Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Front Royal, Virginia thru Harper’s Ferry West Virginia
It started to rain as soon as I left the Mountain Home Hostel on Rt 522 in Front Royal, Virginia (969.1). I’d traveled down to Harper’s Ferry from Boston the day before and gotten a shuttle from the train station to the hostel from Scott, the hostel owner. He and his wife (trail names “Anything” and “Possible”) are fixing up a run-down historic farmhouse just 120 steps from the Appalachian Trail and turning it into a B&B.
In the meantime, they have a tiny house (technically a B&B, because breakfast is included) with just four beds that they run on the property, mainly for section hikers and thru-hikers, at the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. Last year, 800 hikers stayed with them.
When I’d arrived in Harper’s Ferry the previous evening it had been 78 degrees out, hot and sunny. I was worried it would be too warm to hike the next day, but it got progressively cooler over the next two weeks, eventually forcing me off the trail when an arctic polar low put southern Pennsylvania into a deep freeze. I wasn’t prepared for such cold temperatures, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Despite the rain, I was feeling good. I set off at a brisk pace, slightly over 2 mph, which I was able to maintain for my entire hike, hill climbs and all. My pack was feeling a heavy with food enough to make it to Harper’s Ferry (1023.1) in West Virginia, some 50 miles north, and my hip belt was feeling little tight around the hips where I’d put on some weight during the winter. I knew that it would burn off quickly however with the 15 mile per day pace that I’d planned.
I stopped after 10 miles at the Manassas Gap Shelter for a long lunch to rest my legs and air out my feet. The sun had come out and I lay on the benches in front of the shelter to catch a few rays. Little did I know that this shelter is known for its resident Copperhead population, although I didn’t see any snakes when I visited.
Refreshed, I packed up my gear and continued to Dicks Dome Shelter, where I planned to spend the night. This a pretty ratty plywood shelter, shaped like a geodesic dome, that will soon be replaced by a new shelter up the hill from the stream that runs in front of it. I met three hikers there, students from GWU, who were backpacking on Spring Break. We ate dinner together and then hit the hay early.
One of the students had a tent and he really struggled to find a decent place to pitch it in the rocky terrain near the shelter. I was glad that I’d brought a hammock because I’d learned how difficult it was to sleep in a tent last year on my section hike from central to northern Virginia. While having a hammock on this trip was much better, but it also presented some unexpected challenges in high wind.
Honestly, the hardest part of hammock camping is getting up the next morning and breaking camp. Hammock camping is so comfortable and so restful, that it’s hard to pull yourself out of the warm cocoon formed by your quilts in the morning. Very hard.
One of the issues with being a Section Hiker is that you need to reestablish a daily routine each time you start hiking the trail after a hiatus. It’d been a year since I’d done a multi-week hike, and I had to develop a new rhythm all over again, ranging from what to eat for breakfast, whether to cook a hot meal or not, when to stop for lunch, what to eat when, when to go to bed, how much water to carry, and so on. It took a few days to get back into the groove.
The next morning, I skipped breakfast and snacked on bars and candy while I walked. I rarely eat a hot breakfast anymore on my hikes in order to get out of camp in a timely fashion, eating as I hike.
My goal for the day was the Sam Moore shelter, about halfway through the dreaded Roller Coaster, a hilly 13.5 mile sequence of climbs and descents between Front Royal and Harper’s Ferry that have an arduous reputation. I hadn’t made any advance plans to stop for the night at this halfway point, but it turned out to be a good strategy to alleviate some of the exertion of hiking this section.
Unfortunately, I’d started to develop a blister on the inside heel of my right foot, which happens sometimes when I break in a new pair of trail shoes (La Sportiva Ultra Raptors) in early spring, since my feet soften up in winter when I hike less. I’d ignored it for a day already, and decided to take a look at it at the A-Rod Shelter, where I cooked up a hot lunch.
My strategy for treating blisters is to keep them as intact as possible, only draining a blister when it becomes painful to walk on it. This prevents infection and forms a natural bandage since a layer of skin remains over the blister site.
I pulled off my sock and saw that I had two blisters, one on top of another, and that the only way to get any relief would be to drain them both. I sterilized my swiss army knife using fire from my stove and and alcohol swab in my first aid kit, and cut a small slit into both blisters. A drop of liquid oozed out and I pressed the remaining puss out until both blisters were flat. This relieved the pain immediately,
Leaving the skin on top of the blisters, I covered them both with a piece of Leukotape, a very sticky cloth tape that is great for protecting hot spots and won’t rub off under a sock. I also use it to cover open blisters, but take it off at night when I sleep to promote healing. Four days later a new layer of skin hade grown back and the skin had hardened, eliminating the need for any additional protection.
After my hot lunch, I got some more water from the spring adjacent to the shelter and continued my hike, passing three hikers who I’d spend that evening with at the Sam Moore shelter.
