54 Miles of Northern Virginia in April: Harpers Ferry to Front Royal, Part 1

This article originally appeared on The Trek on June 21, 2022. Read it here.

It could be said that my previous post turned a bit serious. After all, I decided to reflect on an intense, difficult day of hiking on Franconia Ridge last year when the weather gave me a scare.

Something cool happened though. All of a sudden I had a page full of people sharing their own stories about particularly troubling or scary hiking days. I think it’s important to shed light on these types of stories just to remind us all of the seriousness certain hiking conditions can create, and also to show each other that it’s OK to admit we’ve had scary or tough moments while hiking.

I’ve noticed that I tend to gravitate toward writing about the realities of the trail rather than the happy-go-lucky posts, but I’m about to do a complete 180 with this one. I had a wonderful section hike at the end of April/beginning of May this year where almost everything went right, and it’s totally worthy of a “living the dream” type of post. At the end of the day, it’s these types of hikes that keep us coming back! This hike brought my completed Appalachian Trail mileage to somewhere around 1,712.

The Goals – Eat a Lot and Sleep Outside

My hiking partner and I planned for this hike to take a week, which is the perfect length to work on some particular goals as practice for longer hikes. The main objective this time? Eat a lot!

On long sections in the past, my thought process has gravitated toward focusing on mileage per day, as tends to happen on long-distance trails. Looking back, there are so many times when it would have been more beneficial for me to hike lower mileages and allow extra time in the day to eat and rest so that I had more energy. I don’t have a lot of weight to lose, so this was a great opportunity to focus on some new ways to get myself to eat a little extra, even when I wasn’t always feeling hungry.

The other main objective was to make sure we didn’t sleep indoors on this hike.

Working on putting together 5 days worth of food.

Wait, what? On a backpacking trip?

It’s easier to spend money sleeping indoors than one might think. The biggest culprit is the travel to and from the trail. It’s always tiring to travel, and depending on how logistically challenging said travel is, it can take some mental commitment to arrive near the trail and start hiking within the same day, rather than spending the night in a hostel or motel and beginning the hike the next morning.

It can also be difficult to leave the trail without spending the night somewhere because the need for a shower and clean clothes is inevitable.

Add in combinations such as a stormy day plus the temptation of a hostel close to the trail, or half a day spent getting into town and resupplying with lodging options right next door, and next thing you know you’ve spent money on three nights indoors in a week of hiking. Our active goal was to make sure we didn’t do this.

April 27: Arriving in Harpers Ferry and Hiking Four Miles to Camp

Day one goal of hiking the same day we arrived – check! We landed at Washington-Dulles airport in the early afternoon and spent some time in the airport re-assembling our packs from travel mode to hiking mode. I’m an airline employee and fly standby, so pre-arranging a shuttle to the trailhead can be difficult. Luckily, I’d taken an Uber from Dulles Airport to Harpers Ferry several times before, so I knew that catching an Uber would be reliable.

The ride from Washington D.C. to Harpers Ferry is gorgeous, dotted with rolling hills, vineyards, wealthy homes, and country roads. Our uber driver seemed enthusiastic that he now had an excuse to stop at his favorite winery on the way home to buy a bottle. He pulled up in Harpers Ferry directly next to a quiet scene of someone giving a lecture to a large group of people spread out in the grass, precisely where we had requested to be dropped off. I tried to laugh off the self-consciousness as I quietly unloaded our packs onto the street and could feel eyes upon us.

Harpers Ferry has a bridge that crosses the Potomac River with beautiful views of forested hills jutting up from either side, and we took a moment to walk out and back along it even though we would be headed in the opposite direction. The last time I stood on this bridge was just a few days before an unfortunate train derailment in 2019, after which damage to the pedestrian bridge had to be repaired. I wanted to see it once more in its recovered state, and soon after, we set off.

A view of Harpers Ferry, WV and the bridge from a day hike in 2019, two days before the train derailment.

