AT Section 4 Preview

Damascus.  Not even 25% done with the trail, but so much will have been already experienced on the way North to Maine.  Most people take a few days off in Damascus, usually to enjoy the popular Trail Days festival.  My start date has me passing through this trail town about 6 weeks too early, so I’m sad to say I won’t get to experience the hiker parade, cottage vendor booths, nor food smorgasbord that makes it so famous. Maybe I’ll check it out next year to honor my 2018 hike experience, but when you are on a strict schedule to finish by August, you have to make some sacrifices!

So, after a day to recover from the 300-mile section to Damascus … it’s onward and upward to the grueling 400-mile section leading to the feet of Shenandoah National Park. No pain no gain, right?  If it was easy, everyone would do it, right? Hello Neiman!

  • Start of Section:  Damascus, VA (mile 468.8)
  • End of Section:  Waynesboro, VA (861.7)
  • Total Miles:  392.9
  • Total Days:  22
  • Avg Daily Miles: 17.9
  • Town Stops:  6

General Strategy for Section 4

  • Coming out of Damascus, the uphill battle starts slowly with only a few 1000-foot elevation climbs and drops over the next 20 miles. But then the trail reminds you what is all about with a 3000-foot climb to Whitetop Mountain (mile 489.9).
  • Just before you hit a big milestone of the 500-mile mark, is the rock tunnel known as Fatman’s Squeeze. This narrow path between boulders makes for some good Kodak moments and goofy hijinks.
  • Not sure how often, but much of the trail seems to coincide with Horse Trails in Virginia. I’ve never loved sharing a footpath with stock, as they don’t seem to respect it quite as much as we 2-legged folk do. Fingers crossed this doesn’t ruin a good time.
  • Around mile 515 is Dickey Gap, with highway access to Troutville for resupply needs. At 2.7 miles south, Troutville fails to meet my “resupplying within 1 mile of the trail” rule, so I’ll just wave hello as I pass on.
  • After 4 days on the trail, food should be just about dried up, so now is time to leverage the ‘within 1 mile” rule with a stop at the Shell Convenience Store in Atkins/Groseclose. While there, many hikers enjoy The Barn’s 16 oz Hiker Burger to ease their hiker hunger. I’m pretty sure I’ll be sick of granola bars by mile 542, so … yeah.  No time to stop for a bed though, there are 2 more shelters to hit before our next planned overnight town stay.
  • 7 shelters in a row since Damascus and it’s time for a much-needed break. Hello Woods Hole Hostel!  At mile 623 this “slice of heaven not to be missed” is nestled in at Sugar Run Gap. To steal a page from AWOL, this 1880’s chestnut-log cabin emphasizes a sustainable living through beekeeping, farming, organic gardening, yoga, massage therapy and communal eating. Sounds like a nice place to lay one’s head, rest one’s feet, and sooth one’s mind. All for $15.
  • After picking up a resupply box at Woods Hole, it’s back on the trail for 10 miles of tough (and steep) downward hiking to Pearlsburg, VA.  If needed, Pearlsburg is another good resupply point (though also possible to do from yesterday’s hostel).
  • The next few dozen miles repeat what looks to be some bluff hiking.  Up flat flat flat down … repeat. However, this section will pass through some famous noteworthy sights like:
  • Stony Creek Valley – trail town
  • Wind Rock – where you can take your first Backpacker Magazine stereotypical cover page photo.
  • Keffer Oak – a 300 year old oak tree that is 18′ around. This is the 2nd largest oak tree on the trail for those who were keeping track. Can you name the largest?
  • Sinking Creek Mountain – the Eastern Continental Divide, where rainfall chooses to head west to the Mississippi River or east to the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Audie Murphy Monument – dedicated to the most decorated US Soldier of WWII, just off the AT on a short blue blaze side trail.
  • Note to hikers, I’ve read “footbridge” or “water crossing” more times than I can count during prep for this section. Better have water shoes handy!
  • I’m not staying there, but mile 695 has something called Pickle Branch shelter. I’ve always thought “pickle” to be one of the most fun words in the English language, so I’m glad to see it making its mark on our long-distance trails. 🙂
  • Hopefully, these 5 days of hiking live up to the prep because I’m eager to see all those sights!  But at mile 702, it’s time for another break and resupply. The Four Pines Hostel is our destination this time, just outside of Catawba, VA. I’ll be honest, this garage-turned-hostel doesn’t sound too exciting, but at least it has a hot shower. :-/
  • But fear not, the best photo opportunity of the trail is next!  McAfee Knob is well-known for being the iconic trip photo for every thru-hiker’s experience. If you don’t believe me, just do a google image search and be amazed for yourself. It would reeeeeeally suck to reach that summit on a cloudy day.  It is honestly worth waiting for it to clear, even if that means losing a day of hiking.
  • Are we done yet?  Not quite, but getting close.  Hopefully, those Knob photos fueled your excitement to keep reading…
  • At mile 727.8 we finally reach our next resupply. For those keeping track, this is the 4th since Damascus.  Daleville/Troutville is a decent sized trail town, and even has its own festival called Troutville Trail Days.  Unfortunately, again, I’m about 6 weeks early so no fun for me.  Many people camp for free at the Fire Station, but I feel like it’s been far too long since a real hostel so my plan is to stay at the Howard Johnson’s Express or similar.
  • The next 100 miles are another flurry of knobs, overlooks, and views.  But also, a swimming hole at Jennings Creek … curious to see what this is. And The Guillotine, a weird rock tunnel formation awaiting that looks like it sounds.
  • This post is getting long, so let’s get it over with. The last resupply breaks my 1-mile rule, so I may have to rethink this. But as of now, I will need to hitchhike 9 miles from US 60 (806.4) to the town of Buena Vista. With places like the Amish Cupboard, the experience should be worth the frustration, but I may be better off just carrying 7 days of food to avoid a lost day waiting on cars. I think I planned this just so I can say I hitched one time (you know, to say I got the full joke experience), but I’ll have to look closer at this once there.
  • And finally, we make our way to Rockfish Gap, just outside of Waynesboro and home to a popular night’s rest at Stanimals 328 Hostel. With a resupply box and warm bed, this will end my hike of Section 4.

The Appalachian Trail actually goes through two towns of Waynesboro, this one in Virginia and another in Pennsylvania. Virginia is one of the most picturesque parts of this trail, and if you made it through this whole blog post you can understand why. The section is long, the details are aplenty, but the trail does not look to disappoint. Nor does what comes next in Section 5 – namely the beautiful Shenandoah National Park. The adventure continues there, Hello Neiman!

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