I like camping at shelters because I enjoy the social contact and because they’re usually situated next to good water sources. But this year, I didn’t sleep in the shelters, pitching a hammock instead most nights in the shelters’ vicinity. Later in my trip I did hang my hammock in two shelters to get out of some particularly nasty weather, but I wasn’t sleeping on the floor as in prior trips. This made for a very different experience and a far more comfortable and quiet night’s sleep, I might add.
Larry, Jesse, and Grant also spent the night in their own tents/ hammocks that night instead of sleeping in the shelter. Jesse and Grant were on the cusp on finishing the Virginia Appalachian Trail, all 550+ miles of it (more than 25% of the entire AT). Their friend Larry had thru-hiked the trail in 1982 and had taken up hiking with them during their quest. Jesse and Grant were Section Hikers alright, but finishing Virginia seemed enough for them, at least now.
The wind was blowing hard that night, so I spent a little extra time anchoring my tarp to keep it from chilling me in my hammock. The wind was a real challenge on this entire Section Hike, often blowing more than 30 mph, and gusting as high as 55 mph. It can really compromise the warmth retained by an underquilt, something which ultimately forced me off the trail when nasty weather rolled into Pennsylvania (more on this later.)
One of my biggest concerns on this trip was campsite selection and making sure that there weren’t any widow-makers, as in dead branches, that would get knocked out of the trees and fall on me at night. An AT hiker was killed nearby last year when a tree fell on him this way. There was a lot of dead wood in the trees from the winter and I rejected many possible campsites for safety reasons.
I was up early the next morning and left camp before everyone else. My goal for the day was to finish the Roller Coaster and hike to the David Lesser Memorial Shelter, just outside of Hamper’s Ferry, WV.
Despite its reputation, the Roller Coaster isn’t really that hard of a hike. While it slowed my pace by a 1/2 mile per hour, it wasn’t the crushing agony that people make it out to be. Not in comparison to New Hampshire hiking at least, where the climbs have greater elevation gains without any switchbacks.
I quickly blew by Bear’s Den, a trail hostel near the West Virginia-Virginia border, followed by Snickers Gap. I don’t take many breaks when I build up steam and can hike for hours on end. On this trip, I’d break camp at 8:00 am and walk until noon before having water and a big snack, and then walk pretty much continuously to my destination each day.
Water was less plentiful on this segment however, and I was forced to descend off the ridge to the Blackburn Center, a large hiker hostel run by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club which does all the trail maintenance in the area. Unfortunately, it was closed, but I was able to find a water tap to refill my bottles, and then carry on to the David Lesser Memorial Shelter where I spent the night. This is a really nice shelter and campsite, about 8 miles outside of Harper’s Ferry, and an even closer walk from Key’s Gap.
Unfortunately, the Lesser campsite was very exposed to the weather in early spring before the leaves have appeared on the trees and I knew we were in for rain and high winds that night. I pitched my tarp and hammock as securely as I could to withstand the storm.
However, I woke up at 3:30 am to discover that one of my tarp stakes had pulled out in the wind and exposed my hammock and down underquilt to slashing rain. I realized this when I felt water under my butt and realized that it was running between the layers of my double layer hammock. Not good, especially since it was 3:30 in the morning on a cold night with perfect hypothermia conditions.
I put on my rain gear and went out into the storm to re-stake the tarp. That done, I pulled the plastic bag liner out of my backpack and inserted the foam sit pad I carried on this trip inside it. It doubles as a “porch” to stand on a night and was wet from rain blowing under my tarp. I lay on top of the plastic bag and foam pad inside my tarp and went back to sleep. It worked! I woke up 4 hours later and hightailed it to Harper’s Ferry to find a place where I could dry my underquilt and resupply.
But first, I stopped in at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Office to get my picture taken out front. There I met Guthook’s friend named “Kentucky Blue,” a thru-hiking friend he’d met on his first night on the AT, long ago.
After visiting the ATC, I checked into the TeaHorse Hostel, which has a washer and dryer, and dried my underquilt by stuffing it into a pillowcase and drying it on low heat. I did my wash and cleaned up and then went out in search of dinner and resupply. It was a Monday night, however, when all the restaurants in Harper’s Ferry are closed. Bummer. I ended up having a crappy Papa John’s pizza delivered to the hostel and ate that.
Resupply is pretty tough in Harper’s Ferry and you really need to go to Charlestown, which is 6 miles away if you want good food. I settled instead for a 7-11 resupply, loading up on junk food and a loaf of bread. It was sufficient. I planned a zero in Waynesboro, Pa, just a few days walk, and it would hold me over. My advice is to mail yourself a food box when passing through Harper’s Ferry on the Appalachian Trail.
The next morning I hiked into Maryland.
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