s sleep.  I got a late start the next morning – after eating my poptarts and packing up my bags I only managed to be walking at 8:30.  I knew I had big miles and big elevation ahead of me but I did not expect The Worst Cold of All Time to attack my lungs that same day.  I slogged through the first six miles to the next shelter, and discovered that I had spent four and half hours hiking at a pace almost less than half of what I wanted.  Uphill was killing me.  I’m a slow uphill hiker to begin with, but I also felt like I was breathing under water any time I started to gain elevation.  I spent the rest of the ascent from the shelter to Whitetop intersection (7 mi) thinking about quitting, thumbing a ride back to Damascus, and whether I was going to die from asphyxiation by myself in the woods (wouldn’t be the worst way to go, but I wasn’t quite ready).  The climb was brutal.  The trail is clean, there were few rocks, the walking itself wasn’t hard, but it was a consistent and painful increase in elevation for extended mileage. There was water at enough points on this whole day that I only had to carry at liter and a half at all points.  This saved me a huge amount of weight.

During this time I let my feet get wasted.  I was so focused on feeling miserable and wondering how I could get home fastest, and where the best place would be to quit, that I ignored hot spots all over the place.  This was the second time I’ve done a long hike in a brand new pair of Cascadias, and the same blisters happened last time. I developed huge blisters on the sides of my feet and my whole pinky toe became swollen.

I got to the junction of Whitetop Mountain Road at 3:30 pm and got a second wind.  I decided to see how long it would take me to get to Elk Garden, and found myself finishing the two mile down hill trip in less than 45 minutes. There is a well established campsite at Elk Garden, but no water as far as I could tell, and the maps says “no camping”. I was feeling a lot better about life, and only had 4 miles to go to Thomas Knob Shelter.  They were all uphill, but I felt comforted that I could still move at a snail’s mile an hour pace and make it to the shelter shortly after dark.  I pushed on.

The climb was tiring.  Chex mix tasted like heaven.  Water was important.  My feet continued to fall apart because I refused to stop and deal with them.  But I arrived well before dark, and was greeted by numerous other campers and two ponies.  It’s a two story shelter, but it’s a very popular one.  There were numerous campsites near the shelter, and a few less than a mile beyond if the shelter was full.  We had a beautiful but windy and cold night.

I knew I was going to shorten Day 3 because of my chest cold and my blistered feet, mostly in order to shorten my 22 mile day on the last day.  My original plan was to follow the AT to the VA Highlands Trail, to Scales Parking area, then do some loops in the wilderness on the First Peak Tr., Kabel Tr. and Big Wilson Tr., then looping back to the AT to head to the Old Orchard Shelter.  This is a beautiful section, and while I’m content with my decision to cut it, it was a big loss.

Instead, I took a much easier route and cut of a lot of mileage by using the Pine Mountain Trail about 2 mi past the Thomas Knob Shelter. It was a lovely trail, but in the trees – no ridge views and no ponies. I love a good spring forest walk, though. This put me at the Old Orchard Shelter fairly quickly, and from there I progressed along the AT again.  The map made it seem like I had a brutal climb ahead of me just after the AT crosses VA 603, and I was worried about feeling sick again.  This climb turned out to be cupcakes and rainbows.  It was an easy graded climb, and I finished it before I even realized how far I’d gone.  At the top of this route, the AT intersects clearly with the IMT.  There’s  “Hurricane Mt. Tr” cutoff on the map, but it is no where to be found in the real woods.  One could bushwhack to cut off a little under a mile, but it probably wouldn’t be worth it.  The IMT is well marked, and quickly brought me to Cherry Tree Shelter.  I was still feeling fine, so I finished by heading to Straight Branch.  Cherry Tree was at the intersection of some forest roads and multi-use trails, and it felt too open and public for me to comfortably camp by myself.  Straight Branch Shelter was on the trail, but in a much more secluded location.

Straight Branch shelter ended up being lovely.  I had the shelter to myself, and enjoyed light rain while under the dry roof.  I enjoyed dinner, read my book, and slept really well.  In the morning, the air was still damp and grey, and I knew I had only 12 mi to finish before the afternoon, so I enjoyed some more reading while the rain trickled on the roof.  It was some of the most pleasant time I’ve spent by myself in quite a long time.

The route out to Damascus continued to be straightforward.  The IMT is well-marked, even if it’s marked in a strange manner.  There was one small mix up just west of the Sandy Flats shelter, where I enjoyed lunch. Shortly after the junction of the forest road, Feather Camp trail, and IMT (all well marked), there is a “hiker’s only” spur that goes off to the left.  It felt strange, but I took it… only to have it look back and hit the Feather Camp trail.  Once I got to the bottom of this spur trail there was a sign pointing me back up the spur towards Damascus.  It was easy to catch my mistake, added a short uphill climb to the struggle happening in my lungs.

The way back to Damascus continued to be straightforward and beautiful.  The ridge is high, and while there are trees, there are still beautiful views of the mountains.  It really gave me a better sense of being in the mountains, rather than in the “hills” the way SNP does.

Overall, it was a beautiful, gratifying trip, even with my route changes and the stress of sickness.  I was so pleased that I didn’t let my week vacation slip by, and that I was able to get back out alone and rebuild some of my self that has been needing some quiet solitude.

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