This was a little milestone for both of us, as it marked our first time hiking a section of the trail southbound. I had never hiked this section of trail before, and although my hiking partner had thru-hiked northbound the year before, he was going to get to experience this part of the trail from a new perspective.

Four laid-back miles brought us to a small tentsite for the night, where I set to work on my personal first-night-of-a-hike tradition of having a campfire, which we later shared with another section hiker and his dog. The temperature was crisp but the woods were calm, and we couldn’t have asked for the first day to be any smoother.

April 28th: Eight Miles to Blackburn Tentsite

An aspect of this hike that was important to us was to make sure we planned mileage per day that we knew we could more than reasonably achieve based on our abilities. I will heavily vouch for this approach to anyone planning a section hike. It’s easy to tack on more hiking or camping at the end, but very frustrating to be pushing and rushing to an endpoint in order to leave on time, hence our eight-mile goal for the first full day of the hike. There were a couple points that my former thru-hiker partner wanted to re-visit, and we knew we’d have plenty of time for them.

Sweet Springs Store

The first was a gas station about three-tenths of a mile off-trail called Sweet Springs Store, only about two miles into our hiking day. We purposely skipped breakfast at camp that morning with the intention of filling up on a nostalgic gas station breakfast sandwich. It makes me laugh thinking about what a stereotypical thru-hiker memory that is. In all reality, it’s a gas station sandwich, but in thru-hiker world, it’s THE BEST. Ah yes, the trail immersing us in the reminder to appreciate the little things. (Bonus: Goal of eating more in all ways possible – check!)

Our pit stop at the gas station was totally worth it, but it was a swift one because I was barely halfway through trying not to appear creepy as I people-watched at the gas pumps while eating when I started to shiver. Though the late-April sun shone, temperatures on the first several days of our hike were in the 30s every morning.

David Lesser Memorial Shelter

Two more miles brought us to David Lesser Memorial Shelter, another point of nostalgia for my partner, and I quickly understood why. This shelter overlooked a sloped peaceful wooded area, and had a swinging bench that asked for our attention. I was thankful we had plenty of time in our day to enjoy these places.

Taking a quiet break on the swing at David Lesser Memorial Shelter.

Each time the bench rocked forward my legs caught the sun’s warmth, helping me stay solitary yet comfortable. My almond butter, however, did not reap the same benefit. I learned that almond butter in a narrow packet is not a prime choice for chilly temperatures, as it hardened and I couldn’t squeeze it out. Noted.

Blackburn Tentsite

Four more miles and we had plenty of time to explore the best tent pad option for the night at Blackburn tentsite. This tenting area was located off of a side trail just uphill from the Blackburn Trail Center, a cabin owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and maintained by a live-in caretaker. The trail center would be our water source for the night, so we hiked down to find the water spigot on the side of the main building. There was no one around while we briefly filled up, but I could easily picture the area full of hikers and car campers, both in the bunkhouse complete with a wood stove on a rainy night or staying in the main cabin.

Another side note we learned at this water spigot – flush your water filter before coming on trail if it’s been sitting unused for a while to save the pain of getting it to start flowing again! Lesson learned.

That night turned out to be our favorite of the entire trip. We were there so early in the afternoon that we had first pick of a perfectly flat tent spot that fit both of our tents, facing a view of the horizon in the distance dabbled with the scattered, open trees in front of us that marked the edge of the steep descent down the hill below. My partner rested in his tent while I stretched my legs on a picnic table bench and took in the blue sky above.

The perfect tent spot and a Virginia sunset.

There were ample piles of thick firewood all around the tentsite that must have been maintained by the caretakers.  We took advantage of a few pieces and made a fire in one of the fire pits near our tents. This hike was the first time I was experimenting with going stoveless, but I had a little fun with the grate over the firepit and made myself some fried spam and warm ramen for dinner.

Although I didn’t carry a stove, I still brought my pot and it paid off!

