Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Dozen Most Interesting Things to See on the Virginia Appalachian Trail

About a week ago, I recounted my 12 favorite overlooks I saw during my hikes on the 550 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia (Link).  It was really hard to whittle the list down to a dozen, and I received some thought provoking responses from readers about spots I should have considered more thoroughly - both on the blog and on the wanderingvirginia Facebook site.  This blog's two commentors both asserted that I should have included a spot near Roanoke known as Dragon's Tooth among my list of best overlooks in the state.

Dragon's Tooth is one of my favorite spots on the A.T. in Virginia, and I have hiked to it a couple of times over the past 20+ years.  In fact, it was the first spot I visited on the A.T. south of where it crosses the James River.  The thing is, I would not put it in a list of the best overlooks in the state, as I don't remember a view that doesn't include the big honking rock that makes this such a great place to visit!  Maybe I missed the view, but I do remember another view a trail mile north called Rawie's Rest - a great view, that I didn't include on the list.

But this got me thinking of the need to come up with another list, one that accounts for my fondness of Dragon's Tooth. Below are my dozen favorite spots on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia - favorites for reasons other than being a great overlook.  Like the previous listing, they are in order from South to North.

1. Damascus.
I know.  You are hiking the A.T. to get into the woods and connect with nature.  So am I.  But Damascus is such a hiking town that it has to make any list of A.T. highlights in Virginia.  It is well known as the "friendliest" town on the trail. There are several hiker hostels to stay - allowing the hiker to connect with others who share this passion.  There is a pretty great outdoors outfitter right on the trail, and a great burrito place right around the corner.  I had a blast walking through town - on the trail - and hanging out here over my last weekend hiking the Virginia portion of the trail.  I hope to someday return for its annual "Trail Days" celebration (Link) - the 30th annual edition is in 2016.
You can get to almost anywhere from Damascus.

This is one of several hiker hostels in Damascus.

The old Deep Gap Shelter, just south on the A.T. from Mt. Rogers, has been moved to a park in Damascus.

2. Mt. Rogers Highlands Horses
The wild ponies in the Mt. Rogers area are justifiably famous among those hiking the A.T.  When I try to convince my scouts to take a nearly 4 hour drive to this part of the state to hike the A.T., I don't talk about the views or the fact that the area has the highest elevation hiking in the state.  It is the possibilility of getting close to  wild ponies that has the boys' interest.
Boy Scout backpackers encounter horses on the A.T.

3. Settler's Museum of Southwest Virginia
Shortly after leaving the Mt. Rogers Highlands, and before the A.T. crosses Interstate 81 for the first time near Mountain Empire Airport, the trail cuts directly through a museum.  The museum was founded in 1987 and includes a functioning farm circa 1890, There is also an 1894 schoolhouse, which appears to be always open, and when I hiked through there had a big stash of "trail magic" supplied by a local church.  The Spring day I hiked through here was warming up nicely when I arrived with a couple of friends on a multi-day backpack
Hanging out in front of the school,

Inside photo of the school.

4. Burkes Garden
Burkes Garden is a 5 mile by 9 mile valley surrounded on all sides by mountains.  The A.T. crosses the ridge of the southernmost of these mountains - Burke's Mountain.  Although there are not a lot of views into the valley, there are several interesting places to stop along the ridge.  James Burke found the area in 1748, and, according to legend, buried potato peelings only to find them sprouted upon his return the following year.  Hence, "Burke's Garden."  It is said that Cornelius Vanderbuilt wanted to buy the land to build his famous Biltmore Mansion, but none of the locals would sell to him.
Enjoying the view into Burke's Garden

5. Audie Murphy Monument
Audie Murphy, decorated WWII fighter pilot and actor, was a passenger in a plane that crashed into Brush Mountain in 1971.  At the top of the mountain, just outside of Brush Mountain East Wilderness, is a memorial in Murphy's honor.  The memorial, erected by the VFW, attracts offerings from its visitors.  Be sure to bring a small rock to add to the pile.

6. Dragon's Tooth
The Appalachian Trail Guide for Central Virginia calls Dragon's Tooth a "Silurian sandstone monolith" on top of Cove Mountain.  The tallest spire is about 35 feet tall.  Access from the closest parking area is a tough climb, featuring iron steps drilled in the rock, but it is a great spot to visit.

7. McAfee Knob
Though McAfee Knob was on the list of best overlooks in the state, it is also one of the most interesting places to visit because of the number of visitors, each of whom wants to take the ultimate hiker photo.  It is said to be the single most photographed spot on the entire A.T.
A rare moment when nobody is out on the rock posing.

8. Apple Orchard Mountain
Hike over Apple Orchard Mountain and you will not hike higher on the A.T. heading northbound until you reach New Hampshire, more than 1000 trail miles away.  The mountain is the site of a former Strategic Air Command center, which took the A.T. off of the summit between the 1950's and the 1990's.  There was once an installation of 30 different buildings housing over 200 men up here. Now you are luck to see one or two people up here.  Many of the buildings are gone, but radar antennae looking like giant golf balls remain.

9. The Guillotine
Just north of Apple Orchard Mountain, the A.T. weaves its way to this landmark.  Do you think you can walk under this rock without being at least a little nervous?  I think you cannot, at least if you are honest with yourself!

10. James River Foot Bridge
The A.T.'s route over the James River uses foundations from a former railway bridge, and was completed in 2000 after many years of negotiation. The bridge replaced a dicey highway bridge crossing that dated back to the Trail's origin. The Foot Bridge is a very popular spot, with great views south into James River Face Wilderness and north towards Fullers Rocks. It is the longest pedestrian only bridge on the entire A.T.
Scouts cross the James River Foot Bridge

11. Spy Rock
A supposed lookout point for the Confederates during the Civil War, Spy Rock is a great place to take kids between 7 and 12 - a short, tough hike from the trailhead and then a relatively easy and fun rock scramble to the top.  I have been taking kids up here for over 20 years, combining it with a visit to the Montebello Fish Hatchery.  There is a nice flat (though dry) campsite between the A.T. and Spy Rock.
Enjoying the view from the top of Spy Rock.

12. National Zoo.
Yeah, I skipped right past Shenandoah National Park.  Though it is a great introduction to the A.T. in Virginia, and there are multiple options along the way to hit the waysides and suck down blackberry milkshakes (if sugar is your thing), I personally find the A.T. to be "too civilized" throughout Shenandoah, as it never strays too far from the Skyline Drive.  Just north of where the A.T. exits the north end of the National Park, it travels along a fence that separates the Trail from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute where exotic animals and highly endangered species are kept and bred.  If you are lucky, you might spy some wild animal looking back at you from the other side of the fence!  I wasn’t so lucky, but the anticipation that there might be something out there makes this my final “most interesting place” along the Virginia A.T.

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