Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Shenandoah National Park: Former A.T. Sawmill Run Shelter Site

According to a posting on, an information portal for Appalachian Trail hikers, there are at least 7 shelters in Shenandoah National Park (SNP) that were torn down for unknown reasons in the 60's and 70's. According to one source, the list includes:
  • Elkwallow Shelter near Skyline Drive MP24
  • Shaver Hollow Shelter near MP 35
  • Hawksbill Gap Shelter near MP45
  • Lewis Spring Shelter near MP 51
  • Big Run Shelter near MP82
  • Riprap Shelter near MP91  (no doubt this one was deconstructed due to overuse in the area)
  • Sawmill Run Shelter near MP95
On the final day of 2015, I had one more hike in me, but did not want to compete with the occupants of the four bear trucks I saw at the National Forest trailhead my dog and I had planned to use.  I ended up instead in Shenandoah National Park on the Appalachian Trail, looking for the site of the former Sawmill Run Shelter.  The shelter and access trail are shown on USGS Topographic maps, but not on current hiking maps.  The PATC trail map shows a spring, but the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map does not - only a stream.

I ended up taking a short hike into the past.

As you can see from the topo map copied below, the access trail to the former shelter site is right at the point where the A.T. takes a sharp turn to the right when hiking northbound.  This is a great help, as one of the toughest things when searching for an old trail is finding the point where the former trail connected with the current trail system.  An experienced trail person once told me that old trails are only obliterated for a short distance, as when a former trail is not on a map and not evident from any current trails, usage drops to nearly zero.

That doesn't mean I found the trail very easily.  Right at this sharp turn, there are several trails heading off along Sawmill Ridge.  I had to hunt around in the woods for a while until I came upon the old shelter access trail.  I found it right at the switchback shown on the map.  
The trail was nicely cut out of the mountain, possibly by the CCC during the depression.
After I located the trail, it was easy to follow.  It was bordered by brightly colored moss and was in better shape than many of the national forest wilderness trails I have hiked in the past year. The trail led down to a slowly running spring, which feeds into Sawmill Run and the South River just north of Waynesboro.  (The South River merges with the North River to become the South Fork, Shenandoah River, just north of the town of Grottos.)

There is no sign of the old shelter - only a flat spot with a fire pit.  It must have been a small shelter, as there is not a lot of space at the former shelter's estimated location.  But it is an exceedingly peaceful location, and it was nice to sit for a while and contemplate all the folks that used this now isolated spot until about 40 years ago.  The site is not even listed as a campsite on the A.T. guides, likely because the National Park Service wants hikers to practice "Leave No Trace" dispersed camping, rather than trampling specific spots.
View from the shelter site looking towards a firepit and the stream location.

So what is the deal with the elimination of this shelter?  I asked the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Archivist. who told me that the "Sawmill Run shelter was brought into the system in 1941, and was closed/dismantled in 1984."

He continues, "The rampant misuse of the AT and shelters during the counter-culture revolution in the 1970’s led frustrated NPS officials to close shelters.  An SNP Superintendent in the 1970s finally closed all shelters, and did not reopen them for several years, enduring passionate protests from PATC president Ed Garvey.  The closure of Sawmill Run does not seem to fit into that timeframe, and my database does not show why it was closed.  1984 does not seem to synch in with the shelter closure, so it might be a misprint for 1974."  He later came back with an old photo of the shelter, from the PATC Archives.  Here it is:
Undated photo of Sawmill Run Shelter, from PATC Archives.

The moss almost glows at this time of year, making the trail very easy to find once close.
Another source says that shelters in SNP were removed for three major reasons.

1. The Federal Wilderness Act - some of these shelters were in areas designated as wilderness and were removed for that reason (he lists Big Run and Rip Rap Shelters.  I am not sure that Rip Rap was sited within wilderness boundaries, but Sawmill Run probably is).

2. Party sites (Elkwallow, Hawksbill Gap, Shaver Hollow and probably Lewis Spring).

3. Money - by removing the shelters they no longer had to patrol them or clean them up thus fewer calls on park resources.

Returning to the Appalachian Trail, the shelter access trail remains in good shape for its entire length, though I might not say that if I visited in July, like fellow searcher Bill Fawcett did (photos below).  

I didn't find the trail originally because I didn't look in the right place.  Hopefully the photo I have included with this blog posting will help you find the trail if you want to go out and check it out.  It is a short hike to a peaceful spot that was once much more used than it is now.  I recommend it as a spring access point, but not for camping as there isn't much room down there.

The A.T. continues to the right, where the dog stands.  I went to the left, between the trees - this was not the correct route. To get to the shelter, the old trail is straight ahead.
In summer, the old access trail is much harder to locate from the Appalachian Trail.
Photo courtesy of Bill Fawcett, taken July 14, 2014.
In summer, the trail is a green tunnel as it descends to the old hut site.  
Photo courtesy of Bill Fawcett, taken July 14, 2014.
I continued on to the nearby Turk Mountain summit for some views.
It really has nothing to do with the rest of the hike, but who doesn't like some great views!  


  1. Jeff, Glad to learn more about the old shelter site. Malcolm and I have been maintaining the AT section from Sawmill Run Overlook to Turk Gap Parking for 26 years now. We used to go down the old trail to the shelter site, but have not done so for many years.

    1. Lynn, I hiked this segment yesterday (3/31/19) on the way from Turk Mtn. to Jarman Gap toward the end of a long day hike. It is in great condition considering the brutal winter we just had. The trail is completely free of debris. Thanks for your dedication.

  2. wow! that is interesting! I know the A.T. has endured many re-routes. I think of old spring and shelter sites in the Smokies, but I never considered they existed elsewhere. Makes sense! Thanks so much for sharing this excellent adventure!

  3. Thank you, Lynn for your continued service to the trail! Your dedication is truly extraordinary.

  4. Jeff, that was my post that you quoted at the beginning of this article. I have uncovered 3 other former shelters that have vanished in SNP: Meadow Springs Shelter near MP 34, Sexton Shelter near MP 35, Big Flat Shelter near MP 80. I'm researching all of the lost shelters along the AT for a possible future article or book.

    1. Thanks for the update! I had always heard that the Sexton Shelter was a PATC cabin, rather than a trail shelter. I know some folks that tracked down the former location of the Big Flat Shelter - it was not an easy find.

  5. Thank you for this interesting post. Have you ever tried to find the old Sawmill Ridge Trail off of the Turk Mtn. Trail? I have a 1973 PATC map with the old trails on it and wondered if that one is still navigable.

    1. I have tried to find that one, but so far have not come up with any evidence of its existence.

  6. I have located foundation debris at both the Sexton and Big Flat locations. Sawmill, as you noted, is just a guess because no foundation. Your guess matches mine.

  7. I was fortunate enough to visit most of these shelters in the 1970s with my family. The information I was told by rangers at the time was the following: Elkwallow was removed due to closeness of the picnic area, Lewis Spring was too close to the new dumping station that was built, Riprap and Big Run were removed for the Wilderness area, and Shaver Hollow, Hawksbill Gap, and Sawmill Run were removed to try and extend the distance between shelters for thru-hikers.

    1. Each of those seems logical. Thanks for your input!


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