AT Section 5 Preview

It may not be another big 300-mile monster like the last 2, but I’m pretty excited about this section.  Not only for the beautiful scenery to expect in the Shenandoah Valley, but also for reaching a major mental milestone: Halfway to Katahdin!  Halfway done with the Appalachian Trail!  Well, sort of…

At milepost 1023.4, Harpers Ferry is recognized within the community as the unofficial mid-point of the AT, even though technically it is 36 miles further at Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  One can hike through the majesty of Shenandoah National Park (SNP), or take to canoe and oar to “aqua blaze” up the Shenandoah River. Both the trail and the river end pass through this small town of 300 people nestled in the NW corner of West Virginia, our 5th state of the tour.  Country Roads, take me home, to the place I belong…

  • Start of Section:  Waynesboro, VA (861.7)
  • End of Section:  Harpers Ferry, WV (1023.4)
  • Total Miles:  161.7
  • Total Days:  9
  • Avg Daily Miles: 17.9
  • Town Stops:  3

General Strategy for Section 5

  • Coming out from Waynesboro (VA not PA), the trail is relatively moderate terrain the first 50 miles.  Almost immediately, you enter SNP which requires a camping permit.  This was needed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well, but could be purchased online before starting the trail.  This time, you’ll need to pick one up (for free) at the south entrance to the park.  It allows you 14 days in the park, so get moving.
  • In SNP, the AT shelters are called “huts” and can be packed on the weekends. Backcountry “stealth” camping is allowed, but make sure to follow the LNT rules.
  • Perched at the top of Big Flat Mountain at mile 888, the trail skirts the Loft Mountain Campground, where there is resupply options, laundry, showers, campsites, etc.
  • After 30 more miles of mini-mountain scaling on the trail, you come to another national park, Big Meadows. SNP is known for its blackberries, my favorite fruit. And Big Meadows Lodge is known for their blackberry shake, my favorite shake flavor. It is a thru-hiker tradition to partake in this shake, and I can taste it now.  I’ll probably have to get 2 … or 3 … Hello Neiman!
  • As you continue through these blue ridge mountains, you eventually pass close to Front Royal, VA and then Manassas Gap.  Both give you road access for a short hitchhike into town for any needs,
  • At mile 986.6, you pass into Sky Meadows State Park Visitors Center, with a chance to use real restrooms, the soda machine, and a real campsite … but arrive before dusk or you are out of luck.
  • The trail is now hovering at only 1000 ft elevation, with many stream crossings and footbridges to anticipate … but don’t be deceived into thinking this is easier because of its proximity to sea level. The next 13.5 miles between Ashby Gap and Bears Den is infamously known as The Roller Coaster. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this means, just a non-stop up and down as you make your way to the coveted 1000-mile mark of the trail. It doesn’t look to be as bad as people say, but then again, it’s the only one with a warning sign
  • When you reach Bears Den Rocks at mile 1002, you can (and I plan to) stay at the Bears Den Hostel, a castle-like stone lodge owned and operated by the ATC.
  • A couple miles later you officially exit The Roller Coaster and cross the VA-WV border, where you can get a view of the Devil’s Race Course Boulder Field, which has a cool name and history.  Not sure if you’ll be able to hear the “devil run through the depths of hell” from here … but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open.
  • Just 20 more miles and you finally reach your destination … Harper’s Ferry!

Harper’s Ferry is an iconic and historic town, with tons of culture.  For thru-hikers, it is the center point of the trail, where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is headquartered.  Here you can log yourself in the official registry, take your official hiker photo, and much more.  Harper’s Ferry is a short drive or rail to Washington DC, so this is also where I’ll take a short break to visit with friends and family.  Hello Neiman!

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