Live Like a Local: 5 Winter Hikes on the AT

 

I almost turned back. The fog had settled on Afton Mountain like a heavy sleep, as it often does without notice. This was the kind of fog that keeps people off the mountain and at home with a good book. But I had driven from the valley to the mountaintop and had brought all my hiking gear along, so resolutely I parked along the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap. Fog or no, I was going to keep my New Year’s tradition of hiking.

I chose, as my hike du jour, the stretch of the Appalachian Trail that runs from Rockfish Gap to the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter (5 miles one way). The Wolfe Shelter is a popular destination for Boy Scout troops and others interested in a short backpacking trip. Given my time limitations, however, I was planning to hike only two of the five miles then turn around. This section of the AT is relatively level and therefore perfect for those not adapted to strenuous climbs.

Follow the stone stairwell off the Blue Ridge Parkway to discover the trailhead for this section of the AT.
The AT is well marked, especially at Rockfish Gap.

Waynesboro’s proximity to the Appalachian Trail (AT) means that the city draws the rugged thru-hiker who needs to resupply, the adventurous resident who wants to hit the trail, and the curious tourist hunting for a place to set foot on the AT. The point at Rockfish Gap is one of the easiest and most visible access points for the AT. Near the busy junction of the Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway, Interstate 64, and Route 250, the AT quietly emerges from the woods and crosses these thoroughfares before slipping back into the woods again. Even in the fog, the trailhead is easy to spot at Rockfish Gap. A post with double white blazes painted on it signifies the point at which the trail drops away from the Blue Ridge Parkway and heads south into the woods. A newly installed set of stone stairs makes the path even more evident.

After parking the car within sight of the trailhead, I zipped up my waterproof jacket, found the stairwell, and descended into the mist. A few yards further, I encountered the trail kiosk where a kind soul had left a sturdy walking stick. “Trail magic,” I thought to myself, using the term that AT thru-hikers use for such serendipitous provisions. I took the stick.

Winter hikes have a way of scouring the soul the way we scour our houses at the start of a year. The instant I set foot on the trail, I was glad I had come. I was enclosed in a white world where only small sections of the trail were revealed to me at a time. The trees varied in their shades of gray and black—and some on the outskirts of my vision were but the suggestion of trees. Nearly all their leaves had dropped by now; they were narrow, graceful hands reaching to the sky. The forest was completely hushed except for the sound of dripping and the occasional chirp of a bird. The air was so moist, my eyelashes accumulated droplets of water. Closed in like this, one is not preoccupied with vistas, with landscapes far off, but rather focused on the trail ahead, on the pattern of fog and trees and stones in a very small frame of vision. A natural time for introspection and soul searching.img_5078

The AT is always designated by a white blaze or, when the trail changes direction, by two white blazes.

My thoughts were soon interrupted by the tumbling sound of a nearby water feature. Sure enough, I crossed a soggy patch of mud and rocks where a stream passed through. The trail continued at what felt like a gentle loss in elevation, then climbed again, and then shifted in direction (marked by a double white blaze, as opposed to the usual single white blaze). Another larger stream lay before me, strewn with large rocks to make it easy to cross. I was grateful at these junctures for the walking stick, which provided an extra balance point.

 

Occasionally I passed the remains of a decaying log where squirrels had sat to eat their lunch, leaving scatterings of hickory shells behind. Otherwise, my hike—just under two hours total—disclosed neither people nor wildlife. However, upon checking the time at the halfway point, I was somewhat irked to find I had perfect cell coverage. Civilization is never very far away these days.

Streams with fallen logs take on an ethereal quality in the mist.
Streams with fallen logs take on an ethereal quality in the mist.

On my return, the clouds began to lift slightly and lighten in color. If the day were clear, I would have had stunning views of the Rockfish Valley. I enumerated to myself the benefits of winter hikes: unobstructed views; invigorating temperatures; austere beauty in nature; tranquil, solitary stretches for thinking. All the things that I’d experienced in the past two hours. The fog hadn’t lessened the pleasure at all; only heightened it.

As I passed the kiosk, I returned my trusty walking stick to its post so it will be ready for the next hiker—maybe you!

Ready to try a winter hike on the AT?

*Remember, always consult the websites for Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway for updated travel information and closures. *
  1. Rockfish Gap to the Paul Wolfe Shelter. Easy to moderate, 10 miles roundtrip—or may be hiked in smaller increments as I did. An easy-to-access, well maintained section of the AT. Especially suited to city dwellers who want to taste the wilderness but keep civilization close at hand.
  2. Humpback Rocks. Strenuous, 2 miles roundtrip. One of the most popular hikes in the area. Park at MP 6.0 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This trail has a steep ascent but amply rewards with breathtaking views of the Shenandoah Valley at the top. Like the Riprap Trail, it only connects with the AT for a small portion of the hike, but ambitious hikers can extend that.
  3. Glass Hollow Overlook. Moderate, 2.5 miles roundtrip. Park at the same lot for Humpback Rocks. Rather than ascending to the rocks, however, you will descend through the woods for ¼ mile until meeting up with the AT. Take the AT north to Glass Hollow Overlook for a view of the Rockfish Valley. Backtrack to your car or add the Dobie Mountain Loop to extend your hike.
  4. Riprap Trail to Chimney Rock. Moderate, 3.4 miles roundtrip. Although only using the AT a short distance, this hike offers landmarks and viewpoints, making it a perfect day-hike.
  5. Blackrock Summit Trail. Easy, 1 mile roundtrip. A great hike for families. The trail culminates in a large outcropping of rocks that kids—both the mountain-goat and human variety—will want to scale. Panoramic views.

In addition to these, Shenandoah National Park offers a long list of suggested hikes, complete with detailed maps.