Temperatures dropped quickly as dusk set in, yet I sat by the fire until after dark, watching what we think were the occasional locals briskly hiking up and then back down the side trail that bordered the tent site, and writing in my journal after my partner went to sleep. It was only then that another hiker appeared and said he might come back after checking out the sites at the Blackburn Trail Center below. I fell asleep swiftly and peacefully that night and never heard him show up again until noticing his tent in the morning. I’m normally a late hiker but have also learned that arriving at camp early enough to have alone time before other hikers show up is a wonderful thing.

April 29th: Eight Miles to Bears Den Hostel

I woke up earlier than usual that morning and hesitated to leave my sleeping bag because of the 30-degree temperatures, but I was rewarded with a golden sunrise that I would have missed had I not finally been forced from my tent to pee. Those cold mornings made me feel like I was on a late fall hike, and had been the subject of pre-hike discussions for days. Should I bring my warm puffy jacket? Should I hike in shorts? We finally settled on the fact that there is no perfect solution when temperatures will range from the low 30s to upper 80s within a weeklong hike – either skimp on some things and be a little uncomfortable when it’s cold or be a little uncomfortable carrying extra weight when it’s hot. I opted to be comfortable in the cold, and I definitely made the right choice by bringing my warmer layers for those first few days.

Pictured: A Virginia sunrise. Not pictured: The shivers of emerging from a sleeping bag when it’s 30 degrees.

This day included a fun milestone on the Appalachian Trail – the beginning of the rollercoaster! The next 14 miles known as “The Rollercoaster” would include short but frequent steep climbs and descents with few views. As we hiked eight miles that day, my partner declared that it wasn’t so bad, because “right when you get tired of going up, you start going down, and when you get tired of going down, you go right back up.”

The north end of the 14 miles deemed “The Rollercoaster.”

Shortly after beginning the rollercoaster, we reached another fun milestone – the last time going southbound the trail crosses the West Virginia/Virginia state line. The trail crosses into West Virginia for a very short time, but at that moment I could say another state was complete for me!

Cool temperatures but clear sunny skies brought us to Bears Den hostel nearly right along the trail in the very early afternoon. We stopped into the bunkroom to take a shower for a few bucks and had the luxury of being the only ones there, although I rinsed off hastily with the underlying knowledge that hikers would start showing up as the day went on.

When a hostel is this close to the trail, it’s nice to take advantage of a pit stop.

Bear Chase Brewery

Feeling squeaky clean despite dirty clothes, we walked down the road for another nostalgic stop for my partner- the Bear Chase Brewery. Normally when I’m on a short hike, I just want to stay in the woods. This hike gave me a fresh perspective, as I really enjoyed having time to take full advantage of all of the little stop-offs, especially the ones my hiking partner so fondly remembered as mini oases on his thru-hike. He had been talking about getting the same giant pretzel he remembered since day one of this hike, and I downed a burger and a beer while enjoying the view of the sunny Virginia countryside.

What would this stop be without trying the A.T. Appalachian Trail wheat beer?

It’s moments like this that I felt so thankful to have someone with me, although at times I really enjoy hiking alone. I wouldn’t have been very relaxed in a place like the brewery if I were by myself and probably would have skipped it, but we had the chance to truly chill and see every sight.

We thought we might hike a little farther that evening, but upon returning to the hostel, more hikers started showing up and we found ourselves with full bellies and caught in enjoyable conversation. Throw in the possibility of washing our dirty clothes if we stayed, and we got sucked into the vortex and decided to tent on the lawn area near the hostel for the night.

I consider this our one slip-up in terms of our goal of not sleeping indoors at all. Did we actually sleep indoors? No, we were outside in our tents and it was another cold night. Picture it like camping in someone’s backyard. But it still was a paid spot to tent, 15 bucks, and it was the one night where I felt like we let ourselves be swayed and spent money vs. just continuing down the trail another half mile to the next tent site.

We actually regretted it as the hostel grew rather full by nightfall, but the morning turned out to be pretty nice with a self-serve pancake breakfast – more on that in part 2. Most of the time I just prefer to be at a campsite in the woods rather than in a place where I have to share a bathroom with ten other people.

Thanks for stopping in, and I’ll catch up with part two of this hike in a few days!

You can read part 2 here!

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